Saturday, June 13, 2015

Let's have the talk about fandom and privilege

Earlier this week there was an interview with Cassie Clare and Maggie Stiefvater about dehumanizing authors. There was a point from Stiefvater about how hatred in her fandom isn't an issue of success. It's an issue of fandom. (That's rather paraphrased, so feel free to read the actual interview.)

It's a little horrifying that we don't stop and consider how toxic it is to normalize hating those who are successful. It's a shade of victim-blaming that gets a pass from a lot of individuals under the banner of dismissing anyone who has perceived privilege. Which only works if you subscribe to the belief that oppression is entitlement to dehumanize—and let's be clear, I don't subscribe to that belief. (Perhaps it is my privilege to believe that if one is going to disagree with someone, do it fully aware they are a person.)

For the sake of this discussion, let's posit that it is incorrect to normalize hating those who are successful. It creates a false hierarchy, in which we marginalize ourselves. We give power to successful people and then we hate them for the power we gave them, so we're awful to them as some sort of attempt to re-empower ourselves.

Why would we fall into this self-created trap?

Fandoms are pre-packaged social groups. It's an easy, instant connection over a shared interest. Meaningful connections are difficult to make, time is hard to find, and we are conditioned to accept easy solutions because they take less effort and are therefore less risk. If we identify as socially awkward and/or lonely people, this ease is that much more important. We're starving for the sense of community that fandom promises.

If the fandom we identify with hates an individual, then we also feel pressured to behave in this way. Especially if you've come to that group for acceptance and feel they are the people who best understand you. Risking not behaving as a group member could see you ostracized. When you're lonely, being left is the worst possible outcome. We contort ourselves to avoid it.

A toxic fandom forms from the mindset that authors and creators are Authors and Creators. They exist outside the group; they cease to be considered a group member. When this happens the creator isn't interacting with individuals within a group; the creator is interacting with a group. Unless influential members of that group adopt the requested behaviour, the situation won't change because the person asking for it is viewed as an outsider—a privileged outsider.

I grew up in various fandoms. I've had both personal and professional interactions with them. I've had the experience of being both a creator and an appreciator. Please note that I said experience and not privilege. It was part of my job to interact with the "famous" people of the book world—and it's not a privilege to do your job well. That's what a paycheque is for.

I left that job with suitcases full of scene points—the imaginary currency of status among fans. Whatever they might still be worth is the only reason I'm bothering to post a discussion I was content to have offline with friends. (I am leaving it to their discretion whether or not they wish to join this discussion online.)

If you got lost in the metaphor: I don't think I'm the influential member of the group who needs to say this, but I don't know who they might be. I also don't hear anyone else saying it.

I've worked two Cassie Clare events. I've seen firsthand how well she treats the people who come to her signings. I've also worked with Maggie Stiefvater and seen how giving she is to her readers. She treats us like people. Thus, I react very specifically when I see she is having to ask to be recognized as a person.

There's a distrust of people who are employed in publicity, because we're paid to be professionally enthusiastic. It's difficult, especially in a digital setting, to know if the genuine enthusiasm is being recognized among all the marketing. In a way, it's like when fandom has an edict of unquestioningly supporting anything the creator does. It doesn't build sustainable relationships, because people are going to make mistakes.

The other issue of fandom and publicity/marketing—a discussion unto itself—is that fandom is commonly used as publicity. When possible businesses reward fans (usually referred to as influencers) with perks like early access to items/events or access to creators and other exclusives. It's an acknowledgement of the work being done for the business. (If influencers are paid, then let's consider them marketers to keep the terms clear.) Many fans who aren't influencers—yet still actively promote books/movies/merchandise—exist as unpaid publicity.

While there can be an underlying resentment from some fans, an influencer has a safe kind of status. They're elevated in the perceived hierarchy, but they're still a member of the group. It's a specific kind of privilege where you're often protected from what creators endure, and people often look to you for behavioural cues.

The privilege of my marketing position—or any position like it—was imbued by people who thought the access my job gave me should carry status. So here's the inside of that: It doesn't mean anything more than we make it mean. The fame most authors have is entirely restricted to their fandom. It's a personally meaningful thing to interact with someone who has created something you love. If you're surrounded by people who also love it, then the event appears to carry a greater meaning.

My point: Toxic fandom reinforces among fans the very privilege it punishes creators for. Access to creators and attention from them gives fans status. But if those fans become creators, then they have to fear what will happen if they are perceived to no longer be a fan. I know someone who lost friends after she published because she was then viewed as an Author instead of a person. When I left my job, I feared people would stop being my friends. (Spoiler: They didn't.) Toxic fandom, like all toxic systems, lies to you. It tells you that need it. That you're either part of the group or an outcast.

We as a digital culture are embroiled in some serious and much-needed conversations about privilege. Legitimate conversations about systemic issues in our society. But when we hijack these conversations to use privilege as permission to be awful to people, we are still stuck in the thought-process of these toxic systems.

When a group of people wants to say Cassie Clare was a bully in Harry Potter fandom so she deserves getting bullied by her own fans—that's victim-blaming. Should she have to disclose if she treated people poorly in the past? No, because it's dismissive of the experience she is having now. Let me translate this for you: It doesn't matter what she was wearing or where she was walking or how many guys she smiled at before—she didn't ask for it. The fans who are being abusive have the agency to choose not to be abusive.

Harassment is abuse. I'm tired of hearing people claim that discussions of abuse can only focus on specific systemic issues. We are able to have more than one conversation without it diminishing the importance of the multiple things being discussed.

Of course, that's another problem of toxic fandom: The inability to be more than one thing. Because the group demands your complete attention it fosters this mindset that everything is a zero-sum game. If you're talking about the dehumanizing of Cassie Clare and Maggie Stiefvater, then you aren't talking about why it's harmful to joke about creating allegations against John Green, and if you're decry the allegations against John Green then you're ignoring the need for diverse books or the abuse those marginalized authors have each day.

Bullshit. It's a big world. There is room in it for all of these conversations. They don't cease to exist if they fall out of the trending topics. You can participate in all of them. You can participate in some of them. You can participate in none of them. That's the power of individual agency.

I realize the new social norm is to diminish our pain because someone else's suffering is perceived to be greater. But it doesn't logic. Allowing people to use oppression as privilege creates a system based on suffering. A system based on suffering is not a healthy one; it's the same issue of inequality with new wallpaper.

Social media is trembling with the underlying fear of someone saying we are privileged. It is damaging our abilities to make any real progress, because we have people who are using privileged as the new mean. "This person is so privileged, isn't that awful? Let's publicly shame them!" You are not automatically a terrible person because you are privileged, and you are not automatically a wonderful person because you are marginalized. People are more complicated than that.

Look at the social consequences of Rachel Dolezal, who marginalized herself for access to opportunities. Privilege is a nuanced and complicated discussion. It requires critical thinking beyond the simplicity of rigid binary systems. Which we can't do in toxic fandom, because we are so afraid of saying something that causes us to be abandoned by our peers.

Also, much of our social media wasn't built for nuance. It was built to be nimble and highly reactive. Twitter limits how much can be said in a single tweet. Tumblr minimizes the ability for users to directly interact. We classify into groups because it helps give a sense of order to a place that is only beginning to examine how to govern itself. So we punish others for not behaving as we believe the group should behave—without recognizing there are multiple concepts of what the group's good behaviour should be.

Do you see how big this is? I'm sorry, but if you want to be serious about intersectionality and addressing systemic issues then we also need to build better systems in fandom. Social Justice has a fandom, too.

My concept of good group behaviour is that someone I know never has to clarify all she is asking for is to be treated like a human being. My concept is that no one should ever have to ask for that, because it should be basic human behaviour. But I understand that is not the concept shared by everyone. When I say that fandom is why I can't have nice things, this is what I mean.

The answer to this is not pick a side and try to yell the loudest. That doesn't resolve conflicts. It just enables toxic fandom. We also can't expect the creators to fix this for us, because that's still treating them like they have god-like abilities.

My answer to this is to continue to interact with people like they are human beings—to talk to them like they are more than a common interest or a thing they created. I also need to critically examine the things I love, pull them apart and put them back together to see what I can learn from them. I don't insist anyone else do that. All I ask is that we respect we each have ways of enjoying stories.

The only agency I have over the world is to govern myself, ask of others what I would like them to do, and listen when they tell me what they would like me to do. It doesn't sound like much, but it's a place to start. It's forward instead of this loop that toxic fandom insists is the best we can do.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik's Uprooted is a book for a reader who wants—I mean really, really deep in their heart of hearts—to dance a dance they know every step of to a well-played song that they can sing along with immediately.

I recognize the songs Uprooted is singing and I respect the skill with which they are sung. But this book will do best with long-time epic fantasy readers who came to hear their old favourites and not think too hard about why they like them. It's a comfortable story—not in its content—but its tropes and execution of those tropes.

My disappointment comes from being a reader who wants a reply to things, not a reconstruction of them. Because when a text is focused on lovingly recreating something, it doesn't seek to improve it.

Uprooted goes digging for memories of Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, Tolkien, and Peter S. Beagle. But about halfway through, I became aware of something uncomfortable in Uprooted's worldview.

Every woman who performs traditional femininity is either an antagonist, incapable of defending herself, inhuman, transformed into something inhuman, or killed. Women who enjoy nice dresses don't get out of this book unscathed. Women in traditional positions of feminine power—healers or nurses, for example—are also treated antagonistically by the text.

First, to give the text the benefit of the doubt, let's examine Uprooted's comments as being more cultural than gender performative. In a refusal to adopt the clothing customs outside her home, Agnieszka provides a role model who doesn't attempt to pass. She feels pride for her culture, her beliefs, and she rediscovers the power of that culture through the magic of Jaja. A magic that is indecipherable to outsiders like Sarkan and Father Ballo. (It does appear that the narrative's two most vocal of Jaja's doubters are male, but the court wizards as a group disdain the way Agnieszka performs magic. She must first overcome their negative view of her and prove herself a witch. She's never simply accepted by anyone at court on first meeting, but more on this later.)

While at court, Agnieszka finds comfort in the books of magic practitioners from her valley. They are the magic she recognizes, the ones that are most comfortable for her to use. She has a language difficulty in using the court-recognized magic. There are small spells—cantrips—she can use and does, but it's when she adapts them to the valley-method that her spells are their most successful.

Agnieszka's magic is a power that not even Sarkan—who has lived near the valley for decades—fully comprehends by the end of the book. He is able to access and use it via Agnieszka's assistance, but it's never really his. (He cannot access or use it without assistance unless he agrees to convert. It's worded as "setting down roots," but it is written as cultural conversion.) Her magic is what continually saves the day. It's what makes the greatest feats of the story possible.

Towards the end of the novel, Agnieszka has taken Sarkan's place as the one who will instruct those who have the gift of magic. It's implied she'll teach them the magic of the valley versus the magic of the court. She's chosen to help nurture this culture that she loves. She's decided there's nothing of interest for her outside the valley.

Taken at its surface expression, this narrative says "Feel pride for your roots and your culture. It will always serve you best. You're the only one who can use it."

That is an important thing to say to children of immigrants. Many of us come from immigrant families. For example, my family lost the link to my grandparents's language because our first generation born in Canada wasn't interested in learning it.

But here's my concern about professing that "you are the only one who can." Being a marginalized person who won't acknowledge other people could understand their culture is just as dangerous as being a majority who refuses to try to understand other people and their cultures. A majority converting to a minority viewpoint is the same as a minority converting to a majority viewpoint when they are both happening by force.

Cultural narrative aside—and I do think that it's valuable to have a narrative that encourages pride in one's roots—perhaps the textual execution could've relied on something other than the narrator's clothing and appearance versus the clothing and appearances of other women? Maybe it could have been an evil wood-king? (Instead of an evil queen who becomes evil because if you try to marry into other cultures they will inevitably betray you because you're different from them.) Maybe just a few of the women who enjoyed performing femininity in a traditional manner could've not been antagonists, reduced to being someone's mom (did Agnieszka's mother even get a proper name?), or transformed into something inhuman?

I've been actively looking this year for texts that valourize kindness, and Uprooted doesn't. This is not a book about empathy and compassion. It's not a book of equal compromise. It's adversarial. This story validates change from everyone else—waiting for the world to acknowledge you've always been right. It's critical to have stories that encourage us to grow, but how can you grow if your narrative is that your way is the secret best way and it's just been misunderstood by the majority?

Also when your narrative is that you're never wrong, you're excluded from having to obey certain rules. Like consent.

In the midst of Uprooted are two "love" scenes. Both scenes have Agnieszka as the aggressor—she either gets caught up in magic and magically undoes Sarkan's jerkin or she goes into his room and magically makes his trousers vanish. A sexually empowered female character is great. But Sarkan doesn't consent to these actions. In the second scene, he is not asked if he wants her. He is asked if he doesn't want her. He says "no." But in a way that makes it imply consent.

If someone breaks into a room, kisses the occupant awake, straddles them, and then demands a confession under duress from them that they don't want the person to leave... that's non-consensual. It's the casual no really means yes that gets slipped to us all the time in movies and television.

This doesn't cease to be an issue because Agnieszka identifies as a woman. And every relationship—sexual or not—is a combative act in Uprooted. It's about winning someone over or convincing them they were wrong. We can argue this is a fact of being marginalized, but it's not just the a viewpoint of a character who is marginalized, because it is not only Agnieszka who does it. It's the worldview of the text.

Take the friendship that is being praised by most readers. Agnieszka and Kasia only build a real, loving friendship after a magic spell—that summons the truth of the world—reveals how much these two women have secretly hated each other. Why do they hate each other? Because apparently the truth of this world is founded on internalized misogyny.

And that's what is eating the heartwood of Uprooted. A reliance on the adversarial and toxic trope of "I'm not like other girls." On the surface, this concept sounds empowering. But it's not. It undermines its own attempt to say there isn't a correct way to girl by reducing any character who performs traditional femininity to simplistic antagonists only there to thwart the narrator.

There's a section about a countess who "befriends" Agnieszka and then spends three days mocking her while she doesn't understand she's being mocked. At this point we have already been shown that Agnieszka doesn't fit in. That she isn't being accepted. Why does the only person who appears to be kind to her have to turn out to be a secret advisory?

Because the world of Uprooted has a very narrow view of what is acceptable/heroic/worthy behaviour.

Cultures don't die because we forget them. They die because we—the people of that culture—refuse to let them grow and adapt as the world around us changes. That doesn't mean bunkering down in our valleys and feeling confident we alone are the most right people who know the secret best ways to live. It's giant world. It's not possible for everything in it created by someone who isn't us to be useless.

Which might be the character arc someone who isn't the narrator of Uprooted. Maybe Kasia—except it was stated from the beginning that she wasn't going to remain in the valley. It also wasn't the character arc of Solya, because all he learned was that he wasn't going to win over Agnieszka so he should redirect his creeping elsewhere. (Personal boundaries are not a thing well understood by Uprooted's magicians.) It's possible Sarkan learned to accept the validity of other cultures. Or it's possible he's equally trapped by the power of the valley, and is simply less willing to be content about it.

It's a staggering lack of measurable character growth for a book that textually states the importance of growing and changing. Not that the book itself has nothing to say or isn't enjoyable. But I found it ultimately disappointing, because there's a difference between someone growing in power and growing as a person.

Is it possible to read Uprooted without the problematic subtext getting in the way? Yes. Absolutely. Novik has an eye for physical detail and an ability to present a solid-looking world. If you're not a close reader—not everyone is—and you want a book that's comfortably familiar then you will be delighted by this one. But if you were looking for something that wants to further the genre conversation of fantasy, you're listening to the wind through the wrong forest.