Community, Hope, and Liberation: Fandom and Fiction as Activism

Last weekend I was a guest at BayCon 2014.  BayCon is a mid-sized science fiction and fantasy convention in the Bay Area.  This was an impeccably well-run convention, and it left me with a lot to think about in terms community, and of the roles fiction can play in inspiring and liberating the reader or viewer.  Also, there were light saber battles, so that was cool!

Carrie and young friend wielding sabers

Carrie and a young Jedi warrior

BayCon came at an odd time for me.  It started during the same weekend that the #yesallwomen movement started, so I spent a lot of time between panels reading tweets and fighting back tears of rage and despair and pride. It is a tribute to BayCon that somehow I was able to look up from Twitter and actually have a great time.  Here are some highlights:

  • Book Wall E DVDMy daughter picking out an outfit for a dance and fretting, “I don’t have ANYTHING to wear with this phoenix!
     
  • My friend Setsu (check out her blog, Katana Pen) and I dancing in our PJs during Karaoke night.
     
  • Regency dancing – the line up included a woman in a white muslin Regency gown, a man in a Lego T-Shirt, a woman in armor, two women in Star Trek gowns, and a woman in a T-Shirt that read “I speak Parseltongue”. 
     
  • Watching Wall-E by the pool and crying (because I always cry during Wall-E).
     
  • Having not one, but several serious, intellectual conversations about tentacle sex, something which I assure you I don’t chat about every day!

The constant back and forth between the pain and pride of #yesallwomen and the fun of the convention made me aware of recurring themes.  In panel after panel, we came back to speaking about community, hope, and liberation.  These are themes that I think have interesting crossovers within the world of SFF and the world of romance.

Carrie and Setsu, wearing Regency garb and wings and a gown respectivelyLet’s start with community.  I moderated a panel on creating family in fiction and fandom, and what came out of it most strongly was that we all need a sense of belonging and a sense that there are people we can count on to help us when we need it.  I don’t consider the people I met at BayCon to be family (except for Setsu, who is the buddy in the buddy cop movie of my life, and an excellent example of family by choice), but BayCon did represent community in the purest way. 

The staff of BayCon made visible efforts to encourage a sense of community by creating a safe and welcoming environment.  Staff posted the harassment policy on the walls and posted signs that read “Cosplay is not Consent”, and without being oppressive or intrusive they were visibly available to offer assistance to anyone who felt unsafe.  A staff member gave my pre-teen daughter a special tour, making sure to point out how to recognize staff and how to find the information table, so that she could roam the convention safely and happily while I was in panels.  I don’t know whether everyone felt safe and respected at BayCon, but the fact that a specific and official attempt was made to create a safe environment indicates that the voices of female fans in particular are finally being beginning to be heard, although it's clear that we have a long way to go.

I see much of that same sense of community on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  There have been some comment threads that got pretty heated, but we don’t attempt to hurt each other out of malice.  There’s no name-calling on this site – it’s a safe space.  Sometimes people reveal something personal about themselves, and they get support, and other times we just enjoy being around other people who “get” our passion for the romance genre.  There’s a great relief in shared fandom, regardless of the topic, when you discover people who understand your obsessions.  After years of having to defend your interests to others, you can relax, because you among “your people”, a phrase that comes up in fandom constantly.

The second theme is that of hope.  I was on several panels about romance, and we kept coming back to the topic of what makes a happy ending.  One person said she writes “Happy For Now” endings.  Another shared her own mother’s love story as discovered in letters – a love story that resulted in a happy but all too brief marriage.  One thing I kept coming back to is the idea that if you want to write romance, you have to have hope, or at least believe that hope is possible.  Because we all know that after the end of the story, things won’t always go well for our characters.  In real life, everyone suffers sometimes, no matter how privileged they may be, and of course someday everyone dies. 

We believe in a Happy Ever After not because we think that none of those things will happen to our characters, but because we have hope that the love these people feel for each other will be powerful enough to pull them through, even during times when they are without each other.  That belief, that people can maintain some peace and happiness not just during the wedding but also during all the tumultuous events of life after, is a powerful thing. 

NASA symbol with sign beneath that reads Well, looks like we successfully lured you here.This is true of science fiction as well.  Some science fiction is utterly dark, of course, but in order to write about the future, you have to believe that there is one.  Even the most dystopian science fiction usually has a survivor, a ray of hope, a time capsule buried somewhere or shot into space so our story will continue.  That’s not universal in science fiction and fantasy, but it’s common, and it’s powerful, too.

Finally, we talked about the power of fiction to illuminate and to liberate.  This came up primarily in the panel I moderated on Steampunk Literature, although I think it applies to other forms of fiction just as well.  We talked about how Steampunk can sometimes be blindly accepting of the British Empire.  But at its best, Steampunk can allow us to critically examine Victorian mores either in serious ways or by merrily discarding those mores entirely.  You want a world with fancy tea parties and attention to craftsmanship but you want it to be a world which does not restrict the rights of women, and LGBTQIA people, and people of color, and people from the so-called “lower classes”?  Then you can make one up.  You can reinvent history and claim it for your own, or you can illuminate the dark corners of history and expose it to the world.  Either path is a path of liberation.

In romance, we get to do this too.  Maybe sometimes we really do think our couple will never suffer, because we get to create a world in which they will be safe from all harm.  We can invent a world in which medieval women marry for love.  We can create a world in which women don’t die in childbirth.  It’s our world and we can do what we want with it.

But more than that, we can create a vision for ourselves of a world in which we own our sexuality and we respect ourselves and are respected by our partners.  Even the old skool romances, with their rapey heroes, had a theme of the heroine becoming aware of and in control of her own body – by a problematic route, but she gets there.  And the hero and heroine must become partners – they must learn to see one another as important and valued as people and not as trophies.  In the most memorable old skool romances, the hero doesn’t win the heroine like a prize at a fair. 

If a happy ending is to be truly swoon-worthy, the main couple (or triad, or whatever) has to recognize each other as human beings and respect each other as equals.  They have to create or find a place in a community, even if it’s only a community of two.  In the most memorable romances, the couple’s place in a larger community is crucial to the story, and it’s often a community that they build around them deliberately, the way we build communities out of fandom.  They have to hear each other.  They have to understand each other’s stories and have enough hope to build a new one together.  That’s what makes a truly swoon-worthy happy ever after.

I’m home now, but I’m still spending a lot of time on social media reading the stories of women, and realizing that these stories represent only a small fraction of what women experience around the world.  Sometimes I wonder if it would be better for me to spend less time talking about fiction and more time doing activism.

But what I realized this weekend is that even the least consciously politically charged fiction is a form of activism.  It shows us ourselves as we are and it lets us dream of what we might become.  Sometimes those dreams are cautionary nightmares and sometimes they represent our deepest hopes. 

It took me me a while to see how BayCon, Smart Bitches, and other places, real and virtual, where we share our passions and our stories, intersect with #yesallwomen.  They are, in essence, the same thing – flawed, messy spaces in which people struggle to find community, hope, and liberation.  They are places in which we gather for support.  They are places in which we gather to have our stories heard, and they are places where we struggle to understand our history and create a vision of the future.

SBSarah had these words to share about the #yesallwomen and the construction of fictional worlds while editing this essay:

It strikes me that merely by having a hashtag to find one another, we've created a world. Creating a hashtag IS creating a world, though it's a limited world focused on one topic and the collected response. That world exists outside of and also within the larger noise and chaos of Twitter.  Creating that visual and textual space to say what we think and listen to others who do (one hopes anyway) is empowerment.

We can create worlds in fiction and we can create our own world in reality, especially when we are equipped with community, hope, and a vision of liberation.  It is our responsibility as readers and writers to actively fight for worlds, fictional and real, that include women, and people of color, and people who identify as LGBTQIA, and people with disabilities, and people who struggle economically.  There are people who believe that not everyone has a place in the world.   They are wrong.

Fiction is extreme reactions to normal events. Genre fiction is normal reactions to extreme events.

                  – Connie Willis

 

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Sarita says:

    Thank you for this. The internet can be a scary place sometimes, and it’s good to be reminded how many decent, thoughtful people are out there.

    I think fiction overall has incredible power, even though there’s no telling which individual stories are going to have big impacts. Humans think in narrative. Even our memories are couched in the stories we tell ourselves about what happened, which is why two people can have the same experience and then walk away with completely different impressions of it. The stories we tell as a culture shape our understanding of the world. And speculative fiction absolutely counts. The flourishes may be deliberately unreal, but the bones of the story, the values, the motivations, cause and effect, have to ring true or else the story just sucks.

    I write fantasy. When I first realized that fantasy stories very much reflect worldviews under all the pyrotechnics, I went back and examined my own work. It was jarring. Maidens in distress as far as the eye could see. I was just copying the tropes I’d read, and thereby presenting a worldview I didn’t actually believe in. Since then I’ve put a lot of effort into trying to get my stories to reflect what I actually understand and believe about reality and human nature. It’s more work, and I still have to go back and catch myself on the second draft sometimes. But I can hope that the end product might send a message I can actually get behind.

  2. 2
    Elyse says:

    This is a quote from Abram Anders, explaining Kenneth Burke’s “Equipment for Living” theory:
    “literature serves a therapeutic role insofar as it diagnoses and dissolves maladaptive social categories and orientations.”
    I think fiction and activism (well art and activism) are inextricably linked because in fiction we are allowed to safely explore and break through social injustice.
    People ask how I can be a feminist and love romance novels; I believe romance novels are inherently feminist. In all of them the heroine is empowered to choose her partner based on emotional and sexual compatibility despite external conflict that makes that choice difficult. In historical romance we are rewriting the past to give women choice.
    Great article, Carrie and great costume!

  3. 3
    SB Sarah says:

    @Sarita:

    I was just copying the tropes I’d read, and thereby presenting a worldview I didn’t actually believe in.

    That’s fascinating (and mad props to you for looking at your own work critically – that’s hard to do). I have been thinking a lot about the composition of romance tropes, and how many of them may be passed without real examination from book to book (e.g. the location of the hymen, the simultaneous orgasm, the dick-as-divining-rod, etc). It’s one of the reasons why I defend reviewing and criticism of romance so ferociously: it’s important to look at what the messages are and why they might be there.

     

  4. 4
    Darlynne says:

    I can’t add to what you’ve said here so clearly and eloquently. Just know that I’m grateful for all the places like this, for our communities—ad hoc and permanent. Fiction is activism; if it were not, no writer or book would ever have been banned/imprisoned/worse for spreading a message or sparking a discussion.

  5. 5
    CarrieS says:

    If anyone wants more details about BayCon, Setsu (the one pictured with me, she’s wearing wings) wrote a great piece about her experience here:

    http://katanapen.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/my-experience-as-a-panalist-at-baycon-2014/

    Her panel on women warriors was excellent.

  6. 6
  7. 7
    Jo says:

    Thank You Carrie for a wonderful article.
    I cannot begin to explain the positives hanging out in this wonderful community has done for me personally. I had the habit of sinking into a story but only skimming (if that makes sense) then coming up for air and moving on. Now I slow down, think about what I’m taking in, decide if I want to continue and if and when I finish to examine all the parts that made up the story, be it a book, a movie/tv show or music. It does make for a more enriching experience and it also makes me look at the world around me with a critical eye (which is a good thing).
    As Sarita wrote the internet can be a scary place and it can also be a place where you read things and want to go HULKSMASH all over the place and then you come here, you read an article by an articulate, intelligent, funny woman and you smile and say “thank god”.

  8. 8
    Carolyn Hill says:

    Lovely, Carrie.  Your essay gives me hope and reminds me of what I love most about SFF and romance (both the fiction and the community).

  9. 9
    Anony Miss says:

    PLEASE EXCUSE ME WHILE I STAND UP AND APPLAUD THIS POST.

    Stunning prose, Carrie. I want to highlight and study this regularly. I am fascinated by fandom culture and online communities and fiction and yeah, wow, you just articulated why. Well done, well done!

  10. 10
    Cordy says:

    Love this post!

  11. 11
    Dana says:

    Thank you for this. So much.

  12. 12
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