The Demon King, Chapter 8

This illustration of Ceres is by Sali (@salisillustrations on Instagram and @saliechelon255 on Tumblr), who creates beautiful digital paintings based on books and anime, including Studio Ghibli movies and the Harry Potter novels, alongside her original work. Her characters are fashionable and expressive, and they always fit perfectly into their richly detailed environments. Sali has a talent for drawing fancy wizards, and it was a pleasure to be able to work with her on this illustration for The Demon King.

The eighth chapter of The Demon King is the culmination of Ceres’s first character arc. It echoes her introduction, in which she glibly treats murder as the only viable option to a tricky political problem, but now the reader is able to see the deliberation that leads to her decisions.

I’m interested in female political leadership, especially at high levels, when an executive’s position is just as symbolic as it is practical. It’s my impression that, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Kamala Harris or Tsai Ing-wen or Angela Merkel, there’s an expectation that a woman needs to be perfectly competent and capable while still being both “rational” and having all the charm and charisma of a male politician. This is impossible in real life, of course, but it’s fun to exaggerate these pressures and expectations in fiction to see where they lead.

In any case, the prompt I gave the artist was “a beautiful fairytale princess quietly plotting murder.”

Although it’s still rough around the edges, I’m posting the first draft of The Demon King on AO3, and you can find it (here).

Big-Hearted Lad Appreciation Hours

I’m looking forward to 2021, so this year I’ve decided to send out New Year’s cards instead of holiday cards. 2021 is the Year of the Ox, so I thought it would be fun to have a card with a muscular big boy with ox horns showing off his eggplant and arrows while posing against Mt. Fuji. Himbos please drag us out of the toxic swamp of 2020, that sort of thing. I checked the websites I use for Japanese stationery, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I guess I’ll just have to make it myself.

When it comes to fictional characters, some people argue that the celebration of powerful men with big bodies is “fetishization.” I don’t think that’s quite right, as gendered power imbalances in the real world still result in misogynistic discrimination and violence. To give three examples that are very close to me:

I have a male acquaintance who moved from job to job after grad school, and at every position he left behind warnings on Rate My Professor from female students saying he harassed them. People in my field know this but still hire this man because “you can’t trust what kids say on that site.”

I spent four years quietly suffering harassment from my male department chair before finally being forced to leave my position, relocate, and find a new job during the pandemic. This man now has his own page on Wikipedia, and I don’t even have health insurance.

In college, I once had to watch a man deliver a monologue to a giant dildo about how fanfic is only written by gross women who want to get raped. I still post my “gross” fanfic on AO3, but that man ended up becoming one of the key figures behind the Detective Pikachu movie. True story!

I think that, before someone gets angry at writers and artists for indulging in a fantasy of men who are visually coded as powerful yet still have a kind and supportive personality, maybe they should ask themselves why this type of male character is considered to be a “fantasy.”

I think it’s appropriate that 2021 is the Year of the Ox, because we have a lot of work to do this year. Everyone defines strength differently, and everyone expresses strength in different ways, but I personally have spent so long feeling weak and afraid that I’m absolutely ready to feel strong and powerful.

I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with many men (cis and trans) who reject toxic masculinity and use their power and privilege to support the people around them. Hell yes I will celebrate these men, and damn straight I will create strong and attractive fictional characters based on them!

Warding Off the Creepy

On November 3 of this year, I was refreshing feeds and doomscrolling, as one does while waiting for votes in swing states to be counted, when I got a rejection email from a progressive American sci-fi and fantasy magazine. Rejection emails are par for the course when it comes to submitting fiction to magazines, of course, but the timing could not have been worse. The wording of the email was also quite strong. I have a folder in Gmail that I’m slowly filling with rejections, but this particular email hurt more than it should have.

Still, I understand why rejection emails have to be written like this. There are just so many creepy people out there that you have to make your boundaries absolutely clear.

Case in point:

I’ve been receiving creepy “newsletters” from a random man since the beginning of the year. These letters come once a month through the mail, and the handwriting on the envelopes is just as creepy as the personal nature of the letters. I thought I would be free of these letters when I moved to Philadelphia and changed addresses, but the post office has been forwarding them to me instead of returning them to the sender.

There’s a fading culture of zine mailing lists that I think this person is trying to keep alive, but I don’t know him at all, and I don’t know how he got my mailing address, and getting these creepy letters with creepy handwriting is… Well, it’s creepy.

On getting another creepy letter in the mail the other day, I finally snapped and wrote this man a three-line email. I said that I know he means no harm, but to please stop sending me letters because this is creepy, and PLEASE DO NOT RESPOND TO THIS EMAIL. So of course he responds, immediately, saying that he did not mean to be creepy, etc etc etc etc etc, and it was… Yeah, it was super creepy.

Can you even imagine being the editor of a fiction magazine and having to deal with people like this? Of course rejection letters have to be strong.

(Still, couldn’t that magazine have waited a day or two after the election? Honestly.)

I recently read that, according to several university studies, men report that they’re more afraid of being called “creepy” than they are of being called just about anything else, including “stupid,” “ugly,” or “weak.” If I had to guess, I’d say that the anxiety surrounding creepiness has a lot to do with the perception that it’s hard to pin down what “being creepy” actually entails. I don’t think it’s that complicated, though. What “creepy” is all about, at least in this context, is uninvited and unwanted intimate personal contact that is repeated after not being reciprocated. Of course women and nonbinary people can be creepy too, but I suspect that the sense of entitlement many men seem to feel regarding their right to receive attention tends to exacerbate their creepy behavior.

Anyway, I’ve been disheartened by the unequivocally negative tone of some of the rejection emails I’ve received from fiction magazines, but I’m trying not to take it personally. After all, this isn’t about me and the quality of my work, but rather a preemptive attempt on the part of the editors to ward off the creepy.

Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy

This fall I’m teaching a class called “Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

This class isn’t about science fiction so much as it is about fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction.

I haven’t encountered a lot of writing in English about Japanese fantasy, unfortunately, and this is a shame. Meanwhile, there’s an overwhelming amount of writing in English on Japanese science fiction. In addition, there are so many translations of Japanese science fiction coming out each year that I don’t even bother to keep up with them anymore.

So why the disparity? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s a gender thing. This isn’t to imply that women don’t read and write science fiction, but rather that subcultures surrounding science fiction were overwhelmingly dominated by men from the 1940s to the 1990s. When there were women in these cultures – and this is something Joanna Russ has argued much better than I can – their work tended to be downplayed and disregarded in various ways. They were “just fans,” they were writing “silly romance,” they were writing “for children,” they were writing “disposable comics,” they “weren’t serious writers,” and so on.

So science fiction became a legitimate subject of academic inquiry, while fantasy largely escaped critical consideration. After all, intelligent and important men read and write science fiction, while fantasy is self-indulgent frivolity for the ladies. Or, I should say, I’ve personally encountered that sort of attitude frequently enough to think that it’s deeper than the misguided opinion of any one individual.

My main goal for this semester is to use this class as an excuse to do as much research as I can in both English and Japanese to see what’s out there on Japanese fantasy. Hopefully I might eventually be able to make a few small contributions of my own to the literature.

I’m looking forward to getting started!

Image: A female theorist dealing with another load of crap

‘Is it a race thing or a lady thing?’ – the new Ghostbusters and the Academy
https://mutablematter.wordpress.com/2016/08/05/is-it-a-race-thing-or-a-lady-thing-the-new-ghostbusters-and-the-academy/

In the original Ghostbusters film academia was the subject of critique for being oversaturated with time, space, funding and equipment. The new Ghostbusters film performs a reversal by its portrayal of the privatised, neoliberal academy: the university is now the space where you have to apply for funding, and you will only receive it if you can demonstrate ‘results’. If you want to do something long-term, creative and out of the ordinary, you have to stay out of sight and hide in the margins. This is shown through Abby’s (Melissa McCarthy) character who does exactly that, although she underestimates how much the margins are increasingly being closed down. When her institution is taken over by a crude cookie-cutter corporate type, the women and their research are immediately kicked out. Abby’s original plan was to save Erin from mainstream academia and show her the beauty of the margins, but they are now even further than initially anticipated. As even the most dubious institutions aim to get in with the top achievers, the margins have to move outside of any institution. You essentially have to sacrifice your career and expose yourself to the risk of your own enterprise.

It’s so bizarre to me that I had this exact same experience. I left a comfortable and stable position at a top-twenty school, thinking that I would have more intellectual freedom at a university positioned a little more in the margins. The substantially lower-ranked school where I accepted a tenure-track position became more fantastically neoliberal with each passing year, however, and suddenly I was expected to produce more work than anyone else I knew despite being given almost no resources. It was this, basically:

First we see Erin (Kirsten Wiig), a theoretical physicist whose tenure is delayed by increasingly ridiculous requirements that no male colleague would have to perform. Another reference, another grant, another book – something is always missing, while male colleagues with less impressive achievements effortlessly move past. We see how Erin is aware of this, anxious to meet these criteria down to her appearance, but, at the same time, angry at having to perform a disproportional amount of ‘ass-kissing’. What I also like about the Erin vignette is the attention to knowledge policing: what gets validated by Western academia and what doesn’t. Academia rewards particular standards, particular modes of thinking and producing. You need to be similar to others, to cite the canon, to orient your research towards the current funding.
Despite being just as productive and successful as Erin, I was also denied tenure. My situation was simultaneously complicated and not complicated at all, in that it was an all-too-common combination of discrimination, intellectual conservatism, and neoliberal corporatization.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the concept of “the undercommons” (here’s a free PDF of the book), the gist of which is to “take what you can from the system and run.” I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good people in an extensive support network reach out to me since I was denied tenure, and many people have generously offered concrete resources that might help me make it back into the system. I’m grateful, of course, but I suspect that there may no longer be any room in the system for someone like me, who not only does research in and about the margins but also teaches from and to the margins. If the system won’t support me, I’m not too terribly interested in giving more of my labor to support the system.

My main concern, at the moment, is how to become a Ghostbuster.

Community

I should begin by saying that, when someone is harassed, the only person to blame for it is the person doing the harassing.

There’s usually only going to be one person doing any actual harassment. Most of us aren’t assholes, after all.

That being said, about 90% of the experience of being harassed is watching other people as they witness the harassment while doing nothing to stop it. This is how the bad behavior of assholes is allowed to escalate, and this is also how targets are primed to be victims.

More often than not, the target of harassment is chosen because they’re friendly and polite and don’t push back against the harasser. They know this, but they’re often plagued by a lingering sense of self-doubt, as if they have done something to deserve the treatment. The harasser takes advantage of and exacerbates this insecurity, of course, but the target’s sense of self-worth is also eroded by how the community treats the harassment as normal.

You can avoid one asshole, but you can’t avoid everyone in your office or classroom. This means that the target doesn’t just feel uncomfortable around the harasser, but around everyone. This is how a hostile workplace environment is created.

I’ve said this before, but the purpose of American Title IX laws is to protect the university. Because of systemic injustice, protecting the university almost always means protecting the person accused of harassment. If a professor takes steps to confront or report a harasser, they could very well lose their job. From a legal perspective, professors cannot respond to harassment in any way unless the target reports it directly in clear language. Even then, the professor can only relay the complaint to the appropriate office, as they cannot legally take any sort of action to protect the target of harassment. The same goes for workplace supervisors. We can report harassment, but we can’t do anything to address or prevent it.

I think this is why so many people allow harassment to continue – they believe that a higher authority will intervene and handle the situation. Unfortunately, this is almost certainly not going to happen, at least not in the way that it should.

It’s therefore up to a community of peers to address and prevent harassment. This is not ideal, and it has the potential to backfire by becoming a different sort of harassment in turn, but it’s usually the only way to protect the target. No one needs to be a hero. “Protecting the target” usually takes the form of making sure that the harasser is not invited to events where their target is going to be present or making sure that the target doesn’t have to walk to class alone if the harasser is always waiting outside the classroom. It also involves the act of acknowledging of the harassment by pointing it out and making it visible while it’s occurring.

It feels wrong and weird to have to give this talk to grad students, as if we (collectively, as professors) are abjuring responsibility, but it’s better than saying nothing at all. It’s also an important lesson about academia, I think. The institution will not protect any of us, so we have to protect ourselves.

Sexism and Ageism in Fandom

On “Fandom Moms”
https://out-there-on-the-maroon.tumblr.com/post/620585756682027009/fandom-mom-used-to-a-jokey-affectionate-term-for

I can finally afford to attend conventions regularly, pay amazing artists for great work, delve into more detailed media analysis, appreciate symbolism and homages I didn’t understand as a teen… and I should give that all up now? Because I have a job that makes me cry from stress, do my own taxes, and should be Looking For A Husband Now?

Oh gosh yes. Wow.

For me, as a queer nonbinary person, I was really only able to do things that made me happy once I had a stable source of income. I got kicked out of high school for being gay a few months after I turned sixteen, and the following twelve or thirteen years were a constant struggle just to survive. I couldn’t watch television or play video games because I had to work all the time to pay rent while putting myself through college and grad school on a series of scholarships, fellowships, and grants that were generous but not quite enough to live on. If I had time to “have fun,” it was time I needed to spend networking by attending various parties and other social events. I couldn’t afford to go to conventions, and I certainly didn’t have energy to devote to developing my skills at creative writing and visual art.

I was 27 or 28 before I had enough breathing room to even think about doing something that wasn’t work, and getting involved in fandom felt (at the time) like one of the best things that had ever happened to me, not in the least because I didn’t have to pretend to be a serious adult.

So when I was accused of being a creepy older person (when I was 32, which I maintain isn’t actually that old, not that it matters) for existing in a fandom space that was shared by people of various ages, it precipitated an incredible jolt of anxiety. What if it actually is Too Late for me to enjoy myself and follow my dreams? I’d been getting this message from various places for my entire life – even when I was in college! – and it was a serious blow to suddenly start hearing it again from the inside of a previously supportive fandom community.

I’ve come to terms with this and moved on, but I’m so relieved that this culture is fading.

Glass Towers

Death of the Office
https://www.1843magazine.com/features/death-of-the-office

Offices can be not just offensive to the eye but harmful to the body. Sitting isn’t quite the new smoking, but it certainly won’t do you any good. A life lived on one’s bottom increases the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, some cancers and all manner of back problems. Offices also entrench social inequalities. The top dog is more likely to hire in his own image, perpetuating male privilege. In 2018 there were more men called Steve than there were women among the chief executives of FTSE 100 companies. Offices even tend to be more physically unpleasant places for women than for men: as a recent study showed, the ambient air temperature is generally set to suit “the metabolic rates of a 154-pound, 40-year-old man” (probably called Steve). Men are just fine; women freeze.

Fuck capitalism. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)╭∩╮

The writer ends the article by arguing for the validity of a space dedicated to work that isn’t your own apartment. I don’t think this is an apology or a cop-out. As much as I hate office culture, I also hate working from my bedroom. Like, that’s not what I meant when I said “fuck capitalism.”

What Happened

During the past week I updated my CV, my website, and all of my online profiles to reflect the fact that I’m moving to a new job. I’ve been holding off on doing anything with Facebook because I know it’s going to result in people asking me what happened, so I should probably figure out what to say. Okay, here goes:

What happened is that I was offered a part-time position with full benefits, an amazing salary, and a lot of research perks at an Ivy League school, and I accepted. This is partially because I’d like to buy a townhouse in Philadelphia, but it’s mainly because I want to be able to devote more time to writing without having to worry about participating in university administration as tenured faculty.

That’s not the question people will be asking, however.

What happened at the university I’m leaving is that it’s a large regional public school that doesn’t provide even basic resources for research or teaching (I had to make my own photocopies off campus, for instance). I put up with this because I liked my colleagues and students; but, in my second year, a seventy-year-old man became department chair at the same time a seventy-year-old man became president. Both of these men are aggressively awful, and the stress caused me to develop an anxiety disorder. This specifically affected my interactions with my department chair, who openly harassed me in front of my colleagues and in front of university administration, none of whom did anything to stop him. When I finally went to the Title IX Office to request a formal intervention, the university did a complete 180 from granting me substantial yearly raises in order to retain me to unequivocally denying my tenure case.

Essentially, I was denied tenure on the basis of a disability that was exacerbated by workplace harassment, so I walked away and accepted a better position elsewhere.

The situation is obviously more complicated than that, but this is the gist of it. In any case, I’m tired of talking about this, and I’m looking forward to putting all of this unpleasantness behind me and moving on with my life.

Talking to Strangers

Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, is about why we can’t catch people who are lying and don’t believe people who are telling the truth. Gladwell is very careful to divorce the act of not believing any given person from identity politics. What I believe he’s trying to suggest is that our cognitive failures have more to do with human psychology than the particularities of any given society in any given place at any given time. Moreover, suffering from a critical misunderstanding is something that could happen to any of us, regardless of race or gender.

Malcolm Gladwell makes a strong and convincing argument, because Malcolm Gladwell always makes a strong and convincing argument. Malcolm Gladwell is an excellent writer and very good at the sort of journalism he specializes in.

That being said.

Oh boy.

That being said, it’s a bit disingenuous for Malcolm Gladwell to remove gender from the equation when almost every single example he references involves people either not believing what a woman is telling them or not believing that a woman could be who and what she clearly is.

A clever reader will pick up on this, of course, but it would have been nice for Malcolm Gladwell to include, like, I don’t know. A single footnote? Acknowledging the existence of the incredible amount of research that strongly suggests that gender is a major contributing factor regarding whether or not we believe what someone is saying, especially when all available evidence supports their testimony.

For example, why does no one believe the female victims of sexual assault and abuse, even when the incidents are well-documented and reported by multiple unconnected parties? Is it because of complex psychological reasons, or is it because, I don’t know, women are lying liars who just want attention and will only cause trouble if you take them seriously? I mean, it’s always good to hear the full story and judge these incidents on a case-by-case basis, but it’s also taken for granted as a truism in the LGBTQ+ community (especially transgender and nonbinary communities) that people either start believing you or ignoring you almost immediately after you change your name and gender presentation.

Also, I keep saying this, but it’s not necessarily the case that people don’t believe women, but rather that they don’t care and hope the problem will go away on its own. Based on my own experience, I would say that this is doubly true when it comes to women refusing to act on the testimony of other women, as the credibility of the woman who takes concrete action based on the report will be disbelieved or disregarded by association.

Personally speaking, as someone who is not female but presents as female for the sake of job security in a precarious environment, I have deliberately made myself unavailable to meet with female students whom I’m reasonably certain intend to speak with me about being harassed by a male student or by one of my male colleagues. I know this sounds evil, but listen.

If I can only justifiably report one incident of sexual misconduct or gender-based discrimination in any given academic year, I need to make sure that the case I report is worth it, meaning that the report will add evidence against a serious repeat offender instead of “merely” giving the student a sense of support and closure. Title IX “compliance” offices at American universities need only to “address” an incident on paper, so it’s unlikely that anything will be solved – or even change – for the student who has experienced abuse, harassment, or discrimination. As a result, the only way I can help anyone is by not “wasting” the impact of any given report.

(How did I arrive at this conclusion? Believe me, friend, you do not want to know. Not to mention that no one believed me or cared when I tried to tell the relevant story in any number of informal and professional forums.)

If you’re disgusted by this, you absolutely should be. If you happen to be a cisgender man (of any race, ethnicity, nationality, or sexual identity), you should also take away from this that your privilege gives you an incredible power to do good in the world through allyship and advocacy.

Speaking as someone who is often on the receiving end of not being believed, even with impeccable credentials and a strong and assertive affect, I think all of the reasonable, intelligent, and sane reasons Malcolm Gladwell provides for why we can’t catch people who are lying and why we don’t believe people who are telling the truth apply if and only if gender is not a factor – but let’s be real, gender is absolutely fucking always a factor.