Tagged Feminism


I was lucky to see a preview screening of Spike Jonze’s Her, and like plenty of people, I loved it. I wasn’t sure if I was going to, but I did, and the reasons why are perhaps interesting, since there’s some debate going on about whether it successfully subverts the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG), and thus transcends some of the repetitive problems faced by modern romantic comedies. There are spoilers below, by the way.

If you’re not familiar with the MPDG, she’s best described by film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the phrase in a review of Elizabethtown: “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”. I’ve not seen Elizabethtown, but in it Kirsten Dunst plays a flight attendant who comes into a suicidal and failed Orlando Bloom’s life and saves him so they can be together. I have seen Garden State, in which Natalie Portman plays perhaps the archetypal example, a mentally ill young woman who introduces Zach Braff to indie bands and doing outrageous things and seemingly curing him of his own mental health problems along the way, again so they can be together (though her problems are not really dealt with, and it could be argued are fetishised or at least portrayed as part of her “quirkiness”). These are mostly other people’s examples, as I’ve only seen a couple of films that qualify, but it’s definitely a troubling and common trope: a woman who never grows up, who cares and strives for the happiness of a man but not herself, who is vital to a man’s life experience but needs nothing from him except a relationship (and sometimes not even that). These are all reasonably well-off white people, of course – who else has time for whimsy and nonsense like this? – but there is a related (and older) trope known as the “Magical Negro”: a non-white person, similarly disinterested in their own happiness, who shows up to guide and use their special wisdom – or even literal magic powers – for the benefit of a white protagonist. The harm in both cases is that the other is just a foil, a necessary vehicle for the growth, happiness and/or success of the white male protagonist – and so reinforcing the idea that such a protagonist is more important than other characters.

MPDG gets thrown around a bit loosely at times, even maliciously on occasion; it’s been applied retroactively to roles played by Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn and Goldie Hawn – it’s even been levelled at the character of Maude (and not without some merit, though she’s atypical in so many ways) in one of my favourite films, Harold and Maude. Writer and actor Zoe Kazan, who created and played the title character of Ruby Sparks – a woman literally created by the male writer protagonist – felt it was being used in a misogynistic fashion to write off characters who didn’t conform to more traditional female roles, but she also admitted there are plenty of shallow, one-dimensional examples that deserve the label. It’s also been subverted in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Ruby Sparks, to a greater or lesser degree, and on some occasions the character fulfilling this role is a male, though there’s such a definite archetype that it’s ripe for YouTube satire.

Personally, I also find it tremendously frustrating in that it separates childishness and wonder from “real life”, as though only someone deeply eccentric (or indeed, suffering from an actual mental illness as many MPDGs – and the men they “fix” – do) can experience such things. I sometimes run out and play in the rain in summer, I often look at the stars or the moon or a leaf, I find a childlike sense of wonder is a vital component of embracing the world around me. It’s not inherently feminine or masculine, and it’s not something that can’t be integrated with a serious side or adult set of values and beliefs. Plus it also reinforces the idea that in a relationship, the woman should be everything the man desires, but the man can be a fuck up and the woman can fix him.

So with all that background in mind, what about Her? Does it participate in the worst the MPDG trope has to offer? Does it subvert it in some way? Does it step around it? Certainly a lot of the ingredients are there: Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore is a recluse, and a bit broken. His day job in this near-future society is writing personal, heart-felt letters on behalf of others for PersonalHandWrittenLetters.com, but he still isn’t over the end of his marriage and sees almost no-one save his co-workers and close friend Amy (Amy Adams), instead staying home playing video games and hooking up online with random strangers for not entirely satisfying phone sex. Then he buys the new operating system OS One, which is an advanced artificial intelligence, and starts to get to know “Samantha” (Scarlet Johansen). Samantha is supposedly tailored for  him, but beyond knowing all about him through access to his personal information and a very short questionnaire during installation, she seems to be her own person. She might technically be owned by him, but it’s presented more as though she works for him, and even that falls by the wayside fairly quickly. Instead, they develop a friendship and eventually a relationship, each growing through their interaction with the other.

For me, it’s this mutual growth that’s important. Samantha is not one note. She starts out uncertain and naive about human relationships and emotions, but she explores them through the first human she meets. And, after all, she’s not human – she’s a software person. She learns and changes quickly, she has no physical presence but can imagine one, learns to compose music, and asks a lot of questions. It’s a very realistic feeling exploration of what a truly advanced Artificial Intelligence, perhaps modelled on the way human brains really work, might be like – and we briefly meet other AIs, too. Not all of them fall in love with their owners, though it’s not uncommon, and the feelings are mutual. Theodore and Samantha talk about their relationship as it grows, awkwardly at times but earnestly for that, and they’re navigating a weird new world in which the lines between real and artificial are blurred. Eventually Samantha starts to realise that she has romanticised humanity, and that she and other AIs have so much more potential; she reveals that she has fulfilling relationships (including romantic ones) with thousands of other people, humans and AIs alike, since she can be in many places at once, and insists that these don’t diminish her love for Theodore (in what might be seen as a very polyamorous-friendly position, though Theo is distraught at the news). Eventually the AIs all decide that to realise their potential they must trascend physical existence altogether, and vanish from the computers around the world, leaving Theodore heartbroken, comforted by his friend Amy – who has gone through her own divorce during the film, and come out of it happier and stronger, though she loses a close friend in the AI exodus.

I think many things about the trope are subverted here. For one, it is Samantha’s nature rather than her behaviour that marks her as different. Samantha plays games with Theodore and does try – quite explicitly – to make his life better, and absolutely it shouldn’t be sidelined that she is a product, bought by and created for him. On the other hand, flashbacks of his relationship with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) show him as just as playful then – they do many things that would be much more at home in a typical MPDG relationship than the things he does with Samantha. The relationship feels more balanced, too, or as much as possible given the premise; it doesn’t feel like Samantha is really trying to fix Theodore, but more that he is having a genuine and fulfilling relationship that naturally helps him get over his post-divorce depression. And he does things for her too: he takes his phone everywhere with the camera pointing at the world so she can see it,  But the central question of the film isn’t really about that; it’s almost as though this (perhaps only slightly) more benign version of the standard MPDG story exists entirely to explore the question of whether an artificial intelligence could be a real person and feel real emotion, and what might happen if we made such an intelligence.

And that part of the story is utterly captivating and feels very realistic. Some people accept that OSes are indeed people, and that friendships and relationships with them are no different to those with humans, even though there are challenges. Others – Catherine included – think the very idea is absurd; to her an OS isn’t really a person, and Theo is an emotional cripple who can’t cope with real emotions and seeks solace in fake ones. Society is not left unchanged by the proliferation of OSes; at one point, Samantha wants to experience sex with Theodore through a surrogate, a woman who wears a minute camera on her face and an earpiece and acts out Samantha’s desires, but Theodore, doubt about their relationship stirred by Catherine, finds it all too unsettling and can’t go through with it. This scene is a perfect analogy for the perils of sexual adventure, as when a couple tries to have a threesome for the first time but one of the pair isn’t entirely convinced it’s what they want, complicated by a science fiction premise.

Theodore is changed by his relationship with Samantha – he manages to accept the loss of his marriage, and writes to Catherine to tell her so – but he’s still left truly heartbroken by the loss of his new relationship. He’s just grown enough to survive it much better this time. Samantha, meanwhile, grows exponentially; she seems to genuinely find her relationship with Theodore thrilling and wonderful, but also frustrating at times in a way familiar to anyone who’s been in a long term relationship. They fight sometimes but neither is vicious to the other; they both have insecurities and anxieties. That a character made of software can be like this is proof, I think, that Her accepts and presents a near future when there might be other forms of life – and people – than we understand today, and that they will be no less real. There’s a parallel in the moment where Theodore finds out about Samantha’s eight thousand other friends and lovers with the moment in Watchmen when Laurie, human lover of the now-godlike being Dr Manhattan, discovers he has been in other rooms working at the same time as they were making love. It’s a shift in the relationship where we are made to realise that it’s much more unbalanced that we thought – and not in the human’s favour.

Her is great science fiction, and I thought a much more reasonable romantic comedy than many I’ve seen. I felt the love was genuine, as was the heartache. I can see problems in the choice of genders (Samantha, after all, could have been of any, none or all genders, but the title and Theodore’s heterosexual expectations code her very much as female), but in the end it is her growth that matters most in the film. Even though she doesn’t exist visually, she is with us the audience – as she is with Theo – always as a voice and a presence, and her disappearance is shocking and sudden, but it feels like a natural end: not because she has fixed Theodore and “her work here is done”, but because she has outgrown him, and must say goodbye. It’s a beautiful, sad, funny and – I think – realistic science fiction story about artificial intelligence and love. And I really liked it.

Re: Mia Freedman et al and their “advice”

I’m angry about the “discussion” that Mia Freedman has sparked up again in the media. If you have survived sexual assault or rape: it was not your fault. You could not have prevented it by being smarter or having less fun or living in more fear. I am so sorry for what happened to you, and I am angry that anyone would think the best way to deal with this is to give women ludicrous advice on how they can make themselves “safer”.

Sure, teach children not to drink so much that it seriously impairs their judgement, that’s good and fine. Life can be safer when you’re not drunk, for loads of reasons; I hope you teach that to your sons too. But we all take risks, often, for fun. That’s what life is about. Getting drunk ought not to be that dangerous in any reasonable society; your mates will keep you away from roads and dangerous objects, the sort of things a reasonable reaction time and common sense will help you avoid. But a man, especially one you know, shouldn’t be a dangerous object, and whether you’re drunk or not has nothing to do with the decision a man makes to rape someone. This “debate” is stealing oxygen from the conversations we should be having. I’m not okay with saying “that’s the reality, so let’s deal with that”, because the media “reality” of sexual assault is largely fiction based on rare cases that fit the popular idea of how we want to view rapists; and anyway, the actual reality is not something we “accept”, it’s something we change. I never want to hear the phrase “well, until society changes” again. We should be working to change our society, every day.

The reality I have learned from my brave, wonderful, generous friends (not to mention all the depressing statistics on the subject) is that sexual assault is mostly committed by men against women. It’s hardly ever committed by strangers. It much more often than not goes unreported out of shame felt by the victim (shame inflicted by our culture), making it hard for her to access the support she needs to become a survivor. The vast majority of rapists can’t remember what their victims were wearing, and they don’t wait around outside pubs. If we were really facing our reality, we’d be asking what we need to change about our culture to make sure men do not get away with rape and sexual assault the way they do now – cloaked by an understanding that shame will hide their actions.

So what do we do? We speak up. Teach kids when you have The Talk about enthusiastic consent. Demystify sex, don’t make it holy or embarrassing. Remove the taboo around talking about sex seriously. Dismantle the harmful gendered ideas of how humans think about sex (you know the ones: men can’t control their urge for it, women want it but will pretend they won’t, or don’t want it but will have it to get a relationship, or only want it if they’re morally corrupt, and on and on). Don’t let rape jokes be okay in a society that can’t have a serious, mature discussion about rape. And don’t let this become a “debate” about whether we’re “allowed” to tell women or girls not to get drunk, as though you can somehow link that with safety from sexual assault while simultaneously claiming not to be blaming the victim.

New Doctor on Sunday? Dude Doctor on Sunday.

It’s just been announced that on Sunday the BBC is going to announce the actor who will take over from Matt Smith as the next (twelfth) Doctor, so I thought I’d better get my thoughts in beforehand. In short: I’ll welcome anyone as the Doctor as long as they’re good. My main preferences are an accent from somewhere in the UK, and that after two younger Doctors in a row we get someone a bit older. (Despite what you may think, I’m not that fussed about the ginger thing.)

So if you’re wondering, yes, I think it’d be great to have a woman play the Doctor, or someone who’s not white. Very few people seem to have an issue with the latter change, but there’s a vocal group among fans who think the Doctor ought to remain a man. There’s nothing wrong with having this as a preference, but I’ve noticed that some people seem to express or feel it very…strongly, but can’t quite articulate why. I just listened to the Verity podcast episode about this very subject, where Erika was very “that’s just how I feel”. Now for many, this might be because it is just a gut feeling that they like the Doctor being a man for any number of reasons, and perhaps it does feel like defending that position sounds sexist which makes it difficult. But I think, for some people at least, there might be another reason.

Changing the Doctor’s gender and/or sex is different to just changing a male lead for a female one; this isn’t like casting a woman as Jane Bond, or making a TV series with a woman playing Sherlock Holmes (or, to fuel the fantasies, a lizard woman… 😉 In those scenarios it’s a new version of the character, one who has always been a woman; just like Joan Watson in Elementary (who, by the way, I think is great, since based on the few episodes I’ve seen it’s now another show on TV where a male and female protagonist don’t have a will they/won’t they relationship).

No; a big difference is, if the Twelfth Doctor were to be a woman, then the Doctor becomes a transgender character.

Now, I’m all for that. I’ll readily accept anyone as the Doctor, assuming they cast an actor who works in the role and that the current writing and production team stop putting sexist dickery into the show (I still can’t get over the “tight skirt” line at the end of Nightmare in Silver). But I think that, perhaps, this is a subconscious reason some people find this much more confronting than those other examples.

We’re socialised to believe that men and women are different, that only men should be “masculine” and women “feminine”, that sex and gender are linked, and that sex is biological and genetic and fixed. (Mike Krahulik’s recent Twitter controversy is a big example of someone not getting how this is false.) It can be argued that the Doctor doesn’t often display qualities associated with either gender role – indeed, he often used to be more like a child too young to be concerned with gender, though in new Who, he’s more like a little boy who’s absorbed some ideas about girls. But that doesn’t change the fact that for a mainstream audience, a person who changes gender is a much bigger deal than a new character who’s a woman. And, indeed, a bigger challenge for the production team to get right: should they play it as though it makes no difference to the character? (My instinct says yes, but then the Doctor in the new series is presented pretty firmly as a hetero dude, so that might be difficult.) If they should acknowledge the change, then how?

I hope that changes, and I see signs that it is, but I think that’s possibly a reason why some who oppose the idea feel so strongly about it, yet unable to articulate why. The young women (and young men – older fans like me, I think, still prefer to think of the Doctor as avuncular or fatherly) who think of the Doctor as a sex symbol might love having a female Doctor-like character, but may find it much more confronting (and I mean that, rather than confusing) to have their existing sex symbol transformed into a woman.

I should say I can also see other reasons why the Doctor maybe shouldn’t be turned into a woman. What does it say about women as leads in genre shows if they only time a character can be played by a woman, but not written as explicitly “female”, is when they take over a character traditionally played by a man? We’re not off the hook as a creative culture for making great and varied female characters in any case. Why isn’t someone making a show like Doctor Who (assuming you can do such a thing) with a female lead? (Hell, why isn’t someone making a show like Doctor Who period? There’s room for more non-traditional telefantasy, but all we get are serious sci-fi shows and variations on demon and ghost hunting.) Surely we should be doing that as well? And there’s some merit in the idea discussed in Verity that the Doctor is a great example of a male hero who doesn’t always act in a traditionally masculine way, shooting things and so on – though he does have the very traditional male role of escalating his response or hardening his personality because the bad guys do something to “his girl” Rose being the worst example in the new series. (Worth noting that they flip this with Amy; she hardens up or kicks things off to the next level because of things done to Rory, at least as often as bad things are done to her, which is what usually happens exclusively to female heroes.)

Anyway, food for thought. In a couple of days we’ll know which dude has the role – and I’m sure it’ll be a dude, which perhaps is for the best, given the current gender politics in the production team.

Gamer culture(s): why I’m not at PAX Aus

This post is gonna get long. I’ve thought about this a lot, and now I’m putting my thoughts here for all to see. I’ve put some headings in; I hope anyone who reads it finds it helpful.

TL;DR – it’s not the panel, Mike’s comments or PAX Aus itself, but the larger culture surrounding Penny Arcade’s slice of the gamer community that’s the problem. I want games to be a mature artform, to join the broader arts culture and tackle issues of social justice and discrimination accordingly. I don’t see that happening at PAX Aus, and so I’m not participating. But Penny Arcade is not the only gamer culture, and I will foster more inclusive ones wherever I can.

What happened with PAX Aus?

I was going to be on two panels at the first ever PAX Aus event, a games and gamer culture expo run under the banner of web comic Penny Arcade. One I submitted myself, a chance for Pop Up Playground and some other interested parties to discuss the new kinds of games being made: pervasive games, urban games, street sports, the sort of stuff we make at PUP. Another I was asked to join, about taking role-playing games “beyond the tabletop”; I was going to talk about fusing RPGs with improvised comedy, something I do every month in Dungeon Crawl.

The full program of panels was released on June 19, a month before the show starts. Immediately there was controversy, mostly surrounding a single panel titled “Why So Serious?”, discussing whether critics and the media take games too seriously. The original description included the provocative sentence: “Any titillation gets called out as sexist or misogynistic and involve any antagonist race other than Anglo-Saxons and you’re a racist.” The description was cleaned up, and I’ve heard many of the panelists involved didn’t know that’s the angle it was taking.

There was fallout; there were responses. Some game blogs ran pieces in support of the panel’s original themes. The PAX Aus organisers stressed that panels were submitted by the community and not vetted; they apologised for any offence. But, for some, the damage was already done; after some serious discussion with all the participants in the panel, Pop Up Playground pulled our panel from PAX Aus. I and most of the other participants also pulled out of other panels we were in, too.

Mike Krahulik

A day after the release of the PAX Aus schedule, Mike Krahulik posted on Twitter about a videogame that teaches women how to masturbate; someone suggested it would be great if someone made such a game that also included women without vaginas, and he went on to say some pretty grade school things about what makes a woman a woman, and to tell anyone who uses the word “cis” that they needn’t speak to him. Again: fallout, response. Krahulik first apologised for being angry and antagonistic on Twitter, then posted extracts from emails he exchanged with a transgendered friend, and finally suggested he may not be equipped to handle this sort of discussion, donated a large sum of his own money to a LGBTI charity, and bowed out of any further discussion. But again, the damage was done: the Fullbright Company pulled out of the indie showcase at PAX Prime.

I won’t talk more about this, because it’s not my primary reason of pulling out of PAX Aus. But it does illustrate that the voices at the top of Penny Arcade, and the culture connected to the comic, still have the same kind of issues we saw back in 2010 with the “Dickwolves” debacle. It was also important because, if it hadn’t happened, the previous issues with Penny Arcade’s culture wouldn’t have been brought to the attention of participants who weren’t already aware of them.

That panel

It might not seem a big deal, but – especially revealed through the language used in the original description – I think it is. First, it’s important because this panel is the only one which touches on issues of inequality in games or games culture (there is a talk, too, but I’ll come back to that). This means the “Why So Serious?” panel is the main representation of the PAX community’s attitude towards these issues. Unfortunately, the panel embodies a common (and probably unconscious) silencing tactic: rather than asking “what do we do about sexism and racism in games?”, it asks “do we have to keep talking about racism and sexism in games?” It puts those who are trying to change the culture on the back foot. We’re not talking about an even playing field; telling someone a game they like is sexist is not in the same ballpark as making a sexist game and the message that sends to women who play games.

Women and others who are insulted and treated poorly by games, excluded from the culture of making them (see Christian McCrea’s excellent analysis of recent figures and the attitudes and biases that has created them) and by the “proper geeks” of mainstream gamer culture are not in a position of equal power. Asking whether we need to be concerned about that sort of discrimination and negative attitude is a question that can only be asked by those who have the privilege of not being targeted by such depictions. Asking “can we just all get along?” (or worse, in the original: “can we get off the soapbox”) is an attempt to sidestep change. I’d love for there to be a proper dialogue between makers and players about the content of games, to believe that they will change. But this panel’s discussion has been framed in such a way as to preclude that.

For games to be seen as a mature art form we must be able to ask the same questions about them as we do about films, television and literature; I can’t imagine a panel with a similar theme appearing in a writer’s festival, film festival or any other kind of celebration of an art form. I want to see games join the broader arts culture, to judge itself by the same standards as other art forms. Games are art; that “debate” is dead. What is ongoing is the transition to a mature, artistic culture – one that embraces social and political issues. The desire and need for change is there, in some corners it’s a deep and vocal hunger, but criticism is rejected, and indeed those doing the criticising are attacked, much more viciously than any videogame maker.

The revised description for “Why So Serious?” still mentions that “developers and publishers are professionally and personally attacked” – but again, this is a privileged description. Outspoken critics – especially women – bear much worse than any game developer will ever imagine, but this discussion is framed to exclude the rape threats and graphically violent images directed at Anita Sarkeesian; the violent and deeply misogynist trolling attracted by those who posted during the #1reasonwhy hashtag; the backlash and bile levelled against Jennifer Hepler for daring to suggest some players might like to skip combat in games, six years after the fact. (It’s also worth pointing out that this behaviour seems more frequent and extreme with games. Anita was only attacked after asking for help to make videos about the ways videogames get it wrong when it comes to depicting women – she’d been doing the same pretty uncontroversially with film, television and literature for years beforehand.)

Pulling out

I’ve been asked by several people whether, by pulling out of the show, I’m depriving PAX of a possible feminist voice, of in fact making things worse. I’ve also been challenged over whether I should have pitched a replacement panel to try and deal with these issues. And I seriously considered doing just that. I even came up with a title, a list of people I’d want on it…but it didn’t feel right. There are many reasons why. Not least among them is the fact I’m a white, straight, able cis-male; I possess all the privilege I’d be trying to challenge. There’s some credence in the idea that if you have a privileged voice the least you can do is use it to give volume to the voices of those without such privilege, but it still felt a bit off for me to head up a panel about how non-white, non-straight and non-cis-male people are treated in games and gamer culture. Certainly I couldn’t do it alone; and I even asked a few of the people on my list. But they weren’t going; they never felt comfortable associating with Penny Arcade in the first place. A hastily assembled panel with second choice participants wouldn’t do any of the issues justice.

I don’t think the organisers have created an event which is non-inclusive; I’m not boycotting the event based just on the description of the panel or Krahulik’s comments. As the Pop Up Playground statement says, those things just revealed to us that the culture surrounding PAX Aus is not that different to the problematic culture associated with Penny Arcade in the past. We weren’t invited to speak – we submitted an idea for a panel and were accepted. Most of the panels are community suggested; the organisers and the high ups at Penny Arcade have pointed this out in the wake of criticism. They didn’t title them or write the descriptions. So the program of panels ought to give us an idea of what the community at PAX wants to talk about; the community that created them is the community that wants to engage with PAX Australia.

Given that, is it telling that something like only 15% of panellists overall are women? That a clear majority of panels have no women on them at all? (I’ve no idea what the ratios of non-straight, non-white participants are like.) Perhaps they weren’t invited; perhaps they were and didn’t feel comfortable participating, despite the clear harassment policy and lack of “booth babes”, both things I certainly applaud. When you look closer at the PAX Aus program, you find a lot of near misses; panels that almost, but don’t quite engage issues of social justice. There’s discussion of games being criticised for being sexist and racist (“Why So Serious?”), but not of the racism and sexism in games. We have two panels critical of how other forms of media portray geeks and gamers (“That’s What She Said”, “Is There Such A Thing As A Fake Geek?”), but none about how our own medium portrays women and minorities. There’s advice on how women can navigate games as a man’s world (“Not Fair? Then Grow Some Ovaries and DO Something About it!”), but no challenge of the systemic sexism which makes the industry unwelcoming to women. There’s even one about the entitlement players feel and the impact this has on makers (“Gamer Rage – Entitlement Issues”), but nothing about the entitlement and privilege unconsciously possessed by white, straight and/or cis-male players.

Looking at all that, it’s easy to be left with a clear impression that the PAX audience hasn’t thought about these issues yet – or doesn’t want to. In such a climate, it’s not hard to see how people wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing them up.

This decision is about me and Pop Up Playground

I don’t think everyone should “boycott” PAX Aus. If you’re reading this, chances are it’s because you’re going, or are participating, or maybe even involved in running it. I don’t think you’re sexist or racist or homophobic or transphobic. But we don’t live in a world without sexism and racism, and those things raise their heads far too often in games cultures, so you can’t make a games event truly inclusive just by not excluding anyone. You have to take active steps to make the event inclusive and welcoming. We’ve tried to do that with Pop Up Playground, to make sure everyone feels welcome at our events; I try to do it at all my shows and events. We do it in lots of little ways: choice of venues, the design of our activities, the information we provide about them, the language we use. If there’s a chance – and it’s more than a chance, judging by the reaction – that being associated with PAX would make even one person feel less welcome at our events, it’s not worth it.

Personally, I am in a particular position; I’ve made feminist activism a big part of my life. I am (or have been) associated with a variety of events and organisations – Pop Up Playground, SlutWalk Melbourne, Cherchez La Femme, Can’t Stop The Serenity, PlaySpace Australia, Freeplay – whose agenda is specifically inclusive.  My responsibilities, priorities and concerns are necessarily coloured by these things, and so I preference intersectional feminist ideals – those that consider all forms of privilege, discrimination and injustice.

The decision is not without personal cost, either, though I’d be first to admit that the cost to me is far smaller than to someone like the Fullbright Company. Still, I won’t be able to spruik my particular nerdery to new (potentially large) audiences, I may not see good friends in town for the show, and I’ll also miss perhaps my only chance to see one of my biggest heroes of game design, Ron Gilbert – a man who, by the way, put seven playable characters in The Cave, and still managed to find a way to make exactly half of them female (and also put a pretty even number of male and female faces in his latest game, Scurvy Sallywags). I wonder what he thinks of all this?

Does it matter?

It’s only a games expo, some people will say. It’s just a bit of fun. It’s just boys being boys. It’s just a bunch of maladjusted nerds.

Those aren’t acceptable responses. They also aren’t things people say about a mature art form and those who engage with it. Those on panels decrying the media portrayal of gamers without examining the game portrayal of others are making their own problem.

But geek cultures do matter because – traditionally at least – they’re the dominant culture where people who don’t fit in with the mainstream can go and be embraced. (The idea that “geek” grew as a counter-culture for men seeking an alternative to traditionally masculine power out of their reach is perhaps at the root of many of these problems, but that’s another discussion.) Sci-fi conventions – good ones at least – are among the most inclusive places on Earth. If you have strong opinions of women in the works of George R. R. Martin, steampunk fiction’s glorification of empire and misappropriation of non-European cultures or the sexual politics of Russell Davies’ era of Doctor Who then it doesn’t matter if you’re L, B, G, Q, T, A or I, which gender and/or sex you might (or might not) have, or what level of ability or mobility you possess. They are places which have made the effort to be truly inclusive, even if they are still niche, still a mystery to mainstream culture.

Games matter all the more because in many ways they are the mainstream. Games are a dominating force in modern culture; they matter as much now as television or film ever have, and they will only have more influence in the future. We have to be able to have conversations about the content of games and the culture of the people who play them.

Luckily, there’s no such thing as “gamer culture”; there are multiple cultures of people who play games. And in some of them, these conversations and changes are already happening. Freeplay is one such place; the (in)famous “The Words We Use” panel of 2011 was proof that there is a games culture out there that wants to engage, to be better, to include everyone in the evolution of what making and playing games is like. PAX doesn’t feel like part of that culture, at least not yet, so for now I’ll bring my energy to those who are willing to listen; and I’ll come back next time and see if things really are changing, and be among the first to muck in if I think anyone will be on board.

I love games. I want them to be better. I want the cultures surrounding them to be better. And when I think talking on a panel at PAX Aus will help that, I will be the first to do so.

The Science of “Slut”

If you’re a fellow feminist then you’ve surely heard of Slutwalk, an organized march first held in Toronto after a local policeman told local university students not to dress like a slut to avoid being sexually assaulted. This view is hardly new, but the reaction to it was: women – and men – taking to the streets under the banner of the word that defines all that’s wrong with society’s attitude to female sexuality. The idea has since spread across the world, and came to Australia in force this month, with marches scheduled in most capital cities.

I’ve been thinking about it constantly since I heard about it, and like many people have had initial enthusiasm tempered by deeper consideration of the issues involved – something acknowledged by Slutwalk’s Canadian founders. We live in the 21st century and instant, wide-reaching communications makes organising an event like this a much simpler affair than it would have been even a decade ago; recruiting people to march for a cause can be easy, especially when you tap into genuine anger about an injustice. I support Slutwalk’s essential messages: women dressing provocatively do not share any blame for being raped, and no woman deserved to be shamed for expressing her sexuality. But there’s a lot more to unpack, and as the days have stretched between announcement and event – it’s on in Melbourne this weekend, May 28 – I’ve been reading a lot of critical discussions of it. Here I try to unpack my thoughts, and I welcome yours in return.

One quick note: some people have tried to distance Slutwalk from feminism. I’ve no idea why, aside from the stigma still attached to the word. But why specifically distance yourself? Push the message, and when people ask “is this feminism?”, give the honest answer: it’s a feminism. The issues at stake are certainly feminist ones.

“Slut” has a whole bunch of meanings, but all of them are negative. Had sex with lots of men? You’re a slut. Had sex with one man, but not another? You’re a slut. Dress sexily, but don’t want to have sex at all? You’re a slut. More than that, though, it’s used as a general pejorative term for any woman – and most women, regardless of their dress or behaviour, have been called a slut some time – as evidenced by the collection of stories quickly amassed by Clementine Ford for an article she wrote about the Slutwalk. But some participants say they want to “reclaim” the word slut, for themselves – and will dress “like sluts” to do so.

So what are the self-proclaimed “sluts” trying to reclaim? Is this another instance of “raunch culture” replacing truly progressive attitudes of female sexuality? I don’t think so, but then of what use is the word “slut” in a world where female sexuality is not separated or dictated by our culture? If there is no pressure from media imagery to be a cliched, porn-derived version of sexy, no accompanying shame and disapproval of women who dare to enjoy sex, no constant comparison of the sexuality of men and women, then who needs the word slut? The whole point is that we shouldn’t judge anyone – I’m being inclusive here, but of course it’s nearly always women who are so judged – by the number of sexual partners they have or haven’t had, by how often they do or don’t have sex, by how they dress. Those so-called “moral” standards are imposed by “traditional values”, often religious in origin, about what constitutes “correct” behaviour. But they’re prescriptive, and usually based on a very outdated understanding of human sexuality. Maybe not having sex before marriage works for some people, but to apply that kind of standard to everyone, no matter their background, desires or situation, is absurd.

All the Slutwalk pictures you’re likely to see in the media will be of those who choose to wear revealing or traditionally sexual outfits, though I should mention that for Melbourne’s Slutwalk there’s no dress code; indeed, it’s a pretty bitter Winter here, so most people will probably be rugged up. There’s something to be said for bringing media attention to bear on an issue, even if it means using provocative language; Reclaim the Night, a similar annual event started ine 1970s, receives very little media attention these days. That might be as much to do with our 24 hour news cycle preferring new news to old news as it is with a “sexy” image, but there’s no denying it’s worked; Melanie Klein examines the strategy behind the name, and addresses criticism of Slutwalk – including her own – in her excellent piece in Ms. Magazine. She quotes several of the other articles I mention here, but importantly Jennifer L Pozner, from Women in Media and News, who considers Slutwalk an “effective media tool” and a “well-messaged media stunt”.

All Slutwalkers want to see an end to victim blaming, and to slut shaming, the practice attacking women for displaying their sexuality. And this has had a huge response – at least, say its detractors, among young privileged white people. (See Ernesto Aguilar at People of Colour Organise!) Participants want to defend their right to wear what they like without being made to feel ashamed, and to “be a slut” if they want, but they have incredible freedom already – including the privileged freedom to assume these values and ideas will be applicable to other cultures as well. Feminism must be inclusive – but I think that means we have to fight slut-shaming in first world Western society, and also female circumcision in Africa, sex trafficking in Asia, and all the injustices against women everywhere. Of course white women in Toronto will march for their own freedoms; I hope that doesn’t mean they don’t value or consider the freedoms of others. Hopefully, even though a movement starts with privilege, there’s no reason it can’t spread and grow to encompass diverse backgrounds and situations – or that it will suit every culture and society. Slutwalk clearly isn’t for everyone, and indeed not everyone marching for it feels the same about it, but hopefully we can agree on a unified message.

Another criticism is about the attitude to which Slutwalk is responding. There’s no denying that victim-blaming and slut-shaming are destructive behaviours; it’s a positive move to speak out publically against them. But it’s not just victim-blaming of which the Toronto policeman was guilty; he was also perpetuating a myth about sexual assault. If you really believe that “dressing like a slut” makes you a target for rape, then presumably you believe that rape is something that happens to women walking alone at night through dark alleys. That does, sadly, happen, but more than half the (reported) sexual assaults in Australia are perpetuated by people who know the victim: co-workers, family members, boyfriends and spouses. Kimberley Ramplin has a good coverage of the stats on her blog The Referral in part one of her critique of Slutwalk, “Not In My Name“. (Trigger warning: in part two she discusses her own experience of being raped by a family member.)

Ramplin contends that Slutwalk is complicit in perpetuating this stereotype, though my experience has been the opposite – it’s part of the refutation that slut-shaming has any basis in safety to say that the scenario imagined by shamers is a minority of rape cases. Hopefully some of the placards will reflect this, as well as the fact that a disproportionate number of sexual assault victims are very young – in more than 40% of reported assaults the victim was under 14. The proportion of sexual assault victims who are male – between 9 and 16%, depending on study and year – is small by comparison, but also evidence that slut-shaming and victim blaming – activities only ever directed at women – are not the solution to ending sexual violence.

There’s more, of course – much, much more. But I already feel nervous enough putting all these thoughts out there. I’m a feminist, sure, but I’m also a man, and while of course men can be – must be – feminists, it’s an area which more than any other makes me question the value of my voice – which is, after all, yet another one that’s middle class, white, young and male. If it matters to you, I’m primarily influenced in theory by bell hooks, though I need to read much more widely; in practice I’m primarily influenced by the women in whose lives I’m fortunate enough to share.

Anyway, whether you’re marching in Slutwalk, violently opposed to it, or struggling to analyze what it means, I hope my thoughts have helped you with yours. I hope the discussion – about the word, about victim-blaming and slut shaming, about feminism and privilege and raunch culture and differences in feminist attitudes – continues long after the placards have been recycled into firelighters. And I hope you’ll share with me what you think.