Friday, December 18, 2015

Why Female Representation in Video Games is Important to Me

“Mommy, when are they coming out with a Gamegirl?”

I posed this question to my mom when I was six, holding my prized red Gameboy in my hand. I’d noticed the “boy” in the title and wondered why on Earth my new favorite device came with a gender—did that mean it wasn’t intended for me? I couldn’t understand the reasoning behind it at the time, except that it made me feel left out. My mom responded that she didn’t know, but that she hoped they would start selling a Gamegirl eventually.

The face of a gamer.

 The Internet is teeming with controversies surrounding women and the gaming world right now. Feminists who discuss video games, such as Anita Sarkeesian and her fantastic online web series Feminist Frequency, have been the target of harassment ranging from name-calling all the way to rape and death threats. This is all because these women critique the sexism and lack of female representation in many games and gaming communities, and members of said communities have responded defensively. Most famously, this issue spawned Gamergate, a movement that many claimed related to “ethics in [video-game-related] journalism” rather than displeasure with the people who have called attention to the misogyny omnipresent in gaming.

One way this has impacted my life is that if I make a public observation about, say, a female character in a game, or attitudes about female characters in games, defensive gamers like these pop up in my mentions on Twitter. It’s startling. When I mention, for instance, that I enjoyed getting to play as a woman in the recently released Fallout 4, I get attacked for privileging diversity over a game’s plot (as if those two aren’t interconnected), creating an issue when there isn’t one (there is), and being a “feminazi.” The impression that this all gives me is that these members of the gaming community seem to think I, as a woman, am invading their space. That I suddenly heard other women want to see women in their games and I jumped on the bandwagon because I like causing problems for people.

That’s laughable. I’ve been playing handheld and console games since 1999 (computer games since 1997), and I’ve been desperate for more female representation in them for just as long.

Disclaimer here: This blog post is meant to be personal. I am here to talk about why I, as an individual, want to see more women in games and my history with that issue. I do not speak for other women—other women’s opinions about this may be similar or dissimilar to mine, depending on who they are. This post isn’t meant to prove once and for all why more women should be featured in the gaming community. It’s just meant to show why this inclusion is so important to me.

Let’s head back to 1999, when I received my first games for my Gameboy Color. Originally, my sister and I were given Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue, but they were corrupted and unable to save, so I consider my first real Gameboy game to be Pokémon Yellow. I looked at the back of the box and saw that I was to play as a boy in a baseball cap. All right, whatever. But then I started the game, and here’s the first question I was asked: “What is your name?”

(From Green Rupee Gamer's blog)

 Before I continue on, let’s return to that earlier complaint I heard about people forcing diversity into games without any thought for the plot. I understood, and continue to understand today, why allowing for a female protagonist in a game does not always make narrative sense.

When I was nine, one of my favorite games became Kingdom Hearts. I felt like there was no better game on the planet. I played it every chance I got. And even though I desperately wanted a chance to play as the main female character, Kairi, I understood why I was playing with Sora. Shifting the narrative to focus on Kairi would have changed the entire plot, and thus the entire game. Playing as Sora didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the game, and I certainly didn’t hold it against him. I loved him. I still love that guy.

With Pokémon, however, they weren’t asking me, “What is the name of the character you’re playing as?” They asked, “What is your name?” It literally asks you to step into the shoes of the character on the screen, or in other words, to play as yourself in a fictional reality. To add to this, your character in Pokémon doesn’t speak, meaning that whatever personality they have is whatever you project onto them. It’s an invitation to be part of the game—an invitation that fell flat for me, a girl.

I could’ve typed in “Morgan,” since it’s a gender neutral name, but playing as some boy named Morgan didn’t feel like the same thing as playing as myself. Sometimes, I pretended I was a girl with short hair, but that illusion always shattered when the characters in the game referred to me as he/him. This was made even more difficult in the Legend of Zelda games, which also ask you for your name. The character onscreen is more than just a few tiny pixels, so it is very clear the character is male.

Also, your sister screams "BIG BROTHER!!!" at you about twelve times (from Samurai Nintendo)

Some people might be wondering why the hell I struggled to connect with a character so much if they weren’t the same gender as me. I still don’t have the complete answer for this—it’s something I felt as a kid, and I haven’t yet figured out the words to fully explain why I felt this way—but I will propose one idea. There’s a difference between liking a character and identifying as one.

Did I like male characters as a kid? Definitely. I adored Ash and Brock from the Pokémon anime, and Tuxedo Mask from Sailor Moon, and Simba from The Lion King. But because they were boys, I didn’t feel like I could be them. My ability to identify with characters regardless of gender (as well as race, sexuality, etc.) has become much more complex over the years, but whenever I play a video game there’s still some part of me that’s wondering, “Can I be a girl?” That’s partially related to that old feeling coming aflame again, and partially a result of my awareness that women are represented in video games far less often than men are, and I find the message that exclusion sends to be hurtful.

Anyway, back to Pokémon. Soon after my first journey into the virtual Pokémon world (RIP to my level 100 Tentacruel from Pokémon Yellow), Nintendo announced Pokémon Crystal, a new Pokémon game. Well, not exactly new—it would take place in the same region as Silver and Gold (I’d played Gold by this point as well), and would have more or less the same plot and kinds of Pokémon you could catch. Except that this time, you could play as a girl.


 I absolutely lost my shit. Ironically, I got so excited that I created an entire persona and backstory for her (she was Arina, the twin sister of my real-life sister’s version of her, named Lucy), so I didn’t end up self-inserting myself the first time around. But the point was, I could if I wanted to. The point was, if I typed in “Morgan,” I could easily see the character as myself if I changed clothes and dyed my hair blue. No more walking around the Johto region looking desperately at all the female sprites and wishing I could switch places with them. Arina was someone I felt like could be me.

From that point on, self-insert games in which you couldn’t choose your gender felt like a disappointment, even if I enjoyed every other aspect of the game. I actually ended up liking Legend of Zelda games more than Pokémon (and still do), but it continues to feel weird to type in my name when this obviously male person is staring back at me. To Nintendo’s credit, they just announced a female version of Link named Linkle, whose name makes me thankful that you get to choose your own in Legend of Zelda games. Maybe she’ll be an option in future Legend of Zelda adventure-game titles?

Because of this lack of female representation, I also never expected that a game would exist in which you had to play as a woman. I figured if you weren’t given an option, you were a man. I still remember how I gasped the first time I played Portal and happened to catch what my character looked like through one of my portals while playing. It’s a first-person game, so I’d played for about an hour already assuming my character was male. I froze for a second, turned to the friend who was showing me the game and went, “Wait. I’m a girl? I’m a girl?” I seriously wanted to cry.

So, this isn’t something I’ve recently noticed and starting having a problem with. Female representation in games has been a concern of mine since before I’d ever heard of feminism.

To finish off this post, I will provide a sample of what gender demographics have looked like in gaming throughout my childhood up until now. Below is a photo of most of the games in my house. I haven’t played all of them, as they’re a combination of games belonging to me and to my fiancé. Underneath that is the gender of the character(s) you play as in each game. I will be skipping repeat games, such as the multiples of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II. Note that almost every title with the description “option between male and female” is developed by the same company, Bethesda Softworks. I will also include a couple of games downloaded onto consoles but that we don’t have cases for.

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 – male
Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 – male (with one female exception if you play Birth by Sleep)
The Last of Us – male (you play briefly as a female at one point)
Fallout 4 – option between male and female
Rock Band 4 – option between male and female
Forza 5 – male
The Elder Scrolls Online – option between male and female
Oblivion – option between male and female
Skyrim – option between male and female
Viva Piñata – no gender
Left 4 Dead 2 – option between premade characters (3 males and 1 female)
Halo Reach – male (except online, where you have the option between male and female)
Halo 3 – male (except online, where you have the option between male and female)
Halo 4 – male (except online, where you have the option between male and female)
Fable II – option between male and female
Fable III – option between male and female
Gears of War – male
Bioshock – male
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – male
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – switch back and forth between premade characters (2 males and 1 female)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – male
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – male
Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories – male
The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker – male
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess – male
Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7 – switch back and forth between 200 premade male and female characters
Super Smash Brothers Brawl option between premade characters (28 male, 6 female, and 6 of unknown gender)
Mario Kart Wii – option between premade characters (16 male, 7 female, and 1 of unknown gender)
Halo 5 (not pictured) – male if you’re playing solo (there are female options if playing online main story/online multiplayer)
Grand Theft Auto V (not pictured) – male (except online, where you have the option between male and female)
Portal (not pictured) – female
Portal 2 (not pictured) – female

Out of 32 games, 17 of them (which you might notice is more than half) require you to play as male for either the entire game or the majority of it. Of those 17, 2 include sections where you can play as women (Ellie from The Last of Us and Aqua from Birth by Sleep) and 5 only let you play as women under certain circumstances, mostly having to do with online multiplayer (Halo Reach, Halo 3, Halo 4, Halo 5 and Grand Theft Auto V). 12 allow you to choose. Of those 12, 4 provide you with more male character options than female ones (Left 4 Dead 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Super Smash Brothers Brawl, and Mario Kart Wii. The astute will notice that Super Smash Brothers Brawl provides just as many characters of unknown gender as female ones). 2 require you to play as female, and 1 doesn’t specify a gender.

This is coming from a household where both gamers who live there prefer to play as women, meaning we’re more likely to pick up progressive games, so this is a very generous list.

Again, I can’t speak for every woman. There are probably plenty of women out there who don’t care about identifying with the main character or having the main character’s gender match their own. I’m just here to share my story, explain why it’s important to me, and emphasize why this is an issue I will continue to talk about. In the end, it all comes down to exactly how I felt about my Gameboy when I was six: left out.


Friday, November 13, 2015

Not Queer Enough For You? On Gatekeeping in the LGBTQ Community

This is long, but it’s very important to me. Bear with me.

As some of you know, last month I made a post on Twitter and Instagram on October 11, National Coming Out Day. It explicitly stated that I am demisexual (I’ll explain what this means further down) and pansexual (meaning I can be attracted to any gender). I’d posted passively about my sexuality a few times before, but this was the first time I was unambiguously clear about it.

Coming out online was more terrifying than I expected. I’m someone who is very true to myself and proud of being open about all aspects of my identity, so I thought coming out wouldn’t make me too nervous. I was wrong.

I’ve been out to myself for almost a year, but it took me until the past couple of months to post anywhere about it. Part of the reason for that is that I was worried I didn’t “count.” I thought people wouldn’t believe I was who I said I was unless I’d dated a woman, rather than just had a crush on one. But slowly, I gained confidence. I found encouragement from members of the community, both in my physical life and online. “If you’ve had romantic/and or sexual feelings for multiple genders, you’re welcome as a member of the queer community,” they said. I fit that bill, so I breathed easier.

Needless to say, coming out puts you in a vulnerable position. I knew that beforehand, and I certainly felt that after I’d pushed it out into the world. I reminded myself that any negative feedback I received would probably be from homophobic people, anyway, who I didn’t need to concern myself with.

I definitely didn’t expect negative feedback from a fellow member of the LGBTQ community.

*flag waves menacingly*

A couple of days later, I received a message from an old friend who is part of the community. Here’s a direct quote from it: “From what I’ve read, it feels like you fall more into the ally/support category than a member…It’s one thing to SAY you’re pansexual, demisexual, gay, bi, and another to actually be in it…Being emotionally, sexually, physically intimate with someone of the same sex, someone who has no sex, someone who is intersex whatever, it’s one thing to say you’d be okay with it or open to it and another to actually do it.”

Note: the purpose of this blog post is not to senselessly bash this person. Part of why this message devastated me so much is because this person is an old family friend, someone I’ve enjoyed spending time with and discussing mutual interests with. Maybe she has no idea what kind of line she crossed. But it represents a larger problem in the LGBTQ community, so I feel that it’s important to talk about.

Now. The message. There are so many hurtful, problematic elements to this.

First of all, this person did not come equipped with some magical list of everyone I’d ever been attracted to and everyone I’d ever dated. Aside from a brief conversation about my engagement, I hadn’t spoken to this person in almost two years. I’d never spoken to her about my sexuality in my life. She only knew the genders of two of my previous partners, who were both male. Apparently, she believed that this knowledge, along with “what she’d read” (she was referring to articles I’d posted related to the LGBTQ community) was enough to justify her assumptions about my sexuality. This was so wildly presumptuous and insensitive that I couldn’t believe I was reading it.

Secondly, it’s ironic that this person approached me with my ignorance about queerness in mind, because in her message, she demonstrated that she has no idea what demisexuality is. Demisexuality has nothing to do with what gender or genders you’re attracted to. Demisexuality is part of the asexual spectrum, which encompasses people who do not experience sexual attraction often, or who do not experience it at all.

I can only experience sexual attraction to someone who I already have an emotional bond with. Before I knew there was a word for demisexuality, I defined it as, “I can only have sexual feelings for already-established friends.” This doesn’t mean I feel sexually attracted to someone and choose to abstain from sex until I trust them—this means I can’t feel anything sexual towards them at all if we don’t know each other well. I’ve never seen someone walking down the street, or a picture of someone I’ve never met, and thought, “I’d bang that.” I can’t relate to that. In fact, I’ve never been sexually attracted to someone before knowing them for at least a year first.

It is perfectly possible for a woman who is only interested in men or a man who is only interested in women to be demisexual. I’ve been experiencing demisexuality since puberty started, thanks.

Another problem was that she assumed my fiancé is a man.

My fiancé, Danny, is neither male nor female, but nonbinary. They use they/them pronouns rather than he/him or she/her. This is how Danny describes their gender in their own words: “I know I have broad shoulders, thick eyebrows, a beard, and other ‘masculine’ crap, but I’m not a man. Equally, I’m not a woman. I’m nonbinary, simple as that.”*

Also the cutest nonbinary person you ever did see.

If I were to say to myself, “I don’t count as queer because most people assume my partner is a man,” I would be invalidating Danny’s gender. People might insist we have “passing privilege,” meaning people can see us walking down the street together and not scoff at it. But the idea of “passing privilege” is a long-standing biphobic concept, or, for those who don’t know what biphobic means, discriminatory against people who are not strictly straight or gay. Beyond that, how exactly is it a “privilege” for Danny to get misgendered constantly?

I can’t use Danny’s pronouns in most normal conversations because many people a) have no idea some people use they/them as pronouns or that people can be neither male nor female, or b) think nonbinary is a “fake” identity that originated on tumblr (it didn’t). To those latter people, I’d recommend listening to an actual nonbinary person’s experiences regarding their gender before jumping to conclusions like that.

Anyway, here’s what happens every time I talk to one of these people about Danny: “My fiancé studied abroad in London and I joined my fiancé there in April. Oh what does Danny study? Danny studies English, and Danny minors in Creative Writing. Th…*mumbles* used to minor in Computer Science but Danny decided to switch over.”

Good thing “fiancé” and “Danny” are both words I enjoy using. But still, I walk away from these conversations wondering if anyone noticed how ridiculous I sounded because I was trying to avoid using any pronouns.

Some might ask, why not just use “he” to make it easier? Because that feels wrong and invalidates Danny’s actual gender. It feels like I’m talking about someone who isn’t Danny, because the Danny I know isn’t a man. If you’re straight and cisgender (meaning not transgender) and/or can’t imagine what this is like, think if someone said you had to refer to your girlfriend as a “he,” or your boyfriend as a “she.” It would feel wrong, wouldn’t it? Like you’re completely misrepresenting the person you love.

It’s even worse when people make references to Danny’s “maleness.” This sometimes happens in the context of someone speaking about our relationship. A lot of these statements are meant as compliments, but they end up making us both uncomfortable because they make incorrect assumptions about Danny’s gender. Examples include:

“As long as you’ve got your man by your side, you’ll be fine!”

“Don’t you just love a man who can do [x activity]?”

“We should have a girl’s day, no boys. Sorry Danny!”

“I know you’re not taking your husband’s last name, but the kids will have his name, right?”

“I know you’re an independent woman and all, but when it comes down to it, I’m sure you’ll look to your husband to financially support you when the kids come along.”

Sexism aside, this makes me want to scream every day, “WHAT MAN? I DON’T HAVE ONE OF THOSE.” Which wouldn’t be entirely fair, since most of these people have no clue they’re saying anything harmful. Society is mostly to blame for reinforcing the idea that you can only be a man or a woman, that someone is a man if they look a certain way, that a straight relationship is the default, etc.

The point of all this is, is this not a queer experience? Is this not a struggle against heteronormativity? Are these not microaggressions that make daily life more difficult?

Luckily, the person who sent me the message backed off a little after I mentioned Danny’s gender (although she didn’t back off entirely, and I wish she had). She said she’d messaged me out of concern that I was jumping on the “fashionable LGBT bandwagon.”

And here’s where I talk about gatekeeping.

If I had only ever dated men, and had only experienced romantic and/or sexual attraction to people who aren’t men without dating them, this would not have been enough for the person who messaged me. Despite my crushes on women and nonbinary people, I wouldn’t have “counted.” A lot of people in the community hold this opinion, that if you’re not “queer enough,” any queer feelings you’ve had don’t matter. This is damaging and needs to stop.

Can you imagine if people held this opinion about straight people? I have a friend who, last she told me, is confidently straight but has never been with anyone. Does that give me the right to tell her all her attractions to men have been invalid because she hasn’t been with any of them?

Gatekeeping, or barring people from a community because they don’t meet some arbitrary criteria, is unnecessary and harmful. If someone knows the definition of pansexual and feels it matches them best, then they are pansexual. They might stick to that identity or later realize that a different one fits them better. Regardless, if they say they’re pansexual, believe them. No one understands their sexual and romantic feelings better than they do.

As for this “fashionable LGBT bandwagon” nonsense...

Look how fashionable!!! (Source; statistics are as of 2013)

I disagree that people are changing how they identify themselves because of a trend. Yes, more people are coming out nowadays. There are also more resources now and there is more acceptance of LGBTQ people than there used to be. Maybe more people are coming out now because the environment is safer. Maybe more people are coming out because they feel encouraged to be open to what they feel rather than assume they’re straight because it’s the default. “Straight until proven gay” is itself, I argue, a homophobic mindset. It keeps LGBT identities locked in place as “alternative,” as “other.”

TL;DR: Don’t assume anyone’s sexuality. Don’t assume anyone’s gender. Don’t lecture someone about whether or not they belong in a community. And definitely, definitely don’t act like you understand someone better than they understand themselves.


*I had Danny read this whole post for accuracy before I made it public.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

In Defense of Miley's Nudity

Miley Cyrus is a hot topic these days. Makes sense--she draws attention to herself, she behaves in a lot of controversial ways, and she's no stranger to making bold statements. She also makes a lot of people angry.

People like to mention her to me because I worked with her, whether they're strangers on the Internet or various people I interact with in my regular life. Often, they will make some negative remark about Miley, perhaps to see how I will react or expecting me to agree.

Though I support much of what Miley does, I don't endorse all of it. The biggest improvements she could stand to make involve educating herself about race, the role racism plays in society, and how she has contributed to it. She's participated in a lot of harmful cultural appropriation. The way she responded to Nicki Minaj's criticism of the VMA's choice to omit "Anaconda" from the Video of the Year lineup demonstrated ignorance and irresponsibility as a feminist. Since Miley wants to fight so hard against sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, she should add racism to that list and recognize how all of these things can overlap.

But when people bash Miley in front of me, it is never about this. It's always stuff like, "Good thing you don't dress like her!" and "You wouldn't associate with her now, right, with her waving her vag all over the place?"

This makes me so uncomfortable.

The only concern I have with this picture is, "Isn't she cold??"

First of all, buried in those statements is the implicit understanding that I'm better than Miley because of the lifestyle I've chosen. It's a backhanded way of giving me approval for not showing too much skin, staying away from drugs and parties, going to college, etc. There's nothing inherently superior about those things, though. They just reflect my personality, as Miley's behaviors and modes of self-expression reflect hers.

Unfortunately, I'm very familiar with getting this kind of attitude from people. In high school, I had an unusual group of friends. We were a bunch of misfits who didn't share much in common beyond a few interests and what people might call "troubled" emotional lives. I was the academic kid in the group, the one who liked to read, cared about her grades, and planned on college.

Every so often, an adult, such as a teacher or another student's parent, would say to me, "Wait, you're friends with them?'re so smart/put-together/pleasant!"

If they thought I was put-together, well, I'm glad the ruse was working. But how was I supposed to react to this? People decades older than me who I often admired fueled my compliments by stomping all over my friends first. I had real reasons to care about my friends. I didn't view them as being beneath me or undeserving of my attention, as others seemed to think I should. I just viewed them as different. So these comments made me feel gross.

I feel similarly sick when people speak to me about Miley in this way, like I narrowly avoided her satanic influence or something. Here's another thing, though: it's not just that I dislike people insulting someone I used to work with. I also actively support much of Miley's exploits. Yes, including the way she parades around the world half-naked.

"Don't worry, Miley, I'll distract the haters with my questionable hairstyle."

It's easy to feel like people in our culture are terrified of naked human bodies, especially what many people think of as "female" bodies (bodies with breasts and/or vaginas aren't inherently female, since people who identify as male or nonbinary can have breasts and/or vaginas, too). A lot of the time, they automatically equate bodies with sex, and sex with indecency/sin/teenage pregnancy/take your pick. When they see a naked body, they shield their eyes. They condemn the naked body, this thing that everyone has, as inappropriate. Sometimes something to be ashamed of.

My question is, why? The only reason I can see for covering your eyes around a naked person is if they've asked you to look away because they're not comfortable with you seeing their body (which should always be honored). But if they're letting it all hang out there on purpose, who cares? Treat them like you would any clothed person. If you can wrap your mind around that, it becomes so much less awkward and no longer taboo.

When traveling in England earlier this year, I witnessed about fifty naked people on bicycles zooming down the streets of Canterbury. My first impulse was to avert my eyes, like some others were doing, but instead, I reminded myself that they were just bodies. Nothing to be afraid of. So I watched them on purpose. The more I looked at their bodies, the more normal they seemed. It legitimately didn't bother me that I was surrounded by all these naked people. It was awesome.

I feel like Miley is challenging this social norm, and I think she's doing it on purpose. She knows how weird people get around nudity and she's decided it's bullshit. I loved watching her on Jimmy Kimmel recently because while she's trying to continue with the show, Kimmel can't get over how much of her breasts are showing. He comes off as childish. She just treats her exposed breasts like a normal thing, which is what they should be.

I scrolled past this picture earlier and found it no more offensive than someone's beach selfie.

This means a lot to me personally because of how many years I spent ashamed of my body. Once puberty hit, I hid myself in long pants and oversized sweaters because I didn't like how I looked. I wasn't comfortable in my skin, and I specifically hated my arms, stomach, and thighs. Skirts, shorts, and dresses were out of the question unless I wore tights and a jacket. For visits to the beach, I donned a one-piece bathing suit that I quickly covered with a T-shirt and shorts. I was damn stubborn about it, too. I lived in Southern California, for crying out loud, and I always refused to take off my sweater, no matter how hot I was.

Women, or people perceived as women, are not helped through this process by school dress codes. My shame was encouraged by dress codes proclaiming that tank tops and skirts higher than the knee would sexually arouse my male peers and "give people the wrong idea." Not only was I uncomfortable with showing my body because of how it looked, but I also thought, "I don't want to seem like one of those types of girls. I want people to think I'm dignified. I don't want people to think I'm a slut."

Dress codes were teaching me that certain parts of my body were wrong. They were teaching me to look down on other girls who chose to show those parts of themselves, to see them as undignified, to assume that these girls didn't respect themselves. Dress codes were teaching me that as long as I was not like them, as long as I was a good girl and covered myself, people would approve of me, and I would be allowed to approve of myself.

Fast-forward to now. Around the time college started, I tried shorts without tights and dresses without jackets. Last year, I bought my first crop top, and now I own several. Every time I walk outside wearing a crop top and shorts, like I did today, I feel so empowered. I feel proud of my body and excited to show it off. That doesn't mean I'm comfortable walking around nude--I'm personally too modest for that--but I will champion and respect anyone who wants to do so. I admire people, like Miley, who can do that.

I never looked this happy in high school pictures.

So yeah, come to me with your complaints about Miley's cultural appropriation problem. I will agree with you. But please don't gripe about how naked she is and expect me to nod my head along with you. As far as I'm concerned, Miley can dress however the hell she wants. I hope we as a society eventually reach a point where the naked human body is no longer stigmatized and people aren't encouraged to be ashamed of them.


Saturday, September 5, 2015

"How Do I Talk To Teenagers?" You're Already Asking The Wrong Question

They said, "All teenagers scare the living shit out of me!!" - My Chemical Romance, "Teenagers"

I primarily write YA fiction. There's this misconception that writing for teenagers means you have to dumb your writing down. You know, pluck all the "big" words out of your prose because teenagers couldn't possibly understand them. Make sure your themes aren't too complicated, because those selfie-stick-toting high schoolers won't get it. Insert as many pop culture references as you can, because young adults can't relate to anything else.

Like that My Immortal story. That was popular with kids, right?
That paragraph might have been dripping with sarcasm, but even still, it felt gross to write. Mostly because a lot of people actually hold these patronizing viewpoints and often don't understand why they're a problem. Sometime during adulthood, they developed the unfortunate habit of perceiving teenagers as this alien demographic with their own indecipherable language and set of behaviors.

Hey, wow, maybe talk to teenagers like they're regular people. Because they are.

I think one reason a lot of people freeze up when it comes to talking to teenagers is because they don't remember being a teenager well enough. They see how far they've come emotionally and intellectually and, as a result, the people they were as teenagers seem juvenile, stupid, annoying, out-of-control, etc. in comparison. In other words, they don't give their teenage selves enough credit. It's easy enough to do--I only stopped being a teenager three years ago and I do it sometimes.

But when you start applying your critical attitude toward your teenage self to teenagers in general, you create a blind spot in your empathy. You stop listening to them. And a lot of people think they're justified in doing so, because they're "older" and have "more experience" and are "more mature." Only the first of those three is true every time.

Maybe I'm at a weird advantage because of my strangely vivid memory. I remember an astounding amount of detail about my 4th birthday party--not because someone repeated it to me later, but because I retained it. I remember the miniature train my parents rented for kids to ride on, and actors dressed as Prince Charming and Cinderella arriving at my house with an inexplicable pet ferret (which scratched me), and how embarrassed I felt when the teacup-patterned dress someone gifted me was too big. I also remember being 5 and thinking, after some adult had spoken condescendingly to me, "I will never forget what being five feels like."

"Mom, this is Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. Not that ego and id stuff, dumbass."
On top of that, my brain tends to categorize my memories according to age and year, an easy task since I was born in January (e.g. age 12 always = 2005, age 6 always = 1999, etc.). Ask me about pretty much any significant memory I have, as well as some insignificant ones, and I can name how old I was/the year. When did I get into Harry Potter? Age 8/2001. When was my first kiss? Age 14/2007. When did I get upset about leaving my friends' house and say the word "bam," which my dad misheard as "damn," leading to a heated conversation about where I'd heard that word until my dad realized I was quoting something Prince Eric said in The Little Mermaid? Age 5/1998.

For some reason, it took me a while to figure out everyone's memory doesn't work this way. I was floored when I heard a friend in his late teens say he "couldn't remember anything before age ten." I'm similarly surprised when people say things like, "The kid said he was like, 8, or 12. Same difference."

Uh no? Half the time, you'll say a 7-year-old is 7 and they'll be pissed you didn't specify that they're actually 7-and-three-quarters, thanks. You might roll your eyes at that or think it's cute, but honestly, that stuff matters to kids. The year between, say, ages 7 and 8 is enormous because 7 years has made up their entire life so far. It was especially important to me, since I've always looked younger than I am. And I knew that if someone mistook me for being 6 when I was actually 8, I wouldn't be taken as seriously (yes, kids pick up on that).

The real danger this creates is people misremembering how old they were when they were exposed to something, which leads to unnecessary censorship in the name of "saving the children." I'll ask people how old they were when they started swearing (or their peers started swearing), and they'll say, "I dunno. 14? 15?"

Unless you were unusually sheltered, you're a few years off the mark. I regularly heard peers swear around me at age 11 because, like a lot of people, I went to public middle school. If you grew up in a household where adults didn't worry too much about swearing around kids, you were exposed to it at an even younger age. So there's no need to freak out when the word "fuck" appears several times in a YA novel.

Same goes for sexual urges. They start early. People seem to forget that at the very beginning of puberty, your sexual urges aren't normally directed at anyone. They just kind of exist and you figure out why they're there, what to do about it, etc. But when a lot of people think "sex," they think "with someone else," something a child is definitely not ready for. They think that means young people need to be sheltered from even the idea of sex in a variety of ways, which is one reason sex in the media is more taboo than violence, and why that horribly ineffective thing called "abstinence-only education" exists.

Relax, people. I started having sexual urges at, again, age 11, but I wasn't on the hunt for a sexual partner. In fact, I felt no desire to do that for another six years. So when you're afraid to talk to a 13-year-old about sex because you're worried you'll "introduce something they're not ready for," you're flat-out wrong. They've felt these things already, and they'd benefit a lot more from respectful answers to their questions than being told they're not old enough to be feeling what they're feeling yet. Plus, there's the Internet. They've probably Googled it.

"I have no idea what a vagina is and it should stay that way" - a 16-yr-old according to abstinence-only educators, probably
With all this in mind, I'm always confused by people who treat YA literature like this lesser form of art meant for brains that can't handle anything too intellectual or mature. I once suggested to someone in a writing workshop that her novel read more like a YA story than an adult one. She said something like, "Oh, no, it's way too hardcore and bloody for teenagers." Really? Have you read The Hunger Games? Or, like, turned on a television? You know Spongebob regularly explodes into multiple pieces on his show aimed at little kids, right?

There's another element to this: too many people posit that having more life experience means that their experiences are more valid, better informed, superior to a teenager's, etc. In reality, there are millions of teenagers who have experienced something that you, hypothetical adult, have not.

Did you grow up with married, heterosexual, cisgender parents? Meet the kids who grew up in two households because their parents divorced, or who had one or more gender nonconforming parents, or who had two moms. Did you spend your adolescence in a suburb in Florida? Meet the kids who called NYC their playground, who went camping every weekend in Colorado, who went through grade school in Egypt, who bounced from place to place and never had a real hometown. Teens scroll through Facebook, go to Disneyland, start their own gardens, fight in wars, involve themselves with politics. Name any experience that isn't, I don't know, "turned 85," and some teenager, somewhere, has done it.

If you want to talk to teenagers, respect them as you would respect any human being. Don't assume they're inferior to you or brush off what they say because of their age. See what you can learn from them. They're not a mystery and they're certainly nothing to be scared of.


Monday, July 20, 2015

Writer's Block Exists, But Not in the Way You Think

It's pretty common knowledge that writers (or any other type of artist) need a kick in the pants every so often, and usually that kick needs to come from themselves. Artists are great at getting themselves into creative ruts and flailing helplessly when they realize there's no easy way out. And it can be so tempting to stay in that rut, because while there, you have no artistic responsibilities and can just hang out.

I'll just be down here.

But if you stay in the rut for too long, you realize it's boring as hell. Not being expected to do anything can make you feel useless. If you're an artist who invests a lot of their identity in said art, it can also lead to a slight existential crisis à la, "Why am I even on this planet if I'm not doing [x]?"

This year, I've spent a lot more time in creative ruts than I usually do. I'm no stranger to these ruts, of course, and I don't think any artist is. But the ruts of 2015 proved a lot harder to get out of, and, thanks to a number of circumstances, my willpower was no match for how steep they were.

Why am I even calling these ruts? Why am I not calling it writer's block? Because I don't think writer's block exists, or at least, it doesn't exist in the way most people seem to understand it. When I hear people complain about writer's block, it often comes in the form of, "I can't think of anything to write about. I'm sitting there and nothing is coming out."

Oh, something could come out, all right. All you have to do is think of words and type them onto the page, or scribble them into your notebook or napkin or stone tablet or whatever you use. Your problem is that nothing good is coming out.

Well, duh. That's, like, 75% of writing a first draft. Like I've said before, writing involves wading through a lot of shit before you can get to the good stuff. It's about not judging yourself and trusting that you will be able to look at it with fresh eyes later, to clean up the language and cut out entire sections that aren't working. It's about not being afraid of your own failure because nobody gets it right the first time.

To me, writer's block is less about your creative abilities no longer working and more about some paralyzing fear holding you back from writing at all. It is incredibly hard to push through this, and sometimes, you have a lot working against you. A major event could disrupt your life, whether it's a positive or negative one; you could be battling mental illness; your living conditions might make it more difficult or outright impossible for you to work on your art. But there's a fine line between giving yourself a break because of an obstacle and not pushing yourself to work when you know enough pushing would get you where you need to be.

Clearly, I am still struggling to find this line.

As many of you know, I'm writing a YA fantasy series meant to be four books long. I've written books one, two, and three, but shortly after finishing the third, I took a step back. I didn't want to start book four until I was fairly satisfied with the first three. Book one was polished thanks to a significant rewrite I undertook with it after becoming more familiar with the publishing industry. I was happy with book three, since it was my most recent work and written by a much more mature author than the other two.

But book two was a total mess. So, last year,  I promised myself I would revise the thing before drafting the final book in the series.

I'd been avoiding revising book two for a while, and only recently did I start thinking about why that was. Drafting it had been a messy process. I'd stumbled through the first ten chapters with no idea how to organize it, the last section was plagued with overblown tangents, the main plot got lost in a tangle of subplots. But I also wrote that book during the most difficult emotional period of my life. As a result, the book includes some of my best writing, but also made me not want to look at it.

Re-reading the first several chapters, I had no patience for the miserable kid who'd written the original draft (the me of several years ago). I called her stupid and annoying, cursed her for the monstrosity she'd left me with, and laughed at all her amateur mistakes. Revising her prose proved exhausting, which made it easy to slip into a rut. At some point, I tumbled into the rut and stayed there.

To be fair to myself, I've been up against a lot this year. My last semester of college took a toll on me. I was dealing with a school newspaper fiasco that left me disillusioned with my university and with universities in general. My significant other was studying abroad, and the separation was, to put it mildly, hard. I was teaching a class and my mental health was suffering worse than it ever had during college. Throughout that last semester, I revised book two in small bursts, but not in any sustainable way.

Then I graduated and went to Europe for two months, as my Instagram account can attest to. It was understandable that I didn't revise during this period, since 1) I had no time and 2) I had nowhere to go. Most of my time in Europe was either spent at my significant other's flat in London, which housed like seven other people and not very many rooms, or in an AirBnB, someone else's house. I wasn't about to demand a room I could revise in for two hours every night. Through all of this, I promised myself I would start revising as soon as I got home.

Guess what didn't happen.

We arrived home super jet lagged and not wanting to do anything but laze around the house. I could barely find the energy to move. It's fine, I told myself. The family trip to Alaska is soon. You'll start revising there. Then we got there for our two-week vacation and I found myself repeating the same process every day. I'd announce that I was "planning to edit" later, occupy myself with other, less demanding tasks, and become more and more anxious as the day's hours dwindled. The closer I got to midnight, the more excuses built up. I'll do it in an hour. Okay, half hour. Actually, I can't tonight. I need to spend more time with my siblings. Or I'll just finish this quest in this video game. Tonight isn't a good night because--

These weren't valid excuses anymore. I was stuck in the rut. I'd been there for so much longer than I was used to and couldn't figure out how to get myself out of it. Worse than that, I started to tear myself apart for continually succumbing to whatever was stopping me. I criticized myself every day for it. It didn't exactly do wonders for my self-esteem.

Then one day during our trip, we visited a rocky beach. I was climbing out to one of the larger rocks that was more difficult to reach, since it was further out in the water than the others. I made it there without a scratch, despite the slippery stones I had to step on and the incoming tide. Boy was I proud of myself for being a badass and succeeding in an outdoorsy activity that made me nervous. I was still celebrating on my way back to the beach when I slipped on the barnacle-encrusted rock. I landed right on my butt and earned a cut on my palm, which would later bruise.

Asshole barnacles.

It was a shallow cut that barely broke the skin. It wasn't even that big, and there wasn't much blood. But what did I do? I, a 22-year-old woman who has always had a low pain tolerance, started crying.

I didn't cry in front of anyone who wasn't understanding (just my significant other, who is very pro-feel-what-you-feel), but still, I felt humiliated. I'm not very patient with myself when it comes to having an emotional reaction I don't consider reasonable. If I'd had it my way, I would have jumped back up all Mercutio-like and said, "Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch!" But I cried, which definitely did not match the badass-outdoorsy-warrior mood I'd been indulging in a moment before. I felt ashamed.

This, of all things, made me remember why I was writing my YA fantasy in the first place.

My YA fantasy's main character has been thrust into a combat situation that doesn't match her personality at all. She, like me, is prone to crying for every reason under the sun, whether it be physical pain, interpersonal, frustration, anger, etc. Her best friend is a much more conventional warrior, and tears from her are pretty rare.

But there's a reason my main character has the spotlight instead of her friend. I want to show her fighting for her life through tears. I want her emotional outbursts to fuel her rather than indicate weakness. Through these books, I want to show people that emotion can lend us enormous strength though it may seem to hinder us. I am working against our culture's criticisms of "excessive" emotion and how it encourages people to suppress it. I especially want teenagers of all genders to read these books and feel validated when they cry. I want them to see crying as a source of power the way I couldn't as a teenager.

There is no way I'm gonna be able to do that unless I sit down and revise book two, damn it.

And you know what? When I got back to it, I thanked my younger self. Even though she didn't really know what she was doing, she'd fought through the muck to get words down during the hardest time of her life. Sure, it's a lot to revise. But without her, I wouldn't have anything to revise at all. She stayed out of her rut long enough to write this craptastic first draft. I am so proud of her.

So it took an assful of barnacles to get me out of my rut this time. Well, it didn't get me out on its own. It just threw down a rope. It still took me a few days to haul myself out of there and get down to business. Now, finally, I am revising again, and I feel much more comfortable with myself. I feel I'm doing good, important work that I hope will someday benefit other people.

Writer's block may be tough to deal with, but thinking about it in terms of fear instead of a short supply of creativity gives me a lot more control over how I handle it. I'm always better when I'm working on my craft, and I'm happy to be back on board.

If you have any methods for getting yourselves out of artistic ruts, let me know in the comments. I could sure use more ideas.