Check it out: Rhubosphere Web Portal

A screencap of my website.

Hey, hey, hey! Wanna see what I get up to on the rest of the web?

I would like to cordially invite you to enjoy my website, where you will find:

For instance: did you know I had a YouTube channel? At the moment it mostly consists of a bunch of fanvids and random videos I’ve made showing people my vegetables, experimenting with my equipment, and getting drunk alone. But next year I plan to launch an introduction to philosophy webseries and other cool stuff. (And maybe learn to make better fanvids…)

Anyway, check it out, and remember, if you get kicks out of what I do and want to reward me, there’s a tip jar over over in the sidebar that would very much welcome your contribution.

All change! All change!

So, I bought myself a domain and I moved my blog to it.

And then, because it was mine now, I changed the name of the blog from In Search of the Happiness Max to The Rhubosphere. And I changed my banner because the old one was starting to look old-fashioned. Pray I don’t alter it further, or, uh… I hope you like it?

Why’ve I moved? Well, I get more freedom under my own roof. Some of that is freedom to add fancy things which I hope will be nice for you guys. Some of that is the freedom to make money. Not a lot of money, I imagine, and I promise I’m not going to add a bajillion ads and make this into one of those hit-optimised blogs you never want to visit. But, you know, it’s nice to have the option.

It’s also because I want to have a more ‘united’ internet presence. I haven’t the time to put together a proper website at the moment, but moving the blog to my own domain is the first step.

The Third Annual Serene Wombles

Sorry this is so late. I had, like, three significant life crises happen all at once, and I only had this half finished by 3rd October, which was my blog’s birthday. I really wanted to get this out on the day itself, but that’s life. Let the post begin!

Wow, we survived a whole ‘nother year, and for some reason you lot are still interested in what I have to say about various forms of speculative media and other awesome shit. Weirdos.

For the n00bs: The Serene Wombles are the awards I give once a year, on my blog’s birthday, for the stuff I liked best of all the things I have reviewed. The skinny:

Eligibility for a Serene Womble is conferred by being the subject of a review on In Search of the Happiness Max in the past year. There may have been better or more worthy things that came out this year, but if I didn’t find them relevant to my interests, or if I simply didn’t have the time to review them, they won’t be eligible for a Serene Womble. I make no pretense that these awards are significant or important in any way, but I enjoy having the opportunity to praise and draw attention to things I have loved.

The Serene Wombles are divided into two categories, those that apply to recent releases, and special Time Travelling Wombles for the most awesome things in my Reviewing Through the Time Machine posts. The division between the former and the latter may at times seem arbitrary – why should a film that came out in 2009 count as a recent release, whilst a TV Show that ended in 2009 requires a time machine? It’ll always be a judgement call, and the call is mine. At the end of the day, these are not the Oscars, they’re the highlights from a blog, and are therefore subject to my whim.

Due to illness and stress and stuff the pickings have been a little thinner this year than I would like. Nevertheless, there have been some really awesome and creative things out there, and I still want to praise them.

The Serene Womble for Best Film

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Elligible films: Looper, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Star Trek: Into Darkness.

So… guess who hasn’t been to the cinema a lot this year?  There are a whole bunch of films that I wanted to go see this year  – summer of bloody superheroes indeed! – but illness and lack of funds have prevented me. As a consequence, this was basically no contest. Looper made me angry. Star Trek: Into Darkness was tiresome and disappointing. And I enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a very great deal. I said when I watched it at Christmas that it would be the one to beat, and, alas, nothing rose to the challenge.

This was an exceedingly pretty film that I found well-paced and which realised the story very well. I didn’t mind the extra stuff added in, and actually like that Peter Jackson took this once-in-a-generation-or-two opportunity to explore Tolkien’s world more fully. Bags of fun!

The Serene Womble for Best TV Show: Hemlock Grove

Hemlock Grove PosterEligible TV Shows: Hemlock Grove, Doctor Who, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Hannibal, America’s Next Top Model, Sleepy Hollow.

For the first year, Game of Thrones is not the winner of this category! I still enjoyed it, and it had some of my favourite moments of the whole series, but the pacing was rocky, and for consistently good value there was some significant competition.

Hemlock Grove was original, genre bending, narratatively interesting, conceptually challenging, and thoroughly addictive. It wasn’t quite like anything I had seen before, in a good way.

Hannibal deserves an honourable mention, but although it was addictive, entertaining, and well-acted, I can’t say it was anything especially new or original, just very well done. House of Cards was well-acted and reasonably well-written, but fairly unoriginal and tiresomely another privileged white man plotting petty revenges that it’s hard to care for when he’s not really received any very great slights. Doctor Who is… Doctor Who. This really isn’t going to be a contender until Moffat leaves. If an episode doesn’t leave me wanting to scream, it’s a good sign. I thought there were a couple of somewhat interesting episodes this year, but that’s all. America’s Next Top Model, much as I am in the business of defending it, is not remotely in the same league. Sleepy Hollow snuck in as a last minute entry. I enjoyed the one episode I’d seen at time of review, but it’s basically entertaining fluff.

So, it’s a hearty congrats to Hemlock Grove. You seriously impressed me and I hope I can spread the love to my readers.

The Serene Womble for Best Novel – Null

There was precisely one entrant in this category: A Dance with Dragons. Given that this is just a couple of chapters from the longer Read Along with Rhube chapter by chapter review that I have been doing for the last year (two years?). It feels a bit cheaty to give it a free pass to a Serene Womble by default of multiple entries and the fact that I just haven’t reviewed any other (current) novels. Plus, it just isn’t that good. Entertaining, interesting enough for the time and attention I have devoted to it? Yeah, I guess. But it’s also deeply problematic and I doubt it would win against any competition it might have had in another year. (It did not win last year, for example.)

Fair? Unfair? It’s my blog, I get to choose.

The Serene Womble for Best Blog – Escher Girls

Escher Girls avatarEligible blogs: Myths Retold, Academic Men Explain Things to Me, Escher Girls

Oh man, this was a really hard one. I want to give the award to all of them and actually changed my mind a couple of times. One of the difficulties is that Myths Retold is a very different kind of blog to the other two, which are in turn very similar to each other in both content and impact. I considered making a separate category for ‘Best Fiction Blog’, so that I could honour Myths Retold as well, but then I couldn’t think of any other fiction blogs and it seemed like that would be getting needlessly specific. Basically, I’m saying that all three of these are very good and worth your attention.

I’ve picked Escher Girls for the win for the scope of its impact. Escher Girls is the creation of Ami Angelwings, an awesome Canadian woman who started the blog to ‘archive and showcase the prevalence of certain ways women are depicted in illustrated pop media’, namely: women are contorted into physically impossible poses for the pleasure of the male gaze. The blog functions as a demonstration that the way women are drawn in comics and other illustrated media is dramatically different to the ways that men are drawn, that we are sexualised to extremes and that this sexualisation is commonplace, and in ways that do not compare to the male power fantasies of ripped muscles in skin-tight costumes which are so often held up to minimise women’s claims of unfair treatment. The volume of examples that Ami has collected (both personally and from submissions) is staggering, and the comfort this provides to women (who have long been told that their experience of alienation by sexualisation in mainstream comics is a mere subjective impression) is extensive and powerful.

Academic Men Explain Things to Me serves a similar function, in providing a platform for women to voice their frustrations with the phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’, in which women frequently find that men explain very basic things to them, often in areas for which the woman is herself an expert and the man a novice. Again, this is an area in which women have often been told that they are imagining being treated in an overly patronising manner, that there are ‘know it alls’ of both genders, and that our subjective experiences are not as valid as men’s (who, of course, are privileged by a default supposition of objectivity that does not exist). By creating a venue to archive these experiences in detail and volume, Academic Men Explain Things to Me has provided a powerful vindication of women’s experiences – one which I genuinely believe is helping men to rethink their behaviour, as well as providing women with a sense of justification long denied.

In the end, I chose Escher Girls for its breadth of impact. I feel that there has been a palpable shift in comic and visual culture over the past year, where the misogyny in mainstream comics has come under increasing scrutiny from more mainstream critiques and fans. I don’t think Escher Girls have been the sole cause of this. Blogs such as DC Women Kicking Ass have also provided a sustained critique and made significant contributions, as have prominent critiques from individual women, such as Kelly Turnbull and Kyrax2. But to concede that a leading light is a part of a movement need not minimise the specific contribution. I think the impact of Escher Girls can be seen in the fact that it was able to spin off other projects, such as The Hawkeye Initiative, which highlights the discrepancies in treatment of men and women in comics by showcasing redrawings of sexualised female images with the male character, Hawkeye, in an identical pose.

Moreover, Ami’s blog is impressively organised in a way that facilitates citation and comparison from multiple angles – the tags page not only collates posts by trope, but also by artist, company, character, series, and Genre/Medium. And the blog integrates a Disqus commenting feature, allowing for debate and discussion of issues in a way that usually isn’t possible on Tumblr style blogs, and which Ami manages with great sensitivity.

It’s hard to compare a project like this with an artistic endeavour, like Myths Retold, which is not aiming at the kind of social change Escher Girls enables. Myths Retold demonstrates an artistry and poetic sophistication that simply doesn’t apply in assessing the other two blogs. All I can say is that whilst I recommend all three blogs to you, I felt that in this year, Escher Girls seemed most significant to me.

The Serene Womble for Best Webseries: Welcome to Night Vale

Night Vale logoEligible webseries: TableTop, Vlog Brothers, Welcome to Night Vale

I admit to using the term ‘webseries’ loosely. I reviewed quite a lot of things this year that don’t fit neatly into large categories, and although I might call TableTop a webseries, Vlog Brothers a vlog, and Night Vale a podcast, having each win a category for which it was the only entrant, I don’t think that’s a good use of my time and attention or yours. In any case, there is no question in my mind that Welcome to Night Vale outshines the other two, and I do not have the qualms I had for the previous category, in that I feel these compare fairly well, for regularly web-distributed entertainment.

TableTop is a nice idea, and if I were really into game mechanics I might find more value in it, but ultimately it fell flat for me. It’s basically just like watching other people play fun games. The games look fun, and maybe you like the people, but you can’t help but feeling that the whole thing would be more enjoyable if you were actually playing, too.

Vlog Brothers is entertaining, amusing, thoughtful, and informative. I recommend it. But it can’t hold a candle to Night Vale.

Welcome to Night Vale is one of the best, most enjoyable, most original shows I have had the pleasure to stumble across in a long time. The idea of using the podcast format as though it were a radio station for a fictional town is not one I had come across before, and it has been put to good purpose. Funny, strange, and more than a little bit dark, Night Vale is like a ray of sunlight that never fails to make me smile or to delight me with its unexpected changes in direction. It’s also surprisingly durable in terms of being something I can listen to over and over and still find new things to enjoy. I’ve had a hard year, especially the last few months, and being able to tune in to Night Vale any time I would otherwise have been alone with my thoughts has been remarkably soothing. It comforts me to know that wonderful, joyful, eccentric people are making such wonderful, joyful, eccentric works of art.

Not to mention that it manages to be progressive in terms of representation of gender, race, and sexuality without ever being po-faced. I can’t not give this an award.

The Serene Womble for Best Music: Stephanie Mabey

Album cover for Wake Up Dreaming, by Stephanie MabeyEligible musicians: Garfunkel and Oates and Stephanie Mabey

Garfunkel and Oates are witty and entertaining, but occasionally problematic. By contrast, Stephanie Mabey’s music is pure joy. I’ve listened to her album, Wake Up Dreaming, again and again, often on loop, since downloading it, and I’m not sick of it yet. Her music is delightful, witty, and often beautiful – a real must for the geek music lover. I can’t recommend her work enough.

The Serene Womble for Best Webcomic: City of the Dead

City of the Dead, panel oneEligible webcomics: City of the Dead

OK, this one was the only entry in its category – I haven’t been reading as many webcomics this year, focussing, as I have been, on trying out different new media instead. Nevertheless, this comic is dynamic, atmospheric, and fun, making full use of the online medium to present a fast-paced and cohesively presented story. It’s no Romantically Apocalyptic (the winner from last year), but it’s certainly a cut above the average, and worthy of your time.

The Time Traveling Wombles

The Time Travelling Womble for Best Novel: The Count of Monte Cristo

Cover Art: The Count of Monte CristoEligible novels: The Count of Monte Cristo.

A consequence of the sparse nature of this year is that the categories for the Time Traveling Wombles each has only one entry, but as each are stellar examples of exemplary works, this should not count against them.

I had no idea that The Count of Monte Cristo would be either such a rip-roaring adventure, or that it would be so progressive for its time (I ship Eugenie/Louise forever). Some classics are classics because they are fun as well as intelligent, and I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Non-Fiction Book: Wild Swans

Wild Swans - cover artEligible non-fiction books: Wild Swans.

In my original article on this I wrote that this is one of the books I would say everyone should read before they die, so it should be no surprise that I honour it here, also. Wild Swans is a biographical and autobiographical work of heart-rending and exquisite expression of three women’s lives across turbulent twentieth century China. The tale is worthwhile and breath-taking in itself, but for people living outside of China – people for whom the ‘Cultural Revolution’ is just a term – this intimate, detailed, and thorough history is an absolutely essential piece of reading that will change your perspective in the world.

Time Traveling Womble for Best Blog – Inexplicable Objects

A cupcake with a festive plane-on-a-stick in it.Eligible blogs: Inexplicable Objects.

Dating from a time before there was any such thing as a ‘blogging platform’ (the first was launched in October 1998), one can’t help but feel that Inexplicable Objects, which updated weekly from April 1998 to June 2001, would have made a phenomenally successful Tumblr. The archive is still active, more than ten years since it stopped updating, and it’s still one of my very favourite things in the world. Chocked full of delightfully strange objects, coloured by the witty commentary of Bill Young, this little website is a welcome piece of harmless absurdity to brighten your day. It may be the only entry in this category, but it is assuredly worthy of the Womble.

And finally:

The People’s Choice Award 2013: Hemlock Grove, Season One

Hemlock Grove PosterBy far and away the thing you most wanted my opinions on that I reviewed this year was Hemlock Grove. Netflix’s original fantasy/horror/weird show, released as an entire season, all at once, in April this year has garnered nearly 2,500 hits, with over a thousand more than its next nearest rival, Looper. This should possibly give pause for thought, as my review of Looper garnered attention more because it was negative and controversial than because the film was well-liked, but I hope that those who came to read my review of Hemlock Grove came away with a more positive image and their interest was more than car crash theatre.

Incidentally, last year’s winner, The Guild, Season Five, still has more hits than any other page on my website (including the home page) at over 14,000. What do these figures mean? Who knows, but something captured a lot of people’s interest, and maybe that’s something that’s worthy of your attention, too.

And that’s about it for this year. I hope you’ve enjoyed my reviews (or at least found them interesting) and that those who have won Serene Wombles of one kind or another get something positive out of the experience. It’s amazing the volume of wonderful and engaging things out there to culturally consume  in this crazy internet age; I hope I can continue to provide some kind of useful commentary on the tiny section of it in which I partake.

Serene Slumber Party 2: I, Haunted, by N K Kingston

N K Kingston/Mina Kelly

N K Kingston/Mina Kelly

A black kitten sleeping My second guest to the slumber party is my good friend Nat. Nat writes horror, fantasy, and science fiction as N K Kingston, and romance, erotica, and erotic horror as Mina Kelly. She has published stories in several anthologies, as well as an m/m erotic fantasy novella, Tease. She’s currently working on an erotic sci-fi novella set in space, and she runs the space, feminist, geekery, and more space themed Tumblr It’s a Space Romance. She’s also knows more about ghost stories than I ever will, so her contribution nicely fills out a niche in this blog.

I, Haunted

What makes a good ghost story? According to M R James it boils down to three things: the atmosphere, the climax, and a realistic enough setting that puts “the reader into the position of saying to himself: ‘If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’” All solid advice, but for, there’s one more ingredient to a truly great ghost story: Death.

Morbid, I know. But death is important to a good ghost story; it raises the question of life after death. Most ghost stories revolve around hauntings – repetitious phenomena that build to a crescendo – that can’t be reasoned with. Even if a figure is seen, it cannot be asked to stop. Whatever survives post death is not a continuation of the being when it was alive, yet excludes the possibility of that being moving on wholly to another place. The narrator cannot finish the tale post mortem.

The best way to bring the point home and really get a reader shivering is by using the first person, but traditional stories struggle with this. First Person Present can pull readers out of the story (as a friend put it, “how is he finding time to type?”) but you can’t kill your narrator in First Person Past without some kind of “telling the story after death” reveal, which undermines the whole horror of killing them in the first place. Ghost stories are often told at one remove, instead. “My professor told me this tale” or “I recollect a friend of mine”, but it still doesn’t solve the problem: obviously your professor survived to tell you the tale.

So your old school short story turns to letters and diaries, a return to an even older school form of the novel. The main character usually finds these documents by chance and usually has no more connection to the characters within than the reader does. They will grow more invested, sometimes adding comments of their own or doing a little investigation to pad the tale out. And then they reach the end, but the tale isn’t resolved. Did the writer survive the final encounter? Doubtful. The lack of resolution is part of what makes death frightening.

Sheridan Le Fanu’s collection ‘In a Glass Darkly’ follows this format, at least at first, the narrator a medical secretary sharing unusual case notes. M R James uses it in ‘The Story of an Appearance and a Disappearance’ in which a friend who knows his interest in ghost stories sends him the letters.

When ghost stories move into television and film they struggle with the issue again. On the one hand, it’s possible to do away with the narrator altogether, which means you can kill pretty much anyone off, but on the other hand it’s still got this cosy fictional feeling. You lose M R James’s third ingredient – the sense it could happen to you – in a list of acting credits and special effects budgets. Without a narrator film can scare in ways fiction can’t, revealing things to the audience that the characters can’t see, but it doesn’t always manage to bring the horror home.

And then came the mockumentary. BBC’s Ghostwatch takes famous presenters and a very typical council house, and aired an hour and a half of terror in an era when TV didn’t rewind and the programme guide was something you got in your newspaper. A lot of viewers missed the fact it was fictional. The Blair Witch Project takes it a step further by removing the professionals. With handheld cameras becoming increasingly affordable suddenly anyone can be haunted. And the best part is the camera can keep on filming after its owner passes on, breaking from being a tool of First Person narration into Third.

We move from handheld cameras to camera phones to smartphones, and suddenly it’s very easy to upload footage to the internet. You get a kind of hybrid format: video diaries on youtube. But the internet also allows for text based story telling as well. Where before you had diaries and letters now you have blogs and emails. Some of the best stories use all of it. Hell, some of the best stories use you, the reader.

Ted the Caver is a relatively early example from 2001. It’s simple but effective, using an angelfire website as a blog (and seriously, check it out now, because who knows how long angelfire will stick around!). The Dionaea House combines multiple blogs and sites, encouraging readers to explore it in their own way. It has issues with spam in the comments now, but still packs a punch. Candle Cove began as a straight forward narrative, but some smart cookie put the episode in question up on youtube. Then there’s the various Slenderman videos. Most are ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) which mean not only are you usually following them over multiple platforms, but often viewers/readers will be encouraged to join in on some level. How’s that for making you feel like it’s actually happening to you? Personal faves are Marble Hornets and Everyman Hybrid, though both can eat up several days of your time to catch up on, and both are still running.

A lot of readers see elements of House of Leaves in Dionaea House, but to me that suggests an unfamiliarity with the genre: haunted houses are nothing new, and nor is telling a ghost story through diaries and letters. House of Leaves brings us full circle, back to a First Person ghost story told with diaries and letters, but the complexity it brings to the narrative by alternately drawing attention to its fictiveness and distracting the reader from it make it one of the most haunting reads I know.

In a lot of respects the Internet makes it easier to tell ghost stories; you can have your First Person narrator and kill them too. House of Leaves shows you can take the lessons learned from there and translate them back on to the page, and the whole is scarier than the sum of its parts. You can close the book, of course. You can turn off the TV, unplug the modem.

But you can’t quite shake the feeling, can you? If you’re not careful, something like this could happen to you.

On Subjectivity: Wild Swans, Escher Girls, and Mansplaining

I heard something on Radio 4 this morning that set a fire in my brain. It connected with all kinds of things that have been bubbling beneath the surface for the last few weeks – a bunch of ideas and threads from internet culture and international politics that suddenly aligned themselves and allowed me to step back and see the central point around which they were revolving. I knew I needed to write something about it.

People sometimes throw around the term ‘subjectivity’ in internet discussions, but often it is not clearly defined, so I’d like to start by giving a bit of context to fill in what I mean. As you probably know, if you’ve been around here much, I have a not-so-secret identity as a philosopher. More particularly, I study scepticism, and the philosophy of mind. Philosophical scepticism is the doubt of some foundational aspect of our knowledge – such as that there is an external world, or that there are other minds. The kind of scepticism that interests me is what we call ‘solipsistic external world scepticism’ – the thesis that I might be the only thinking being and the whole of the rest of the world might be a figment of my imagination. Scepticism is something most of us have thought about idly from time to time, and some of us (like me) may have worried about intensely for brief periods, but none of us (it is generally accepted) seem to believe in our day-to-day lives. Yet it is notoriously difficult to disprove. Why is that? Well, it is because we are, all of us, stuck inside our own minds. It is because we find ourselves unable to reason from the subjective to the objective.

By ‘subjective’, in this context we mean that which is unique to our own perspective: the thoughts and experiences that make up our individual world views. Sometimes ‘subjective’ is used dismissively, as a way of discrediting an opinion or ending discussions that have become uncomfortable: ‘That’s very subjective!’ one might declare, intending to imply that the opinion has no real basis in fact; or: ‘Oh, it’s all very subjective, really,’ one might say, ‘I can see we aren’t going to decide this’ as a way of holding off any objections that are being made to one’s view. But to be subjective does not necessarily mean to be ‘merely a matter of opinion’. The dismissive tone is induced by the inaccessibility of mental states to the perusal of others. ‘That’s just not funny!’ is declared, and another responds: ‘Well, humour is all very subjective – just because you don’t find it funny doesn’t mean that it isn’t’. And maybe some things are subjective in this sense – some philosophers have argued that morality is subjective in this way – but it’s important to understand that merely being subjective does not entail that something is invalid, untrue, ephemeral, or to be dismissed.

For the subjective is as praised as it is derided. The history of modern analytic philosophy has been dominated by the Cartesian notion of certainty being grounded in the immediacy of thought. Experiences are untrustworthy – the senses are easily tricked – but thought is ‘directly’ revealed to the self. Although few would now except Cartesian infallibility for all thought (the rise of psychoanalysis has mostly put paid to that), the immediacy of thought and experience is persuasive, and most would hold at least certain types of thought or experience as clearly more certain than facts about the world, which can only be inferred through the veil of experience. Thus, as I can never experience your thoughts and your feelings directly, I can never know what it’s like to be you in the way that I know what it’s like to be me. The objective, here, may be more concrete, in that it is stable and accessible to all, but it is also less certainly known, only experienced through the filters shaped by ones own thoughts and experiences.

OK. Enough philosophy. What does this have to do with Radio 4? Well, as I walked to work this morning I tuned in to a discussion concerning Peng Liyuan, the wife of Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping was selected as the next president of China on 8th November 2012. Peng Liyuan is a celebrity in her own right, being a ‘folk’ singer*, and Professor Delia Davin and Ross Terrill had been invited on the Today programme to discuss her in relation to Chinese politics. It was an odd segment. According to the Today website the discussion was supposed to ‘examine what role [women can] hope to achieve in Chinese politics today’, yet for most of the segment they discussed Peng Liyuan’s relationship to Xi Jinping with some comparisons to Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. Ross Terrill has written a book on Jiang Qing, and the majority of the questions were directed towards him, instead of Professor Davin, who is described as ‘an expert on modern Chinese society with a special focus on gender’, who was asked what sort of music Peng Liyuan plays. Ross Terrill’s main comment on Peng Liyuan was that she would do best to keep herself entirely seperate from the politics of her husband. I’m not sure he even wondered just who this would be best for, and, to be honest, until I read the precis of the segment on the website, I thought it was a segment on how Peng Liyuan’s existing fame would impact on Xi Jinping’s career, instead of a discussion of women in Chinese politics. I wondered what Mr Terrill thought of Hilary Clinton’s involvement in politics – would he say she should have kept her nose well out of it and focused on doing what would be most complimentary to her husband’s career?

This was bizarre in itself, but then, towards the end of the segment, when the question of chinese feminism was finally raised, the question was directed to the biographer, and not to the woman who is an expert on gender issues in modern Chinese society. I was flabbergasted when Terrill confidently bemoaned the lack of feminism in Chinese society, only able to reference three historical figures who had gained some power through their husbands in the distant past. This, to him, was Chinese feminism. John Humphreys, the presenter, seemed to be expecting this answer – well, of course, the Chinese are sexist, aren’t they? Not like us in the liberated West (where we ignore the female expert when discussing the question of women and power in favour of the male biographer). He allowed Professor Davin a brief comment in what was clearly supposed to be a sentence before the programme closed and handed over to the news. To my relief, she expressed the same shock I did. Indeed, she said something to the effect of ‘Well, I’m glad you did [give me the chance to speak] I wanted to shreik at that comment!’. Because anyone who knows the slightest bit about Chinese history in the 19th and 20th centuries should know that what Terrill said was patently ridiculous and insultingly dismissive.

Wild Swans - cover artI would never in a million years declare myself an expert on Chinese history or women in China, but then, I’ve never tried to write a book about it. What I have done is read a book about it. Wild Swans, to be precise. Wild Swans is written by Jung Chang, and tells the story of her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Her grandmother was born in 1909 and was of the last generation to experience foot binding, she was also a concubine to a warlord. Her mother grew up in an age of turmoil and invasion. Jung Chang recalls that her mother ‘made up her mind to choose her own husband’ having become ‘disenfranchised with the treatment of women and the system of concubinage (see p. 81). Both the Kuomintang and then the Communists offered ideologies that appealed to the liberation of women, and her mother and father joined the Communist party. One of the most moving passages is chapter seven ‘”Going through the Five Mountain Passages” My Mother’s Long March (1949-1950)’, in which Jung Chang’s mother miscarries her first child, having been forced to march in harsh conditions and all weathers despite her evident illness. The reason? Because the Communist Party believed that men and women were equal, and that a woman should therefore be able to march as well as a man, regardless of the conditions.

All of which is not to say that Chinese feminism is a paragon to be emulated. The tale of Jung Chang’s mother’s long march illustrates this with horrifying clarity. There are hard lessons to be learnt here, in that equality of rights can mean respecting that a pregnant woman has different needs to a strong young man – we should not forbid her any and all activities, but this does not mean ignoring her medical needs, or the strains pregnancy puts on a body. The point is that far from being limited to a tiny number of women who gained power through marriage in the distant past, what Chinese recent history offers is a rich and very complicated story of feminist struggle, in many ways more dramatic than that which the ‘West’ has gone through. There is a strong impression that the extreme oppression of women’s lives in the society of foot binding and concubines led to an equally extreme position in the rejection of old attitudes under the new Communist regime.

And this was a thing of which I had no idea until I read Wild Swans. In fact, almost all the Chinese history I know I got from reading Wild Swans. It’s a terrible thing to say, but that was my education. A little bit on the terracotta army, and then it’s Romans, Normans, Tudors and Stuarts. Entirely Eurocentric, and largely Anglocentric. What reading Wild Swans gave me was an insight into someone else’s subjectivity. And boy, did it have an impact. For the first time history came alive to me and I understood why it was important – the value it has in enabling us to understand each other, and where we have come from. Since then I have eaten up history where and when I can find it. It’s been a bit of a random enterprise – an audio course on Ancient Egypt here, a history of Russia there – but I now understand how little I know about the world outside of my own little sphere of time and space, and I’m seeking to correct that. I’m seeking to expand my understanding of other people’s subjectivity.

It’s for this reason that, should I ever make a definitive list of books that everyone should read, Wild Swans would be on it. Alongside, Hamlet, A Room of One’s Own, Meditations on First Philosophy, Last Chance to See, On Liberty, and Existentialism and Humanism, there would be Wild Swans. Because it is an important book in helping us to understand one another. And because no other work of non-fiction has ever made me cry like that.

And yet, a so-called expert on a programme about women and China apparently knew none of this – had no idea that there had been a feminist revolution in China, just as there had been a cultural one. Clearly had never read Wild Swans. And I remembered how I had read Wild Swans and thought that everyone should read it, and particularly that men, and ‘Western’ men should read it… and that there was a very good chance that Wild Swans would mostly be read by women.

Which is not to say that no men would seek the book out or would read it when it was recommended. I recommended it to my ex-boyfriend and he loved it and bought me Jung Chang’s biography of Mao for my birthday as a result. It’s that men are less likely to find it on their own, less likely to pick it up when it is recommended by women. In the same way that a male friend once laughed at me when I asked if he had caught an interesting segment that had been on Woman’s Hour. I forget the content, but it had been relevant to his interests. He laughed because of course he hadn’t heard it – of course: it was Woman’s Hour. And I have often thought, since then, that a lot of the content of Woman’s Hour is stuff that men should hear, and that most never will.

This is not to condemn men. I have a love-hate relationship with Woman’s Hour, as I think many women do. It is important that many of the issues raised on the programme are given time to be aired, and there’s a good chance many of them wouldn’t be if that time were not set aside for ‘women’s’ issues. And yet by labeling them as ‘women’s’ issues it is only natural than men should feel alienated from them. They are being told that this hour is not for them, even that it is composed of content that they will never really understand. It suggests that there is a special women’s subjectivity from which men can only ever be on the outside looking in.

And yet, I often feel alienated by the content and views expressed on Woman’s Hour. I don’t have a family and have no interest in having one, yet a very great deal of the content seems less ‘women’s’ issues than ‘parents’ issues, and it seems to me that by treating these issues as belonging to a special ‘women’s’ domain we reinforce the idea that raising a family is really a women’s business. And yet – and yet I’ve also come to realise that there is a value to my listening to experiences and troubles that are utterly alien to me. I’ll never understand motherhood from the inside – isn’t it important for me to take the time out, sometimes, and listen to what mothers have to say, to try to understand their points of view? Their issues? I think it is, and it is equally important that men do so, too, but these are views and issues that have been shoved into my domain in a way that they are not projected into most men’s. It’s a problem.

It’s a problem we also see reflected in the other big international politics event that has sent the news networks a flurry: the US presidential election. Some of you may have read my piece responding to the evidence that if only white men had voted, Romney would have won by a landslide. I echo a view that has been making a lot of noise since the election. It’s not simply that white men voted overwhelmingly for Romney, despite his terrifying gender and race politics, it’s that Romney supporters were genuinely shell-shocked that he didn’t win, as documented on It never occurred to them because most Romney voters were part of a privileged world in which they had secluded themselves from dissenting views in the belief that dissent could only ever come from minorities. They had consistently ignored the views of feminists, black voters, hispanic voters, gay voters, transgender voters etc. etc. They even ignored the polls that told them these people were going to turn out in such numbers that Obama would have a clear victory. Why? Because they assumed they knew better about other people’s subjectivity, so they didn’t even stop to listen when people like Nate Silver told them they were wrong. Leading to the simply wonderful moment when Megyn Kelly asked Carl Rove, when he persisted in denying the truth: ‘Is that math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is it real?’

With this in mind, I have also been reflecting on the rise of sites like Escher Girls and Mansplaining: Academic Men Explain Things To Me, or the twitter account @everydaysexism and its associated project. Each of these is part of the rise of women using social media to systematically record their experiences and display them to the world.

Escher Girls records the sexism endemic in the depiction of women in comics, countering the oft repeated arguments that ‘male superheroes wear skin-tight clothing too’ and ‘It’s really just Rob Liefeld, and he draws men stupidly too’. The creator of Escher Girls has said that she had heard the latter point so often that she deliberately didn’t use any Rob Liefeld images until she had posted several hundred images by other artists. The point of Escher Girls is not that all of the poses are impossible (although most of them are) as that women drawn so routinely in such ridiculously sexualised manners that people have stopped noticing just how far much of the industry has departed from reality. And in the this centrally collected place distinctly sexist trends emerge that show that the poses of women in comics (in the vast majority) differ wildly from the poses of men. Check out the ‘Offenses‘ section of the tags to see what I mean – in particular ‘ridiculous fighting stances‘.

Academic Men Explain Things To Me is a much newer Tumblr, posting accounts from female academics who find themselves patronised by male colleagues in a way that clearly differs from how these men would treat a male colleague. This is the phenomenon that has been dubbed ‘mansplaining’. The idea came to prominence in 2008 with Rebecca Solnit’s article ‘Men Explain Things To Me‘, although I didn’t know that when I first heard it. In fact, it was a male friend who first introduced me to the term – we were having a discussion in the perilous depths of FanFicRants, and he was worried that he might be coming across as ‘mansplaining’ (he wasn’t, but I still appreciate that he asked). For those unfamiliar, FanFicRants is an odd place. A LiveJournal community so prone to volatility by the inflammatory nature of its subject matter that its denizens have become some of the most self-aware people I have known on the Internet. Not all, I hasten to add, not by a long stretch! But the fact that if you’re going to rant you should be able to take the flack has meant that it is populated by a bunch of outspoken people who will tell you when you’re wrong. I learnt a lot from them. The JournalFen community, FandomWank, has developed a similar culture.

@everydaysexism works similarly, but more broadly, retweeting the experiences of casual (and not so casual) sexism that women have to go through. The effect is a more thoroughly compelling impression of the cumulative grind of casual oppression that women endure much more powerfully than one woman could convey to a male companion by saying ‘But you don’t understand – it may seem like nothing to you, but I have to live with this every day!’

And yet I worry about these projects. I have the sense (I don’t know how one could possibly know for sure) that most of the followers of Escher Girls and Mansplaining are women. It’s not without value. There’s an intense relief in seeing woman after woman describe an experience so familiar to you and yet so rarely acknowledged until recently. ‘Here – here!’ I say to myself. ‘Here is proof – it’s NOT just me and it’s NOT just sometimes, this shit is everywhere‘. ‘Gaslighting‘ is a familiar experience for most women – we are taught to doubt our own judgements and our own experiences – our own subjectivity – because we are surrounded by men, often in positions of authority, telling us that our experiences are invalid – that we must be wrong, that they can judge what’s going on in our own minds better than we can. It’s really, really important to have resources like this to begin to unpick this ingrained psychological damage. I think one of the most valuable things the Internet has done has been to enable underprivileged people who would usually be silenced by the privileged to get together, grow in confidence via shared experience, and present that experience to a wider world. But it’s only half the story. Men need to listen to these accounts too.

Again, I am aware that some already do so – I am happy to know a great many decent men who keep themselves informed and go out of their way to challenge themselves. Alas, they are still not the majority. What we need to ensure is that these blogs – these collections of experiences – do not become like Woman’s Hour. That they do not alienate men by self-designating as female-only zones. I’m not entirely sure how we do that. I think some of the solution may evolve on its own. I really like the way the ‘redraws’ aspect of Escher Girls has developed to be a dominant theme. The blog no longer simply criticises sexist work; readers send in their attempts to redraw the artwork in a way that preserves the content of the action – even the sexiness of the woman – without the back-breaking sexist overtones. It’s no longer about simply saying ‘Look, this is wrong!’, it’s also about saying ‘Come on, let’s see what we can do together to make this right’.

But at the end of the day I think it still takes a little effort – we always have to go a little out of our way to expand our perspectives. You have to want to understand the subjectivity of the other. Wild Swans gave me a kick up the arse, and I’ve had a few more along the way. All I can say is that I don’t regret them. The only thing I regret is that I have not done more to understand other people. We have to keep on trying. I hope that the short, sharp, shock of the American election to the Republican party will give them the cause for reflection that I’ve seen people talking about on the news and the blogosphere. But I’m not holding my breath. Change doesn’t happen without action, and if you rely on other people to change around you things will either stay much the same as they have before, or you’ll be left behind.

* Professor Delia Davin suggested that her songs are too patriotic to be truly termed folk music.

[Edit: People asked me on Twitter to write a follow-up post linking this to the privilege issues in Geek Culture at the moment. I had originally intended to include something making the connections more explicit in this post, but I was pretty tired by the time I was finished, and the post was already pretty long. I did, however, make a comment following Escher Girls’s reply to Tony Harris’s intensely sexist rant about ‘Fake Geek Girls’ over at my Tumblr that makes these points explicit, so if you’re interested in my thoughts on the matter you can check them out there.]

Review: City of the Dead Week 1, by Karl Kessel, Ron Randall, Jeremy Colwell, and Grace Allison

Just a little drop in the Halloween ocean: the most awesome Benjamin Dewey of the wonderfully poignant Tragedy Series Tumblr today linked to City of the Dead Week 1 as a Halloween treat. I’m glad he did.

City of the Dead is a comic created by Thrillbent, a digital comics website, self-described as an ‘experiment in new media publishing’. Web comics are not new in themselves, but I have to admit that City of the Dead is presented in a format that was new to me, at least, and with a slick presentation that went beyond what I have seen both in other web comics and print media. The click-to-navigate feature does not simply load a new page; rather, it progresses the action as seamlessly as though one were viewing a user-controlled moving image. It’s been cleverly designed to create a unique sense of pace and urgency.

In addition to the carefully thought-out layouts and panel progression, the art itself is very well-done and quickly creates a sense of place and character. The female protagonist does seem somewhat awkwardly posed to display her sexual assets to the viewer in places, but considering the Escher Girls industry standard, it could be worse.

Mercy St. Clair is a bounty hunter looking for a shady character called Romero Kirkman, who has recently passed away. Fortunately for her, the reward said ‘dead or alive’, so she’s off to the Necropolis to catch up with his body. With a name like ‘Romero Kirkman’ you can probably guess where this is going, but I leave it to you to discover the details.

It’s not especially long, but as a bite-sized piece of fun on Halloween, it doesn’t have to be. The second part of the story is to follow in two weeks. Check it out!

Gender Stats in Reviews 2

Some of you may remember that earlier this year I was inspired by Warpcore SF to track statistics on the gender of lead characters in the things I review. A lot of talk is bandied about regarding the gender of protagonists – whether there are less female protagonists than male, whether female protagonists sell less well, whether books/films/TV shows etc. with female protagonists are often overlooked by reviewers. But there’s not a lot of data. Especially in the vast blogging marshes of the Internet it seems impossible to accurately gauge the truth about what people are reading and what people are reviewing.

Does it really help for one not particularly well-known blog to keep a record of these things and do a bit of analysis? I don’t know. Maybe. I know a couple of people have been referred to my data since I posted it, but the data sample is so tiny I’m not quite sure what they got out of it. For me it’s an interesting exercise to take the opportunity to step back and think about what I’m reading and viewing, and what I’m choosing to review of the things that I’m reading and reviewing. If you read this blog you’ll know I make big noises about the representation of gender in the various forms of media I review. It’s only fair that I step back and take a look at myself and my own actions.

As my previous post was conducted spur-of-the-moment in the middle of the year, I wanted to do a post soon(ish) after my blog’s birthday (3rd October) to compare the two years I’ve been blogging. I had planned to make the post shortly after the Serene Wombles, but… yeah… that didn’t quite happen. It’s still October, right? Just?

So, let’s take a look. As before, I have followed roughly Ros’s model for logging female, male, and neutral main characters, using neutral for items where there were multiple protagonists of different genders as well as for trans or indeterminately gendered protagonists. Where I have given multiple reviews for the same item (e.g. my Read Along with Rhube A Dance with Dragons reviews, or where I have reviewed multiple episodes from the same TV Show) these have only been counted once. I have not counted any reviews given since 3rd October 2012.

Total figures for all reviews
Female: 25%
Male: 45%
Neutral: 30%

Well, that’s not great. And if you compare to when I did this in March, there’s no real movement. Female has gone up by 1%, neutral has gone down by 1%, Male has stayed the same, with nearly half of all reviews having a male protagonist vs only a quarter with a female one.

But let’s break it down by year and see if there’s a change.

Female: 23% (9)
Male: 50% (20)
Neutral: 27% (11)

Female: 29% (7)
Male: 38% (9)
Neutral: 33% (8)

Well, that’s quite a difference. Male protagonists have gone down a lot, and all three categories are hovering roughly around the third mark. However, the stats from March, half-way through the year, are interestingly different:

October 2011-March 2012
Female: 27% (3)
Male: 27% (3)
Neutral: 45% (5)

I seem to have backtracked from gender parity to males taking the lead since I started tracking this. You might have thought awareness of gender parity would have had the opposite effect. However, when you look at the numbers rather than the percentages, you can see that the difference isn’t very great. I have in general reviewed more works with a clearly gendered protagonist, and there is only a difference of two between male and female. It’s a shame, really, that I haven’t had a chance to review as much this last year as I did the year before, as the sample is smaller, but it is what it is.

Let’s drill into the detail and see where the changes happened.

Books 2010-2011
Female: 21% (3)
Male: 57% (8)
Neutral: 21% (3)

Books 2011-2012
Female: 17% (1)
Male: 33% (2)
Neutral: 50% (3)

These figures are interesting. I’ve reviewed fewer books with a clear female protagonist, and male protagonists still clearly outstrip females. However, the percentage of gender neutral protagonists has gone up massively. When you look at the numbers (1, 2, 3) you might not think that’s too significant – perhaps I simply didn’t review enough books this year to make for much dice. But look at the figures from 2010-2011; I reviewed eight books with a clear male protagonist vs only three with a clear female protagonist. I think it is significant of something that I didn’t read dramatically more male-led books this year.

These figures reflect two books I reviewed written by Sophia McDougall – books that I got into explicitly because I had been so impressed by her blog posts on gender issues (interestingly, these were both gender-neutral, multi-POV books). The two male books are Kraken, which I read because I had heard it was good and it was written by an author I’m already a fan of, and The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three, which was a time machine review of my very favourite novel, which I wrote because I had revisited it and felt compelled to write more on. Both of these books are by massively popular male authors who lead the field (China Miéville and Stephen King) and both of whom write predominantly male protagonists (King also writes a lot of multi-POV books as well, to be fair). In both cases I like the authors because they usually write women well and allow women to take strong roles as well as displaying a range of female roles; nevertheless, they are market leading male authors who, when they have a clear protagonist, usually have a male protagonist. (Note: It’s possible I haven’t read as much China Miéville as I have Stephen King; I apologise if I’ve misjudged him on this basis, although it did seem to me that in all the books of his I have read there have been many more male characters than female.)

I don’t take this as an indictment of these men – on the contrary, I respect them both immensely from the views they have expressed outside of their books as well as the sort of female characters they write. Rather, it is interesting that this can be said of some of the better writers for gender equality who happen to be male. One might speculate that there is a natural tendency to identify with one’s own gender and therefore write characters of one’s own gender as the lead (except that female authors also seem to write male leads a lot, which I suspect may be a product of the prevalence in the culture). Indeed, I recall a gob-smacking conversation with a very senior academic who seemed shocked that a man would ever write from a female POV – he seemed to think it a matter of literary merit to attempt it at all. He could see women writing male characters, but not the other way around. I rather suspect his interests don’t stray far outside of literary fiction, however – I don’t imagine he will be reading Contact, Embassy Town, or Carrie anytime soon. But the idea that men would only try to write women as some kind of literary study is kind of appalling to me – as though were an alien species, or a laboratory specimen. I guess women are allowed to write men because a) male is the default, and/or b) women are just so intuitive and empathic. You can imagine how I feel about that kind of assumption.

This attitude may be a part of the problem, but given that there are actually a fair few men who write female characters at least on occasion, I would expect it to be more a matter of lack of thought on the matter than actively thinking it impossible. Stephen King, after all, has written a great many excellent female characters, just much less frequently in the leading role. Consequently, if males generally get ahead more in society it’s reasonable to expect that more of our most successful authors would be male, writing more male characters, especially in a genre perceived as male-dominated and where female writers still feel a pressure to conceal their gender to avoid putting male readers off. A number of female authors have commented that they chose to use initials rather than their forenames to conceal their gender, and even the colossally successful Robin Hobb chose this pseudonym as being more androgynous for when she started writing high fantasy with a first person male protagonist*.

I also wonder if female authors are more likely to write multi-POV novels. This is pure speculation, but I found it interesting that Sophia McDougall’s novels were multi-POV. I had sort of assumed that they were female-led novels, because she wrote such strong women and I had read her books because I was impressed by her articulate expression of her views on gender. However, when I came to tally up the figures, I realised that Una, impressive character though she is, is only one of three predominant POVs (four, counting Varius, who becomes more prominent in the second novel), and the others are male. Of course, the sample is far too small to draw any conclusions, but I have noted elsewhere that women are more likely to be given powerful roles in ensemble casts in television shows, and I wonder if something similar might be going on here. The more leads you have, the easier it is to slip in a powerful woman without objection, as you will also be able to give men powerful and prominent roles. Perhaps this might also explain why I read so many more multi-POV books: they are more likely to have a range of female characters, and some in positions of power.

Interesting note: the one female-led book I reviewed this year was The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish, and, by my reckoning, the first science fiction novel. Is it telling that women writing in harder times are more likely to write about women? If you have to fight harder to get published, are you more likely to have an axe to grind about why it was hard for you? Virginia Woolf thought so, and she thought it was a flaw (although not one we could be blamed for) – that we couldn’t possibly know what women will write until we achieve genuine equality because our frustrations naturally bleed out into our work. I can’t say it better than she, so I will quote the passage in full:

But perhaps it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not. Her gift and her circumstances matched each other completely. But I doubt whether that was true of Charlotte Brontë, I said, opening JANE EYRE and laying it beside PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

I opened it at chapter twelve and my eye was caught by the phrase ‘Anybody may blame me who likes’. What were they blaming Charlotte Brontë for? I wondered. And I read how Jane Eyre used to go up on to the roof when Mrs Fairfax was making jellies and looked over the fields at the distant view. And then she longed — and it was for this that they blamed her — that ‘then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen: that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character than was here within my reach. I valued what was good in Mrs Fairfax, and what was good in Adele; but I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in I wished to behold.

‘Who blames me? Many, no doubt, and I shall [b]e called discontented. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes….

‘It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

‘When thus alone I not unfrequently heard Grace Poole’s laugh….’

That is an awkward break, I thought. It is upsetting to come upon Grace Poole all of a sudden. The continuity is disturbed. One might say, I continued, laying the book down beside PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, that the woman who wrote those pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?

And you can see what Virginia Woolf means, can’t you? Charlotte Brontë interrupts her work to break into a wild description of her own pain and frustration because to be driven to write is to be driven to express yourself. The skilled and calm practitioner, Woolf suggests, does so wholly within the bounds of the story and the natural inclination of the characters. But a writer in pain may let her own passions bleed into the work, and if you are fighting to be heard you may be more inclined to skew towards a description of your own pains – of writing your own tale, rather than another’s. Yet, we should be wary of taken Woolf’s criticism 100% at face value. The conceit of A Room of One’s Own is that of a woman trying to pin down a thesis whilst constantly being interrupted – she begins the essay uniquely with a ‘But…’ as though she is trying to complete a point someone interrupted her to object to. It’s a telling moment. I myself have been taken to task for ‘interrupting’ with a ‘but’ when I was merely trying to finish a point a man was objecting to on a mistaken premise because he had not let me finish outlining my point in the first place. And, of course, that is why Woolf prizes ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (and £500 a year) as so necessary for writing – for developing thoughts and following them through to completion. In the same vein, Woolf may have a dual point in highlighting the way in which Grace Poole’s laughter interrupts Jane Eyre’s reflection upon the restraints that are placed upon women. Yes, it is an intrusion of authorial voice upon the writing, but it is also an illustration of Jane’s frustrations, as well as Charlotte Brontë’s.

I don’t know if anyone has ever done a study on early women writers and their protagonists – quite possibly they have – it might make an interesting read.

It’s a thought anyway. Let’s move on.

Film/TV 2010-2011
Female: 6% (1)
Male: 47% (8)
Neutral: 47% (8)

Film/TV 2011-2012
Female: 33% (5)
Male: 40% (6)
Neutral: 27% (4)

Well, now there’s a clear shift. I think, in part, because I’ve personally been fed up with film and TV that represents women in an implausible and offensive manner, and have thus sought out more varied fair. It should be noted that I have included in this category web series; as I only reviewed two this year it didn’t seem like it would provide intelligible information to include a category just for them. That said, they were both female led both on screen and off – with Felicia Day taking the lead in both. Does this skew the results? I don’t know, but it reflects the fact that when I sought televisual entertainment with female protagonists I turned to the web, where the more indie nature of the genre allows more flexibility. The fact that Felicia Day is a woman and one of the most successful innovators in the genre speaks well of a different dynamic in the future. It also reflects that finding you like a female creator/lead in one show can lead you to investigate other work that she is involved in. It’s like Sandi Toksvig says of comedy panel shows: if you want gender parity, ‘make the host a woman’.

Anyway, enough musings. Moving on!

Comics 2010-2011
Female: 0% (0)
Male: 100% (2)
Neutral: 0% (0)

Comics 2011-2012
Female: 50% (1)
Male: 0% (0)
Neutral: 50% (1)

No change from March. Same goes for podcasts and blogs:

To quote me in March:

I have only reviewed two podcasts on this blog, both were last year, one was a work of fiction with a male protagonist, the other was non-fiction but given by a man. I have counted both in the overall total for boys.

Blogs 2010-2011
Female: 100% (5)
Male: 0% (0)
Neutral: 0% (0)

I wrote quite a bit about this in March, so I won’t duplicate that here (this post is already long enough!) but it’s still there to be read if you’re interested.

I also grouped the non-Film/TV/Book categories together for comparison, as these groups have much smaller results overall. (Note that I reviewed one poem this year – Fern Hill – which has been slotted into this category along with the others already mentioned. It has a male protagonist.)

Other 2010-2011

Female: 55% (5)
Male: 45% (4)
Neutral: 0% (0)

Other 2011-2012

Female: 33% (1)
Male: 33% (1)
Neutral: 33% (1)

Again, this is a no-change-since-March, so I won’t say much more about it, except that I think perhaps the year coming will show more variety and I will have to switch up the categories generally. I suspect web series may need its own category, and it may be that comics and/or blogs will have enough to stand on their own feet. But it all depends on how things go. When I finished Read Along with Rhube (and I will finish it, I will!) I’ll have more time for reviewing other things. I’m also moving towards the end of my PhD, which will probably mean a little less blogging followed by a bit more. Exciting times!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of my useless data and personal analysis.

*Fun fact: a certain local charity shop that will remain nameless to protect its cause took to dividing its books up into those by ‘male authors’ and those by ‘female authors’. They consistently misshelved Robin Hobb in the ‘male authors’ bookcase, even though I kept moving her books back to the ‘female’ shelves.

Reviewing Through the Time Machine: Inexplicable Objects

Today, this most wonderful piece of nonsense rolled across my Tumblr:

An Inflatable Beard of Bees

An Inflatable Beard of Bees. Click it to go to the shop from which you can buy this treasure!

An Inflatable Beard of Bees!

‘None of the danger of using actual bees’

When a beekeeper wants to impress the ladies, he puts a queen bee in a small cage under his chin and waits for the other bees to swarm and form a “beard” on his face and body. That sounds like a lot of bother… If you want to say “bee mine” to your honey, just wear this Inflatable Beard of Bees and you’ll be all the buzz.

In addition to the incalculable joy of beholding such a fabulous object, I was reminded of one of my very favourite corners of the Internet: Inexplicable Objects.

By the time I found Inexplicable Objects it had already ceased updating, but thanks be to tiny little kittens, the owner of the website is still maintaining the archive. I can only hope that he does so indefinitely, because this little pot of joy can keep even the most world-weary of wombles serene for months.

A cupcake with a festive plane-on-a-stick in it.What it is, is this: once a week (roughly) from 19th April 1998 to 10th June 2001, Bill Young (aka thoughtviper) posted photos of various objects from his uniquely inexplicable collection. Supposedly, this InExObsession started when, on a plane as a child, he had been given a cupcake decorated with a plastic stick topped by the image of a jumbo jet, pointed at the ground. Quoth he:

When I was a kid I went on my first airplane flight.
The stewardess gave me a cupcake with a festive plane-on-a-stick in it.
Even as a kid, my first thought was:
I don’t want to be on a 707 if it’s approaching the ground at that angle…
Plummet the Friendly Skies of United.

With the advent of the Internet, Bill was able to share his obsession with the world, along with a witty commentary rarely to be equalled. The website is simplistic in the manner you’d expect from its era, but this is joy that doesn’t need to be muddied by frills and whistles (thank goodness, we are not treated to 8-bit Greensleeves).

Given that the website has not been updated in over a decade it’s something of a miracle that it still exists. Others have not been so lucky. At Week 47, Bill introduced Inexplicable Links of the Week to accompany the Inexplicable Objects. Most are now dead. In fact, many were hosted on sites, like geocities, which themselves no longer exist. It makes me reflect on the changes the Ineternet has undergone. Sure, the crazy is still out there, but it’s less likely to have a website of its own. It’s more likely to be hanging out on Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit. Even then, I tried to Google for ‘crazy tumblrs’ and all I came back with was a bunch of witty, slightly surreal, generally well-put-together blogs, such as ‘Feminist Ryan Gosling‘, or blogs like ‘Crazy shit people do with their Barbies‘, most of which is quite artistic, if also a bit disturbing. I suppose the independent crazy is still out there, but it gets much less traffic, these days: squeezed out of Google rankings by the millions of well-made, useful, insteresting, or intentionally funny websites out there.

It’s not bad thing, in and of itself – better content is good, right? But it does seem to me that this is a reflection of the passing of the Frontier Age of the Internet, where claims were out there for the staking for anyone with imagination and just a little spare time on their hands. Which I guess is why it’s so wonderful that so dated and-yet-still-amusing a site as Inexplicable Objects still exists.

A Pez with the head of an octopus... or is it...?My first encounter with Inexplicable objects came when a friend of the Lovecraftian persuasion linked to it from their LiveJournal. Or possibly someone had found the site for them and was drawing it to their attention – the details are lost in the mists of time. Anyway, the object in question was this: CTHULHU PEZ. I challenge you not to feel enchanted. In the words of Bill Young:

‘Yeah, big deal, Pez.

Wait a minute–
If it’s a Pez dispenser, then that’s not an octopus–
It’s something with the head of an octopus–

At The Big Rock Candy Mountains of Madness!
The Coloured Flavored Chalk Out of Space!

You know–
Eating something that’s been disgorged from some critter’s throat is kinda creepy when you think about it.’

I was so tickled by this that I went to investigate the rest of the site, which then continued bringing me joy for months as I worked through its archive. I was crestfallen when I realised it was coming to an end. Granted, at some point, we must all get on with our lives, regardless of how beloved our Internet sensation has become. We can but be thankful that it is still there to visit.

I hope that this trip through the time machine has allowed me to pass some of the joy on to you, and that perhaps my links will help provide a continued influx of hits to the site and let its owner know that it is still valued.

Stats: Gender in reviews

Warpcore SF has posted some really interesting stats regarding the balance of gender in the protagonists of the books she reviews. They suggest a persistent dominance of male protagonists in her reading, despite her own awareness of the problem. This is a thing I have long been conscious of myself. As a teenager I ate up books with strong female protagonists, but as adult it at least feels like I read many more books with male protagonists. I have also noticed in my own writing a switch from writing books largely concerned with strong female protagonists to books concerning men in general. Even since I became aware of this facet of my writing.

I thought at first this was because I’ve had something of a late adolescence – oh, I developed on queue (early even), but I was so sexually repressed that I didn’t start unlocking my own desires until after I took part in the Vagina Monologues, age 20. Ironically, this was just after the end of my last relationship. Let’s just say I’ve been… frustrated. So, big whoop, I’ve had sexy gentlemen on my mind. Heterosexual men frequently have sexy ladies on their minds (or so the Internet tells me), but when they write them into their stories, they become the love interest, not the main character (most of the time – not always). Moreover, I certainly still thought of sexy gentlemen a fair bit as a teenager, but they were, again, the love interests of my driven female characters.

What changed?

Well, here’s my theory: like begets like. I read a lot of Anne McCaffrey as a young teen. A lot. I also read Tamoira Pierce and other female writers who tended to put their female characters centre stage. I was inspired by them and I felt confident in myself as a woman and wanted to write about other women who felt confident in themselves. Women taking centre stage (in fiction, at least) just seemed normal. But as I grew older I read more books written by men and with male protagonists, and even the books I read that were written by women tended to have male protagonists. Unconsciously, my idea of what the norm for protagonists is shifted, and when I got ideas for writing, the view-point character (even though it was frequently a viewpoint I identified with) became, more often than not, male.

This is why I want to emphasise that when I’m highlighting a lack of female characters in a book, film, TV show, comic, or whatever, I am rarely in the business of directly blaming the author and creatives behind the art. Because I do it too. Rather, what I’m trying to do is to highlight the disparity and remind all of us – myself included – that this is not what the world looks like, but the more we see it presented as the norm, the more we will unconsciously expect it to be the norm in our real world interactions, as well as in our fiction. Moreover, reading lots of books with male protags did not make me not want to read books with female protags – I still really like it when I do, and I still get frustrated when there’s a disconcertingly high ratio of men to women in my fiction – it’s just that like begets like, and we need to make that association conscious in order to combat it.

So, anyway, I found Warpcore SF’s figures interesting, and she invited other bloggers to add their own. So, here are mine. I’ve used roughly her system for logging female, male, and neutral main characters, using neutral for multi-character viewpoints or transgender main characters. However, I don’t just review books on this blog, so I thought it would be interesting to separate out the figures for the different types of things I review. Note, also, that I have counted things like Doctor Who, Torchwood, and A Dance with Dragons, where I have reviewed the same over-arching item multiple times (i.e. different chapters or episodes), as one item.

Total figures for all reviews:
Female: 24%
Male: 45%
Neutral: 31%

So, wow, the overall total is quite dramatically male-dominated, but take a look what happens when I split it up into 2010-2011 and 2011-2012:

Female: 23% (9)
Male: 50% (20)
Neutral: 27% (11)

Female: 27% (3)
Male: 27% (3)
Neutral: 45% (5)

So, wow, that’s quite a swing from really very male-dominant to pretty much equal, with a strong preference for gender neutral. Of course, this year isn’t done yet, and you can see from the figures that I’ve only reviewed about a quarter of what I reviewed last year so far, but still, it feels suggestive that the greater consciousness of what I was reading and reviewing that built over the course of the last year has had some kind of effect.

Now for the details:

Books, 2010-2011
Female: 21% (3)
Male: 57% (8)
Neutral: 21% (3)

Books 2011-2012
Female: 0% (0)
Male: 33% (1)
Neutral: 66% (2)

Bum, looks like I’m actually backsliding, here, although it also perhaps just emphasises that the statistical sample for 2011-2012 is just too small.

Film/TV 2010-2011
Female: 6% (1)
Male: 47% (8)
Neutral: 47% (8)

Film/TV 2011-2012
Female: 40% (2)
Male: 20% (1)
Neutral: 40% (2)

On the other hand, I’ve already doubled the number of reviews I’ve given to Film & TV shows that had a female lead, and considering that this was the biggest category for reviews last year, I think that’s striking.

Comics 2010-2011
Female: 0% (0)
Male: 100% (2)
Neutral: 0% (0)

Comics 2011-2012
Female: 50% (1)
Male: 0% (0)
Neutral: 50% (1)

OK, small figures, again, but I think that this actually does reflect a shift in my reading habits, and in the publicity of comics with female creators and higher numbers of female characters.

I have only reviewed two podcasts on this blog, both were last year, one was a work of fiction with a male protagonist, the other was non-fiction but given by a man. I have counted both in the overall total for boys.

Blogs 2010-2011
Female: 100% (5)
Male: 0% (0)
Neutral: 0% (0)

Again, no blogs reviewed so far this year, but I did find it striking that all the blogs I reviewed last year were written by women and/or focused on women as a subject. I hadn’t realised it was this extensive, but I really do read a lot more blogs written by women. Whilst not all of the blogs I reviewed were overtly feminist, those written by women were from people whose point of view on gender closely aligns to my own, and the one run by a guy is Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor, which kind of says on the tin that it’s not going to give me any nasty surprises. And I genuinely think that’s the reason why. It’s not that I only read feminist blogs – I don’t. Nor do I think that women are more likely to write about things that interest me – I’m a geek, there are lots of geek blogs written by men. It’s that I only tend to regularly read blogs by people who are unlikely to make weird assumptions about gender difference, and specifically what women are like. Again, it’s not that all men or all male bloggers make weird assumptions about gender differences and what women are like; I think it is an unconscious bias on my part that stems from having been bitten quite a lot in the past, that and the fact that female bloggers more often flag up things they don’t like regarding the depiction of women in TV/film/books/comics, making it more likely that I will quickly see something in scanning a blog that reassures me that we’re on the same page. Also, it’s not just about the blogs I read, it’s about the blogs I review and recommend. Blogs that have a tendency to be concerned with redressing the balance of female-to-male presence in genre are more likely to be aligned to the interests of this blog – both mine, and what I assume to be my readers.

I just hadn’t realised that I had become so dramatically female-focused in this area. Mind you, I also hadn’t realised I’d reviewed so many blogs.

Lastly, because the non-Film/TV/book categories were all so small and bitty, I grouped them together as ‘others’ for comparison:

Other 2010-2011
Female: 55% (5)
Male: 45% (4)
Neutral: 0% (0)

Other 2011-2012
Female: 33% (1)
Male: 33% (1)
Neutral: 33% (1)

I find it interesting that there seems to be a pretty even split in the ‘other’ category, which by and large concerns things I go out and find on the web, either by following links, or on recommendation/word of mouth. It suggests (in as much as it suggests anything) a great equality in more ‘indie’ stuff than in the mainstream media; although, again, this is self-selecting based on the people I choose to follow on Twitter/tumblr, the sort of comics/blogs I already read, and so forth. There is, after all, a whole wealth of extreme right-wing indie stuff out there on the web that I would never be recommended, would never seek out, and would be very unlikely to review if I did encounter it.

In general, I’d say there’s a trend in my reading towards more equality, with some odd blips on both sides.

I should stress that I am under no illusions of the statistical significance of this data beyond a record of my own reading habits, but if it can form a part of a greater picture gathered from multiple blogs it might say… something. Similarly, my analyses are subjective, intended to colour in the reasons that seem to me to be behind the figures, rather than anything more substantial. I intend to continue to keep track of this, now, that I might be able to produce more useful data in future.

What I said, but better…

I don’t often post just to point you somewhere else, but sometimes it’s worth it. Sophia McDougall is one hell of a writer on gender issues in modern SF&F. This was first brought to my attention by her post in response to Steven Moffat’s unbelievably mysogynist comments that half the Internet seems to know all about, and the other half seems blissfully ignorant of and even defensive-about-in-ignorance. To be fair, since the whole Riversong thing there’s been less of the ‘Yes, I’ve heard he’s secretly sexist, but I don’t believe it – he writes such strong women!’. Sophia’s post came out before the ‘My whole purpose in life – becoming an archeologist and a badass, everything – was to catch up with the Doctor because I love him and need him to complete me’ second-half-of-season reveal. When I read it, I felt like the scales fell from my eyes. Now it feels generous.

Given the number of times I’ve seen her post linked to I was surprised to find that no one I spoke to at the SFX Weekender had read it. So, in case you missed it, here, complete with full and damning quotes from the Moff himself, is one post you should read: Capes, Wedding Dresses, and Steven Moffat.

But that’s not the post I started this one to draw your attention to. It’s this: SFX Weekender and the Nudes in the Metropolitan Gallery. She points out a number of things that I had missed, and (again) makes a case I want to put forward better than I could. I didn’t notice the gender disparity in panels, but then I only went to two, one of which was the Q & A with the kickass Eve Myles. But yeah – Sophia really would have been an ideal person to have on a panel, especially when relative unknowns like my mate Dave (who, for all his good qualities, only had his first book come out on the Thursday of the SFX Weekender itself – promotional, yes, but perhaps not an authority) got a look in alongside the obvious choices, like China Mieville.

Anyway, where mine is one person’s point of view, Sophia’s post has breadth, style, and nuance. Go read.