Where Did Storm Go? Representing Race and Gender in Superhero Films

Conflict is common over the depiction of race and gender in speculative fiction. As a middle-class first-world white bloke I recognise that I’m in a very privileged position and over-represented in popular culture. But as a nerd I also recognise why people get defensive about challenges to a frequently mocked subculture. I’ve written a post about this and recent superhero films over one Curnblog. Here’s the start of it…

Where Did Storm Go? Representing Race and Gender in Superhero Films

Superhero films and the comics that spawned them are famous for their traditionally white male fan-base. It’s a fan-base to which the creators play, with the vast majority of superheroes, and particularly the high profile ones, being white men.

This raises issues for the balanced representation of gender and race and for the diversity of perspectives possible within these stories. It becomes even more problematic as these stories reach out to a wider audience, perpetuating norms of white male cultural dominance. But why is this so common? And is an opportunity for change being squandered?

Talking raccoons are surprisingly well represented in the Marvel universe
Talking raccoons are surprisingly well represented in the Marvel universe

To read the rest please hop on over to Curnblog. And while you’re there I also recommend Anthony Pilloud‘s ‘The Fallibility of Superheroes‘, an interesting article on the troubling moral structure of the Marvel universe.

 

For more on issues of representation you might also want to check out this rough transcript of a panel R A Smith was on at LonCon.

And if you have any thoughts on the subject or links to other interesting articles then please leave a comment.

Hard lines and heated words – the challenge of discussing science fiction and fantasy

I love science fiction and fantasy, and I believe that nothing is better for those genres than the ability to critically discuss them, to offer challenges and insights to each other, to find our weaknesses, celebrate our strengths and build on both.

That’s why I often hate getting into debates about them on the internet. What should be a forum for development and growth instead becomes a source of deep division. Why?

The symptoms

Recent controversy around the Hugo awards is a good example of how this goes down. A group of writers and fans with a broadly right-wing agenda campaigned to get their favourite writers onto the ballot. They succeeded, and in response more liberal fans cried foul. Much vitriol was spewed. I mostly ignored it but it still made me sad because of the tone taken by people on both sides.

Discussions of feminism and geek culture are among the worst I’ve seen. Both sides of these debates put huge efforts into pushing forward their point of view, rather than listening to each other’s perspectives or trying to understand where those viewpoints come from. It tends to get very ugly very fast, and though I care deeply about these topics I step away from discussions that look angry, unproductive and emotionally draining.

The disease

In my opinion, the problem is that these debates become a matter of attack and defence, rather than an attempt to learn from one another and appreciate other points of view.

It’s natural that this would happen. As fans of all things nerdy we’re used to being ostracised and attacked, to the point where we see ourselves that way despite the increasingly mainstream position of our culture. That makes us incredibly wary of any perceived attack, ready to leap in and defend what we love. It’s one of the reasons why the insightful videos of Feminist Frequency receive as much scorn as admiration. People see a critique of an aspect of something they love and they feel it as an attack on their cultural identity. They feel hurt, and they respond as such.

But of course these counter-attacks put the feminists, or the right-wing science fiction writers, or whoever it is on the defensive. The fight goes back and forth, becoming increasingly bitter. A love for or hatred of Feminist Frequency becomes a badge of honour, to be defended in itself. Positions entrench preventing either side from hearing the other. They might win more supporters through these public spats, or they might alienate casual observers, but what they won’t do is change each others’ views.

The cure (well, mine anyway)

Tom Bramwell has written an excellent piece on this problem and video games, and if you take away one thing from this post it should be to read his article. What I took from it is this – we need to listen. Even if I abhor someone’s opinion, I can achieve more through listening and understanding why they hold that opinion than from repeating, rephrasing and defending my own arguments, hammering them into a defensive stance. Proving ourselves logically right over and over again doesn’t matter. Understanding why others disagree with us does.

I’m not saying that you should not stand up for what you believe in. Far from it. I firmly believe that women are under-represented in science fiction and fantasy and we should change that. But I also believe that the best way to achieve change is to express my view, then step back from the debate and listen. Not to defend my position. To understand rather than berate.

And yes, this is not just a science fiction and fantasy thing. It is a universal thing. It is as true of politics and religion as of which Star Trek captain was best (Picard). But sf+f is where I live. It’s what I’m passionate about. And so that’s where I start trying to treat this differently.

And if you’ve never seen Feminist Frequency then here’s a taste. I think it’s excellent, if occasionally flawed. Other opinions are available.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8428XSejp0?list=PLF509B2D59CC7037F&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Out now – Sand Dancer

Tolkien compared stories with soup. He said that, as readers and critics, we should look at the whole dish rather than the ingredients that went into it.

While I take Tolkien’s point – that it’s important to enjoy and immerse yourself in the story in its own right – I also like to think about the ingredients. A lot of different flavours went into the latest story I have out – Sand Dancer in James Tallett’s The Ways of Magic Anthology. So, for those of you who like to play literary chef, or just want to make sure there’s no rat in your word stew, here are a few ingredients that went into this story.

The Ways of Magic

 

Arabian nights

For me as a westerner, there’s something exotic and romantic about the Middle East. It’s a place full of strange beauty and unknown dangers, a place of djinn, minarets and shifting sands, of fine architecture, fine learning and the fine voice of a distant call to prayer.

Of course, the way we romanticise the East is problematic. Edward Said’s concept of orientalism – simply put, that we romanticise Asia in a way that also lets us look down on its people – is old hat, though sadly still relevant. As an outsider to these countries I’m cautious about using their culture for my own creations.

But what’s the alternative? That everything I write is full of white people living Anglo-American lifestyles? That all my fantasy is Tolkien-style elves, dwarfs, dragons and castles? Isn’t ignoring other cultures even worse? Also boring, of course.

I loved those old Sinbad films when I was growing up, the ones with the Ray Harryhausen monsters (sorry writers, actors and directors, but however good you were it’s still a Ray movie in my mind). I love Disney’s Aladdin, for all the problems that Disneyfication brings. I love the short stories of Saladin Ahmed, and am looking forward to reading his novels.

So, for good or for bad I’ve written a few stories that try to depict an Arabic fantasy setting, and this in one of them.

Magic

The clue’s in the title of of the anthology – Ways of Magic. This story is built around a particular way of creating magic, one that combines art, passion and power through the medium of dance.

I like to use the arts as mechanisms for magic systems. They stir passions within us that are a good fit for a powerful and evocative magic system. They have rules and patterns a writer can use. They make adventure stories about more than politics, power and wealth, bringing a society’s culture to the forefront.

For an Arabian fantasy story, combining this with belly dancing seemed a natural fit. I know next to nothing about dancing, so again I’ve darted outside of the familiar, but I hope I’ve done it some justice.

Female leads

I try to create a balance in my fiction, with about half the leads male and half female. It would be easier for me to just write blokes – after all, I am one. But I want the world to provide women and girls with role models they can relate to. I want my nieces to see a variety of women in fantasy fiction, to see that they don’t need to be princesses or Xena lookalikes to matter in those worlds. And for myself, I want my fiction to be more interesting and varied.

I wrote this story just as I was starting a concerted effort to improve the gender balance in my writing, so it’s probably not my most nuanced attempt at a female lead. I won’t apologise – we all learn and improve by doing – but I will say that I’m still striving to do better.

Sand in your gears

Those three are the biggest ingredients that went into this stew. It’s also flavoured with clockwork robots, because I can never resist a bit of mechanical fantasy, and with some familiar themes about authority and rebellion. I like to think that it makes for a tasty read, but you’ll have to be the judges of that.

The Ways of Magic is available through Amazon (UK and US versions), Barnes & Noble, Kobo and probably a bunch of other places. If you’re looking for some fantasy to read then please give it a shot.

 

Re-punking your steam – three obscure slithers of Victorian history

Steampunk is fast becoming one of the main ways that modern culture interacts with our 19th century past. But for all the ‘punk’ in its name, it’s all too easily for steampunk to steer away from the radicalism of the punk aesthetic, to look only at a very mainstream view of history.

I’m not saying that this is always intentional. But like writers of fantasy and of historical fiction, steampunk writers take inspiration from the pieces of history made available to them, and that often leaves out the more interesting details, the more challenging subjects, the voices from the fringes of history.

As I’m currently reading a book on 19th century history* I thought I’d share a few bits that caught my attention, that I thought should be more widely known and maybe used for literary inspiration.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zF_U4VGl1Jk&w=560&h=315]

 

Epilepsy

We all know that historical doctoring was often dubious, whether inspired by superstition or the latest scientific advances. US presidents Washington and Garfield both died as much from doctoring as from their maladies.

But the treatment of less well understood ailments could be shocking and downright bizarre. In the 1870s, New Jersey State Asylum staff sprayed patients with alcohol and set them on fire to see if they were faking epilepsy. Because epilepsy isn’t hard enough without some lighter-wielding lunatic burning off all your body hair in the name of truth. That kind of cruelty and incompetence has great potential for an antagonist.

Miners

Yes yes, I know, you’ve all heard how important mining was to the industrial revolution. But given the hundreds of thousands of people who worked down the mines, how much do you know about their lives?

Did you know, for example, that they were often highly superstitious? That makes sense when your life can be snuffed out without warning in a pit accident. Miners in the Durham coalfields of the 1840s wouldn’t go down the pit if they’d seen anything as strange and unlucky as a woman on their way to work. (yes, there’s a glaring gender issue there too – more on that subject later)

Or how about the fact that some miners were also terrorists? The Molly Maguires, a secret society fighting for workers’ rights in 1870s Pennsylvania and West Virginia, used arson, intimidation and assassination in their struggle for a better life, only to be brought down by a hired corporate spy.

Where are the bomb-throwing ghost-fearing miners in my fiction? (note to self – awesome character idea – go write that next)

Women

That really shouldn’t be a heading in an article on obscure bits of history, but women don’t get equal representation in our examination of the past. And how often do you see sexual inequality tackled head on rather than worked around in genre fiction? But until 1850 almost every state in the United States recognised a husband’s legal right to beat his wife. This in the nation founded on the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

On a lighter note Lucy Stone, the first American woman to keep her maiden name after marriage, financed herself through college, lectured on antislavery and in the 1850s helped organise some of the first women’s rights conventions. Bet she had to be stubborn as all hell to manage that in those days – story conflict potential aplenty.

And back to you

I’m not saying to throw away your mainstream histories, to forget 1066 and the founding of the Union and the French Revolution and all that jazz. I’m just saying next time you pick up a history book, and in particular next time you look to history for inspiration, try to find something new. Something a little more punk. It makes for more interesting fiction, and it makes sure that those under-represented voices don’t remain obscure.

What are your favourite interesting historical details? Who do you think doesn’t get enough attention? Leave a comment, share your views.

And for more great history tidbits, try Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog.

 

* It’s the Reader’s Digest Life During the Industrial Revolution, picked up for a quid in a charity shop – see, finding interesting history is easy.

 

Joss Whedon on choosing words

Joss Whedon recently gave a great speech on gender inequality and feminism:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDmzlKHuuoI&w=560&h=315]

If you’re interested in the issue of gender equality – and I hope that you are – or you enjoy the writing of a modern TV great – and I hope that you do – then you’ll probably enjoy the whole video. But what I want to mention here, what caught my writerly ear, is what he discusses in the first few minutes – how words sound.

Forgetting the obvious

It’s easy to forget, when writing prose, that the sound of words can be as important as their meaning in building atmosphere. Poets use this all the time – choosing light, babbling sounds to describe a brook or heavy, solid words to describe a rock. But then, poetry is often about the very precise application of a small number of words. As prose writers, we’re trying to lay down a lot more letters on the page. We’re aiming for precision of meaning, and the precision of sound can get lost in the mix.

Still, if I use ugly, clunky words to describe my delicate brook, that ugly clunkiness is going to undermine my aim. I should bear that in mind.

What to do about it?

For me, this goes on the long list of things I will try to bear in mind when writing – I picked up another today from Victoria Grefer, a golden rule of description. Something gets added to my list most days, which mean that a lot of stuff has fallen off the list too. But as long as a few thinks stick, or become instinctual, I should keep improving.

I might try some poetry exercises as well. Mrs K has the fabulous Stephen Fry’s Ode Less Travelled, and if I’m going to learn from two wordsmiths this week, then Whedon and Fry is about as awesome a combo as I could get.

Anybody else got any good tips or resources on this? I’d love to hear them.

Tackling stereotypes – friendly orcs and pink engineers

A couple of recent articles on tor.com got me thinking again about stereotypes, their uses and pitfalls in popular culture.

In the first article, G Willow Wilson discussed shifting portrayals of orcs, from mindless villains to something more sympathetic and nuanced. Having a variety of interpretations of this classic race enriches fantasy, giving us interesting variations on a theme. It means that I can’t just read the word ‘orc’ and assume that’s a straight-forward villain. This means I’ll put more thought into my reading experience. It also means the author can’t just write ‘orc’ and expect me to have a complete picture – this may slow their story down a little, but will also force them to think these creatures through in more depth, or even to think up a more original race.

As the article highlights, this isn’t just about culture. Though I’m sure it wasn’t Tolkien’s conscious intention, his ugly, villainous orcs coming out of the east tapped into some pretty nasty prejudices of his era. By featuring in such a widely successful series of books they could help to reinforce those associations in people’s minds, and so have a social effect.

The second article, by Emily Asher-Perrin, is about a construction toy aimed at girls. This is all about the social implications of culture, trying to break through gender stereotypes in toy design to break down gender divisions in society. It also shows how, while playing with culture can have social implications, playing with social implications can enliven culture. In looking for a way to get girls into engineering, Debra Sterling has created a toy that combines story telling with construction to create something novel. That’s cool in itself. I like books, I like building, I’m excited to see the two together.

When we set out to be subversive in our culture, to undermine stereotypes or challenge assumptions, we risk becoming preachy. These are serious subjects, but treating them absolutely seriously risks putting people off. And worse, it’s no fun. As the comments on Wilson’s article show, this can create quite a backlash. But tackling stereotypes can be fun, it can create novelty. Instead of a pamphlet on social division it can be a gentleman orc or a princess with a spanner.

Can you think of examples where popular culture, and particularly geek culture, has challenged stereotypes in a fun way? Post them in the comments below. I’m always interested in more ammunition for my view that serious issues don’t have to mean serious faces.

Gender in genre

Everwalker recently wrote a blog post about gender equality in genre literature. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while, and touched on slightly in discussing The Hunger Games, so I decided to throw in my two pence worth.

There’s an issue of cultural bias here. Men tend to be shown in particular roles, which sets a norm which becomes self-perpetuating. When we see warriors we usually see men, so when we depict warriors we usually depict men, which means when we see warriors we still see men, and hey presto, self-perpetuating cycle. Men tend to be shown in roles which are more outward-facing and empowered. And though those of a more conservative disposition might not agree, I think that this is harmful because it has a limiting effect on what women achieve (this is a big topic so sorry, I’m not going to justify myself here).

There are two aspects of genre fiction which particularly tend to bring out this bias. Firstly, it’s often action oriented. And because of the bias already mentioned, we tend to default to men in action roles. Secondly, much fantasy is based on taking elements from history, and we tend to think of men as the influential players in history, with women limited by the norms of their society. But there are two big problems with this. Firstly, it’s not half as true as you might think. And secondly, so what? If you’ve put in dragons or magic or crazy steam machines then you can certainly change gender roles.

Now comes the confession. I’m terrible at writing gender equality. When I’m not thinking about it, I default to gender clichés as much as the next person. Until I started making a conscious effort to change, nearly all my characters were men, especially the lead ones. I’m far from perfect, but I’m trying.

Oh, and if you’re interested in more analysis of gender representations in popular culture I recommend Feminist Frequency – well argued and presented videos connecting in with recent hot topics.