Indispensible

So I’ve been having fun the last couple of weeks appalling myself by watching Ross Putnam’s Twitter feed. He posts the opening description of female leads from scripts he reads, just changing their names to JANE to protect the guilty. Every single one is initially described in terms of her looks, and generally not even her looks, but the effect they have on men: “attractive,” “forty but still sexy,” and the cringeworthy “ripe with young womanhood” for a black heroine. These are the lead characters, mind you, not supporting cast. No one is allowed to be just bookish or athletic or, God forbid, shlubby, the way a male protagonist often is. These writers assume both that a woman needs to be attractive for us to care about her and that her being attractive tells the actress and director everything they need to know about how she relates to the world and how it relates to her.

I don’t think so much about whether my female leads are attractive because I see the world through their eyes and they don’t spend a lot of time looking in mirrors; they have more important things to do. But to be fair, I am guilty of describing their love interests in terms I find attractive. So, okay, if a male writer is writing from the perspective of a male character, they’ll probably do the same.

But all my characters (even the supporting cast) have two things that are way more important to me than looks, both of which I generally make clear the moment the character first comes onstage: a job (which tells us a lot about their skills and personalities) and a family (which tells us about the forces that shaped them from an early age, and probably still impact them). Those are the elements that are going to drive an interesting story and throw up the most compelling roadblocks.

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Grandmaster Cherryh

Delighted by the news that CJ Cherryh has been chosen as SFWA’s latest grandmaster.

I read Foreigner for the first time at age sixteen, when I was still making the transition from fluffier SFF like Douglas Adams and Piers Anthony to more challenging reads. I was immediately struck by how real and complex her worlds were, and explorations of her earlier Chanur and Morgaine Sagas only confirmed and deepened my appreciation. All of her aliens are truly alien, completely different from each other, yet are still capable of eliciting empathy from the reader, not just wonder. All of her worlds are “lived in”: we see how events five years ago, two centuries ago, a millenium in the past, have influenced the current culture of that world.

But beyond that amazing worldbuilding and character creation, Cherryh is a hero of mine for another reason. She adapts to the market to remain successful without sacrificing her integrity. In the seventies, women SF writers were given a hard time, so she went by her initials and added an H to the end of her name to sound less girly, while still writing the books she wanted to write. In the nineties, preferred book lengths increased and she adapted seamlessly. When editors left publishing houses, orphaning one series after another, she switched gears to give the new editor something new, then went back to finish the old stories when she could. When the fans went online, she began offering regular blog posts about her home improvement projects, her dieting woes, and the difficulties of driving to cons with cats in tow. She formed a digital writing collective with other writers to offer their out-of-print backlists as e-books and promoted it by writing new online-only stories in her most popular universes. And she hits her deadlines year after year like they personally offended her. THAT’S a professional. Despite cries from the ever-dying publishing industry that writing is a dead medium, Cherryh knows that people will always crave stories, it’s just a question of presenting those stories in forms readers find convenient and affordable. She doesn’t wring her hands, she just tries new things until she sees what sticks, adapts, and gets back to work.

AND she’s a great writer.

Being a Good Ally, on One Foot

(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)

In my job as staff writer for the Jewish Women’s Archive, I write short profiles about historical and living women. Each one is fascinating—and each presents its own challenges. Are there reliable sources I can use, or do I have to sift through puff pieces? If the only information I can find about someone is a résumé, how do I create some sort of throughline that turns those bullet points into a human story? And hardest of all, if each profile is just 200 words, how do I decide what to include and what to cut?

This is particularly charged because I’m writing about women. There are so many cringe-worthy examples out there of men being remembered for their professional accomplishments while their female colleagues are discussed in terms of family life or appearance. When I first started writing these short profiles, I decided that I would mention a woman’s personal life only if it played an essential role in her story: It made sense for a woman artist whose collaboration with her husband continued even after her death, or a woman whose career was a “second act” after raising children. But in many cases, especially for contemporary women, how many children a woman has and whether she is partnered or single has little relevance to her professional life.

The same goes for someone’s Jewishness. Whether a woman had two Jewish parents, one Jewish parent, or converted generally doesn’t add anything to her story. JWA honors Jewish women from across the spectrum, liberals and conservatives, religious and secular. If their conversion or parentage is important to understanding who they are and the work they do, that’s one thing. Otherwise, if a woman identifies as Jewish, that makes her part of the rich, complex story we’re trying to tell, end of story.

But deciding what to include and what to leave out can get messy. Telling the whole story of Jewish history doesn’t just mean highlighting women in general, it means making sure women of color, lesbians, and transwomen are included. When writing about transwomen, I knew enough to ask whether to refer to them consistently with female pronouns, or switch between calling them “he” or “she” when talking about their lives before and after transition. But other issues were less clear: should I explicitly say that someone is a lesbian to call attention to the fact that not all Jewish women are straight, or does that ghettoize them? More than one gay friend has complained to me over the years, “I’m a lesbian and a writer, but I don’t write about gay subjects; why do I always have to be identified as a lesbian writer?” In an ideal world, I could ask everyone I’m writing about how they want to be identified. But some people are out of reach. Some are dead. In a lot of cases, I just have to make a judgment call.

Until recently, I had decided to use the same policy I had for family life and Jewish identity: if the person was an LGBTQ activist or the first lesbian or transwoman to accomplish something, I mentioned their sexuality or gender identity. If not, then I saw it as part of their personal life, not relevant to a short professional biography. I thought this was what equality meant: treating everyone the same. I made the classic white feminist mistake: assuming one size fits all and forgetting about intersectionality.

Then someone in the gay community gently called me out. By not noting that someone identified as a lesbian, wasn’t I contributing to the long history of making gays and lesbians invisible, of saying their identity was something to be hidden?

She was right, and I was embarrassed for not having seen it sooner. The entire point of the Jewish Women’s Archive is to tell women’s stories that might otherwise be downplayed, made invisible. It is important for young queer Jews to realize they’re not alone, and for all of us to acknowledge that gays and lesbians are an integral part of the Jewish community. But if a lesbian says she wants to keep her personal life and her professional life separate, I can also honor that. In the information age, it’s usually pretty clear when someone doesn’t want to be referred to in a certain way, and I’ve always been respectful of those choices when writing their stories. I can find the answer with a little digging. I just didn’t know to ask the question before.

I try to be a good ally, but here’s something I think gets missed in discussions of how to do that well: being a good ally doesn’t mean treating others the way you’d want to be treated, it means treating others the way THEY want to be treated. It means asking questions. And isn’t that always how we hear the best stories?

Clash with the Titans

(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)

This has been a lousy week for feminists of all ages. The longstanding tensions between second- and third-wave feminists have been boiling over as the old guard claims that younger women mistakenly think feminism is a thing of the past, that we’re distracted by other causes, that we don’t understand the importance of having the first woman president.

When I heard Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem saying the reason many young women support Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton is that they take feminism for granted, my first, furious thought was, “You think we think the fight for equality is over? I bet neither of you even knows what the word doxxing means.” This is a generation that uses Title IX not to defend their right to play basketball, but to ensure they can’t be raped by their classmates without consequences. We know we still have miles to go.

Certainly, there are a lot of younger women who claim they’re not feminists or don’t need feminism. But let’s be honest, even at the height of the feminist revolution, there were women who scorned the notion of equal rights. And really, this fight is not about them. It’s about the women who are politically active and engaged, but whose priorities don’t match Albright’s or Steinem’s. And part of the reason they’re so angry is because these schisms aren’t new. They have always existed in the women’s movement.

In the early days of the movement, women of color were told that they had to put the needs of all women before the needs of their individual communities. Lesbians and transpeople were told to keep quiet to avoid alienating Middle America. Now, especially in the interconnected, intersectional Internet generation, these groups are established and mobilized and working to solve their own problems, and the pool of activists whose sole focus is women’s rights, women like Steinem and Albright, is steadily shrinking. The idea that feminism means all women having the same priorities and acting as one is even less realistic now than it was during the feminist revolution.

The problems women suffer don’t just fall under the heading of sexism. There are women who graduate with so much debt that it radically shifts what dreams they think they can achieve in a lifetime. There are women in Flint, Michigan sickened by contaminated water and women on the Gulf Coast whose homes are threatened every year by climate change. There are women being shot by husbands or boyfriends with too-easy access to guns and women whose children are jailed or killed for the color of their skin. There are transwomen being attacked for simply being who they are. If I question where Hillary Clinton stands on those issues, it’s because I owe them my loyalty too, not just her. She may very well be the best candidate to help them, and if so, I will back her to the hilt. But I have to make that decision for myself.

I have tremendous respect for the second-wave feminists who fought to make sure that they—and I—could choose how to live our lives. Ironically, it’s thanks to them that I’m determined to do what I think is right, not what’s expected of me.

Primary coloration

I’d say my Facebook feed is equally divided between Hillary boosters and Bernie lovers. And we’ve got another month until the Massachusetts primary (by which time, frankly, it’ll probably be decided anyway). I know you love your candidate. You’re not posting this stuff for other people who love your candidate, you’re presumably posting it for people who can both be swayed and show up on Primary Day. (That’s me, and has been every two years, EVERY election since my county finally stopped illegally barring resident college students in 2000.)

So. Bernie lovers. I don’t need memes about how Bernie is hip and with it–that’s the modern equivalent of Bill Clinton playing the sax, only with less effort on Bernie’s part. What I need is evidence that he can actually work with Congress, because not everything can be accomplished by presidential fiat, and if we have another four or eight years of nothing getting done, I worry that people are going to get pissed off and vote Republican next time, no matter how crazypants the candidate, just to see some movement. Don’t meme me, show me Bernie has the respect of his peers.

Hillary boosters. I was a voting New York resident for six years of her work as a New York senator. And while I think she’s done excellent work as Secretary of State, when she was senator, I saw her compromise her values again and again, saw her pass legislation that appalled me, saw her be one of the first to rise in standing ovation when Bush declared a War on Terror. (I kept an audio diary at the time, and have a recording of myself saying that night, “He’s just given himself the power to define this war however he wants for as long as is politically convenient.” I could see it. Did she not see it, or choose to ignore it?) All of that is why I voted against her in the 2008 primary. I know she can work with Congress. I need to know there is something, anything, that she won’t compromise on for more power. Because otherwise, the first four years are going to be her capitulating to try and build relationships, and I don’t know if she’s going to break the habit (or even be electable) for the second four years.

So. Both sides. I will vote for whoever the Democratic candidate is in the election. But if you want to sway my vote for the primary, THAT’S what I need to see. I need to see that Bernie CAN compromise sometimes, and that Hillary CAN stand her ground. Everything else is clutter.