Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Tag: justice

For Great Justice, Pay Attention to Your World Building!

I’ll be honest. I started to write a What The Hell Do We Mean When We Say Strong Female Character post, but then I realized that I’d already written two of those. So I’m taking a different tack today. I want to talk about world building. Not the big, obvious, Just How Does “the Force” Work type of world building (seriously, though, midichlorians? that is some bullshit, Lucas.) …I want to talk about the more subtle type of world building that happens in every single fictional work, whether “genre” or not.

logo for A Prairie Home CompanionLet us consider first the long-running radio show A Prairie Home Companion. Its world building is fairly blatant. It is set in a fictional town, Lake Wobegon, MN, where “the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average.” They say this every show, and it is apparent at least peripherally in the sketches and monologue stories that make up the show. This is a version of Minnesota that’s a little hyperbolic, a little wacko, a little locked in the undefinable past where the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon can kind of perk along Lutheranly and have some fairly specific personal growth that gently challenges but ultimately does not destroy the status quo of the town.

Let us apply this same world analysis to another radio show (or podcast, as we moderns call it), Welcome to Night Vale. night vale logoIn the world of Night Vale, incomprehensible eldritch horror is happening more or less constantly. The citizens of Night Vale take this more or less in stride, and one of the joys of the show is how normally the townsfolk react to abnormal events. Another key facet of Night Vale? Unlike real desert towns, say, in Arizona, Night Vale is totally chill with the subversive radio host, Cecil, being in a relationship with the male scientist from out of town, Carlos. Their relationship is not the whole point of the show, but it comes up pretty frequently in a *gasp* normal way. Night Vale citizens are cool with secret police and marauding monstrous librarians and calm, normal gay relationships. And in a media culture saturated by people who actually complain any time a queer relationship of any kind is mentioned, Welcome to Night Vale is a fresh breath of air.

My point here is that it is possible to use the “what is normal in my fictional world” level of world building for great justice. It’s easiest in “genre” fiction, I think, because often the world is supposed to be connected to reality than in literary realism. Star Trek, for example, began airing in 1963 during the Cold War. It showed a hopeful future where there could be a black woman, an Asian man, an alien, a Russian man, and an American man who liked punching people all in the same room getting along and working together.

Cast of Star Trek: The Original Series

“Without Star Trek, people would still think there are no black people in the future.” -Whoopi Goldberg

The 1952 western film High Noon, which you should all go watch immediately if you haven’t seen it, was a classic piece of genre fiction that had justice-filled world building. Most Westerns at the time were about a sort of fictional “good old days” where the men were spit and shot things and had showdowns, the women wore corsets and did a lot of screaming, and people of color were two-dimensional villains. High Noon turned that world on its ear. High Noon almost passes the Bechdel Test, certainly passes the Mako Mori test, and passes the Sexy Lamp test with ease. Its lead male character ends up running away and being sneaky rather than having a direct showdown. There is a female Mexican character who not only has power in the town, but is a dynamic character with, like, actual characterization and everything. The world of High Noon is not the “good old days.” (Of course, that meant it got crap reviews, but that’s another story.)

Katy Jurado and Grace Kelly in High Noon

Katy Jurado and Grace Kelly in High Noon

If course, not all fictional worlds work for great justice. Take the hit TV show Supernatural, for example. I have watched four seasons of it, enough to notice that the world building has some rules to it that I find personally odious. Some aspects of its world building are really cool, i.e. all the American legends and a Bizarro World version of Biblical cryptids are real and running around and killing people. Other aspects? Not so much. There is rarely a woman on the show who a) is not evil, b) gets any amount of screen time, or c) does not die. I mean, the evil women get screen time, but then they die. You could fill out a sexist tropes bingo card ten minutes into the show. (People who watch more Supernatural than I do talk about it, with spoilers, here.) To be fair, Lord of the Rings (which I like a great deal) also has a pretty problematic world, e.g. the taller, prettier, and whiter you are then the more everyone wants to be you. As a creator, I think you have an onus to at least be aware of the signals your world building is sending.

Also, in case it’s not screamingly obvious, the vast majority of media we consume, particularly on film, is set in a world completely disconnected from reality. It’s a world where everyone has really cool jobs: doctors, lawyers, crime scene investigators. It’s a world where problems take, at most, two hours to solve, and oftentimes can be resolved in twenty minutes. It’s a world where there are mostly white men anywhere, including in crowds. It’s a world where two women having a conversation about something other than a man is rare, two people of color having a conversation about something other than a white person even more so. In case y’all forgot, that’s not reality. People have shitty jobs. Life doesn’t have nice story arcs. Half the human population is female. Fiction is not reality. But fiction is important. Telling stories helps us make sense of our lives; it gives us the catharsis we need to deal with our weird, sometimes shitty, sometimes confusing reality. And if you are telling stories, you get a choice. Do you want to tell your story in a world where women are always svelte in sexy outfits, and black people are thugs, and the random Asian chick knows kung fu? Or do you want to tell stories for great justice?

A caveat: Not all stories need to imagine a world in which the Patriarchy is over or people have solved global warming or whatnot. Stories can be awesome and cathartic and important and still have problematic aspects or be set in a world of darkness and injustice. My plea is simply this: be aware of the more subtle aspects of your world-building. Notice who you’re writing in and writing out. Many of the male authors who get pinned down and told “You! You write good female characters! How?!” say something like, “I consider women human” and move on with their lives. Point is, they’re writing stories without the assumption that the default character setting is “male.” And personally, I’d like to imagine a world where stories that involve a more balanced cross-section of America air on American television. Where movies about women are not automatically deemed “chick flicks.” Where Miles Morales and Kamala Khan don’t have to be a big freakin’ deal. And you know what? I think the more we tell the stories we’d like to see, the more we’ll get that world.

Geek Girl Con 2013

Seattle has a lot of cons, many of them very quality and wildly popular. ECCC is becoming a contender for major US comic con alongside NYCC and SDCC. PAX sold out in nine minutes and packed the entire convention center. But this past weekend was the Seattle con that has my heart the most: Geek Girl Con. I have heard (male) friends describe the best part of going to PAX is “being with my people.” And for reals, GeekGirlCon is my people, even more so than any other con.

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Pretty sure the guy on the left won the costume contest. On the right is cosplayer Chaka Cumberbatch.

How do I describe GeekGirlCon? Do I talk about the gender distribution: maybe 75% women, 25% men? Do I talk about how much more visible queer geeks, geeks of color, and geeks with disability were than at other cons? Do I talk about the high quality of cosplay, the seriously good panels, or the interesting bits that other cons don’t have, like the DIY Science section or the networking section? I dunno, maybe cosplayer Chaka Cumberbatch said it best:

 

I just hope everyone else had as good a time as I did. This con was a game changer for me, and I mean that sincerely. #geekgirlcon

— ★ Chaka ★ (@princessology) October 20, 2013

 

There’s just nothing else like it! Here’s a quick rundown of Interesting Things from the con:

The first panel I went to was about female characters in videogames. The panel was well-chosen: two game designers, Shoshanna Kessock and Kimberly Voll, and two gamers/critics, Anita Sarkeesian and Elsa Sjunneson-Henry. They talked about how to make good female characters. (Protip: Agency. Making choices that affect things in a meaningful manner.) They talked about the difference between choose-your-own-gender games and games where there is a female that you must play. They talked about the silly double-standards revolving around emotions: women have too many, men have none or maybe one. Douchey game developers have argued that women have too many, and even that anger (the only male emotion obvs) is just easier to animate than more complex emotional states. Shoshanna Kessock said she’d actually heard an argument against female “must-play” characters that goes like this: “Why would men be able to feel through the avatar of a woman?” I think if we could determine why many men wouldn’t be able to feel through the avatar of a woman, or if those men could figure it out for themselves, then we’d actually be on our way to a more just society. Not just in games and geek culture, but in general. To me, avatars and empathy is an example of the positive power of games.
Later in the day, I went to a panel entitled “Rule 63 Cosplay,” about genderbent cosplay. The presenters were my buddy from childhood (no kidding) and cosplayer extraordinaire, Torrey Stenmark, and turbo-experienced cosplayer Jonnalyhn Wolfcat Prill. They highlighted the difference between crossplay and gender-swapped cosplay. Crossplay is where one dresses as an differently-gendered character attempting to look like that character’s gender.

Jareth, the Goblin King (Torrey Stenmark)

On the other hand, genderswapping is where one dresses as a version of a character that is as if that character had been written a different gender.

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Steph Rodgers, Captain America. (Torrey Stenmark)

The radsauce Kelly Sue DeConnick gave a fantastic spotlight presentation where she talked about her upcoming title, Pretty Deadly, and a host of other topics. Kelly Sue is so smart, down-to-earth, and genuine in her presentation. I am consistently impressed by her as a writer and a human being. She talked a lot about Captain Marvel as well. She had a simple, humble moment of apologizing for screwing up by not putting in a black servicewoman into the Banshee Squadron. It’s an idea she’d gotten and discarded because it seemed unrealistic to her at the time. “I have these women with guns that they somehow know how to use fighting aliens in the South Pacific,” she said. She was saddened to later realize that she’d found a black servicewoman somehow *less* realistic. “I screwed up,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time.” God damn, I wish more creators and cultural curators could/would do that when they screw up. What a world that would be.

When Trade Secrets! reviewed Captain Marvel, incidentally, one thing we weren’t so hot on was the time travel aspect to the story–the pacing felt a little weird to us. I now know the heart-wrenching reason why she did a time travel story right off the bat: she really wanted to get to the banshee squadron and some of Carol’s relationship with Helen Cobb, but was also convinced that the story would be cancelled after six issues. So she got what she wanted to write about most done up front. I, for one, am glad that Captain Marvel didn’t get canceled after six issues. I heard several women talking about how they started reading comics because of the title–wow. We need this. Representation matters.

Lastly, let me give you a beautiful gift that Kelly Sue DeConnick gave the audience: The Sexy Lamp Test.

Deluxe Lit Leg Lamp mediumThis is a good test of whether or not your (female) characters have agency. It goes like this: “If you have a female character and you could replace her with a sexy lamp and the plot still works, then FUCK YOU.” *Cough* I mean, then re-examine her, give her a real purpose and like maybe a character arc or something, give her some agency, and let her choices matter.

 

So, GeekGirlCon! There are important conversations about women and race and disability and all kinds of neat things! There’s a lot of rad cosplay! There is actual science! There is a non-creepy vibe! (And yes, you can totally come if you’re a dude. Aside from it being FUN, it’d be a good exercise in what-is-it-like-to-be-female-at-most-other-cons.) It is a magical place. See y’all next year.

 

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