On Heroines

(Spoiler Warnings Various)

I was very fortunate that, growing up, I was able to find books in which girls were the protagonists, the chosen, the ones who saved their homes or their worlds. Particular thanks to Tamora Pierce, who practically codified this as a subgenre, but the truth is that between my school’s surprisingly large collection, given the number of students, and the vast resources of the New York Public Library, my books were full of people like me.

Where I was more lacking in representation was in films, although I never thought it was an issue. Sure, I had some complaints — Leia is undoubtedly awesome, but I wanted to wield a lightsaber goddamnit — but for the most part I accepted that the protagonists of my favorite movies were mostly male. Or that even if the main character was a woman, she would be surrounded primarily by men.

I didn’t think it was a problem.

Then, I learned I could have something different.

Continue reading

Year in Review III

The concluding post to my review of books read in 2016. See Part I for pretty charts and Part II for boring methodology.

Major Takeaways

Let’s review the most significant conclusions from Part I:

  • I read a lot of women
  • I don’t read a lot of nonwhite authors
  • I don’t read a lot of books with LGBTQ+ authors or characters

And let’s also recall the following chart, which demonstrates my clear and obvious preference for female characters written by female authors:

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Female Bias

Of the 110 books I read last year, 85 were written by women and 25 were written by men. However, once I account for series books written by the same author, I am left with 76 individual authors, of whom 51 are female (67%) and 24 are male (33%).

Considering that I make a deliberate effort to seek out work by female authors, I’m not at all surprised to see that they make up a majority percentage of my reading material. In fact, I almost expected the percentage of female authors to be higher. I can think of one possible reason why that was not the case… Continue reading

Year in Review I

Don’t worry, this isn’t another retrospective on how much this year sucked (though it did). I’m actually here to take a look at the books I read over the past year and look at some of the demographics of their authors and main characters.

Yes, I am voluntarily doing stats.

Nothing complicated, just some percentages. Maybe a pie chart. But I figure these sorts of conversations (I’ll elaborate in just a moment) are best had with actual numbers attached.

“I only read good books”

This idea has been in my head for a while; every so often someone brings up diversity in reading habits and the internet explodes with the same arguments. “I don’t care if the author is male or female or black or white or purple, if it’s a good book I’ll read it”. (Never mind that the majority of the time this approach results in a reading list full of white men). Right around the time that I started working, r/fantasy provided me with another such conversation, with all the predictable attendant criticisms.

I feel very strongly that if one wants to cultivate a diversity of perspectives in their reading list, one has to deliberately counteract the systematic bias that is present in the publishing industry. But while I talk the talk, do I walk the walk? I have long made a deliberate effort to seek out female authors, but how successful was I really? And what about other measures of diversity, like race or identity/orientation?

The Project

In brief: I made a spreadsheet of all the books I read in 2016 and looked at the demographics of the authors and the main characters. How many women? How many men? How many nonwhite authors or characters? And so on. If you’re interested in the details, there will be another post breaking down my methods (and my methodological problems), and another discussing interpretations, implications and next steps for 2017. For now, I’ll just present the basic results and a pretty chart or two… Continue reading

Real Talk Time

Real talk time: I’m not in a super happy place right now.

No, there’s nothing wrong. Nothing I can point to and say “this is why I feel the way I do”. No obvious trauma or event that would leave me blue. Things are going well for me…and yet yesterday I found myself crying in the shower for no particular reason at all.

I could tally all the insults, slight or otherwise, that I think are combining to make me sad right now: I’m stressed about finding a job, I’m spending a lot of the day by myself with not much interaction, it’s the holiday season and for various reasons at the moment my extended family is more upsetting than not. My country elected a reality TV charlatan as its president and every time I turn on the TV the new administration looks more autocratic. I’m getting frustrated with the novel again; it’s not going well. I’m behind on some other things that are ‘optional’ but important to me. And the little voice in my head which I am coming to understand is my old friend Anxiety seizes on those little insults and blows them all out of proportion. Continue reading

Across the Pond: A Valediction

When I was graduating high school a lot of very well meaning adults said to me some variation on the following: “College will be the best four years of your life.”

It was with that expectation that I started at Columbia. I was skeptical, to be sure — is college really that different from everything that came before? — but I was ready to be convinced.

I was not.

Please don’t mistake me. There are a lot of things I liked, even loved, about Columbia. It provided the capstone to my years at Brearley, putting the polish on the rock-solid educational foundation I have been so privileged to receive. The Core Curriculum is a beautiful, beautiful thing — without it I might never have read Crime and Punishment or Plato’s Symposium, never studied the works of Mozart and Michelangelo, never immersed myself in the works that make up the underpinning of Western culture and society. And then there was my department, my wonderful fellow primates of EBHS, who became like my second family. I value equally our passionate debates on the humanity of Neandertals and your snarky comments on Bad Movie Night. I had wonderful experiences at Columbia, made wonderful friends. But the best years of my life? I disagreed. I still do.

But now — ah, now I understand what they meant when they said it, because this year at Cambridge has been the best year of my life.

It won’t stay that way. I look forward to many “better” years in my future; life is about growing and changing, and there’s no value in the stagnation required to believe your best is thirty years behind you. But I will always remember this year as special — it is, and always will be, a hugely pivotal moment in my life.

For that, I want to thank you, Cambridge. I want to thank your academics for their passion, your students for their drive, your buildings steeped in history for the way they evoke in me such a desire to know more.  And Pembroke, I will always remember your courts fondly, in particular the beautiful and badly insulated New Court.

But it’s the people who have truly made this year special: My fellow BioAnth MPhils, braving the wilds of a brilliant-but-scatterbrained department to produce exceptional works of academic achievement (I’m so proud); The greater Pembroke GP community, who welcomed me and the other freshers from the very first day — I shall miss you all terribly;  New Court United, the best staircase neighbors a girl could have.

And my friends.

From 8:10 breakfast to Mill Pond picnics to late nights playing Cards Against Humanity, you have lightened my days (and possibly corrupted my soul). Either way, I am forever changed by knowing you. Thank you for listening me prattle on about my writing, or indulging my love of cows; I’ll treasure that book forever, you know. Thank you, too, for the heavier stuff — turns out being twenty-three and far from home can be pretty tough sometimes. I appreciated the shoulders to cry on.

You’ve taught me so much, from the ridiculous (did you know that Edinburgh Castle is built on the basalt core of an extinct volcano?) to the profound — how to listen, how to be compassionate, how to be brilliant and fierce and confident even in the face of uncertainty. I know you will all go on to do amazing things.

It’s time for me to go home now. I don’t know exactly where the next years will take me, what new obstacles life will put in my way. I don’t know when I’ll see you (England, Cambridge, Pembroke, my dear friends) again. Honestly, that scares me a little.

But I know I’ll be okay — “’cause through it all, she offers me protection, a lot of love and affection, whether I’m right or wrong”. And wherever life does take me, I’ll remember this year at Pembroke with equal love and affection, and treasure it always.

 

Cows of Cambridge

I’ve jokingly said, more than once, that what I most want to be remember for when I leave Cambridge is my love of cows. If, a year or two years from now, someone says “Hey, remember Faith?” and someone else says in response “Yeah, the girl who liked cows!” I would be pleased for that to be my legacy.

Yes, cows. I’ve long thought them cute — this dates from going to Vermont with my grandfather and bottle-feeding baby cows, who looked at me with their big, long-lashed eyes and wet pink noses and stole my heart.

I take a lot of photos of cows these days. A not insignificant percentage of my instagram and facebook photos are…well, of cows. And Cambridge has no shortage of potential subjects. I have my favorites (there’s one male with a particularly striking facial marking and no fear of cameras), but they’re all photogenic, to tell the truth.

Why cows? People have asked me, and I have different answers. They’re cute, as I’ve said. They’re novel, to a girl from the city where the wildlife isn’t much more than racoon-sized. But they’re something else, too, which is that they’re surprisingly expressive.

Even before the cows, a lot of my photos were of children and dogs. Not just because I find them cute — because young children and animals (dogs, cows, tigers at the zoo) share one quality in common, which is that they are entirely free of self-consciousness. They are genuine, engaged, and free of the adult demur that appears sometime around puberty. They don’t change their behavior when a camera appears; they continue being themselves.

It’s a quality I admire in them. Perhaps that’s why I like to capture it — to remind myself that there was a time when I was less shy, less reserved, less proud.

More like a cow.

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The Mirror of Fiction

If you’ll indulge me, dear readers, I’d like to ramble a little bit about representation in fiction.

I’m not going to dive too deeply into an analysis of why representation is a good thing; that’s been done before and better by other people — and regardless, it should be intuitively understood that seeing yourself reflected in the culture you consume is validating, normalizing, comforting. That privilege has too long belonged mostly to young-to-middle-aged cis white men, and so any deviation from that “norm” (which is, in the context of the diversity of the real world, not normal at all) is to be celebrated.

I also don’t want to dwell on representation done badly, and all the harm that can do. I’ve argued about it too much recently, what with J.K. Rowling’s latest foray into Native American mythology.

What I want to do instead is to highlight a couple of books I’ve read recently that have done a good job of representing the sort of people who are traditionally ignored or elided in fiction — because the sense of relief when you can finally see yourself on the page, know that you aren’t alone in feeling the way you do or being the way you are, is immeasurable, and if I can help others to feel that, I should.

So with that said, three books read recently where I noted a particular attention to diversity in representation: Continue reading

The Enthusiastic Yes

This is another one of those lessons you need to learn before being a grownup, but it applies to writing as much as it does to anything else, so I figured it was a good one to talk about.

Making Decisions and Setting Boundaries

There are lots of signs of maturity. I’ve talked about one of them — long-term thinking — already, but let’s take a look at a couple of others.

First, I want to consider decision making. Being an adult means making lots of decisions. Frankly, being a human means making lots of decisions: by the time I’ve had breakfast, I’ve decided whether or not to make my bed, what I’m going to wear that day, what food I will eat, what I need to pack in my bag, etc. etc. etc. But being an adult means making the sorts of decisions that are often harder, or have longer-term consequences, or affect others as well as yourself. (I really do want kids, but sometimes I think about the idea of being responsible for a child and wonder why anyone is ever brave enough to have one).

Another facet to adulthood is increased comfort with setting boundaries. As you come to know yourself better, you come to understand your limits better, and you (hopefully) become more confident about enforcing those limits and setting boundaries for yourself and others. (I’m still working on this one; had a couple mishaps this year. It’s a learning experience).

Say Yes to the Dress

Often, in the sorts of situations which call for decision-making or boundary-setting, you can reduce the problem to a series of yes or no questions. It’s simplistic, but it opens up certain avenues of discussion, so let’s try. Do I want cereal, yes or no? Do I want pancakes, yes or no? Or, consider this: do I want him to kiss me, yes or no? Am I comfortable going back to his place, yes or no?

And here you see an arena where this sort of discourse has become commonplace — the arena of sexual consent. But where a couple years ago your college consent workshop might have talked about “no means no”, recently a lot of the discussion has shifted focus toward “enthusiastic consent”.

Enthusiastic Consent

Now we’re starting to get to the heart of the issue. What is enthusiastic consent? It’s not a “maybe”, or an “okay”, or even a lukewarm “yes” — it’s a “hell yes”, an “absolutely”. I’ve got my own concerns about that as a foundation upon which to base all your decisions (when is a person ever actually totally sure about anything?) but I understand and appreciate what it’s aiming for.

In terms of sexual stuff, then, enthusiastic consent is not doing something because you think you “should”, or because you don’t mind, exactly. It’s doing something because you really, truly want to.

Applying the Model

But the reason I’m talking about this today isn’t (just) because I want to slip in a reminder to everyone that consent is important and your boundaries are valid. The thing is, while “enthusiastic consent” is pretty common in discussions of sex, I think that a slightly modified concept, the “enthusiastic yes”, can apply to lots of other situations in life.

Let’s start with the example of clothes shopping. How many times have you bought something because you mostly liked it, except for one or two things — or because it was cheap and you thought it wasn’t bad? I’m betting more than once — I certainly have. Follow up question: how often do you wear those pieces? Probably not often. (Or if you do, you don’t feel great wearing them).

But it is a waste of your money to buy something that you don’t love. You wear clothes every day; even in a country that has actual seasons (what is this permanent 40-60 degree nonsense, England?) you’ll end up wearing everything fairly frequently. So it’s in the best interests of your budget, your storage space and your mental health to buy fewer things, but make sure they’re things you love. 

Don’t just say yes to the dress. Wait for an enthusiastic yes.

An “Enthusiastic Yes” to Writing

And now we come to the real reason I’m writing a damn essay on concepts of consent. Here’s the thing: writing is hard. In some ways, it’s a miserable hobby — lots of work for potentially little reward (depends on what your end goal is, but if it’s publishing then good luck my friend), solitary, emotionally grueling, time consuming. In short, it’s not something to waste your time on if you only sort of like it.

No, writing is something you have to say an enthusiastic yes to. It’s just not worth it otherwise.

(As an aside: this might sound like it contradicts what I was saying earlier about being satisfied with doing things at a “lower” level, but it’s not. I’m not saying that you have to be aiming for pro status to call yourself a writer; I’m saying if you’re going to pursue writing at any level, do it because you love it, and love it enthusiastically).

In conclusion…

…your time is valuable. Your labor is valuable. You are valuable, and you should make choices that reflect that value. So hold out for a pair of jeans that fits in the butt and the leg (I’m still looking…), or you’ll end up with one more pair that you never take out of the closet.  Don’t date the boy that you sorta liked okay and don’t mind seeing — date the boy that you actively want to talk to and hang out with. Choose to spend your time on the things that make you happiest, instead of wasting your precious time on the things that don’t.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, and a harder lesson to implement, but the results are so, so worth it.

On Catfights and Cliches

I could have chosen to write this post a couple of different ways. I could have framed it as a feminist criticism of a certain tired trope, and drawn on my own writing as an example. In fact, that’s what I intended to do when I came up with the idea for this post.

But I just finished a week of non-stop, intense academic work, and then I went to the Dean’s Christmas party and broke the cardinal rule not to eat English pizza because I’d had too much wine and not enough sleep, and then I sat on a plane for eight hours, came home, and fell on my face.

I’m tired.

So instead I’m just going to talk a little bit about two of my characters, and why I made some of the choices I did in writing them and their relationship. Continue reading