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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

During Disasters, Life Can Still Crash

I have not been okay lately. 

In late March, a dear friend's husband passed away. In April, I almost had the chance to acquire a home - something rare for Millennials and even many Gen Xs - but due to family reasons, it fell through. Then friends' pets kept passing away or getting very ill. As mentioned a few times here, I have thanatophobia, a rather unpleasant phobia of death. In addition to being pretty empathetic and caring about my friends, this was all rather hard. My co-author and dear friend's Greater Swiss Mountain Dog also died rather suddenly, and despite our locational differences, it was rather hard. 

Normally, I like to present a clever conclusion or a flourish of words, a solution or suggestion that might benefit people both individually and at large. I'm not sure I have one of those today. Despite the fact that vaccines are rolling out in rich countries, my own included - I got my first shot of Pfizer yesterday - this pandemic is not going to be over any time soon. In addition to personal struggles, the world is in the middle of a very prominent and unavoidable crisis. 

Instead of trying to fix it, something beyond my power, all I can say is that it is time to learn how to accept things being not okay. It's not just the serenity prayer bit about accepting what you can't fix, changing what you can, and knowing the difference. It's about understanding the scale of this situation, and also the value in merely enduring and surviving. In order to do both of those, I know that I personally have to adjust how I talk, as well as what I say.

What's wrong with me


It's not just about diagnoses or individual situations; it's about the way life continues on after a situation ends, or changes. Just because the initial situation of harm is over doesn't mean that the after-effects vanish instantly. 

After talking to local friends and online friends, I can say this - making room to just not be okay is extremely important and valuable. Furthermore, though, not trying to perform happiness or okayness or tranquility is extremely important. It's so easy to just shove those feelings in a box or hide them from others or just not talk or be present when one is in a bad place. I don't just mean this in a cute, self-care-y kind of way; I mean it in the "getting by day-to-day" way. Personal and international ongoing crises are persisting, and they will persist after the pandemic - and the culture I've grown up in is particularly ill-equipped to handle that. So I find myself trying to make a better way, and sometimes grappling with direct lacks and absences in my frame of reference.

Do words really matter for therapy? 

Although we can't change the pandemic directly, there are unhealthy, dangerous, and unhelpful thoughts that we can challenge. After all, one can talk about society and culture - but we are also part of society and culture, and what we change in ourselves is a gift we can offer to others. Being able to destroy social constructs we've internalized, and which are harming us, is useful. 

A friend of my counterpointed, "but shouldn't we just say 'fuck society' and get on with our lives?" 

The problem with that is that we carry society with us. There's so many little tiny things and rules that I picked up to survive, and I know other people have learned the same. So if I can build forge tweezers from the stuff in my soul - I'm gonna hand them to someone else when I'm done. Sometimes you gotta pry ideas out of yourself like the head of a tick lodged in skin.

There's a good side, though - I am not alone, and neither are you. Humanity's greatest gift and weapon is our requirement for others. We are social animals, and although Rousseau and many others saw other people as our chains, chains can also be used to pull something out, not just hold it down. 

Some chains must be broken. Others can be forged. The work does not end, but new works can still begin. 
***
Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and their cats. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people’s manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.
Find her all over the internet: * OG Blog * Mailing list * Magpie Editing * Amazon * Medium * Twitter * Instagram * Facebook * Tumblr * Paypal.me * Ko-fi

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Love Me Like You Hate Me

 Saddle up, kids, because the Magpie is mad about a video on the internet again. Content warnings apply for discussions of sexual assault, consent, queer stuff, and a whole plethora of different types of prejudice and phobias.

As readers of my articles and general members of my social sphere may know already, I'm a big proponent of sex work advocacy. I find the area interesting, it's sometimes ethically fraught and complex, and it's one in which a lot of marginalized oppressions and issues dovetail together. There's a ton of societal prejudice involved as well. So when I see discussions about sex work - which are related to issues of drug decriminalisation, police abolition and reform, and prison abolition and reform as well - I perk up. 

This time, however, I was about to be very disappointed.




Don't trust the character witnesses


 Let's start by talking about two of the figures alluded to in the video. There was a controversy surrounding much-maligned influencer Belle Delphine's use of bondage and a gag in a photoshoot that appeared on her Twitter. Personally, many of Belle Delphine's "scandalous" activities don't bother me in the least. They're one of the best things about her. I agree that she's hilarious and clever - but stealing other sex workers' nudes is absolutely not okay. in addition to just being theft of someone else's hard work, it's a huge violation of privacy. 

That being said, people subscribing to her who complained about sexual photo content featuring a kink are absolutely baffling. They have the option to unfollow her, and not consent to things. If someone is explicitly a sexually-focused adult content creator, being upset when they stray outside certain norms seems stupifyingly naive and entitled. Content warnings aren't a bad practice - but when a certain type of content is a normal part of someone's output, it seems disingenuous to be shocked. After all, this is not just another Disney starlet turned provocateuse we're talking about - it's someone who explicitly makes, well, explicit content. 

Hot girls want respect 


In relation to the sex industry, erotic content, and the like, discussions of the nature of sex work and its inherent morality in the context of exploitative systems often crop up. However, these discussions usually occur about sex workers rather than with them - a prime example being Hot Girls Wanted.
   Actual sex workers HATED Hot Girls Wanted because the production mistreated the same people it was trying to "save". It doxxed sex workers and included a ton of footage without their consent. 

Do not trust people in the rescue industry or who talk about "human trafficking" in hushed tones, but focus on the 13% of sex trafficking rather than the other agricultural and domestic labour trafficking that comprises the majority of the market. Jones particularly shaped the narrative to fit that kind of "sex is empowerment, but uh-oh, girls are over their heads" perspective that anti-sex work rescue organizations tend to push. It's condescending and disrespectful to the adult people participating.
 
I'm not saying that there aren't nuances to this, but the fact remains that the majority of people actually abused in sex work tend to be people of colour, often trans or queer youths, or those with disabilities or mental and physical health issues - or a combination of the above. And even then, what we should be doing is not "registering" or "legalizing" sex work - which tends to involve barriers for the very poorest people trying to survive on it - but should be decriminalizing it and providing access to health clinics and other resources.
   Now, with that said, let's talk about the broader issue of consent and perceived exploitation - especially in reference to the video's comment section. 

Talking first matters

 
The fact that people don't know the difference between BDSM and abuse is really disturbing. BDSM is not abuse because by definition, consent is involved. Abuse happens without consent. If someone wants something, and asks for it, that's so drastically different from a guy choking a girl without asking. (Note that the video references only straight-facing or female-male interactions, ignoring the long history of association between queerness and kink; something that I'll get to in a second.) Broadly, the lack of understanding of female, afab, and other genders' roles in their own pleasure is kind of disturbing. And after all, someone doesn't need to know about BDSM to treat a woman badly. 

Of course it's absurd to penalise people for enjoying "vanilla" sex - that shouldn't be insulted either. We can have both acceptance of kink and non-heterosexual or unconventional sex, while leaving plenty of room for "normal" sex. The fact that all of this is a shifting target, that "normalcy" changes anyway, should not be ignored either. But as usual, people are a lot madder at some teenage girls on Tiktok for normalizing something than they are at men for exploiting miscommunications or not saying things in the first place. And besides - it's not like Tiktok invented mainstream kink.

Fifty Shades of Are You Kidding


The fact that the video blatantly ignores or forgets the existence of the hyper-marketed Fifty Shades series, which - for all its many, many faults - mainstreamed the concept of pornography for women, especially kinky pornography, is stupifying. I realise the creator is 22, but even if she somehow didn't know that the international series existed, it would be hard to search BDSM without the series cropping up somewhere in the Google results. 

 It's certainly frustrating to see people blame young girls and women simultaneously for their ignorance and for role-modelling bad behaviour. But this begs the question - at what point are people allowed to stop being treated as potential role models? That can stifle self-expression. 

There's also a subtler problem, not mentioned in the video but discussed in the comments - the fact that kink isn't just a thing played with by straight or straight-facing couples. Kink and BDSM have deep roots in the LGBTQ+ community. 

Acceptable queerness


The comments on the video mention the relationship between kink and Pride events as well, with many readers expressing disgust or discomfort with "children seeing that sort of thing." Others countered that Pride wasn't about catering to straight people's families. All of this, however, avoids a brass tacks discussion: what specific kinks and displays were people finding offensive? 

People alluded to seeing leashes and bondage harnesses, and mentioned nudity - but full-on nudity would indecent exposure anyway. As radical a position as I often take, I'm fine with saying that people should cover their genitals in public. That seems like a pretty reasonable stance. 

I checked in with other friends who've seen a few Prides over the years, and they mentioned that the worst they've seen were a few leather daddies - men in chaps, harnesses, and that sort of thing; maybe bottoms that were too tight. I've seen some rope harnesses here and there, but never actual nudity at parades. 

Here's the thing. Online adverts, movies, side banners, game ads particularly - any of these display women in sexually provocative gear on a regular basis. But because it's catered towards a straight male gaze, it passes without comment. I have never had a problem with sexual advertising, but I do have a big problem with the double standard for queer folks and non-gender conforming presentations. Things that wouldn't draw a second glance if a hot blonde woman wore them, when transposed onto other bodies, are suddenly shocking and appalling and not fit for children.

It is also interesting that of the people who've been caught performing non-normative kink acts in public, all of them were straight or straight-facing couples. Queer couples aren't even allowed to get married in every country, meaning that they're usually deprived of marriage-locked social system benefits, including things like seeing one's partner at the hospital during a health emergency. Marriage isn't just a cutesy conformist luxury - it represents an access to certain rights. Because LGBTQ+ couples are tolerated in many countries, but only just, and persecuted or criminalised in many others, it's perhaps unsurprising that all of the people inflicting their kinks on the public outside of Pride events are overwhelmingly straight-facing or straight and white. 

What's the takeaway? 


Lecturing the person getting choked unexpectedly for not talking about what they're into is victim-blaming. There is no way to be a good enough person to avoid aggression. The problem is the person performing that aggression in the first place. 

And once again - why are we policing women, or afab people and queers, rather than demanding that men be the ones to learn how to talk about kink? Why are guys not getting consent before they choke someone?
***
Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and their cats. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people’s manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.
Find her all over the internet: * OG Blog * Mailing list * Magpie Editing * Amazon * Medium * Twitter * Instagram * Facebook * Tumblr * Paypal.me * Ko-fi

Monday, 8 March 2021

The Secret of Evil

 I'd been sitting on this concept for a while, and then I found myself relaxing on Youtube one night, watching a film reviewer's analyses - and I was jolted from my comfortable mood and into a flurry of expository frothing. 

Possible content warning for talk about cults, general acts of violence, the dark side of humanity, cops, abuse - you get the idea.




Now, I think Ryan Hollinger does a great job of analysing this giving the constraints of his expertise and knowledge. I generally love his channel, and would recommend it. However, the underlying concept of this movie bothered me so greatly that, well - here we are. 

What is evil?

For our purposes, "evil" refers to socially unacceptable, transgressive acts that cause harm to others. Examples include violent acts, sexual assault, murder, theft, fraud, lying - you get it. 

Now, as long as humanity has been living in groups, squatting near our little fires, we've quarreled and bickered and occasionally wronged or harmed each other - sometimes, more severely than at others. The call to understand both our own dark impulses and bad decisions and to understand those taken by others appears to be pretty universal. Narratives and folkloric tales about evil, good, punishment, and morality appear in every single human civilization and culture, from small subsistence clans and tribes to our modern era. 

I have a strong interest in cults, extremist groups, new religious movements, and that kind of thing. I've always wondered how "evil" came to be. It was a while before I understood that evil is a verb, not an actual force in the world. 

But writers - especially in Hollywood, but in the general creative sphere as well - don't all have degrees in the human condition. And while that's fine, what is not fine is the way that evil is portrayed and continues to be portrayed. Not to mention the fact that criminality is often portrayed as "evil," regardless of whether or not the criminal actions harmed anyone (i.e. an expired license plate vs a speeding ticket vs an assault charge). 

Now, fun, lighter-hearted portrayals of evil aren't really the issue here - I'm talking more about the serious portrayals, where a movie or story is really trying to Say Something. The silly portrayals of things, however, are rooted in the more serious stuff - so let's talk about what we see as evil.

There's no such thing as "born evil" 

Take a minute with it. If you already know that, and are going, "yeah, duh," then let me explain the whole "evil" thing in the context of murderers. I'm so tired of these bad, stupid true crime narratives about someone who just "wakes up and does bad things". They allow us to ignore the massive preponderance of people who a) commit crimes for survival purposes, b) the misunderstandings of how mental health issues and neurodivergence works (i.e. "evil autistic" etcetera), and c) socio-economic factors, not to mention d) the cycle of abuse. That's not even including e) cultural dehumanization of others caused by privilege - such as with wealth, perceived moral authority, or racist or gender-based ideas, to name but a few. 

Let me run through those again with examples. Now, I'm not saying these are actually all "causes of evil," but they're various examples of causes of harmful acts, that some people might label - fairly or unfairly - as evil. Some of these groups and people are especially vulnerable to maltreatment, and especially innocent of what they're accused of, but culturally, we don't usually act like that's the case.

a) survival criminality - doing something bad for either good reasons or personal safety. Example: stealing a TV to pay for a child's school fees; stealing to pay for drugs in the case of an addiction 

b) mental health issues and neurodivergence - people who experience impaired empathy and/or struggle to conform to societal cultural norms. Example: an autistic child slapping a caregiver during a meltdown, because they feel angry and/or threatened.

c) socio-economic factors - poverty is often criminalised, and some people - in Canada, that includes Indigenous, Metis, and First Nations people, and Black, African, and Caribbean Canadians in particular - are disproportionately accused of and suspected of crimes. This can lead to being forced into the prison system, loss of opportunities, prejudice, and murder. If you've heard the phrase "school to prison pipeline" regarding the way Black people are treated, you'll know what I'm talking about. (If you don't, look it up; it's very important. Also horrifying.) Example: a store manager points at a Black child for acting "suspicious," assuming the child has stolen a candy bar. (Depending on the portrayal, either the child will be implied to be "evil" or the store owner will be "evil".) 

d) the cycle of abuse. Abuse survivors who don't deal with their experiences in some way go on to abuse others. Example: a man who is assaulted by his uncle may later go on to assault his daughter's friend in her teen years. Alternately, an abused child may go on to abuse her spouse in adulthood.

e) cultural dehumanization of others caused by privilege - such as with wealth, perceived moral authority, or racist or gender-based ideas, to name but a few. The trope of the Evil Rich Executive from the 80s is a good example. See also, President of the US #45 for abundant and horrifying examples of dehumanizing and abusing others. 

Does evil even exist? 

I mean, colloquially, sure. As a primeval force? No. Even companies that profit from true crime content will, with some bashfulness, admit that a significant majority of the "terrifying killers" they love to portray are just severely abused people who've ended up lashing out in the worst possible ways. In the exceptionally rare cases where multiple murderers aren't actually abused in childhood and/or suffering severe adverse effects, there's often neurological damage involved. 

However, as you can see from this brief analysis, it's pretty clear that evil is more of a verb than a state of being. Someone's actions can be evil, but defining a person as "evil" assigns a certain kind of evaluation that is both dehumanizing and oddly absolving. I won't dive into the depths of Christian theology about evil right now - but even in games like Dungeons and Dragons,  confronting the question of "evil races" (yikes) has required some updates and changes. And frankly, that's a good thing. 

How do we write about bad things and evil, then? 

Don't take this essay as the vituperative howling of an inveterate killjoy. Rather, it's a plea for authors to realise that the old stories we've been telling are not only dusty and boring from overuse, they're deeply inaccurate. The real world's cues are so much more interesting and fertile, and trying to tell the same old mortality tales that have already been explored - without adding to them - is both artistically annoying and actually pretty harmful. 

All of these things can still make for incredible, nuanced, interesting, gripping stories...but NoOoooooo, Hollywood still loves, "but what if just pure evil?" At this point, the thought experiment side of it is no longer a good argument. It's become the predominant understanding of how crime, especially murderers, work - and that's really, really bad.

We learn about the world from the narratives we take in - whether that's pursuing true crime tales late into the night or listening to harrowing tales of social justice and fights against societal forces, or even just watching a fun, dumb horror movie. Luckily, there's a lot of wonderful work that's been coming out that does take these nuanced, complicated stories into account - to list some podcasts I love, How We RollDungeons and Randomness, Campaign: Skyjacks, The Adventure Zone, and Critical Role all tend to feature plenty of nuance in the "evil" characters, as well as in the "good" ones.

So ask yourself - who are the heroes in this tale, and in the world? Who do you instinctively take the side of when you see a real-world conflict? Although we all pride ourselves on being able to tell the differences between facts and fiction, our construction of the world comes from stories - and that means we have to be honest about who we label "the bad guys," and why.

***
Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and their cats. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people’s manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.
Find her all over the internet: * OG Blog * Mailing list * Magpie Editing * Amazon * Medium * Twitter * Instagram * Facebook * Tumblr * Paypal.me * Ko-fi

Monday, 1 March 2021

Why Stupid Little Things Matter

 If you've been on the internet for a few minutes, or a few years, it's quite easy to notice that sometimes - or, actually, often - people who purportedly agree with each other can have quite unpleasant dust-ups. Why does that happen so often in political discussions?  

Content warning for talk about sexual assault and graphic, frank language in this one. 



Source. 


I was talking to a few friends about this regarding an article, when - to everyone's surprise - one person declared that she didn't think the clothes were appropriate, actually. 

There was some consternation, so I thought I'd step in and do my best to sort out the misunderstanding. In the process, it occurred to me that it's a useful lesson for fellow discoursers and debaters in general. 

Why teen girls (and people) should wear whatever they want without consequences


It's rather important to question the knee-jerk impulse to say, "cover yourself" to a woman. Quite frankly, we should run our society well enough that people can walk down the street naked without someone saying they're "asking for it." Prevention and self-defense certainly help, but they're treating the symptoms, not the cause.

Because - if you will pardon the reducto ad absurdum - it's not that hard to end up naked on accident in public. And the problem is not a sexual display of any sort, but rather, of predatory behaviour.
I shall use an allegory (which does not map perfectly for human beings, but hear me out). Blaming the hare for being too plump and delicious entirely alleviates the dog's role in catching the damned thing. And the solution is not to plug every rabbit-hole, but rather, for the hound to exercise discipline and restraint. 

(Note that this example is deployed in response to the prevailing imagery of Men at Large as predators, and Women at Large as prey. Even setting aside the binary casting it enforces, it's not at all accurate, but it's certainly invoked a lot. My use here is intended to be subversive of that trope, not affirming.)




But isn't she "asking for it"?


The issue is not "asking for it," but of people hearing a request from silence - as when someone is merely existing in their presence. "Asking for it" ought only to be a thing when one is, genuinely, asking for it. And I assure you, if it's power-play and dominance that people crave satisfaction in, there are rather healthier and more consensual ways to attain it. If one wishes to be distracted by lace, I can think of any number of places to do so. But if lace alone in the mere proximity of a breast is enough to "enormously distract" a teacher's assistant, they need to either masturbate more or less, and either way, it's not the teenager's problem.

But the reason to protect people wearing sexy clothes - or nothing at all, or anything - is that these so-called "safer" activities provide no actual harm-reduction, and place the responsibility on victims. When, as shown in rather a lot of circumstances, that doesn't particularly reduce instances of violence. So it not only says - as someone graphically put it - "rape the other girl," it also circumscribes freedom and actions, to no real benefit, while also effectively condoning predatory actions by making room for them. The way to reduce incidents of sexual assault is to talk about and debunk rape myths. 

Actually preventing sexual assault is hard - but the responsibility keeps falling on women (and non-cis-men in general). Despite their increased risk of exploitation and assault, due to societal prejudices, trans people and people of colour experience assault at much higher rates. But people are so often much more willing to modify the behaviour of everyone except perpetrators. 

Of course, that plays into a whole mythos of men-as-predators, semi-feral creatures enslaved to their impulses; some sort of wild thing that Women have to Tame, entreat, or otherwise cajole into civilization. It benefits no one and harms everyone - but it lurks beneath the skin of this "cover yourself" rhetoric, breathing and panting and refusing to die. 

So how's this relate to discourse?


Well, most of the time, stating outright that "all men are predators" is distasteful even for conservative crowds. Some morally-bankrupt mouthpieces are happy to proclaim things like that - but as Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon revealed about the Black Civil Rights movement in the States, it was far easier to make ideas palatable by presenting them softly, in avoidant language. Even though they basically effected the same changes. 

Don't get the idea that I'm some sort of saint of discourse and philosophical discussion; I have that inner conservative, that knee-jerk reaction to things, just like anyone else. So to deal with those apparent contradictions between my reaction and my stated values, I try to figure out where they're coming from. And then I ask, 'wait, do I actually have to think this?" 

Because that's the beauty of it - if we like, we can decide to not do something, even though we've been told it's important. And anything that makes us happier, freer, and safer, is definitely good. 

However, that subtextual language of hints and implications utilized by conservatism (and politics in general) tends to foment confusion and conflict when those values are questioned. Thus, saying, "I don't like this," about any leftist or liberal idea, can result in quite a dust-up - because normally, soft implications are used to support particular ideas at large, the sort of ideas that can't politely be stated in public or private conversations. 

That's why people don't have much room for disagreement on the topic, I think - only, most of us don't necessarily pick apart every bit of the clockwork to figure out how it all clicks together. Emotions move faster than thoughts, and fingers are faster than lips. An implication that suggests a major moral disconnection can be very upsetting, and reduce the sense of tranquility and safety in a group. And of course, it's much harder to organize, both offline and online, when people aren't sure they can trust each other.

I usually defuse situations by restating common values, then explaining what I, or we, are hearing from the disagreeing party - and clarifying to see if that's the meaning they intended. Using passive-voice language can be terrifically helpful, because it removes blame by reducing personalization. In a work of fiction, that's boring, but in a discussion verging on an argument, it can be friendship-saving. 

However, sometimes the call comes from inside the house. How do we reconcile conflicts in our beliefs? 

How to survive disagreement - with yourself


Remembering that opinions are not sacred or sacrosanct is rather important; at least in the West, it's often invoked as an argument ender - "it's just my opinion." Nobody's questioning your right to your opinion, but having an opinion doesn't mean anyone's obligated to agree with it. But it's important to question what, and why, we're defending something. Does it actually benefit us? 

"I don't like it for myself" is one thing, and even "I don't like it on you" is another; both are fine, but "I think it's bad and therefore this is fair" has implications. It might not seem terribly important, but right-wing politicians rely on this sort of sentiment when they're pushing through anti-abortion and anti-birth control access bills. "Young, slutty girls" are a famous, easy target. And talking about "young, slutty girls" is substantially more acceptable than the corollary - an idea that men are rapacious, sexually-starved monsters. It's dehumanizing on both sides, and of course, it's just not true. And there are better ways.

So ultimately, "I don't like it, but I respect her choice to just exist in it" is an important distinction to make. Choice feminism is sort of tricky, because we all Live in A Society, of course. You certainly don't have to wear that combo! But we have to stick together and let anyone who wants to wear a thing, wear it unmolested - because the alternative is reinforcing that big, ugly brick wall of rape culture. 

And those ideas harm our bodies, our minds, and even our spirits. I honestly believe that humans are pretty good, and over all, tend towards altruism - and something that harms each other less will only benefit all of us, especially since the thing we're giving up sucks. 

What do you think? How do you reduce conflict between factions who mostly agree with each other? 

***
Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and their cats. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people’s manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.
Find her all over the internet: * OG Blog * Mailing list * Magpie Editing * Amazon * Medium * Twitter * Instagram * Facebook * Tumblr * Paypal.me * Ko-fi

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

I'm Like Other Girls

 So, people who remember the 90s and early 2000s, or even the early 10s, might remember the recurring cultural fixation on being "unlike other girls." A Youtuber I particularly enjoy just put out an excellent video essay on the topic, and it covers a really interesting angle that isn't necessarily being talked about much. 

A quick note about gender to preface things - some of the people who look like "other girls" are either transgender or non-gender conforming, and the issue of gender for trans people, especially re: gender performance for both personal reasons and survival reasons, is really complicated. I don't experience dysphoria for my presented or physical gender, but I wanted to mention that when I say "women" and "men," I am primarily talking about cis people - but I am aware trans people can also experience periods of trying desperately to conform while hiding their inner selves/real gender. (The real gender is the one by which someone identifies, just to be clear; also, genders and the expression/performance thereof can shift over time.)

So, with that note out of the way, kindly consider the latest iteration of feminine cannibalism.



Where it comes from 


It seems as though a lot of the people who talk about this are baffled about the causes of this hate. A millennial who remembers the brief period of modern society before the internet can confirm that it was very possible to be bullied for failing to conform to societal beauty standards - something that was particularly common in the 90s and 2000s. 

The thing is - it wasn't so much the actual "popular girls" who were nasty. It was mostly their seconds-in-command or the girls who wanted to be them. The invisible middle-layer of girls who were neither social outcasts nor truly universally liked. In the brutal hierarchical world of junior high (and sometimes high school), clawing for attention, especially from guys, is a vicious game. 

The thing is, parents also made some of these comparisons. Something absolutely burned into my mind is the moment in the Muppet Cinderella, featuring Brandy, when her aunt says, "you look like a girl from one of those rap videos!" in a dismayed and scolding tone - and the character's uncle comments, "you look like a girl from one of those rap videos" in a significantly warmer tone, while looking his niece (!) up and down. It was a tiny moment, but I can still recite those two lines of dialogue from memory roughly sixteen years later...and that says a lot. 

Authors, we need to knock it off


Being that I'm not only a writer, but that I also edit in the industry, I can absolutely confirm that a ton of romance books written for adults and by adults still have this internalized misogyny - including books by queer men. A lot of people are starting to unpack this deep-seated and knee-jerk hate, which is pretty great, but quite a few people still don't - and it sucks. A nemesis who may be promiscuous, blonde, shallow, vicious, or all of the above crops up quite often. Romance movies are so, so bad for this - and what shocked me was that most of those terrible romantic comedies I saw growing up were written, directed, and produced by men, especially men who sneered at the whole format. So...basically, men were presenting a "cool girl" and saying that she was better than other women. And as Aonso and some of the other creators linked in this essay put it, we wonder why women hate each other and themselves.

When it changed for me 


Two things happened when I was a teenager that made an important crack in my understanding of other women - first of all, I started to be attracted to girls. It's possible to hate people you're attracted to; look at incels, for example. Hell, that term was coined by a bi woman and was used by her and other queer people who felt undateable, and were trying to fix themselves so they could find love. (As usual, the worst kind of men invent nothing, and make what they steal, worse.) 

The other thing was - after a terribly unpleasant stint in private school in eleventh grade, which was a terrible five-month period, I returned to public school - but I started to dress the way I had always secretly wanted to. That meant (sigh) the boy-jeans that fit me under sarongs, long circle skirts with embroidery, peasant shirts, and that kind of thing. I had always loved clothing like that, and a brief stint of wearing a uniform made me decide firmly that I was going to wear the clothes I loved, damn it. 

And somehow, people not only thought that was cool - but they liked me and were friendly. It helped that the high school had a reputation for being nerdy and academic, but it was still an inner-city school, which made for a diverse population. And here's the twist - not only did I not get bullied, I had a great year and a half there, and I even friendly relationships with some popular girls. Finding out that pretty girls, even actual teen models, could be fun, smart, and sweet changed everything. 

I had a bad period with my counselling faculty in university as well, which sparked a nearly fatal depression - but that didn't make me hate all other women. The thing is, "nerdy" and "unconventional" girls can be just as vicious and mean as the "popular" ones - and to my later surprise, men can be every bit as petty and vicious and underhanded. I've seen it in professional communities, both my own and in the medical and business worlds, and I've even seen this kind of backbiting in queer communities. So why does it keep happening?

The core of the problem 


In psychological terms, it appears that most girls and plenty of women (and men) seem to not only view others based on their external interests - but as Aonso puts it, they assume that other people aren't as genuine about their interests, and are either "faking it" or doing it for "clout" or "attention". The thing is - a lack of theory of mind, understanding that other people have their own inner worlds, combined with a presumption of an external locus of control (i.e. letting the world's judgements determine what's important to you and what you should do), perfectly describe the things we assume about other women. But - it's easily disproven by talking to these "other girls". One of the greatest revelations of my life was discovering just how many "dumb" girls were pretending to be stupid just to avoid intimidating men and others. 

A fundamental lack of empathy for "other girls" is the justification for hating them. In the earlier decades, bullying definitely was an issue, but it doesn't fully explain why this hatred for the "other girl" is so deeply encoded. 

Combined with the mournful loneliness of societal prejudices experienced for failing to conform, as well as social rejection, plenty of "not like other girls" girls/people turn inward and try to find something about themselves to like. Being unlike one's tormentors is generally the first thing to notice - and accepting one's differences, especially if they result in being othered, can be comforting. 

However, just because it's a coping mechanism doesn't mean it's healthy. Destructive social dynamics are the price of being a member of a social species. The only way to deal with it is fighting the internalized social protocols of Western culture (i.e. don't talk about what's Important to you, don't say things that will make waves, even if they're really nice compliments; be innocuous but not too boring, etc). The patriarchial standards based in the most toxic core of North American culture, especially WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) and whiteness culture, are killing all of us. But they don't have to, because we are already more than what we've been taught to be.

What I think now


In addition to this, a memorable social psychology class of mine focused on the ways that "alternative" people - which, I suppose, includes yours truly - still conform to dress codes within their own subcultures. When one considers an "alternative" girl next to, say, a sports team, of course she looks different. But stick that girl on tiktok and look under the right hashtags, and it's easy to see more visual similarities between clothing styles of alternative people. So - those "other girls" just need to band together and enjoy each other's company and similarities, and with the internet, that's possible like never before.

So, other girls? They're great! Finding out that first of all, pretty girls aren't actually vicious monsters out to destroy relationships and friendships, was wonderful. There are a lot of other people who adore reading, writing, talking about social justice issues and politics, tabletop RPGs, knitting, moody folk and rock music, true crime of the cult and con artist variety, history, shiny rocks, magic, making jewelry, baking and cooking, fashion, drawing, tea, and learning languages (to cite most of the interests I can think of at this exact moment). Not only that, I've learned to present my interests more appealingly in conversation, so they're more approachable and so I can hit the highlights for people who are interested but less knowledgeable. Discovering the joy of shared interests and the skill of sharing my interests has made my adulthood a rich and socially satisfying period, and I can only hope others can attain this level of warmth, friendship, and support.

Next time that little nasty whisper rears its head, or next time some guy mentions that a woman is "not like other girls" - ask, "what's wrong with other girls?" Embracing the shadow-side of other-girlness, and learning how to do makeup, dress provocatively, and appreciate one's own sexuality (or lack thereof) will not magically turn a woman into a brainless zombie or a soul-sucking, seductive vampire. If anything, we should explore these societally-shamed tropes, and appreciate the diversity of people who both identify under and branch out from the feminine gender. We have barely even begun to create societal roles for nonbinary people, but trans and nonbinary folks are also bringing forth a lot of creativity and wonderful content. Masculinity and femininity should be umbrellas, not cages - but self-hatred has never unlocked a cage from within. 

***
Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and their cats. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people’s manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.
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