I had a lot of thoughts, watching the ugliness that’s been going down regarding what people perhaps misleadingly refer to as the “game community”, but my primary one was probably just “well, this sure is familiar.”

That might be easy to miss in some of how it’s been talked about: we’ve seen this before, and it’s not uncommon. This kind of cultural toxicity is a sort of ever-present background radiation that sometimes spikes into greater visibility, but something I’ve seen a number of trans and queer folks and people of color saying is Slurs and smears and threats to your personal safety? Yeah, welcome to most of our lives. This isn’t at all to minimize the horror of what Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn have been going through but to point out that for some categories of identity this kind of thing is often normalized into invisibility.

The specific bell that chimed for me, that mark of familiarity, was struck because of what I’ve seen in the science fiction and fantasy community in the past couple of years. Which is essentially the same thing: slurs, smears, harassment and threats of violence, and – perhaps most fundamentally – the questioning of the right of anyone not white and straight and cisgender male to be in these creative spaces at all. Meditating on this business sent me back to N.K. Jemisin’s fantastic Guest of Honor speech at this past WisCon, where she describes the same exact phenomenon:

How many of you have heard that epic fantasy or video games set in medieval Europe need not include people of color because there weren’t any? I love the Medieval PoC blog for introducing simple visual evidence of how people like me were systematically and literally excised from history. The result is a fantasy readership that will defend to the death the idea that dragons belong and Those People don’t.

Incidentally, the person who runs the Medieval PoC blog estimates she has received something on the order of 30 death threats in recent months.

And let’s talk about the threats — including the ones I’m likely to get for this speech. The harassment. The rapes. The child abuse. Let’s talk about how many conventions have been forced to use disturbingly careful language to basically say, Don’t assault people. Let’s talk about how much pushback statements like that have gotten from people whining, “Aw, c’mon, can’t I assault someone just a little?”

I think one could draw a number of parallels between these two groups and the behavior we’re seeing – and indeed, “geek culture” (whatever that means, exactly) creates a degree of overlap. In considering how to approach this, I thought a lot about gender – how could you not – and some of my background in military sociology and what Lieutenant Colonel Karen O. Dunivan has called the “Combat-Masculine Warrior Paradigm”, which is essentially the cultural construction of a soldier and what it means to be a soldier and how the identity of Soldier is inextricably linked to masculinity (though as Kameron Hurley points out in her Hugo-winning essay, women have always fought).

But I can’t get away from the feeling that that approach is at once too obvious and majorly insufficient. Of course video games and gaming have been and still are gendered masculine, despite the fact that female-identified gamers over 18 now make up the majority of the gamer population. And of course SF&F has been subject to the same processes of gendering, despite the fact that women have always been present and have always been fighting to make genre more inclusive. And of course men and boys will often react poorly to what they see as encroachment by a collection of feminine interlopers preparing to make what they love less awesome. Of course people are generally afraid of what they perceive as change. We all know that, or we should.

So what else is going on? We should expect to see ugliness, sure; it’s everywhere in culture. But why is that ugliness so particularly vicious here?

I don’t think you can boil it down to any one reason. But a number of things came together for me that I believe offer at least a partial explanation.

What many people have noticed in a lot of the misogyny flying around isn’t just hatred but a deep-seated resentment, a sense of festering injury. These guys appear to feel like they’ve been hurt by Anita Sarkeesian, that people like her are trying to take something away from them. I started thinking about this in connection to the various ‘isms that have been rearing their heads in SF&F, and I ended up at the idea of a defiant community.

To clarify: lol nerds

Although science fiction and fantasy – and now gaming of all kinds – have always permeated popular culture, people who are obviously SF&F fans have not historically been constructed in particularly flattering lights. Given the amount of geek culture crossover here, I think one could generalize this to an admittedly oversimplified idea of “gamer”. These are communities – sometimes loose, sometimes extraordinarily tightly-knit – who not only build themselves out of mutual entrainment on a devotional collection of cultural objects but on the defiant embrace of an outcast identity. We’re the weirdos and the freaks and the nerds and the secret is that we’re actually cooler than everyone else. I think this is especially true of people who fell into these cultures and communities as teenagers; I remember how important that sense of secret defiance was. It helped keep me going through some difficult times when I felt profoundly alone.

At least for gamers, this is all of diminished practical importance. People may question the legitimacy of video games as anything but time-wasters, and some of us still appear to be mired in the deeply boring BUT ARE GAMES ART debate, but for the most part games and gamers are now culturally normative and not subject to much in the way of marginalization. Yet I think that sense of defiant community remains, and as Matthew S. Burns points out in his excellent discussion of gamers as “consumer-kings”, it’s something on which the industry understands it can literally bank:

Vast troves of media and content are generated about games every day. It’s easy to get lost in considerations of what game does what well, what game looks the best, sounds the best, which game is the most anticipated, which game might give you the most pleasure when it is released. Ranks of community managers answer questions, assuage fears, absorb complaints, and generally work to make the consumer-king feel respected and important. Slogans like “by gamers, for gamers,” or “power to the players” are uttered. And developers, to varying degrees, continually thank and celebrate their “fan communities”…

The flip side of the consumer-king is an exceedingly loyal customer who will spend a ton of money on games one way or another. Even at the height of his righteous anger, he will probably only avoid one or two platforms or publishers out of spite. He might contribute toxicity or otherwise cause real problems for real human beings. But because of the way our system works, his desire to return to the pure happy consumption palace wins out over the other concerns. At the end of the day he puts money into the system by buying games, and that is the bottom line, the most important fact about him. He is a “gamer”.

That last point is especially salient: the most important thing about a gamer is that they spend money on games. That is now the true center of that particular identity. And being a consumer to whom an industry caters through making them feel special and important has an effect on how people think of themselves. If they’re already nursing the feeling – however subtle – that they’re special members of a special group who deserve to choose between fine dishes specially created to their specific taste, the idea that other people might be coming to the table is deeply threatening.

Suddenly they’re not the consumer-kings anymore. Suddenly they’re not the only ones for whom the chefs are cooking.

This is why I find it interesting that I’ve been repeatedly told that I shouldn’t expect games to “cater” to me – and I see that said all the time whenever the subject gets raised. It’s said by people who appear to be generally oblivious to the fact that they’ve been catered to since the birth of the industry itself. Like all privilege, it vanishes under the cloak of normalization.

For some people all this prospect means is annoyance and vague resentment. But for others this is the spectre of the disintegration of their status as consumer royalty. So they don’t just react with annoyance and resentment; this becomes a fight in which no weapon is off-limits. These people – women, trans and queer people, people of color – do not belong here and must be repelled at all costs, because they will destroy what makes us feel special and important. This is a zero-sum conception of community space and identity defined by consumer culture. More for thee is less for me.

Violent anger is, almost without fail, how the privileged react when they perceive that their privilege is being threatened. But this is also about community originally built around wounded egos, and it’s about consumer capitalism and the sense of entitlement that invariably results. Put all of this together in the context of a racist, misogynist culture, and you have a recipe for horrific degrees of harassment and abuse.

It’s especially worth noting that these are often the same guys who accuse marginalized people of playing up their “victimhood”.

So we need to understand this as more than just misogyny. In no respect is it a fluke or an exception to any rule. This is something that naturally results from the precise manner in which the game industry is constructed, and from a long history of identity construction. Understanding it won’t fix it. But ideally it’s one step among many.


Sarah interlopes wildly on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

image by Elvert Barnes
image by Elvert Barnes

I sort of wish this thing could be longer. But I also think maybe it shouldn’t be. I’ve spent a great deal of the last two weeks watching the world scroll by on my Twitter feed and weighing the relative merits of saying things against not saying things, but mostly I’ve just been watching, because what else can you really do? A lot of us can and do do a great deal more, but a lot of us just seem to be watching. And retweeting. The amplification of voices is, I believe, a worthwhile thing in itself.

As is always the case in situations of fast-moving catastrophe – human-caused or otherwise – emotion is hopelessly intertwined with the sharing of information, yet when it come to academic discussions of how events are covered via social media I so often see emotion ignored. Its existence is recognized, but also treated as mostly incidental. And how can this be? The emotion is overwhelming, physically so. Despair, grief, rage, a grim kind of hope. I’ve seen tweets expressing dread for the coming multitude of thinkpieces regarding white feelings about watching violence dealt out to black and brown bodies, so I don’t want to make this about what I feel but about the feelings that are there, that are real and legitimate and need to be recognized.

The devaluation of certain people’s emotions in favor of the emotions of others is a central feature of systems of domination and oppression. The silencing of those emotions always results. To be able to feel and to have people care about those feelings is a mark of privilege. So white people are distressed by black anger, and the hurt feelings of white people dominate the narrative. As Brittney Cooper writes in her piece “In Defense of Black Rage”:

Nothing makes white people more uncomfortable than black anger. But nothing is more threatening to black people on a systemic level than white anger. It won’t show up in mass killings. It will show up in overpolicing, mass incarceration, the gutting of the social safety net, and the occasional dead black kid. Of late, though, these killings have been far more than occasional. We should sit up and pay attention to where this trail of black bodies leads us.  They are a compass pointing us to a raging fire just beneath the surface of our national consciousness. We feel it. We hear it. Our nostrils flare with the smell of it.

The delegitimization and erasure of emotion is about domination and oppression, and it’s also about the validity of sites for the expression of emotion. Recently a piece on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish referenced Nathan Jurgenson’s essay on the “IRL Fetish”; it said nothing new and got almost everything wrong, but it made me think about emotion and disconnection, and what it means to disconnect.

Over and over in the last few days I’ve seen people of color on my Twitter timeline say (paraphrasing) “I can’t take this anymore, I need to step away. I can’t watch. This is too painful.”

Why don’t we talk about this when we talk about voluntary disconnection?

The stories are seemingly always about and told by people who have the privilege of choosing to step away, to log off, to unplug. People who may “depend” on social media and digital communication for work, to maintain basic everyday connections with friends and family, to simply entertain themselves. And we do write about the cost of opting out, and we also write about how “opting out” isn’t actually possible. But we don’t talk much about how people denied power are locked into the act of witness, subject to massive psychological pain with each fragment of news that scrolls by, every image, every Vine, every livestream clip. How simply being there and watching feels like an imperative, like something necessary, but also amounts to a barrage of emotional assault. And when we talk about how one can’t opt out, we need to talk about how what we see on timelines and hashtags is something that marginalized and oppressed people can’t step away from. It’s still there.

If you’re lucky, you can walk away from Twitter and close your eyes and, for a while, not see. But for a person of color, it’s still there, all around, and it couldn’t possibly be any more real. I’m white. I can step away, and suddenly it’s at a distance and I can breathe again. That’s my privilege. The act of disconnection means something different for me, and is embedded within different arrangements of power and inequality. And if I want to talk about my significantly lesser pain, most people will at least probably listen, while for the majority of white America, black anger and despair mediated by all forms of communication amount to shouting in a dark, closed room.

I’m getting very, very bored with discussions about how much more fulfilled we are if we stop checking Twitter.

That’s not real life.


Sarah is on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

just because

Yesterday David Banks did a fantastic job outlining the technical issues at work in the matter of the ongoing comment harassment in Jezebel’s comments sections and Gawker Media’s inability/refusal to deal with it directly (though to their credit, as of yesterday they disabled image posting until a better solution can be found). I want to use that as a jumping-off point to talk about the discursive aspect of this, how gendered spaces are explicitly being made unsafe for certain kinds of people, and about how those tactics at once obscure what’s going on and justify it.

To recap yesterday, gonna just steal from David:

For months now, waves of violent pornography gifs have been posted to Jezebel stories using anonymous accounts untied to IP addresses or any other identifiable information. That means it’s effectively impossible to stop abusive people from posting to the site. Instead, Jezebel writers and editors have to delete the posts themselves, hopefully before too many of their readers see them.

Jezebel went on to explain that their higher-ups at Gawker knew about the problem, had known for a while, and had not acted, hence Jezebel’s announcement to the public regarding what was going on (and yay, it seems to have at least sort of worked). But looking at and thinking about the problem, it struck me that both the harassment and the subtle – and really not so subtle – ways in which Gawker’s priorities are coming through here are part of a process that I’ve seen before. That we’ve seen before.

The idea that technical spaces in general and the internet in particular are gendered male is well established by now. The phenomenon of cisgender men getting resentful at ladies ladying up the internet isn’t a revelation to anyone who’s paying attention. When something is gendered, especially when it’s gendered according to the population in power, that population protects its territory by making that territory unsafe for what it perceives as the invaders, who will ruin it by putting makeup and nail polish and doilies all over it.

(Makeup and nail polish are awesome. I can take or leave the doilies.)

Okay, fine. We all recognize this, or we should. Hence the death threats in the comments sections of female bloggers, hence the rape threats, the body-shaming, the slut-shaming, the general abuse, et cetera ad finitum.

What’s interesting to me here are the images and the fact that these specific images are being used – rape porn, gore, violence in general. Rape and death threats are upsetting and triggering, and words can wound, but images are designed to bring you right up against what you find horrifying, temporally all at one go. You do not have the option of refusing to imagine it, or imagining it only in part. Even if you look away as fast as you can, you’ve still seen it. You can’t un-see it. At that point, whatever emotional and physiological reaction you have is no longer under your control.

And let’s please not forget that emotions are embodied. They are one of the most embodied things we ever experience. Emotional pain is physical pain. Emotional trauma is physical trauma.

Emotions are also gendered, and so is trauma. Emotional pain is something women feel; if men feel it, they’re supposed to suppress it, and really they’re not supposed to feel it at all. Conspicuously not being fazed by the ugly and the violent can in fact be a mark of mental toughness, something desirable and praiseworthy.  If you find a violent or disturbing image upsetting or triggering, you’re weak, which means you’re feminine, and you don’t belong in this masculine space. You should leave.

Add to this the whole “you’re too sensitive/you’re just looking to be offended/you like playing the victim/you’re taking it too seriously” dismissing/derailing tactics usually used against people of color/women/trans and gender-nonconforming people/people with disabilities whenever we point out what’s going on, and you have a rather effective arsenal for keeping a space reserved for certain people and shutting out the voices and even the very presences of people you don’t want. Plus you get to hurt them in order to do it, and who doesn’t enjoy that?

But the dismissal of the hurt is additionally interesting. The people who are posting these images in Jezebel’s comments are doing it because they know it’s an effective weapon. They know it hurts. They know it’s brutal and ugly. And at the same time, often in the same breath, they downplay the significance and power of what they’re doing.

The last time I noticed this was during 4chan’s most recent attack on Tumblr, part of a feud that’s been ongoing for literally years. Earlier this summer, 4chan launched a loosely coordinated attack on Tumblr fandom and social justice-oriented users – often the two groups are are one and the same – by posting graphically violent images tagged with fandom/social justicey things.

Now, whatever you may think about Tumblr users as a whole, it shouldn’t escape notice who was actually the target of this attack.

I’m on Tumblr for both reasons – fandom and politics – and I was interested in this for sociological reasons as well, so I poked around a bit, looking for what others were saying. Some people were taking it seriously, but I saw a lot of both dismissal and outright glee on the part of external observers. I didn’t save all the links I found – I should have – but these selections from Reddit (I know, I know) are pretty representative of a lot of it:

I’m still cracking up. I made a point earlier where the reason why 4Chan spread so widely on Tumblr is because people were stupid enough to tag warnings and flood the tags with peaceful stuff like puppies, oceans, various things. A site so opinionated didn’t know when to shut up and stop calling attention to itself.

You know what, I think some tumblrinas are enjoying this raid because there’s a little voice in the back of their heads saying “now you’re actually a victim of something tangible. Your martyrdom is more legitimate now than it has ever been”. I can just feel the wave of bullshit rumbling on the horizon.

I am tired of Tumblr being the place for oversensitive (edit: and sometimes overly hostile), special snowflakes and all the clusterfuck of circle jerking going on there. This is one of the best raids 4chan has done, IMO, and it makes me laugh seeing all these people squirming on Tumblr. I give it 3 thumbs up.

lol tumblrinas

Seriously, though, this is almost always what we see, and I’m not arguing that any of this is consciously calculated on the part of the people doing it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. You have the “asking for it” aspect, the “too sensitive” aspect, the “victim” aspect, the “enjoying being a victim” aspect. And at the core of it, the dismissal of the fact that these are mostly people who are members of marginalized populations who are legitimately being hurt. The hurt is being dismissed, the people are being dismissed, and the entire thing is justified with “they were asking for it”.

Even sympathetic parties often respond to this kind of thing with “Well, that’s the internet. What do you expect?”

To me, that’s the capper. Emotions are weaponized, the damage they do is dismissed, the people who have been hurt are dismissed, the entire thing is done – rather effectively – in the interest of making space unsafe for certain people and punishing them for having the gall to be there in the first place, and finally the possibility that maybe this isn’t necessarily how it has to be is foreclosed upon.

That last, I think, is what’s behind things like Gawker’s inaction: the general sense a lot of people have that yeah, it sucks, but there’s not much that can be done, so oh well, and maybe you should just toughen up anyway. “Trolls will be trolls” has a direct discursive connection to “boys will be boys”.

So no, I wasn’t surprised by how long it took Gawker Media to react. I’m glad they did. But I won’t be surprised when this exact thing happens again.


Sarah has a massively thin skin on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


It seems like the science fiction and fantasy community is at a point where every month or so we have some kind of dust-up regarding harassment at conferences and conventions. Some of these have actually stretched over many months, and watching them both from the inside and the outside is always an interesting experience, in part because I’m intimately and personally interested in the outcome, but also because it’s like a giant master class in what not to do, as a conference, when dealing with harassment.

I should note that I’m going to be speaking here primarily as a private citizen, as it were, and not formally as a member of the Theorizing the Web organizing committee. It’s naturally impossible to completely separate myself from that, but this is not an official statement of any kind and should not be read as such. This is just me talking.

The most recent incident concerns a long-running feminist science fiction and fantasy convention known as WisCon. The story is somewhat involved (here’s a good link roundup) but suffice to say that harassment was reported to the committee and was subsequently very badly mishandled – ironically, given that WisCon bills itself as an explicitly feminist organization dedicated to creating “safer spaces” for marginalized people.

Though, as people of color, trans people, and many others already know, “feminist” spaces are usually hardly safe.

The larger point is that, again, this is not just about WisCon. This issue raises some important questions about what an organizing committee is and what their job consists of. That’s something that the people behind Theorizing the Web has spent a lot of time thinking about in 2014, in part because its anti-harassment statement and its claim to a commitment to construct a safer space was put to the test right out of the gate.

The general consensus seems to be that the situation was handled well, and also served as a very public statement to the effect that business is meant. It also demonstrated a commitment to the idea that “online” and “offline” should be treated not necessarily as the same thing but as spaces in which events potentially have equal weight and value. But there were certain things that made the situation unusual besides, that I think are worth noting.

Most particularly: it was public. Everyone saw it, including and even especially people who were not physically present. There was no need to report. This wasn’t a situation in which a single person was harassed and had to come forward to say so. And those are the situations over which con committees are repeatedly tripping. In part because there may be no record aside from what the victim reports; there may be no other witnesses besides the harasser, or if there are witnesses they may – for sadly excellent reasons – be reluctant to come forward. This can provide excuses for inaction or the protection of “respected” harassers – oh, well, we didn’t know for sure, we had incomplete information, it was their word against his anyway. Harassment done through social media can leave a clear trail, by its very nature. There can be screenshots, other saved documentation – though all too often not even clear documentation helps much. If a committee is already working with a plan of action that’s incomplete or poorly thought-through, or is ultimately far more concerned with protecting committee members than victims, the opportunities for doing things badly out of sight of the public, or of obfuscating things afterward, is not insignificant.

So if Theorizing the Web is committed to taking harassment in digital space seriously, fantastic. It’s about time. But physical space has to be taken seriously as well, because I think in a lot of ways the potential for harm is much greater.

We spent a lot of time and put a lot of thought into the precise wording of our anti-harassment statement. But a piece by Jamie Bernstein at Skepchick reminded me: “Your well-written anti-harassment policy is insufficient.”

We can evaluate the content of the policy and determine the general rate of harassment and culture by attending the con, but what we can’t do is test the con’s methods of dealing with harassment that actually happens and this is where many cons end up failing. Unless you attend the con, are harassed, and then make a report, you have no idea whether the con staff will actually take the complaint seriously or try to sweep it under the rug. Even if a con is generally good at dealing with harassment complaints, what happens when a report comes in that names a harasser that has connections with the staff at the con as happened in this WisCon case? The con may claim that everyone will be treated equally, but it’s impossible to know for sure until it is tested.

Afterward, we said that TtW’s statement had been tested. But it had only been tested a little and in many ways, the test wasn’t actually all that difficult, though in other ways it was. The real test will come when there’s a specific report made to the committee. And I say “when” because it will happen. There’s no way it won’t. Theorizing the Web has a lot more work to do, regarding what its priorities are and the degree to which it plans to stick to them.

I’m optimistic that that important work will be done, and done well. But I’m not about to relax.


Sarah is on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


[Edited to note: It’s been pointed out to me that I’m conflating transhumanism and posthumanism a bit here; gonna leave it as it is, but I agree and I just wanted to flag that.]

I’ve seen a lot of yelling about Lucy. The yelling is a major reason why I wanted to do some yelling of my own. And like so many times before, I find myself in the situation of feeling like much of what I could say has been said before by others, and better than I could, but I’m still going to yell a bit, because there are things about this film that trouble me profoundly, and I’m even more profoundly troubled by some of what people are saying about the film itself.

Before I continue, let me be up front and confess that no, I haven’t yet seen the film. I’ve seen trailers, I’ve seen clips, I’ve read a lot. But it’s absolutely true that a lot of my yelling is going to be mediated by things that probably aren’t properly contextualized within the plot of the film, or that have been mediated by the opinions and subjective readings of others. That’s just what I’m working with here and I own it.

Moving on.

So I could talk about a lot of the stuff in Lucy that people have pointed to as problematic. Since the release of the trailer, it’s become infamous for its racism; it’s about a white, blond, blue-eyed woman menaced and literally butchered by stock Asian mobsters, who also incidentally – at one point – at least appears to shoot a Taiwanese man for not speaking English. In Taiwan. People have observed that there are issues of intersectionality and white supremacist feminism at work here, given the celebration of some regarding Lucy‘s box office victory over the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson grunty-growly-swordy vehicle Hercules (which has some of its own issues). There’s a lot here that seems pretty ugly. There’s a lot I could say.

But I want to focus on what the film appears to be saying about transhumanism and cognitive/physiological augmentation, and what both have to do – among other things – with the trope of the Strong Female Character.

So far, the people who are lauding Lucy as some kind of feminist action flick have been focused on the above. We have a woman who comes to be in a position of enormous – eventually godlike – power, and the film is ostensibly about her claiming and use of that power and what it does to her and what it means for all humanity blah blah. Which is great; the idea that blockbuster action movies that feature women as the protagonists don’t do well financially is an old one now (by the way, there’s also the idea that they tend to suck, a la Ultraviolet, Catwoman, Tomb Raider, etc.) and clearly we’d all like to see examples that indicate things might go another way. At first glance, Lucy seems like it might provide that, but I think there are problems there, and I think they go beyond issues of white feminism.

Something for which the film has taken a lot of heat is its ridiculous premise: the urban legend that we only use 10% of our brains, so imagine what could happen if we could somehow access the other 90% (for anyone who still doesn’t know, this is completely and utterly not true; we use most of our brains in some way most of the time and all of it active all at once is called a seizure). I actually have less of a problem with that, because if nothing else the fact that it’s a myth is all over the place now.

But here’s the thing. Take a character – a female character. Subject her to horrendous physical injury and abuse in order to make her strong (guys, this is so not new and it’s so gross most of the time). Make the film about the process of her owning her new power. If you do this, you run the tremendous risk of creating a character who is her own MacGuffin, who exists only to become something else. Essentially, you no longer have a character. You’re left with a plot device, as Susana Polo observes in her review for The Mary Sue:

This isn’t development of Lucy as a person — from a hard-partying, poor-judge-of-character exchange student into a vengeful superhero — it’s transformation of her into plot device. She stops being a character and instead becomes a force that happens to other characters, which can work just fine in concept, as long as that character is not the protagonist whose fate and feelings we need to become emotionally involved in.

And what’s the nature of Lucy’s becoming? As she accesses more and more of her brain, she arguably becomes less and less human, which isn’t exactly a new trope, but in the context of a film that’s being celebrated for a Strong Female Character, it’s troubling:

As Lucy admits unequivocally in her first conversation with Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman, the more of her cranial capacity she unlocks the less she feels bound by human desires and emotions, leaving Scarlett Johansson’s considerable acting chops in the back room as she delivers her lines in a monotone stretching the small space between bored to languid to just a little bemused.

We often construct human emotions as weakness. We also gender them female. Lucy might be a Strong Female Character, but as she leaves her frail humanity behind, she also becomes less of a whole person, with all the aspects of gender that human identity entails. A film that genuinely has empowering things to say about gender should probably be dealing differently with that.

This, to me, is one of the central problems with a lot of aspects of transhumanism, at least as I understand it: humanity doesn’t mean the same things to the same people, because we construct humanity according to social systems of oppression and domination. People of Color, women, queer people, people with disabilities, trans people, other gender-non-conforming people – dude, we exist in a state of diminished humanity. Your utopia of pure energy and intellect was not built with us in mind. Lucy may be seizing power, she may be turning into a creature of ultimate divine agency, but the context of her human identity will necessarily be abandoned. She won’t be a Strong Female Character, capitals or no capitals (more about that in a sec). She won’t be a character at all.

She will, in fact, literally be a flash drive.

And that’s the problem with the entire concept of the Strong Female Character: she’s not a character. She’s an archetype. She’s there to do a job, which is to be Female and to be Strong. So we see a character like this, who appears to be powerful, and I think a lot of us – including people who fancy themselves feminists – figure that’s enough to be happy about.

It’s not. We shouldn’t treat it like it is. This isn’t just unhelpful, it’s actively bad for representation in our fiction. As Shana Mlawski writes:

Some movies nowadays go even further.  They pile up one awesome trait after another on top of this sexy female character, thinking that will make them “stronger.”…This Super Strong Female Character is almost like a Mary Sue, except instead of being perfect in every way because she’s a stand-in for the author, she’s perfect in every way so the male audience will want to bang her and so the female audience won’t be able to say, “Tsk tsk, what a weak female character!”  It’s a win-win situation.

Except not.

A huge part of the problem, as Mlawski goes on to argue, is a lack of understanding – even and often especially on the part of writers – regarding what a “strong character” is. Most fundamentally, a strong character is a person – not necessarily a human person, but a person. They have complex motivations. They are fallible. They might even be intensely unlikable. They have rich histories and correspondingly rich presents, and “rich” does not mean “massively eventful and exciting”. Everybody has a rich history. Everybody is complicated. A strong character is recognizable in that respect. Mlawski actually makes the – to me, compelling – point that what we really need are more weak female characters, as in characters with flaws:

Good characters, male or female, have goals, and they have flaws.  Any character without flaws will be a cardboard cutout.  Perhaps a sexy cardboard cutout, but two-dimensional nonetheless.  And no, “Always goes for douchebags instead of the Nice Guy” (the flaw of Megan Fox’s character in Transformers) is not a real flaw.  Men think women have that flaw, but most women avoid “Nice Guys” because they just aren’t that nice.  So that doesn’t count.

Lucy is, in the end, flawless. She’s perfect. Thanks to medical technology, she’s a god. And I don’t need to see the film to be highly skeptical about the idea that a film about a woman who becomes a god and whose purpose is to become a god is going to be a film about someone with any real depth.

So what? It’s an action movie, action movies are by definition stupid and not deep. They don’t need to be, they just need to get butts in seats for a couple hours. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that a lot of people are talking about this film as if it’s some kind of feminist transhumanist unicorn. It’s not just another action movie. There is no way it could have been. That may not be fair, but the option was never open to it, so let’s not pretend it was. This is a film that features a woman in a male-dominated genre, so there is literally no possible way it was ever going to not be about gender.

And you know? I think we should be able to demand more from our fiction. Even our stupid fiction, because there’s a difference between stupid and bad, and there’s an even bigger difference between stupid and harmful. Action films are not deep character studies, no, but you only have to see a couple of the better ones to see how characters can be written interestingly and with some depth even in the context of shooting and explosions. We don’t single that out as an especially praiseworthy trait, but we like it when it’s there and generally on some level we notice when it’s glaringly absent.

I don’t get the sense that the people who are thrilled about Lucy are holding it to the same standard.

So no. I’m not happy, and I’m not satisfied. I don’t have the impression that Lucy has much in the way of good things to say about women, or about people, or about a relationship with technology that isn’t making being human simpler and purer but instead arguably messier and more complex. Yeah, it’s an action movie. Don’t care. I know we can do better than this.

And let’s please all agree to launch the Strong Female Character thing into the sun.


Sarah is a being of pure yelling on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

image by Forsaken Fotos
image by Forsaken Fotos

Although it was about two years ago that I wrote the post that sparked my own interest in ruined and abandoned spaces, it’s something to which, you might have noticed, I periodically return.

Back in April I wrote a couple of posts that followed up and expanded on some of the ideas I had been toying with since then. Among other things, which interests me most these days about abandoned and ruined spaces is how we can understand these processes affecting the digital as well as the physical. In the latter linked post I posed some questions that I thought provided some useful goals for future thinking and writing; I still haven’t answered those questions to my satisfaction, but I do have one more than I want to add, and it’s a big one. It’s big enough that I’m a little embarrassed that it took this long to occur to me.

So let’s step back for a sec.

One of the major criticisms of ruin photography – especially photography that focuses on the ruin of urban areas – is that it captures and decontextualizes visual fragments of complex social history and presents them as an aesthetic for the privileged to enjoy: the “porn” in “ruin porn”. This social history is a tangle of race and class – among many other things – and when we look at the ruins of inner city Detroit, we’re looking at the results of viciously racist development and real estate practices, and the utter breakdown (or the natural result) of contemporary capitalism.

But many of the people looking at these things don’t have to see that. We’re visual tourists. We – people like me – don’t live there. We have our pictures and then we go back to our lives.

Aside from making a note of this problem toward the end of my original piece, I mostly left it alone. I recognized it as important, but it didn’t capture my interest so much as the questions of representation and temporality/atemporality that I was tackling, and since then I haven’t gone back to it at all, in part because it struck me as a conversation to which I didn’t have much to add.

But a few days ago, thanks to a link from my husband, I ended up at a page featuring a horrifying – and, yes, eerily beautiful – series of photographs of Forest Haven, a now-ruined “training school” in Laurel, Maryland (quite close to where I live) that was built to house people with various physical and cognitive disabilities. What happened there is what happened almost everywhere – and what still happens all the time – to institutions like it: it became a dumping ground for people no one cared about, who often had no advocates and frequently no way to protect themselves against abuse. Literally hundreds of people died there, of neglect and worse, before it was finally closed in 1991.

I should say that one of the things I appreciated about the photos was that the person who compiled them accompanied them with tremendous amounts of context. Rather than looking at them as mere aesthetic, I was able to view them as a historical record. These were people’s lives, and the loss of them. They were real.

Forest Haven is abandoned, though it was in ruin long before the last patient was removed. But that site led me to another, also local in focus, a short photo essay on New York Avenue Northeast in DC. What it recognized – and again, I appreciate it endlessly – is that these ruined spaces are not necessarily abandoned. And the reasons for that are intensely political.

When we look at ruined places, abandoned places, we’re always looking at politics, and the kinds of politics depend on a number of different variables. A place that is ruined but not abandoned implies some very disturbing things. A place that is completely abandoned but somehow not ruined suggests the unexpected. Time isn’t the only thing that twists back on itself.

In my last post on abandonment and ruin, I was dealing with digital ruin rather than physical. Among other things, I noted:

We need clear differentiations between abandonment and ruin. Abandonment – given how certain kinds of abandoned digital space can work – does not necessarily imply ruin but simply that no one is doing anything to it anymore. Abandoned digital space can be in a state of ruin but is not always. Whereas abandoned physical spaces are pretty much in a state of ruin by definition, unless they are extremely recently abandoned. However, physical spaces in a state of ruin are not always abandoned…Physical spaces are also ruined via a process that can take years, whereas the ruin of digital space can be nearly instantaneous. So we’re dealing with much greater complexity – and therefore much greater diversity of experience of a space-time – than simple ruin and abandonment.

So here’s my question: If the ruin and/or abandonment of physical space has inherent political significance, how can we use politics to approach abandoned and/or ruined digital space? Can we learn anything about the political processes at work in the construction of communal digital space, of individual sites, of fan sites, corporate sites, MMORPGS, social media, and their corresponding destruction and disuse? If we can assume that politics plays a role here in some respect, what can politics – and in particular social power – tell us?

And yes, I think we can assume that. If our lives are augmented by digital technology, if our selves – as many of the authors here have argued repeatedly – are the result of complex interactions between all these different digital parts of us, then politics must be at work here. Digital spaces are sites for resistance, for collective action, for identity play, for creation; often, for marginalized people, they represent a kind of freedom and community that was previously unattainable. And the code – as many of us have also noted – is never neutral.

If we need to understand the processes by these spaces come into being through a political lens, it stands to reason that we would need to understand their destruction – functionally or structurally – in the same way.

I should be clear: I’m not arguing that these processes are the same in digital space as in physical space. As usual, I also want to be clear about the fact that I’m very uncomfortable with sharp distinctions being drawn between these kinds of “space” at all. I’m simply arguing that they’re worth paying attention to.

How to make conceptual use of this, I don’t yet know. Sorry. In the meantime – as before – I think there’s a tremendous amount of work still to be done.


Sarah occupies political space on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

Today’s makeup selfie (Urban Decay’s Electric Palette).

I had no idea the upcoming ABC sitcom Selfie was going to be a thing (this fall if you for some reason care) until I saw an ad spot for it while half watching the World Cup or something. Very suddenly I was more than half watching, and within a few seconds I was tweeting angrily.

I mean. Read the premise (courtesy of Wikipedia).

Using a premise similar to Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, the series will follow the life of Eliza Dooley (a modern day version of Eliza Doolittle), a woman obsessed with becoming famous through the use of social media platforms (including the use of Instagram and taking selfies), until she realizes that she needs to actually find people that she can be friends with physically instead of “friend” them online. This prompts Eliza to hire Henry Higenbottam (a modern day version of Henry Higgins), a marketing self-image guru who is left with the task of rebranding Eliza’s image in the hopes to show her that there is more to life out there than just playing Candy Crush Saga with an iPhone and connecting with a Facebook page.

As one of my Twitter friends put it, “The problem with Pygmalion is that Eliza just liked herself too much, said no GBS fan ever.”

No, but seriously, though. My anger had a lot more than just to do with general knee-jerk Feminist Rage. That was, of course, part of it, and part of it was also the tired, irritating, silly stuff in there about anything done via social media as less real (is this really a thing we’re still doing?). But a more significant part of it was also related to some emotional work I’ve been doing recently that’s left me feeling intensely vulnerable and has been much more difficult than I expected.

I’m doing selfies.

Mostly on Twitter, mostly of makeup. I recently got majorly into eyeshadow (I will stop LJing at some point, promise) and at first it just seemed like a fun way to record my experiments with it, but soon I was doing it a fair amount. So yeah, so what? Lots of people do. It’s in the dictionary in an official capacity, for crying out loud.

The thing is that it hurts. It makes me want to cringe every time I hit send, an awful moment where I feel like I’m betraying something. I’m doing a wrong thing. A lot of it is probably personal neurosis, but I don’t think anywhere near all, and anyway, don’t all our neuroses have social contexts? Don’t they all come from somewhere?

I was familiar with the fraughtness of the selfie. Most of us should be by now. Selfies are great, selfies are awful, selfies are feminist, selfies aren’t feminist at all and are in fact tools of the patriarchy, selfies are things stupid attention whores (I use that term here very, very mindfully) do because they have no self-esteem and need people to tell them they’re pretty. Duckface. Duckface duckface duckface.

Intellectual familiarity does not prepare you for something like this.

The discourse around selfies is fraught because selfies are complex locations within which gender and mental wellbeing and the attention economy and the politics of self-presentation and a hundred other things all collide into a tangled mess of a thing. Selfies are fraught because almost everything of which a selfie is conceptually and culturally comprised is controversial.


But what I see in almost everything being said about selfies is that it seems impossible to not, in one way or another, feel bad for taking them. Whichever way I turn, there’s conflict.

The idea of selfies as something that vapid, appearance-obsessed women (always women, even if non-binary people like me are doing it, even if men are) do is especially toxic, I think. Witness the Selfie premise above. There’s also the now-infamous piece in Jezebel by Erin Gloria Ryan that characterizes selfies as “a cry for help”. She’s ostensibly writing in the service of feminism, and it’s not that she doesn’t make some good points, but the form in which she does ends up being pretty shaming, in a way that Ryan herself appears to feel intensely.

Nor is the proliferation of selfies into a generation of women who are old enough to know better a promising development; it’s a nightmare. The picture that accompanies my byline on this very website is a selfie. I’ve posted selfies to Facebook, and Twitter. I always feel bad about it; it always takes several tries to not look stupid, and even now, I kind of hate all of them. “Hey guys, I’m by myself!” my selfie says, “Can you please somehow indicate that other humans are out there so that I do not collapse into my own loneliness????? LOLOLOL” Please, god, no.

I know that feel. The thing is, I can’t escape the powerful suspicion that I feel that way only because I’ve been made to.

Not that selfies and what they do, when we’re talking about gender, aren’t problematic. Focus on appearance for the sake of affirmation is not necessarily a good thing, no, and when it’s a thing embedded in society organized along patriarchal lines, of course it’s profoundly troubling. But for me, then, there’s the feeling of I’m making myself look desperate and stupid and self-absorbed. I shouldn’t enjoy it when people say nice things about how I look. Bad feminist. Bad.

I should note that Ryan would probably disagree that what I post is a “pure selfie”, given that I’m usually showing off my makeup skills. But I think that’s hair-splitting of a pretty unhelpful kind. It’s still my face. I still want people to say nice things.

At the last Theorizing the Web we had an entire panel devoted to selfies, and Anne Burns noted many of the ways in which this kind of discussion is harmful in her paper “Disciplining the Duckface: Online Photographic Regulation as a form of Social Control”:

Regulating the selfie is a means for regulating the selfie-subject, where both are conceived of as being innately problematic and requiring control. As addressed in this study, notions of ‘too many selfies’ and the labeling of young women’s self-presentations as narcissistic, seek to limit both what, and how, women are encouraged to photograph. Such discussions impact upon notions of privacy and identity negotiation, but serve primarily to mark and marginalize certain groups. Therefore, through the limitations imposed on a certain type of creative practice, subjects’ behavior and participation within the public sphere is curtailed.

For Ryan, it’s (mostly sort of) okay to take a picture of you wearing a hat and post it to Instagram. Take a picture of just your face and you’re in trouble.

But as Jenny Davis has noted, the duckface itself is a kind of control over the form and presentation of the bodies we gender female:

[O]ne performs the Duckface by sucking in the cheeks and pushing out the lips. This makes the lips appear fuller, the cheekbones more prominent, and the eyes wider. It can also minimize asymmetry when taken from the correct angle. In short, this expressive configuration contorts the face in line with standards of feminine beauty.

So again, it’s not that there’s nothing troubling or problematic going on here. It’s not that the context of the selfie isn’t indicative of harm. It’s that for someone who isn’t cisgender male who wants to take a selfie, who wants to post a selfie, and who dares to want to hear nice things in response, there is literally no way to win. There’s no way to not feel at least kind of bad.

Guys. I just want to post pictures of myself wearing makeup on Twitter. It should not be this hard.

I want to emphasize that I realize how obvious these points must be to just about everyone who’s likely to read this. They are obvious. But these things are wound up in visceral, embodied emotion, and it’s easy to forget that when primarily what you’re doing with them is engaging in academic debate. It’s one thing to write and talk about a selfie; it’s another thing to post them and deal with the resulting emotional fallout. It’s another thing to take all the stuff you’ve read in blog posts and essays and papers about selfies and identity, and face the way they really do smash painfully together in your head when you’re announcing to your Twitter followers, as I did a couple of weeks ago, that for a few days you’re going to post a daily makeup selfie.

So why not just stop?

Because I don’t think this is fair, to put it bluntly, for all the reasons Burns describes. This is regulating the self and presentation of the self in ways that legitimize some things and delegitimize others. It reifies the idea that some kinds of selfies are okay and others are beyond the pale, that some kinds of selfie-subjects are acceptable and others are simply not. That, among other things, No True Feminist would ever do it. That enjoying attention is wrong, false, inauthentic, and vain in a way we almost exclusively ascribe to women.

We should examine where a desire for positive, appearance-based attention comes from. But can I please not feel ashamed for having that desire at all? I’m not saying that anyone has directly and intentionally made me feel that way, but that this is exactly why that discourse is harmful, and I understand that now in a deep way I didn’t before.

So what I’m doing about it is I’m posting selfies. Aggressively, like I’m making a point to myself, because I am. I’m trying to enjoy the positive comments as much as I can. I’m thinking about this a lot. And someday, maybe, someone will be like “hey, you look awesome today,” and I’ll be able to just smile, type “thanks :D”, hit tweet, and get on with my goddamn day.

LOOK AT MY FACE on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


Every time I see someone make the argument that representation in fiction isn’t a big issue, and that advocating for diversity is just a waste of time because audiences can identify with anyone, and anyway, trying to include a wide range of backgrounds is just tokenism, I have the overwhelming urge to grab them by the shoulders and hiss, If you really believe that representation doesn’t matter, then why the fuck are you threatened by it? If not seeing yourself depicted in stories has no negative psychological impact – if the breakdown of who we see on screen has no bearing on wider social issues – then what would it matter if nine stories out of ten were suddenly all about queer brown women? Foz Meadows

So about my last post and related kerfuffle.

I would love for this to be one of my more academic posts, because I think there’s a lot to be said here in an academic manner. I think one could do some great scholarship about representation in video games, and a lot of great scholarship has already been done. But this is not going to be that. This is going to be one of those poorly organized, semi-coherent posts where I have a lot of emotions, because after my last post, I do, and I did before that.

One of the things – the many, many things – that makes writing about games and representation and isms so difficult is that it’s immensely tiring if you have any kind of stake in it. It’s tiring for all the reasons this stuff is tiring in any context: the hostile pushback, the aggressive derailing, the outright abuse. But then there’s the smaller stuff, the less overt stuff, that nonetheless wears you down to the point where you just don’t even want to anymore. The incomprehension. The general cluelessness. The unexamined privilege. The dismissal of the idea that this is even an issue, or – if there’s any admission of the idea that it might be an issue – that it’s an issue worth expending much energy dealing with.

You can spend a huge amount of time trying to engage with these responses. You hear that a few games do include playable female characters; you can point out the utter lack of marketing support those games got, or the ridiculous armor the character was put into, or the fact that a few games is completely insufficient in a market the size of the one video games occupy. You hear that women generally don’t like “violent” games anyway; you can come back with the data that approximately 30% of female-identified gamers report playing games like that, with a significant further percentage playing games like Halo and Gears of War. You hear that women tend to want games featuring romance and clothes and shopping and you can bang your head against a wall for a while. You can do all of these things, and then you’re left staring at your screen and nursing a general sense of cold despair, because it feels like you’re doing everything you can and you’re still not getting anywhere.

It’s depressing is what I’m saying.

Look, I know things are getting better. I’ve seen the figures; I know that games are slowly creeping forward regarding representation and diversity, and I’ve seen the numbers regarding women in the industry. But it’s not getting better fast enough, because it’s never getting better fast enough, because it shouldn’t have to get better at all. And what makes me most tired – what I was trying to get across in my previous post – is that this isn’t just about getting women to buy games, or playing nice with the angry feminists. It’s not about marketing or capitalism or some boogieman of “political correctness”. It’s not about some bizarre conception of “diversity” where it’s all a lot of work and the sacrifice of everything fun and suddenly we’re all slaving in the inclusivity mines.

It’s about me playing a game and not feeling slapped in the face.

This isn’t just true of games. Of course it’s not. This is true of any area where a group of people have traditionally been marginalized or excluded. It’s especially hard in any of the tech-related industries or STEM fields. No one should be surprised by this idea anymore. You walk into these rooms and have it made brutally plain to you that no one expected you to be here and most of the people already there are not comfortable with you and would rather you leave now, thanks. That these things were designed in worlds where you don’t exist, where you aren’t even an afterthought. If there’s hostility in the design, it’s an awful kind of passive hostility that comes into being not when you hate someone but when it never occurs to you that they’re real.

I feel this way all the time when I play video games. All. The. Time. It’s so constant that I’ve gotten to the point where I notice when it’s not there far more than when it is. When I play a game that doesn’t make me feel at least a little dehumanized, it’s a profoundly joyful experience. It’s almost impossible to put into words for anyone who’s never experienced this kind of near-constant dehumanization. I feel like I sound crazy when I try.

On Twitter I said that it’s like I walked into a party, and it seems like such a fun party and I really want to be there, but the more time I spend there, the more awkward and invisible I feel, and no one wants to talk to me or include me in any of their conversations, and after a while I’m just standing in a corner, feeling sad.

Okay, so leave the party. But it’s such a fun party. I just wanted to come to the party. So stop playing games. But I love games, you guys, I love them so much. Games changed my life, in almost every way for the better. I don’t want to walk away. And no, I don’t want to have to confine myself to the relatively few that aren’t going to hurt me. Believe me, I walk into this maelstrom with my eyes fully open. I know the blows are coming. That doesn’t make them hurt any less.

When I’m playing Bioshock Infinite and I’m loving it, I mean every part of it, even the stuff that’s stupid and sort of problematic, but then the female protagonist – who has been interesting and cool and fun and not objectifiedmakes a poorly justified wardrobe change into an extremely low-cut dress, and I – a queer person, by the way – am left sitting there, brought smack up against the fact that I’m playing yet another game that was designed pretty much solely with a very different demographic in mind. Or I’m playing Dishonored and the gameplay is so completely fun that I almost don’t notice the way in which it’s really uncomfortably rapey, except then I do and suddenly it’s not so fun anymore.

These are only a couple of examples, small ones, and I’m sure one could find a million ways to dispute them, to say I’m reading too much into things, that I shouldn’t have played those games if I didn’t want to feel that way because they weren’t designed for me because capitalism. One could do that. One might even be right. I just know that I loved those games until they hurt me. And I still love them. That love just has an asterisk next to it now.

I’m tired of asterisks. There are so many of them.

I don’t require that games cater to me. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they not make me feel less human. I’m not sure what to say to the people who think it is.


We use design to explain away a multitude of sins, in every case in which design matters. We use it as a discursive shrug, all the while neglecting the fact that design reveals so much about the biases and starting assumptions of the designers – and, perhaps even more importantly, what designers are encouraged to do and constrained from doing by the executives who control their projects. Design is not neutral. Design is not an excuse. Design is revelation. The design of our technology, whatever kind it might be, is often a way in which existing inequalities are made more starkly apparent, at least to the people who are willing to see it. A cell phone that’s too large for a woman to use it comfortably with one hand. A coffee maker with a light that’s much too bright. A console controller that’s difficult to use if you’re not able-bodied, as well as if you’re an underemployed Millennial with a tiny apartment. These are tiny details, but of course that’s where the devil always is.

Living in a world that was designed without any thought for your existence dehumanizes you. It’s that simple.

Ubisoft does not have to make a game with a playable female multiplayer character. But why shouldn’t they? And why is “we ran out of time and money and we just didn’t get to it” an acceptable reason? Why do we keep finding it an acceptable reason?

We also use the market to excuse many of the same sins we use design to explain away. Well, this is what makes money. This is what sells. This is what the public demands. Don’t be surprised if this is all you get.

But here’s a thing: My general impression is that if you keep churning out the formula, people will buy it, and often they won’t complain. But show them something different, and suddenly they’re hungry for something they didn’t realize they were missing. This is the beauty of this kind of innovation: You can create a demand by providing a supply. No, one doesn’t have to, and indeed, if the world was run by marketing people, I doubt anyone would have the imagination and the courage to make that leap.


I’m currently reading Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell, and he describes going to a gaming trade show and talking to some developers about the kinds of protagonists they’re seeing:

Short went on to explain the meaning of all this, but his point was made: (a) people like playing as people, and (b) They like playing as people that almost precisely resemble themselves. I was reminded of Anthony Burgess’s joke about his ideal reader as “a lapsed Catholic and failed musician, short-sighted, color-blind, auditorily biased, who has read the books that I have read.” Burgess was kidding. Mr. Short was not, and his presentation left something ozonically scorched in the air. I thought of all the games I had played in which I had run some twenty-something masculine nonentity through his paces. Apparently I had even more such experiences to look forward to, all thanks to EEDAR’s findings. Never in my life had I felt more depressed about the democracy of garbage that games were at their worst.

I’m not going to pull out more data about how many women play games and what they’re playing. The data is there. Go see for yourself.

The point is that the world is not run by marketing people. Not quite. We aren’t yet in that kind of dystopia. If marketing is enough of an excuse for you, fine. If design is your kind of shrug, fine. If you’re content with oh, well, this is just how things are, fine. But this matters. Play matters, stories matter. And ultimately what I want are better stories and better play and better technology and better games. For all of us.

I don’t want to be an afterthought. I expect more from something I love.


Sarah is on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry


Always fun when a game publisher doesn’t appear to know anything about games. Or gamers. Or publishing games. Or making games. Or stories. Or history. Or much of anything pertinent to what it’s actually supposed to be doing.

Yesterday, Ubisoft technical director James Therien commented on the lack of a playable female lead character (and before I continue let me note that I reeeeeeally don’t like how binary/trans-exclusionary this discussion has been) in the co-op play for the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed Unity with the explanation that it’s just too much work to do all those extra lady animations and voices. The Internet, as one might imagine, did not respond well.

Chuck Wendig contributed reliably quality mockery:

Animating men is easy but women? Pssh. The boobs are like, millions of dollars to get those things right because I’m pretty sure they don’t work according to physics? They’re like, ghost spheres or demon orbs. And don’t even get me started on vaginas. What even are vaginas? Where are they? Do they have powers?

Some of these quotes are here simply because it amuses me to include them, but there are additional technical aspects to this. Social-justice/diversity-minded gamers didn’t buy Therien’s explanation, but neither did some other developers. Ansh Patel of Narcissist Reality explicitly denied Therien’s claims about the difficulty and resources that would be needed to include a playable female character:

Animation and modelling a playable character doesn’t require as much commitment and costs as Ubisoft says. In fact, a trend among many indie developers looking to cut on time and costs is to use the same rig (skeleton) for the model to create a common set of animations for both the male and female characters. Just wanted to call out Ubisoft because their ridiculous excuse doesn’t make any sense even from the developer perspective. It clearly seems driven by a marketing decision, which is extremely unfortunate.

No one is surprised at this point when sexism pops up in the video game industry. Like the film industry, sexism is deeply entrenched in both the culture and the institutional structure, in the way things are made and sold and in the actual demographic makeup of who’s doing the making and the selling. There are incremental steps forward, but for the most part things like this remain the norm rather than the exception. But as Mattie Brice pointed out on Twitter, there needs to be a distinction here between designers/developers and the publisher guys who are indeed primarily marketing-focused (and, given that approximately half the gamer market is women, appear to either be working with very bad data or to have no idea how to interpret it intelligently) and are holding all the purse strings:

After a day of this, Ubisoft responded with – I’m heavily paraphrasing – “We have lots of Strong Female Non-Playable Characters in the game and this was all for story reasons and we care about diversity so be quiet”.  Which not only does nothing whatsoever to address the statement that caused all the problems, but also – and here after 600 words I finally meander to my point – betrays a complete lack of understanding of what video games are, how representation works within them, and what it means to play one.

The problem is not that there aren’t any (cisgender) women in the game. The problem is that none of them are playable.

Video games are increasingly technological vectors for storytelling as much as they are stats-oriented shooty/swordy things. Some of this storytelling is extremely rich and complex. Many players play for the story as much as they do for the mechanics. But games are not books, and they are not movies. There is participation, in the world and in the unfolding of the story, and that participation is only possible in this specific kind of technologically mediated narrative. And that participatory aspect has major implications for how players engage with the gameworld.

A player makes choices, and interprets the meaning of those choices. Even if the story is relatively linear – even if there isn’t much of a deep story at all – a player feels as if they’re doing a great deal to drive the action. It’s not fair to say that a player actually thinks of themselves as the character they’re controlling, but there is a connection there and it’s a deep one. Most of us roleplay from our earliest days of complex play. This form of gaming is a kind of digital let’s-pretend – and it’s not even isolated to video games – and the face you wear matters.

Straight white able-bodied cisgender men, of course, don’t tend to notice this, because for the most part they get to play characters that look just like them, demographically speaking. But other people – people of color, women, trans people, people with disabilities, queer folks of all kinds – we can’t not notice all the white cis-male playable protagonists. And it affects how we engage with these worlds and these stories.

There are absolutely similar things going on with representation in books, TV, and film. But again, I argue that games are functionally different in some important ways, and that how this stuff matters is different as well.

Others – and me – have written about the experience of playing as Ellie in The Last of Us, especially in the downloadable package Left Behind. In that latter (sorta spoiler alert) it’s revealed that Ellie is queer – a queer teenage girl, no less – and speaking for myself, I can’t begin to describe what a deeply affirming experience that was. It was fulfilling because I got to watch the story unfold, but also because I felt like I got to be part of that story, like I got to look at the gameworld through the eyes of someone with whom I have a lot more in common than all the gun-toting square-jawed dudes I’ve been playing for years. For me, it was one of those things of which you don’t viscerally realize the meaning until you personally experience a different way of doing it.

There are plenty of smaller indie games that do all of this, and more, and they get overlooked way too much of the time. But for a big mainstream release, representation and visibility are naturally going to have more of a general impact.

So it’s frustrating, to say the least, to have a publisher like Ubisoft respond to very legitimate concerns with “there are Strong Female Characters, you just don’t play them is all” like that should be good enough to placate.

(Can we please outlaw the phrase “strong female characters” forever and ever and ever)

It’s not just this game, is the thing. It’s most big-name games, and it’s the persistence of a complete lack of understanding on the part of the people with the money and the marketing departments regarding how the stuff they publish actually works.

If you’re going to sell technology, it really helps to understand that technology. Just sayin’.


Sarah engages in participatory storytelling on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry

image by Klaus Burgle

When I was in Madison (Wisconsin) during Memorial Day weekend for WisCon (a long-running feminist science fiction and fantasy conference), I was approached after a panel by a man – Mark Soderstrom – who wanted to talk to me about labor in SFF. Specifically, he wanted to mention a short story of mine that I was talking about on the panel that used the Lattimer Massacre as a backdrop, and to note that while SFF seems perfectly content to deal with robots and elves, it has a history of shying away from any sort of rich or meaningful examination of what literatures of the fantastic can teach us about labor, capital, and social change.

He passed along a copy of the paper he was presenting, which I really enjoyed (I actually need to email him and say so, damn – if he sees this before I get to that: hi, Mark!). I’m not as well-versed in the canon as he is, but while he singled out a number of works of fiction that do deal with labor in some direct manner, he also points out that an additional number of them – at least the more “Golden Age”-type ones, contemporary with the Cold War – adopt a somewhat disparaging  approach (Heinlein, to name one, naturally gets seriously libertarian about it and does not think much of those dirty socialists). Even when labor is dealt with differently, there still isn’t often a whole lot of depth. Older science fiction is full of miners on asteroids and on the moon, but there’s no real depiction of abusive working conditions, or exploitation on the level of which we see in the historical and contemporary extraction of resources here on Earth.

SFF has a poor history in general when it comes to telling the stories of marginalized people, though more recently there have been attempts to remedy this. So it stands to reason that the people who tend to make labor their business – at least from the bottom up – are excluded and erased. Obviously it would be great to see more of those stories being told, and I think it’s awesome that that’s starting to happen.

But it’s not just about neglecting stories that cry out to be told, at least not for me. It’s also that it represents a huge missed opportunity to do some theorizing in fiction, and in ways that go beyond “labor” as it’s generally imagined.

Anyone who knows anything at all about historical processes of social change is going to recognize the significance of labor – of its definition, of the meanings constructed around it, of how and where it’s done and who’s doing it, of the exchanges and productions of social power that take place through and because of it. You can’t understand society without understanding labor. Science fiction and fantasy – really, especially science fiction – fancies itself an explicitly sociological genre. It’s a place where you can perform wildly speculative thought experiments, tweak some settings and try to imagine what the results might be. But – in not insignificant part because of who’s been allowed to be the most prominent writers for a long time – it’s a genre with some major gaps in what it covers. There are holes in its imagination.

Back during the Cold War – and after – there’s a deficit in terms of explorations of the meaning of labor. Now, as what we understand by labor is undergoing some serious shifts, it would be great if we didn’t experience a deficit again.

We need speculative literature that deals with menial labor, skilled labor, workers of all kinds, the people who actually make the marvelous objects that fill fantastical worlds (in Star Trek, does anyone on Earth who doesn’t run an eatery or work for Starfleet actually have a job at all?). But we’re now seeing forms of labor that are embedded into our daily navigation of social media, where, just as an example – as Whitney Erin Boesel has pointed out – our use of emoticons on Facebook now functions as free labor in the sense of data production:

This [emoticon] status update feature isn’t really about being more visually expressive and, while determined users can still use the feature creatively, it doesn’t afford much opportunity for creative self-expression. Instead, Facebook emoticon status updates are about incentivizing you to provide more information and to provoke more interaction. They’re about sanitizing and domesticating your bad mood, your inescapable ennui, and your existential depression into something that can be yoked to the gears of a new Social advertising machine.

This would have been science fiction three decades ago. Like most stuff we have now.

And it’s not just about class, because it’s never just about class. Mainstream (white straight cisdudely) SFF has historically also been pretty bad at dealing with race and gender, but labor and the workings of human capital have always been profoundly racialized and gendered. The role technology is playing in the development of these processes has been talked about pretty continuously on this blog, just yesterday by Robin James. It’s not that no one is aware of this, and it’s not that no one understands it. But the genre in which I write, it seems to me that it’s still pretty radically underexamined.

I know there are places in SFF where this stuff is being talked about, and I think my generation of neopros is doing a lot to change the landscape, but I would love to see more. We have this idea that the tiny, mundane details of someone’s life aren’t worth writing about, but it’s the changes in the tiny, mundane details that often carry the most long-term weight. Any genre that wants to lay claim to being sociological at all is going to need to address work and what work means. The fact that we now have the concept of “data serfs” matters in a literary sense. If the value we’re producing is the ease in which we can be advertised to – among other things – I want to see speculating about it that goes beyond essays and papers. I want to see stories.


Sarah’s interactions oil the gears of capitalism on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry