Boys don’t read Girl Books and other lies my Society Told Me

“It’s a cliché but mostly true that while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” (Robert Lipsyte, “Boys and Reading: Is there Any Hope?“)

Toph GIF Avatar: The Last Airbender

Oh, Fuck, not this bullshit again.

(I hear you, Toph)

****
I like giving my younger brother (R) books. Correction: I really like giving my younger brother books. And he loves reading, so we’re quite compatible. Well played, universe!

Anyway. The last time I took R on a book-buying expedition, it took us three hours to narrow down the choices. By the end, we were down to two options: Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, which I described as “Jane Austen if all of Jane Austen’s characters were dragons! Tea time meets DRAGONS” and Malinda Lo’s Huntress, which I described as “Adventure! Fairies! Hunting! Lesbian romance! More adventure! HORSES!”

(My eloquence: admire it)

At some point in R’s difficult decision, I swooped in with big-sister wisdom: “You know, I’m worried you won’t enjoy Tooth and Claw as much. Don’t get me wrong – I love it. But it’s not really an adventure story. It’s basically a family story, and about people’s relationships and marriages. Except with dragons.”

My younger brother gave me a Look: “No, but that’s what I like.”

Me: “Whazit?”

Brother: “Those are my favorite kinds of books! I like reading about families, and about how people relate to each other.”

This would be the moment I massively facepalmed.

Zuko GIF angst Avatar the last airbender

AAAARGH

I’m a feminist. I think about idiotic gender roles a lot. I try to avoid perpetuating sexism as much as I can. I especially try to avoid perpetuating stupid gender roles around my brother. And I have always believed that there is no such thing as a “girl” book and a “boy” book.

Yet I assumed my brother would like an adventure book more than he would a family-drama book.

Because he’s a thirteen-year-old-boy.

Massive.

Facepalm.

Aang GIF Avatar headdesk

Me, to brother: “… just ignore me, I’m an idiot.”

Conclusion of the story: I ended up buying R. both books, because I am the best sister on the planet

(Yes! yes I am aware of how awesome I am! But more accolades are always welcome!).

He loved Huntress, like I thought he would. But he loved Tooth and Claw even more. He sent me an email from his vacation where he told me it was now “one of his favorite books.” And when I saw him again, he asked me if I could lend him my Jane Austen novels.

Because Tooth and Claw had inspired him to read Jane Austen.

BOOM, BABY.

Emperor's New Groove Boom Baby

(I really love Jane Austen, okay?)

***

This post is not about how gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn – although it could be, since that is a true and important topic. Gender stereotypes are incredibly difficult to unlearn! Even for feminists! Tell your friends.

It is, as all my favorite posts are, about my brother. My brother read a lot. And as it happens, a fair number of the books he reads either a) are written by women b) have female protagonists, or c) center on “girl” issues like “family” and “relationships.”

This fact makes him the Miracle Boy Foretold By the Prophecy. Because boys can’t read girl books. Didn’t you get the memo?

[Note: In this post, I will use the term "girl" books to designate books that are USUALLY ASSOCIATED with women, either because they were written by women, have female protagonists, or tackle subjects that are coded as feminine (gossip! pink!). I don't mean to imply that there are actual "girl" books and "boy" books. Books are for everyone! I promise! They don't have cooties!]

***

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young boy who desires to read must be in want of a “boy” book. However little known the feelings or views of such a boy may be on his first entering  a bookstore, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding adults that he is carefully kept away from any book with the slightest whiff of the feminine about it.”

Okay, that’s not the first line of Pride and Prejudice, BUT IT COULD BE.

One of the most frustrating myths floating around the world of reading is the “boys aren’t reading because there are too many girly books, and boys can’t read girly books because EVERYONE KNOWS boys can’t read girly books.”

Cat and bath

How Boys Feel About “Girl” Books.

And sadly, this narrative just keeps popping up out of the fertile internet ground every thirty seconds. Like zombies! Or DAISIES. or ZOMBIE DAISIES.

Robert Lipsyte’s self-congratulatory and entirely unimaginative article for The New York Times deplores the explosion of YA aimed towards girls because “while teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters.” Meanwhile, YA author A. E. Rought called female protagonists a “trope” they hoped the publishing industry would get over. Then Sarah Mesle wrote an article for the LA Review of Books where she expresses concern at the proper lack of “male roles” for boys.

Hell, just yesterday, I was treated to an article that deplored the lack of male protagonists, because the author was sick of girls who only cared about gossip and instead wanted a boy protagonist who just wanted to put gas in his car.

Apaa Flying Bison Avatar GIF

Think about your life, anonymous author. Think about your choices.

Urgh.

SO MANY ZOMBIE DAISIES.

Okay, first off, I want to make sure our facts are straight. Because it is provably not true that there are no YA books “for boys.” In fact, there are still more male protagonists than female ones in YA. There are just about as many male authors as there are female ones. THESE ARE THE FACTS, PEOPLE (here is one study, among many). And it is depressing as hell that people look at women achieving parity in one field – ONE FIELD – and interpret it as men being blotted out.

Toph Earthbending Avatar The Last Airbender GIF

ON POINT

Let’s get to the important part.
Now that you’ve read all this “evidence” about how boys can’t read “girl” books and it’s a HUGE CATASTROPHE, OH NOES, let me remind you that my brother regularly reads lots of “girl” books.
BUT BOYS CAN’T READ BOOKS ABOUT GIRLS!  HOW COULD THIS POSSIBLY HAPPEN?
The answer, my friends, is the Great Feminist Experiment:
Azula GIF Avatar the Last Airbender

THE GREAT FEMINIST EXPERIMENT. Scared yet?

Ahem. So. The Great Feminist Experiment.
I have known about this whole “boys can’t read “girl” books” since I was… oh, eight or so? It’s been around for at least that long. I vividly remember reading an interview of Eoin Colfer where he claimed he specifically chose a male protagonist for the Artemis Fowl series because it would attract more male readers – and female readers would just pick up the book anyway. I also remember JK Rowling explaining that she used her initials (instead of her first name, Joanne) to avoid scaring off male readers.
I knew what was up.
And when I acquired a baby brother, I decided he would be an ideal Test Subject for a Great Feminist Experiment.

By the time I was ten, I had a plan. I would make it a point to give him books with female protagonists. On his birthday, on Christmas, at random occasions – I would give him books with girls. I would give him books about girls. I would give him books by women. I would give him books about “girly” topics like family and gossip and clothes.

Not to mention books with kickass women being kickass!

Katara GIF waterbending Avatar: THe Last Airbender Waterbending

Example Chosen at Total Random (I <3 you Katara!)

I wouldn’t force him to read them. And I wouldn’t deprive him of books with male protagonists either. I would simply make sure he had lots of access to “girl” books.

It was a deviously simple plan.

And it worked.

Tiny Fey Amy Poehler SNL GIF Bitches Get Stuff Done

Of the books my brother reads, I’d say somewhere near 50-60% have female protagonists. The first chapter book my brother ever read was Roald Dahl’s Mathilda.  His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl” after Dianne Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle. He loves Lyra from The Golden Compass. He reads Tamora Pierce and Libba Bray and Meg Cabot and Diane Duane. He will talk for hours about Robin Mckinley and the Blue Sword novels. His stuffed hedgehog is named “Wizard Howl.” Right now, his favorite authors include NK Jemisin, Jo Walton, Octavia Butler and Mira Grant.

Don’t get me wrong, the brother reads a lot of “boy” books too (one of his other favorite authors is China Mielville, and his favorite novel is Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk). But R. has never complained about a book with a female protagonist. To him, they’re just as normal as books with male protagonists. And it would never occur to him not to pick up a book because the author was female.

And now he’s even recommending books by female authors TO ME. It was my brother who first discovered Mira Grant, and who pestered me until I read her (and I never looked back).

THE GREAT FEMINIST EXPERIMENT WORKED!

Azula Avatar the last Airbender GIF madness

MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

YES I AM THE EVIL FEMINIST ALL YOUR FRIENDS WARNED YOU ABOUT.

I can’t stress how easy this “experiment” was. I mean, it was easy because I started early, before all the societal sexism could sink in. But it’s not like my brother’s Y chromosome was allergic to “girl” cooties. So whenever I read a Robert Lipsyte, say, spouting the old ” teenage girls will read books about boys, teenage boys will rarely read books with predominately female characters” line, I roll my eyes pretty hard.

You know what? I’ve got a teenage boy in my life, and he reads “girl” stuff just fine. My outlandish theory is that if boys aren’t belittled for reading books about girls, if they’re not taught that girls are lesser, if they’re not teased about cooties, if we don’t teach them to fear the feminine… they’d probably like more “girl” stuff.

Boys don’t read “girl” books because they’re taught, in a thousand small, subtle, insidious ways, that they’re not supposed to.

What if boys weren’t ashamed to read books that were coded “girly” because they didn’t think it was shameful to be a girl? (thanks, Iggy Pop!)

What if we taught them something else?

Iggy Pop

Think about it.

***

Quick story to wrap things up!

So, obviously I’m a feminist. And I read lots of feminist fiction. And since my brother steals all my books, he ends up reading quite a bit of feminist fiction himself.
On the other hand, I’ve never told my brother he *should* be a feminist, or that he needs to combat sexism or anything. Because I don’t want to tell him what to think.

Anyway!

One night at dinner a few years ago, my stepbrother started teasing my stepmother about the muscles in her arms. My father said: “Stepbrother! It’s rude to discuss women’s arm muscles.”

And I, the random feminist, replied: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with discussing women’s arm muscles, since there’s nothing wrong with women having arm muscles. But teasing people about their appearance isn’t okay.”

My brother: “Yeah, Dad. Because you know what me and Suzanne are into? FEMINIST SCIENCE FICTION. So if you say sexist stuff, we’re going to get super-mad!”

After I finished dying of laughter, I knew that giving my brother “girl” books to read had been worth it. MY EVIL FEMINIST PLANS HAD ALL COME TO FRUITION.

Avatar GIF Avatar the Last Airbender

THE FEMINIST BORG HAD ASSIMILATED HIM.

[No, but in all seriousness, I was super-proud of him. I mean, once I stopped laughing]

Azula Avatar: The Last Airbender

Scary Feminist Out!

Notes:

1. I should note that as I got older and more aware, I also made a conscious effort to steer my brother toward books with protagonists of color and queer protagonists. Which worked out quite well!

2. I want to be clear that just because this “experiment” (such as is) worked for me, it doesn’t mean it would work for everyone. There was a whole lot of privilege and luck that went into it! Like the fact that I started when the brother was super-young. And that he turned out to love reading. And that both he and I had lots of time and opportunities to read, and were both encouraged to do so. This is not supposed to be a how-to for how to get boys to read more. Nor is it meant to be a critique of people who can’t get the boys in their life to read more. If that doesn’t comes across, let me know, and I will fix it!

3. My brother has been fully aware of the “experiment” since he was seven or eight. I promise, I’m not manipulating him behind his back. We’ve had conversations about it, where I ask whether he’s okay if I keep giving him books by women/with female protagonists and he’s like “So… you’re asking if I’m okay with you giving me books? Is this some kind of evil trick?”

4. Hey, notice all the Avatar: The Last Airbender GIFs? The Feminist Philosopher introduced me to the show, and I just finished watching it. IT IS AWESOME, and full of awesome male and female characters AND YOU SHOULD ALL GO WATCH IT. NO, SERIOUSLY, DROP EVERYTHING YOU’RE DOING AND GO WATCH THE SHOW.

Katar waterbending Avatar The Last Airbender GIF

Stop Everything and GO WATCH.

Thank you, Feminist Philosopher. I will forever blame you when I tear up at GIFs of Zuko and Uncle Iroh hugging.

Further reading: 

The Book Smugglers: The Airing of the Grievances 
The Problem is Not the Books
Gender Balance in YA awards

WisCon 36 Wrapup: Please Don’t Tame the Shrew

This is the fourth and final part of my Epic WisCon recap. But before I get there, I have to announce some bad political news:

Scott Walker won the Wisconsin recall.

I have one reaction to this, and one reaction alone:

Cersei Game of Thrones Wine

That is all.

[Oh wait... I can't actually drink wine without getting a migraine, so I must find another way to drown my sorrows. Ideas?]

In silver lining news, Democrats retook the Wisconsin senate. And Madison (my hometown) had over 80% turnout. In Dane County (where Madison is located), only 30% of voters chose Walker (I’m sure the percentage is lower in Madison proper).

So at least I’m living with good company.

Madison is a bastion of left wing progressivism (we have actual marxists and socialists here). Since Wisconsin proper (excepting Milwaukee) is not a bastion of left-wing progressivism, the joke/insult about Madison is that it’s “Seventy two square miles surrounded by reality.”

In light of the fact that Walker won 52% of the vote, I vote we change the joke to: Madison is seventy two square miles surrounded by catastrophe.

Because Walker is a reality I refuse to believe in.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I need a pick-me-up after contemplating the horrors of modern politics. Hey, look! A fanvid! A fanvid that premiered at WisCon! A fanvid about women in science fiction! IT IS PERFECT!

And it is entitled: Space Girls (my mother told me never to watch Science Fiction but I did)

Okay, now that we’re all feeling better… MOVING ON. For life must continue on, and feminist bloggers gotta blog.

Space Babe Tiptree WisCon

And Space Babe’s gotta fight outdated gender roles in speculative fiction.

This the fourth and final part of my epic attempt to chronicle my experiences at WisCon 36, the feminist Science Fiction convention. Here are the links to parts one, two and three. This section covers Monday at the Convention, and my final thoughts about this year’s WisCon (they are deeply philosophical).

I started off Monday with an 8:30 panel.

I know. I am a madwoman, and I must be stopped.

The Great Divide: Are Women and Men Really Different?

From the panel description: “A number of pop science books have asserted large innate differences between the male and the female brain. A recent book by Columbia Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young, Brain Storm, points out the large flaws in the underlying research used by these books. This panel will discuss the science and philosophy behind the difference – or lack of difference – between men and women.”

Again, a subject that is of particular interest of me. One of my pet peeves is non-scientists using science to try to “prove” an innate difference between men and women. Most people who are “interpreting” the scientific data have absolutely no business doing so (and I include myself in this category) because they don’t have the tools to correctly evaluate the validity of research and experiments. I wrote an entire angry rant about this very problem when Roger Ebert decided that the Bestest Idea Ever was to claim that women were better than men (because: science! And evolution!)

But I think it’s fascinating that we as a culture are obsessed with finding scientific “proof” that men and women are fundamentally different. Anytime any kind of scientific study comes out about gender differences, the media jumps on it like my dog jumps on cheese [she loves cheese]. As usual, I’m more interested in the cultural reaction to the science than in the science itself.

What is our obsession with “proving” gender differences? Nancy Jane Moore (who was on the panel) made a great point – “The idea that men and women might not be that different frightens most people.” We – and I include myself in this category – are deeply, fundamentally, and often unconsciously, invested in our current system of gender differences.

Nancy Jane Moore started the panel by saying: “I do have an emotional reaction to the subject…”
Moderator: “Well, you have a female brain.”

Ah, feminist humor. How I love it.

The panelists recapped some of the particularly egregious science used to explain gender differences. As an example, Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist who argues that there is a wide difference between men and women, uses what Janet M. Lafler called “bad graduate student tactics. She cites references that don’t actually support her point, and she also cites herself.

Now, I’m not a scientist, BUT… I’m pretty sure that’s not the way you do science.

There was also an extensive discussion of “Stereotype threat” which is a concept I’d heard of, but never really understood before. And now that I do, I’m obsessed with it.

What is the stereotype threat? Glad you asked:

Stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group. It has been shown to reduce the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotypes groups. For example, if you remind a woman that she is a woman (a group considered to be “bad at math”) right before she takes a math test, she will do significantly worse than if she is reminded she is a woman after she takes the test.

Yes, in fact, there have been studies that show that if groups are reminded of the stereotypes about their group right before they do a task, they tend to do less well on those tasks. The example above comes from a real study where men and women took a math test and participants were asked to identify themselves by gender either right before or right after the test. Women who were reminded of their gender right before the test began did significantly worse than women who were reminded of their gender after the test was over. There was no noticeable difference in men’s scores either way.

Other examples – and there are hundreds – include the 1990s study where African American and European American students took a test measuring verbal ability. African Americans performed less well. But when the researchers changed the instructions on the test so that participants no longer believed that the test accurately measured intellectual performance, the performance gap reduced drastically. In another experiment, women who took a mathematics exam along with two other women got 70% of the answers right; while those doing the same exam in the presence of two men got an average score of 55%.

In other words: cultural stereotyping affects the way people think about their abilities, and thus the abilities themselves. If you tell a girl that women are bad at math, she is more likely to be bad at math.

David Peterson also cited a really interesting study (I wish I’d taken down the reference) that found that if you introduce games and forms of play (like legos!) that teach spatial skills early enough, there is no noticeable difference between girls and boys’ spatial ability by the time they enter elementary school. [How to solve gender inequality 101]

A great deal of the panel involved book recommendations, or resources for further research, which I really appreciate (being from an academic background). AND, one of the panelists (David Peterson) is a scientist himself, so… these are probably pretty decent [Feel free to skip this part, since it's just a giant pile of books - but I thought some people would find this interesting]

Nancy Jane Moore’s “Bad Science: The Flawed Research into Gender Differences in the Brain” is a really good starting point (since it recaps a lot of the good (and bad) books about gender science). You download it here.

All the panelists recommended Rebecca Jordan Young’s book Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference, which is a very dense, highly academic text that systematically dismantles most of the recent pop-science “proof” of gender differences.

Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It was another panel favorite. According to Peterson, Eliot( a professor of neuroscience) argues that there is little physical difference in the brains of boys and girls, and the differences that arise in time (for example, in math performances) are mostly the restu lfo a matrix of environmental and cultural effects.

Nancy Jane Moore called Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender – How our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference the book to “give all your feminist friends.” It’s quite short, and clever, witty and filled with solid science. And I love the title.

David Peterson highly recommended Vivienne Parry’s The Truth About Hormones: What’s Going on when we’re Tetchy, Spotty, Fearful, Tearful or Just Plain Awful?  – but only if you can get your hands on it. There are very few copies in the USA. I’m determined to find this book based on the following excerpt alone:

“Some 70% of mothers will experience the blues during the first ten days after delivery (…) it has been suggested that this is all about hormones, particularly the catastrophic drop in progesterone. While it is true that those most likely to be severely affected will have suffered the steepest drop in progesterone (…) I remain to be convinced that the baby blues is simply about hormones. Try keeping a man awake for twenty-four hours while subjecting him to intense pain from a life-changing event. Then see what his mood is like when he is deprived of sleep, made to leak from every orfice, while imposing on him all the relatives you’ve ever known who arrive at your home expecting you to be nice to them.” (PREACH!)

Finally, David Peterson recommended a plethora of books that deal with gender equity issues, particularly in technology and science:

Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (“Highly Recommended. Everyone Should read this book”)

Ask for it: How Women Can use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (“Once Again, everyone should read this”)

Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home by Pamela Stone. The boiled down message is (not surprisingly) that more women would stay in their jobs if they could get accommodation for the family demands that are a part of their lives AND if they were not marginalized in their jobs as a result of this acommodation.

The Mathematics of Sex: How Biology and Society Conspire to Limit Talented Women and Girls by Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams. Apparently the best book on the subject David Peterson has read since the classic Gender Differences in Mathematics.

Oh, and now I know what the Morris Water Maze is. What is a Morris Water Maze? Ask me at the next Feminist Party!

Degaying and Whitewashing: What Publishing Trends Mean for Writers

I full meant to go to the “Feminism, SF and Fandom in the Academy: An Open Mentoring Session”… but I was too scared. Because actually talking to people scares me. Which is a problem since I am planning to go into graduate school for science fiction, and meeting academics with similar interests would be very helpful.

Anyways. We shall save my problems with social anxiety for another day, shan’t we?

[Actually, there's a whole discussion of that coming up. So by "another day," what I really mean is "at the end of the recap"]

Skipping that panel meant I did get to attend the “degaying and whitewashing in YA panel,” which made me infinitely happy, because it was a fantastic panel. From the description: “Can radically feminist and anti-racist works survive the “gatekeeping” process? (…_) Articles about the “degaying” and whitewashing of YA literature have raised people’s ire and ignited a volleying of retorts from writers and reviewers/agents/editors. Let’s talk about some of these perceptions in publishing and what they might mean for writers, particularly those who want to challenge commonly held notions and beliefs.”

This was also my panel to oggle The Famous People ™. The panelists included:

1. Mary Ann Mohanraj, the founder and former editor of Strange Horizons, and the author of Bodies in Motion (which I love, and highly recommend)

2. Andrea Hairston, the WisCon Guest of Honor, Tiptree Award Winner and author of Redwood and Wildfire (I’ve recapped my love of Andrea Hairston in other places, so I won’t do it again. But I will mention that she’s the owner of the most awesome fringe/glitter coat ever)

3. Liz Gorinsky, a Hugo nominated editor at Tor, who has edited Cheri Priest’s Boneshaker, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey and Catherynne Valente’s Deathless (which means I will love her forever).

4. Neesha Meminger, author of Shine Coconut Moon and Jazz in L0ve (both fantastic)

and

5. Malinda Lo, former editor of afterellen.com, and author of the lesbian cinderella story Ash and it’s companion novel, Huntress. My brother is currently writing a book report on Ash, and I so regret not dragging him along to this panel. He loves Malinda Lo (as do I).

ALL the famous people.

And the fact that the panel was made up of authors and editors (and particularly queer authors and authors of color) meant they could speak from personal experience.

Malinda Lo, for example, said she wanted to be on the panel because: “the number one question I get asked is: Did you have trouble getting published because your books are so gay?”

One author described her current struggle to publish a YA fantasy series. The first book has a straight protagonist, the second book, which she has not yet written, has a lesbian protagonist. Her agent has told her that if she proceeds with her plans to have a lesbian protagonist, he will refuse to sell the books, because he thinks there’s no point in even trying.

Interestingly, the agent would have been fine with the book if it had been about the protagonist coming out. Which implies that in publishing, queerness needs to be the problem, or else it has no place in the story.

The panelists brought up a shocking statistic: according to the Children’s Book Council, less than .05% of young adult novels have either an author of color or a protagonist of color. That’s miniscule. It’s also particularly horrifying when you consider that as of this year, there are more people of color born in the US than white people. Are these kids going to grow up with absolutely no characters in books who look like them?

Malinda Lo actually had a very good publishing experience – no one tried to get her to change her lesbian protagonist, and her book has been quite successful. But, as she and other people pointed out, this is less due to luck than to the wealth of people who have worked very hard to change the situation, from small presses to self publishing to reviewers and critics and authors. Andrea Hairston called luck “The serendipity of the universe… after all the hard work. Luck looks really effortless at the moment itself, but all the history of publishing from George Eliot to Aqueduct Press is behind it.”

Malinda Lo also attributed part of her success to the fact that she used to be the editor of afterellen.com – so she knew that there was an audience for fiction with lesbian protagonists.

Lo: “When people say there is no audience, I could say: “no, you are wrong. There is an audience.” So keep at it. Tell them there is an audience.”

Liz Gorinsky talked about selling queer books, and marketing them so they’ll get through the gatekeepers: “I don’t usually go to my eighty year old straight male boss and say “I’m really excited about the gay male romance in this book…” but I can say that to my friends in the WisCon community.”

Mary Ann Mohanraj pointed out that one of the institutional barriers to publishing YA books with gay protagonists is the fact that “there are whole swaths of libraries that won’t buy YA with gay protagonists.”
Which is really obvious when you think about it, but still. Shoot.

The panelists also talked about the difficulties of having this conversation, because people tend to take the subject as an accusation. As Andrea Hairston put it: “It’s not about blame, it’s about having a discussion.”

Or, (Hairston again): “I’m not mad at you…I’m just mad.”

Some of the big strategies recommended were systematic analysis – making sure to keep the subject prominent, doing the statistics, writing criticism etc. – and talking about those books that do exist. Because the enemy of publishing success is obscurity.

Or: “Buy them. Read them. Talk about them.”

And, if you’re my brother, write your book report about them.

Volunteering

After the final panel, Myriad and I went to volunteer at the art show. Of course, we nearly keeled over during the aforementioned art show, because neither of us had eaten correctly (whoops). Cue emergency trip to the ConSuite (bagels and bananas!)

So yes. We may have sold you art. We also let someone steal the stapler (whooooops). And then we helped take down the art show, which was fun (good thing we’d eaten by then).

By the way, if you’re thinking of going to WisCon in future years and you want to volunteer: I highly recommend just showing up. This year, there was a giant board next to the registration desk where volunteering opportunities were recorded. Show up at the location; say you want to help. Works quite well!

Post-Mortem

From the panel description: “Discussion of what worked for WisCon 36, what did not, and how we can make it better next year.”

Now, I have a deep and abiding love for procedural stuff and for knowing all the gritty behind-the-details information, so I love the WisCon postmortem. Knowing about hotel problems, bad conventioneer behavior, past convention gossip etc. is my idea of fun. Other people’s mileage may vary.

I also deeply appreciate the postmortem because it shows how committed WisCon is to improving. I don’t know whether other conventions have postmortems, but WisCon’s is particularly great. The ConCom members are receptive; people willingly discuss issues; there’s a real sense that we’re trying to solve problems rather than place blame. For example, WisCon has safety people (NOT security people), but several people at the postmortem pointed out that we didn’t know who they were or how to find them. At the same time,  other WisCon attendees pointed out that it’s important for safety people to be relatively unobtrusive. By the end of the postmortem, the group decided the best solution might be to put signs explaining the safety team at the registration desk (since everyone walks by it seventy times a day).

Oh, and if you want to rile up a relatively zen group of WisCon-goers, do one of two things:

1. Suggest that the rule against taking photographs is a matter of “preference” rather than “safety” (BAD IDEA)

2. Suggest that WisCon’s Safer Space for People of Color should be used for other things as well (Given the great amount of fighting/arguing it took for the space to exist in the first place… yeah, no. Although for the record, I think the Safer Space should exist as long as POC Con-goers find value in it).

Oh, and the post-mortem included a bundt pan. Which was awesome in and of itself, but which also led to this funny exchange:

A Con-goer mentioned that she’d heard that some people had been rude to the hotel staff. There was a collective gasp of horror, and one of the ConCom members said: “If I start frothing, throw the Bundt pan at my head.”

(Future WisCon attendees. Do not be rude to the Hotel Staff. It will make us sad. It will make us angry. And you don’t want us to be angry. We have bundt pans).

And that is… the end of my recap. *Gasp*

Yes, you can leave now! But if you want to stay… I do have two more things I want to (briefly) mention:

1. Accountability at WisCon

Which fits in nicely after the postmortem, don’t you think?

WisCon is not just any science fiction convention. It’s a feminist science fiction convention. Which means that WisCon isn’t just about appreciating speculative fiction and fandom; it’s also always been about social justice. About making the world a better place. And that’s why I love WisCon, and that’s why I’m planning on returning to it forever and ever and ever (ad infinitum).

My (admittedly limited) experience at WisCon is that the convention and it’s members are deeply committed to enacting social justice not just in theory, but within the Con itself. The Convention works hard to make the convention accessible to people of all ability levels. There’s lots of work being done on accessibility. In the past few years, there’s been a commitment to helping more people of color attend WisCon, with scholarships and work with the Carl Brandon society. After much debate, WisCon also created a Safer Space for People of Color. The Convention tries to make attendance as financially accessible as possible, with low registration rates, scholarships, and the ConSuite. There’s subsidized childcare ($1 a day) so people with children can more easily attend.

WisCon even has a wonderful (and recent) tradition called The WisCon Chronicles. Each year, Aqueduct Press puts out a book filled with essays, recaps, stories etc. from the prior WisCon. Obviously there are a lot of recaps in the Chronicles, but they also contain a great deal of criticism. When things don’t work at WisCon – when panelists say problematic things, when the ConCom makes mistakes, when attendees screw up – the Chronicles talk about them. I see this aspect of the Chronicles as a major part of WisCon’s commitment to accountability and social justice.

This year’s Chronicles (edited by Alexis Lothian, and entitled Futures of Feminism and Fandom) is particularly heavy, because it recaps the Thing-That-Almost-Broke-WisCon: MoonFail.

Last year, the ConCom decided to revoke Elizabeth Moon’s Guest of Honor status due to her comments about immigration and islam. I did not know about this at the time, because I did not even know WisCon existed. Nevertheless, the six weeks between Elizabeth Moon’s now-infamous blog post and the revoking of her GoH status were a hotbed of drama, both on and off the internet. Or, as I like to put it: The Internet EXPLODED.

As per it’s usual.

[If you want to know WHY the Internet exploded, find Elizabeth Moon's post. It's not hard. Here, I'll give you a link: http://e-moon60.livejournal.com/335480.html. Read all of it - the first part is quite boring, but it gets... worse]

The sections within the WisCon Chronicles that deal with Moonfail and its fallout are very hard to read. There are several blog posts from the “heart of the storm” – when all the shit was going down, and they are not easy reading. Because in the heart of the storm, WisCon was screwing up, and screwing up hard, and it was entirely possible that it would…break.

In other conventions, inviting a guest of honor who had said, or done, offensive things would not be as big a deal. Because we don’t expect better from WorldCon, or World Fantasy, or wherever. But we expect better things from WisCon.

Which is why the chronicles are sometimes challenging read. Because I expect better things from WisCon. But at the same time, I recognize that the Chronicles themselves are one of those “better things.” They show a commitment to accountability and to self-policing. They are a recognition that WisCon is always striving, always trying to be better and to grow.

[I am not, by the way, implying that WisCon is perfect in all ways. It still has a lot of growth to do. I fully recognize that there are many areas of improvement]

WisCon is a place of joy, conviviality, excitement and appreciation. It’s a place where we come together to appreciate our fandom and our community. But it can also be a frightening place, because to be a true WisCon attendee – in my opinion -requires a commitment to growth. To paraphrase WisCon ConCom member Victor Raymond, WisCon requires change. It requires always striving for something better. And there’s joy in that too, because it means that WisCon is alive. It’s not a static institution. It grows and changes, and it’s members grow and change.

Moonfail too, caused growth. The resulting convention had a great deal of panels dealing with race and racism, which if nothing else, made an enormous difference to my understanding of, and my personal commitment to, anti-racism. And it led to WisCon creating a statement of principles, which enshrined that WisCon is more than just a place to have fun – it’s a space that is committed to social justice in all of it’s forms.

From the (newly minted) statement of principles:

“WisCon’s focus on science fiction has played an important role in the exploration of feminist futures: futures where people of all colors and backgrounds flourish, where women’s rights and women’s contributions are valued, where gender is not limited to one of two options, where no one is erased out of convenience, hidden discrimination or outright bigotry.”

So yes. A good ending to that particular subplot. The story of WisCon is ongoing; however, and I’m sure Moonfail will rear it’s head again (as all subplots do).

Speaking of Accountability – if I’m going to demand that WisCon attendees commit to growth, I should probably account for myself too!

2. Achievements/Personal Areas of Improvement:

First, I should say that in spite of all the freakouts, I was very, very glad that I presented a paper at WisCon. If you’re going to present a paper anywhere, WisCon is where it’s at. And I got to write about feminist fantasy, which is something I never do in my “Real” Academic life.

Second, I was very glad to have dragged my brother along. He loved it (I knew he was going to, but I had some last minute freakouts). I loved having him there. It was wonderful. I had to drag him away kicking and screaming.

Now, onto the important stuff… Regrets!

Social anxiety! I have it. And most of my regrets are social anxiety related. There are awesome people at WisCon, and I would like to meet more of them. That is basically my regret/goal for next year.

I didn’t go to the Academic Mentoring Session because of social anxiety (and imposter syndrome); I didn’t go to any of the parties because I didn’t know anyone (booo!); I didn’t go to the signout because famous people scare me (in a nice moment of parallelism: last year I jumped into a stairwell rather than meet Catherynne Valente. This year I jumped out of a stairwell rather than meet Mary Anne Mohanraj. Whoops!)

So yes. Goals for next year: Go to the first time dinner again (that’s how I met the most people my first year). Go to the sign-out. Ask the Awesome People to sign your books, even if you’re scared. Go to the parties. It’s, er, good for you.

Oh, and dress up for the Guest of Honor speech, if you possibly can. I have ordered it so, and you must listen to me.

Space Babe Tiptree WisCon

Space Babe has ordered it too!

And this, my friends… marks the end of my epic quest to chronicle EVERYTHING that happened to Me at WisCon 36. I’ve written well over 15,000 words. You’re probably sick of it. I’m probably sick of it. So I’m just going to stop right now while I’m ahead -

Actually, no, because! A FINAL SHOUTOUT to an incredible T-shirt I saw at WisCon. It said: “Please Don’t Tame the Shrew.” I loved it madly (Shakespeare reference and Feminism = Literature student joy), but now I cannot find it anywhere on the interwebs. If anyone knows where to get it, I would be grateful.

[And yes, that is what I am referring to in the title of the post]

So that was WisCon 36. It was awesome. Can’t wait till WisCon 37.

Space Babes out.

[No, really, this time I mean it]

Related Posts:

The Return of the Secret Feminist Cabal: Part 3 of WisCon 36

What Happens at WisCon stays at WisCon: Part 2 of WisCon 36

A Disoriented Con Reporter at Large: Part 1 of WisCon 36


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