Better than Nothing

[Content Warning: This is a piece about an underage prostitute, and is not particularly cheery]
    She makes herself smile as she slathers another coat of blush on her face. She thinks it makes her look like a clown but the other girls say it’s just the way things are and new pussy shouldn’t ask questions. The other girls never talk to her much, but she doesn’t really mind because they’re old and they’re scarred and they’re not nice, not even to each other. But it makes her miss her friends. She used to have friends.

    She walks out into the hall and Daddy’s sitting on the couch with his brother, smoking his bud. He’s not her real Daddy, of course — she doesn’t know anything about her real Daddy other than he knocked Momma up in high school and left town right after. This Daddy doesn’t like when she interrupts his “me time,” but that’s pretty much all the time and she needs a ride to 36th and Prince because he said if she doesn’t make at least two hundred tonight he’d take it out on her ass.

    “Hey Daddy,” she says, but it comes out as more of a cough as the smoke dancing in the room hits her throat. Neither of the men notice her, so she says it again, and her voice sounds more like the 13-year-old girl she is than the 18-year-old girl she’s trying to look like.

    “Fuck you want?” Daddy says without looking up.

    “I need a ride.”

    “Ain’t my fuckin’ problem. You got your own two legs, don’t you?”

    “Yeah, I got legs,” she replies. Daddy doesn’t like it when you don’t answer his questions.

    “Then fuckin’ walk.”

    His words sting. She hates the way he talks to her now, but more than that, she hates herself for being so hurt by them. She sniffles, and Daddy holds out an arm. She backs away, afraid he’s gonna hit her, but he wiggles his fingers and she walks forward. He bends her down and places a soft kiss on her cheek.

    “Do good tonight, okay Baby? Do good and I’ll take you out.”

    “All right,” she says. “Night, Daddy.” She heads toward the door, holding a hand to her face. It reminds her of when she first met him, when he said he wanted to be with her forever.

    She picks her purse up off the ground. There’s nothing in it except a pack of condoms, some cheap lip gloss and a stick of gum. She found both of those on the sidewalk last night before the fat old man picked her up. She almost chewed the gum after he bust in her mouth, but now she’s glad she saved it cause her stomach is groaning and it’s not real food but at least it’s something.

    Outside it’s that strange sort of weather between snowing and not-quite. The grey sky makes it seem like a different world, and she wishes it was. It’s not cold outside and she almost thanks God, but then she knows she doesn’t have a whole lot thank God for ‘cause He could probably give her more than a warm night if He really wanted to. 

How Women Play The Game: Part Two of Five

Welcome to Part Two of my ‘A Feast For Crows’ blog series exploring the vastly different ways the women in the novel play The Game of Thrones. This will contain SPOILERSOMG up through the end of A Feast For Crows. The previous entry covers Cersei Lannister playing by the rules. This week, we’re going to take a trip to the Iron Islands.

Ignoring the Rules ~ Asha Greyjoy

If there are rocks to starboard and a storm to port, a wise captain steers a third course. I shall [show you] … at my queensmoot.

Illustration courtesy S. McCrea 
Oh man. What can I say about Asha Greyjoy? I mounted a defense of Cersei in the last installment, but that’s wholly unnecessary here. I haven’t met anyone who thinks of Asha as anything but a badass, self-sufficient woman who’s able to carve out a fair amount of power for herself it an aggressively male-dominated society (though, being the daughter of the king helps).

In some ways, Asha is a lot like Brienne of Tarth (who we’ll get to in a future post). Both reject the path their societies have dictated for them, and both do so vehemently and without second-guessing themselves. In other ways, however, the two couldn’t be more disparate. Brienne doesn’t reject the concept of patriarchy and gender roles — she just considers herself placed in the wrong role. While Brienne hides her femininity whenever possible, Asha embraces it. She doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a woman. She doesn’t call herself ‘king’ when asserting her right to the throne; she is a queen through-and-through.

This, of course, presents some problems for her. While it’s hard to say for certain, I suspect that if she had cut her hair short, taped down her breasts and called herself by a male name, she might in fact have an easier time gathering support for her reign. The Ironborn are all about tradition; even overturning the strictly hereditary rule of the Greyjoys is only allowable because the tradition of kingsmoot supports it. Thus, a king would likely be far preferable to a queen, even if that “king” was only arguably male (and to be sure, it would take a lot of arguing on Asha’s part).

But Asha don’t play that. As referenced in the quote above, she ignores the rules of the game and chooses a third path. To be unabashedly female while claiming the rights and duties of the male son of King Balon. And it goes … okay.

Asha’s queensmoot is mostly a failure for her, and the crown is handed to Euron instead. Arguably, however, this is less because of her sex and more because of her commitment to a level of pacifism which doesn’t contrast well with Euron’s promise of a-rapin’ and a-pillagin’ (one could, I suppose, argue that Asha’s less violent stance is a function of her gender and upbringing, but I digress). Though many of the Ironborn initially seem to support Asha’s claim, Euron’s promise to conquer all of Westeros is too tempting to ignore.

There are two main takeaways from this. One is that Asha does much better than anyone, especially her uncles, actually expected. Could it be that the Ironborn aren’t as adherent to gender roles as we assumed? Well, yes and no. Mostly no. Women still have an awful time in the Iron Islands, which is saying something given how misogynistic the mainland of Westeros is. One look at the concept of salt wives, the slave concubines of Ironmen, is enough to prove that. But the kingsmoot proves that this lack of respect for women is not necessarily unrelenting for an individual woman. This is a common theme when dealing with feminist characters in a decidedly non-feminist world — disadvantages can be overcome if you’re strong enough, smart enough and persistent enough.

The other interesting aspect of the kingsmoot is that it’s not quite clear whether Asha’s gender actually damns her. One the one hand, it’s clearly Euron’s appeal to violence and use of the dragon horn that puts him over the top. The crowd doesn’t really care what he’s got dangling between his legs; they want plunder and dragons.

On the other hand, if Asha had the clear, unambiguous support of several of her uncles, especially Aeron and his vassals, she would have been in a much better position to take the throne. Even in the face of Euron’s appeal-to-dragons (which is by far the best rhetorical device since the Chewbacca Defense), a clear descendant with the backing of Ironborn leaders likely would have prevailed. It was Asha’s gender which prevented her from getting the support of her uncles, and it’s very possible that sans this little detail, Asha would have been propelled to victory.

This doesn’t detract from Asha’s power as a character, though. If anything, it adds to it. It’s good for characters to fail, and smashing the patriarchy is far from trivial. More often than not, the hammer will bounce off the glass and hit you in the face. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, and it doesn’t mean that adhering to society’s expectations is the only sensible course of action. I’m with Asha: play the game, but screw the rules.

Reddit, Jezebel, Free Speech and Anonymity on the Internet

For those of you who don’t follow Internet drama, congratulations. You almost certainly have a more fulfilling day-to-day life than I do. But there were some pretty interesting events over the past week that I feel compelled to write about.

Reddit is an extraordinarily popular website. It’s basically an open slate — users can submit links (or simply text, like questions or statements), other users vote these links up or down and the most highly upvoted jump to the top. Reddit has something of a problem with misogyny and racism, as you’d expect with an unmoderated site. One community in particular, known as /r/CreepShots, is wholly devoted to taking pictures of unknowing, non-consenting women’s body parts in public (usually in tight pants or low-cut shirts) and posting them for users to masturbate to.

ShitRedditSays, a group formed to call out misogynist, racist bullshit on Reddit, started a media campaign to get CreepShots shut down. This was mostly a failure … until yesterday, when all hell broke loose. A (now defunct) tumblr popped up detailing names and personal information of several of the CreepShots creeps, and Jezebel posted an in-depth story covering the controversy. Needless to say, Reddit was outraged. Partially because they love creepy shit, partially because they are of the mindset that unfettered free speech is an unassailable ideal in every single case, and that to censor anything will mean the death of a free society, and partially because they have an aversion to the concept of “doxxing,” or posting the personal information of anonymous posters.

I’m not going to talk about Reddit loving creepy shit, because SRS does a fine job of that. Instead, I’ll talk about the free speech/doxxing issue.

1) On free speech: Reddit is not the government. I’m completely behind the concept of free speech when it pertains to laws and government intervention. I’m not at all behind it when it comes to private spaces moderating what speech is acceptable. You are free to post whatever horrible racist drivel you want on the Internet. You are not free to post it on my website. Reddit moderating objectively terrible content like CreepShots is not a violation of free speech in any way, regardless of the legality of creepy pictures.

2) On doxxing: there’s a hilarious double-standard for the Reddit hivemind here. Reddit defends CreepShots in the name of “free speech”, and yet, is completely unwilling to do so for doxxing. Newsflash — doxxing is legal and morally ambiguous in the same way CreepShots is. If you’re defending CreepShots in the name of “it’s legal speech,” you have no ground to object to doxxing. Absolutely none.

All of this leads to an interesting idea: what if there was no anonymity on the Internet?

A radical idea, I know, though I’m hardly the first one to think about it. One of my college professors (Computer Science, natch) advocated this approach, and at the time, I had a knee-jerk reaction against it. But if you think about it a bit further, there are some benefits. For one, no more doxxing. If everything you post on the Internet has your real name right there for everyone to see, the worry that someone’s going to out you, well … disappears. In addition, some (not nearly all, unfortunately) of the consequence-free marginalizing blather will dry up as well. John Q. Smith is going to be a lot less willing to post a creepy picture of a woman’s ass without her knowledge when an employer searching for “John Q. Smith” will bring up John’s creepiness.

Downsides? Of course. It fucking sucks that the Internet has the mindset of “default = straight white male,” and stepping outside of that opens you up to attacks. Many people choose not to fight against this, and refrain from identifying themselves as a woman, or gay, or transgender, to protect themselves. I totally understand. A non-anonymous Internet would take that strategy away from marginalized peoples, which I’m not totally comfortable doing. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that the default assumption might disappear once the diversity of people on the Internet is made more clear.

There’s also a host of smaller issues. It becomes a lot more difficult to do anything of questionable legality online, which is sort of … good and bad. While I’m not really an advocate of piracy, I don’t relish the idea of the RIAA having full access to torrent logs and the ability to match IP addresses to names. And I don’t like the idea of being outed for your interest in fully legal, fully consensual furry pony porn.

But there needs to be some sort of solution. The idea that the Internet should be a consequence-free zone for the worst sorts of behavior going into the future is not acceptable to me. And while I know that to Reddit and 4Chan, this unrestrained nature is the very key to the Internet, but I simply don’t see that as sustainable. When these doxxing and counter-doxxing and triple-reverse-revenge-doxxing start to happen everyday, I think we’ll see a lot of people naturally move from the “what happens on the Internet doesn’t count” model. The best course of action is likely for the Internet to remain anonymous, but for the vast majority of people to pretend like it isn’t.

What do y’all think? Do the benefits of an anonymous Internet outweigh the use of anonymity as a shield for deplorable actions?

How Women Play The Game in “A Feast For Crows”: Part One of Five

I‘ve been wanting to put together a little exposé on the women of A Song of Ice and Fire for a while, and after reading and rereading and processing A Feast for Crows, I’ve got a few ideas that make sense. The fourth book in the series, AFfC is actually a wonderful entry for those, like me, who are drawn to women characters, as it’s nearly all about them. All the point of view characters except for Sam, Jaime and the one-offs (Jaime and the One-Offs, that’s a band name) are girls or women, all of them unique in their leveraging of power.

To that end, this blog series (which will run for five weeks, as I’m covering five characters) will explore the vastly different ways each character plays The Game of Thrones. It began as a single post, but I quickly discovered it was far longer than anyone would reasonably read in one setting. So I’ll do it as a serial, and maybe collect it all in one place afterward, for posterity.

I’ll repeat this for each entry, but this will contain SPOILERSOMG up through the end of A Feast For Crows. I think the spoilers for that book are fairly minor (though present), but if you haven’t read at least the third book, I’d stay away.

With that disclaimer, let’s get started.

Playing by the Rules ~ Cersei Lannister

I cannot let them see me cry. A woman may weep, but not a queen.

Illustration courtesy of arcticorset / M Pardo

Cersei Lannister. The woman everyone loves to hate — often unjustly, for many of the evil deeds ascribed to her (the crippling and attempted assassination of Bran, the execution of Ned Stark) actually had nothing to do with her. Still, no one can deny that Cersei is a, shall we say, enterprising woman. Lord’s daughter to ruling queen (regent, but don’t you dare add that modifier in her presence) in just a few years. Not bad.

The interesting thing about Cersei when set against the other women in the series is that her power derives completely and utterly from patriarchy. She marries King Robert at the behest of her father, serves as advisor for Joffrey, and then finally as guardian of the realm for young Tommen. An astute reader would expect this would make Cersei quite bitter, and the astute reader would be correct. Nearly all of Cersei’s major character flaws result from her living in — and being forced to wring the tiniest amount of power from — a male-dominated society. This is what tends to irk me about a lot of the hatred toward Cersei. Some of it is pointed — to be sure, Cersei is not all that likeable, and she’s not all that noble, and many of her actions, especially toward Tyrion, are inexcusable. But too much of the criticism is simple misogyny: “I hate that fuckin’ bitch!” without any recognition about why her mindset is so problematic.

At the best of times, she is thought of as a pawn by those around her, completely lacking control of her own destiny in even the most fundamental way. In A Feast For Crows, this changes drastically. Tyrion is gone, Joffrey (who truly is a little shit and deserves all the hate he gets), Robert and Tywin are all dead and can no longer lord their privilege over her. For once in her life, she is finally in control.

And Cersei just can’t deal.

Most of her life has been lived surrounded by enemies, even in her own family. This has led to a highly tuned and fairly ruthless survival instinct. That’s helpful during the times Cersei is actually threatened, but unfortunately, it’s also led to extreme paranoia and, well, short-sightedness. Let me expand on that.

When I first read A Feast For Crows, I was a bit disappointed in Cersei; specifically, in her decision to allow the Faith Militant (essentially Westeros’s version of the Templars) to reorganize. Up to this point, Cersei has been many things, but she has not been stupid. Allowing the Faith to create an entire army outside her control is stupid. I struggled with her characterization here for a long while, perhaps even thinking that Martin made something of a mistake when writing her. That’s when a fellow writer pointed out that the decision wasn’t purely idiotic, it was just myopic.

Ah, there we have it.

Cersei’s life of playing by the rules even when they’re stacked against her has made her intensely greedy. I do not mean greedy in the usual sense, that all she cares about is riches. No, Cersei is greedy in the game theory/algorithmic sense. A greedy player is one who strives to make the best play possible at any given moment without thinking ahead in the game. It’s a simple strategy, and often a losing one in most complex games. Think about chess; top players think three, four, perhaps ten moves ahead, and often the winning move is to play conservatively in the short term (even doing things like sacrificing pieces) for a long term gain.

This is something that’s beyond Cersei. Acquiescing to the Faith Militant squares her debt to the church, full-stop. Whatever happens tomorrow is tomorrow’s problem. This worldview makes Cersei the most inflexible of all the women I plan to cover, which is why, in the end, she’s the least likely to keep any real power. But this is the flaw that makes her very tragic (in modern parlance as well as classical), because for much of her life, that focus on surviving the here-and-now was a virtue, and it may have been the only thing that got her this far.

I could also go into Cersei’s use of sex as a resource, but I probably won’t, as that’s been dealt with enough. Suffice it to say that there’s nothing transgressive about her here. A woman using sex is conventional in this society, and Cersei uses what’s available to her. It is interesting that she uses her sexuality while condemning Margaery for the same thing, imagined or not, but oh now I’m off on a tangent, and I have more characters to deal with!

Next week, I’ll discuss Asha Greyjoy, the Daughter of the Kraken. I don’t want to give too much away, but consider that Cersei can be said to play by the rules of the Game, and Asha is almost her polar opposite in that regard.

(Classic) Review: “Herland,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“Life is a stuggle, has to be,” he insisted. “If there is no struggle, there is no life–that’s all.”

Utopian fiction is a tricky business. It’s generally a misnomer at best. Utopian fiction often falls into one of three categories: Utopia that turns out to be the utter opposite of paradise for some, if not all, of the inhabitants (dystopia); Utopia that turns out to be flawed in one way or another; or, a utopia that actually is heaven on Earth. The first two types of stories are generally more interesting. The third, unfortunately, is where Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland falls.

That’s not to say there’s not some very interesting ideas here. Herland was written near the beginning of the 20th Century, and many of Gilman’s thoughts are ahead of her time. The main problem, however, lies in Gilman’s choice of outlet. What may have been better suited for an essay is instead formulated as a sort of adventure novel that never quite gives us an adventure.

Herland revolves around a simple premise. Somewhere in the unexplored jungle lies a pristine, modern paradise populated solely by women. A group of intrepid (not really) explorers stumble upon what they call Herland, and the inhabitants teach them their history, their culture and their way of life. That’s it. There are relatively few twists (the men try to escape at one point, fail, and are brought back). The ending isn’t too unexpected. It’s really more of a what-if essay than a fleshed out story.

In a somewhat interesting choice for feminist literature, Gilman uses male protagonists to filter the reader’s view of the issues at hand. Our viewpoint character is Van Jennings, a sort of middle-of-the-road kind of guy who can see both sides of any argument. This makes for a kind of boring and timid “hero” (if you can call him that, which, now that I think about it, no, no you can’t), but I can see why Gilman chose him. The reader is not really asked to follow along for any sweeping judgments. Instead, we identify with Van as he observes the other two male characters: Terry Nicholson and Jeff Margrave.

Terry is, to put it bluntly, an ass. He holds the traditional turn-of-the-century views of women, but escalated to sometimes comical levels. To Terry, women are silly little things with no real intelligence or capability, obviously the inferior sex, and only really necessary as a motivation for men. One of the best examples of his character: to him, the existence of Herland is less of a scientific impossibility than a social one. He argues against the concept of female-only reproduction (which, in one of the most speculative aspects of the story, is identified as parthenogenesis). But to him, the craziest part of this country is the idea of women living amongst themselves with no men to run the town, grow the crops, maintain and invent the technology and stop all that silly female bickering.

If Terry is the resident misogynist, Jeff resides squarely in the opposite side of crazy. He represents the pro-feminist camp, which is generally cool, but sometimes creepily approaches putting women on a pedastal (something, it should be mentioned, Terry does as well, but in more of a “women are so frail, they shouldn’t do work” kind of way). I’m not sure if this is intentional on Gilman’s part, or if Jeff is supposed to be a positive character and our modern ideas of feminism have just changed in the past 100 years. However, given the fact that Jeff is not our central character, I’d like to believe the former.

Jeff and Terry frequently spar over the roles of women in society, while Van watches on, giving us the novel’s only real conflict. Unfortunately, this conflict becomes repetitive almost immediately. The woman claim they have accomplished some spectacular achievement, Terry says no, that’s impossible because woman are stupid and silly, Jeff says nuh-uh cause women are awesome! All while Van nods his head and jots it all down in his mental notebook.

My other criticism, beyond the lack of a real plot, is that Gilman’s female characters all sort of run together. A strange thought, isn’t it? In a book about the exceptionalism of women, the women become exceptionally stale and boring. There’s really no difference in any of them. They’re all incredibly smart, capable, confident in themselves and their culture. The three women who end up getting paired off with the males (Ellador, Celis and Alima) seem different in temperament, but that’s only because they are given different situations to react to  (Alima, who gets to deal with Terry, is obviously going to behave differently than Celis, who gets Jeff).

So what’s to like about Herland? Gilman’s subtle references to feminist thinking of the time. In one of my favorite passages of the book, one of the women brings up the concept of being trapped in one’s own home and life:

“It’s not the same thing at all,” [Terry] insisted. “A man wants a home of his own, with his wife and family in it.”

“Staying in it? All the time?” asked Ellador. “Not imprisoned, surely!”

“Of course not! Living there–nautrally,” he answered.

The point being how silly it is to consider a woman’s confinement in her home “natural.” This is very likely a reference to Gilman’s own The Yellow Wallpaper (a speculative-ish feminist story surrounding a woman’s depression and confinement. It’s absolutely fantastic). It is also oddly similar to Virginia Woolf’s then-unwritten A Room of One’s Own, though exploring the idea of living quarters in opposite directions.

It is moments like these that made me sit up and evaluate Gilman’s work in the greater pantheon of feminist literature. To my disappointment, there were exceedingly few moments that made me sit up and consider her work in the realm of adventure or speculative fiction. Maybe this isn’t so bad. I’m sure Gilman was more concerned about her feminist themes than whether or not her work could be adapted into a Syfy Original Movie. But if one were to read, say, a feminist western, one would hope that the work had something to add to both of those genres.

The most relevant passage in the book seems to be the one I quoted at the beginning of this post. Terry asserts that life must be filled with struggles to be worthwhile, and the women inform him that, no, living in a perfect world is perfectly satisfactory. In my interpretation, Gilman is speaking directly to the reader at this point. It seems evident that she knew that her story was more about the themes and ideas than any sort of character development. And she seems okay with that. I guess, in the end, that’s all we can hope from an author — that everything they do is done with full knowledge and purpose.

For fans of feminist literature, Herland is sort of a must-read. In fact, I’d assume most fans of feminist literature have already read it. That’s like saying “If you’re a fan of fantasy, you simply must read this Tolkien fellow!” But, as it is a very early example of utopian/futurist fiction, it may be of interest to specfic fans. And if that’s your sole interest, you may want to skip Herland. It doesn’t go much further than its synopsis. Instead, for feminist science fiction, go for any of Margaret Atwood’s books (ignore her unfortunate views on science fiction), or the aforementioned work, Gilman’s seminal The Yellow Wallpaper.

Herland can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg.