If there ever was a fandom that was born in the age of the internet and shot to fame and power on its shoulders, it was the world of Harry Potter. We were the first to experience a series over years as a whole community, not just consuming, but producing. We demanded answers. But maybe we should be careful what we wish for. Because we might actually get it--and now that we have it, it turns out that we don’t want it at all. Such was the case last week, when a preview of an interview with Jo was released, and the fans and the media machine zoomed into action. J.K. ROWLING REGRETS RON AND HERMIONIE’S RELATIONSHIP, the headlines blared. But the truth is a bit more complicated than that.
Sometimes Steven Moffat can write really well--I know he can. And then sometimes Steven Moffat can write horribly.
The Christmas special, the latest in a series of very uncreative titles, fell into the latter category. And after the beauty that was the anniversary special, after I was handed a big platter of hope that this show could redeem itself, watching it fall apart was all the more painful.
After the past series, I was sure that my favorite show was doomed. Not only could Steven Moffat not resist the temptation to be misogynist, it seems he couldn’t write real characters, let alone plots that made any type of remote sense. I was convinced that it was time for the Moff to go, before he ruined everything I loved about the show.
It’s a little off-putting to be proved wrong. But in this case, it was wonderful all the same. Because The Day of the Doctor was awesome. Spoilers below.
During my ongoing battle with depression, I’ve experimented with all sorts of things to get myself out of the dark places. I’ve signed up for swing dance classes again, and started doing yoga on my own. I’ve watched less high drama and more of The Daily Show. But the things that I’ve found that help the most don’t involve classes, or organizations, or spending extra money. They involve other people.
I am a nostalgist. Perhaps that’s why I wrote the first draft of this on a pad of paper in a local bookstore. I may have been given an ereader, but I cannot convince myself to move away from the smell, feel, and solace of a bookstore or a library. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love new media--after all, aren’t I creating it right now? But I also love the old. And I’d like to advocate for a form of media that we’ve mostly forgotten about.
I like to call it communal reading, though it’s perhaps better known as reading aloud. And it’s a powerful beautiful thing.
I see some of you side-eyeing me. Reading aloud? Since when is that an art form? But it is. Take a second to think--when was the last time you did it? Maybe not that recently. And maybe it wasn’t exciting--probably downright boring. When we read aloud at our workplaces or in our classes, most times we are reading merely to convey information. But what about if you’re a teacher or a parent of a young child? Well, you’ve probably read aloud fairly recently. We’re encouraged to read to children, to help them to learn, to make stories come alive for them. And yet, it’s something we rarely do for ourselves.
What if we read communally for fun--regularly? What if we read communally as a way of life?
It’s not that far-fetched of a proposal. After all, 200 years ago, what we call reading aloud was just reading. It was an activity you shared with others. This was partly out of necessity--literacy wasn’t as widespread, and books and newspapers were more expensive and less common--but in great part for the enjoyment of all. Newspapers were brought to the taverns, and read aloud by an individual and listened to by the patrons multiple times a day. Initially, the novel was a communal experience as well--it wasn’t until it began to take off in the later half of the 19th century that reading became a more solitary. Reading a novel aloud isn’t that far removed from simply telling stories.
Communal reading is rare these days. We aren’t used to doing it. Many people are unused to reading with a vivid and expressive voice that really brings out the words from the page. We’re equally unused to actively listening--our attention wanders, demanding things to keep busy with.
It’s a shame, because reading aloud is so beneficial. There’s a reason that parents do it with children, and that children are tested in the younger grades with aloud tests--because it’s an illuminating measurement of process and comprehension. For students or anyone trying to improve your writing, reading your work aloud--to yourself or an audience, regardless of whether it’s a short story or a paper--is the best way to spot mistakes, problems, and things that don’t make sense. And reading aloud the work of authors you appreciate is a great way to try and figure out what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.
And if you’re not a child, a student, or a writer? Then communal reading is just that. It provides a love and a sense of belonging and being more than anything else I’ve done. When I’m reading aloud, I’m focused on the words, on my tone, on the nuances within the piece. When I’m listening to something being read, I’m paying attention to the voice of the reader, the rise and fall of the phrases, the pictures that form in my imagination as the words wash over me.
So give it a try. Turn off the TV, put away your phone. Find some friends or family who will listen or read with you. And if you don’t know what to read? Try this article from the NY Times that could have been a mystery novel for all the sensational writing. Ponder a well-written column. Find a good comic to laugh about. Enjoy a chapter of a novel that will make you cry. Read slowly, clearly, and with heart. Listen carefully, animatedly, and with soul. And remember that words in a row can bring people together in amazing ways.
This is the first in a series of pieces about the huge impact that YMCA Camp Echo has had on my life.
Recently, I told a friend I wanted to write a piece about camp. And then I sat down and realized that there was no way I could write one piece. But I could write one hundred.
As you might have guessed, I was not at camp this summer. Time has passed, and I’ve gotten old enough that professional development and financing my education and planning my career take precedence. And while I love my career, it makes me sad. Because camp... camp is... it’s...
And here comes the point where I cannot find words to describe what camp is any longer. It’s like if someone asked me to describe my left foot. I can’t. I see the thing every day, but what I see is so taken for granted, so normalized, so part of me and my experience that I can’t imagine the thing in isolation. I can’t imagine my life without it. The most I can do is tell you that I wear an american shoe size 6.
Well, camp is like that. I can tell you that I’ve gone for 18 years, as a camper and as staff. But I can’t really describe it to someone who doesn’t know anything about it. I can’t describe the feelings, the phenomenon, the love that I have for it--not really. Why, you ask? I’m a perfectly good writer, and a very reflective person. But it’s been such a huge part of my life since the age of 6, and now, at 24, it’s impossible to imagine my life had I not gone to Camp Echo.
But I suppose I can try to imagine such a world. In that world, my 6-year-old self never went camping. My 8-year-old self never spent her first week away from home. At 9, I didn’t learn to tread water. I was always the quiet kid, but I never experienced and learned to love the Olympics, a 24 hour period in which you never stopped screaming nonsensical cheers for your team. I didn’t ride horses, or help scoop their poop. I didn’t encounter young counselors from all around the world. I spent my middle school years in perpetual exile, without an alternate community to escape to in the summer, to make me feel that somewhere, people liked me, or would talk to me, or tell me that I was talented at something.
I never learned to kill spiders, or withstand mosquitoes. I never learned to make a fire or fix a stove or repair a backpack. I never overcame my shyness to shout orders or to run an event. I never was entrusted with the responsibility of ten children, and never discovered I could handle being a leader for my peers. I never appreciated the stars, worshipped the sunsets, or reveled in ice-cold rivers. I never conquered my fears of the darkness when my flashlight went out. I never pushed my body farther than it could go, and found I could endure even more.
I never climbed mountains, survived storms, or biked 365 miles. I never learned how to look on the bright side. I never struggled with the impasse of nature. I never was faced with a need to become less stressed, or a reason to. I never stood up for what I believed in even in the face of prevailing opposition. I never became a lifeguard, or a swim teacher, or a Wilderness First Responder. I never wanted to become a teacher.
In short, I wasn’t me. Because after 18 years, the person I’ve become owes much of her existence to Camp Echo. We are inseparable.
How series 7 was ruined by the lack of a real companion
First, let me start off with a disclaimer. Or, rather, several of them. I do not hate Doctor Who. In fact, I love it. I’m critiquing it because I believe that it, like everything else in the universe, has flaws, and I want it to get better because I believe that it can be even better. I also do not hate Stephen Moffat. I do not like some of the things that he’s written, or planned, or done to Doctor Who. But I’ve never met the man, and hate is quite a strong word.
I cannot believe that I had to blatantly state all of that. But onward. To the real story.
On the whole, series 7 of Doctor Who was a disappointment.
The disappointment started out with one really bad decision--to split the series in half. It’s almost hard to remember that it began way back in September with the Ponds drawn-out departure. As I pointed out in my original review of The Angels Take Manhattan, those stories were fairly bland. They were fun romps, but were barely more than that. The Power of Three was a beautiful exploration of the Doctor’s tragic inability to stay in one place and his attempts to do that for the sake of Amy and Rory, but it lacked any sort of plot, yet felt rushed nonetheless. The departure of the Ponds was full of beautiful moments, but as a whole gave us little reason to care.
Rather than show the audience how deeply the loss of the Ponds affected the Doctor, Moffat let him disappear up to his fairytale castle in the sky. We were allowed to see his temper tantrums, his sulking, his isolation, but not his profound sense of grief. And that, I would say, is a mistake. People need to grieve. Viewers need to grieve, even for their characters. And we were denied that chance, leaving us unsatisfied, and making the Doctor, in our eyes, seem less.
While Ten barely aged during his incarnation, Eleven has now somehow aged upwards of 200 years. He’s had not just isolated adventures, but huge swaths of his lifetime and personal development happen offscreen. Away from the viewer, and a secret. His travels with River, his adventures before his “death,” and now his “Dark Days” after the Ponds. I used to believe that this show was inviting us into the TARDIS to become companions ourselves, to spend some time with the Doctor, to get to know him as much as any companion can. Now, it seems Moffat’s just determined to dangle a carrot that we can’t ever reach in front of our collective noses. As an audience member, I feel cheated.
But I digress. From there we stumbled into the continual mystery of Clara Oswald. Note that I did not say character, or companion, or assistant. Because she really fulfills none of those requirements. Mostly because she has no character.
Like many people, I enjoyed Oswin Oswald the Dalek. She was clever and funny--but more than that, she legitimately challenged the Doctor, and topped him, and did so for ambiguous reasons. I like ambiguity. Clara Oswin Oswald the Victorian Governess was also intriguing. She didn’t just stumble into a mystery and be rescued, she was actively determined to solve it, to the point of trying to recruit the Doctor and climbing up to the TARDIS. And her dual roles of barmaid and governess spoke of ingenuity and resourcefulness, not to mention agency. I wanted to know how she got to that position, and why she kept both jobs. What was it about switching between the worlds that this Clara loved so much?
I eagerly awaited our introduction to the modern-day Clara. Her previous two incarnations were cool companions, fun to be around, and complex characters, and I had every reason to think that the modern Clara would be the same. I looked forward not only to the adventures and fun romps that Doctor Who brings on a regular basis, but the tender moments and poignant questions that the show has been so good at.
I quickly became dissatisfied. When the TARDIS phone started ringing in The Bells of St. John, the Doctor didn’t seem to care who it was he was speaking to--until Clara brought up the phrase that clued him in, and then suddenly he had to meet her. He was unwilling to help the person he talked to, but he’ll gladly run to the rescue to figure out the puzzle.
When she postpones his offer to travel with him, he spends the intervening time between picking her up the next morning traveling back to her personal past, watching her parents’ meeting, their date, and her mother’s death. This is not the equivalent to asking for references or googling someone’s name. Spying on multiple instances of a person’s past, just to “figure them out” can only be called stalking.
That was about when I started to get annoyed. Just as the Ponds’ episodes with the Flesh were only a cover for the Doctor to learn more about Flesh Amy without telling her, the ghost hunt they went on in Hide was merely an excuse for the Doctor to ask the psychic Emma if there was anything weird about Clara. He seems genuinely disappointed when she says no, as if having a cool person for a companion isn’t enough--she has to be something “special” as well.
And then came Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, an episode that I had counted on being amazing. But the excitement of all the fascinating areas of the TARDIS interior that we were able to glimpse was immediately superseded by the angry conversation that the Doctor has with Clara as they’re standing on the edge of a cliff as he believes they’re about to die.
It’s kind of a horrible moment. The Doctor, in his frustration and desperation to solve a mystery, turns kind of abusive towards Clara, blaming her for all the things that he can’t figure out. And then, when he rewrites time to save their lives, he can remember everything--and she can’t. And in a rather perverse moment at the end of the episode, he asks her if she trusts him--and why wouldn’t she? He’s effectively erased her memory, and they can keep traveling on, without the baggage of the awkward moment coming up to embarrass the Doctor. And it's not like this is the first--he's lied to her this entire time about why he asked her to travel with him. He thinks she can't be trusted with the facts of her own identity, and he has to protect her from those "secrets." It's disgusting.
Until, of course, the memory comes up again as they journey up through the TARDIS tomb in The Name of the Doctor. And when Clara remembers the conversation they had, and demands to know the truth--“What do you mean that I died!”--he evades the question until the Whisper Men turn up and they’re forced to run. He doesn’t bring up the topic again, because why would he? He’s been avoiding telling her about it for quite awhile now. To quote the Mary Sue:
Instead we were promised a central mystery: who was Clara and why had identical versions of her popped up elsewhere in history? But instead, of, say, a half season of Clara and the Doctor working together to travel time and unravel her true identity, we got a season that has almost completely lacked companion-specific qualities in any way. Since the Doctor hasn’t actually told Clara that he has an ulterior motive in taking her on as a companion, she hasn’t been able to participate in that aspect of the plot. When it does come up, it’s been furtively, at the end of an episode, or quickly, in a way that characters can’t stop to consider it, and reveal of it has even been part of a retconned timeline.
And then, in one really weird, uncharacteristic* gesture, Clara steps into the Doctor’s timestream to undo the harm that the Great Intelligence has done.
Born to save the Doctor? Excuse me? No one is born for anything. Everyone is their own person. It’s called basic human rights.
As great as the glimpses of Clara running around in old footage were, it didn’t occur to me until the second time I watched the episode--she does very little actual saving of the Doctor, the thing she’s supposedly born for.
Maybe it’s good that she has a Grand Purpose as Ordained by the Universe. Because she’s got little else. I said it was *uncharacteristic for her to jump the Doctor’s timeline to sacrifice herself for him. It might be more characteristic if she had some character to her. But she doesn’t. Because we know nothing about her. We can see she’s bossy sometimes--but only in the way that young women are supposed to be bossy, acquiescing to the Doctor most of the time. Her mother is dead. She’s a nanny, but mostly by accident. Most of the time she’s just sassy and cute. She’s said she wants to travel, but Dalek Oswin and Victorian Clara showed a whole lot more willingness to take risks and go places than she has.
Because she has no character, no personality, there’s literally no reason for her to sacrifice herself for the Doctor. Sure, she likes him, thinks he’s cute and clever, enjoys traveling with him--but she only does it every Wednesday or so. It’s not like Rose, who found “a better way of living your life” when she stepped into the TARDIS, or Martha, who spent a year as an outlaw in order to tell the world who they should be grateful for, or Donna, who realized that she was at her personal best with the Doctor. There's no sense that Clara is actually attached to the Doctor, not even as his friend. Why, then, would she die for him?
Likewise, I’m not so sure why the Doctor is so protective of Clara, other than the fact that she died twice for him already. Why does he like her so much? It’s kind of telling that in this prequel to the finale, Eleven’s choice of words to describe her were “perfect,” “brave,” and “funny.” While good qualities to have, those do not make a person. Those make a blank slate. Those make a generic companion. And indeed, she is generic. Because if she is “born to save the Doctor” then nothing else matters. She is a plot device. She doesn’t need to have a personality, a real past, real motivations, real dreams. Because her fate is the only thing that makes her important and special.
And then, in his own timestream, the Doctor says this:
How many times have you saved me, Clara? Just this once, just for the hell of it, let me save you.
Actually, the Doctor has saved Clara in almost every episode we’ve seen her in. And here he asserts his authority to rescue her--not because he cares about her, but “for the hell of it.” Because she is his Impossible Girl. She’s been a puzzle. She’s been a plot device. Now she’s a prize.
But she’s never been a person.
A million thanks to Erin "Tippy" Tipton for the fantastic quote that became the title and theme of this post.
“Hi there. So my name is Scott Snyder, and I write Batman for DC...”
The jaws of six panelists dropped, and the heads of over a hundred audience members whipped around to face a man standing in the back of the room.
Yea, that happened. But let’s back up a minute.
If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I waited for months in anticipation of C2E2. I was so eager to go to my second con, and to be on my first panel. I hounded the website. I posted articles. I refined arguments. I did promotions. I might as well have counted down the days (ReedPOP did that for me). I arrived early, left late, and bought shinies. I premiered two cosplays. I was on a panel.
And you’ll also notice that I posted nothing on Chicago Comic-Con. In fact, I almost forgot about it. That amnesia was partly accidental--it’s the summer and I was busy--and partly intentional. I’d heard nothing good about Wizard World. All corners of the geek community had negative things to say about the event. It was too big, too commercial. It was too celebrity-focused. It was too bureaucratic. It was too expensive. It was hostile to female geeks and feminism.
So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to reprise our panel there.
And to my delight, I was proved wrong. As both an attendee and a panelist, I had a fantastic time. First, the attendee portion.
Let’s face it, McCormick is just a nicer place to have a convention. It’s airy, pretty, and shiny when compared to Rosemont. Whether because of the Rosemont facilities or scheduling, Wizard World was relegated to two show floors. I know this is a big con, but the arrangement kinda sucked. I’m not sure what impact it had on the sales of various dealers or artists, but it left me feeling extremely dissatisfied. The spaces felt scuzzy and cramped. I tried to cover both floors, but I constantly felt like I was missing something. And the single escalator was a disaster zone.
Layout aside, the artists and dealers that were there provided a great time. And in spite of the dissatisfactions, I enjoyed wandering both floors, both for the stuff being hawked and the people-watching. And at no point did I feel unsafe or preyed upon, which I was concerned about beforehand.
Wizard World’s approach seems to be to get big-name celebrities. And they do a good job with that. I only waited for two panels, and skipped the autographs and such. The Firefly crew--Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, and Summer Glau--were entertaining, but actually seemed kind of awkward without a stronger personality to pull them together. John Barrowman, on the other hand, did not disappoint. He told stories of creeping out Eve Myles, pulling pranks on David Tennant, and his mother making farting noises in an elevator with an enthusiastic fan. He also sang an old Scottish song he sung as a boy, accepted a flower wreath, brought his parents up on stage to tell embarrassing stories, and together with his husband, pulled down his pants (to reveal Captain America and Spiderman boxers). He was so funny and so happy, but also so wonderful and kind and genuine. It’s been awhile since I’ve laughed that hard.
As for our panel... well. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. I was afraid we’d out-talked the subject, and would merely just hash over the same exact points. I was afraid we’d be met with incredible sexism or hostility. And when we arrived at the room 15 minutes ahead of time, and there was barely anyone waiting to get in, I thought we’d be speaking to an audience of about ten.
Of course, none of those things happened.
Instead, we found ourselves with a spacious room, a stage, enough chairs, enough mics, and a good enough distance from the first row that it didn’t feel like we could pick each other’s noses. There was no long line, but rather a room that gradually filled with an attentive, interested audience of around 130. And that environment, I think, helped set the tone.
Our presentation was better. We were all more practiced, and more relaxed. We breezed through the first few questions, easily covering the problems of exclusion to focus on the challenges of inclusion. We had distance from our last conversation, and new perspectives from Kate Lansky. Though we’re six opinionated women who still jostle for the mic, it felt more like a conversation, and less like a lecture. The questions we took were impressive, covering personal stories of discrimination, intersectionality, and how to keep fighting. We were about to wrap it up, when a staff member handed our moderator Carlye the following note:
And as the entire room craned their necks, Scott Snyder, one of the biggest names in the comic industry, talked about the reactions he received when he brought on a graduate student of his to help him in his work, a common occurrence. The difference, of course, was that this time, the student was a woman. And he received a hateful barrage of emails accusing him of tokenism and political correctness--revealing, to him, a problem he’d been unaware of before. He wanted to know what he could do about it.
That’s right. One of the industry’s most successful writers asked us what he could do to combat misogyny. He believed that we--six geek women with no “cred” to our names, can help him be a better ally.
Our voices are important. But Scott Snyder’s voice carries very far. And so does the voices of our audience, and the voices of our readers. Think about this stuff. Talk about it. If you like to write, write about it. Bring the subject up when you’re with a bunch of nerds. Call out your acquaintances on casual sexism, even in non-geek circles. It’s hard, because some days it feels like it’s all around, and it will never end, no matter what you do. But last weekend was proof that we can start a road to a better place--regardless of our lack of cred. So keep it going. Fight the fight. I’ll be there with you.
After a few months of betting and speculating and hinting, we have a new Doctor.
It’s Peter Capaldi. To him, I say congratulations– it will change everything about his life. To the fandom, I say get ready– getting used to a new Doctor is always a bit of a bumpy ride. It’s like having your favorite food replaced by something that tastes exactly the same but looks completely different. You can’t wrap your head around it at first, but we’ll all get there in the end. I don’t know Capaldi’s work very well — apart from his turn in Fires of Pompeii and Torchwood: Children of Earth – so I’ll sit back and try to get excited and reserve criticism for when we finally see him onscreen.
No, my criticism isn’t for the choice of Peter Capaldi to play the Twelfth Doctor. My criticism is for who wasn’t even ever considered to play the Twelfth Doctor. Anyone who wasn’t a straight white cis dude.
This is a character who, every time he is mortally wounded, literally becomes a different person right in front of our eyes. He retains his knowledge and his memories, but gets a new face, new body, new personality, new preferences, new quirks– you name it. About every five years (if you leave out the dark years between the old and new show), the Doctor becomes a completely new person.
Therefore, there is nothing to suggest that the Doctor has to be a white man. Nothing at all. And if you needed any further proof, it’s been explicitly stated in canon that Time Lords can change sex (The Corsair) and race (River Song).
So, it’s been said in canon. There shouldn’t be a single naysayer now, right? Well, wrong. The Internet is full of them. And they all seem to ignore one fact. I don’t think that the choice of Capaldi (a white man) to play the Doctor is sexist. The Doctor doesn’t have to be a woman, but women should be considered for the Doctor.
And yet, there’s no evidence that a single woman was ever considered for the role. According to an interview with Moffat in The Radio Times, Capaldi was about the only actor ever seriously considered. Every news outlet and casting director would like to go on record saying that the always cast “the best actors for the role,” but can you really be looking at the best actors if you’re shutting the door on at least half of the reputable actors of Britain, either for their gender or skin color? The answer, of course, is no. You’re just practicing casual sexism. You’ve never seen a female or person of color play the Doctor, so it doesn’t even occur to you that there might be a problematic cycle to break.
I called it casual sexism– but maybe I was being generous. As if to top it all off, in the announcement on Sunday, broadcast simultaneously on live TV all over the world, Steven Moffat said this:
I like that Helen Mirren has been saying the next doctor should be a woman. I would like to go on record and say that the Queen should be played by a man.
I can only assume Moffat thought he was being funny, because otherwise I cannot conceive how anyone would think it’s OK to say such a thing. Because it’s not funny. It’s a condescending misogynist joke. To compare the Doctor to the Queen does not even begin to make sense in any kind of universe.
People keep encouraging me to dismiss what are obvious signs of Moffat’s sexism, namely the treatment of his female companions. Guess what? I can’t dismiss it. Nor can I ignore this obvious, blatant demonstration of his misogyny in casting.
I would love a female Doctor. Not just for the political correctness, not just for the representation, not just for the idea of seeing the Doctor as someone truly dynamic. I would like it because I feel it would add depth and breadth to the character. It would create better plots, more compelling personalities, and far less conventional stereotypes. It has such immense potential– to make the show better, to make it grow, to bring it to new heights at its 50th anniversary. Really, the idea that an alien from Gallifrey has, for 12 regenerations and 1200 years, been confined to the physical appearance of a white human male, is ridiculous. It was never necessary to begin with, and it still isn’t.
To those who say they don’t want a woman or non-white actor playing the role while Moffat is at the helm? I see your point. I agree with you on some days, and disagree with you on others. But we’ve got to take the risk sometime. And really, this is a discussion for another day.
I’m looking forward to Peter Capaldi. And for our Thirteenth Doctor, I’m still demanding a Time Lady.
In May 1997, a Scottish woman received a call from her publisher. They thought her book would be great for boys to read, but were concerned that no boy would read it if it had been written by a woman. A first-time author desperate to be published and eke out a living, she agreed. And with the decision of one editor, Joanne disappeared and became J.K., and the passionate woman who spent years creating a fantasy world became an androgynous first-time author.
So when the author of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone received her first fan letter, it was addressed “Dear Sir.” The mistake was quickly corrected, and the then-young fan, Francesca Gray, is now a close friend. The publicity that eventually surrounded the book revealed the author as a woman, and she was accepted as such by adoring fans.
But beyond hearing the tale, Bloomsbury’s desire to assign her a male-sounding pseudonym has for the most part remained unquestioned by most people. Of course her publishers wanted the book to sell better, people have said. But underneath this rationalization is a whole set of problematic assumptions. The assumption that women aren’t as talented at writing as men. The assumption that they write a certain “kind” of book. The assumption that men will not read something written by a woman, or the assumption that somehow ten-year-old boys would see the name “Joanne” on the cover and refuse to buy it.
Of course, all those assumptions are false. (Since when do children pay that much attention to the author's name, anyway?) And J.K. Rowling is Joanne Rowling, and has become a billionaire author, so no harm done, right?
Wrong. Though there may not have been harm done personally to Jo–she succeeded in spite of the restrictions her publishers put on her–those assumptions are still around. And still powerful. And still hurting authors and others in the publishing industry. Merely because she succeeded does not mean that those restrictions are okay. They’re not.
And in fact, they’re still affecting Joanne Rowling. The Cuckoo’s Calling was a modest detective novel published in April which got good reviews but small sales. A misplaced confidence, a tweeted tip, and some automated text analysis programs later, and The Sunday Timesouted Jo as the pseudonymous author.
It’s not hard to fathom why Jo would have wanted to use a pen name. The lack of hype and interviews are a good enough start, and an honest, critical, yet fair response to her writing must have been additional reason. She has the right to be a bit angry with the lawyer who slipped her secret.
But what’s most revealing is the pen name she chose. Robert Galbraith. A man’s name. The updated FAQ on the book’s new website reads:
I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me, so a male pseudonym seemed a good idea. I am proud to say, though, that when I ‘unmasked’ myself to my editor David Shelley who had read and enjoyed ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ without realizing I wrote it, one of the first things he said was ‘I never would have thought a woman wrote that.’ Apparently I had successfully channeled my inner bloke!
And here is where it gets even more problematic. This whole interaction has assumptions about gender up the wazoo. It makes me frustrated that one of the world’s most successful authors felt that she had to hide her gender in order to retain her anonymity. It makes me sad that Jo felt victorious that she had “successfully channeled” her “inner bloke” when everyone accepted the pen name for 3 months. And it makes me angry that the editor of Little Brown, David Shelley, holds horribly essentialist assumptions about how women write differently from men, not to mention that he had the gall to say it.
Apparently not even celebrity authors are immune to backhanded sexist compliments.
And if such realities are par on course even for the richest woman in Britain, how does every other female writer fare, especially those starting out in the business? Not as well as men, most likely. (Unless they’re writing romance, where female authors are preferred by the industry.)
Back in 2003, the week of the release of The Order of the Phoenix, the then-unknown-to-me Tamora Pierce was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune about the Potter phenomenon, and what it meant to an author who had been writing YA fantasy for years previously. She praised the books, for their story as well as for the effect they've had on the industry. But one thing she had to say has stuck with me for ten years:
Her only quarrel with them is the fact that the main character is male. "It bugs me when women writers have male heroes," Pierce says. Enough male writers employ male heroes, she notes; surely the female writers can offer an alternative.
Tammy Pierce has always been a feminist--both in her writing, and in her life. She wrote Alanna, Daine, Kel, Aly, and Beka because they were the kind of characters she wanted to read when she was a girl. And she's empowered a generation with those characters.
Jo Rowling has also empowered a generation--unquestionably a larger generation. She has empowered them to read, and that is something powerful that cannot be denied. But has she empowered them to change society? To fight back against what is wrong, what is pervasive, what is patriarchal, what is unjust? Somehow, I don't think so. Though the fight against Voldemort is indeed powerful, it is the fight against casual but pervasive sexism that always spoke deeper to me. Though Harry James Potter is inspirational, it is Alanna of Trebond and Daine Sarrasri and Keladry of Mindelan and Alianne of Pirate's Swoop, and Beka Cooper who have all seemed real to me.
Some might say that Jo's adoption of a male pen name is just an isolated incident. But isolated incidents are often symptomatic of the society that creates them. We need to carefully examine this “isolated incident” and question what it says–about the publishing industry specifically, and society as a whole. It’s handy to blame David Shelley, or Little Brown, or Jo, or publishing in general. But assumptions don’t come from nowhere. They’re longstanding things. And in order to break them, we need to do some serious soul-searching.
In the end, Jo Rowling has written seven of the bestselling books in history with a male protagonist, under a gender-neutral (read: male) pen name. And now she takes a completely male pen name. She is not the feminist I want her to be. Maybe it's time I accept that. Or maybe it's time that I point out that this is a perfect example of just how internalized patriarchy can become.
Originally published, minus some additions, at Feminspire.com.
One of the best parts about being a grad student in the teaching of history is that I get to read a whole lot of fascinating books. One of the worst parts about being a grad student in the teaching of history is that I don’t actually have time to really read those books I find so fascinating. Especially with a reading list of around 80 titles, a lot of those books will get skimmed, or else what we call grad-school read (introduction, conclusion, a review or two). So here are some titles that I loved skimming, but I think you would love even more if you read them all the way through.
Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II
Alan Berube is not your traditional historian--that is, he didn’t get his PhD, pay his dues, and get a position at a university. Instead, he’s a longtime community organizer turned community historian. The book was inspired by an encounter with the letters of gay servicemen, and in the end encompassed the interviews of nearly a thousand gay veterans, both men and women, as well as official archives. The book is a good one, telling of the unusual opportunities that gay men and women encountered in the military, but also of the second war that they were forced to fight--a war against their own commanders, who as time went on became rigidly adherent to anti-homosexual agenda. There are so many wonderful and personal stories in here, and I wish I had time to read them all. You should. (And if you don't feel like reading, there is a documentary to watch.)
Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age
A fast-paced, well-written, and excellently researched story of a racialized Detroit criminal trial in 1925. Kevin Boyle takes the reader through the life of the main defendant, Ossian Sweet, laying out the world in which he lived and the struggles he went through. Sweet is a grandson of slaves who has worked hard to rise in the world through becoming a doctor and setting up a prosperous practice. Determined to claim his inheritance, he buys a house in a white neighborhood, and when surrounded by a mob, one man is killed. Boyle leads the reader through the ensuing contentious trial, sponsored by the NAACP and argued by famous lawyer Clarence Darrow. A gripping book with great characters and hard truths that reads more like a novel than a painstakingly-researched history. Well worth it in any aspect.
A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary, 1785-1812
This book has been on my list for awhile, so I'm so glad I finally got a chance to read it. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich provides the reader with excerpts from a seemingly mundane diary of a Maine frontier midwife. Together with town records and other documents of the period, she expands on the hard-to-read shorthand of the diary to show us its immense importance. When examined as a serious document rather than “the work of a woman,” it’s obvious it has huge implications. Whether on the subject of changing medical practices, domestic economy, rural debt, illegitimacy and accusations of rape, Ulrich does a wonderful job teasing out the subtleties and nuances within the diary to form a fantastic picture, not just of Martha Ballard’s life, but of a great portion of the residents of the early republic.
So go on, head to your local library/bookstore/Amazon. These are all accessible to non-historians. And if you don't like them, you can blame me. But I have a feeling you'll enjoy them.