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Cass Morris: For women, isolation from one’s gender seems somehow an essential component of heroism

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an essay from Cass Morris!

“She’s Not Alone”—Or Is She?: The History of Idealized Friendship and the Limited Scope of Female Bonds in Blockbuster Sci-Fi and Fantasy
By Cass Morris

One of the greatest essayists of the Renaissance, Michel de Montaigne, wrote of friendship as “a general and universal fire, but temperate and equal, a constant established heat, all gentle and smooth, without poignancy or roughness.” He qualifies, however, that “the ordinary talent of women is not such as is sufficient to maintain the conference and communication required to the support of this sacred tie; nor do they appear to be endued with constancy of mind, to sustain the pinch of so hard and durable a knot.”

Montaigne was a brilliant man in many respects, but in this, I think we can all agree, he was staggeringly deficient.

Montaigne took his ideas from a long tradition of what the Romans called amicitia, a concept of perfect friendship: selfless, noble, virtuous, occurring between two men. Always two men. Women, the ancients and centuries’ worth of their descendants believed, were simply incapable of forming such flawless bonds. Not that women were considered entirely without merit—Aristotle spoke of marriage between a man and a woman as “a kind of friendship,” capable of providing delight, but still imperfect, born in almost all cases of the two lesser varieties of interpersonal bond, utility and pleasure, and damaged further by the inequality of status and power between husband and wife.

In some degree of fairness, true amicitia was thought to be rare even among men. The second century Roman author Seneca counted only six pairs of men throughout all of history up to that point who could fulfill the requirements, largely because the two men had to be precisely equal. Brothers could not truly be friends, in this mindset, because issues of inheritance would always come between them. A king could have no friends, since he had no equals—except among other kings, who would necessarily also be his rivals. Friends could not be indebted to each other, nor quarrel over romantic entanglements. Cicero thought friendships developed in maturity to be the best, stating that “friendships should be formed after strength and stability have been reached in mind and age.”

Despite these strictures placed upon it, the ideal of amicitia persisted in Western tradition throughout the classical era. It took on new tones in the medieval era, influenced by Teutonic stories of brothers-in-arms. Writers of the Renaissance blended these two traditions to create something both cerebral and emotional, and the concept has survived to this day in the concept of the “bromance.”

Obviously, people of all genders are capable of deep and true friendships. We know this. But popular fiction has been slower to represent those friendships, particularly in the franchises with the most money and media attention behind them. Forget classical ideals of amicitia; just getting two women on-screen at the same time, let alone bonding, let alone anything approaching a “perfect” friendship, has been a decades-long challenge.

In many cases, the dominant trope of “The Chick,” the inclusion of a token female character in a cast of male heroes, left those female characters adrift without even the possibility of forming bonds with other women. In the original Star Wars trilogy, Princess Leia is scarcely ever in the same room as another woman. The original Star Trek gave us only Uhura on the main cast. In Lord of the Rings, Eowyn rejects female companionship along with traditional femininity, and while we may presume that the ethereally distant figures of Arwen and Galadriel interact with other female Elves, we never see those interactions on page or screen. In Marvel comics, Jean Grey and Susan Storm were initially the only female members of their respective teams. For women, isolation from one’s gender seemed somehow an essential component of heroism.

The same is not true for men. Even if we hold ourselves to the classical ideals, eliminating family bonds and those with significant power differentials, we don’t have to look far for an abundance of examples. Luke and Han, Han and Chewie, Poe and Finn, Steve and Bucky, Rocket and Groot, Merry and Pippin, Harry and Ron, Kirk and Spock—the list could go on and on.

Even in modern sci-fi and fantasy, where casts are more likely to clear the so-low-you-could-trip-over-it bar of gender diversity, it remains a rarity for the women to be shown forming significant bonds with each other. Particularly in the largest franchises, female characters are often divvied up like a resource to be shared among the various components of the story. Place a girl with each section of the team, someone to be the “heart,” the conscience, and/or the romantic interest/sex object, depending on the tenor of the story, and call it a day.

We can look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an example: A 2018 list of twenty-five MCU friendships included only one example of a friendship between two women among twenty-four bro-pairs or male-female bonds, and that was from the Netflix show Jessica Jones, not any of the mega-blockbuster films. Most sub-components of the franchise feature only one major female character at a time. Tony’s circle includes Pepper Potts (conscience and sex interest) and initially introduces us to Natasha Romanoff, but their few interactions are spoiled by internalized misogyny. Natasha also forms part of Steve’s circle, but never at the same time as Peggy (romantic interest). Natasha herself, the only female Avenger in the main line-up for the first three phases of the MCU, never leads her own story, but serves as the romantic interest/sex object, whether explicitly in the narrative or merely teased for the audience, to Hawkeye, Steve, and Bruce Banner at various points. Thor’s circle gives us Jane Foster (romantic interest), Frigga (conscience), the Lady Sif (conscience/heart), and Valkyrie (who blessedly defies those markers; if anything, Thor serves as the heart for her), but only brief interactions between any of them. Black Panther is a notable exception, with Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia, who clearly have their own relationships with each other outside of those they have with T’Challa. And, of course, 2019 gave us Carol and Maria (a relationship heartily embraced by much of the queer community as perhaps having a romantic and/or sexual component in addition to friendship). These may indicate a move in a positive direction, but it took the MCU a decade of mega-hits to get even this far.

Black Panther - Shuri Black Panther - Okoye Black Panther - Nakia

We can also consider A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. Both the books and the show are replete with female characters, to be certain. The split of point-of-view characters is representative. And yet those female characters are rarely afforded the opportunity to form close bonds or even to interact with each other—and almost never outside the bounds of family. The traveling pairs are predominantly either all-male or male-female—Ayra and the Hound, Brienne and Jaime, Jon and Ygritte. Ygritte is the only woman in her pack of wildling raiders; Asha/Yara Greyjoy is likewise singular among her Ironborn reavers. We are told that Margaery Tyrell has a flock of cousins and friends, but in the show, we never learn their names, and in the books, Margaery is never a point-of-view character, while Sansa, whose eyes the reader mostly sees Margaery through, is shunted to the outside of their merry circle, so we are never afforded the opportunity to know just what those bonds are really like. Show!Margaery makes more of an effort to befriend Sansa, but politics intervene, and there remains a troubling power differential between them.

Season Six of Game of Thrones offered us something truly tantalizing: not quite classically perfect friendship, but an opportunity to see multiple powerful women working together towards a common cause. Daenerys Targaryen forms a matriarchal alliance with Olenna Tyrell, Ellaria Sand, and Yara Greyjoy—and yet that gets smashed almost as soon as it is offered. Any potential friendships have no chance to succeed. Other relationships are held away from amicitia by those impediments enumerated by classical authors: differences in status, as with Daenerys and her handmaidens or Cersei and her courtiers, or the rivalries of kinship, as with the Sand Snakes. Catelyn and Brienne are closer-matched, and perhaps the closest the narrative comes to depicting amicitia between women, but there is still an element of rank in their dynamic; Brienne pledges an oath not to a friend, but to a lady of her parents’ generation whom she admires and feels she needs to do right by.

A Game of Thrones

Season 8 continues the trend. Sansa and Daenerys are set up as rivals, each jealously growling in defense of her perceived territory, rather than transcending such peevishness in the name of a greater cause. It seems such a woeful missed opportunity. Both women have suffered heinous abuse and come through stronger-forged; both know what it is to be let down and betrayed by the men they have trusted; both women have lost their systems of support and had to build new ones. They could enjoy a magnificent friendship, but instead, seem to have fallen into the “there can be only one female leader” mindset.

We might attribute all those fractured and fractious relationships to the nature of that fictional universe, if not for the camaraderie that is afforded to many of the men. When disaster threatens on the eve of the Battle of Winterfell, men come together, including those like Tyrion Lannister and Davos Seaworth, who have previously fought against each other on the battlefield, and even those with personal grievances like Beric Dondarrion and Sandor Clegane who literally fought to the death. They are allowed to reconcile, fight alongside one another, and share a laugh and a skin of wine. The women are not afforded the same opportunity. The night before battle, they are either isolated from other women (Arya, Brienne, Missandei, Gilly, Lyanna) or prowling snappishly around each other (Sansa, Daenerys). The show could have given us any number of significant moments between them: Sansa and Daenerys finding true common ground and setting aside petty jealousy in the face of adversity, Brienne and Arya and Lyanna bonding over their warrior skills and teaching other women how to defend themselves, Gilly offering comfort to Missandei as another woman despised as an outsider by the Northerners. But none of those were stories the showrunners found meritorious. The series closes with Sansa surrounded by male knights in the North, Arya by male sailors on her ship, Gilly alive and pregnant but unseen in the finale episode, and Brienne apparently doomed to a lifetime of trying to get Tyrion and Bronn to stop talking about brothels long enough to govern. Each surviving woman is entirely isolated from any other female influence.

I am weary of it.

Certainly there are authors out there writing magnificent bonds between women, plenty of them—as well as friendships between women and men, and between people of all genders. N.K. Jemisin, Gail Carriger, Kate Elliott, Sarah Kuhn, Roshani Chokshi, Tomi Adeyemi, Noelle Stevenson, and numerous others have produced works featuring not only multiple female characters, but female characters who work with each other, appreciate each other, enjoy each other, bond with each other. Yet blockbuster media seems reluctant to embrace such stories. 34 years after the initial development of the Bechdel-Wallace Test, we still find it worth commenting on when a major film manages to pass it.

Things may be on the verge of changing. Audiences cheered the all-female splash-page-esque shot in Avengers: Endgame, which brought together the amazing ladies of the franchise in an echo of the A-Force comics. If the MCU embraced that, rather than assuming we will be satisfied with a mere moment of fanservice and began developing films centering not just singular female heroes but coalitions of women, it would be a major step forward for narratives of friendship in Western media.

Captain Marvel - Carol Captain Marvel - Maria

I’m not suggesting we need women to match the ideals of classical friendship. Amicitia is an ancient trope that has influenced centuries’ worth of storytelling, but it’s restrictive and rather dispassionate. Wouldn’t it be amazing, though, if female and non-binary characters in major franchises were afforded the same opportunities for the full spectrum of emotional bonds as male characters are? Sisterhoods forged in fire and trials, wise mentors and plucky youngsters, enemies-to-friends, forbidden friendships, intergenerational friendships, healthy rivalries without malice—I want to see all the tropes, represented in as many permutations as men have always enjoyed, for the benefit of worldwide audiences.

And wouldn’t it be a fine thing if we could get some media might behind those stories that already feature these bonds and forms of friendship? And celebrate the authors who have already created them?

The question, then, is how do we put pressure on media conglomerates to tell stories which feature friendship bonds other than those between two men? We can vote with our dollars, of course. We can make sure we buy books featuring a variety of women with complex relationships to each other; we can run up the box office on Captain Marvel. Women spend more money on entertainment than men do across almost every form of media. So. How do we harness that collective power?


Cass Morris

Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia and as a bookseller in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart. Her debut novel, From Unseen Fire: Book One of the Aven Cycle, is a Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books.

 

Rebecca Kim Wells: I grew up as an irrepressible tomboy who fell victim to the unfortunate misogynistic belief that I wasn’t like “other girls.”

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome a personal essay from Rebecca Kim Wells!

How Tamora Pierce’s Books Saved Me from the Curse of “Not Like Other Girls”
By Rebecca Kim Wells

Alanna

I grew up as an irrepressible tomboy who fell victim to the unfortunate misogynistic belief that I wasn’t like “other girls.” I roughhoused, played competitive sports, wore oversize jeans and t-shirts every day of my teenage years, and secretly thought of myself as better than the girls around me who wore dresses or nail polish. I was encouraged to be strong, healthy, smart, and athletic—and I was all those things. I heartily encourage those things. But what I didn’t understand as a child was that gender presentation is a fluid exercise, not an either/or situation in which anyone who chooses incorrectly (and in my mind there very much was an incorrect choice) is “shallow.”

There are lots of reasons for this, and I don’t mean to say that being a tomboy by definition means rejecting “other girls.” One of those reasons almost certainly was the fact that I grew up in a house without an adult female presence, and as a result, felt as though the door that unlocked the secrets of womanhood—whatever secrets those were—had been hidden from me. I considered myself an alien among girls, and over the years my feelings of superiority mingled with feelings of insecurity as I wanted desperately to know how the girls around me seemed to effortlessly understand things that for me, might has well have been written in a language I didn’t understand. (When I bought my first razor, I didn’t realize that electric razors needed to be charged, and ended up locking myself in the bathroom for close to an hour as my family was getting ready to leave the house. It was dire.)

Then I discovered Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series.

The Tiger's Daughter The Woman who Rides Like a Man

Most of you are likely already familiar with these books—so formative to so many fantasy readers in the 1990s—but for those who aren’t, here’s the brief overview. Alanna (a dedicated, smart, physically capable girl without a mother) is determined to become a knight in a kingdom where (you guessed it) only men can hold that title. So she pretends to be a boy and trades places with her twin brother so that she can take his place at court. I loved Alanna, and devoured the quartet whole. From Alanna I learned dedication and determination and how to stand just as tall as any boy. But I also learned lessons from several other female characters in the series, lessons that were more important than I realized at the time.

Once at court, Alanna does pretty well at being a knight, but struggles with aspects of traditional femininity. When she gets her period, she doesn’t immediately understand what is happening. It takes an older woman, the mother of one of her acquaintances, to explain menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and birth control to her. “The talk” is a common occurrence in the lives of people assigned female at birth, but the scene as depicted in Alanna: The First Adventure sent the message home to me that there is a wealth of wisdom in traditionally female domains.

One can certainly argue with many ways in which gender is presented in the Song of the Lioness series. Alanna in particular struggles mightily with her own lack of understanding of things that are coded female in the world of Tortall, as well as the fact that her livelihood depends on her being as good or better than the boys around her—even after she is knighted and has proven herself worthy, gender aside. The third book in the series is literally titled The Woman Who Rides Like a Man. (What does a man ride like? Why is “like a man” the gold standard?)

Lioness Rampant

But later books in the series (and further series in the same world) begin to interrogate these boundaries. In Lioness Rampant, the final book in the quartet, Alanna encounters Thayet, a princess of a neighboring kingdom who is in desperate need of assistance. Though Alanna initially expects her to be a simpering princess (she is exceptionally beautiful), Thayet soon shows her principles and proves her own intelligence. She advises Alanna on romantic entanglements, refuses to be led anywhere by the nose, and, after marrying King Jonathan, founds the Queen’s Riders, a battle troop that accepts both women and men. Thayet is beautiful, intellectual, and formidable, a woman written into the world of Tortall in part to challenge Alanna’s—and my—assumptions about what a woman can look like and be.

First Test

Further books by Tamora Pierce press further upon this issue. The third quartet set in Tortall, the Protector of the Small series, features Keladry, the first girl to apply to become a knight since girls have been allowed to join. Though she is similar to Alanna in many ways, Kel also spent several years of her childhood in the Yamani Islands, and trained with the noblewomen there in the use of the glaive and fan. Though in the Islands the weapons are meant to be used primarily for self-defense, the fact that noblewomen are expected to be competent with them helps deepen the gender portrayals in the world.

Sandry's Book

Going beyond the world of Tortall, Tamora Pierce also explores the idea of strength in the traditionally “feminine” in the Circle of Magic quartet, wherein three girls, a boy, and two crochety guardians are thrown together to form one of the best found family series I read as a child. The series is notable for the connections it draws between magic and “feminine” arts—Sandry’s magic is tied to threadwork, Tris’s weather magic is deeply tied to how in touch she is with her emotional landscape, and Briar (a boy) finds his magic in greenery and growing plants.

Power and legitimacy in the feminine. Like many books published in this time, Tamora Pierce’s work is not immune from criticism—of its portrayal of different races, sexualities, and even gender roles. But immersing myself in these stories still meant finding all sorts of female characters to respect and to emulate—warrior women, intellectuals, empaths; women who wore dresses and finery and those who did not; women of all sorts, all with their own individual power. Reading Tamora Pierce’s books provided me with a lens through which I saw and understood new ways of being female, ways that complicated the “strong female character” mantra I’d lived by without interrogating since childhood.

I wish it were so easy—that reading a book could immediately undo every impression of gender stereotyping and internalized misogyny I’ve ever experienced or perpetuated. But understanding the world and my place in it is the work of a lifetime, as are the choices I make every day in expressing my gender when I decide how to dress, what to put on my face, how to interact with the people around me. I’ve grown a lot from who I was as a child (I hope we can all say the same thing about ourselves!). I no longer make assumptions about someone’s seriousness based on how they choose to express their gender. Though I’m still a t-shirt and jeans sort of person, I sometimes wear dresses—and when I do, I don’t feel awkward about it. I’ve learned, and am still learning, a lot about internalized misogyny, toxic masculinity, and the fallacies of gender essentialism. And I can credit many of the books I read as a child, especially those set in Tortall, as opening the door.


Rebecca Kim Wells

Rebecca Kim Wells is the author of Shatter the Sky, an angry bisexual dragon YA fantasy novel coming from Simon & Schuster on July 30, and its sequel Storm the Earth, forthcoming in Fall 2020. She holds a BA in Political Science from UC Berkeley and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Simmons College. When not writing, reading, or talking about writing or reading, she sells books at a fiercely independent bookstore in Massachusetts. She can also be found drinking tea, singing along to musicals, or playing soccer. (Usually not all at once.) If she were a hobbit, she would undoubtedly be a Took.

 

Robyn Bennis: I always know how the employees have gendered me at the hardware store.

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome a personal essay from Robyn Bennis!

The Law of Large Numbers as a Substitute for Being Trans at the Hardware Store
A Treatise in Support of Calling Out Every Single Act of Petty Sexism in Your Life

By Robyn Bennis

I always know how the employees have gendered me at the hardware store.

This is one of those things, I suspect, that cisgender folk don’t even think about, but it’s a background concern to most transgender people. My every interaction with a stranger starts with the unspoken question, “Does this asshole think I’m a woman or a fruitily dressed man?” There’s also the possibility that they read me as nonbinary, but if I’m in that sort of company, I can let my guard down. Otherwise, knowing a person’s read on me can make the difference between a pleasant interaction, an awkward ordeal, or even assault.

The Guns Above

Which is why there’s a silver lining to the gendered treatment I notice at the hardware store. Sure, I have to exert a supreme effort to keep from rolling my eyes while the orange-shirted sales associate explains that gypsum is not a type of plaster (it is) and that I probably mean drywall (I don’t), which is the ideal repair material for my vintage lath and plaster walls (it isn’t—that would be barbarism). And yes, it ends up taking five minutes for the guy to say, essentially, “No, we don’t carry that,” but at least I know he reads me as female. If, on the other hand, we have a pleasant interaction during which each of us learns something about building materials and home repair, I know he’s read me as male, and I know that I should take care to not disabuse him of that notion, lest things get weird.

At this point, you may be asking, “What the hell does this have to do with my life?”

The key question I’m interested in, however, is what the hell does it NOT have to do with your life? I’m not trying to be funny. (I don’t have to try.) I’m legitimately asking you to look at the difference.

The answer is, when you’re trans at the hardware store, you know when you’re getting hit with low-key sexism. In most other situations, you never quite do. I mean, maybe that reviewer on Amazon was disappointed by your book’s “YA writing” because of subconscious sexism, or because the last young adult book they actually read was in the Hardy Boys series, or both. Maybe your boss pitched your own idea back to you because he’s so used to taking women’s ideas that he doesn’t even notice anymore, maybe he’s merely oblivious, or maybe he’s just an asshole. The point is, you don’t know, and given the perverse way burden of proof works against the victim rather than the purveyor of bigotry—even when the purveyor is safely anonymous—you can’t even bring up everyday sexism in mixed company without risk of a high roading from the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd.

By Fire Above

This, despite humanity’s ten-thousand-year legacy of subordinating and devaluing women. This, despite countless studies showing persistent bias all across the globe, even today. Seriously, do a Google Scholar search for gender bias and start counting. And while you’re counting, notice how many studies suggest that even the pettiest acts of everyday sexism can add up to fewer options, fewer opportunities, and fewer women in any number of fields.

Yet the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd acts as if this data was gathered in an entirely different universe. Sure, sexism is ubiquitous, but your specific complaints are invalid because you can’t prove them beyond a reasonable doubt. And, besides which, Creeper Larry is probably just socially awkward.

And hey, no one is denying that Creeper Larry is socially awkward, but that only forgives, like, four or five questions about your boob sweat. Six, maximum.

In defending Creeper Larry against your complaints, the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd is appealing to the fact that even a well-controlled scientific study can only tell us the aggregate effect. It can’t tell us whether any individual act is motivated by bias. Even within the study itself, any single observation can be put down to chance. And that’s true for Creeper Larry, too, even though—come on—it’s right there in his name.

So, if you can’t even call an individual act biased when it’s part of a study demonstrating bias, how is one to know? Without, you know, being trans at the hardware store.

The Devil's Guide

The answer, sadly, is you probably don’t. Cis folk lack my superpower, and as the Xanders to my Buffy, you’re just going to have to do what you can with your meager gifts. Which means you’re going to be wrong about some people. At some point, you’re going to think “sexist” when the person in question is actually just “Mr. Oblivious” or “Sir Random Variance the Third, Esquire.” And, given the fact that you’re going to be wrong some of the time, when should you call a putative sexist a sexist, if only with his name changed to protect the creepy?

The answer is related to the very same variance the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd wants to use against you: the law of large numbers. That is to say, the more often you speak up about everyday sexism, the more apt your hit-to-miss ratio is to approach its expected value. If you’re 90% likely to call an instance of everyday sexism correctly, then over time you’ll call 9 out of 10 instances correctly. Indeed, the appeal to variance from the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd leads you inexorably to the conclusion that you should ignore the suspiciously contextual benefit-of-the-doubt crowd entirely and speak the hell up. Not only that, but your horrible friends and co-workers will have a hard time rationalizing Creeper Larry’s behavior as the incidents pile up.

So talk about everyday sexism, even if you lack the certainty of a trans person at the hardware store. Science compels you.


Robyn Bennis

Robyn Bennis is a writer and biologist living in Madison, WI, where she has one cat, two careers, and an apartment full of dreams. She has done research and development involving human gene expression, neural connectomics, cancer diagnostics, rapid flu testing, gene synthesis, genome sequencing, being so preoccupied with whether she could that she never stopped to think if she should, and systems integration. She is the author of The Devil’s Guide to Managing Difficult People (2019) and the Signal Airship series (The Guns Above (2017) and By Fire Above (2018)) from Tor Books and wrote her debut novel within sight of the historic Hangar One at Moffett Airfield.

 

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince is a stunning example of ecofeminist climate fiction

At Sirens, attendees examine fantasy and other speculative literature through an intersectional feminist lens—and celebrate the remarkable work of women and nonbinary people in this space. And each year, Sirens attendees present dozens of hours of programming related to gender and fantasy literature. Those presenters include readers, authors, scholars, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals—and the range of perspectives they offer and topics they address are equally broad, from reader-driven literary analyses to academic research, classroom lesson plans to craft workshops.

This year, Sirens is offering an essay series to both showcase the brilliance of our community and give those considering attending a look at the sorts of topics, perspectives, and work that they are likely to encounter at Sirens. These essays may be adaptations from previous Sirens presentations, the foundation for future Sirens presentations, or something else altogether. We invite you to take a few moments to read these works—and perhaps engage with gender and fantasy literature in a way you haven’t before.

Today, we welcome an academic paper from Nivair H. Gabriel!

“Remake the World”: Algae, Art, and Indigenous Futurist Thought in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince
By Nivair H. Gabriel

The Summer Prince

Asserting that “literary and postcolonial studies have ignored the environmentalism that often only the poor can see,” Rob Nixon defines the concept of “slow violence”: “a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries.” He laments the challenge of crafting narratives that make slow violence apparent in a fast-moving world of immediacy, but notes that “writer-activists in the Southern Hemisphere are giving imaginative definition to catastrophes that often remain imperceptible to the senses, catastrophes that unfold across a time span that exceeds the instance of observation or even the life of the human observer. In a world permeated by insidious, unspectacular violence, imaginative writing can make the unapparent appear, rendering it tangible by humanizing drawn-out calamities inaccessible to the immediate senses.” Rebecca Evans discusses “cli-fi” as a literary response to this challenge, defining “cli-fi” not as a single genre but as “a literary preoccupation with climate futures that draws from a wide range of popular genres.” Cli-fi, she argues, via its use of multiple genres, “narratively conjures the future—a conjuring that inflects the representation of climate justice and the queer politics of futurity itself” (95). A stellar example of cli-fi for young adults is Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, which blends the science fictional and the fantastic to depict an ecofeminist vision. Rooted in a specifically urban sense of place informed by slow violence, and centering a queer, polyamorous relationship, The Summer Prince represents a climate-concerned future that resists both colonialism and heteronormativity. Its ecofeminist critique of the past, informed by indigenous histories, and its open-ended vision of the future bring it into the realm of indigenous futurism.

Palmares Três, the sparkling, futuristic matriarchy where The Summer Prince takes place, is a city of escapees from a plague- and war-ravaged Northern Hemisphere. The foundational belief of Palmares Três echoes Vandana Shiva, who contends that environmental destruction is the fault of capitalism, and cannot be alleviated—let alone reversed—by any solutions conceived within the limitations of modern, Western, patriarchal, capitalist thought. She writes that “all past achievements of patriarchy have been based on alienation from life, and have led to the impoverishment of women, children, and the environment” (88). Hence the matriarchal society of Palmares Três, in a speculated future four hundred years after Shiva’s present: women rule 90% of the time, and when men rule it is only as “summer kings,” figureheads who face inevitable martyrdom to Palmares Três when their term ends. “Kings are men,” June’s mother tells her, “and they can’t be trusted to give up power once they have it” (197). The mandated murder of male rulers exists to remind citizens that patriarchy caused the environmental devastation that turned places like Rio de Janeiro into ruins that humans can only visit in a contamination suit (47). The Queen who founded Palmares Três “put [her king] on a pedestal and … cut him down. A man, like the ones who ruined the world.” To “remake the world,” the story goes, the Queen took “from the world [she knew]”: “Candomblé, which always respected a woman’s power. Catholicism, which always understood the transformation of sacrifice. And Palmares, that legendary self-made city the slaves carved themselves in the jungle, proof that a better world can be built from a bad one” (Johnson 19). The cyclic ritual of king-killing ensures that colonialist patriarchy is perpetually named and condemned for the world’s destruction. Queen Odete, devising a new civilization “in a country that had once been Brazil,” might well have been reading Shiva’s ecofeminist call to action: “Putting women and children first needs above all, a reversal of the logic which has treated women as subordinate because they create life, and men as superior because they destroy it” (88). Aunties, women of advanced age, rule Palmares Três, and they insist that the city remain in isolation from the rest of the colonialist, patriarchal, destroyed world. Johnson’s speculated future makes visible the consequences of the slow violence Nixon observes, and points out “the way that climate change is disproportionately caused and disproportionately experienced along lines of privilege” (Evans 95).

The centrality of Palmares Três and its founding ideology in the text encourage an environmentalist and feminist reading. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas points out that “texts that present urban geographies provide an opportunity for young readers and the stakeholders in their lives to consider the present and future states of our cities wherein the privileged and the challenged meet” (20). Urban geographies “provide orientations and grounding in specific places,” she notes, and “are as diverse and interconnected as that of any natural biome” (14). In the glowing pyramid tiers of Palmares Três, bolstered by its slums of “concrete and algae” (Johnson 112), the story of June—a privileged artist from upper-class Tier Eight—and her love for Enki—a poor dancer from the verde at the bottom of the city—quickly becomes the story of “the politics of the visible and the invisible” (Nixon). June notices her privileged experience of the city when she ventures to the stadium in the lower tier to see the presentation of summer king contenders: “Growing up on Tier Eight, I’m used to seeing the glowing pyramid lattice of Palmares Três from a loftier position” (9). In this particular urban landscape, Enki’s neighborhood carries clear markers that indicate both low class and strong connection to the environment; “we call it the catinga, the stink,” June reveals, “but they call it the verde. Green” (13). The city’s automated voice technology sounds different in June’s top tier than it does in Enki’s bottom one, a difference that surprises the privileged and selectively ignorant June when he tells her (104). Enki’s controversial kingship, his deliberate sacrifice of his own life for the power that fame brings, is his project to illuminate the “hypocrisy of Palmares Três” (64). He insists on dressing in a way that identifies him with the oppressed lower classes in old-Brazil’s history, and reminding the Aunties every chance he gets of the people in the verde who enable their comfortable top-tier lives while struggling to survive storms and floods (34). The old pipelines in the verde recall the environmental destruction of another age whose detritus still stifles the poor (232). June and Enki’s art collaborations draw attention to the struggles of the verde, and to accomplish them they must travel intimately through the city. Regarding Palmares Três’s power grid, June muses, “Energy at no cost, some would say, but Enki and I know better. The cost is the verde, the catinga, the several hundred thousand souls who live at this literal bottom tier of society” (90). June thrills to Enki’s every callout of the Aunties, creating art that underscores his message of environmental justice. June and Enki’s are “intersecting trajectories that blend urban landscapes of privilege and challenge” (Thomas 18). They show that even in a futuristic world founded on apparently ecofeminist principles, Nixon’s “environmentalism of the poor” is still necessary.

The way June uses old-Brazil’s history in her and Enki’s art positions her as an indigenous futurist heroine. As Lynette James writes, “Indigenous futurist heroines cannot be casually ignorant of the circumstances that led to the collapse of major governmental, social, or environmental systems and created the worlds they inhabit. They live in communities in which this information is everyday knowledge” (159). Palmares Três is designed as such a community; grounded in Afro-Brazilian history, it also extrapolates into a future decimated by climate change, in which our Brazilian contemporaries are distant ancestors. June’s narration pulls together ecofeminism and indigenous futurism when she recounts, “It’s as though I can feel the strength of all our ancestors bearing us up. They are the heavy trunk and thick boughs of a tree on which I am only the tiniest budding leaf” (23). June’s revolutionary art grows naturally from her community, which is deeply informed by the history of her people. James describes indigenous futurist heroines who “cannot be whole persons without the relationships that tie them to communities” (171), just as June’s self and her art are defined by her relationship with Palmares Três.

As Evans writes that “representations of climate futures matter in terms of climate justice,” she contends also that “representations of climate futures matter in terms of resisting heteronormative systems” (95). The Summer Prince resists heteronormativity not only in June’s mother and stepmother’s relationship, but also in the love triangle between June, Gil, and Enki, which is queer both in terms of sexuality and in terms of resisting definition and closure. Throughout the novel, Enki insists that he is in love with both Gil and June, and Gil and June, in turn, love him back without attempting to claim him. Gil and June, too, share love, then grief when Enki dies. Enki instructs June not only to preside over a more just society as the new Queen, but also to take care of Gil (286). Unlike many love triangles in young adult fiction, The Summer Prince’s is open-ended, portraying a way that many truths that would appear contradictory by heteronormative standards can all exist at the same time in this queer futurity: Enki loves Gil, June loves Enki, Enki loves June, Gil loves June. Meanwhile, June reckons with the truth that her mother loved her late father and loves her stepmother; neither relationship takes priority, or has more validity, over the other. Complexity, rather than closure, is a primary value in the story; even the culminating symbol of June’s resistance art is “ambiguity” (224). The text’s prioritization of visible queerness, in tandem with its ecocritical resonance, casts resistance to heteronormativity as an essential part of a movement for environmental justice.

June’s movement for environmental justice, spurred by the loss of Enki and her father, reveals the flaws of any society that is built on power, privilege, and oppression. While Palmares Três resisted the specific Western colonialist norms that Shiva condemned, it still reified an unequal power structure: it created the classes of privileged and oppressed. Neither Enki nor June seem to know the ultimate solution to this quandary, but the search for an ultimate solution is itself a quest flawed by the idea of normative certainty. James notes that “too often YA dystopian franchises assume that a final battle decides all questions of the protagonist’s life in clear terms of irrevocable success, where all threat has been quelled forever. But … remaining negotiatiors and defenders is not a failure; failure would mean there was no community left to save. . . . In all healthy, living communities, there is more work to do” (172–3). The ending of Johnson’s text seems open on purpose: to encourage its young readers to imagine the future for themselves. James sees her indigenous futurist heroines as inspirations to “help us see the best possibilities, to imagine the what-ifs, to build the skills of dreaming the future in a grounded, rooted, and located world” (174). As Johnson’s heroine in Palmares Três, who becomes Queen because of the personified hopes of the younger generation, June’s mission is exactly that.

Nixon cites the unique challenge of addressing environmental justice in narrative, proclaiming, “To confront slow violence is to take up, in all its temporal complexity, the politics of the visible and the invisible.” In this way environmentalism, feminism, and postcolonialism are all inextricably linked. Evans’s ecofeminist reading of cli-fi underscores the temporal complexity of these particular politics: “Expanding our understanding of cli-fi’s generic wheelhouse … helps us see how the genre does more than extrapolate into the future—indeed, how it helps connect present and future, rather than posit a radical break between them” (104). In The Summer Prince, Johnson uses urban geography to explore all of these ideas, presenting a boldly extrapolated far future in which the injustices of its present-day ancestors are always visible. Its ecofeminist vision tells its readers, “When the world is destroyed, someone must remake the world. I think you’d call that art” (19). And art, as June would define it, is sacrifice—the disregard for self and the ecofeminist call to collective action. Such a call to action is foundational in the indigenous futurism that James discusses, which is “more than a name; it is an orientation, one meaningful not only to Indigenous peoples but to anyone hopeful or terrified about the future” (174). Drawing from existing discourses of environmentalism, feminism, queer theory, and postcolonialism, Johnson’s art of the imagination makes cli-fi for young adults that grapples with the temporal complexity of environmental justice and provides not answers, but open-ended questions that serve as foundations for indigenous futurist thought.

 

Works Cited

Evans, Rebecca. “Fantastic Futures? Cli-fi, Climate Justice, and Queer Futurity.” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, vol. 4, no. 2–3, 2017, pp. 94–110. Web.

James, Lynette. “Children of Change, Not Doom: Indigenous Futurist Heroines in YA.” Extrapolation, vol. 57, nos. 1–2, 2016, pp. 151–176. Web.

Johnson, Alaya Dawn. The Summer Prince. Scholastic, 2013.

Nixon, Rob. “Slow Violence: Literary and Postcolonial Studies Have Ignored the Environmentalism That Only the Poor Can See.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 57, no. 40, 2011. Web.

Shiva, Vandana. “The Impoverishment of the Environment: Women and Children Last.” Ecofeminism. Ed. Maria Mies & Vandana Shiva. Zed Books, 1993, pp. 70–90.

Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth. “Landscapes of City and Self: Place and Identity in Urban Young Adult Literature.” The ALAN Review, vol. 38, no. 2, 2011, pp. 13–22. Web.


Nivair H. Gabriel has written all her life, and feminist fantasy is her heart-home. At sixteen, she thought it would be fun to go to MIT and get a BS in aerospace engineering, so she did. She has also contributed writing to Marvels & Tales, io9.com, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, Pittsburgh Magazine, and the Sirens benefit anthologies Queens & Courtesans and Witches & Warriors. She holds a dual-degree MA/MFA in Children’s Literature and Writing for Children from Simmons College, and works as an Assistant Editor at Barefoot Books.

 

Programming Perspectives: Presentation Styles

Are you ready for our annual programming posts series? We’ve just kicked it off! Before we go on, though, we thought you might want to explore some perspectives on presenting different types of programming. These perspectives were first published several years ago, but we think they’re still very relevant.

Presenting a Paper by Hallie Tibbetts, one of Sirens’s past programming coordinators

Presenting a Panel by Amy Tenbrink, one of this year’s conference chairs (but one note: the process for proposing panels will be changing this year—more information coming soon!)

Presenting a Roundtable Discussion by Sarah Benoot, a longtime staff member

Presenting a Workshop or Afternoon Class by Manda Lewis, a longtime staff member

We’ll be offering other perspectives in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we hope you’ll put together a programming proposal.
 
All proposals are due by May 8, 2017.
 
Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).
 

Quick links:
Programming Overview
Call for Proposals/Guidelines/Additional Preparation Information/Submit a Proposal
Past Conferences Archive
Specific Questions for the Programming Team: Email (programming at sirensconference.org)

 
If you’re looking for co-presenters, why not post on Facebook, leave a comment here, or tag us on Twitter so we can retweet?
 

Join Us for a Chat!
We’ll be hosting two chats on the Sirens website for talking about programming ideas—and for books, travel, Sirens, and meeting potential travel buddies and roommates. Join us on Sunday, April 9, from 1 to 3:00 p.m. Eastern or Saturday, April 22, from 1 to 3:00 p.m. Eastern. The linked page will turn into a chat during those hours; no software or downloads are required, but you may need to refresh the page.
 

Or a Tweet!
Check out our Twitter, and the hashtag #SirensBrainstorm for ideas.
 

Programming Perspectives: Presentation Styles

Are you ready for our annual programming posts series? We’ve just kicked it off! Before we go on, though, we thought you might want to explore some perspectives on presenting different types of programming. These perspectives were first published last year, but we think they’re still very relevant.

Presenting a Paper by Hallie Tibbetts, one of this year’s programming coordinators

Presenting a Panel by Amy Tenbrink, one of this year’s conference chairs

Presenting a Roundtable Discussion by Sarah Benoot, a longtime staff member

Presenting a Workshop or Afternoon Class by Manda Lewis, a longtime staff member

We’ll be offering other perspectives in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we hope you’ll put together a programming proposal. All proposals are due by May 9, 2016.

 

Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Quick links:?
Programming Overview
Call for Proposals/Guidelines/Additional Preparation Information/Submit a Proposal
Past Conferences Archive
Specific Questions for the Programming Team: Email (programming at sirensconference.org)

 

If you’re looking for co-presenters, why not place an ad on Facebook, leave a comment here, or tag us on Twitter so we can retweet?

 

Join Us for a Chat!?
We’ll be hosting two chats on the Sirens website for talking about programming ideas—and for books, travel, Sirens, and meeting potential travel buddies and roommates. Join us on Friday, April 22, from 9 to 11:00 p.m. Eastern or Sunday, May 1, from 1 to 3:00 p.m. Eastern. The linked page will turn into a chat during those hours; no software or downloads are required, but you may need to refresh the page.

 

Or a Tweet!
Check out our Twitter, and the hashtag #SirensBrainstorm for ideas.

Perspective: Presenting a Workshop or Afternoon Class

Today we present thoughts from Manda Lewis, who—among other roles—creates most of the art for Sirens, on why presenting an afternoon class worked for her.

In 2012, my friend Erynn and I wanted to run an afternoon class on a topic we both loved. As we both enjoy costuming and creating clothing, we thought teaching a sewing basic class would be a lot of fun. It also seems like a topic that comes up in fantasy literature in many ways, either through thread or textile magic, showcasing talent, or even basic survival. We thought running through basic hand stitching and embroidery techniques would work well, teach participants something they didn’t know, and facilitate discussion about sewing in the books we love, so we proposed an afternoon class titled “Thread Magic: Hand Sewing for Beginners.”

We laid out a basic lesson plan that included an attention step (talking about stories and characters we’ve seen use sewing as a plot point), a materials overview, a few basic pointers, construction stitches, and decorative stitches. Erynn and I created a PowerPoint presentation since we thought it would be good to have some close–ups of the items we wanted to show. We had to do a little research, but it was easy to pull information from a lot of the materials we had at home. Both of us have a lot of craft and sewing books!

When the time came for the class, we ran through the beginning of our lesson quickly so we’d have a lot of time for folks to do the hands on activity. Participants picked fabric, thread, and needles and then tried out all of the stitches we had talked through. With two of us running the class, it was easy for us to move around to everyone and provide instruction and help where needed.

Teaching an afternoon class was a lot of fun and I felt like we engaged in Sirens in a different way than we had in other years. I hope we were able to give the audience some skills to take home and try so they could make their own thread magic!

Here’s our summary for “Thread Magic: Hand Sewing for Beginners”:

Alanna tells us that a woman with a bit of string in her hands can bring down a troupe of armed knights if her will is strong enough. Thread magic weaves its way throughout fantasy literature and we’ve even seen some of our favorite characters dabble in textile arts for fun or necessity. This class will teach participants the basics of construction and decorative stitching. By the end, participants will create a final project for charity and be a little more armed when they find a bit of string in their hands. $2 donation for materials is requested.

For our abstract, we submitted a lesson plan:

Lesson Plan:
The objective of this afternoon class is to teach attendees the principles of hand sewing for construction and decoration.

Attention Step: (5 minutes)
The lesson will begin with various quotes from fantasy novels that show characters sewing, weaving, or engaging in some form of textile art. Students will also be asked what examples they can think of from books or media that they’ve read or watched.

  • Marian in Outlaws of Sherwood sews clothing and makes tapestries
  • Alanna and her protégé in Woman Who Rides like a Man use thread magic
  • Sandry in the Circle of Magic books uses sewing and spinning to control magic
  • Herald Talia in The Heralds of Valdemar series helps to sew uniforms at the collegium
  • Hanna in Bleeding Violet sews clothing for herself and her mother

Tools and Materials Overview: (10 minutes)
The first topic that will be covered will be the basic tools used in hand sewing. Examples of each will be brought to be passed around so the students can become familiar with them and see the differences.

  • Thread (different types and what they’re best suited for)
  • Needles (different types and what they’re used for)
  • Thimbles
  • Pins
  • Fabric (different types and what they’re best suited for)
  • Shears (different types and what they’re used for)
  • Other: marking pencils, threaders, irons, etc.

Threading the Needle and Knotting Thread: (3 minutes)
Threading a needle will be demonstrated and then students will have the opportunity to try it out with their own materials.

Using a Thimble: (5 minutes)
The technique for sewing using a thimble to aid in pushing the needle through fabric will be demonstrated and time will be given for students to practice.

Construction Stitches: (20 minutes)
Stitches will be demonstrated followed by a few minutes for students to practice the stitch with their materials.

  • Straight stitch/Running stitch
  • Backstitch
  • Overhand stitch
  • Whipstitch

Decorative Stitches: (20 minutes)
Stitches will be demonstrated followed by a few minutes for students to practice the stitch with their materials.

  • Blanket Stitch
  • Chainstitch
  • French Knot
  • Lazy Daisy

Project: (30 minutes)
The students will have 30 minutes to work on a small sewing project using the skills they have learned in the class so far. The project will be a small pillow. Once completed, the pillows will be donated to breast cancer patients who use them for comfort post–mastectomy. Instructions will be given and each student will have a print out to refer to. The teachers will move around the room helping students as they complete the project.

Closure: (2 minutes)
The lesson will end with a discussion about using textile arts to create magic in our own lives that parallels what we’ve read or seen in our favorite stories. Students will also be given a hand out with diagrams for the stitching they’ve learned in the class.

Materials:

  • 15 Spools of thread
  • 30 Fat Squares of quilting fabric
  • Stuffing
  • Several sets of scissors to share
  • 30–40 needles
  • Example needles of various types
  • Pins
  • Projector and screen

If you love to get hands–on with fantasy, we recommend a workshop or afternoon class!

Go back: All the posts tagged with programming

 

Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Quick links:?
Programming Overview
Call for Proposals/Guidelines/Additional Preparation Information/Submit a Proposal
Past Conferences Archive
Specific Questions for the Programming Team: Email (programming at sirensconference.org)

 

If you’re looking for co-presenters, why not place an ad on Facebook, leave a comment here, or tag us on Twitter so we can retweet?

 

Join Us for a Chat!?
We’ll be hosting two chats on the Sirens website for talking about programming ideas—and for books, travel, Sirens, and meeting potential travel buddies and roommates. Join us on Friday, April 22, from 9 to 11:00 p.m. Eastern or Sunday, May 1, from 1 to 3:00 p.m. Eastern. The linked page will turn into a chat during those hours; no software or downloads are required, but you may need to refresh the page.

 

Or a Tweet!
Check out our Twitter, and the hashtag #SirensBrainstorm for ideas.

Perspective: Presenting a Roundtable Discussion

Today we present thoughts from Sarah Benoot, who regularly coordinates special programs for Sirens, on why presenting a roundtable discussion worked for her.

For me, roundtable discussions are my favorite way of hearing from lots of different people, all at once, and having discussions that start out in one place, but surprise me, too.

I’m going to be blunt: it’s not always easy to moderate a roundtable discussion. It can be tough to interrupt people, and it’s tough to figure out if that person on the other side of the (small) room—whose nametag you can’t quite see from your seat—is gathering her thoughts, or if she would have lots to say if you asked if she had anything to add. Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the topic, if you are passionate about it, and you have to remember to give yourself some distance so that you can listen to everyone. Sometimes, the audience members are coming from really different places, and they’re trying to negotiate what might be a really complex conversation, and you as the moderator have to help them do that. You have to decide, on the fly, if things are healthily in disagreement—or not. And you want to have at least a couple of questions that will generate some conflict!

At the same time, that’s part of the fun. Sirens attendees are really thoughtful, and have a lot to say. If you’re energized by great discussions, and you don’t mind taking the lead in a group, you should consider proposing a roundtable discussion.

One of my first roundtable discussions for Sirens was pretty general. (I’ve led two roundtable discussions related to Game of Thrones, and those worked because the series is widely read; they would have had a lot of dead air, otherwise. Your roundtable might have to address a theme or topic in several different books or series so that the audience has a way in to the discussion.)

This was my summary for “Not Overshadowed by Awesome: Girls on the Side”:

Sidekicks. Backup. Whatever name you use, they serve the same purpose: to help the main character succeed in their quest. Without them, the world would not be saved, the crime would not be solved, the quest would not be successful. Despite being relegated to a secondary role, the girls on the side can be an important part of a story in their own right. What would Harry have been without Hermione (J. K. Rowling), or what fate would have befallen Olympus if Percy hadn’t had Annabeth (Rick Riordan)? What lessons might Beka have missed if not for Clary Goodwin (Tamora Pierce)?

My abstract, which uses the sample questions format:

  1. Is the female sidekick the “heart” of the male hero by default?
  2. Does a female sidekick tend to serve as a tool for exposition more often than a male sidekick? (For example, Harry Potter often gets his information from Hermione’s reading rather than Ron’s experience actually growing up in the wizarding world.)
  3. In the case of a male hero supported by a female sidekick, there is often a romantic component in their relationship. Does this tend to have a negative or a positive effect on the story?
  4. The roles of sidekick and mentor are rarely filled by the same character. What impact does it have when they are?
  5. What happens when the sidekick comes into power of her own?
  6. Does she become a hero herself, or a villain? Is she more likely to become a villain than a male sidekick in the same situation?
  7. Is a female sidekick more likely to be sacrificed “for the greater good” than a male sidekick?
  8. Which do you think tends to be more successful: a partnership where power of the hero-sidekick relationship is often based in friendship, or one where previous enemies are forced to work together? Can you argue for a more successful partnership?
  9. Is the success or lack thereof affected by the genders of the characters?
  10. When the hero professes to prefer to work alone, is it usually the female sidekick who convinces him otherwise? If so, why?

If you love to talk through big ideas with people, consider leading a roundtable discussion!

Go back: All the posts tagged with programming

 

Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Quick links:?
Programming Overview
Call for Proposals/Guidelines/Additional Preparation Information/Submit a Proposal
Past Conferences Archive
Specific Questions for the Programming Team: Email (programming at sirensconference.org)

 

If you’re looking for co-presenters, why not place an ad on Facebook, leave a comment here, or tag us on Twitter so we can retweet?

 

Join Us for a Chat!?
We’ll be hosting two chats on the Sirens website for talking about programming ideas—and for books, travel, Sirens, and meeting potential travel buddies and roommates. Join us on Friday, April 22, from 9 to 11:00 p.m. Eastern or Sunday, May 1, from 1 to 3:00 p.m. Eastern. The linked page will turn into a chat during those hours; no software or downloads are required, but you may need to refresh the page.

 

Or a Tweet!
Check out our Twitter, and the hashtag #SirensBrainstorm for ideas.

Perspective: Presenting a Panel

Today we present thoughts from conference chair Amy Tenbrink on why presenting a panel worked for her.

I have two go-to presentation formats: panels and roundtables. You might wonder why, since it might seem strange at first that someone might have preferred presentation styles—but I bet that most people have presentation styles that make them most comfortable or that most often allow them to accomplish their presentation goals.

For me, it’s panels and roundtables because both formats include multiple viewpoints and multiple voices. Let me assure you that it’s not about the workload; I am a meticulous planner of questions for both panelists and roundtables. And if you know me, you know that it’s not about alleviating nerves with friendly panelists or a discussion room of participants—though lots of people choose these formats because they find them less intimidating.

Since lots of people submit roundtables, Sirens asked me to talk a bit about panels. I tend to choose panels when I want two things: (1) to present a topic that requires input from more than just me, either because I don’t have sufficient expertise or because having multiple voices is vital to the vibrancy of the topic; and (2) it’s a topic that is best presented by experts to an audience (perhaps with questions), rather than a topic that is best presented through a moderated audience discussion (as a roundtable is).

One example is the 2014 Sirens panel, “The Importance—and Business—of Diversity in Fantasy Literature by Women.” As you might expect, the panel discussed the importance of diversity in fantasy literature, but focused more specifically on the business challenges of diversifying the books that are ultimately published and sold in stores. Since most Sirens attendees have a lot to say about diversity, but very little insight into the publishing industry, I assembled a panel that included a librarian, an agent, and a marketing expert from a publishing house (and also invited both an editor and an author, who were not able to attend). The expertise of the panel—and the range of expertise on the panel—was vital to the success of the topic, though we did invite questions from the audience.

Another example is the presentation below, which I prepared for one of Narrate Conferences’ Harry Potter conferences. The topic is “Love Is a Battlefield: Authorship, Ownership, and Fan Appropriation,” which addressed the complex relationship between copyright owners and fans in 2008, when fandoms were exploding, despite copyright owners’ then-aggressive attempts to leash them. My co-panelist and I combined my copyright knowledge with her academic work in fan studies to present a panel that required both in order to be successful. This topic would not have made a great roundtable discussion, because it relied on us providing information and discussing our perspectives on the topic more than on audience discussion.

This was my summary for “Love Is a Battlefield: Authorship, Ownership, and Fan Appropriation”:

As participatory culture blurs the lines between creators and fans, the definitions of “authorship,” “ownership” and “control” likewise become distorted. Creators continue to hold the trump cards of copyright and money, but fans level the field through group action and the speed of the internet. Join us to review the history of creator/fan relations in the Harry Potter fandom: cease and desist letters for fan sites, then adult-oriented archives; the Harmonian uprising; the queering of canon characters and the rejection of Dumbledore’s sexuality; the LiveJournal Strikethrough; and even the RDR Books lawsuit. Then discuss with us this shifting battlefield and what it is that creators and fans really want, and what’s culturally and creatively at stake.

And this was my abstract, which is on the longer side; it’s also okay to have a paragraph or two and some sample questions:

Since the invention of the printing press and the accompanying advent of the concept of copyright, creators have sought total control over their work, and others—later users, developers, artists, fans—have attempted to wrest pieces of that control away for the collective good, for personal creativity, even for profit. Creators claim authorship and therefore ownership, but others argue that their use of a creator’s work is legal, permitted by policy, or sometimes morally valid.

Copyright law has given the legal advantage to creators and corporations, but copyright law, even with the complications of fair use, is only one piece of a larger whole. Both creators and corporations have frequently employed money, attorneys, and until recently, a near-monopoly on access to media outlets to fight battles by any means necessary. Modern communications, however, have provided secondary users with additional tools, and they have begun to use those tools to significant advantage. The capabilities of the internet and the speed at which groups of later users can disseminate information has changed the game, especially when contrasted with the snail’s pace at which creators and the corporate world can react when governed by Boards of Directors, lawyers, and incomplete information.

As groups of users gain more ground, the battles between creators and corporations, on one hand, and fans and other groups on the other, grow more heated, more equal, and more complicated. While creators and corporations still hold the traditional advantages, they grow frustrated with the hydra-like qualities of the fan community and the speed at which it moves. While fans and other groups have created loose collective units, they are impatient with the measured steps of creators and corporations and the willingness to employ resources to which fans have only limited access.

The Harry Potter fan community is a fascinating microcosm when examining evolving relationships between creators and fans because the examples abound. In the early days of fan sites, Warner Bros. sent many threatening letters, some of them to teen fans. Warner Bros. eventually backed off, but several years later Rowling went after archives that allowed minors to view NC-17 fan works. Plagiarism is a battle that the fans more or less wrested from creators other than Rowling, but the cost was the loss of respect from other fans. Conferences changed the landscape by forcing Warner Bros.’s hand on many fair use issues, and were followed by Warner Bros.’s allowing other fan creations, such as wizard rock. The publication of Order of the Phoenix raised a new issue: fans eviscerating Rowling for writing “bad fanfic” and killing characters; that was the first time that a group of Harry Potter fans wholly rejected a canon work. Half-Blood Prince triggered another fan uprising, this time from the Harmonians, when Rowling paired Hermione with Ron instead of Harry. 2007 brought a list of clashes: Strikethrough 2007 on LiveJournal, the backlash and division following the announcement that Dumbledore is gay, the utter rejection of the Epilogue, discussion of whether Rowling’s ever-changing additional information is canon, and of course, RDR Books facing down the Warner Bros. juggernaut over Steve VanderArk’s encyclopedia. Indeed, sometimes even businesses end up on the fan side of the equation, as evidenced by Warner Bros.’ significant restrictions on booksellers’ Deathly Hallows release parties. Finally, 2007 saw the founding of the Organization for Transformative Works, an effort by a group of fans to level the legal playing field that has been excoriated by the media—and by other fans.

This panel will examine relationships between creators and those who consume their work. It will briefly dissect the law underlying the issues, including the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Miller and Communications Decency Act cases governing obscenity. It will review the history of creator/fan relations, including how the participatory leanings of new media and participatory culture have affected that relationship. Ultimately, it will discuss how the battlefield between creators and fans has shifted over the years and where it is now.

In short, I love panels. I love putting together experts and voices from different fields with different experiences for a moderated, sophisticated conversation. For me, that’s one of the best things about Sirens: the opportunity to have those conversations in ways that, for whatever reason, aren’t always available. Bring on the panels!

Go back: All the posts tagged with programming

 

Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Quick links:?
Programming Overview
Call for Proposals/Guidelines/Additional Preparation Information/Submit a Proposal
Past Conferences Archive
Specific Questions for the Programming Team: Email (programming at sirensconference.org)

 

If you’re looking for co-presenters, why not place an ad on Facebook, leave a comment here, or tag us on Twitter so we can retweet?

 

Join Us for a Chat!?
We’ll be hosting two chats on the Sirens website for talking about programming ideas—and for books, travel, Sirens, and meeting potential travel buddies and roommates. Join us on Friday, April 22, from 9 to 11:00 p.m. Eastern or Sunday, May 1, from 1 to 3:00 p.m. Eastern. The linked page will turn into a chat during those hours; no software or downloads are required, but you may need to refresh the page.

 

Or a Tweet!
Check out our Twitter, and the hashtag #SirensBrainstorm for ideas.

Perspective: Presenting a Paper

Today we present thoughts from Hallie Tibbetts, Sirens’s programming coordinator, on why presenting a paper worked for her.

Last year, I decided to propose a paper for Sirens. I knew I’d be going back to school, and a paper is a really, really good excuse to miss class—and for me, as an introvert and a staff member, the more we get into the weekend that is Sirens, the more I need something pre-written to help me organize my thoughts. I’m tired—happy, but tired—and I’m not really able to think on my feet, which can make participating on a panel, teaching a workshop, or leading a roundtable challenging for me. (Really. I’m not sure that what comes out of my mouth makes sense by Friday afternoon, sometimes!)

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a paper at first, or even whether I wanted to have a shorter paper (a 25-minute time slot) or a longer one (a 50-minute time slot, for slightly longer papers and audience discussion). Papers, lectures, and presentations are great ways to inform the audience when you know about something they might not, to analyze things, to compare and contrast, and to go into research. I had some blog posts that would make great jumping-off points, and I thought about grabbing a couple of people to put together a set of short, pre-empaneled papers, too.

In the end, I proposed “It’s Coming from Inside the Dollhouse,” about haunted toys in middle grade books. Over the summer, I (re)read the books and jotted down thoughts on each, so that when it came time to write my paper—which isn’t, actually, a requirement, but something I needed to do so I had something to read from—it was easy work. Since I had my presentation finished in advance, I just read over it a few days before my presentation to check on my timing, made a few notes, and brought a copy along to Sirens. After I read my paper, the audience had a lively discussion about the topic, which was pretty amazing.

This was my summary:

Literature for young people in the 1970s and ‘80s included a number of scary stories, including The Dollhouse Murders and The Doll in the Garden. Haunted toys can still be found in books like Doll Bones. This paper will explore haunted objects in books that have been aimed at young readers of yesterday and today.

My abstract, which is a little on the short side, but still okay:

Much “middle grade fiction” limits its scope is to family, friends, or a child’s immediate community, and to finding a place for oneself within those boundaries; young adult fiction typically pushes the young person toward adulthood. Haunted toys, or hauntings that include toys, seem to occupy a liminal space between young adult and middle grade, where no bookstore dares go, but where children must leave behind games and face a harsher reality. These stories show up in works including The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Wren Wright (originally published in 1948, and in new editions as recently as 1995), The Doll in the Garden by Mary Downing Hahn (1989), and Doll Bones by Holly Black (2013). This paper will examine the use of haunted toys in these and other books as markers of the unnatural, particularly for children, and explore what makes a scary story for young readers, as well as address the shift in focus for these books over the years from younger to older middle grade readers.

I recommend giving papers (or lectures, or talks) a try! I’m already brainstorming one for this year.

Go back: All the posts tagged with programming

 

Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

Quick links:?
Programming Overview
Call for Proposals/Guidelines/Additional Preparation Information/Submit a Proposal
Past Conferences Archive
Specific Questions for the Programming Team: Email (programming at sirensconference.org)

 

If you’re looking for co-presenters, why not place an ad on Facebook, leave a comment here, or tag us on Twitter so we can retweet?

 

Join Us for a Chat!?
We’ll be hosting two chats on the Sirens website for talking about programming ideas—and for books, travel, Sirens, and meeting potential travel buddies and roommates. Join us on Friday, April 22, from 9 to 11:00 p.m. Eastern or Sunday, May 1, from 1 to 3:00 p.m. Eastern. The linked page will turn into a chat during those hours; no software or downloads are required, but you may need to refresh the page.

 

Or a Tweet!
Check out our Twitter, and the hashtag #SirensBrainstorm for ideas.

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