Some thoughts about that harassment essay

You maybe surprised to learn that I did not plan to publish that harassment article at all.

I wrote it a year and half ago in an attempt to clear my head. I composed it directly in WordPress, then panicked and set its publish date for ‘far, far, in the future.’ Every few weeks I’d wonder whether it was time to finally publish. Every time, I thought: not yet, not yet. Someday, though.

Well, the “far future” occurred one month ago. I’d completely forgotten about the article and it published totally without my realizing it. When I woke up that morning, someone from Critical Distance was tweeting at me. I’d accidentally published something highly topical. I actually had to go back and change all the dates so they made sense.

I am not even close to the saddest harassment story from the last several months. Please read this long article about how relentless and inescapable harassment can be for many people. I quit writing online because I could, because I had other passions and skills to rely on. A lot of people getting harassed on the internet are getting harassed at the place they work. They make money out here. By attacking them in the place where they sustain themselves, their harassers are doing a lot more damage. Harassers are also often more aggressive to LGBTQ people and people of color. Don’t let this shit stand, please, particularly if you’re in a position of power that allows you to help directly.

Anyway, thanks for all the kind feedback! Having my raw thoughts accidentally broadcast all over the internet didn’t turn out so badly after all. Here are some additional thoughts I’ve had over the last three weeks:

1) It’s definitely OK to jump ship

Some people have been saying things like, “man, it’s so sad you didn’t hang in there,” “It’s too bad you didn’t have thicker skin,” etc. I’ve seen the same thing occasionally written about other people who got out while the going was good.

Here’s my opinion on the subject: suffering sucks! If you are in a shitty situation and you can escape it and you want to escape it and need to escape it for your personal health and peace of mind, then yes, jump the hell off that stupid rat-infested rotten shit ship. You don’t owe your continued suffering or martyrdom to anyone. Jump right off. Swim the fuck out of there.

Here are some great times when it’s a good idea to jump the fuck off the ship:

  1. You aren’t getting paid to suffer
  2. You don’t have the energy, time, or money to weather this bullshit
  3. This isn’t the only outlet for your creative passions and you will feel just as (or more) fulfilled doing something else
  4. Your friend on the USS Sunshine Utopia has thrown you a nice life raft and you have a limited amount of time to get on that fucking raft and join your friend on a different ship full of happiness and fulfillment
  5. Absolutely any other reason. Jump off if you want to. Make yourself happy, please.

The sad thing here is that many people getting harassed on the internet do not have anyone to throw them a life raft. It’s important for you to be the kind of person who throws rafts. There are three or four people specifically responsible for helping me disembark from Shit Ship and without them I might even now be a bloated corpse on the bottom of the sea.

2) I think I underplayed how bad the Witcher thing actually was

No, it wasn’t just ‘people calling me bad names.’

The Real Bad Stuff lasted a solid week. Kent handled most of that. But for weeks afterwards, people would link through to the site from the harassers’ home forum and all my blood would rush into my head and I’d feel like barfing. People kept popping by to say more shitty shit. For about six months afterwards, I actually got heart palpitations every time I tried to publish an article. My hands would shake and I’d get weak-kneed and I’d have to go lie down. My housemates would see me lying stricken on a couch and they’d say, “woah, you look sickly,” and because I didn’t feel like saying “strangers on the internet are giving me a panic attack!!!” I’d say “no, man, it’s cool,” and I’d get up and limp over to another room and toss myself on a different couch and sweat.

And please, remember: I’m a lady, so this was not the only time people randomly harassed me. People wrote low-grade aggressive stuff to and about me on a regular basis. The Witcher bullshit was just the biggest single event, and it occurred at a moment when I was making big choices about how to spend my time.

3) Wait, there are still people in the universe who think that personal essays are somehow bad?

Ha! Haa! Haaaaaaa. Personal essays have been around for a bajillion years. They’re in AP English. I took a course about them in college. You will find them in many notable, long-venerated publications. It is not arrogant or self-absorbed or narcissistic to write creative nonfiction about your personal experiences. Men and women and adults and teenagers and college students and even children all participate in this fine, well-established form of literature.

And guess what? Some of those people are games writers! Shocking!! If you don’t like games writing with a hint of the personal in it, I’m very sorry for you, because you’re missing out on a lot of fine shit. For starters, go read some of these brilliant stories and see if it changes your mind.

4) I should probably just finish The Witcher, because The Wild Hunt looks badass

5) Getting paid is way important

shakespeare-got-to-get-paid[1]

It is normal and admirable for writers and other creators to want to find a way to sustain themselves with their passions. You should respect that they are seeking a way to get paid. You should be cool with the fact that “I’m not getting paid” was a significant part of my decision to “let harassment beat me.”

You may be a writer who is OK with writing as an unpaid pastime. But bear in mind that the things you get out of that experience– positive feedback, a community, friends, status– are in themselves a kind of payment. They are the earnings of your unpaid labor. This is how a lot of people get into online writing: they’re getting something valuable out of the experience.

But some people are not getting anything valuable out of the experience. Some people are getting shat on.

And furthermore, nobody can live on status alone. That’s why it’s important that paying outlets hire women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Everyone eventually arrives at a moment when they must make big decisions about how to spend their time. If the professional games-writing community refuses to give these oodles of highly qualified women and minorities paying positions, those people are going to jump the fuck off the ship, and you are going to lose their voices and perspectives. Remember: unique voices and perspectives have an inherent value that exists in their difference from the mainstream. Respect that.

On Visionary Fantasy

When I first read the Song of Ice and Fire books by George RR Martin, I was pretty much entranced by them. I was unemployed at the time, and had nothing to do every day but send out job applications, play Red Dead Redemption, and read books– so I ended up reading every book in the entire series in two weeks flat, finishing just two days before the most recent entry in the series– A Dance With Dragons– came out. So I read that right away, too. For just under three weeks, I spent about 75% of my waking hours in Westeros. I had entered one of those weird fiction-induced flow states where nothing in the real world seems quite real, and your imagination seems more physically powerful than any of your actual muscles.

About a week after I finished the books, the glow wore off, and I started having serious misgivings about what I’d read. Namely, the fact that practically every female character in every one of those books is raped or at the very least threatened with sexual violence, like, all the goddamn time! When you look back and see exactly how often rape is brought up in those books– how often it is used as a weapon against people of both sexes, but far more often against women– it gets really disturbing. It really began to wear me down, no matter how hard I tried to focus on the book’s good parts.

So I started reading up on critical responses to the ASOIAF books to see if anyone else had picked up on this, and was gratified to see that a lot of people, actually, had. This humorous article covered my misgivings most comprehensively, pointing out the books’s sheer, overpowering amount of rape, the amount of slut-shaming, the stereotype-riddled characterization of most of the major women, and the similar bizarre stereotyping of the (rare) plucky lady adventuress heroes.

This article spoke so clearly to my growing misgivings that I simply had to share it on Facebook, which I did, only to discover that this made at least one of my Facebook acquaintances nuclearly angry that I would dare criticize a “medieval” story which has “gritty realism,” because GRRM is only trying to be “authentic”.

Now, I studied medieval and early modern Europe for four years in college, culminating in a focus on cultural history (history as it is expressed by the cultural productions of the era, including plays, church records, bible translations, pamphlets, newspapers, etc), so I am very familiar with how women were treated and thought of at that time. Yes, it was bad, but women were not actually getting raped every minute. Some of them even managed to defeat the restrictive bounds of their patriarchal cultures and wield actual power and get serious respect. Sometimes they subverted their patriarchal culture in exciting ways which I wish were better-known and more-admired. I don’t know if it’s bizarre enlightened foolishness which makes us think that the past was an uninterrupted orgy of violence and oppression, but it wasn’t. When you take a step back and look at the great diversity of world cultures, the past wasn’t even consistently sexist or homophobic. And though those moments were rare, we should seek them out and celebrate them and hold them up for everyone to see. Pretending that the past has always been completely bad sometimes ends up working to the disadvantage of progress, by subtly validating modern oppression. I’ve seen that kind of thing happen a lot with regards to the areas of my own study. I’ve seen people sighing that the past was bad, so we shouldn’t be too disappointed by a lack of progress in the present. I’ve seen people using their imaginary vision of the past to justify fucked-up fantasy worlds in the present. And when those fantasy worlds get as popular as GRRM’s have, it’s a problem. Medieval European culture in particular wasn’t the torrent of abhorrent violence you’d believe it was if you took GRRM’s books for actual commentary about the past.

Because they’re not, really. They’re superficially medieval political dramas, and the past has practically nothing to do with the plots and characters in the story. 100% of the stuff in the book is the pure creative creation of GRRM himself. As Tiger Beatdown put it in the article linked above,

A Song of Ice and Fire is known for being “gritty” and “authentic,” so really, aren’t I just objecting to the realism? Reader, here are the things that George R. R. Martin changed about Ye Olde Medieval Europe, when he set out to write A Song of Ice and Fire: Religion. Geography. History. Politics. Zombies. Werewolves. Dragons. At one point, when asked why his characters were taller, healthier, and longer-lived than actual Medieval people, George R. R. Martin explained that human genetics and biology do not work the same way in Westeros as they do in the real world. So George R. R. Martin considered that he could change all of that while maintaining “authenticity.” Here’s what he left in, however: Institutionalized pedophilia.

Everything in those books was put there deliberately by a man who is clearly very experienced at his craft. So it’s not accidental: GRRM wanted to write a story in a world where rape and the oppression of women and female children are common, everyday things. That’s the kind of imaginary world he cooked up in his head. And there’s nothing ‘authentic to the past’ about it. So what the fuck, I ask you, is going on in his head?

I feel that the only reason to have a story set in a world where rape normalized is if you’re going to make some kind of point about how rape is actually bad. Like, the only excuse I can see for ASOIAF’s rapeyness is if in the very last book, all the female characters get up and announce “all y’all rapey men SUCK, do you hear,” and then they take over the world and put all the rapists in jail. Because if this isn’t some long game on GRRM’s part to tell a slow parable about how terrible rape and patriarchy are, there is really no excuse for this shit in a story written in and told to the modern world.

I am totally serious about this. If we are committed to changing bad cultural shit in our own time, we have to express that stuff in our stories. The future lives partially in our inventions. Gene Roddenberry’s idealism in Star Trek is a great example of this: his stories broke the taboos of their age, changed television standards, and so inspired the world that they resulted in the creation of an actual spaceship named Enterprise. If you can’t imagine a just world for your fantasies, are you committed to bringing about justice in the real world? I’d say: no. You are not. You are basically celebrating bad stuff, actually. Unless you are telling, as I said, a long parable, and one of the punchlines is “oppression is bad!”

I bring this all up now because I’ve had the joy of reading a couple of fantastic fantasy books set in a world where gender equality is normal, homophobia is absolutely nonexistent, the only time (that I can remember) that rape is mentioned is when someone says you can’t do that, and half the important characters are complex women with real goals and skills and (about 99% of the time) actual personalities. The books? The Gentleman Bastards series by Scott Lynch.

These two (soon to be three) stories are superficially based on medieval/early modern Italian city-states– just as superficially as GRRM’s magical land is based on England. They center around a group of con men who have crazy caper-y adventures stealing loads of gold from rich people in years-long cons full of false identities, magical traps, crazy contraptions, sneaky plots, and last-minute game-changing reveals. They’re pretty much excellent– excellently written, excellently imagined– and they’re even more excellent because they’re full of so much goddamn JUSTICE, particularly when it comes to gender equality and LGBT rights.

The first book in the series features: a mafioso’s clever daughter who is expected to grow up to be chief of thieves herself, a pair of female gladiators with a secret, a noblewoman who is basically the family moneymaker due to her crazy alchemy/botany skills, and one extremely powerful and important politician woman who I can’t talk about without revealing secrets about the story. The book is filled with mentions of female guards walking around with spears and swords. It includes female thieves, lots and lots of gladiators who are women, and more. Wherever Lynch has a chance to point out yes, both genders can accomplish this thing, both genders are accomplishing that thing, right there in front of your face. There are also a number of sidelong references to the fact that in this universe, homosexuality is just dandy, and celebrated right alongside heterosexuality.

The second book takes it up a notch. We learn, early on, that sailors in this universe believe it is an unforgivable sin to go to sea without many many women on your ship. If you are not on sea with women, the god of the sea will get so pissed at you that he will fucking destroy you! So, naturally, there are tons of women on every ship, many in leadership positions, and everyone is cool with them reaching great heights of power and influence. One of the most important characters in the story is a woman who is a pirate and a mother and whose three-year-old kids are on the ship with her. In some scenes, she goes straight from stabbing people to feeding her kids dinner, and everyone takes this in stride. She is part of a pirate’s council where most of the captains are women. Also in this story: lady soldiers, politically powerful lady naval officers, a disabled lady ex-soldier who is a casino security master who replaced her injured hand with a fucking robo-arm that she fights people with, a lady pirate captain who is a lesbian, various bisexual and gay pirates, and on and on and on: just loads and loads of rock-solid idealistic fantasy flying around.

Now, it is possible to read books like the Gentleman Bastards series and say “well, okay, but all the main characters are still men, so this isn’t idealistic enough for me.” But I’m willing to take this victory and enjoy the show. It’s also possible to say “well, if you want us to imagine idealistic universes, why are you stopping with gender and sexuality? Why aren’t you pissed off that there are poor people in this story, or cruel dictators, or torture?” But again, I’m willing to say that this thing, right now, is pretty great, and we shouldn’t knock it. Every story will need to have challenges for its protagonists to overcome, so there’s no point in writing a story set in a perfectly idealistic world. But there is a point in helping us imagine ways in which cruelty and oppression can be overcome by showing it in the story. And when it comes to gender and sexuality, a great way to show that is to simply show a universe where most people, to be frank, are better and kinder than we are.

If GRRM doesn’t have the strength, conviction, or vision to imagine such a world, whatever. Fuck that guy. I’ll be reading The Gentleman Bastards instead.