I need to do a bit of a follow up to my previous post about the issues at Worldcon. I didn’t touch on everything that happened, and since the issue blew up, Mary Robinette Kowal, whose tweet from years ago on a related subject I quoted in that post, has agreed to help redo the programming. Kowal has been running the programming tracks at the annual Nebula conferences for a while, and she had posted a nice summary of their process for trying to put together a program that appeals to many parts of the community. So many of us are provisionally hopeful that the situation will be a bit better at the actual convention than they appeared just days ago.
I have also been reminded that sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between ignorance and actual malice. Now, I was thinking that most of the bigotry that seemed to be motivating the issues were likely unconscious—all of us are often unaware of just how many prejudices we have absorbed from society. Alis Franklin, in particular, has pointed out another explanation for much of the problem:
“This all feels very much like people used to running a small-town parochial con with an established member-base suddenly getting in a twist because they have to accommodate (gasp) outsiders.”
And she’s likely on to something. A lot of this does sound like the people in programming are speaking from their past experience running their local convention, where they believe they know their audience and what those attendees expect. But even if that is the case, I still suspect that their local crowd includes a lot more queers, people of color, and other folks who are interested in topics that their local con doesn’t recognize in programming—because as I said, we’re everywhere, and we’re all used to being excluded and dismissed; so much so that when we raise an issue and are shut down, we often just hold our tongues thereafter.
On the issue of the one pro whose submitted bio was edited to change all of eir pronouns to “he” and “him”, and the insistence for a few days that this was a bio taken from the web (when no one can find such a bio and they can’t provide a link), that gets into the conscious versus unconscious bias. Either the person who copied the bio was simple too ill-informed about non binary people and nontraditional pronouns, and simply assumed it was some kind of extremely consistent typo (which I think is a stretch), or they’re one of those people who balk at pronouns to the point of refusing to use any they don’t agree with and decided to change the bio and then claim it was a mistake if they were called on it.
I don’t know if the same staffer is the one who decided not to use another pro’s usual publication bio and photograph, and instead write a different bio using information that usually was not released publicly and use a photo taken from the pro’s private Facebook. In any case, it is difficult to construct an “honest mistake” excuse for that one. And if it is the same staffer, I think that is more than adequate proof that the changed pronouns on the other bio was an intentional aggression.
In several of the discussions online I’ve seen a lot of people not understanding what the problem was with requesting semi-formal wear for the Hugo ceremony. Foz Meadows summed it up better than I did:
”…the fashion at the Hugo Awards ceremonies tends to be a welcoming, eclectic mixture of the sublime, the weird and the comfortable. Some people wear ballgowns and tuxedos; some wear cosplay; others wear jeans and t-shirts. George R. R. Martin famously tends to show up in a trademark peaked cap and suspenders. Those who do dress up for the Hugos do so out of a love of fashion and pageantry, but while their efforts are always admired and appreciated, sharing that enthusiasm has never been a requisite of attending. At an event whose aesthetics are fundamentally opposed to the phrase ‘business casual’ and whose members are often uncomfortable in formalwear for reasons such as expense, gender-nonconformity, sizeism in the fashion industry and just plain old physical comfort, this change to tradition was not only seen as unexpected and unwelcome, but actively hostile.”
I also note that a few days ago Mike Glyer posted a link to a letter from decades back from E.E. “Doc” Smith (the author of the Lensmen books, among others) when the 1962 WorldCon asked for all the ladies attending the award ceremony to wear long formal gowns. Smith commented that his wife had not owned formal wear since entering retirement and thought it was unreasonable to expect people to go to such an expense.
Which is a nice segue to this: until the 34th WorldCon (MidAmericaCon I, 1976 in Kansas City, Missouri) the Hugo Awards were given out at the end of the convention banquet. The banquet consisted of eating (obviously) while the guests of honor gave speeches. Fans who couldn’t afford the extra expense of the banquet were allowed in (usually in a separate area such as a balcony) for the awards portion. The awards ceremony was separated from the banquet in 1976 for a couple of reasons, but one was to make it easier for everyone who wanted to attend to do so. The conventions had gotten so large that the fraction who wanted to see the award ceremony was too much for the banquet halls of typical convention hotels to accommodate, and there had always been the problem of people who couldn’t afford the banquet ticket. I wanted to close with that because I have seen a number of people arguing that the people who are feeling unwelcome because of this con’s actions are making unreasonable demands to change traditions of the conventions.
The traditions change over time for many reasons. It isn’t about change for the sake of change, it is change of the sake of practicality and realism. People have, in the past, believed that science fiction and fantasy was only created by straight white guys, and was only loved by other straight white guys. That has never been true, but the illusion was maintained through a variety of societal forces and some willful ignorance. It has become increasingly difficult to maintain that willful ignorance, and besides, ignorance is never a good look on anyone. It’s not about whether fandom is diverse, it is about to what lengths some people are willing to go to ignore, silence, or push out that diversity.
So how things came to a head: a professional writer who has been nominated for a Hugo this year was told they weren’t going to be on programming because “there is a kind of creator who appeals to Hugo nominators, but are totally unknown to convention attendees.” The email also managed to misgender the pro and… well things went downhill, after the pro and their spouse posted some of this information online. The programming people contacted the spouse, asked the spouse to convey their apology and expressed disappointment that they went public instead of handling this privately.
And that prompted many many other writers and creators to come out of the woodwork, posting their own many attempts to deal with similar issues (such as, “why did you discard the bio my publisher sent you, and pull information from my private Facebook account instead?” “What do you mean that people like me aren’t of interest to convention attendees?”)—indicating that a whole bunch of people had been trying to address this privately to no avail.
Only when it became public and dozens of authors who were on the programs wrote in to either withdraw, or at least suggest that other, newer, less well known writers could take their place on some panels, did the con chair issue a real apology (there had been a “we’re sorry if anyone’s offended” style non-apology the night before).
Because the thing is, the people who were being excluded weren’t just new writers to the field, it was overwhelmingly the queer creators, the non-white creators, and the women creators. And at one point, the programming person explicitly said, “Do you expect a WorldCon to be like WisCon?” WisCon being famously more feminist-friendly and queer-friendly than most other conventions.
Other people have written about this situation, and probably better than I, but there’s a part of this whole thing that just really presses my buttons, and it aligns with a theme I’ve written about many times on this blog: to wit, queer people, trans people, people of color, women, and people of many religions and cultures have been fans of sci-fi/fantasy (and created sci-fi/fantasy) for as long as it has existed. We aren’t new. We aren’t exotic. We aren’t fringe or band-wagoners. We’ve always been here, we just have seldom been allowed to be visible. As Mary Robinette Kowal observed at least four years ago:
“It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.”
—Mary Robinette Kowal
Let’s go back to the explanation that was being given before the backlash forced them to scrap their programming plans and start over: “There is a kind of creator that appeals to the Hugo nominators who is not known by the convention attendees.”
I have at least three responses to that:
First, nominators are attendees. In order to nominate for the Hugo Awards and in order to vote for the winners, one must purchase a membership to the convention. And you know who else are attendees? The pros who are coming to the con that the con com doesn’t want to let on the program. Sure, not every attendee participated in the nomination process, and not every one of them nominated ever finalist, but some fraction of the attendees did. And the number of people who nominate is more than large enough to be a statistically significant sample of fans. So it is an entirely misleading and useless distinction to try to draw between attendees and nominators.
Second, this argument is a form of gaslighting. I’ve seen some people compare it to the old TrueFan arguments (and the more recent Real Fan claims from melancholy canines), and those are good comparisons, but I think a better model is the Moral Majority. I know I hark back to that particular group a lot, and I admit I know so much about them because they originated in the denomination in which I had been raised and they came to national prominence literally as I reached legal voting age, so my earliest election experiences included being told again and again that, because I disagreed with them, I was a member of the implied immoral minority.
This is the same kind of argument: “attendees” are implied as being the vast majority of fans, and these majority of fans don’t find “that certain kind of creator” interesting, unlike the “nominators.” The nominators are, by inference, supposed to be viewed as a fringe, extremist minority whose interests can’t possibly overlap with the implied majority. And just as the Moral Majority’s very name contained two lies (they were neither moral nor a majority), this notion that type of fans who are not interested in a “certain kind of creator” must consititute such an overwhelming majority that virtually no programming to appeals to anyone else is worth having.
Third, the majority/minority part isn’t the only form a gaslighting being attempted. Because here’s the thing: in most of the Hugo categories, it is not people who are nominated, but works of sci-fi/fantasy. The authors are referred to as nominees, but technically it is a specific novel, novella, novelette, short story, et cetera that is nominated. But that phrase, “a certain kind of creator who appeals to the nominators” puts the emphasis on the creator and the creator’s identity. In other words, they are arguing that the nominators really didn’t like the specific story, but have chosen the story to fulfill a quota or something.
In other words, the person who made this statement believes that the story nominated doesn’t really deserve to be nominated, and believes that the nominators don’t believe that either. It’s the same racist/homophobic/transphobic/misogynist arguments that the melancholy canines were making. A “certain kind of creator” is a dogwhistle. The nominators may want queer/trans/women/people of color, but “normal” people don’t. That’s what that statement says. And this is why I still fervently believe the person who said that should be fired from the con com.
Fourth, finally, they are arguing that attendees are only interested in seeing creators they already know and love. Completely ignoring the fact that most fans want to both see old favorites and to find new writers/stories/shows/what-have-you that might become favorites. One of my favorite parts of attending conventions are when I am exposed to new authors I’d never heard of before, and new works that I’d never seen. I’m always writing down names of authors and stories and ‘zines and so forth, and then going to look them up after the con.
Many of the authors who are currently in my personal list of favorites, are people who I learned about at a convention panel. Yes, once they become a favorite, I will look for their names in the programming grid and try to see some of their events, but I’m not just there to see the folks I already know.
The conventions where I ran programming were all smaller than WorldCon, but I have run programming at conventions. I know it is hard work. I know it can feel like thankless work. But one of my goals with that programming was to provide convention attendees opportunities to learn new things, to find new artists or writers and so forth that they didn’t previously know about; to introduce the work of many people to new audiences, while also giving fans a chance to see the people whose work they already liked.
If you don’t see that both of those goals should equally drive the programming of a sci fi or fantasy con, then you absolutely should not be working on programming. Go work for a commercial convention where the only point is to sell autographs. Do not volunteer for a World Science Fiction Con.
In subsequent years I started hearing the word being used pejoratively on the playground (this would be late sixties and through the seventies), and clearly the word meant either “idiot” or “dork” or “jerk.” By middle school the insult began to be a bit more sexual, but still definitely an insult, sort of a combination of “c*cksucker” and “wanker.”
Many lexicographers express skepticism that Bugs Bunny is to blame for the shift in the meaning of nimrod, but then fail to offer a compelling alternative explanation. Several of them trot out a line of dialogue from the obscure 1933 play, The Great Magoo. The word nimrod is clearly used as an insult, but it is specifically a reference to a man who had fallen in love with the showgirl, and that he’s another in a long line of nimrods pursuing her. The problem is that while it is being used as an insult, clearly the insult is still a reference to Nimrod the Mighty Hunter—in this case someone who sees this woman as a prize to be captured.
And since all of the lexicographers agree that the “synonym of idiot” meaning became common in the early 60s, it’s a little difficult to believe a play that flopped 30 years earlier was the source.
Another example that is trotted out is a series of humorous stories published in a British periodical in the late 19th Century which ran under the pseudnym of Nimrod. Each story is told in the first person and recounts another humorous misadventure while attempting to participate in a fox hunt. But that’s even harder to believe that the 1933 play, first, because of the longer period of time but also because all the dictionaries agree that the “synonym of idiot” meaning is chiefly a U.S. usage.
I’ve seen at least one person simply express skepticism that a single line of dialogue from a single short film could have the effect. I have several responses to that. First, it is three different Bugs Bunny cartoons in which the insult occurs (amusingly enough, only one of them is it used to describe Elmer Fudd, the other two times are both used against Yosemite Sam). The other thing is that from the late fifties through the seventies, Bugs Bunny was everywhere.
In 1956 Warner Brothers licensed the rights to all of their Looney Tunes cartons made up until mid-July 1948 to Associated Artists Productions. A.A.P. began syndicating them to local stations, and by 1958 were able to claim that the highest rated local shows in every metropolitan market were those that included at least some cartoons. No one had cable, and people could only get three to five local stations over the air, so your choices for entertainment were limited. And the syndication deals weren’t exclusive, so I remember that at one point in my elementary school years, where there was one show on one channel that ran every weekday morning around the time we were getting ready for school that included several Looney Tunes cartoons, plus a half hour show that ran every weekday at 4:30 on another channel that was all Looney Tunes cartoons, and another half hour of Looney Tunes that ran on a third channel every weekday at 5:30.
In addition, in 1960 Warner Brothers started producing and selling to various networks a program that combined cartoons made from mid-July 1948 on. First as a primetime weekly Bugs Bunny Show, then it moved to Saturday mornings. As I said, for a while, Bugs Bunny was everywhere.
According to at least one dictionary specializing in slang, the “synonym of idiot” meaning of nimrod was used prevalently by U.S. teens and pre-teens in the 70s and 80s. All of us kids watching Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 60s and 70s could account for the new meaning of the word arising in our age group quite nicely at that time. Whereas the obscure 1933 play and the humorous 19th Century British magazine origins just don’t make any sense as an origin for American schoolyard slang in the 70s, do they?
Finally, another reason to believe the fault lies with misunderstanding a sarcastic usage of the word is because it has happened in English many times. For example, terrific used to mean terrifying (terrific is to terror as horrific is to horror, as a friend so eloquently put it). How did terrific come to mean the opposite? Simple, the sarcastic or ironic use became far more common than the original meaning. Sometimes language just takes a left turn at Albuquerque, eh, Doc?
Which is exactly what homophobes have been sniggering and making fag jokes about with Le Fou since Disney released the animated version of the movie. Gaston is a parody of hetero hypermasculinity, and Le Fou is is craven, clownish sidekick willing to do anything at all to get the slightest bit of attention from Gaston. Le Fou’s lack of manliness in the animated film could be rationalized as being there to throw Gaston’s exaggerated masculinity into sharp contrast. Okay. Except that is exactly what the Hollywood sissy/coded gay sidekick has always been: he’s the example of what a “real man” isn’t. His whole point it to prove that unmanly men are jokes, at best. Not real people, but punchlines.
So they are taking the implicit hateful characterization and making it an explicitly hateful characterization. Thanks, but no thanks.There will be people who insist that we shouldn’t judge it until we see it, but they’ve given me enough information that I already know they have messed this up. The fact that they decided to announce it, for one. Just as if a person begins a statement with, “I’m not a bigot, but…” we all know that pure bigotry is going to follow, if you feel the need to announce you’re enlightened and inclusive, you don’t know what those words mean. The director has described the classic negative stereotype (confused, obsessed with a straight man) is what they’re going for. Worse, they’ve referred to it more than once as a moment. Just a moment. You know why it’s a moment? Because they are already making plans to edit that moment out of the international release, because they knew as soon as word got out that countries would start threatening to ban the film. Heck, Alabama is already up in arms about it!
That means that it’s a tacked on joke. It’s not part of the plot. It’s not a meaningful part of Le Fou’s characterization.
Even if they do something with it. Let’s say that at the end of the film they have a moment that implies maybe Gaston is ready to return his feelings? What message does that send? It tells us that hating women (Gaston’s exaggerated masculinity includes a lot of misogyny in the animated feature, just sayin’) or being rejected by women is what makes men gay. And, oh, isn’t that great inclusion?I mentioned that the Beauty and the Beast revelation was the second time this has happened this year. Previously it was Snagglepuss. Yes, DC Comics/Warner Brothers announced that the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character, Snagglepuss, was going to be reimagined in a new comic book series as “a gay Southern Gothic playwright.” Literally my reaction on twitter a nanosecond after I saw the first person retweeting the headline was, “reimagined? But that’s what he already was!”
Snagglepuss was a version of the sassy gay friend from the beginning. He was protagonist of his cartoon series, which wasn’t typical for the sassy gay friend (who is more typically a sidekick to one of the lead characters), but Snagglepuss broke the fourth wall constantly, addressing the viewer with his arch asides and sardonic observations. He was the viewer’s sassy gay friend, in other words. And he was cheerful and optimistic and always trying (but usually failing) to improve his life in some way. Despite the many setbacks, he remained cheerful and upbeat.
So the DC Comic (besides being drawn by an artist who has apparently never seen an athropomorphic character before—seriously, go hit that link above and tell me if that isn’t the worst comic book artwork you’ve ever seen!) takes the happy, upbeat fey lion and turns him into a bitter old queen. Again, thanks but, no thanks!
Coded queer characters have been appearing in pop culture for decades. Their portrayal as comic relief or as villains (and sometimes both) sent a clear message that they were not normal people. They are never the heroes. They can be loathed as villains, or tolerated and laughed at as sidekicks, but they will be lonely and unloved in either case. Neither of these supposedly inclusive announcements changes that homophobic message. It’s not, contrary to what certain evangelical hatemongers are saying, indoctrinating kids to be accepting of gays. It’s instead reinforcing the same old bigotry: we don’t matter, we are jokes, we are never the heroes, we are never loved.
Just another means of erasing the truth of our existence. No thanks!
At the time, I decided to keep the conversation light, and simply said that we saw it because it was obvious. The real answer is a lot more complicated and serious than that. I didn’t feel up to explaining the unconscious homophobia underlyng the very question, and sometimes, frankly, I’m just tired of being disappointed in people.
But the problem persists, far beyond the people involved in that conversation. And yes, it is a problem, a very real and serious problem. What is the problem, you ask? Some people say the problem is invisibility or cluelessness, but…
In this way the writer can present his cowardice, laziness, and lack of imagination, as artistic integrity. “I couldn’t write gay characters; I didn’t have any.” Hand-to-forehead; the tortured auteur.
—Andrew Wheeler, writing for Comics Alliance
It’s actually about erasure and willful blindness. As I’ll explain further…
I get reminded in weird ways how old I am, sometimes. For instance, there was a discussion happening between some of my online acquaintances about Star Wars, specifically about the original movies (where young Luke Skywalker is the protagonist). I made a comment about what a freak I was considered to be by classmates because I had seen the show more than 13 times. And the comment made no sense to the people in the discussion.
So I had to explain that I was talking about when it first came out, and was only available in theatres. This was in 1977, when I was a teenager. Worse than that, it didn’t play in any of the theatres in the smallish town where I lived until about four or five months after it first came out. The closest place that had a big screen and a decent sound system where the movie was playing was more than an hour drive away—not only not in the same town were I lived, but not in the same state!
When you’re a high school student you don’t have a lot of disposable income, so the gas money and cost of tickets wasn’t a trivial expense. I carpooled (either using my old beater car or letting one of my friends drive) twelve times over the course of the first summer the film was out in order to see it. And then in the fall I went once to the truly crappy local theatre that finally got it, dragging a few friends I had never been able to talk into taking the longer trip.
Also at that time period, while home VCRs technically existed, they cost thousands of dollars and were huge, heavy things. Video rental stores didn’t become a common type of business for a few more years, when the technology got a little cheaper. And even then, the players were expensive enough that many people would rent both some movies and a machine from the store in order to have a movie night at home.
Cable television existed only in cities and larger towns. When cable first came to our small town, I was 19 or 20 years old, and it consisted of 15 regular channels, plus the premium channels of HBO or Showtime (Cinemax, Stars, and the like didn’t exist, yet). I write “or” because while very few people I knew had cable at all, most of those who did had only the 15 basic channels, and no one splurged on more than one movie channel. No one.
And, of course, DVDs literally didn’t exist, yet. Let alone the internet.
I had to wait three years before The Empire Strikes Back came out—by which time I was a freshmen in college. Then another three years after that before any of us got to see Return of the Jedi.
I saw all three of those movies, during their respective opening weeks, in the same big theatre in Beaverton, Oregon. It was like a religious pilgrimage for me, by then. I’d been hooked at 17 years old, and the passion still burned with the intensity of a billion suns when I was 23.
This is one of the reasons that, when I hear some of my friends complaining about how many months it will be before the new season of My Little Pony comes out, I don’t always give them as much sympathy as I probably ought.
On the other hand, I’m just as bad. The last episode of Justified season five aired eight months ago, in April, and I’ve been dying while waiting for season six to begin… which it will in January 2015. That’s less than 30 days from now. Inside, 23-year-old me is laughing so very hard at current me because I’m agonizing over having to wait merely months for the next chapter in a saga. And this is hardly the only series or movie that I have such lamentations about.
So, while part of me rolls my eyes at younger fans, another part of me is rolling my eyes at me, too.
Of course, we should remember that 173 years ago, back in 1841, people are said to have lined up for blocks in London waiting for a new edition of a weekly magazine called Master Humphrey’s Clock so they could read the next chapter of Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Even more fun were the stories of people meeting English travelers disembarking from ocean liners in New York at the time, to ask whether Little Nell lived, since American publication of the stories was several weeks behind the British chapters.
As they say, times change, but human nature doesn’t.
On one of the news blogs I follow, the resident comics nerd felt compelled to post a correction/explanation to a post by another contributor reporting that DC Comics’ character, Green Lantern, who was revealed as gay this week. The correction noted that the Green Lantern in question (Alan Scott) is not the same DC Comics Green Lantern character (Hal Jordan) portrayed in the awful movie last year starring Ryan Reynolds. At the end of the explanation, he lamented that the fact that such an explanation was needed proved comics will never be accessible to casual readers.
I think he was being too generous. As a comics nerd of many decades standing—a comics nerd who marked corrections in my copy of the excellent Facts on File Encyclopedia of Super Heroes shortly after I bought mine in 1985—let me say that superhero comics are fast becoming inaccessible to the devoted reader, as well.