Erasing the Past to Change the Future?

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There are a number of issues that stand out in the recent RWA controversy. It would take a while to work through them all, but one thing that caught my attention is the apparent culture clash between one set of authors who thinks their work should be historically accurate, and an opposing author who charges that this perpetrates a dangerous, racist stereotype. More specifically, this is a look at Courtney Milan’s comment, “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women.” This raises the questions: 1) whether Chinese women in the 19th century (as featured in Davis’ novel) were “submissive,” and 2) whether it’s racist to say so in contemporary fiction (as claimed by Milan).

First some background: Actually, there’s a long history of various cultures attempting to control women and their child-bearing capability, so enforced submission isn’t a problem that’s particular to Asian cultures. In general, Asian cultures are more collectivist than individualist. That means all members of society are required to show a responsibility and duty to the family, the community and the nation that should be stronger than his or her individual interests, i.e. everyone is expected to sacrifice for the greater good. I gather this expectation falls heavily on daughters, as much of the recent work I’ve read from Asian women seems to be about rebellion.

Besides this, the submission of women in Chinese culture in the 19th century was enforced by other customs, including foot binding. This procedure was promoted as enhancing beauty, but actually it crippled girls, reduced their mobility and prevented them from running away. This made it easy to control them in marriage, and also made them good workers in cottage industry. The end result of these social customs was outward compliance, though women generally developed methods of intrigue and manipulation to advance their individual interests.

So, is this mandated submission now a dangerous racial stereotype? Apparently, the answer is yes. Research verifies that the “submissive Asian woman” is a stereotype that persists, and that some men seek out Asian women with the idea they will be sexually submissive. When this turns out not to meet their fantasy, of course, rates of domestic violence escalate.

So, all the authors in the argument are correct in what they say. Now the question arises as to what writers should do in a situation like this. A story that is historically accurate has the advantage of exposing the practices that controlled women in the past, but it also has the danger of suggesting to some readers that these practices were appropriate and that Asian women are still somehow trained to be submissive. A story that erases the social conditions (like foot binding) leaves the reader with a false idea of how societies work and what dangers have historically limited personal freedoms. Issues like this aren’t singular to romances with Chinese characters, either. European women in the 19th century were controlled in various ways, too, not to mention African women. So what choice should the community of writers make? Should we agree that it is now sexist/racist to feature any subservient or submissive female characters in our work?

Checking through a few romances, it looks like the solution to this problem over the last few years is the headstrong heroine in a historical setting who somehow manages to have her way and her lover, too, a man who appreciates her willful character. Speculative fiction doesn’t even have to provide the romance. See Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan, for example, where an Asian girl masquerades as a boy to save her father from having to serve in the war, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series that suggests women really did have a place in the early US space program. Both these are fantasy, but does it really have a purpose? Disney’s The Last Jedi came right out and said that Rey would never accomplish anything until she cut herself loose from history. Presumably isolation from the past is expected to give young women better self-esteem and more readiness to grasp opportunities. Will it work? Can we really change the future with fiction that rewrites the past? Or is this strategy only creating a dangerous ignorance?

Getting back to the issue with the RWA, men don’t generally read romance novels, so it seems unlikely that Milan was concerned that Davis’ book would influence their stereotype of Asian women. That strongly suggests she was: 1) attacking Davis with words she knew would cause damage, 2) using Davis’ book as a pretext for an activist rant on Twitter without regard for consequences, or 3) both. Now that she has generated a backlash, is she really a victim?

So what’s going on with the Romance Writers of America?

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In case anyone has missed the complete disaster Tingle is writing about, it came to a head in late December, 2019. Here’s a quick summary: After some back and forth about Sue Grimshaw, an acquisitions editor at Suzan Tisdale’s Glenfinnan Publishing with alleged conservative views, Courtney Milan, a Chinese-American romance writer, past board member of RWA, ethics committee chair and diversity activist, made racism charges on Twitter about Grimshaw, Tisdale, Glenfinnan Publishing, and Tisdale’s employee Kathryn Lynne Davis. In particular, Milan called Davis’ book Somewhere Lies the Moon (originally published in 1999) a “f–king racist mess.”

Tisdale and Davis approached RWA management and were encouraged to file ethics complaints against Milan. Apparently a new ethics committee was convened to consider the charges, and the organization then suspended Milan and banned her from holding future leadership positions. The problem was that many took this as shady dealings to get rid of a minority author who functioned as a diversity gadfly. There were mass resignations from the board and the previous ethics committee. The past president resigned, and the new president was forced out.

The RWA documents on the case were posted to Twitter, which meant the whole thing played out in the most public way. Quickly backing up, the RWA revoked the suspension, reinstated Milan, cancelled the RITA awards, and announced they were hiring a law firm to “to conduct an audit of the process and these events to provide a clear report of the facts.”

The notable thing about this is how quickly it went out of control. Milan posted, “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women.” Davis insisted the comments were “cyberbullying” and complained that they cost her a publishing contract. Grimshaw lost an editing job because of the Twitter campaign. Tisdale insisted that Davis’ book was historically accurate, and only needed minor editing to update it and meet the current standard for politically correct. Tisdale and Davis both called Milan’s comments “unprofessional conduct,” but later expressed surprise at the RWA’s actions, saying all they really wanted was an apology. By January 10, Milan was calling the affair a white supremacist backlash.

I’ve just published a couple of blogs addressing activist behavior that’s apparently calculated to create a backlash and provide a larger platform. Milan might have had this in mind, or this might be a case of mean girl bullying, or it might be a case of young writers going after the old guard. Whatever, once made, I think the claims about racism deserve real consideration. So what are the important points here? First, was Milan justified in attacking Grimshaw as a gatekeeper with alleged conservative views and Tisdale for employing her? Next, was Milan justified in complaining about an old historical novel that portrays 19th century Chinese women as submissive? Next, is this a historical behavior that really needs to be erased to create a more equitable society now? And because Milan claims this is so, is she justified in making profane charges of racism in a public forum without regard for the effects on other professionals’ careers?

On the other hand, was the ethics complaint justified? Were Tisdale and Davis right that Milan’s behavior was unprofessional? Did she target Grimshaw, Tisdale and Glenfinnan Publishing unjustly for issues they had no control over? And last, was the RWA’s over-the-top response justified in any way?

The end result is that Tisdale and Davis are backpedaling in interviews, trying to blame the RWA for encouraging them to file complaints about a minority writer who called them racists, while Milan is reinstated. Meanwhile, the RWA seems to be in ruins, oozing black, cancerous slime, if you can believe Chuck Tingle.

This is a fairly major breakdown, similar to what has recently affected the traditional form of the SFWA, except more so. According to Jemisin, “The only way to enact change in such a system is to destabilize it — unfreeze it.” Presumably, Milan has now destabilized the RWA organization. Can it be rebuilt along more diverse lines?

Review of by “Not Pounded by Romance Wranglers of America: The Endless Cosmic Void” by Chuck Tingle

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Since the meltdown of the Romance Writers of America over racism charges is trending, I should probably take this opportunity to make another comment on author bullying. No surprise; I’ve been beaten to the punch by the ever-ready Chuck Tingle, so I’ll preface my remarks with a review of his story. His newest release is now available on Amazon, adding to a fairly extensive bibliography. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Chuck Tingle, he normally writes witty porn and crashed into prominence with a Hugo nomination in 2016 for Space Raptor Butt Invasion, a novel about an over-sexed dinosaur and an exotic dancer. Tingle seemed to be thrilled by his Hugo nomination and responded with Slammed in the Butt by My Hugo Award Nomination. Lately he seems to be leaning to satire and has produced several non-sexual adventures. As part of the promotion for this e-book release, Tingle put up a website for Romance Wranglers of America.

Gorblin Crimble has been writing romance novels with some success, but he’s starting to feel burned out. For support in getting through his next novel, he joins a local writers’ group. The first meeting goes well, and Gorblin makes friends with Amber, who suggests he should also apply to the larger romance writers’ organization Romance Wranglers of America. Their headquarters is only a short distance away, and Amber drives Gorblin there in her car. On the way, the two of them bond and start to wonder if they might be characters in a Chuck Tingle story. On arriving at the headquarters, they see a humanoid dinosaur stumbling away from the building, covered with a yukky tar-like substance. The building itself looks to have been infected with a black, cancerous growth that sticks out of huge cracks in the façade. It breathes softly like a horrific, living thing; pools of black ooze drip onto the sidewalk, and the whole place stinks like burning. They are greeted by a man named Demon, who explains the black ooze is a “remodel” project. Can Gorblin and Amber escape before they become infected?

Okay, so Tingle makes his points with a sledgehammer. This doesn’t have a lot of depth, characterization or world-building, but its strong points are timing and social commentary. Gorblin and Amber are both nice people, as are the other writers in the small group. They write about love and relationships. They’re very welcoming, and some are even fans of Gorblin’s work. However, on a greater scale, the Wranglers are tarred black and oozing cancerous sludge. They’re administered by a demon, and it smells like the place is burning down.

Three and a half stars.

Are activists actually manufacturing racism/sexism/homophobia? (Part 2 of 2)

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In 2019 Ibram X. Kendi published his new book, “How to be an Antiracist,” where he looks at the effects of attacking ordinary whites as a method of protest and activism. According to Kendi, this is wasted effort, as it takes the focus off the real problem, which is the powerful elite that controls resources and creates political policy. As noted in the previous blog, about 10% of whites fall below the poverty line, and 70% more fall into the middle and lower socioeconomic classes. According to Kendi, these whites have little or no power to create the kind of policy and economic conditions that lead to structural racism, nor can they remedy the problem.

So if these 80% of whites have no power to establish or alleviate racism, why do minority activists continue to attack white men in a group as cause of the racism problem, for example? What are they accomplishing that encourages this behavior? The immediate result of the strategy seems to be an increase in White Nationalism among the powerless lower socioeconomic classes. The American National Election Survey found that unemployed white US residents without a college degree and with an annual income below $30K were more likely to approve of the growing white nationalist movement.

So, activists continue to attack this lower class of powerless and disenfranchised white males, even when it’s well known this increases solidarity in the form of White Nationalism. Do they really want to increase racist rhetoric and White Nationalism? I checked around, and found the answer is apparently “yes.”

In recent history, there have been a number of clearly manufactured racial incidents. As a random example, African American Eddie Curlin was recently found to be behind anti-black graffiti at Eastern Michigan University. In a more notable incident, Jessee Smollet was recently exposed in a scheme to manufacture racism and homophobia. Unable to find enough racism/homophobia in Hollywood to give a bump to his career, Smollet hired a couple of acquaintances to manufacture an incident. However, this was exposed by surveillance cameras, much to the embarrassment of all involved. Just strong activism is a known cause of backlash that results in increased racial rhetoric and activity, including violence. So, how does this strategy work? When White Nationalism and white supremacist rhetoric increases based on attacks against whites, then racial activists can point to it and demand redress as victims.

This strategy is actually recommended in activist literature. For example, here’s one quote on the benefits of backlash: “…hard-right backlash is a critical domestic factor that can help overcome…collective action problems, enabling…rights activists to find resonant frames, build internal solidarity, and win allies.” Here’s another on stroking the backlash: “By promoting and elevating the backlash against your seemingly noble agenda, you heighten the fighting instinct we have as humans, and tap into a feeling of victimization versus a feeling of purpose.”

The only problem is that this manufactured opposition also increases “real” racism, “real” racist incidents, and often gets people hurt or killed. Within the SFF community, it can result in the bullying of minority writers without the benefits of status and name-recognition, who then have a harder time getting published. This suggests the gains made by some minority individuals could well be at the expense of others.

So, should we continue to legitimize this kind of manufactured racism? Should we classify this strategy as a kind of racism itself? Or should we sympathize with activists and reward their behavior just in the interest of progressivism?

Who’s a Racist/Sexist/Homephobe? (Part 1 of 2)

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Following up on Klaudia Amenabar’s charges about sexism in Star Wars and a recent story by N.K. Jemisin on race, this seems like a good time to offer a discussion on relativism as it relates to racism, sexism and homophobia. In recent years, we’ve had several heated discussions in the SFF community provoked by statements from minority writers that look/feel like racism or sexism but aren’t defined that way. This is because of relativism in the way we define racism, sexism and homophobia. The current progressive paradigm is that racism, for example, is about oppression, so only members of an oppressing group can be considered racist. This means we should define comments about race (or gender/sex/sexual orientation) from oppressed minority persons as activism or protest, when the same statement, made by a white male (considered an oppressing group), would be considered damningly racist. This also means that minority writers have a free pass to say whatever they want about race, sex, gender and sexual orientation without repercussions, while white writers (the oppressor group) have to be careful of what they say.

This system provokes some interesting questions. If racism is relative, then should it be defined differently by locale and by who feels oppressed? If a school is majority black, for example, and has a black administration, should white students be considered a minority and given a free pass to say whatever they want? The city of Atlanta is majority black and has a black head of government. Are white supremacist statements made in Atlanta a form of protest, or are they considered racist because Atlanta is part of the larger US system? Ok, so then what about Zimbabwe? Not only is the country overwhelmingly black, but the government has a history of human rights violations against white residents. Are white supremacist statements made in Zimbabwe still to be considered racist, or are they protest? And last, what happens when whites become a minority in the US within about the next 20 years. Younger age groups (currently in elementary school) are already experiencing this issue, and it will become nation-wide as older residents die off. Will the definition of racism suddenly shift at that point?

We’re given to knee-jerk assumptions about racism, but the whole thing is pretty confusing when you start looking at the details. I’ll try to sort it out. First, should we rate oppressor status by population majority? Asians, it turns out, are the largest world demographic group with ~60% of the world population; whites and blacks are roughly even at about ~15%. The sex ratio is currently skewed slightly to male, maybe because of cultural issues in China and India, but remains roughly 50/50. Definitely white men don’t hold majority status world-wide, so majority/minority won’t work very well as a measure of white oppression of other races on a global scale.

Minority pie

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So, should we maybe equate oppressor status with wealth instead? When it comes to that, then we do see a worldwide distribution that skews heavily to white and male. About 55% of the world’s billionaires are white, 30% are Asian, and less than 1% are black. About 11% of the world’s billionaires are female. About 1% of the world’s population owns half the wealth, and the distribution of wealth leans heavily to the US and Western Europe.

Wealth Table

Source

So, if you equate wealth with oppression, then definitely white men are going to be the powerful oppressors both world-wide and in the US/UK. But, is this a statement that can be generalized to mean all white men are wealthy oppressors?

Let’s look at wealth demographics of the US population. By race, Asians tend to have the highest household incomes, then whites, Hispanics and blacks. About 10% of whites fall below the poverty line, and 20% fall into the upper socioeconomic class. That leaves 70% of households that fall into the middle and working socioeconomic classes with annual incomes somewhere between $10,000 and $100,000. So if we’re equating wealth with oppressor status, should the 80% of poor, middle and working class whites be lumped in with the upper 20% as racist oppressors? And what about the lowest 10% of whites that fall below the poverty line? Should apparently racist statements about this group by minorities be considered differently?

Review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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This film is Episode IX in the Skywalker saga. It is #3 in the current trilogy of episodes, following The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). It was directed by J.J. Abrams, produced by Lucasfilm and Bad Robot and released in December of 2019 by Walt Disney Studios. Stars include Daisy Ridley as Rey, Adam Driver as Ben/Kylo Ren, John Boyega as Finn, and Oscar Isaac as Poe. There are also appearances from Carrie Fisher as Leia, Mark Hamill as Luke, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, and Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca. Composer John Williams is featured as Oma Tres. This review contains spoilers.

Emperor Palpatine has returned and is building an armada on the planet Exegol. Kylo Ren captures a Sith wayfinder device that leads him to the Emperor, who demands that he kill Rey. Meanwhile, Rey is training to be a Jedi under Leia Organa. Finn and Poe obtain intel that Palpatine has returned, and a group of Renaissance fighters leaves on the Millennium Falcon in search of a wayfinder device so they can get to Exegol. On Pasaana they encounter Lando Calrissian, who gives them helpful information. Ren locates Rey through their Force bond and arrives on Pasaana, where Rey confronts him and Chewie is taken prisoner. C-3PO has seen the inscription that leads to the wayfinder, but is forbidden by its programming from translating. The group goes on to Kijimi to find a hacker, where Poe encounters an old friend/enemy Zorii. After obtaining the information, they mount an expedition to rescue Chewie from aboard an Imperial battleship. Ren tells Rey she is Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter, and General Hux reveals himself to be a spy, allowing Chewie, Poe and Finn to escape. The group moves on to Kef Bir, where Rey locates the wayfinder on the remains of a wrecked Deathstar. Ren destroys the device and the two duel. Leia is dying and tries to reach Ren. Rey takes advantage of his distraction dring the duel and deals a killing blow, but then relents and heals him with her own life force. Upset by what she has done, Rey takes his ship to Ahch-To where she means to become a hermit like Luke, but Luke appears and convinces her she is wrong. She takes Luke’s ship and leaves for Exegol, where she expects to face the Emperor in a final battle. Is there any way the Renaissance can win?

In general this went very well. The actors have grown into their roles since the first film of this series, bringing a dignity and authority to their characters. It’s a fairly long movie at 1 hr. 22 min., but the plot keeps everybody moving, jumping from planet to planet in a quest to find the Emperor’s hidden stronghold. We encounter various colorful characters along the way while Rey and Ren keep up their personal conflict from within the Force. An interesting symbolism emerged when Rey was revealed as the Emperor’s granddaughter. She and Ren/Ben are a dyad within the Force, two sides of the same creature, presumably, we expect, representing good and evil. They grapple with love and hate and swing first one way and then the other, seeking for balance. Besides this excellent screenplay, Abrams has produced a visually artistic movie using both the live and CGI elements. He’s also made amends to the older fans, bringing back characters from the previous films, including Leia Organa, Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Luke Skywalker and a host of others, through various glimpses and voices. The story ends, as it began, on Tatooine.

I was mostly pleased with this. On the not so positive side, the action sometimes seems a bit frantic; there were no quiet moments of reflection/decision, and it skips from world to world like driving down the street. Supposedly the Emperor’s battle fleet is docked within the planet’s atmosphere, but I wondered about action on the wing of one of the battleships. Shouldn’t the air be a little thin for that? Can’t the people inside the ship get out there to deal with things? And why do people keep disappearing? I know they’re supposed to be absorbed into the Force, but it still irks me.

Controversies: Others weren’t quite so happy with the screenplay. Social media producer Klaudia Amenabar complained on Twitter about Rey needing men to help her succeed when she should have been powerful enough to do it on her own. Joonas Suotamo (a.k.a. Chewie) replied, calling this toxic fandom, and a squabble ensued. See a summary article about it here. Also, I’ve seen some comments about this installment generating the widest split between fan and critic ratings of any of the Star Wars films: 86% to 54% positive at Rotten Tomatoes. This is a gap of 32 points, apparently for catering to the masses.

Although this film didn’t quite pack the sense of wonder the first Star Wars movie did, it’s a very satisfactory ending to the series. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

Wrap-up of the Forward Series Reviews

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This series is an interesting idea, and you have to give Blake Couch credit for self-actualization, as he’s apparently pitched the idea to Amazon, worked as its editor, and at the same time created an opportunity to feature his own work in the series. The writers are all prominent in one way or the other, and I expect they’ve written these stories by invitation.

Here’s the authors diversity count, as far as I can tell: 4 men, 2 women, 1 African American, 1 LGBTQ. That means it serves as an apparent vehicle for white men (who may need it, after all, in the current climate). This also comes across as something of a vanity project. For one thing, it features the editor’s story, and the whole series looks to provide a publicity appearance for other writers who are already prominent or up and coming so their prominence can rub off on one another. Jemisin and Towles came through with thoughtful pieces, and Weir wrote something entertaining for hard SF geeks, but I didn’t quite understand the point of the others, which seemed low on substance—maybe just a guaranteed sale that didn’t require much thought. On the bright side, this series advances science fiction as a genre, and novelettes as an art form. It also allows at least one hard SF writer (Weir) an opportunity for promotion of his work–always a good thing.

Novelettes seem to be underserved as an art form. I expect it’s an awkward length for some reason, too long to fit in to a magazine or anthology and too short to make a profit as a solo publication. Whatever, I predict Jemisin’s “Emergency Skin” will feature in next year’s awards cycle.

This provides light, quick reads for anyone looking to broaden their reading horizons and sample new authors.

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