Fandom, Must We Keep Doing This?

Well, we’re having this conversation again. A shirt at a convention set off another round of discussion of acceptance of women and the geek community.

So, according to the creator, it’s okay that there’s a shirt about hating fangirls because there’s also one about hating fanboys.  Which you can’t find anywhere on the internet (the fangirl one is in the creator’s deviantart, but not the fanboy hate one).

My response?  Neither shirt is acceptable.  But the reason that the fangirl shirt is getting so much bad coverage is because there’s a lot of messages circulating right now that tell girls they are not welcome in geek culture.  It’s a very pervasive message, at least it is if the messages are directed at you and it comes both overtly and subtly.  And it’s not funny.

Rucka’s description of his daughter is hard and heartbreaking for me to read, because I’ve been where she is. I was a geeky girl in a very small town. I figured out I liked the fantasy genre before I understood what genre was. Playing house bored me to tears, I wanted to play dragons or talking cats. And it didn’t get better the older I got.

I experienced comparatively little ostracizing from my peers, at least in terms of overt bullying and shunning, but I wasn’t accepted for who I was either. In highschool, most of my friends were boys. Even with them, I never felt like I belonged, more like my presence was tolerated. If any of them had turned to me and said “you aren’t welcome here,” I would have quietly left, heartbroken and despondent. And I was uninvited from a few gatherings, othered and edged out by the boys around me at different times. Because of that, for all that I am geeky as anything, I still don’t feel like I belong in geek culture. It’s nearly impossible to get me interested in a show or a book if there isn’t some sort of fantastic element to it, sci-fi or fantasy. I game. I roleplay. I write and read genre. So why don’t I feel like I belong in geekdom?

Because of shirts like that. Because words like ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ are predominantly masculine words in our minds. Fangirl is one of the few descriptors that is clearly and distinctively female. And then people wear shirts that tell me that they flat out hate me.

I don’t find it very funny.

But okay, for the sake of fairness, let’s talk about the shirts as they were intended. When the T-shirt creator says Fangirl and Fanboy, he’s talking about the kinds of fans who talk your ear off for hours on the same subject even if you haven’t expressed any interest in continuing the conversation.  Fans who write elaborate and poorly written stories all set to showcase how fantastic their original character is.  Or who draw bad and explicit porn and then really want to share it with you.  Who will argue a point into the ground even when they don’t actually have all of the pertinent information.  Who don’t have the social graces to know when to stop staring.  Or talking.  Or start bathing.

Overexcited, over sharing, obsessive, and no brakes whatsoever.  Do you know who that describes?  Teenagers.  Basically every teenager ever, on some level. And telling teenagers that they are bad people and you hate them is telling someone you hate them because of things they can’t control.  Yes, someday they’ll stop being teenagers, but it’s not like they can rush the process. Growing up takes as long as it has to, no stops. And being a teen is hard enough as it is without adding extra hate, especially when you’re talking to geeky teenagers who are getting it from their peers.

Sometimes you run into adults who express this behavior and it’s harder to tolerate in an adult.  The thing is, there’s probably a reason the adult is like that.  They may have Aspergers or something similar. They may just be a nerd who spent their entire life alone and is therefore poorly socialized.  If that’s the case, they may literally be unable to tell when you’re actually interested in their debate and when you’re thinking of stabbing yourself in the ear to make it stop.  Body language can be hard to read.  It’s not their fault and the fact is, nobody wants to be That Annoying Fan.  But they may not know they’re doing it.

Which doesn’t mean we just let bad behavior stand under the umbrella of ‘they can’t help it.’  Geekdom is a community and we should be working to teach members of our community when their behaviors are inappropriate.  If somebody tries to derail a convention panel with a thirty minute diatribe of why Goku could totally take Superman or why Inuyasha and Sesshomaru are meant for each other, someone needs to stop them and inform them that now is not the time.  If you’re friends with someone who doesn’t seem to know where the boundaries are between normal fan behavior, try to have a talk with them about it.

People can be taught. With time and patience, teenagers will out grow their over abundant energy and scary obsessions.  And, let’s also be clear.  We’re all nerds here and we’re all fans of something. Sometimes we get overexcited no matter our age and talk more than we should and put our foot in it.  It’s embarrassing when we realize we’ve done it, but it happens.  Geeks of any age are not masters of social matters.

But another behavior that needs to stop is the hate and ostracizing of other fans. Are we not a community? Are we not better than the same bullies who made us feel so small and pathetic?


The Ubiquitous Quality of Mary-Sue

Everybody on the internet knows the term Mary-Sue.

The problem is that what the term means to individuals varies wildly.   Taken from this this very awesome post from Zoe-Trope on the subject of Mary-Sue, here’s a list of some things that seem to trigger reviewers dubbing characters a Mary-Sue:

1) A female character who is too perfect
2) A female character who kicks too much butt
3) A female character who gets her way too easily
4) A female character who is too powerful
5) A female character who has too many flaws
6) A female character who has the wrong flaws
7) A female character who has no flaws
8) A female character who is annoying or obnoxious
9) A female character who is one dimensional or badly written
10) A female character who is too passive or boring

…Yeah, it’s a pretty diverse list.  And it obviously contradicts itself in multiple places.  So what’s true?  Who is Mary-Sue?

Going back to its earliest origins, Mary-Sue is a fan character, often a self insert or close to a self insert, having a number of traits the fic author wishes they had. Mary-Sue was coined in the Star Trek fandom back when Spock and Kirk were the biggest ship around, which makes it pretty impressive that it’s stuck around so long.

But it did so with good reason.  Because Mary-Sue is ubiquitous.  Everyone’s run into her and most of us have written her.  And if we didn’t write her, we still had a version of her in the back of our heads when we were gawky, awkward teens, saying what we wanted to say and making friends with all the right people and being everything we couldn’t be.  Because ultimately, that’s who Mary-Sue is.  She’s a teenage ideal, the emblem of everything we wanted.  Or thought we wanted.

Because the fact is?  Teenagers don’t know shit about what they want.  They’re still learning who they are and striving to figure out who they will become.  And it’s an age where they’re inundated with messages about who that should be.  Teachers, parents, media, other kids, they’re all pushing teenage you to become something.  And maybe that’s something you want to be or something you think you want to be.  But through the process of being a teenager and growing up, you learn if that is someone you can possibly become, let alone someone you actually want to be.

And when you get closer to figuring out what you actually want and being who you are, looking back at that teenage ideal, that Mary-Sue in the back of your head, it’s so embarrassing.  It’s like looking at old photos, the ones where you had the braces and the bad hair cut that was so in vogue at the time and the overly tight leggings you definitely can’t wear now and probably shouldn’t have been wearing then, but now you’re a little jealous because wow your thighs will never be that tiny again and how can you be jealous of this gawky, awkward shameful person that you were?

All of those feelings get wrapped up around Mary-Sue, which is why it’s no wonder that, outside of the person who made her, she is universally reviled.  Not only is her presence in a story invasive, destroying good plot and characterizations in favor of how awesome she is, she reminds us of our own fumbling youth, the best and the worst of us.

And that’s why she’s not only stayed, but fulfilled her destiny and invaded everything.  She’s not just in fanfic anymore, she’s in common parlance.  She’s a descriptor and a label that gets slammed on all kinds of female characters, used the same way we might call someone we don’t like a slut or a bitch.  And this isn’t fair and it flat out isn’t useful.  It’s not fair to the teenager we used to be, turning the thing we thought we wanted to be into a dirty swear, as if our teenage self didn’t have enough problems. It isn’t fair to any number of perfectly valid and interesting female characters, who get dismissed and tossed aside under the label.  And it isn’t useful because if everything is Mary-Sue, the term loses all meaning and relevance.

As is pointed out by Zoe-Trope, the only uniting factor of the list is that Mary-Sue applies to FEMALE characters.  There is a male equivalent to Mary-Sue, which is Gary-Stu.  And you hardly ever run into it on the internet.  Why?  Because women are more prone to writing Mary-Sues than guys?

No.  Men are just as prone as women to scribing their teenage fantasies on the world, in RP and fanfic and as over powered, over perfect protagonists in fiction.  But it’s Mary-Sue who gets the bad wrap  because, as a society, we are more critical of women than we are of men.  If a woman does not fit the narrow scope of what the viewer thinks she should be, the blame is placed not on the viewer for having a narrow view, but on the woman for not jamming herself into that tiny crevice of an ideal.  Whereas for men, the window is already considerably larger, and if a guy doesn’t fit, it’s cool, he’s just breaking the mold.

And so Gary-Stu fades into obscurity and Mary-Sue becomes a slur slapped on every woman who dares appear in fiction.  It’s time to stop this.  Readers, please think twice before slapping the title of Mary-Sue on a character. And as for me, next week I’ll continue to discuss Mary-Sue, defining and narrowing what exactly we mean by this term, so it can still be useful without being a pointless slur.

Critiquing Critique: But Can We Deal With the Weasel First?

So, I watched this video, which discusses the toy aisle and the ever increasing gender binary that rears its head therein.

Now, I agree with most of what the video says.  Pink isn’t the problem.  There is nothing bad about having pink and pastel Legos (in fact, their existence makes it possible for Lego fans to live out their dream of making a full scale rendition of Candyland Vs. The Zombies, and there is nothing wrong with that).  There is nothing that makes dolls and frilly things ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than toy planes and plastic dump trucks.  It is embedded societal values and views of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ in regards to gender that are the problem.  The toy aisle is in fact a symptom of this.

But saying that we need to focus on the big picture and ignore the issue of gender coded toys is a bit like saying, “Well, you’re being chewed on by rabid weasels, you really need a rabies shot to stay healthy.”

You’re right. I’m definitely going to want that rabies shot, because I really don’t want rabies.  But can we first do something about THE RABID WEASEL CHEWING ON MY LEG?!

The steel clad gender binary of the toy aisle is a symptom of a greater issue but is ALSO a problem in its own right.

Now, I’m doing my best to look at my past not with the rosy glasses of nostalgia, but as honestly as I can. And I will say that yes, there has always been gender coding of toys. There was always the pink aisle full of Barbie and the aisle where they kept the action figures and the hot wheels.  But along with this, there was a large section of the store that managed to be gender neutral, where they kept the tinker toys and the puzzles and the plastic dinosaurs and grow your own crystal kits. There was space that anyone could run screaming through with their embarrassed parents hot on their tails.

And I know there wasn’t pink and blue aisle backings in every Target and Walmart across the country to make the gender binary absolutely, insultingly blatant.  And this is harmful, not because pink is bad, but because it shames children for liking things outside of their ‘approved’ gender binary.

And don’t tell me that kids don’t notice.  My niece figured out the basics of gender binary by the time she was three.  Which is to say, she figured out that Mommy was a Girl and Daddy was a Boy and she herself was a Girl.  It’s true, the more subtle complexities escaped her.  But there is nothing subtle about PINK aisle and BLUE aisle.  It is and is meant to be a simple and obvious coding to tell children where they belong and what to get mommy and daddy to buy.

The result is a system that shames boys for liking My Little Ponies and princesses and shames girls for liking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and robots. It makes them uncomfortable to like what they like and opens them to mocking from their peers if they choose to transgress anyway.  It builds a rigid gender binary in at a young age, a gender binary that IS part of the problem of ‘female=weak’ and ‘male=strong.’  Check out this great Sinfest to see what I mean.

The thing that really gets to me about the video that started this rant is that the hyper gender coded toy aisle is a problem that has concrete solutions that aren’t even difficult to implement.  Solutions that could help with the greater problem of ‘male=good’ and ‘woman=bad.’  All you have to do is take down those awful blue and pink backings on the toy aisle.  Make them all white again.  Or hell, make them all blue, lots of girls actually like the color blue. Or make them green for all I care.  The point is, make the gender coding a shade less obvious which makes it more comfortable for children to get the toys they actually want, regardless of the whether its a baby doll or a foam samurai sword.

And if you want to get REALLY wild, let’s do away with the gender separation of the toys altogether.  Put the Barbies and GI Joes next to each other, put the easy bake oven next to the microscopes!  There’s no reason NOT to do this except for preconceived gender notions.  When you get right down to it, G.I. Joes aren’t that different from Barbies.  They’re all just models of humans that are used to act out imaginative situations.  And cooking actually requires a lot of science, so why can’t the cooking stuff be next to the microscopes?

Sure, if we did that, there would be a period of disorientation where it was a little harder for parents to find toys.  But, give it a little time, and everyone would get over the notion of looking in only color coded one aisle for the right toy for their son or daughter.  As things are, stores are actively telling their customers that they only want 50% of the population in any given aisle, which limits the number of sales they’re getting by half the population.  This doesn’t seem like a good strategy for profit, so you can’t use the ‘economics’ argument to over turn this suggestion.

So, back to the original argument. There is nothing wrong with pink. But dismissing a concrete issue in favor of discussing the theoretical does not make us progress either.  We need to continue discussing the larger issues to analyze where they come from and we equally need to take action against concrete problems whenever we can.

Now somebody help me get this weasel off of my ham bone, huh?