“We need to start a movement”: My brother and I talk about middle-school bullying

[Trigger Warning for bullying, violence, homophobia, harassment, suicide]

I usually apologize for long blog posts. I have a short attention span; I’m sure my readers do too. But I’m not apologizing this time.

This post is different.

As most of my regular readers know, quite a few of my blog posts are inspired by my younger brother, R. Mostly because R. is awesome, and has great ideas.

This post is different.

Two years ago, during our winter break, R. and I went on a long walk through the streets of Madison. It was night, it was cold, I had heavy bags, but we were enjoying ourselves. We were talking about important things – books, our parents, movies, school etc.

At some point, I asked R. if he liked having an iPod.

Yes, he said. I listen to it on the bus back from school. After the day is over, I often feel frustrated and upset. So I turn on my iPod and listen to Adele or Coldplay, and it helps get rid of the stress.

Now usually, my brother likes school. I mean, obviously, there are good days and bad days and good teachers and bad teachers, but for the most part, he really enjoys it. He loves learning; he has lots of friends… school is good.

So hearing that R. was often frustrated or upset after a day at school was a huge red flag for me – and I asked him why.

That’s when he told me about bullying.

***

Discussions of teen bullying have been everywhere recently, from Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying campaign and Dan Savage’s It Gets Better movement, to worries about cyberbullying and the surge of teen suicide attempts. The most recent government survey indicates that 28% of kids in grades 6-12 have experienced bullying. I wouldn’t be shocked if it were more.

I knew bullying existed. It was still a punch in the gut when R. told me it was happening in his school.

I had a very mature reaction to the situation. My brother was going to drop out of school and never, ever go there again. And if that wasn’t feasible, I was going to drop out of college and follow him around with a baseball bat.

…yeah, that was a pretty terrible plan.

Eventually, I realized there wasn’t anything I could do except listen and offer advice. My brother, after all, isn’t getting physically bullied. He isn’t even getting harassed that much – at least in comparison to other students. He just goes to a school where bullying is constant and ubiquitous. He sees it happen every day. Sometimes it happens to him. Often it happens to his friends.

Over the past two years, I’ve listened with increasing horror to my brother’s stories. The kid whose facebook and email was spammed with “accusations” that he was gay. The guy who pushes other kids into lockers. The insults students yell at each other. The teasing. The shunning. The ubiquitous, constant, malicious gossip.

“You’re gay.” “You’re stupid.” “You’re fat.”

It never ends.

No wonder R. needs his music to calm down every day. It’s impossible not to be affected by it.

I can tell. My brother doesn’t enjoy school as much as he used to. He’s more stressed, and it’s not just because of homework or teachers. He often comes home angry and frustrated, needing to talk about the latest catastrophe.

I remember telling R. that Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, bullied a closeted gay student when he was in prep school. I’ve rarely seen my brother that outraged.

Worse was when R. saw the Rolling Stones article about the Anoka-Hennepin school district, where students who appear to be LGBTQ are constantly harassed, teachers are forbidden to offer them help and nine students committed suicide within two years. Reading the article, he went dead silent. After a few minutes, he turned to me and asked, in a tone I’ll never forget:

“How can people let this happen?”

[Although I highly recommend the article, it is extraordinarily difficult to read. Warning for homophobia, bullying, suicide, violence]

Bullying poisons children’s lives. It destroys their safety. Sometimes, it even kills them.

Not to mention that it’s ruining their education. No matter how good a teacher or a school is, kids aren’t going to learn well if they’re constantly scared.

I think the anti-bullying campaigns are good, I do.  I’m glad bullying is finally getting discussed in the media. I’m glad people are starting to see it as a valid issue. I’m glad they’re trying to find solutions.

But sometimes, I look at the pundits talking and the teachers worrying and the celebrities campaigning, and I worry that the kids voices are getting lost. Adults have found a problem, and adults will impose solutions.

One of the most important things we can do is to listen to students. To provide a space for them to tell us their stories, their experiences, their ideas. After all, it’s their fight. We’re not going to end bullying without them.

So before my brother left for France, I interviewed him about bullying at his school. I used my computer to record our discussion. With his permission – and his help – I’ve now transcribed the recording, with a few minor edits for length and for clarity.

We need to hear more of these stories.

A few important notes: My brother is entering the eighth grade and goes to school in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s male, cisgendered, white, and currently identifies as straight (I say “currently” because he’s twelve – any conclusion about his sexual orientation is premature at best). I’m a college student now, but I went to the same middle school he now attends, and he’ll be going to my former high school.

Also important: no real names were used in the interview – I swapped out any names my brother mentioned with pseudonymns.

***

CD:  Testing one – two – three. Okay, so… We’re recording as of now.

R: Wait, how does that thing work?

CD: It’s just recording our voices.

R: That’s so creepy!

CD: *laughs* You want to listen to this section back?

R: Sure. *rewind and listen*

CD: Aha! We’re recording again. First, I want to thank you, R. for agreeing to get interviewed by me.

R:… you’re welcome? *laughs*

CD: Yeah, you don’t have to act like we’re in a formal interview… everyone knows we’re bizarre. Anyways. The idea for this interview came when I asked you what kind of blog post I should write next, and you said I should write about bullying in middle school. And I said – well, I don’t know that much about bullying in middle school. Maybe I should ask you.

R: Yeah. That sounded like a good idea.

CD: It was interesting for me over the past two years or so because middle school… was not the best time of my life. But I didn’t get bullied in American middle-school, and I don’t remember other people getting bullied either. Which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I don’t remember it at all. I did get bullied in French middle-school and that was really unpleasant; it just didn’t happen when I went to our American middle-school. But you’ve been saying that now there’s a lot of bullying at your school.

R: But wait. Didn’t you get bullied when people made fun of you for being French?

CD: Yeah. But that was mostly in high school, actually. And wasn’t… constant. It just happened sometimes.

R: Teasing?

CD: Exactly. Which I gather is a big problem at your school too –

R: Yeah, there is a lot of bullying at my school. And the teachers aren’t solving it, even though they’re trying to. They don’t have the right approach.

CD: What’s their approach right now?

R: Doing a two-million dollar anti-bullying program called Hawk talk –

CD: Wait – Hawk as in the bird?

R: *rolls eyes* It’s our school mascot.

CD: *laughs* Oh god. That’s so –  Okay, okay. Hawk. So what’s the Hawk Talk?

R: Pretty much – every morning, you get thirty minutes extra with your homeroom teacher. And your homeroom teacher opens up this anti-bullying booklet and then talks about stuff we’ve covered millions of times over the years. Again. And Again. And Again. It’s really cheesy. No one likes it. And then the teacher make you fill out worksheets about what you would do in a bad situation. But nobody actually pays attention.

CD: Yeah.

R: They also have bullying forms, so if you’re bullied you can fill it out. They say it’s confidential, but it’s really not. I’m sure tons of people are afraid that if they’re bullied and they fill out the application, the bully will –

CD: Find out.

R: Find out and… kill them.

CD: Aaaaah! Seriously?

R: Well, not kill them. But you know what I mean.

CD: Yeah. Retaliation. So… what do they talk about, the teachers? Is it just telling you that bullying is bad? Or –

R: Exactly. They just talk about how bullying is bad. But everyone already knows that – and they still do it.

CD: Right.

R: They’re covering the same material. Nobody really cares anymore. And bullying hasn’t gone down by a significant margin since they started. It’s not working. So they need to find some other way of stopping bullying.

CD: I though – one of the things that’s really striking for me – when I listen to you talk about bullying, it seems like it’s everywhere. And it seems like it’s everyone, almost.

R: I think a lot of people bully and they almost – don’t realize it. I’ve seen kids saying that the new law in North Carolina that’s prejudiced against gay rights is bad – and then I hear the same kids turn around and taunt other students for being gay.*

[*He’s referring to the newly passed North Carolina law that bans gay marriage]

CD: Seriously? Wow.

R: Right? It’s… very weird. People don’t realize they’re being bullies; they don’t realize that they’re being that hurtful. And, you know, if you make enemies of popular kids, they’ll gossip about you. If you made enemies of some people, they spread information throughout the school, and you turn into someone to be made fun of. It’s happened to several kids and – it’s really horrible.

CD: Right.

R: It’s  – it’s a little like – you know, you make any little mistake. If you accidentally push over a popular girl, she might spread gossip about you to everyone else, and within five minutes, people will be laughing and pointing and you won’t even know why. So that’s a really big problem.

CD: Yeah… *long pause* Now we’re smiling at each other like dolts, because we do that all the time.

R: I’m smiling because you’re weird.

CD: Too true. Moving on. From our conversations – it also feels like almost everyone gets bullied.

R: Um –

CD: Or am I misreading?

R: No, I’d say that’s true. Almost everyone gets bullied, but some people get bullied a lot more than others. Especially kids who aren’t popular.
You know, right now it’s like a hierarchy. When students try to move up in the world, they get made fun of a lot. I see this at school all the time, and I saw it at my last camp. There was a kid who joined a group of people – because at camp, people divide up into groups, which is very similar to what happens at school. He was trying to be friends with them, and they would act totally friendly, but when he left, I would overhear them saying “oh, he’s so weird” and stuff like that. So people started looking at him funny, and more people started making fun of him. I was one of his other friends, and luckily, he started moving away from that group.

CD: That’s good.

R: Right. But that doesn’t always happen. Bullying victims – often they don’t get support, even from friends. And at school, people can pretend to be nice, but they can be horrible behind your back – make fun of you, and bully you.

CD: I heard about one kid at your school – people started spreading a rumor that he was gay, and it was all over – on Facebook, email etc. And everyone was talking about it behind his back.

R: That’s happened two or three times.

CD: It’s happened more than once?

R: Yeah. And I feel horrible for those people, because – first of all, being gay shouldn’t be a bad thing. Second of all – I mean, who is cruel enough to do that? It’s horrible.  The poor guy, he’s probably being made fun of all the time. I mean, I’m sure he was really damaged, especially if it was all over facebook. I don’t have a facebook, but I know if you put stuff on facebook, two hundred people know within two hours.

CD:  The joys of the internet.

R: Yes.

CD: And I know – you’ve been called gay once or twice.

R: I was doing a presentation for Health and Wellness, and I was being falsely cheerful, because I hate Health and Wellness.

CD: *laughs* Ouch.

[I hated Health and Wellness too, for the record]

R: I ended the presentation, and someone shouted out “gay.” But it was really nice – you know, my feelings were hurt, absolutely. But the rest of the class just told that person they were being mean, and to stop it. Which was really nice, and that actually helped me. There are some things where people realize that you’re being bullied and they –

CD: And they tell people to stop.

R: The school slogan is “Name it, Claim it, Stop it.” Name the bullying, tell the bully what it is, and say stop it. Which… sometimes works, but most of the time, the bully totally ignores it. It’s hard – you see some people try to stand up for others, but it’s really hard to stand up against a bully who is popular, or who has a lot of friends who are bullies.

CD: Yeah, because you don’t want to be the one who becomes bullied.

R: Exactly. That’s risky.

CD: It seems like the word “gay” has sort of become – the problem isn’t that people are gay. It’s just a fact of life. Some people are  gay, some people are straight, some people are bisexual, some people have other orientations. The problem is that the word has become –

R: An Insult. It’s like saying “you’re stupid.” Or “You dress weird.” It’s pretty much: “You dress weird, talk weird, are really strange” – all in one word. That’s what it’s become, and that’s just not good.

CD: Yeah.

R: Bullying – comes from a lot of things. One of them is, if you’re bullied, the bully might actually be afraid of you. Bullying is a lot like, you know -racism and sexism. It’s a lot because people are afraid of people who are different. So they discriminate. Or they bully.

CD: I know you have a friend who is openly gay. Does he get bullied more than other students, or are people okay with it?

R: Well, actually, he’s not openly gay.

CD: Ah. Hold that thought.

R: Yeah. He has told a couple people – his close friends – and we are totally fine with it.  But if he was openly gay… I think he made a very good decision in not coming out. Being openly gay is a good thing. And people should absolutely feel safe enough to do that. But if you’re in middle school, and especially in my school, if you were openly gay – life would turn into a living hell for you. For sure.

CD: WOW.

R: Absolutely. People you thought were your friends would probably just – be repulsed.

CD: You know what I find really disturbing about this is… we live in Madison. And Madison is like, socialist hippieville. We’re one of the most liberal places in the country. So if even here, it isn’t safe to be gay, or lesbian or bisexual in middle school, that’s really sad.

R: It is really sad. And even when people believe gay people shouldn’t be discriminated against – as I said before, the guy who was against the North Carolina law also makes fun of kids by calling them gay. It’s like – what the hell is wrong with you?

CD: Do you not realize you’re contributing to the problem?

R: Exactly. And you know, I think the adults really don’t discriminate against gay kids – the adults in our school. But with the kids, it’s become this thing. You know, you’re gay – that means you’re different. I mean, racism is still present in the school, but it’s not that present. It’s a very minor problem. Well – what I mean is, in terms of insults – people aren’t made fun of for their race. Now “gay” is the new big insult.

CD: It feels like –  if someone were to make fun of someone else for being Black or Hispanic or Asian – that would not be cool. But it’s still sort of cool to make fun of people for seeming gay.

R: Calling someone gay is – now people think of it as, it’s not that big of a deal to say. You won’t get in trouble. If you’re racist towards someone, the teachers will immediately – kill you.

CD: *laughs*

R: It’s over. But insulting someone for their sexuality… you won’t get in trouble. And in some schools, I know teachers aren’t even allowed to express their opinions on that, or help kids who are being harassed for being gay (he’s referring to the Rolling Stones article). They can’t tell someone to stop calling another kid gay.

CD:So – people get made fun of for being or acting gay – whatever that means. What other kinds of things do people get made fun of for?

R: Being gay – or acting “gay” –  is the top thing. But, after that, it’s a lot of small thing. Appearance is big. If you dress different, or you dress “weird,” you’ll get teased. If you’re fat, you’ll get teased. Even if you’re not fat, but you just look – different – you’ll get teased. If you do something wrong, you might be teased about it too. Bullying is a major problem in our school, but most of it has to do with gossip.

CD: That’s interesting.

R:  People think it’s just a girl problem, but it’s really not. I think the story about girls gossiping more than boys might be sort of true – I don’t know, I’ve never been a girl – but boys still gossip a lot. I think the blame is just about equal. Girls do gossip a lot; boys gossip a lot –

CD: The girls gossiping more than boys might be a bit of a stereotype.

R: I think so. I mean, I know boys gossip a lot. It’s horrible, because the gossiping thing – one thing will spread around the school in five seconds. It goes very fast, because you have tons of people.

CD: And gossip is really hard to fight because – it’s a form of bullying, and it contributes to bullying, but it’s also a way people bond, and it’s often an important part of people’s friendships. You want to be able to tell your friends secrets.

R: Right. It’s a big thing, to be able to trust someone with your secrets. But at my school, you have to make absolute certain, if you’re going to tell someone something, you have to be 120% sure that they’re not going to tell anyone. If you 100% trust them – that’s not good enough.

CD: *laughs* Wow

R: One of my friends told me who he had a crush on, and I didn’t tell anyone. He told another close friend, and that person didn’t tell anyone. He told another person, but he made a mistake, and that person told everyone.

CD: Oh no!

R: In a matter of days, he thought that his crush now knows that he likes her, which… is horrible. Then that makes the whole situation really awkward. And of course, people were making fun of my friend for liking this girl, and they were making fun of the girl too. So yeah. Gossip is huge. And things get twisted as people tell them to each other.

CD: Right. It’s not “Jess likes Samira” anymore, it’s “Jess went up to Samira and asked her to get married.”

R: Exactly.

CD: I know there were times when you didn’t want to go to school – I mean, okay – there are lots of reasons you don’t want to go to school. But there were times when it felt like the atmosphere was so negative, you just didn’t want to be there.

R: When people are being extremely mean to each other, and bullying is super common, and my friends are being bullied – yeah, I don’t want to be there. One thing that happened recently, for example: a guy who I knew was a bully became friends with my best friend Joseph. And I was… I didn’t judge Joseph, but I was sort of worried. And one day, Joseph was really sad because this friend started to harass him. He started being mean to him, and tease him. Joseph asked him to stop, but the guy didn’t. So Joseph said, if you don’t stop making fun of me, I can’t be friends with you.  And the guy was just like – it doesn’t matter, I have lots of other friends. That was really bad. It was horrible, actually. Even after Joseph stopped hanging out with him, the guy just kept harassing him. And Joseph was upset for a really long time.  So it’s really hard to trust people.

CD: I can imagine. Question: do people get physically bullied? Like – pushed, punched, poked, whatever.

R: Physical bullying is not that common at all. It’s very rare. It’s the kind of bullying – it’s old school bullying. Back in the day, if you beat someone up, the teachers didn’t care. But now – if you beat someone up, you’re suspended, you’re expelled – you get in deep trouble. On the other hand, if you just call someone names, nothing will happen to you. And that brings me to the other kind of bullying that’s a huge problem at our middle school, and that’s – cyberbullying. It’s extremely common at our school. It’s probably even bigger than in high school. Maybe. I don’t know, because I’ve never been to high school. But I know you have – so was there a lot of cyberbullying when you were in high school?

CD: There wasn’t with me. But when I was in high school, I wasn’t really involved in the online scene. And things like facebook were new back then, so I think people hadn’t figured out how to take full advantage of it for its bullying potential. How does cyberbullying work at your school?

R: Well, obviously the trolls. People who just go on your facebook or your email, and write “I hate you, I hate you.”

CD: You guys already have to deal with trolling?

R: Yeah. And a lot of it is on email. People send tons mean emails to other students. And I’ve heard that on facebook, there’s a lot of bullying.

CD: Like – how? People writing mean things on other people’s walls –

R: That. That, and also, negative information can be spread very fast that way.

CD: Yeah. Like “Hey R. I hear you’re in love with your teacher Mrs. Mendelsohn.”

R: Aaaah. CD… that’s weird. Ewwwwwwwwwww. Anyways. What was I going to say?

CD: How would I know? Oh, right, my secret power as a mind reader.

R: *rolls eyes* My point was that my dad thought I had facebook at one point, and he was worried because he knew a lot of cyberbullying at my school. My parents have received emails about cyberbullying incidents. And on facebook, you’re extremely vulnerable to cyberbullying. And now that everyone has cell phones – it’s texting. People texting all the time, especially mean gossip. So it spreads extremely quickly.
And now, it even spreads to people who aren’t at your school – who are at other schools.

CD; Right. So you could just show up to another middle school, and say “Hi, I’m R.” and everyone would be like “Oh, hi R. We know everything about you! Like how you’re married to Mrs. Livingstone! And you’re in love with… Miguel and you’re gay and…”

R: Exactly. And I think it’s more harmful because when you’re on the internet or your cell phone, people say meaner things. You might not call someone stupid to their face, but you might send them an email or a text that says “you’re stupid” or “you’re ugly’ or “you’re gay.”

CD: Right. So, let’s talk about solutions. Or the current lack thereof. Right now, your school has a big anti-bullying campaign and it’s been going on for what – two years? Three years?

R: Something like that. A while.

CD: And it doesn’t seem to be doing very much.

R: Nooo.

CD: It just seems to – almost – it makes everyone bored.

R: It might even make it worst, if possible.

CD: It almost makes it cool to be a bully, because the adults are uncool.

R: Exactly.

CD: Do you think the adults understand the bullying problem? Okay – let me rephrase –

R: One thing I don’t think the adults understand is the hierarchy in the school. Even if the bullying stops, you will be regarded as a lower being and gossip will be spread about you. The problem is that the hierarchy makes people unsafe.

CD: Right. I think maybe – adults understand physical bullying. And they understand if someone were constantly called stupid or gay. But stuff like gossip, I don’t think they necessarily see why –

R: Even when someone is called stupid or gay, I think it’s really hard for adults to stop the bullying. They can’t give the bully a valid threat or a good reason to stop.

CD: Okay. That’s a problem. Actually, now that I think of it: you know the story you told about the kid calling you gay in front of the class? I find it really striking that it was the students who shut him down, not the teacher. Did the teacher say anything?

R: No, she didn’t say anything. She didn’t try to stop him.

CD: Well – urgh. Because if your peers hadn’t stood up for you, it would have made it seem like name-calling was okay.

R: I agree. The thing is, I don’t think the adults know how to help people who are bullied. And I think the best thing adults can do is strengthen the victim. To get the victim to a place where they can feel safe standing up for themselves. It’s not that they need to feel strong enough to stand up for themselves, they just have to feel safe. But right now, our school isn’t safe. Some people are very vulnerable. So we also need to work on ways to get the bully to stop, and that’s… difficult. Bullying is a problem where there might not be a real solution.

CD: I think – I think bullying is a problem that requires a lot of work and it requires a lot of different small solutions.

R: Exactly. I think it’s not something where there won’t be one magic pill that solves everything. Unfortunately. One bullying program is not going to do much.

CD: Are there times where you’ve seen, with your friends or your peers, where you’ve seen bullying get stopped? Like the incident where you were called gay, and your classmates shut it down.

R: Yes. That was one instance where it got stopped.

CD: Can you think of other ones?

R: Unfortunately… no.

CD: That’s bad.

R: It’s possible, but I’ve not been there. I think a lot of people are afraid to stand up. The exception is:  when something is really mean, people do stand up. The problem is, when it gets really mean, it’s usually after the bullying has been going for a while. So the victim will be grateful for the help, but they’ll still be hurt. A lot. The damage will already have been done. What you need to do is stop the small stuff. We have to stop it when it starts.

CD: I think one of the things it has to be is – it has to be a really individual commitment. Which is hard. Especially with things like gossip. It has to be an individual decision – something like: “I have decided that I’m not going to gossip.” And then, telling other people, if they try to gossip with you: “Guys, I love you, but I don’t want to gossip with you, because I know that that often hurts people’s feelings, and I don’t want to be part of that”

R: Yeah.

CD: Yeah, sorry. I know I sound really cheesy right now. There are better ways of saying it. “Let’s not gossip, let’s go play Frisbee instead.”

R: Right. Exactly. *laughs* Playing Frisbee solves all the problem.

CD: It’s how I solved all my problems. It’s not that we need to sit around and say “we love everyone and want to be friends with everyone.” It’s just getting to a place where people aren’t feeling attacked all the time.

R: And the individual commitment – it’s hard to be committed when you’re a bully.

CD: Well, you’re certainly committed to something… you’re just not committed to stopping bullying.

R: No duh. Being individually committed to stopping bullying would really help – if people would just try to stand up for people who are being bullied. And the more people that do that, the less weird it’ll seem when someone stands up.

CD: I think that’s part of it. Right now, there’s almost a peer pressure to bully. Or at least, if you’re not going to bully, not to stop people from bullying. And instead, there needs to be a peer pressure to stop people from bullying.

R: Exactly. More people just need to start doing it. Start trying to stop it.

CD: And I think that’s really tough – don’t get me wrong.

[At this point, we’re interrupted by two phone calls. Then our stepsister asks if we want to go to the beach with her. We say yes and resume recording after our beach trip.]

CD: And we’re back, ladies and gentlemen and listeners of all ages and genders. Before I forget – one of the things I said to you while we were at the beach, which I think is interesting more generally is – in social justice, or in anti-oppression politics, we talk a lot about how there are people who believe that words don’t matter. They think the only kind of violence that can hurt people is physical violence. But it seems like that’s really not true with bullying.

R: Yeah…. no. Those people are just wrong in every possible way. So many problems, so little time. I’d say that words hurts people a lot more than violence does, especially these days. Gossip, cyberbullying – those are all words. And they really do hurt people.

CD: And if words didn’t matter, you could just go around and say “Who cares who calls me stupid?” But it does hurt, and it does matter, and it does make a difference.

R: There’s an old saying that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But that’s wrong, ladies and gentlemen. That’s just wrong. There are things that people have said to me that still hurt, a year or two later.

CD: I agree. I’ve heard the saying re-worded as “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can scar me forever.”

R: Yeah. I think that’s a much more accurate phrase.

CD: Before we left, we were talking about solutions…

R: Yes. We were. And we were talking about how individual commitment is really important. and how we should stand up more for victims.

CD: But standing up for others is hard if you yourself feel vulnerable.

R: It’s a vicious cycle, because you get bullied, so you feel vulnerable. So you don’t stand up for other people. So more people get bullied, and they feel more vulnerable, so they don’t stand up for other people. So more and more people are bullied, and there are more and more victims. You have to get out of the cycle somehow. It’s tricky.

CD: One thing is: if you and your friends – For one thing, you can always stand up for friends that are being bullied.

R: Yes. That’s a lot easier than doing it for people you don’t know.

CD: It’s easier to say “Oh, people are saying mean things about my friend Jess, so I’m going to tell them “no, you guys, this is not okay.”

R: Or you can say “I’m not going to talk to you guys if you say mean things about my friend Jess.”

CD: Exactly. And maybe it’s also a good thing if your group of friends makes a decision that you’re all going to stand up for each other. So everyone knows – in an explicit way – that you guys will always help each other out. That way, if you’re being bullied, R., you know that you can go to your friends Joseph and Tom and Miguel and say “Guys, can you help me?” And you’re not embarrassed, and you’re not worried that they’ll say no, because you guys have already talked about it.

R: Yeah. Exactly.

CD: And even starting with a couple of friends that you know you guys have decided amongst yourselves that you will stand up for each other – that helps. Then when you as a group feel safe – and when you feel comfortable, you can say “okay, that guy over there isn’t our friend, but we know him and we like him. People are calling him gay, so we’re going to go over there and say “not cool guys.” In a less cheesy way. Because your sister is the king of cheese.

R: I mean, that’s the only way I’ve seen bullying get stopped. When friends stand up for you, or when other people tell the bully to stop.

CD: That’s true: from all the conversations we’ve had, and from everything you’ve said to me, it seems to me that the only way bullying will stop is through peer-to-peer techniques. I don’t think a top-down, teacher-and-administration effort will work.

R: It’s never really going to stop. I think we need to reduce it dramatically, and do a lot more to help the victim. It’s a little like – hunger will never stop –

CD: – but that’s not a reason not to try and make it better.

R: Exactly. And I agree – I think adults imposing a program is not very effective at all.

CD: Our stepsister* was telling us that kids actually bully other kids using the anti-bullying program. Like, they make fun of the program, and then they make fun of other kids using the program – or kids who participate in the program, or who try to follow the lessons –

[*Our stepsister is in R.’s grade, and goes to the same school]

R: Yeah exactly. Because they’re like “that’s so stupid.” It’s just another weapon.

CD: So I guess the question I have is – I’m not really an adult, but in your life, I’m sort-of an adult. And as a sort-of adult, I can completely understand that if you were a teacher or another adult, you would want to help kids. You would want so stop bullying. So do you think there are ways to do that without making it worse? Without just saying “bullying is bad, don’t do it?”

R: Yeah, I think there are better ways teachers can help. You know, I think one of the big lies adults tell you in middle-school and high-school is that they’re always there for you. And sometimes, they’re really not.

CD: Yeah.

R: One thing is, if they could make the victim feel safer in reporting. It needs to be confidential, or the victim might be afraid that they won’t be able to tell the teacher without being harassed by the bully again. They need to change the way harassment forms work, so that kids are more willing to confide in adults. Because right now, we feel like if we tell a teacher, it won’t be confidential. And that’s really frightening.

CD: It probably keeps students from looking for help.

R: Exactly. Harassment form – people are embarrassed to do it. We need to make them realize that they shouldn’t be and that –

CD: It happens to everyone. Or – you’re not a bad person for reporting it. Or a weak person. Being bullied is not a sign of weakness.

R: Exactly. And also: a lot of people say “Oh, everyone goes through bullying.” And what they mean is “it’s not a big deal” But even though everyone goes through it, that doesn’t make it –

CD: 0kay.

R: Yes.

CD: Everyone used to get smallpox, but we still got rid of it.

R: Yeah, if everyone does it, it doesn’t make it good.

CD: Bullying can have really bad long-term effects on your psychological health.

R: And your emotional health.

CD; Yes. And on society at large. Because we don’t want to be a society that’s just bullies and victims.

R: That’s really really really big. I’ve heard my parents say before: “Oh, it’ll die down eventually.” And I think that’s… *in a very quiet voice* bullshit.*

[yes, my twelve year old brother swore. Everyone clutch your pearls]

CD: It kind of is bullshit. In my experience, bullying is everywhere, not just in school.

R: It’s just horrible. I really hate when people say that, because it doesn’t make the problem better. It just makes the person feel like a jerk – like “oh, why am I complaining, it happens to everyone.”

CD: There are some things where “it’ll die down” is vaguely legitimate. I’m trying to get an example here – if you’re a girl and you’re getting period cramps, you’ll get that once a month and it will die down eventually – actually, I’ve changed my mind. Even if you get period cramps once a month, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever complain about it.

R: Also, bullying is really different from period cramps.

CD: …Yeah. Bullying is like not period cramps! You heard it here first, folks.

R: I remember I was in Paris, and I was talking about some people bullying me, and my parents’ friends said “oh, that happens to everyone. They’re just going through a phase. Everyone goes through a phase where they bully people, and she’ll get over it.”

CD: That’s still not okay.

R: That’s still not okay. And I was like – blink. blink. What? How does that make sense?

CD: Yes. And like we’ve been saying, there are really negative results that come from bullying. For example, if people are bullying you by calling you gay – first, it sets up a thing where people who are gay are uncomfortable coming out. Which is completely unfair, because I’m not uncomfortable coming out as straight, and there’s nothing better or worse about being gay than being straight. No one’s going to bully me for being straight. And of course, the other problem is that bullying people by calling them gay makes it seem like being gay is a bad thing. And it’s not; it’s just a fact of life.

R: Yeah, exactly. It’s just a fact of life. Its like – I have curly hair. And that’s a fact of life.

CD: It’s not something to be ashamed of.

R: That’s what bullying does. It makes people feel ashamed of what they do, what they wear etc.

CD: Who they are. What they like. Who they like.

R: So there are a lot of problems with bullying. And there are not a lot of solutions that are very effective.

CD: Well, I think a lot of the solutions that are effective are very long term

R: But we also need some short-term solutions that help the victim and the bully. While the long term effects are working out. Or else the victim’s just going to keep getting hurt.You know – asking their friends if they’ll stand up. Or asking their friends to just be with that kid and listen to them.

CD: I think that’s somewhere where teachers can really help. Providing a safe space so victims feel safe to come to them and say “Hey, I’m having a real problem with bullying.” And sometimes the only thing the teacher will be able to do is listen, because doing something else would break confidentiality, or would make the student unsafe. Not being able to do anything except listen – that’s not great. But at the same time, it’s really important because listening tells the victim that what they’re going through is legitimate. And it means they have a place can talk.

R: We really don’t have that right now. I don’t have a lot of people I can talk to – especially adults. And I’m not really being bullied, so I can’t imagine what it’s like if you’re being bullied all the time – not having anyone to talk to.

CD:  The other thing is – the teacher can also be the person who says “I know R. and Joseph and Miguel are really anti-bullying, so if you talk to them – or I can talk to them for you – I know they’ll go with you to the cafeteria where people are making fun of you and they’ll eat with you.”

R: Exactly.

CD: I think we have to put a lot of trust in students and in kids to get rid of the bullying problem. That doesn’t mean we can’t help them, but it can’t be something we impose. It does mean that –

R: It has to be the students and the teachers working together. You know, we could implement a program where students who are being bullied at lunch – other kids can eat with them. And other students can volunteer to help other kids with bullying problems. Mostly, I think teachers need to get closer to students. Because right now, I don’t think people trust them. They say that you can come to them, but it doesn’t really feel like it. I think that’s the problem.

CD: I was thinking – you haven’t read Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series, right?

R: No.

[everyone should go read Protector of the Small now, if not sooner]

CD: It’s Pierce’s third series. It’s about Keladry, who is the first girl to openly try for knighthood – because Alanna dressed up like a boy during her training, right? And Keladry is bullied when she’s a page, because almost everyone is bullied their first year as a page.

R: Right.

CD: But in Keladry’s first and second years, she goes out and she fights the people who are physically bullying other people. And all her friends says “why are you doing this? It happens to everyone, everyone goes through it So why are you doing this? It’s called hazing.” Kel says: “I know that, but it’s not okay. People are getting pushed, people are getting beaten, people are getting seriously hurt and humiliated, and it needs to stop.” And eventually her friends start to join her, so then you have patrols of two or three people roaming through the halls and stopping bullies. And more people join – five or six, and then seven and eight. It takes time, but it becomes an entire movement of her friends who are like “You know what, at first I didn’t see why this was important, but now I do, and now I’m going help out.” It took a lot of effort for Keladry to do it, because she had to do most of the work at the beginning, and she got beat up a couple times. But at the end, the movement was so big that all people had to do was go out and check the halls once a night, and that was it. The bullying problem was over.

R: And I’m sure it really helped the kids who were being bullied.

CD: Yeah, because what would happen is they’d chase the bullies away, and then they’d say to the kid who was being bullied: “Hey, you want to come study with us?”

R: Yeah. Those are probably the most effective solutions. Because I think what makes it worse for me – and for other people who are being bullied – is feeling like you’re alone. Or like other people won’t help you, or like the school doesn’t care.

CD: Yeah. Like your problem isn’t legitimate.

R: Exactly. So that’s part of the solution: breaking the isolation, and making people feel less ashamed. And let them know that there are people who are there for them, and who will help them.
The long term solution is the one where people take a stand, and where they try to help and participate in the work of ending bullying. And the short term solution is teachers supporting kids, and making sure they have resources, and places where they can talk and feel safe.

CD: Is there anything else we need to talk about? Ideas, stories –

R: I can’t think of anything.

CD: Actually – I remember a story on This American Life, where there was a kid with anger management issues because he had a bad home life. And so at school, he was a jerk, and his classmates made fun of him all the time. getting bullied all the time. One day, the other students were really teasing him, so the teacher sent everyone out of the room except the three most popular girls. Not necessarily the most popular kids, actually – kids who are sort of like you: they’re diplomatic, and everyone likes them, but they’re not necessarily the most popular. And the teacher sat them down, and she said “Look, this is why Brendan – I made up that name – is angry all the time. First, please don’t tell anyone. And second, I need you to help me stop people from bullying him.”  when the other students came back, the girls started working with their friends, and saying “No, we’re not going to make fun of him.” And that eventually made the bullying stop.

R: That’s a really good example of how a solution like that would work. I’m not surprised it was so effective. It takes a group of people who decide to do it. Who decide to start a movement. We need a movement.

CD: Yes. We need an anti-bullying movement from the ground up.

R: Exactly.

CD: Okay. That’s a good note to end on. This is us signing off. Everyone: don’t bully.

R: Yes. It’s not good, as the teachers say.

CD: And if you’ve been bullied, there are resources. And we will find them.

***

There are two things that really resonate with me from this interview. One is:

“You know, I think one of the big lies adults tell you in middle-school is that they’re always there for you. And sometimes, they’re really not.”

And the other is:

“Being bullied is not a sign of weakness”

We need to fix the first problem. We need to be there for those who are being bullied. We need to stop dismissing it as drama, or as something everyone goes through, or as a phase they’ll get over, or as “character building.” We need to stop pretending that kids who complain about bullying are “oversensitive” or need to toughen up. And we need to stop ignoring the problem just because it happens to kids. It’s all well and good to say “it gets better.” But we need to make it better now.

If all you can do is listen, do that. I cannot stress how important listening – or just being there – is.

And we need to make sure everyone knows the second part: Being bullied is not a sign of weakness.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

Note on Comments: I’m usually pretty light on the moderation – so far, I’ve never deleted a comment. I don’t even mind people who insult me personally. However, if you go after my brother, I will stuff your comment up into the place where the sun don’t shine so fast I’ll set a new speed record. Frankly, if you go after any of the bullied kids we talked about – or bullied kids in the abstract – the same thing will happen. And homophobia? Not an option. You have been warned.

Resources:

How to support kids involved in bullying

Where to get help

Trevor Hotline for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth: 1- 866-488-7386. (Important note: If you are called gay, or harassed for acting/seeming gay, the Trevor hotline will help you even if you don‘t identify as LGBTQ. In other words, the service is not exclusively for LGBTQ teens)

National Hotline for Children and Teens: 1-800-448-3000 (They will help you with bullying problems; sexual, physical or emotional abuse; suicide prevention; school issues; depression etc. They’re wonderful, and very well trained – no matter what your problem, they can help (and if they can’t, they will find someone who can)).

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

If you are being bullied, or if you know someone being bullied, and you don’t know who to talk to, these hotlines will help you. PLEASE call them (or find someone you trust to talk with), even if you think your problem isn’t important, or that it doesn’t count as bullying, or that it’s your fault. Call them.

Unfortunately, these are USA-specific numbers (any suggestions for other countries?) If you know of other resources or other hotlines, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list. I’m particularly frustrated that I can’t find a dedicated national hotline for bullying victims…


The Friendship that Dares Not Speak its Name: Female Friendship in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Xena Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless Angry

“Is anyone here going to be my friend? Anyone? I have a shiny sword!”

[Content note: This is another one of my giant tl;dr posts of doom. Be forewarned before you venture into the abyss]

I’ve decided that I don’t want to be a Sci-Fi/Fantasy hero. Sure, the armor/spacesuits/dresses would be cool. And I’d like to fight a glorious battle. Or meet an alien. Or turn into a dragon. Or turn into a dragon while I meet an alien and wear a cool spacesuit dress.

But.

I’ve been noticing something weird about SF/F heroes. Specifically the female ones.

They don’t have a lot of friendships with other women.

Hell, there are some SF/F movies/books/etc. where the women barely speak to each other at all.

Is it just me, or does it sometimes feel like all those heroines have been cursed by a horrific spell? A spell that prevents them from making friends with other women without dying instantaneously?

Or do they just all have allergies to other women?

Because something’s going on. And I’d like to know what.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy has quite a few iconic male friendships – you’d be hard-pressed to find a book, tv series or movie that didn’t have a prominent friendship between two men.

Frodo and Sam. Spock and Kirk. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. Ender Wiggin and Bean. Hugo and Charlie on Lost. Saul Tigh and Bill Adama in Battlestar Galactica. Magneto and Professor Xavier.

But iconic female friendships?

I can’t think of many.

And lest you ask, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. When I first got the idea for this post, I went through my reading lists for the past three years. I scoured the web. I look through my bookshelves. I looked through my brother’s bookshelves. I lurked around Amazon.com for three hours.

After a good week of research, I concluded that not only were there very few Sci-Fi/Fantasy narratives where female friendships featured prominently, there were very few Sci-Fi/Fantasy narratives where female friendships featured at all.

Black Widow Scarlett Johansson

” Look, it’s not that I don’t want to be friends with women, it’s just that for some reason, I’m never allowed to talk to them onscreen.”

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that women are still underrepresented as characters in Sci-Fi/Fantasy. We’re still stuck in the “lone woman” or “exceptional woman” phase of gender equality. Consider all the movies/books/comic books etc. where there is exactly one major female character. Black Widow in The Avengers.* Trinity in The Matrix. Wonder Woman in the early years of The Justice League. Petra in Ender’s Game. Molly Million in Neuromancer. Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings. 

[*Emphasis on major. I liked Maria Hill and Pepper Potts as much as anyone else, but they weren’t on the same level of importance to the narrative as Thor, or Black Widow, or even Nick Fury]

Hell, Mulan in Mulan, while we’re at it. Even feminist narratives often have “lone women,” because so many of them tell stories of the first woman to join the army/become a knight/become a scientist/fly to the moon/play professional foozball. And, don’t get me wrong, stories about how women overcome the odds to join male-dominated professions are important.

But what about the stories after that one? What about the one where there are finally two female superheroes? What about the one where the science lab has a 50-50% gender distribution? What about the one where the army has an entire squadron of female knights?

Where are the stories about women mentoring other women? Where are the stories of women who have been best friends since childhood? Where are the stories where two wacky women are thrown together on an intergalactic adventure? Where’s my female Sherlock Holmes and Watson duo?

Where are my stories of epic sromances (rather than bromances) where the (female) hero would cut through entire armies to save their (female) friend?

[By the way, I fully purloined the term “sromance” from a blog post written by the fabulous Karen Healey]

Mulan Sword reflection

“Touch my BFF, and I will cut you.”

Those stories are a lot rarer.

We’re not that interested, it seems to me, in telling stories where there are many women, not just one. We’re not that interested in portraying worlds where women are the norm rather than the exception. We’re still stuck on the “lone women” phase of gender equality.

We’re not that interested in portraying relationships between women. We’re still stuck on how women relate to men.

***

Even when there are multiple women in an SF/F narrative [HALLELUJAH], they rarely ever meet. Or speak. Or have any kind of relationship. Maria Hill and Black Widow in The Avengers? Never say one word to each other. Eowyn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings? They’re in love with the same man, they’re fighting the same enemy… they never speak. In the Game of Thrones series, there are several important female characters, but they’re rarely in a room together. And if they are, they’re not friends. They’re enemies.

You would think women in Sci-Fi/Fantasy narratives would have something to say to one another. Even if it’s along the lines of:

“So, what’s it like to be the only woman in a group of superheroes?”
“Oh, you know. It’s not bad. Reminds me of that time I was stuck in an airport in France…”

Or:

“Hey, you know where I can get some tampons in the middle of this god-forsaken wilderness?”

Or just a plain, normal, non-gendered conversation like:

“Wow, we’re about to get eaten by a dragon.”
“That’s a problem.”
“We should run.”
“I agree. RUN!”

But no, apparently not. Apparently women just can’t talk to each other in SF/F.

It’s very bizarre. Because – and I hope SF/F authors and scriptwriters know this – there are a lot of women in the world.

It is practically impossible for a woman to go through her life without having a conversation with another woman. It is practically impossible for a woman to go through a single day without talking to another woman. Women are everywhere. Heck, I’ve even  heard they make up 50% of the earth’s population.

Given these parameters, it makes absolutely no sense that the majority of female SF/F characters almost never talk to women. The only way they could pull it off is if they were actively avoiding talking to other women.

This is why I suspect that female heroes of SF/F are all under some terrible curse that prevents them from speaking to other women. It’s the only logical explanation.

[[It’s either that, or most authors are doing a terrible job of representing women’s reality… and since authors have never historically struggle with representing female experiences, I think we can safely rule this explanation out. Right?]]

So. There’s a curse.

And if there is, I must be honest with you: I don’t think I want to be an SF/F hero anymore.

Because I wouldn’t want to live a life without female friends.

It would be horrible. Are you kidding me?

For one thing, how the hell am I supposed to go into battle and save the world without my female friends by my side?

Don’t get me wrong. I have friends who are guys. I would not want to give up those friendships either; some of my best friends are men. But women are friends with men in SF/F narratives, so that’s not really an issue.

[I feel like all my guy friends who read this are going to go: “You don’t love me? ” and run away. So, pre-emptively: “NOOOO, guy friends! I do love you! Don’t leave me!”]

But frankly, most of my closest, most important friendships have been with other women.

The friends who know my deep, dark secrets? Mostly women. The friends who know that I spent a year of my life breaking into my house through a window instead of telling my parents I’d lost the keys? Mostly women. The friends who have survived my propensity for seven hour walks? Mostly women. The friends who put up with my social anxiety, my inability to answer emails and phone calls? Mostly women. The friends who tortured me with high-school drama? Mostly women. The friends who listen to me rant about stuff they’re completely uninterested in? Mostly women.

The friend I have epic conversations with when we pull simultaneous all-nighters? A woman. The friend who talked me through my academic insecurities? A woman. The friend who rearranged my work schedule when she realized I was exhausted – even though it meant she was picking up extra hours? A woman. The friend I went camping for (I hate camping)? A woman. The friend I went running for (I hate running)? A woman. The friend I stopped writing a paper for so that I could help her find her cat? A woman. The friend who turned me into a compulsive biker? A woman.

If I were an SF/F heroine, I would want these women on my team. I’m just saying.

That’s, I think, why the lack of female friendships in SF/F is so striking to me. When I look at the friends I would walk through fire for, the friends I would fight armies for, the friends who I cannot imagine life without – most of those friends are women. And when I look around me at women I know, I see that yes, in fact, these women too, have friends who are female.

Women are friends with women. Imagine that.

Female friendships aren’t an urban legend. They aren’t a statistical anomaly. They’re not all hiding in the forests like werewolves. Unless the nine places I’ve lived in my life have been exceptions to the norm, female friends are a fairly common phenomenon.

Elizabeth Swann Pirates of the Caribbean Keira Knightley

“Where the frack are all the other women in this blasted movie? Did they get eaten by the Kraken?

So just for the sake of realism, there should be a few more female friendships in SF/F.

Not to mention the fact that female friendships are interesting.
They’re fun. Exciting. Dramatic. Low-key. Tense. Anguished. Tortured. Competitive. Sweet. Bizarre. Twisted. Cool. Captivating. Multifaceted.

If you’re not writing about female friendships because you think they’re boring? You’re not too clever. And if you’re not reading books with female friendships because you think they’re boring? You’re missing out.

Isn’t it sad that we can imagine faster -than-light-travel, fire-breathing dragons and cyborgs, but we can’t imagine two women talking to each other?

Is there really a curse? A curse that says: two women can’t be friends in SF/F? Two women can’t speak in SF/F? Women can only relate to men, and to no one else?

Well, if there is, I’m sick of it. I want to see as many awesome female friendships in SF/F as there are awesome male friendships.

I’m breaking out the curse-breaking equipment, people. I’m compiling a list. A list of SF/F narratives that do have awesome female friendships.

Because it’s time to end the darn curse.

Here, in no particular order, are nine SF/F narratives with prominent female friendships. Seven books; one TV show; one Comic Book series.

I know these are not the only SF/F narratives with prominent female friendships. I have not read everything. I have not seen everything. Heck, I haven’t even ever seen Star Trek (I’m working on it!). So this list is not meant to be comprehensive. I’m sure I’m missing things – and I’d love to hear suggestions!

Curse-breakers, unite!

[And now I feel like I’m either in Pirates of the Caribbean or a Tomb Raider movie. For the record: if this curse-breaking turns into an epic quest where we all become living skeletons and have to pour the blood of Orlando Bloom on a giant pile of gold to end the terrible curse… my apologies]

****

1. Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce

Trickster's Queen cover Tamora Pierce

This was a tough one, because Tamora Pierce always does a fantastic job with female friendships. Keladry and Lalasa. Keladry, Yuki and Shinko. Alanna, Thayet and Buri. Alanna and Daine. Sandry, Tris and Daja. Beka Cooper and Clara Goodwin.

Pierce’s female friendships are all the more impressive because most of Tamora Pierce’s protagonists are women entering male-dominated professions. Two of her series (Song of the Lioness and The Protector of the Small) follow the journeys of the first women to train for Knighthood. Yet even though Alanna and Kel are surrounded by men (and make friends with men) they managed to be friends with women too. Female friendships are the norm in Pierce’s writing, not the exception.

The Trickster duology, however, probably has more friendships between women than any of Pierce’s other series.

After being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Copper Isles, Aly discovers that the Raka natives are finally ready to throw their luarin overlords. And they need a spymaster. Aly, through bad luck, trickery and manipulation, gets herself that job.

The Raka rebellion aims to put a Queen, not a King, on the throne of the Isles. It’s quite a gender-equal revolution: women and men both act as warrior, spies, mages and leaders. Not surprisingly, Aly cultivates quite a few important friendships and alliances with other women, from her cautious loyalty to Duchess Winnamine (the stepmother to the potential heiress), her easy camaraderie with Chenaol (Aly’s first friend in the Copper Isles and the rebellion’s weaponmaster), her wary “please-don’t-hit-me” friendships with Ochubo (head of the Raka mage network) and Junai (her bodyguard) and her long-distance friendship with Daine.

Aly’s most important friendship, however, is with Dovesary Balitang, a clever and wise thirteen-year-old half-Raka noblewoman. The rebels believe Dove’s older sister, Sarai, is the prophesied twice-royal Queen. Aly’s relationship with Dove is arguably the most important relationship in the book, full stop – the two women’s admiration, wariness and respect for one another is fascinating to watch. And their evolving friendship becomes integral to the rebellion’s success.

It’s a genuine sromance. And it always makes me tear up.

“I don’t need a maid,” Dove said. “I need a friend.” […]
“I will be your friend till the end of time,” Aly told the younger girl.

2. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Beauty Queens Libba Bray Cover

Friends don’t let friends wear Maybelline

Picture this: a plane full of teen beauty queens crash-lands on a desert island. They must survive. They must practice their pageant walks for the Miss Teen Dream pageant. They must keep exfoliating. And they must foil the plans of an evil organization of evil people hidden in a giant evil volcano at the center of the island. [ Yes, this is speculative fiction. It’s a dystopia. Don’t argue with me]

And there are explosions.

I know you just ran away from the computer screaming “WHY HAVEN’T I READ THIS YET?” I know. I feel your pain.

This novel is a high-wire act. It would have been so easy for Bray to spend the story making fun of the teen pageant queens and their silliness. But no. Beauty Queens is a satire, yes, but not of the teen girls themselves. It’s a satire of everything in our society that constrains them, that dis-empowers them, that puts them in competition with one another, that forces them to conform to silly gender norms.

Instead of being a “let’s make fun of the silly girls who parade around in swimsuits and sashes,” book, Beauty Queens is about how all these women – the dumb ones, the blonde ones, the silly ones, the mean ones, the women-hating ones, the ones with trays stuck in their head, the ones who love lipstick and the ones who love swordfighting – are actually awesome. It’s a book that’s incredibly supportive of girls and their friendships and their culture. It’s a book that’s also incredibly good at portraying a diversity of female experiences – we have, among others, a transwoman, several women of color, a lesbian character, a deaf girl, a die-hard beauty Queen and a girl who hates beauty pageant (among others). And it’s a book that manages to be critical of oppressive gender norms all while being fantastically optimistic about the potential for making those gender norms explode (and the potential to live fulfilling lives in spite of them).

As the book goes on, the teen beauty queens stop being wary acquaintances playing their prescribed pageant roles and learn to respect and like one another as real people. These developing friendships allow the teen beauty queens to unravel the secrets of the island – and the secrets of their own identity. They discover who they are outside their beauty queens personas. And then they blow things up.

Empowerment and blowing things up.

You want to read this. Trust me.

Mary Lou: “Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching them so they can be who they really are.”

3. Power and Majesty by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Tansy Rayner Roberts Power and Majesty

In Power and Majesty, the first book of the Creature Court trilogy, Velody, a dressmaker, discovers that she is the potential new King of the Creature Court, a group of magicians who defend the city of Aufleur during the night. The Courtiers are almost all men; the King has always been a man. Should she become King, Velody would be the first woman to ascend to the throne.

Power and Majesty is one of the rare books where a woman enters a male-dominated profession yet still manages to maintain her old female friendships. She beats the curse! Whoo!

Velody lives with her two best friends: Rhian, a former rich girl whose family disowned her for going into business, and Delphine, a florist recovering from an old trauma. Rhian and Delphine are as important in Velody’s journey as the beautifully dangerous men of the Creature Court.

Rayner Roberts’ portrayal of Velody, Rhian and Delphine’s love and loyalty for one another is beautiful, smart and insightful.When Velody enters the Creature Court, her first priority is protecting her friends. She battles other Courtiers to keep them from hurting Rhian and Delphine.  When Rhian and Delphine discover that Velody’s the (potential) new King, their first priority is protecting her. They enter into the dark world of the night to support their friend (as best friends do).  They enter into the world of the Creature Court, I should add, almost completely defenseless, since Rhian and Delphine, unlike Velody, have no magic. But they want to protect their friend, and they find ways to do it. Because that’s what you do for your best friends. You go into the night and you fight the bad guys and you find ways to protect them. No matter what.

And it proves that yes, stories about women entering male-dominated fields are not incompatible with stories about powerful female relationships. It’s sad that more writers haven’t realized this.

I haven’t read the next two books in The Creature Court trilogy because they are only available in North America via kindle, and my kindle is down for the count (if anyone knows where I lost my power cord, please tell me!) But reviews assure me that the Rhian/Velody/Delphine relationship remains a huge part of the series. I can’t wait.

“From that day forwards, Delphine pretended she had intended to take the ribboning apprenticeship all along, and neither Velody nor Rhian every challenged her on it.
That was what friends did.

4. Air by Geoff Ryman

Air Geoff Ryman cover

I’ve talked about Air before, in my “Eight Great Books of Science Fiction for Women” post. Possibly because I love it madly.

Chung Mae lives in Kizuldah, a small village in the fictional country of Karzistan. One day, the authorities conduct a world-test of a new technology called Air. Air is like the internet – in your head. The villagers, who don’t own computers or television, are thrown into a panic by this test. One person dies.

Chung Mae, who is nothing if not resourceful, realizes that the village needs to adapt quickly if the villagers are going to survive the full implementation of Air. She launches a large-scale campaign of preparation. And the people she recruits for her campaign?
Other women.

The women are the engines of change in Kizuldah; it is through their relationships, their ambition and their pragmatism that the town survives. Chung Mae and her friend Wing Kwan, for example, use the television to set up a fashion business selling traditional clothes to fashion houses in the USA. Chung Mae and her friends – and rivals – fight and bicker. They create alliances and friendships; they hide their activities from men; they roam out in the world; they help one another protect their families. It’s one of the most realistic portrayals of female friendship I’ve ever read. These relationships are familiar to me. The women are  real people, and their friendships ring true – intense, fulfilling, and sometimes destructive.

“Kwan looked sober. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
“Oh! You could say that ten times and it would still not be enough.”
“But we came through.”
“We came through.”
Kwan hugged her. “You can stay, you know.”
Mae touched her arm. “I really do not know what I would have done if my friend Wing Kwan had not been so kind. There would have been nowhere else for me to go.”

5.The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

delia Sherman freedom maze cover

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that three of the nine things I’m recommending are young adult novels (The Trickster series, Beauty Queens and The Freedom Maze) Young Adult SF/F tends to do a lot better in the female friendships department. Perhaps because YA has a wide female readership and authorship, and female friendships have become an established YA trope.

The Freedom Maze is a very recent read of mine, and I can’t recommend it enough. Sophie, a teenager living in 1960s Louisiana is spending a long, boring summer at Oak Cottage while her mother takes accounting classes in the city. One day, Sophie wanders into the garden maze. When she comes back out, she’s been transported to 1860 – the adventure-story-loving Sophie assumes this is the start of a grand time-travel trip.

But things go wrong very quickly: the Martineau family mistakes Sophie for a slave because of her tanned skin, and put her straight to work.

Sophie begins to form friendships with her fellow slaves – specifically with Africa, a smart, strong hoodoo practitioner who helps protect other slaves from their white owners, and with Antigua, Africa’s headstrong daughter. As she becomes closer to these two women, Sophie moves deeper into the reality of slavery. Like Kindred (another time-travel slave-narrative), The Freedom Maze pulls no punches in its depiction of slavery. Sophie’s experiences as a slave are horrific, a far cry from the “Gone with the Wind”-esque picture of happy darkies she’s been taught.Her allegiance to her old ideas of racial politics, her family (the Martineaus) – and even the time period of her birth – begin to fade away. Instead, Sophie relies on Africa and Antigua’s help to survive – and in return, helps devise a plot to save Antigua from being sold downriver to New Orleans.

The novel is very much concerned with the similarities (and disparities) of women’s experiences across races and time periods. It’s also a brilliant portrayal of the way black women’s friendships and relationships helped slaves survive, and even gain agency, under horrific conditions.

“Come with me then,” Antigua turned to her, eyes glinting in the lamplight. “Come take the boat with me, we be free together.”

6. The Female Man by Joanna Russ

The Female Man Joanna Russ

The Female Man is one of the most important SF/F works of the 20th century. It a difficult, confrontational, knotty novel that will chew up your brain and spit it back out. And it’s almost entirely centered around women’s relationships with other women.

The story follows four women on four parallel worlds. Joanna lives in a world much like ours. Jeannine lives in a world where the Great Depression never ended and Adolf Hitler died in 1936. Janet comes from Whileaway, an all-woman planet where the men died in a plague eight hundred years ago. Jael’s world, meanwhile, is a dystopia where men and women are engaged in a literal “battle of the sexes.”

Near the beginning of the novel, Janet mysteriously shows up in Jeannine’s world, then manages to drag Jeannine to Joanna’s world (our world). Eventually all three women end up on Jael’s world. The four women become friends and allies (with varying degrees of success) as they try to understand their predicament. The novel is, essentially, an incisive and moving examination of how women relate to other women. Who are these women to one another? What are their experiences of womanhood? Can they understand one another across these vast cultural differences?

Complex interpersonal relationships between four women who are essentially the same woman (they share the same genes)? Parallel worlds? Feminist utopias?
Count me in.

7. Yoko Tsuno by Roger Leloup

Yoko Tsuno On the Edge of Life Cover Roger Leloup

I almost didn’t include Yoko Tsuno –  though it includes some of the most interesting and intense female friendships I’ve encountered in Science Fiction – because it’s a french comic book series.

And I didn’t think there were any English translations.

BUT THERE ARE.

Two of Yoko’s alien adventures have been translated as “The Adventures of Yoko, Vic and Paul.” Six of her other books have English translations – The Frontier of Life, The Time Spiral, The Prey and the Ghost, Daughter of the Wind, The Dragon of Hong Kong and The Morning of the World. Most of these are out of print, but you may be able to get them at libraries or amazon (I saw some cheap copies). I don’t know if the translations are any good, so this isn’t a ringing endorsement… but I’ll try to find out.

Anyways. Back to the point. The series, which served simultaneously as my introduction to science fiction and as my introduction to comic books, follows Yoko Tsuno, an electrical engineer  who has a propensity for getting herself involved in epic adventures. It’s an action series, and a science fiction series. But it’s also a series which, at it’s core, is about friendship. Yes, Yoko has her constant traveling companions, Vic and Paul. But Vic and Paul are a background noise; they’re not central to the series. Yoko’s most important friendships are with women: of the 23 books I’ve read, 18 feature a prominent friendship between Yoko and another woman.Indeed, most of Yoko’s adventures come about because she’s trying to help a friend.

And instead she ends up in the middle of a volcanic eruption.

Yoko is deeply, fiercely, uncritically loyal to the women she becomes friends with. It does not matter if you’re a criminal, an heiress, a time-traveler, an alien, an assassin or a rogue scientist: if Yoko likes you, she’ll be friends with you. And once she is, she will walk through fire for you. Or travel to a galaxy a hundred light-years away for you. Or fight the devil for you (this is an actual plot; I am not even kidding). Or time-travel for you.

Honestly, Yoko is a bit like James Bond. Every movie, Bond has a different girl he sleeps with; every book, Yoko has a different woman she become friends with. Unlike Bond, however, Yoko stays close to these friends, who remain important characters throughout the series. Her navigation of her complex relationships with a diverse group of women is a highlight of comic books.

James Bond. Except with less sleeping around. And more awesome.

Yoko Tsuno Khany Roger Leloup

Yoko and her friend Khany, the leader of Vinea

Eva: “Careful! Do you always drive this fast?”
Yoko: “Yes – when I think I’m about to find a friend.”

8. The Orphan’s Tales by Catherynne Valente

Catherynne Valente The Orphan's Tales In the Night Garden Cover

Someday, I will stop raving about Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales, and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief. But today is not this day.

Yes, on top of being a feminist retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, The Orphan’s Tales features women who talk to other women. Lots of women who talk to other women, in point of fact. There are many tales, and there are many female friendships. There are also many male friendships and many male-female friendships, all of which are rendered exquisitely by Valente’s  storytelling.

Listing the many female friendships in this series would take far, far too long. So I’ll just focus on the crew of the Maidenhead.
The Maidenhead is an all-female ship: the Captain, the navigators, the deckhands – all of them are women. All of them are also monsters – satyrs, three-breasted women, fox-women etc. They go around the world, rescuing other monstrous women and welcoming them into their ranks. They mentor one another – one of the most important friendships is the one between Tomomo, the Maidenhead’s first Captain, and Saint Sigrid, the Maidenhead’s second Captain. And they become renown the world over… before disappearing mysteriously in the deep blue sea.

Sigrid, an old woman who worships Saint Sigrid (and who used to be a bear), befriends Snow, a white-haired orphan. The two of them go on an epic quest to discover the location of the Maidenhead; they eventually get themselves swallowed by the same giant whale who swallowed the Maidenhead a few hundred years ago.

This is an epic, “fight-armies-for-you,” “get-swallowed-by-a-whale-for-you,” group of awesome, loyal, sromantic female friends. The kind I always look for in my fiction.  And it is glorious.

“Of course we’ll take you,” The Saint said. “Tommy bade us never turn away a recruit. We are a family of monsters, and the birth of new beasts is a cause for joy.”

9. Xena: Warrior Princess

Xena and Gabrielle

Don’t mess with success

I couldn’t make this list without putting Xena: Warrior Princess on it. Xena and Gabrielle are perhaps the only truly iconic female friendship in SF/F culture.* They’re our Kirk and Spock, our Frodo and Sam, our Holmes and Watson.

{when I say “iconic,” what I mean is: everyone knows about them}

And yes, I know. They’re sleeping together. We all know they’re sleeping together. It’s a truth universally acknowledged in Xena fandom that Xena and Gabrielle are a couple.

But despite all the queer subtext, the two women never have a relationship on-screen. As far as the show is concerned, they’re just very close friends. Very, very close friends. So  I think it’s safe to call them friends for the purpose of this list.

Besides, they started as friends.

Xena: Warrior Princess follows the travels of Xena and her companion, Gabrielle, as Xena tries to make up for her dark past as a warlord by saving the helpless. There are a lot of explosions. And swordfighting.

The two women are constant companions. Gabrielle is initially a naive farmgirl who joined Xena to have adventures (and avoid an arranged marriage), while Xena is… a formerly evil warlord. Many of the individual stories involve Xena saving Gabrielle (or Gabrielle saving Xena). And the major emotional arcs in the series center around Xena and Garbrielle’s friendship.

They’ve died for each other. They’ve fought armies for each other. They’ve saved – and killed – each other’s children. They’ve gone to heaven and hell together. They were crucified together. They raised a daughter (Hope) together. The show calls them “soul mates.” They’re reincarnated together.

They’ve got the most epic friendship of all times, is what I’m saying. As far as I’m concerned, Kirk and Spock, Frodo and Sam and Holmes and Watson can all go take a hike. It’s Xena and Gabrielle all the way for me.

Xena: “Gabrielle, the love that we have, it’s stronger than Heaven or Hell. It transcends good or evil. It’s an end in itself! Our souls are destined to be together.”

[Ares, upon discovering that Xena is pregnant]
Ares: “I didn’t know you were looking for a father.”
Xena: “I’m not.”
Ares: “Well then, someone clearly has the job.”
Xena: “Yeah, Gabrielle. “

Xena and Gabrielle Friends

Xena: “So… you’ll be my friend?”
Gabrielle: “Sure! I love a woman with a shiny sword.”
Xena: “HAHA, we’ve beaten the curse!”
Gabrielle: “The curse?”
Xena: “The curse that says no two women in SF/F can speak to each other without dying.”
Gabrielle: “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s a myth.”
Xena: “Uh, Gabrielle, we live in ancient Greece. One of our best friends is a Centaur. The other ones are Amazons and Gods. It’s quite mythic around here.”
Gabrielle: “Okay, so it’s not a myth. It’s an urban legend.”
Xena: “You’re an urban legend.”
Gabrielle: “Oh, ha-ha. You’re lucky I like your sword, or I’d go find a smarter friend.”

Edited To Add:

I’m keeping a running list of all the books/TV shows/whatever with prominent female friendships that I remembered AFTER writing the list. [I’m only adding things to the list that I’ve seen or read, just because it’s the only way I can vouch for their…veracity. Doesn’t mean I don’t agree with other suggestions!]

1. Cold Magic and Cold Fire by Kate Elliot. How could I forget about this series? (which I love) Cat and Bee 4ever!

2. Sailor Moon. For obvious reasons.

Related Posts:

Why I Don’t Read Comic Books: A Call for Recommendations 

May Reading Roundup: Who Saw the Fantasy?

I Never Wanted to Be A Boy (A Tribute To Authors)

How the Power Rangers turned me into a Feminist


I Never Wanted to be a Boy (A Tribute to Authors)

[This post is a companion piece of sorts to my “How Power Rangers Made Me a Feminist” post, although you don’t need to have read that post to read this one. In the Power Rangers post, I discussed how sexism in TV shows had a negative effect on me growing up, while in this post, I discuss how the awesome books I read when I was a kid had a good effect on me as I grew up. You see, I don’t hate everything! Just the terrible stuff]

***

I never wanted to be a boy.

And it turns out, that’s somewhat of an unusual experience.

***

Back during my finals season (*shudder*), a series of interrelated blog posts penned by female speculative fiction authors went up. First it was Stina Leicht. Then Kate Elliot. Then Kirstyn McDermott. and N.K. Jemisin. There are probably more I missed.  I was, of course, dying of finals, so I couldn’t do anything more than gather links. But there was something so powerful, and so disturbing, about these women’s stories, that I kept on going back to them.

Let’s see if you can spot the common thread, shall we?

Stina Leicht: “[Girls] are barraged with the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place for them specifically at an early age. I have memories of such information filtering down to me at age eight through ten. So much so, that I went through a phase of denial. I took on male behaviors, thinking that would make me safe. (I was a tomboy.) I also went through a phase of not wanting to be female (…) because I was beginning to understand what was ahead and that the world did not like females.”

Kirstyn McDermott: “I was a tomboy for most of my childhood. Thankfully, I have a wonderful mother who I can’t ever remember saying that I couldn’t/shouldn’t do something or like something or be something just because I was a girl […] I do remember being told such things by lots of other people, though — including some male relatives. Although I didn’t think I ever consciously took that on board when I was a kid . . .  I reckon it did manage to seep in. And I reckon I reacted to it just the way Stina Leicht did, by rebelling against everything girlish[…] Because being a girl isn’t safe.”

Kate Elliot (guest-posting at The Fantasy Book Cafe): “What I saw was that the things I yearned for–adventure, travel, sword fights, the excitement engaged in by characters in the fiction I loved to read–and the things I had–ambition to strive for lofty goals, an inner drive, a questing mind that wanted to discover–were things that society and literature and film told me were reserved for boys. When I was in 7th grade and twelve years old,  my Language Arts teacher […]  gave us a questionnaire of “fill in the blank” questions meant, I suppose, to make us think about our selves and our lives […] The last question was the most open-ended one: “I wish . . . ”
I wrote: I wish I was a boy.
What it meant to me was that it wasn’t worth being a girl.
Being a girl was second-class, even in some ways shameful. Boys got the good things, they were clearly seen to be better, it was obviously better to be a boy, and furthermore, the dreams I had and the desires and hopes were boy dreams, not girl dreams.”

N.K. Jemisin (guest posting at The Fantasy Book Cafe): “I did what I could to reject the GIRL box whenever I could. To that end I’d started reading science fiction — but never fantasy, because fantasy was girly […] Fantasy was full of women in scraps of stupid-looking armor, being rescued or having relationships or healing people or something. Science fiction was full of men going places and doing things […] Then I clearly remember thinking, but I’m a girl. And that was it. It wasn’t an especially shocking realization, but it was a profound one. In that moment I began to understand: the problem wasn’t that some books were infested with girl cooties; the real problem was my irrational fear of girliness. And myself.”

Did you spot it?

It’s fairly obvious, but I’ll paraphrase it for practicality’s sake. When they were young, these women all went through a period where they wanted to be a boy and/or they hated being a girl.

[Cue Sigmund Freud jumping out and yelling “PENIS ENVY” at the top of his lungs. Calm down, Freud]

I don’t know about other people, but I find these stories very hard to read. To me, they show how, from a very young age, we teach girls to hate themselves, to think of themselves as second class, as worthless, as unsafe. Even smart, strong, successful women like Kate Elliot, N.K. Jemisin, Stina Leicht and Kirstyn McDermott – women who I might (stupidly) expect to have been unaffected by the negative effects of sexism (again, very stupid assumption) – had to go through a long, sometimes painful, phase where they reconciled themselves to their status as women.

And no one should have to reconcile themselves to their gender.

[Quick side-note: Obviously this particular “I want to be a boy” phenomenon is quite different from transgendered people, whose gender identity does not match their birth sex. But transgendered people shouldn’t have to reconcile themselves to their birth sex either; they should be able to safely live as the gender they identify with.//End side note//]

But this phenomenon is not restricted to the four women listed above. If I take a moment to think about it, I can list at least two or three close female friends who have admitted to going through “boy” phases. I can certainly think of more who have deliberately rejected anything “girly.” And then, when I talked to my mother about these stories, she said she’d felt exactly the same way when she was a kid. She’d gone through a phase where she decided she didn’t like being a girl, so she dressed like a boy, talked like a boy and adopted “boy” mannerisms [I saw the pictures. There is proof]. Which shocked the hell out of me, because I’ve always thought my mother was extraordinarily comfortable in the way she expressed her gender identity.

When I think about it, it’s staggeringly common, this desire to be a boy. And on an intellectual level, I completely understand it. Being a girl in our society means not being safe. Being a girl means being judged according to norms which, for all the changes in the past fifty years, are still very traditional. Being a girl means your body is public property. Being a girl means that your rights are a political ping-pong ball; a”hot-button issue.” Being a girl means people feel free to tell you to shut up, sit down and make them a sandwich.

Wanting to be a boy – or at least, not wanting to be a girl – makes total sense.

So why didn’t I ever want to be one?

Because I never did. I’ve thought about this a lot in the past couple weeks, and I cannot, for the life of me, think of any period in my life where I wanted to be a boy. I can’t even think of a period when I really rejected “femininity” (whatever that means) [ Sure, I went through a phase where I decapitated my barbie dolls and buried them in the backyard… but I was always a morbid child]. I have a lot of moments where I wish I were as free as a boy, or where I wish I could walk at night and be safe like a boy, or where I wish that women were paid the same amount as men. But I never wanted to be a boy.

Which is strange. When I was a kid, I read tons of science fiction and epic fantasy – traditionally “male” genres. For years, my greatest ambition was to be – I kid you not – a warrior. I spent hours practicing side kicks against an tree in our backyard. I still have a big heavy stick in my room I used to practice “staff fighting.” Somewhere in my house ( I will not reveal where) is a diary where I recorded my “training” sessions (Hey, don’t judge me, okay? At least I wasn’t plotting the nuclear apocalypse). I wasn’t quite a tomboy, but I was pretty close.

So given how much of my identity was “male” oriented, why didn’t I ever want to be a boy?

On some level, I think I knew, even from a young age, that girls could do anything they wanted to, and the problem wasn’t with girls, it was with people and institutions who didn’t get that. So yes, I could read science fiction as a girl, and yes, I could beat a tree to a pulp as a girl, and there wasn’t anything wrong with me.

But I don’t think this belief came because I was smarter or wiser or better educated than girls who did go through a “I want to be a boy” phase.

I think it was because of books.

Kate Elliot: “After that, at the tender age of 15, I decided I had had enough of there not being anyone like me even in my own stories. I decided to write about girls, about women–about men, too–but women in equal space and equal importance to the story. This was not a small decision. It went against what I saw when I read; it went against received wisdom, especially in adventure stories […] I realized that in my own small way I might help overturn this diminishment of female lives not only by portraying women in diverse ways that allowed women a full range of personalities, occupations, roles, and stories, but also by respecting the centrality and importance of the women’s work so often considered (often by women) trivial, demeaning, and lesser.”

Tamora Pierce: “Why do I write so many strong female characters? When I was a kid, 7-8 books out of all books written for kids through teens had boy heroes. Those that had girl heroes showed them at “feminine” pursuits, or if they were a little feisty, a male hero had to bail them out by book’s end (…) When I encountered fantasy, I had the same problem: virtually no girl heroes. The ones I found, adult women all, settled down, hated other women, or died. I didn’t understand why there were no girls (or those that existed were severely compromised) in the adventure books, so I began to write what I wanted to read: adventure books with girl heroes.”

Kate Elliot and Tamora Pierce didn’t see female characters, so they started writing them. You know who else did that? Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr., Patricia Wrede, Louise Fitzhugh, N.K. Jemisin, Gail Carson Levine, Robin McKinley, Seanan McGuire, Nancy Farmer – the list goes on. And on. There are droves of female authors who grew up reading books with almost no female protagonists, and who turned around and said: “Screw that. I’m writing about chicks.”

And guess who grew up reading those books?

I did.

I read Tamora Pierce. I read Robin McKinley. I read Madeleine L’Engle. I read Harriet the Spy and Ella Enchanted and Dealing with Dragons. I read The Babysitter’s Club (yes, The Babysitter’s Club, you gotta problem with that?). I read Nancy Farmer. I devoured Sailor Moon and Yoko Tsuno. I read Hope was Here and Born Confused.

In these books girls were the heroes – all kinds of heroes. They were knights and policewomen, spies and politicians, ordinary students and fashion experts, electricians and caterers, waitresses and magic girls, aliens and historians – oh my!

So if I didn’t see my girlhood as limiting me, it was because in the world of my reading, there were no limits to what a girl could be, or to how she could save the day.

You know why I wanted to be a warrior when I was a kid? Because I was reading Tamora Pierce. You know why I didn’t see being a warrior as a “male” pursuit? Because Tamora Pierce’s warriors were female. Even in the Alanna series, when Alanna was the only female knight, there were other women warriors [Thayet and Buri, to name a few]. So when I was pounding that tree into a pulp, I was doing it in the grand tradition of Keladry of Mindelan, Buriram Tourakom, Alanna the Lioness and Daja Kisubo (although I’m sure none of them would be silly enough to practice kicking on a tree).

Eventually, my warrior ways (god, this is embarrassing. I’m so glad this blog is under a pseudonym) – prompted me to take Tae-Kwon-Do lessons. Which was lovely, except for the fact that the instructors would always try to goad male students by saying:

“Are you going to get a girl beat you?”

[Spoiler warning: Yes]

Or: “You hit like a girl!”

[No shit, Sherlock. I am a girl]

But you know what? Even though that bothered the hell out of me (and it went straight into my growing realization that “Wow, people are kind of sexist”) – I knew better. I knew no one could joust like Keladry of Mindelan or swordfight better than Alanna the Lioness. I knew no one was stealthier than Harriet the Spy or braver than Usagi (AKA: Sailor Moon) or more loyal than Dimple Lala. I knew no one was cleverer than Ella and no one was smarter than Yoko Tsuno.

I knew that there was nothing shameful with being “like a girl.”

And someday, everyone else was going to figure it out.

So to all those authors who grew up wishing to be boys. Who grew up knowing that being a girl was unsafe, that being a girl made you “lesser than.” To all of you who then turned around and said: “Screw this, I’m writing about chicks.” Who said “girl can be the heroes.” Who were brave enough, and strong enough, and determined enough, to fight the good fight. Who told the people who thought there was no market for girl heroes “You’re wrong” and who got those books published anyways.

To all those authors, in short, who made it possible for me to have a shelf upon shelf of fantastic books with smart, strong, independent women as heroes.

Thank you.

I have never wanted to be a boy. I have always been happy to be a girl. And it’s because you showed me that being a girl was great.

Thank you.

And to all those people who say “but it’s just a book/a video game/ a comic book. It’s not real. Everyone knows it’s not real. So it doesn’t affect you. Now stop complaining about the lack of female/queer/people of color/ disabled/etc. characters and go make me a sandwich.”

I say: “You’re wrong. And go make yourself that sandwich. Git.”

The End

[Giant disclaimer: the state of fiction is nowhere near equitable enough, either when it comes to female characters, or to other marginalized character s(queer, people of color, trans, disabled etc.). In fact, even though I read a lot of books with female protagonists as a child, I still read more books with male protagonists (and that was with me actively trying to FIND books with female protagonists). We’re not there yet. But the fight is worth it.]

Related Posts:

How Power Rangers turned me into a Feminist

Eight Great Books of Science Fiction for Women (an Alternative List)

WisCon 36 Wrapup: Please Don’t Tame the Shrew

The Return of the Secret Feminist Cabal


Home is where the Library Lives (College Edition)

[Content note: I have put Cat Pictures at the end of this post in a shameless attempt to get people to read the whole thing. Then again, you could just scroll to the bottom. My super-evil plans would then be FOILED]

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t buy a lot of books.

Oh, sure, I read a lot. But I don’t buy that much. Most of what I read comes from libraries. I do feel quite guilty about that (although NK Jemisin argues I shouldn’t) – I know authors need book sales, and it’s important to me to contribute to the book publishing industry.

At the same time, I read a lot of books. Like, over 150 books a year. And if I bought over 150 books a year? Yeah, I wouldn’t…eat. I’m a college student; I don’t have that kind of disposable income. And I like eating. It keeps me alive.

So yes. In the interest of eating, I don’t buy that many books.

You can thus imagine my shock when I was packing to go home for the summer, and realized that there were books on every single wall of my college-home room.

Apparently I do buy a lot of books.

I blame the major. You can’t be a literature major without buying a lot of books. Five books per class minimum, multiply that by four to five classes a semester… mucho books. And I do resell a lot of mine, because I’m callous and I need the money, but I keep ones that I think will be useful.

Just so you know? I think all the books will be useful at some point.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was so surprised. I’ve always accumulated books one way or another, mostly because I’m terrified that I’m going to run out of things to read. When I visited my family in France as a kid, I developed a super-secret (and effective) method of lining my suitcases with books (as I recall, I mostly took Tamora Pierce novels. You can’t travel without Keladry of Mindelan. You just can’t). I usually take three to four books with me on plane trips, even if the trip itself only lasts three hours. I never go anywhere without a book or two in my backpack. I start freaking out whenever my to-read pile dips lower than four books. And when it was time to move to college, I insisted on sending two huge boxes of books across the US border so I could fill the bookshelves of my dorm library.

Small, portable, giant, unwieldy, literate, speculative, diverse or juvenile, I’ve always had some kind of library with me. If only because my greatest terror in life is running out of reading material.

Then again, at this point in my college home (not a dorm anymore, thank the Lords of Kobol), I’m starting to worry that we could just take out the walls of my room and replace them with my books.

Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?

Exhibit A: the printer

Printer Books

I used to have a printer. Now access to it is completely blocked off by these two piles of books. Can you see my printer? No.

My point exactly. Trust me, it’s there.

At a glance, I’m pretty sure they’re all books from last semester. A book of Chinese history, two collections by H.D., a film textbook and Ovid’s Metamorphoses… yep, definitely the fall semester. I’ll give a quick shoutout to the one book that wasn’t from the fall semester for my Hardy-obsessed friend, JYP – Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, hanging around the far left with price-tag still attached. This section isn’t even that bad – it used to be triple the size, but I had to bring all my research books back to the school library. Which is good, because now I can open my closet without tripping over Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.

Speaking of my closet…

Exhibit B: The Closet

Book closet

I deny everything

WHY ARE THERE BOOKS IN MY CLOSET?

And why is my window-spray container leaning on top of them?

Yeah, that I have no good answer for.

Returning to the original question: WHY ARE THERE BOOKS IN MY CLOSET?

Oh, wait, I know why. There isn’t room anywhere else. Especially not for my giant textbooks.

Yes, I’ve become the kind of person who hides books in her closet. I’m not proud. I’m even less proud of the fact that there might be an entire suitcase filled with old books hidden in the back of this closet. Might. Might. I didn’t check. I had… other things to do.

Like feel shame.

The bad news is that I’ll probably have to put even books in my closet, since I’m running out of other places to put them. That’s going to be a problem because, you know, my closet actually serves a purpose: keeping my clothes off the floor. I feel like “book stashing” and “clothes stashing” are eventually going to clash. There’s only enough real estate for so much.

Now this! This is a good use of real-estate.

Exhibit C: The Wall

19th century science fiction

This is the wall space between my bed and my closet. Correction: this used to be the wall space between my bed and my closet. Now it’s a miniature library. Hurrah!

I’m actually mildly impressed with how organized my books are (famous last words). I know exactly what’s in this book-section: 18th century British novels, post-war British novels and (American) civil war textbooks. The pile on the far right is made up of my giant cookbooks (it’s not a super-practical arrangement, because I keep needing to use said cookbooks and thus disturbing the entire stack). It also contains two European women’s history textbooks and a History of the Book Reader (which is a great textbook, by the way. Highly recommended. Very interesting). When you think about it, there’s some sort of meta-ironic-commentary being made by the fact that I shelved the women’s history textbooks and the cookbooks in the same place (because obviously all that women did during the medieval era was cook! Am I right, ladies? /sarcasm/).

That was totally planned, by the way. It wasn’t just that the women’s history books and the cookbooks were vaguely the same size. *cough*

On top of the deeply ironic women’s history/cookbook section, I’ve got my small but awesome collection of 19th century British Science Fiction, from one of my favorite literature courses. It’s telling that I haven’t resold any of the books from that class, despite the fact that I had to buy them all new (and with Canadian prices, even the paperbacks cost $15-$20). Well – that’s a lie. I managed to get a great used copy of M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud. It’s from the 1950s; it’s got a buxom lady on the cover and a cigarette advertisement inside. I love it.

Now – here’s what’s interesting about the last three photos. All the books I’ve shown – excluding the cookbooks – were bought for class. Which, er, says something about the classes I’m taking, huh?

Oh, but you say. That’s not that many books (for school)! Only about fifty or so. And you’ve been in school three years now…

Fair point! Then let me show you…

Exhibit D: This Semester’s Books

Class Books Winter Semester

And that’s one semester’s worth of books

These are (almost) all the books I bought for this semester of college. ONE semester. My rough calculations say that I bought 28 books and checked out an additional five from the library (they were on the syllabus, but I was too cheap to buy them. Can you blame me?).

And yes, this is a pretty precarious bookshelf. In it’s defense, it’s not actually tilted – I was taking these photos with my computer’s photobooth (I don’t own a camera), and I couldn’t shoot an untilted photo without hanging upside down from teh ceiling. But I keep fearing that the poor shelf is going to collapse and send all of my school books crashing onto my desk. Which is why I never keep my computer at my desk.

Paranoia saves lives, people! (okay, it saves computer lives. Still)

A few times the books on the right have come unbalanced… and then they slide right into the trash can (I’m not even joking). It’s pretty hilarious. And sad.

Also, note the photo of Shakespeare right under the bookshelf. Hey, I’m a literature student. I have to have a photo of Shakespeare somewhere.

So yes. This is what one semester’s worth of class books looks like in my world (and yes, I did read all of them). My conclusion? Maybe I’m not a book-buying addict. Maybe my classes are trying to turn me into a book-buying addict.

And they say school is good for you.

The worst part is: what the hell am I going to do with these giant piles of books when I need this space for next semester’s books? There’s no more room in my room! GAAAH.

And I can’t sell all of them… they might come in handy at some point.

Maybe I should invest in another bookcase.

No! That’s just the crazy talking. Think of how many books I could buy with the money I would spend on a bookcase (even one of those cheap $30 IKEA bookcases). LOTS of books.

And I do, in fact, sometimes buy books that aren’t related to school. Case in point:

Exhibit E: The To-Read Pile (with an appearance by Mr. Calvin and Mr. Hobbes)

To-read pile

This is my to-read bookshelf (located right above my bed). Usually it’s a lot fuller, but since I was on the point of leaving my college home when I took these pictures, I returned all my library to-read books. Because stealing library books = not okay.

Anyways. The central pile? Those are the “Thank Maud I finished another semester of college without jumping off a building, now let’s go buy some science fiction and fantasy and pretend we never heard of “literature,” shall we?” books. All those books I’ve been eyeing for months, but couldn’t read because I had to finish Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park? Yeah, I… went a little crazy and bought most of them.

THERE WAS A SALE! It’s not my fault. Also, I’d just finished my last final, and I was in a really bizarre state. Nothing I did in those hours can be held against me.

Okay, I have no defense. I’m a horrible person. But look! Martha Wells’ The Cloud Roads! Seanan McGuire’s Discount Armageddon! More Seanan McGuire (A Local Habitation)! N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon! Sooo many good booookssssssssssss…..

I admit it. I’m a horrible, no-good, bad book-buyer. I’m an addict. Something must be done.

I actually read all of the books in the central pile between the time the photo was taken and the time I wrote this blog post (about two weeks). Well, almost all of them. I still haven’t gotten around to A Clash of Kings. My friends keep assuring me it’s great; I enjoyed the first book in the ASoFAI series. Besides, I have to read it so that I can get to the rest of the series and vote appropriately for A Dance with Dragons in the Hugos. But for some reason, I really don’t want to read it. I blame the yellow cover.

This shelf also contains my knitting books and my collection of Calvin and Hobbes comics. And my Firefly DVDs. And a bouquet of dried flowers my Marat/Sade cast gave me for being a decent Assistant Stage Manager (because they are awesome). There’s clearly a link between all of these things. Who says my library isn’t organized? *cough*

There’s also another picture of Shakespeare somewhere, if you can spot it. Literature student!

(oh, and yes, I did blur one of the photos under the bookshelf. PARANOIA SAVES LIVES, people. Especially on the internet).

Ahem. Moving on.

(yes, there’s more. Told you I had a problem).

Finally! FINALLY, after showing you all of my “secondary” libraries and book-storage areas, I will get to the central culprit. The true locus of readership and literature.

My actual bookshelf.

Exhibit F: THE ACTUAL BOOKSHELF

Bookshelf bottom

I love my actual bookshelf. It’s wonderful. It also contains no class books whatsoever – all the books here are ones I shipped from my regular home back in Freshman year. They are my very favorite books in the universe (or at least, my very favorite books back when I was in high school). My entire collection of Tamora Pierce books. My entire collection of Tudor history books (most of which are by Allison Weir). The Abhorsen Trilogy. All my Libba Bray novels. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Karen Joy Fowler. The Sparrow. Jane Eyre, The Professor, Wuthering Heights and the Austen novels. Also, all the Young Adult novels that kept me floating throughout my horrid high school years – Born Confused, The Truth about Forever etc. And a bunch of books about US politics like The Nine and The Dark Side, because apparently, I find those fun.

I sent all of these books to my college because back when I was in high school, I didn’t read a lot of new books. I mostly re-read old favorites – and I expected I would continue this pattern when I arrived in college. So having 100 books I already liked that I could re-read was quite important to me.

I still do re-read now, occasionally. Mostly when the world is exploding all around me and I need some comfort. But I love having my old books around, even if I’m not reading them constantly like I used to.

The giant pile right by the bookshelf is yet another “book storage” area. These are my “read” books – the books I’ve finished. Every few weeks I do a purge and bring a bunch of those books back to the library, then freak out over where to put the other, non-library books. There’s no room left on my “for fun” bookshelf. No, seriously, I’m not kidding. Look.

Bookshelf top

Like I said. No room. I’m now stacking books on top of rows of other books, and I’ve still got tons of books in my “read” pile to store.

…I really have a problem, don’t I?

From this not-so-brief survey of my college room, I have concluded a few things:

1. I buy a lot more books than I think I do

2. WOW, I buy a lot of books for class

3. I am quickly running out of real-estate, and am going to need to find some kind of radical solution next year. Like selling books (NO) or buying a bookcase (maybe). Or getting rid of my bed to make room for more books (yes!)

And since you have made it to the end of the post, I shall reward you with some obligatory cat pictures.

Look! Cat!

Cat with Books

The Cat is Judging Me

The Cat has been sick, and as a result, she has been spending a lot of time in my room. I think it’s because I keep the temperature pretty high. The Cat is also a very, very black cat, so it’s hard to get a picture of her where she doesn’t look like a big black blob. She’s absolutely gorgeous in real life, and does not resemble a Big Black Blob. That’s the Photobooth’s fault.

The Cat was in no way amused by me frantically running around my room, taking pictures with my computer. She was particularly put out when I decided to step on the bed – the bed where she was sleeping, thank you very much  – to take a photo of my to-read bookshelf.

The Cat thinks this blog is a complete waste of time, particularly since it involves disturbing her bed (the fact that it’s also my bed is lost on her).  She thinks I should spend more time in worthwhile pursuits. Like petting her. Or acting as her pillow.

But for the record, The Cat also thinks I need a new bookshelf.

(those things are EXPENSIVE, The Cat. Even the cheap IKEA ones)

The Cat with Books

North America’s Next Top Cat Model

The Cat does not like me taking photos of her, because that takes time away from Petting. But she does think this is a satisfactory photo.

*sigh* I miss The Cat.

(I flew home – home home, as opposed to college home – last week. So I have not seen The Cat in a while).

I also miss my books. But the good news is, my home-home has libraries of its own. And I just made two trips to the city library. So I feel pretty good. I’ve got a pile of eight unread books… that should last me for a week, right? Right?

*starts to panic*

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