Morning Coffee Feminism: Tell me a different story

My addictions to various computer games, science fiction and fantasy stories, and similarly themed TV shows are probably best explained as a love of narrative. I love stories. All the stories. Tell me stories. Say “Once upon a time.” Say “The night was dark and stormy.” Say “So sayeth the Wise Alaundo.”

I don’t care how you start it. Tell me a story.

I was an 80s kid. Computer games in the 80s were not what you’d call inclusive, and I picked up on this pretty early on. I noticed that women were the bikini-clad cheerleaders in the same way that I noticed they seemed to need a good deal of rescuing. I picked up on this because I was a girl with nerdy interests and I got the message pretty early on that these things weren’t for girls. They were for boys. And I thought that was stupid.

I liked “for girls” things, too (I had My Little Ponies. I had Barbie. More importantly, I had Barbie’s horse). I just didn’t really care. I sometimes felt self-conscious about it, when I was too young to know what “self-conscious” meant. Sometimes I felt silly for liking girl things – because we are constantly told that girl things are crap – and sometimes I felt silly for liking boy things – because, well, I was a girl.

We’ll come back to computer games in a minute, but let’s deviate into another “for boys” area first.

I read a lot of fantasy and science-fiction from a young age. I read a lot of Conan when it may well not have been age appropriate (and I will always love my Dad for not giving a shit), and while I wanted Conan to win his various battles, I also wanted him to be nicer to the ladies, because he didn’t seem to be very nice to them, and they wanted him to be nicer (look, I was eight or nine. Some nuances were lost on me).

I read a lot of Anne McCaffrey, and say what you will about her narratives in the current context, at the time I was reading novels with female protagonists who were kicking arse and taking names and riding dragons and running spaceships and that was amazing. One of the first fantasy novels I ever read – before I even read any Conan – was Azure Bonds, which was a TSR fantasy novel in the Forgotten Realms setting. It was about Alias, a female sell-sword who wakes up with a strange tattoo and no memory, and wackiness ensues. Alias is a genuine hero. Her inherent “hero-ness” turns out to be a part of the story, but that’s a little beside the point. I loved that book. I still love it. It’s silly and it’s fun and the characters are great. Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb, you guys started something when I was six.

It never occurred to me to think that the depiction of women in fantasy and science fiction in this way – as opposed to the way they turned up in the Conan novels – as any kind of weird liberal feminist agenda. People were telling stories, and they were telling the stories they wanted to tell, the stories that caught their hearts in flight, the stories that got them excited.

Tell me a story.

So the fact that people now seem to be distressed and angry that issues of gender, sexuality, racial diversity and identity, and otherness are being explored in science fiction and fantasy, and that this is to the detriment of the human race and human nature and “blah blah I’m a freaking idiot blah” – I mean, it’s a surprise to me. Because I was born in 1981 and I’ve been reading this stuff since I was a kid, and where the fuck have you guys been this whole time?

Anne McCaffrey as a starting point, sure, but also Octavia Butler. Ursula Le Guin. Using stories the way they should be used, to explore ideas and people and the human condition and science and the future and imagination and how we change, and what are the edges of ideas and self and what does it all mean… Science fiction frequently involves explorations of the alien, and I can’t imagine a richer opportunity for picking up ideas of otherness and tribalism and running with it.

Honestly, guys, what have you been reading? Where have you been?

In the last ten years or so, I’ve seen some tremendous work coming out of science fiction and fantasy in this area. These ideas are snowballing. There’s a great avalanche of what if coming out of these narratives, and now they’re not just being told from the perspective of Captain Macho Straight-arse Whiteypants, and not to disparage the Captain – he’s a great guy, honest – but getting the perspective of other characters too, who exist, and who read this shit as well, and who are perfectly capable of kicking arse, taking names, riding dragons and running spaceships – that’s good. That’s fantastic. That can only make stories richer.

Tell me a story.

And also in the last ten years, these stories are popping up in computer games as well, the narrative medium that is really interactive and can see me trapped in my study like a sleepy housecat for days on end (not really. I’m also addicted to gym. I have to leave, work out, and come back to the game). Suddenly, games have female characters who aren’t bikini clad princesses, characters who are just human; they have characters who aren’t just straight; they have characters who aren’t just white (and, in another leap of progress, aren’t just tokenistic stereotypical representations, but actual layered people. Less Orientalism would be nice too); and although it’s pretty rare, they even very occasionally have characters who aren’t cis-gendered.

It’s still hard to find these games. You do still have to go out of your way to look for them. It’s still worth getting excited when they turn up. And I’m still shitty that no major Assassins Creed title has a female protagonist option, because I love the hell out of those games (one of my Arts majors was Classics/Archaeology. A game where you can climb all over the Hagia Sophia? SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY). It’s much, much harder to find these things in games than in books.

But there’s all this pushback, and frankly, from my perspective, it’s weird. It comes back to this odd sort of nerd culture gatekeeping, this strange childhood tree fort with a “No Gurlz Aloud” sign on the front. I love Calvin and Hobbes as much as the next person, but remember how Calvin’s a kid? Maybe he shouldn’t be our litmus test for adult behaviour.

I get cross sometimes when I read a story and it’s full of what I feel is shitty politics and depictions of women as stupid and weak and hysterical. I am pretty good at vetting my reading these days, but sometimes, yes, I do pick up these novels and end up wanting to just vomit. It makes me angry.

You know what I might do?

I might write a bad review. I might write on this blog about it if I think it’s particularly toxic bullshit (good lord, I’m still cross about J.R. Rain). I might be inspired to add new angles and ideas to the next story that I write.

You know what I won’t do?

I won’t try to “game” writing awards, or throw tantrums because the general zeitgeist is becoming more inclusive and the wider audiences of the world are responding well. I won’t threaten anyone with murder or rape, even if they’re authors of books I dislike and think are actively harmful, and the same applies to people who write and produce computer games that piss me off (and there is plenty to piss me off in a lot of modern games, still). I’m a pretty extreme pacifist that way. Nuts about it, really.

I might get table-flippingly mad, but I won’t actually flip tables, not least because there are only two tables in my house that would fulfil basic table-flipping requirements, and if I flip them I will damage some expensive household items.

I won’t try to erase people from stories. I won’t try to fit them back into a shape that never really fit them in the first place, just so that they won’t confront some of my preconceived ideas. I need my preconceptions challenged. It’s the only way I’ll learn. It’s the only way I did learn, because I had to learn this shit too (that’s an entirely different and more shameful blog post).

I do not understand why people are angry that we are including more. You will still have the option of reading books about Captain Macho Straight-arse Whiteypants; he’s always going to be there, and books about him still do explore ideas and can still be good books and can still win awards for being very good books. You’ll still have the option of playing the Captain in various computer games – in fact, you still have to actively work to try and play someone who isn’t the Captain. It’s just that now, if you wake up one day and decide you might like to not play the Captain or read about the Captain’s perspective; if you decide that there are some other characters you’d like to play or read about; well, now you can.

Now you can say, tell me a different story.