Editor’s Note: The author of this piece requested anonymity.
It sucks being a woman these days. I am a straight, cisgender, white woman, and there is not a day that goes by that I am not scared, angry, and outraged. There is also not a day that goes by that I am not reminded, in very clear terms, that my country hates me. Thinks I am less than. Not worthy. Not competent. Not to be listened to. Not capable of making decisions about my life, my body, my reactions.
I am paid less.
I am treated differently.
I am told to “calm down” and “stop being hysterical” when I am passionate.
I constantly apologize for interrupting, offering opinions.
I am frequently told that sexist, misogynist, racist comments are not and that I am misreading. Misunderstanding. Overreacting.
I am difficult.
I need to soften myself.
I have had to fight to be heard, in classes, and meetings.
I have been asked to make men plates, take notes, provide housekeeping and secretarial duties.
There are several things I am not allowed to do.
I am not allowed to be sad. To cry. To show emotions.
I cannot say no to a man without considering his feelings, the environment I am in, and whether or not it is safe for me to do so.
I cannot run after dark.
I am not allowed to raise my voice, be angry, lest I threaten some man.
I cannot walk to my truck without my keys in my hand like a weapon.
I cannot be believed when I tell someone, anyone, I was assaulted.
In many ways, people like me are just starting to experience what Women of Color have always known. I recognize my privilege here. I can lock accounts, not speak up, hide, because my privilege allows me to do so. Although I have come to believe this is no longer true. I believe that it is up to those of us with privilege to speak up, stand up, and call out these toxic behaviors. Some scholars, reviewers, creators are brave and speak out against these issues, but when they do so they do it knowing they will be doxxed, sent rape and death threats, have their job threatened.
I specifically asked Sequart to run this anonymously because of these things. And if you doubt me, read the comments that I can guarantee will appear in response to this post.
I have struggled the last year with these feelings, and my feelings of being gaslighted. Women are told they are imagining things, inventing slights, taking things too seriously. The news seems to tell women that our lives, our safety, our mental and physical health is not worth consideration. Men can assault us, beat us, kill us, and face little or no consequences. These statistics are worse if you are a Woman of Color or LGBTQ. But an incident several months ago made me realize that I knew these feelings. I recognized them. They were not new. They were familiar because they were what I had always felt as a woman who liked popular culture and participated in fandoms. Many fandoms are toxic as a default setting.
I have always loved comics, and cartoons, and Star Wars, and Star Trek. When I was little I was a tomboy playing G.I Joe on the playground. I had to play both Lady Jaye and Scarlett because I was the only girl. Even then, I knew that if I wanted to participate, I needed to stick to my restrictive, very defined, pigeon hole of where I fit. I knew it in the same way in third grade when we were trading Star Wars figures that I needed to trade my precious Yoda figure for the Darth Vader I already had three of if I wanted to stay part of the group.
Later, in middle and high school, both the the media I consumed and the boys I was friends with told me again and again where I belonged. They also told me exactly what I was expected to be. “Real” women had unrealistic proportions, dressed in barely-there costumes, and were muscled. We were objects. We were virgins, or whores. We were damaged.
I had a friend in high school who drew comics. He specifically would draw his female friends and women he knew as comic figures. He always presented it as a tribute, a present. To take us, and make us into something we were not – to make us better. But what he did was present us as half (or more) naked. Make us his objects. His playthings. His fantasies. Without our consent. Without seeing anything wrong with it.
The Hawkeye Initiative points out the absurdity of these portrayals. And yet they persist. More women are writing about comics, movies, popular culture, but generally in their own spaces. Female fans have been creating their own (online) spaces for decades because they were not accepted or safe in male dominated spaces.
The problems with presenting women as objects in comics, television, and film are not new. These discussions have been going on for decades now. The problem is we’re not changing anything. We’re not learning. Women scholars have been arguing for decades about these issues and been ignored. More and more scholars of color are trying to decolonize fandom and criticize what is problematic. Not a single woman reading this who is a fan is surprised by anything I’ve just written. Female fans are openly mocked and attacked. Misogyny seems to go hand in hand with fandom, online spaces, social media.
When I have brought this up, or the gratuitous violence against women and rape culture in shows like Game of Thrones, or movies The Killing Joke, I am told it’s not real. It’s art. Men critique and review these things as though they can separate these images, these stories, what they tell young men, from how women are treated. Men often hide behind a veneer of academic interest as a way to justify the continued subjugation, humiliation, and violation of women in the things they like. Women are “fridged,” their assaults, rapes, and violations used as inspiration for men to act like heroes. In many cases if these women are not violated the men don’t get to be heroes.
But young men learn from these portrayals, and the lessons are horrifying.
I have always been a Superman fan, since I first saw Christopher Reeve’s bright blue eyes. I’ve loved every incarnation. And this summer I watched my latest favorite Superman, Henry Cavill, equate asking a woman out with rape. Both men and women learn from these things. But we learn different things.
When the Watchmen movie came out, I was interested. I knew the comic was different, but I hadn’t really read any of it, and I was looking forward to the movie. I wanted to like it. But then I got to the Comedian’s attempted rape of Sally Jupiter. And then I got to the point where she reveals to her daughter Laurie that apparently the assault wasn’t that bad, because Sally later willingly had sex with the Comedian. No. Just no. I watched the rest of the movie vaguely ill. I still can’t watch it.
But men don’t want to hear these critiques. They like what they like, and women who say different are attacking their beloveds and must be attacked in return.
In recent years, men involved in geek culture have pushed back hard against what they see as the feminization of the things they love. In 2014, #Gamergate brought to the attention of mainstream media the toxicity in the video game community. For the last year #Comicsgate has done the same for the comic fandom. Both Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran have been driven off of social media because men claim they have ruined their precious Star Wars.
Female fans don’t just receive hate mail, they receive death threats. Rape threats. Most of which are allowed on the social media platforms they’re posted on. The men who make these threats staunchly argue that the women have asked for it, because they’ve put themselves out there, made crappy things. Ruined fandoms. It’s not because they’re women. It’s because they’re bad at what they do.
Many female fans I know have learned survival skills; lock your accounts. You can post about shows, but don’t spell the title out, because an easy search will put you in the sights of trolls. Don’t use hashtags, because it opens you to trolling, threats, harassment. As Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas states, harassment is not the exception, it is the norm.
Almost everything about this culture tells me I do not belong. I am not wanted. When I have written on popular culture, I am routinely told that I’m wrong. I misread that show, that movie, that comic. I don’t know what I’m talking about. If I present a feminist or anti-racist view I’m “forcing it” or “working to see that.” It’s in comments on my posts, my blog, my Tweets. It’s done in a condescending manner. Of course, I could not know this. It’s not my fault. I’m a girl.
I am part of several intersecting fields that, sadly, do not necessarily talk to each other, but which all have things that are relevant and could contribute to and learn from each other. There has been a big push in recent years for popular culture conferences to institute clear policies about cosplay, consent, acceptable behavior, harassment, and how to enforce these policies. Academic conferences could learn from these models.
In education, more and more public notice is being given to disability and race scholars. Listening to them when they point out things that are ableist, racist. These are not easy conversations. These are often hard things to hear. They often tell me that books, portrayals, and media that I liked are problematic. Many times I have read something from a scholar whose field is not my own and my first reaction has been a knee-jerk, personal one. “That’s not my experience.” “I don’t think that’s true.” But I have learned that reaction is wrong. And here’s the lesson: when a group (women, people of color, disability folx, LGBTQ+, etc. ) tells you that that word, that reference, that item is offensive, hurtful, wrong, incorrect, or appropriation, there is only one response.
And then change your language and your behavior.
Because it is their experience. They are the experts. They have lived this and know. So you need to listen to them.
J.K Rowling appropriated indigenous culture for Fantastic Beasts. It’s not the first time she’s been called out for this. She doesn’t seem to care. Making Nagini Voldemort’s pet and servant an Asian woman is racist. Of course, Rowling has also publicly supported a man who beat the crap out of his wife, so there are lots of issue.
The original Blade Runner is gorgeous, and groundbreaking, and appropriates Asian culture while erasing Asian characters from the story. The sequel had an opportunity to fix this, and their treatment of women as objects. Instead they doubled down on both. It seems like the more beloved a piece is, the harder toxic men will fight to defend it.
I have lots of things I used to love, parts of my childhood, and even adulthood, that were previously dear to me, but as an educated woman I just can’t defend them. We need to recognize that our favs are problematic.
I cannot defend the rape culture in John Hughes and other ’80s movies.
I cannot defend the behavior of creators who made some of my favorite things.
Most of the geek guys I know would describe themselves as chivalrous, but it’s toxic in its execution. It enables them to put women in strictly defined roles of less than, of object. If men are men, then women are women. Women who comply. Women who see to men’s needs. Women who don’t argue. Or, in some cases, speak. These “chivalrous” men turn on you in a heartbeat. I remember posting that my printer was being wonky. Guy Acquaintance messaged me that he was buying me a new one, just give me your address. I thanked him, kindly, but said that wasn’t necessary. I was just complaining, and I had a job, I could buy a replacement if I needed it. In the next message I was an ungrateful bitch who didn’t appreciate a good guy trying to do something nice. I defriended them, deleted messages. Months later, he emailed me, what was my problem? Why was I such a bitch? Women like me were the problem.
Like many women, I have a lot more stories like this.
So when a woman tells you a comic portrayal is sexist, that you need more women writers, that you need to not feature or extol the virtues of a date rape scene in a movie or television show, you need to listen to them. Then you need to change what you’re doing.
When you don’t, we hear you. When you laugh at the sexist or misogynistic, or racist joke, we hear you. When you praise a movie or television show that objectifies or violates women, we hear you. And we quietly disengage. We usually don’t say anything, we don’t make a fuss, because we know that can be dangerous. Maybe we stop being part of your gaming group. We mute you or block you on Twitter. We stop writing for your publication. We fade away. We seek other spaces, other avenues.
These past weeks, many of the women in your life have been re-traumatized, re-victimized. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and she was well-spoken, clear, and believable. She was also subservient, apologetic, and not listened to. Kavanaugh on the other hand was angry, loud, interrupted the female senators who questioned him. No man or woman of color would ever be allowed to act or respond that way. Kavanaugh’s response was familiar to many women. For me, he was every geek boy I ever said no to. He showed on live tv how quickly that switch happens; from “respectable” man to rabid threat. Recently we’ve also seen the conversation that “boys will boys” and that women and society, should just expect young men to rape and assault women. I refuse to believe that we have to accept that. I refuse to accept that we can’t teach our men to be better. I refuse to believe that I only have value if you see me as someone’s wife, girlfriend, daughter.
Do you have more than 6 women friends? Then you know someone who has been assaulted. We don’t teach men not to rape, we teach women how to defend themselves, “not ask for it,” be compliant, subservient. Not make trouble. Some women don’t fight back because it’s easier to endure and survive.
Men need to stop defending these people, these portrayals, these tropes. When someone tells you a person was sexist, misogynist, racist, assaulted them, violated them, raped them, you need to listen and believe them. You need to not say So and So is a good guy. I have never seen that. He wouldn’t do that.
You, the men, the ones with privilege, with power, need to start recognizing how problematic these things are. You need to start calling out the men you interact with. Being a passive ally is no longer an option.
It is not enough anymore to say “We stand with women.” You have to show us this.
It is not enough to say only men applied to this post, sent in articles, or presentations.
It is not enough anymore to say you’re an ally. Feminist. Not racist.
You must work to show these things. You must be actively anti-sexist. Anti-racist.
Look at the television shows, movies, comics you review. How many of them have women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ creators? Showrunners? Producers?
How do they portray women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ characters? Are they problematic? Do you call these problematic portrayals out?
Look at who writes for you. Are they women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+? Do you have clear policies in place for when these writers are attacked? Do you have boilerplate templates for statements you will make defending them?
Look at the conferences you present at, the panels you agree to be on, what is the make up of them?
If you sponsor events, do you have an anti-harassment policy? Do you enforce it? Do you have an inclusion rider? Is your event inclusive? Accessible?
We need you to do better.