Making Too Much Meaning

Christmas looms close and this means my anxiety is already spiking. Not all of this is about Christmas (some of it is heat, some is all of the research work I have to do in the next few weeks, some of it is my first international bit of travel coming up in November) but a huge part of it is about the holiday.

I’m a little like this about my birthday too.

It’s taken a while to work out why, exactly, holidays like this upset me in such a visceral way. I think I’ve worked it out.

I imbue them with too much meaning but realise that it is hopeless and so refuse all of it rather than have my hopes dashed.

I am surrounded by people for whom gift giving is at least pleasant if not a hugely vital part of their being; I loathe getting and giving gifts and find myself in anxious knots every time trying to perform gratitude while wishing they’d donated the money. It doesn’t apply to handmade gifts given at random moments oddly enough, but it makes Christmas particularly difficult, and my birthday something of a nightmare. Gifts are a language I do not speak.

I have a constant refrain at Christmas, that this is not for me to judge, but I struggle. I struggle with the useless consumerism masquerading as feeling and the way my child’s natural beautiful sense of fairness and gratitude is drowned beneath a stack of gifts bigger than she is. I struggle with disdain for the adults clamouring and complaining. I struggle with everpresent aura of expectations from others; how many dollars spent, how big, how many, the constant comparisons being made. I struggle as not a single person mentions Christ but all are happy to deride and dismiss my desire and decisions as a parent around not lying to my child about Santa. I struggle with the in-law cage matches about who spends what time where, when it may as well be any other day of the year because any sense of the actual holiday has been lost under the gifts and resentment.

At my birthday I begin to hunker down a week before, or a month, and draw away. I don’t want gifts or a party. I don’t want the attention. I accept that this is a time for my loved ones to celebrate my existence but I feel like I should honour my mother for that more than me. And that if they want to honour me, surely that should involve my wishes not theirs?

Which gives rise to the question I have been pondering – what would these celebrations look like if I gave myself permission to want? To add my meaning instead of trying to fit in the edges of what the world has decided, what other people have enforced with the strength of that behind them?

What does Christmas actually mean to me? Or my birthday? What would a true celebration look like to me?

I’ll have to get back to you on that.

raising a cautious child

My child does not climb trees. She watches others, peers at the tree, looks around. She may try a little – if you tell her she can’t she will believe you and she will walk away – and she will climb back down the first moment her feet leave the earth.

We will do it all again the next day.

Part way up she will stop, suddenly aware of her feet touching bark, not earth, and cling to the branch. She will ask for help to get back down (“it’s okay sweetie, just put your foot down and slide back to where you started”). Her face will tense and her arms will lock.

And she is barely knee-height off the ground.

Child's foot in school shoes with grey socks, perched in a tree close to the ground

Yet, when she has scoped a situation and believes herself competent? She will make her own lunch, smearing sour cream and sprinkling cheese atop a wrap. She will peel a carrot and chop up mushrooms and tomatoes and celery for dinner. She will steadily, face serious and focussed, bring the match to the kindling and light the winter fire with her grandmother. She will pelt up the stairs with her eyes closed, or balancing on one foot on each step, poised to fly.

Sometimes she falls. When she decided she could swim and tried to follow me to the deep end and paddled madly, sinking, until the adults in the pool turned and saved her. When she burnt her arm, trying to flip pancakes while we cooked breakfast. When she sprained her ankle badly, leaping about on slippery tiles. Then we are back at the foot of a tree, making tiny gains.

Child's hand touching a tree

It’s hard, sometimes, watching three year olds climb past her as she labours up a slide. I remember she used to do that all the time, but fell once, so now is filled with doubt.

It’s harder, watching her replicate this in social situations. I used to say she held a grudge – I stopped, because that isn’t fair, isn’t the whole truth. She was two, or three, or four, is five now, and she had learnt a lesson. Maybe too well, but she had learnt and that’s what she is meant to do as she moves through the world. She had learnt that her cousin will happily hit her in the face if they didn’t like the way the game was played, and ignore her as she cried. She had learnt that while her classmate never hurt her, she would instead hit her friend. She had learnt that her cousins’ first allegiance was to each other. So it is harder, then, to say “sweetie, it’s okay, just try again”.

I am happy to expose her to risk, climbing the tree the school keeps making noises about being out of bounds but has never made a ruling. To climb up the slide. To handle a cleaver and a frypan, scissors and matches, sewing needles and driving down the long rural driveway to grandma’s house. To throw herself into the water and trust it to buoy her upwards, to trust in still, small movements. I am happy to stand with my arms outstretched so she will feel safe enough to try, to show her over and over how to hold the knife and the scissors and the needle, to say “one more try, then we’ll find something else to do”.

I can’t bring myself to expose her to the kind of risk that says “take the hits, they’re you’re friends and your family and they love you and they don’t mean it, just turn the other cheek and go back in there”. To say “we don’t hurt people we love in our family, except for the people that do, and you cannot hit them back or hurt them”. To say “we value kindness” and walk her back into the lion’s den with that wrapped around her like armour made of glass. Beautiful, fragile, and liable to hurt her as much as them.

I am never sure what the solution truly is, but I know I am unwilling to sacrifice her caution, her kindness, for it.

Continuum 9: Contraindicators

This weekend I was at Continuum 9 and it was awesome, to be brief. To be far less brief though…

I had the wonderful opportunity to be on a bunch of panels about some of my favourite things, including Genderbending (obviously!) but also fandom/fanfic, reboots and retcons, female action heroes (Fighting Like a Girl) and craft + SF + gender. I had a ball – I love Melbourne anyway, it includes some of my very favourite people, but the con itself was lovely too.

I mostly wanted to collect together some of my thoughts about the experience. Things like: prep is very important before a panel and that means together, not just on your own!, and water is even more important than that. But also my observations on the talky bits.

  • I love how aware most fan were about gender and social justice. I enjoyed the panel on social justice (feat. Liz, Steph and NK Jemisin) but even on my genderbending panel, and a lot of others, the question-commentary from the audience was really really aware of gender issues and had some very interesting questions and observations.
  • I think it’s a really conflict-heavy idea so I know it doesn’t always have its place at something like Continuum, but there tended to be a whole lot of Geek Social Fallacy, No True Scotsman and red rose glasses in some of the discussions. For me it came up particularly in the fanfic panel – 50 Shades of Reinterpretation – in that there was this sense that geekdom and fandom are super welcoming. Unless you’re a female gamer, or you’re involved in shipwars, or like certain characters/writers/actors. Or you won’t shut up about gender, or race, or class (particularly since Jemisin had been very thorough in her explanation of how writers of colour are/were discouraged from SFF). I understand why it happens, that we want to downplay/ignore those aspects in order to be positive and welcoming, but I think it’s dangerous because it does reinforce the barriers and boundaries by pretending they aren’t there. It’s an irritating line to walk so I’m not entirely sold on how I feel about it all, but there are enormous barriers to participation in fandom and some of them are about fandom itself.
  • Nora Jemisin’s speech was fucking amazeballs. Really really brilliant. Just read it.
  • The Fighting Like a Girl panel rocked as a panellist and I hope it rocked for those people in the audience too. I’m kicking myself because I forgot to mention Pratchett and The Witches (hat tip there to the woman I spoke to after the panel who reminded me, and put me on to Ursula Vernon’s Digger). There was so much to keep saying in that panel about women, about women and violence, and about what we consider action. I felt kind of unsettled by my segue into rape in the armed forces but I do think it’s again a bit of bland positivity to not address it at all. So I’m sorry for that dip into darkness but we recovered with our discussions about children’s action heroes (Susan/Ginormica FTW! – I think ‘kids SF’ is an excellent panel for 2014). For me personally though, it’s somewhat of a revelation to realise that Kerrigan, Cordelia Naismith and Granny Weatherwax are some of my all time favourite female action heroes and none of them have a classic arc and none are a classic action heroine (Kerrigan is probably closest but her arc ends up neither sacrificing herself as the tainted mother figure ala Ripley, nor returned to human – she is part alien, she is the Heart of the Swarm and that is what she will be, fuck your categories). I particularly like competent ruthlessness tempered with strong sense of place/family/duty, I think.

    Kerrigan from the Starcraft wikia

  • Genderbending was excellent and I loved getting the chance to talk to people (and if you want to talk to me I’m not technically doing interviews/research yet since ethics and approvals but I certainly love to talk gender and presentation in media and would love to interview anyone who has anything they want to say on the subject once I’m at that stage) but again, I bloody well forgot Pratchett AND I didn’t even touch on Mrs Hudson in Elementary. It’s become increasingly clear to me that I need to include trans*genderbends (…I know) and I didn’t even mention it! Rachel’s cosplay was amazing – both that day and the night before (T9 on the panel). And obviously Hespa’s the night before as well. I think it’s such an interesting subject, even with the fraught bits (“I’m not slut-shaming the short skirts, I’m grandma-level worried about grazing during a fight and that you’ll get cold” led to my casting as the grandma of a superhero group in Liz’s comic-yet-to-be-made). I think my general thesis on a lot of the visual genderbending is that when practicality/adherence to canon is compromised in order to perform femininity, it starts becoming problematic. Like Liz said, genderbent!Tony is going to be flirtatious and is going to perform femininity the same was Tony performs masculinity and that will be apparent when she is being Tony Stark – but not in the workshop, and not as Iron Man) (ponytail out the top of the helmet!). And her comment on Rachel’s positively AMAZING genderbent!Kaylee find rang true too – a female character as earthy as Kaylee is portrayed, and as practical, is probably going to have an enormous beard, as both ease of grooming and as a secondary sexual characteristic (note: I am adamantly pro-beard and as such am biased).

via Fashionably Geek and I would dearly love to know who the cosplayer is.

  • I thought it was interesting that the three of us often came across the same cosplayers/cosplays as interesting – Slave Leo was one where both Liz and I, possibly revealing something about ourselves, thought that Leo was not nearly as sexualised as Leia, and needed a shorter kilt, to have it lower slung (we had words about hotpants – again, I’m pro, but apparently…) – it is an incredibly well thought out cosplay, and his meta-analysis is great, but there are gender performance notions at play that are difficult to genderbend. For example, genderbent!Tifa is going to be buff, but why are his shorts past his knees while hers are tiny? Why is there either an ignorance of sexualised costume choices (shorts are shorts are shorts even though there is a very clear difference between cargo shorts to the knee and the shorter shorts that are available to women) or a misunderstanding of female sexual desire and it’s interaction with performance of masculinity. My point with Slave Leo was also that since the majority of actors shave/wax their chest for roles (even ones you assume would be hairy) that are sexualised/shirtless – and that women deforest a much larger estate than that – the Slave Leo with a hairy chest is out of place (regardless of my own preferences in the area!) as a sexualised character. The interrelation between sexualisation of the male form with the impracticality inherent in sexualising women often intersects with sexuality – hotpants are read as ‘gay’ rather than sexually desireable to women and the aversion is about fear of homosexuality not just sexualisation. Like I said, SO many thinky crunchy thoughts being shared around the room.
  • The Lurker panel was also amazing. I slightly identify as a lurker, in that any fanworks I produce are mostly hidden under several layers of pseudonyms and I don’t participate a hell of a lot in person. This was my first con! But it was very interesting contrasting the experiences of the panellists with the idea that fandom is welcoming because almost all of them said they refuse to participate in fandom in certain ways because of the acts/ideals of fandom. So it’s clearly not that welcoming. But there were also lots of other lovely crunchy discussions about mental health and fandom, and also the idea of outing oneself as fannish – I obviously have because it’s impossible to do a PhD and never tell anyone what you’re doing it on – but also about where the lines are between fans and fandom. There’s enormous amounts written on that idea but the thing that became most clear to me after this panel was that the nascent idea of both my supervisors, D and M, that lurkers be included in any research I do, is correct. Lurkers contribute socially to fandom as a hobby but also as an emotional base (OMG FEELS). They often buy things (secret cosplay! Miss Piggy badges!) but their participation is in the emotional and the social sphere and difficult to quantify.
  • I am never ever going to forgive Liz for The Vid Show because this should have been in my life forever and also blue.
  • I met some really fantastic and amazing people while I was there and it was a really great experience, and something I recommend strongly to fans but absolutely to academics because there’s nothing like a panel to get you really thinking about your research, and nothing like the experience to make you think about your process. It’s been very valuable in that respect because I am thinking around the edges of my process, of my research, and just how I approach the sociological aspect of my research.
  • I’m so annoyed that I missed the evolving sex/gender panel, that sounded like it was going to be incredible.

Other notes:

  • The kinda-genderbent very early ‘lady detective’ story I mentioned to a few people was The Diary of Ann Rodway by Wilkie Collins (1856) – I highly recommend it and many thanks to my supervisor D for mentioning it. Solving crime using specifically designated ‘women’s knowledge’!
  • Liz is the best.
  • The excellent musical reboots I mentioned were part of Metafilter’s OK Computer challenge and can be found here.
  • Murderhobos is a most excellent RPG term, not my own term! Also I sang no folk songs. If you want a crash course in RPG stuff hit up rpg.net
  • This was the inspiration for my costume at the Maskobalo – alas, no photos apart from a selfie that didn’t catch the costume, just the makeup.

 

Interesting readings around the place

Here’s some of the interesting commentary I’ve been reading about fandom, feminism and gender.

euclase encapsulates, fairly neatly, why I find fandom so incredible and such a wonderful place to be and to study.

I wish the brilliance was louder than the insanity or hate or wank or anything else. I wish that, when people talked about fangirls and fandom, they didn’t have to explain or give excuses, or laugh, or roll their eyes, or feel awkward, or be forewarned. Because this the smartest, most exciting, most passionate creative engine I know of.

The Skyler White Effect is very interesting in terms of genderbending characters – particularly squiddishly’s assertion that Walt’s character arc is very much a gendered one.

Walter’s motivation is his resentment that he hasn’t received his due as a middle-class white man, whereas woman are socialised to expect a life of under-appreciation and unfulfilled potential.  Wallis White wouldn’t be happy about it, but she’d accept help from her wealthy ex.

These two musings about female characters dovetailed neatly with the research – Summer of Supervillainy’s complaints that female characters rarely have the depth and the freedom male characters do and aiffe’s apology to every female character for the fandom itself. Both are astute, and have excellent points (particularly SoS’s “I want to feel heroic. I don’t want to have to chew through a crunchy candy coating of sexism to get to the part where she saves the day.” and aiffe’s “But part of it…I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t this horrible, deep-seated idea that men have more personhood than women do. Men in fiction get to be people.“) but it is the juxtaposition of the two that is more interesting to me* and the way that de-canonising the ‘hate’ so to speak brings it right back to the canon’s faults in providing female characters of note but also our own reaction, as a fandom, to that. Not to mention the compassion fatigue of just not wanting to dredge through the junk portrayals of women in media. Except there is SO much that isn’t junky, so much that is interesting and well-done and not a dredge through sexism that to say ‘well, it’s easier to read about men’ seems self-defeating even as it’s self-protecting.

I am always interested in this research as well, about how women’s voices are perceived and how that relates to the objectively observed.

And of course, the incomparable Elementary, not just content with a genderbent Watson has brought us a genderbent** Mrs/Ms Hudson. The fan reactions have been an absolute treat to read.

I so want this Mary Poppins adaptation too.

*This was interesting too: 

Rule 63ing characters can be an interesting perspective-building exercise, and I recommend doing it for situations where you’re having a lot of trouble wrapping your head around the dynamics, but it is not an acceptable substitute for loving female characters. If you can only love and care about female characters when they’re 63’d men, you’re doing something wrong.

 And apt for one of the more ridiculous Rule 63 fics I’m considering including in my thesis.

 

My first article

(maybe)

 

I’m in the process of writing my first (academic) essay in years, to submit to a journal. It’s nervewracking to say the least. The writing comes smoothly enough; the years outside the tower have been spent steeped in fiction and meta and mummy blogging so that aspect comes easier than the other.

The structure, the argot, the practiced sentences. My university (thankfully) offers a few starter courses within the PhD program and I’ve been running hill and dale to get to them (including one memorable 5 hour stint on public transport to get Bunbun to the coast, then driving four the next day to bring her home, all for my induction) and they have proven invaluable. The performative aspects, the internal references, are slowly slowly coming back to me. Slowly enough that I’m doubting my decision to write this article.

Yet, ditching out now (when I ditched out on a few last year, because I ‘wasn’t enrolled yet’) seems ultimately self-defeating. To not act, when I have the chance, all for fear? Why am I even here if that’s the case, if that’s going to be my choice?  So I keep slogging, keep pushing. Move the words around, pull out themes from the morass, rewrite, delete, rewrite again, find another theme, a better one, and do it all again. Eagerly read Pat Thompson’s series on academic writing and rewrite yet again.

And be incredibly grateful for these past ten years spent deep in a culture that is devoted to beta-reading, to editing, to rewriting and re-reading and pulling out the themes. Fandom, particularly fanfic, has a deep-seated inability to let things lie; not when a simple comment can point out an error and you can correct it, easily (I mean, there are obvious outliers, but that’s the general sequence). As much as the practical aspects of the PhD are beginning to make me wince at how much time I spend organising* how I’m going to get to a two hour confirmation seminar, a three hour tutorial, and hour long lunch on three separate days and none of them are kindy days, this part? The reading, the writing, the researching? I feel like I’ve been in training the past ten years.

*Bluemilk, as always, is rather on point, from her posts about inequity and accessing education (I am still battling that upbringing that meant I didn’t even know what a PhD was until I graduated my undergrad, and still, even now, fights against being characterised as ‘doing nothing’ and ‘welfare cheat’) (note: I don’t actually even get welfare beyond what I would be getting as a stay-at-home-parent, apart from the government paying for my PhD) to her excruciating points on relationships and the work therein, particularly for feminist women. In other words, you need to read her shit.

Unexpected expected things

Shannon Larratt has hit his dead-man switch.

If I hadn’t stumbled over BME in the mid-to-late nineties, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I wonder how many other people are the same. I’d probably still be tattooed, still be socially aware, but I wouldn’t have had that crucial exposure to body modification, spirituality, self-determination, transhumanism, body dysmorphia or cultural traditions. An exposure that shaped so much about me, not just emotionally/personally, but had informed my academic processes, my social awareness and my politics at a really fundamental level.

To quote Marisa, over at Needles & Sins:

“Shannon had faith in people, especially people for whom society treated with little respect.”

I am grateful that some of his faith flowed into me.

I realised today that I’ve ‘known’ Larratt longer than my partner, my best friends. I say ‘known’ because as incredibly open as he was, as generous and informative as he was, we couldn’t have shared more than a few emails back and forth more than a decade ago. But his writings informed so much of my approach to life that I feel totally bereft.

We truly have lost an amazing person, a writer, a thinker, an activist in so much more than just the body mod scene.

Vale Shannon.

The Enforced Idleness of Public Transport (and Poverty)

I leave the house at 7:50am. I walk for 30 minutes with a three-year old, up and down hills, sometimes with a footpath, sometimes through grass knee high for me, waist high or higher for her. It’s that or the road. We choose the grass, for all that it soaks through our shoes and pants, and we sometimes trip in unseen holes. Better than run over.

At 8:25 I drop her at kindy. We have time today, so I can chat with the staff, make sure she’s settled (Monday I didn’t, and for the first time in a month and a half of drop offs by me and her aunt, she cried after I left). A quick goodbye and I’m back walking up the road by 8:35/8:40. My bus, at the top of this steep hill, leaves at 8:51. Supposedly. It has never been on time. Today I waited until 9:05 for the bus to come. I can’t rely on it being late though; it leaves once an hour in the morning and if I miss it I have another half hour walk to a different route. So I wait, unable to read lest I not signal the bus to stop (because even though it is the only bus servicing this stop, I may well be reading while leaning on the pole for fun) (this stop does not have a seat, or a shelter, which is somewhat problematic for me carrying my laptop and assorted gear in what is rapidly becoming Brisbane’s wet season). I wait, listening to music, furtively checking twitter, or instagram, or facebook. The things that I can drop at a moment’s notice.

The bus route itself winds and grinds and bumps. It is a suburban route, so it winds through the backroads, speed bumps and traffic calming devices abound. I’m writing today, to see if it works. I am afraid I will be engrossed and miss my stop however. Again, I must signal my intention to leave the bus.

I reach my transit station at 9:25. I have missed one of the connections so I wait for the second. I finally hit my campus at 9:40. Another 5 minute walk to the lab, chatting with my ex-supervisor/current head of research. I sit, and get myself settled now. Lunch unpacked, maybe a coffee or a tea (nope, just water because I haven’t brought any milk with me to make said tea). Wonder once more exactly how one prints wirelessly and get told IT won’t help me with my laptop, only with uni property. In direct contrast to the advice on their website, but I give up for today and start to read, taking notes on index cards and Cornell paper printed at home.

I left the house at 7:50 and start work around 9:50. Two hours in transit (with about 30 minutes of that simply waiting around) for a journey that would be less than 30 minutes if I had a car. A car we cannot really afford, not right now, not with insurance, rego, fuel, parking and assorted costs. And I do it all again this afternoon, leaving my desk at 1:30, getting home at 2:00 to dump my ridiculously heavy bag off, then walking to kindy (only 30 minutes on my own!) and back again (close to an hour with a post-kindy three year old walking mostly up hill). My legs hurt, my feet hurt, but dinner needs to be made, laundry needs to be done, discussions had with the three year old. The books and notes get dumped and I slide right into the domestic sphere again. I haven’t managed to tear myself out of that routine yet.

It’s my first week and I am half way through and fucking exhausted already. And it is nothing to do with the work itself (which is delightful! And interesting! And I’m already slightly riled at completely unexamined and deeply sexist footnotes that disappear women from the subject being examined!) but simply the logistics of getting to and from where I need to be.