Kameron Hurley is the author of such novels as God’s War and The Mirror Empire, and her essay on the history of women in conflict “We Have Always Fought” was the first blog post to be nominated for and win a Hugo award. That essay and many others are included in Kameron’s new book The Geek Feminist Revolution.
This interview first appeared in June 2016 on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
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Welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me.
First of all, just tell us about how you discovered Joanna Russ.
That’s a very good question. I went to the Clarion West writing workshop in the year 2000, so a while ago now, but that was when I started exploring some old-school science fiction because I was getting a lot of pushback. All the guys would tell you, “You kids these days, you don’t read the good stuff.” So, I started reading lots of Alfred Bester, and Heinlein, and all those folks. I stumbled across Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Vonda McIntyre, all of those New Wave feminist science fiction writers.
I’m trying to remember the first one I read. I don’t remember which one it was. It might have been We Who Are About To . . .. I own everything that she’s ever written, which was not a lot, unfortunately. She was kind of taken out of the game early due to health issues. But that was my introduction, just me trying to get a better depth and breadth in the field of science fiction.
What was it about her writing that made such an impression on you?
Le Guin is a fabulous writer. She is absolutely wonderful, but she was not as radical as Russ. Joanna Russ was like screw everything, burn it all down, rage against the machine. It took me a long time to read The Female Man because it’s so dense and out there. The second time I tried to read it, I finally got it. What she’s doing there is so incredibly radical. It really does burn it all down.
Le Guin is like, “Hey, let’s all get along, and we’ll change things from the inside.” And Russ was like, “This whole system is screwed. We’re all screwed. Kill them all.” And I admired that, you know? I thought that was cool. I just really loved her attitude toward change, which sounds terrible, but I think sometimes you need to have anger to drive you, because honestly, you get worn down very easily with all of the different things that come at you. I mean, this entire system is in place, made to get you to give up and to accept the status quo. I think she used her anger a lot to get her through that, and to get her through that depression that living in this kind of oppression can give to people.
You talk in the book about how when she died in 2011, you kind of looked around and said, “Hmm, who’s going to pick up this mantle?”
It was interesting. I think it was the last public interview that she did, Sam Delany interviewed her over the phone at WisCon, and she answered a few questions and things like that. Then it was a few years later that she passed away. You always look back to who came before you, and she was just such a great voice, even though she hadn’t written anything substantial since the late ’90s. You can’t just go, “Well, that generation is going to handle it, and it’ll be fine, and they’re still all kicking.” There’s sort of a thing where you go, “Is that us?”
I look around at my peers, the folks that I considered the newbies in the field when I first came up, and now I look ahead at them, and I’m like, “Wow, they’re The Man. They’re the establishment.” Right? Like, Scalzi was the scrappy little internet dude, and now he’s kind like, “Oh, he’s Science Fiction.” You just look at how that mantle gets passed down to people. You can wait for everybody to give it to you, or you can seize it yourself and say, “You know what? These are things that need to be said, and we can keep sharing these same sorts of messages to new audiences in different ways.”
I like this, you say in the book, “I’ve been screaming on the internet for ten years. What’s forty more?”
[Laughter] In whatever form the internet will have, exactly, yeah.
What is the system that needs to be burned down? What are some of the issues that really need to be addressed when it comes to women writing fantasy and science fiction?
I think it’s the same as women of all races, men of color, in any kind of industry. We live within a society that has stratified and codified where people live and how people interact. One of the things, it’s in the book, but I grew up in a very white town, and I thought, “Well, that’s just how it is. It’s just very white.”
That was made that way on purpose. There were no black people allowed in Oregon, Washington, or California for years and years. It was illegal for them to live there. They would be kicked out and burned out. They had people in towns where literally they would go into towns sometimes and they would burn people out. We look at these kind of structures and systems and go, “Well, that was all a long time ago. We’re so much better than that. Blah, blah, blah.” But, we’re living with the historical memory of that and the historical fallout from that.
So we have to then negotiate our entire lives and build new lives based on all that horror that has come before us. That’s really difficult to do. It’s very easy to perpetuate this myth that, well, these things have always been this way. Men have always written eighty percent of science fiction, and women, there’s occasionally an Ursula Le Guin. When in fact, you look at it, and it’s almost at parity. Right now we’re about at parity as far as authors go, but you wouldn’t see that if you look at reviews, if you look at coverage, if you look at all those sorts of things. You run the numbers, and you go, “Well, how do we fix all of that?” The answer is that you have to completely reimagine all of the things that you’ve been told to be true. That’s really hard. It’s really hard to be like, “Wow, all of those things I was told were a lie.”
You say, “I know women who wrote hard SF or epic fantasy who threw in the towel or went to genres like urban fantasy or romance that were far more welcoming to women authors.” When you say it’s hard for women in hard SF or epic fantasy, what exactly are the challenges in those particular genres?
Well, you go to a convention. For years and years, people call them the “whisper networks,” but it’s not. Basically, it’s just like, “Oh, you have a panel with such-and-such a guy who is an editor or an agent, and hey, just so you know, they’re a creeper, and they’re totally going to hit on you or they’re going to say something inappropriate, or they’re going to try to do something awful.” There’s a story from one writer I know, it was her first convention that she went to, and a very established science fiction writer—she’s a little baby writer, she just had her first book come out, and she’s volunteering in the green room—and he goes, “What do you write?” And she said what she wrote, and it was not hard SF, it was a different genre, and he looked at her, and goes, “You are worth less than the shit on my shoe.” She was like, “Okay, thanks! Welcome to science fiction.” We see that all the time, right? We have classic harassers that we’ve been trying to get rid of for years in the field, and of course people keep going, “Oh, it’s not a big deal. It’s dah dah dah.”
But people don’t understand, when you have to deal with that every single day . . . I hear that from guys all the time, “Well, if somebody hit on me, I think that’d be great.” It’s like, you have never been on Chicago public transit for fifteen hours a week and then hit on three times a day. It is exhausting, and it’s scary because you don’t know what people are going to do if you say no. People scream at you. People have pulled knives on people. People could assault you. That happens all the time. And people don’t realize that after a while, doing that again and again, and again, like I talked about earlier, it’s made to wear you down.
Seeing that all the time, and experiencing that all the time, it gets to you. It does get to you. And it ends up meaning that, yeah, you have to fight harder, and it shouldn’t be that way. We shouldn’t have to fight that hard just to have a job or just to write a book and tell a story. But there are those barriers.
As a woman writer, you’ve got to be louder, and you’ve got to put yourself out there more, and you’ve got to do this and this because you’re not going to come first at the top of the mind. I love this exercise to do with people where I say, “Those of you who can imagine things in your mind—recently I’ve read there are some who cannot—but if you can imagine things, say, when you hear the word writer, what is the first vision? What is the vision that you associate with the word writer?” For me, it is an image of Walt Whitman. White man, long beard.
So, we start with that, with our language, with how we learn language. Policeman: What is the picture you see in the little book? Oh, it’s a man, and it is a man who is in a police uniform. That’s how we associate all of those things going forward. So, we’re fighting against all of these things that we’ve been taught from a very, very young age. In order to completely reconceptualize how we think about things is very challenging. I think it’s very useful, but also very challenging. Even now, when people ask me, “Who are your favorite writers?” dude writers go to the top of my list. Does that mean those are only my favorite writers? Absolutely not, you know? I love Joanna Russ. I love Cat Valente. I love tons of writers, but the first thing I do is, “Oh, those top three.” And that’s how we were raised. That’s the world we live in. It sucks. But, if you want to make it better, you actually have to acknowledge that this exists, and then you have to work to change it.
You make the point in the book that when a lot of these hurtful things . . . it’s not just this one incident, it’s this long pattern that really wears people down. You give an example, like, you wrote a story early on where you had a gay male character die, could you talk about that?
Sure, yeah. I wrote a novel called God’s War, and it’s this big old matriarchy, actually, and tons of women in same-sex relationships. I did only have one gay male character in that particular book, and it so happened that as I was working through the plot of the book, there was an incident and he ends up dying. It wasn’t until I got to the end of the book, and then I realized, I was like, “Oh my gosh, there is the kill-the-gay-guy character. Oh, the best friend who dies who’s gay. The only gay male character.” And I couldn’t figure out how to have the plot do the same things it needed to do and keep him alive.
Now I can. Now, five years later, I’ve been thinking about it forever, now I can figure it out. But I was not at the point in my career where I had the technical proficiency to figure out how to get myself out of a plot thing that I had dug. I said, “Okay, I’ll add some more gay male characters. They’re going to have some supporting roles, so at least it’s not the only gay male character.” But it still showed, and it still hurt. This was a thing that I went to, and I knew it was problematic. It’s going out the door, dammit, but that’s how it is.
Sure enough, I went to a convention, and as soon as I got off the panel, I had a young woman come to me, and she said, “I’m in a reading group, we read your book, we all really loved it, but I have to tell you, there were a lot of gay men in my reading group, and it really bugged them that he had to die. It really hurt them. It always happens. The tragic loss of the gay character.” I told her just what I told you. I was like, “I knew it was a problem, and that was stupid, and I apologize. I’m not going to do it again.”
In subsequent books, I was like, “I have to make sure that if I’m going to add in a character that I’m not just, oh, plot reason, I need to kill them.” And I did, going forward, I made sure to be much more aware, and that’s with all sorts of characters. I have to be aware of that. The best way to get around that, of course, is to just have lots of different characters who have lots of different backgrounds and different representations, so it’s not, “Oh, that is the one gay character, and they’re going to die tragically,” or, “The one trans character, and oh, they die tragically, but luckily, our heroes are all fine.” But, if your heroes are gay or trans or whatever, it doesn’t feel like it is a purposeful slap in the face. A lot of what this comes down to, and I tell people this all the time, is not being a lazy writer. Don’t be lazy. Those things we were programmed with, we see these things in media, we see these tropes, and we just perpetuate them. I’m like, “You need to sit down and go: Is this really the story I want to tell, or is this the story I’ve been told I should tell?”
I thought it was interesting that you say, “The solution to this is not just to go through the story and take out anything that people might find problematic, but to understand what’s problematic, and to take responsibility and own the things that you’re choosing to leave in there.”
Absolutely. That’s what gets me all the time. I own up to what I did to that character, because at the end of the day, it went out the door, and I knew what I was doing. It’s all perfectly fine and good for you to get on to the social medias when Twitter comes at you and be like, “Hey, well, I wanted to write a misogynist, horrible society where women have a terrible time. That was my purpose and that was my artistic choice.” Fine. Great. But don’t get up there and say, “It’s not misogynist. And I didn’t write this.” That’s what you wrote, just own up to it. That’s what you wrote. If that is a conscious, artistic choice you have made, and there is a purpose for you doing it, then you go right ahead.
That doesn’t mean people aren’t going to critique you. As an artist, you’re going out into the world. You need to understand you’re going to hear from everybody, and I think that’s the shock that’s happening to a lot of creators; they’re saying, “Oh my gosh, all these people, who I had the privilege of never hearing from before.” Because again, little white town because it was manufactured that way. Now the internet has brought everybody together in wonderful ways, absolutely, because we have not heard those voices. We never had anybody saying back, “Hey, actually, no, that’s totally messed up.” Some people are reacting to that in an awesome way and going, “Oh my gosh, you’re totally right. That’s messed up. I will fix that next time, and I own up to it.” And some are going, “Noooooooo,” like babies. I’m like, you’re not twelve. Come on.
That was one thing that really struck me about this book is how much of it is concerned with how a writer needs to comport themselves online, which I think says so much about what it’s like being a writer today, and how you have to think in terms of your presence and how you interact with readers and things like that.
That clearly is just coming from my own experience. I started my blog in 2004, and I have been waging battles on the internet ever since. Lots of people are like, “Oh, it’s so much worse now.” I would say, “Well, yeah, Twitter can organize mobs a lot faster, but you didn’t see my comments sections in 2004.”
I had a blatantly feminist blog called “Brutal Woman” of all things, and man, the stuff I would get on there was just awful. And, at least with this, Twitter especially, I can mute accounts and mute keywords. I don’t see a lot of things anymore, which is fabulous. When the mob comes, it’s like, okay, I’m going to be mobbed for two days, and I’m going to mute a lot of accounts, and then it’s over.
Whereas, yeah, man, the comments section of the blog was just awful. But, again, I actually felt very fortunate having come up through earlyish internet days. I was on the Blogger platform. Because I got to learn, hey, do I really want comments on my blog? I decided I didn’t. I don’t have comments anymore because I don’t want to go through with that anymore. I’ve been able to look at my social presence and keep it very cultivated and make sure it is working for me, and I’m not being overwhelmed by it. That’s something a lot of women especially deal with. Everybody deals with this to some extent. Women get the worst of it. Women of color the absolute worst.
What I wanted to do was provide some guideline instruction, be like, “Hey, just so you know, you can do this. This is okay. And, yes, we’re all dealing with it.” Clearly, there are lots of problems. You also need to teach people how to respect each other on the internet, and there’s a lot of issues with etiquette and tools to manage harassment, which of course, Twitter fails at completely. But anyway, what I’d say is, “Okay, let’s all work together on this, and let’s strategize.” Because it’s really lonely.
I won’t say who, but there was a creator in the geek space who was very upset by some things that were said in a comment section, and was just crying and sobbing on Snapchat about they were just going to give in and quit, and it just broke my heart because I look at this huge generation of creators who are so talented and so fabulous, and I don’t want to lose them because of some assholes on the internet.
I thought it was interesting because you say on Twitter specifically that you think you should mute people rather than blocking them, because if you block them, that’s kind of a sign that they got to you, in a way.
That’s a personal thing. I know lots of people who are like, “I just block everyone I want.” Unfortunately, what you end up seeing is they get real weird and obsessive. Like, “I won points against her. I really screwed with her.” Because what you’ve got to get, again, with some of these people, they’re sadists and drama queens, and it makes their day when you’re like, “Ahh, you hurt my feelings.” They love that.
So, my personal way to deal with it is I just mute. I just mute like crazy. I’ve had the creepy ones who are like, “I can see that you’re on Twitter. You haven’t blocked me. Why are you not listening?” Which someone else had pointed out to me because, of course, they were muted. And I’m like, “Woah, this dude needs to do something else.” But, again, they’re only going to go at it for so long before they get bored. That’s my approach. Does that work for everyone? No, absolutely not.
But, the real issue of course, is this is a systematic problem that Twitter needs to deal with, and they’re not dealing with harassment in a way that is very beneficial to anyone. So in the meantime, we have to all find our way to make it a useable platform.
There were times before I started muting accounts and muting keywords, especially, where it was just a load of noisy garbage. It was getting so bad for me. The problem is I make so many really great contacts, not just with fans, but with other creators that have led to real life friendships, and I don’t want to lose that. It’s an incredible tool for people. And to drive everybody off it is just, again, we look at systematic issues that lead to lost opportunities for people, and that’s one of them there as well. If women and people of color, women of all races, and men of color, can’t use these platforms, then we’ve cut off this entire area of opportunity, which again becomes a systematic issue of oppression, which we need to really consider and think about.
You say, “I spent a great deal of my life trying to be quiet and nice and not piss anyone off. I was miserable. It served no purpose. And they still came for me.”
I was, clearly, a geek growing up. I was not terribly popular, like most geeks. And I tried to be nice and like the things other people liked and do the things that other people were supposed to do, and what you find out is they’re going to bully you anyway, you know? I thought, “If I’m going to get bullied anyway, I might as well get bullied for making a difference in the world.”
The thing with internet BS is that for every dude that’s like, “kill yourself,” there are literally hundreds at this point, but dozens that I have seen, of women who come up to me at conventions, and who will just start sobbing. And they’re, “I am so happy to meet you. You’ve changed my life. Your work is amazing and inspiring.” I get emails from people all the time who are like, you’ve inspired me to move across the country or propose to the person that I loved or to stop screwing around and go back to school. Those are the things that you live for. You can tell me to die on the internet all day, but doing that kind of good in the world, it just makes all that other stuff ridiculous.
It seems like all the kind of bullshit you’re talking about has inspired you to write these essays about it, but it seems like also a lot of your fiction is inspired by pushing back about this kind of thing. Could you talk about what impact these battles have had on shaping your fiction?
Sure. My first book, God’s War, was actually me saying, “How can I have a matriarchy, but not have all the men be dead?” Because I read a lot of old school feminist science fiction, and a lot of people were just like, “Hey, I’m going to have a disease that kills all the men, and that’s how they have a matriarchy.” I was not buying that. I said, “Well, what if we send them all off to war?” Which is kind of a cop out, a lot of them still die. But then I started saying, “Okay, yes the men are all shipped off to war. There’s a three-hundred-year ongoing war on this colonized planet. It’s 10,000 years in the future. How would that affect everything else in their lives?” I took made-up religions based on a combination of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and I kind of just mashed them all together and made them into their own far-future religions.
Now let’s explore these two characters, one of whom is very privileged. She’s a woman in this society, and she is a bounty hunter. She’s still on the down and out. She’s not politically powerful, but she’s physically powerful, and the law doesn’t touch her because of what she does. She used to be a government assassin. And I said, okay, now I’m going to take a man from the folks that they’re fighting, and I’m going to throw him into the mix and say, okay, how does he live in that society? How does that compare and contrast with the way she lives?
Of course, on the top of that—this is how you make a cool, awesome adventure story that also says things—on top of that, they’re hunting down this alien who may have the key to ending the holy war. So, they’re running around through this contaminated desert. It’s Mad Max in space, basically. It’s really fun. It was interesting, because I did have several readers email me, and they were guys, and they were like, “I didn’t really understand microagressions and sexism until I read this book. I totally empathized with Rhys, the male character, who was going around this matriarchal society where he was open game. Stuff could happen to him and there would be no repercussions.” He had to deal with this constant “is this someone who is just making a comment about me on the street, or are they actually going to attack me?” These readers were like, “Wow, that completely changed my understanding.” That was very gratifying, right? At the same time, it also said many other things.
Then when I went to write my epic fantasy, The Mirror Empire, I said, “I want to make an epic fantasy with actual fantastic cultures.” I don’t just want to be like, “It is pseudo-medieval Europe that is just our idea of Medieval Europe, not how Medieval Europe actually was. And it’s a patriarchy, and horrible things happen to women, and all the menz are in charge, running around with swords that all of them can totally wield.” I’m like, okay, let’s do cool things with consent-based culture that’s polyamorous and matriarchal, and let’s have this violent matriarchy. Then let’s have a patriarchy, but they have three genders.
So, I took that and said, now that I have all those things, I’m going to put this cool plot on top of it, once again. No one wants to read a lecture. No one wants to read message fiction. That was my biggest problem with some of the old-school feminist science fiction is that they were very much think pieces, and they felt a little didactic. I want an adventure story where stuff blows up, which also does cool stuff with social mores. On top of that, there’s the plot where these two parallel universes are colliding. One world will live, one world will die, and all of the people who have to fight in this war, and that’s really fun. I took those things, and I said, “I’m going to pair all of the awesome, kick-butt plots that I love.” I love the old Conan novels. Totally problematic, but I love Conan. And Conan is basically Nyx, who is the God’s War former assassin. Who just keeps up and gets going, and she’s a boxer, and kicks everybody’s butt, and has a great time. They are old-school adventure stories. They fight bugs, and they blow things up—she used to be a sapper. I have a lot of fun, while at the same time actually doing fantastic things with the social stuff, which you don’t see as much, which seems crazy. It’s like, hey, we’re writing fantasy, we’re writing science fiction, we can do anything, and it’s like reading the Ray Bradbury Martian stories.
I tried to get in to them, and literally we’re on Mars and it’s like, “The Martian man reads the newspaper and calls to his wife in the kitchen who is making dinner.” I thought, “Are you kidding me right now?” It’s like 1950s America on Mars. Maybe he meant it in an ironic way, but knowing Bradbury, he’s just having fun. I was like, “No. No, I’m not doing that.” If we’re going to write a fantasy or a science fiction, we are actually going to write a fantasy and science fiction novel.
When you say you’re writing about a consent-based culture, could you say a little more about what that actually means?
That one actually always surprises people. At the age of twelve, for all of the people in this culture, you are not allowed to physically touch them in any way unless you get their permission. So, if you want to hug someone, if you would like to touch their shoulder, if you would like to hold them back from rushing into a burning building, you have to ask for their permission. I said, “Hey, I want to make a fully consent-based culture. I want to know what that looks like.” You could kind of give a blanket consent to someone who you’re in love with and say, “Hey, you have blanket consent. We’ve consented to X, Y, and Z.”
It was interesting because it would turn into these negotiations between characters of what is and isn’t okay. Then having that culture interact with other cultures was explosive, because for them, touching without consent is punishable by exile. You get rid of them. And they’re of course non-violent and all of that, so there’s huge repercussions. So yeah, that was interesting.
Lots of these things I do because, as a writer, it challenges me in how I’m writing, because I didn’t realize how much I’d rely on, “Oh, so and so tapped her shoulder,” or “grabbed her arm,” or did something where you’re actually physically touching someone. I’d have to stop. They’re going to get attention some other way. They might grab a sleeve, but that was like the furthest I could go. It was very interesting for me to give myself those restrictions and see what happened with it.
You mentioned your character Nyx. I was really struck by this description in the book. You say, “What you’d end up with is something like Nyx, the foul talking, head-chopping mercenary from my God’s War series sitting on the toilet, belly fat spilling out, ragged scars, upper thighs, hairy legs splayed. She’d be sitting there with mismatched skin, lined with scars and stretch marks, and maybe paging through some boxing magazine, flabby breasts unbound and spilling on her stomach, and she could give a fuck about you.” This is not a character that we see much in fantasy.
No, unfortunately. She was super fun to write because, again, she lived with absolute privilege. I think it was Adam Roberts who wrote a really great review of that book where he talked about escapism and how she was just such a great character for channeling all of one’s frustrations about sexism in the world.
You’re in this little office cubicle, and you’ve got a boss who asks you to get coffee again, even though you outrank him. All these little microagressions that you deal with every day, and then you can just go home and read about Nyx, who really couldn’t give a crap. She goes off and punches people in the face.
I was writing a scene with her for a novella I’m working on, and it was interesting because I had her kind of drunk and disorderly in a bar, and even the authorities didn’t want to deal with her because she used to be a government assassin. She could do anything. She could literally kill someone and she was untouchable. I thought, “Wow, to live with that kind of privilege.” Which, as we know, lots of rich people in particular live with. It was very interesting to create this society of someone who didn’t have to live with The Gaze. You know, the male gaze or the gaze of society that can tell you what you can and cannot do. People let her be herself, for better or worse, right? She’s not a great person. I want to make sure that’s clear. She’s not great, but she’s different, as you said. She’s not someone that we get to see a whole lot.
Right. There’s a lot of discussion these days about “strong female characters.” You say in the book that you feel like these characters aren’t written for you and you don’t find them too persuasive a lot of the time.
I was reading something recently where the “strong female protagonist” has almost just become a trope in itself, where literally it’s just, “Hey, I am a woman with a gun, and I’m running around in this world full of mostly men, and everyone respects me, and I have lots of sex, and that’s great, and I punch things, and that’s great,” but there’s nothing deeper than that. I felt like it’s almost people going, “Well, but look, she’s strong. She has a gun.” There’s more to those sorts of things. You don’t give a woman a gun and go, “Sexism is over.” It doesn’t happen. There’s no exploration.
I run into this all the time. There’s no exploration a lot of times when I see people go, “Oh, well, women are equal.” What does that mean? Who does the work? It’s like, who is doing all of these jobs that were traditionally gendered jobs that we see in a lot of societies? You need to actually do that work and figure it out economically. Yeah, it’s great, everyone can be what they want to be, but does that mean guys get to stay home and do what they want? Does that mean that there’s a class of people that has to do most of the childcare and the cooking? God, who does the cooking? There’s a lot of work that makes society function that we made into gendered work, so I think that really needs to be explored, and people don’t want to do that. They just want to go, “Woo, everything is equal.” It’s like, ahh, that one little part is.
Then there’s also no deconstruction of masculinity. Is giving someone a gun any better? Again, Nyx: not a great person.
You make the point in the book that I thought was really interesting, that a lot of these strong female protagonists, they’re able to fight physically, but so many of their preoccupations are still preoccupations that come out of living in a society in which women have less power. So, you say, like, “I want to be tough but lovable. I want to be cool but acceptable. I want to be special, but not so special that nobody loves me.” It’s still based on this power dynamic, no matter how physically ass-kicking they are.
There’s very much that, “Oh, she’s tough but vulnerable” thing. Because I think that there’s this idea, especially for male readers, but for female readers as well, because we’re all indoctrinated, right? There’s this idea that if a woman is tough, it can only be in a way that is still sexy, because if she is not still a sexual object, then that’s really scary and that’s abhorrent and that’s monstrous, and we need to get rid of that.
So, what ends up happening is, yeah, you have the “tough but vulnerable” character, and that in and of itself is a fantasy, right? It’s something that we can say, “Oh, this is acceptably strong.” There’s a line, which I think that you see quite a bit. So, yeah, it’s something that I try to be aware of, and it’s something that kind of bugs me when I see it in a lot of books as well, where it’s like, “Oh, she’s tough. She’s great. She’s awesome. And then she’s with the man that she loves and she sobs and cries.” Which, I get it.
Where are all the women friendships as well, right? With a lot of these, you don’t see female friendships. You don’t see female background characters. It’s literally just this woman existing to kind of be a fantasy for guys. I don’t see as much of it where it actually feels like a living, breathing human being.
There were really some things in this book just about the real world that I didn’t know, that surprised me. You were talking about gendered work. You say that actually we have this image of cavemen going off and hunting meat while the cavewomen stay at home and took care of the kids, and that this is kind of a fiction.
That was a fiction developed in the 1950s, actually. If you look at that and you go, “Gosh, that just looks a lot like the 1950s lifestyle,” and in fact, it is. This is the problem that we have when we look back at the historical record, is that we are always going to be trying to evaluate the past from our place in the present. It’s very dangerous to do that, because then we end up doing something called downstreaming (my background is in history), which is when we kind of press all of our social mores and beliefs onto the past.
There’s a great book, again I mention it in the novel, called Blood Rites by Barbara Ehrenreich, where she goes into this thing where she said, “There were not these pair bonds of one man and one woman and their 2.5 children hunting bison. Man goes out to hunt bison, and the woman just sticks around by herself.” You couldn’t survive. You couldn’t have people who were specialists. You had to have generalists, and you would live in a loose family unit where you would have grandparents, and uncles, and aunts, and moms, and dads, and friends, and cousins, and it would just be this web of people.
A lot of this “hunting” was actually a group activity, especially ones where they’re getting all the mammoths to go off the cliff. You had everybody out there with sticks, running around, getting them to go off the cliff. There are all these things that we assume because we learned them from these texts that were initially put together in 1950. 1950 is a great touchpoint, too, because, of course, those were the times where you were all trying to be just the same because we didn’t want to be accused of being communists. So everyone was told to be just this way, and do only these things, and that those are the normal things. When now, even after the economy has tanked and things are crazy, we look back at the ’50s and go, actually that was the unnatural time. That was the most unnatural time, post-World War II, where we were trying to make this world where everyone is the same. And every man gets a house, and every man gets a wife, and they all have these children. My grandmother loves to tell me that. She’s like, “The 1950s was not the way the 1950s is portrayed. It was nothing like that.” But that is our cultural story, right?
There’s a part in the book where you’re in South Africa, and you’re talking to this professor about your master’s thesis. Could you tell us about that?
I lived in South Africa for a year and a half doing my masters. I was very interested in the resistance against apartheid. I had actually done my undergraduate work looking at how students were mobilized by the African National Congress to end the fight against apartheid. I was following up my research there, and I was talking to one of the professors. He was the expert there on Zulu culture.
I said, well, this is really cool. I found this thing that says, hey, twenty percent of uMkhonto we Sizwe, which was the militant wing of the African National Congress, was women. It actually says it in their meeting minutes for the organization. Wow, that seems like a lot. If you look at your picture of revolutionary movements from media, I mean, twenty percent, that’s not an insignificant number. That’s like one in five. If you look in the background of all those revolutionary movements, you’re not seeing one in five of those people being a woman. I said, I’d love to do this because, of course, women haven’t been a part of any fighting or revolutionary movements.
He’s like, “Women have always fought. That’s like the craziest thing. Like, Shaka Zulu had his whole contingent of women fighters. This has always been a thing. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Young person, what are you saying?” That really led me down the path of going, “Oh, this is not an anomaly, what I’m seeing. This is actually something that has happened a lot.”
In fact, once I went through the historical record, especially in resistance movements, it was usually twenty to thirty percent was female. And even, of course, in more formalized armies. The Civil War, World War II, Russia had a huge battalion of women tank operators. I started actually looking at it, and you realize that impression that you’ve gotten from, again, those textbooks written in the ’50s, was that that had not been the case. That things had always been a certain way. In fact, it was all a lie. You have to really dig to get past those stories we tell ourselves.
Right, you talk about how these narratives have so much power, and you suggest that a lot of reasons so many men are willing to abuse women verbally on the internet is because they’ve grown up with these narratives that women are prizes to be won and men are the ones who always deserve the prize and get the prize in the end.
Laurie Penny had this amazing article recently about why it is that we keep having these darn stories that feminize AI. Why is Ex Machina . . .? It goes all the way back to Pygmalion and his statue coming alive and, of course, it’s a woman.
I always thought, “This is men and their fantasies. They just want a woman that they can tell what to do.” She said, “No, this is part of men’s way of trying to understand when it is that women become human and whether or not women are human.” I was like, “Oh my god.” It’s really good. You should read it. I forget the name of it.
But I get into this again in the essay “We Have Always Fought.” We are given these specific words, and we do this in the military. I do a lot of research into military history, and it’s not, “I want you to shoot that man over there.” It’s like, “I want you to hit that target,” right? Then there’s all sorts of terrible names we come up with for the people that we want to kill.
We run into that again with women. People say, “Why do you consider saying ‘bitch’ or ‘whore’ is so bad to a woman?” And it’s like, “Well, the reason is that’s usually the prelude to being assaulted.” Someone says that to you, and they are othering you. They are making you not a human so that they can feel that they can do something horrible to you.
To me, that whole idea is that guys aren’t really taught that women are fully human. You see that with all the segregation that we have, especially in schools. Men don’t need to know things about women’s anatomy or feelings or any of that in order to be successful in life. They just don’t. As a woman, you have to know things about men. The world is literally run by guys. You need to know how to get around in a world of men. Men don’t necessarily have to, so they can kind of get by on going, “Well, I don’t know that women are actually really human.”
I had never heard of this before, but you say in the book that in countries that are more egalitarian, like in places like Amsterdam and Canada, that pick-up artist tactics don’t work.
There was a really great article from a . . . I don’t know who it is, don’t need to mention his name, but he wrote this long diatribe against Amsterdam because he was going around the world and picking women up. He realized that his story about being rich and awesome . . . he couldn’t just go in and neg women and basically tell them they’re crap because they would be like, “So what?”
There was no alpha male thing. A lot of times you’ll see, when you’re in a country that is very hierarchical, it’s like, “Oh, well money is everything,” and you hear all these guys who say, “Well, if I just go in and I say that I have money, I will have all these women all over me.” It’s like, “Well, yeah, because it’s really hard. Women still make a lot less than men.” What he found was that no longer worked. He couldn’t just be a jerk and say, “I’m a jerk, but I have money.” They were just like, “Well, you’re a jerk.” They don’t need money. It was just completely different. And the cultural attitude is just very different. I think, in America, we let jerkdom almost be equated with genius. Steve Jobs, great example. He was a jerk. Brilliant in some ways, but also a jerk. People then equate his brilliance with the jerk part.
I was like, “No, he was successful in spite of being a jerk, not because he was a jerk.” I think that a lot of times we put that on a pedestal, where other places don’t do that. We’ve just got to be like, “No, why would you do that?” Unfortunately, sometimes in our media that becomes the narrative: Well, yes, he’s a horrible human being, but look, look at what a genius he is. A lot of times only white guys can get away with that one. Only white guys, because it’s like, anybody else, man, if you are a jerk, that’s the end. That is the end.
Could you talk about this, you say in the book, “My blog had a lot more fucking teeth before I started publishing books.”
My first interaction with another author was actually, again, early 2004, I wrote a review of his novel. I loved it. One of my favorite books still. I love all of his works. But, I said, “There’s some misogyny issues in here, I feel. And here’s my critique of those particular issues that I saw, and here are the other things that I really liked about it.” Very fair review.
He was so mad. He emailed me. We went back and forth several times. As a new author, I had been to Clarion. I was submitting stories. I was really intimidated. He’s an award-winning author. Now he’s gone on and become a best seller.
I was really freaking out, but I was standing by my guns like, “No, I’m right. This is flawed. These other things are great, but these things are flawed.” Then finally, at the end of it, he was like, “Okay. Actually one of the reasons I responded so strongly to this is that you’re right. It’s something I’ve been dealing with, and I’ve been really trying to address in my work.” And he has since. His stuff has gotten much better.
But that was my first interaction, and it was my first realization, I think, that the authors were reading my blog. No one realizes that, until you become an author. You’re like, “What the hell? An author has all this time to sit around and Google themselves?” Yes. That’s all we do. Now I know.
But, yeah, not long after, I was at a convention, and I had just written a review of Daniel Abraham’s book. Abraham is one half of James S. A. Corey from the Expanse now, but this was his first novel at the time. I saw his name badge, and I liked the book. I just had some critiques. But I saw his name badge, and then he started coming toward me, and I was like, “Oh my god.” So he comes toward me, and he holds out his hand, and he goes, “Oh, thank you so much for that review of my book.” Well, it turns out that again the book didn’t have a lot of reviews and kind of struggled, but he was really thankful for it, and he was really happy.
I started to realize, again, people are reading these, and so I really need to be careful about whether I’m going to burn a bridge, and I really am like, if this is someone who writes awful things, and I’m going to say that it’s awful, then I need to recognize that I’m burning a potential professional contact. And that was hard.
I had a problem with the title of Neil Gaiman’s short story collection called Trigger Warnings, and I went into that going, okay, I could potentially make an enemy by doing this, but I feel really strongly about this. I need to post about this. That was really hard, because he had friends who were other authors who unfollowed me. He retweeted it. He’s a nice guy. I love Neil Gaiman. But you have to be really careful with all the stuff that you do, and you have to speak your truth knowing that you’re going to piss people off. Not even necessarily the people that you’re writing about, but their friends. We all know each other. Once I think I got into blogging a little bit more, I had to be more careful with, “Is this the hill that you want to die on?” Sometimes it is, and I will be outspoken. And sometimes I’m just, “I’m going to let that go.” Or, “I’ll let someone else get that one.” There was one recently where a friend of mine was like, “I can’t believe you haven’t taken that guy to task.” And I’m just like, “It’s not the hill I want to die on. I have other ones I’ll take on.”
I know you’ve been really pretty successful on Patreon, raising funds, I was just curious, as that income directly from your fans increases, do you feel less and less nervous about potentially alienating people in the publishing industry?
No. Here’s my thing, everybody knows everybody else, and it certainly doesn’t stop me from taking a stand, right? There are certain things that I will absolutely take a stand on, but you also just need to go, these are my colleagues, and I’m going to see them all the time.
This is why the recent Hugo craziness is just hilarious. I did a group dinner with Larry Correia at one point, who’s . . . anyway, that’s all crazy. But it’s fine. You’re fine. You sit down at the table with people, and you enjoy yourself, and all of that, but the more fisticuffs that you get into, the more difficult that becomes.
We all interact in those same spaces. I actually have two exes, other writers, who go to certain conventions that I don’t go to anymore because I’m like, they’re my exes. It’s one of those things where you just need to understand that these people are absolutely going to help you, but they can also say, “You know what? Actually, I don’t want to help you because we had a disagreement.” And that’s fine, which is why I piss off the ones that I don’t care what they think of me. If I care what someone thinks of me, then I might be like, “Maybe I’ll talk to them in private. Or maybe I’ll bring this up and buy them a drink some time.”
It’s like with any business, right? You wouldn’t be like, “I’m going to write something about Joe in the cubicle next to me and say how awful he is online.” You have to be like, “Well, that’s great, but Joe is in the cubicle next to you. You have to go to work with him every day.” It’s important, and if there’s a reason to do it, because you’re trying to enact some kind of change and get Joe fired or whatever, then go for it. But if it’s just to be a jerk on the internet, then that’s not helping any conversation.
I wanted to ask you about this. You say, “I can’t guarantee you young women writers that things are going to get better. I’m not going to pretend that you won’t get trolled, harassed, threatened, or stalked. But what I can promise you is that you’re not in this fight alone.”
When I was first coming up through science fiction and fantasy, it was very important to me when I finally found the other feminist science fiction writers and found that there was a history of it. I wouldn’t say it’s ignored, but these sorts of histories where you go, “Oh yeah, somebody was there before me, and somebody hacked through this jungle. That’s why it’s a little bit easier for me to hack through it.” I needed to feel that kind of support and to know that I wasn’t by myself.
This is a very isolating industry. I live in Ohio in a reasonably small town. It can be very lonely. You can feel kind of crazy sometimes. Very disconnected. And I like this book, and I think people have really been drawn to it for that reason, because it makes it clear that we’re all living on a continuum, and we’re all pushing together, and we’re all doing this together. I think that has helped a lot of people. It helped me to write it.
I tell people a lot of times, “I write these inspiring posts and books and things for myself as much as anyone.” So I can go back and be like, “Yeah! We’re gonna do it! Don’t quit!” Luckily, it seems like that’s what a lot of people are taking away from the book, and that’s really fabulous, because that’s why I wrote it.
This book, again, is called The Geek Feminist Revolution. Kameron, I know you have another interview, so I’ll let you go here. We’ve been speaking with Kameron Hurley. Kameron, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me.
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