Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On: Ableist language and stereotypes of geek culture

Here is a vow: I will not use ableist, sexist, racist, homophobic, elitist or image-shaming language in my writing.

There is the obvious caveat - I will use them to highlight their awfulness, the "anti the anti" to make a point. However, I am determined at this point in my life to create more socially aware fiction.

This seems like a fairly obvious track to take. I am a woman, and one who identifies as feminist. However, 20 years ago when I first started dabbling in writing, I was unaware of the harm certain language could do. Sure, I thought certain words, jokes and stereotypes were terrible and I avoided using them, but it wasn't until a few years ago that I started getting schooled up on ableist language (eg: lame, retard), and how harmful transphobia and anti-women's power language was (eg: boobies on a guy, that chick has balls). I was embarrassed that I had used words and stereotypes like this. Now I will make the effort to think very hard about what I use in my writing. Also, if I slip up on this, I expect to be suitably castigated.

For a great example of privilege informing your writing, here's Shakesville's take on a recent James Franco short story in Esquire: "In 3,000 words, he manages to cram in racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, rape references, and some serious fat hatred." Yes, that's the actor James Franco.

It's not just a bad piece because of its horrible tropes, but also because it's terribly average writing. If I can't get pieces that I've picked apart past the slush pile, why can this guy? That's rhetorical by the way, we know why.

Of course, being open to awareness like this makes me flinch every time I hear and see it now. Over the weekend at the Armageddon con, I was disturbed to see a meme in anti-Twilight culture permeating the con. On t-shirts and badges was the phrase "Twihard? OMG retard". Yes, I know, it's supposed to be a joke. It's not funny.

What sort of message is this sending, and not just to young geek culture fans - that its ok to be have totally closed subjectivity and lack of empathy for people, disabilities, and fandom? I don't like Twilight, but I don't go round calling people names for it. What if a mentally disabled person likes Twilight? OMG they really ARE a retard ha ha....no. See my Bitch Face. It's simple - don't call someone a retard. Find another word. Or you know, don't insult them at all.

Also, particular con guests, in efforts to be humorous and edgy (sigh), used the word "lame". Really? The person in the anecdote was actually physically disabled and unable to walk? Oh, ha ha, I see. You mean they were just being SILLY. The gentlemen also did trans/women jokes - a guy has boobies! so funny! coz it emasculates him! Then there was the "to be a respected woman she has to be a guy!" anecdotes - a certain woman Star Trek cast member was "best" known for her ability to fart. Wow, am I One Of The Guys too, because I can play a symphony with my butt?

While I heaved a few private sighs at the con, I was unsurprised. I was in a traditionally male space, where language and behavior has largely gone unchecked. This is stuff that takes a long time and a lot of effort to challenge. Every small drop helps, like blogging about it, and women and girls becoming a larger and more vocal part of geek culture. What use would it be making a scene at a t-shirt stall? Because as we all know, an angry person is totes irrational.

There were a few cheering thoughts. It seemed the ratio of female to males at the con was pretty even, attendees and stall holders alike. Con guests were weighted more to men, though Melodee Spevack was my shining light. CosPlay was weighted to women - there were some fab costumes, only one really revealing outfit, and a good job done by the Princess Leia white dress CosPlayer! I also saw lots more women comic artists, women comic/anime fans - especially young women and girls, I have hope for the Pink Princess Sect yet! - and no Booth Babes, huzzah!

In fact, there was a lack of revealed flesh all round. It felt good. With lots of kids around, it seemed like a reasonably safe environment. Something New Zealand has up on other cons perhaps?

As I say to many people who don't understand privilege and why it's so easy to drop thoughtless word bombs: I'm not offended, I am disappointed. Yeah yeah, sing "It's a small world" and ph33r mai r@1nb0w sox.

So here's the thing: if you can't think of a better word, use a thesaurus. If that's too tough for you, you're just being lazy and privileged.


  1. My Twitter feed is going to disappoint the hell out of you, Amanda. Hahaha! XD

    I think hate speech and even plain thoughtless speech are to be avoided, but I also think it's disingenuous not to accept that our language is alive, and it changes. Some words don't mean the same thing now as they once did. I also think word usage is more complex than mere definition.

    For example, do you think it's detrimental for rap artists to use the word nigger in their music? There are some people who do, and some people who don't, and neither camp has been able to satisfactorily prove to the other that they're in the right.

    I've kicked people out of my store for using the word faggot, and I've also laughed cheerfully when other customers said it about me, to my face. Even if it's awful of me (and I don't think it is), I guess I just can't forget about context.

    ...So um, don't scroll back through my tweets. :D hahaha

  2. Oh, Language is definitely an ongoing process and changing process. I let through the odd clanger in my every day language. I figure if I'm "good" in my writing, it's a start.