When All Else Changes

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A few years ago, I read a book called The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume I. This book purported to be “The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of All Time” and presented stories published in the 1930s to the 1960s in order to showcase these “greatest” stores that were published before they could win a Hugo Award that they so obviously deserved. Two things became immediately obvious upon reading this book:

  1. Out of the 21 stories presented, only one was written by a woman. And that was the least sexist thing about this volume.
  2. Some of the “greatest” science fiction writers of their time could not imagine a world where women had names. Or speaking roles. Or didn’t exist simply to keep house and get the coffee.

The utter lack of any idea that the social elements of a country might change along with the technological elements echoed through those stories like the dog that didn’t bark. It isn’t like these writers didn’t know that culture changes. They lived through the first world war or the second or Korea or the Cold War. They1 saw their world change, sometimes dramatically, during the course of their lives. And yet? They could not see the role of women change much if at all in the futures that they wrote about.

This comes to mind now because I’ve been watching and enjoying the various DC television series, often called the Arrowverse. These shows are fun and some of the most progressive shows on television from a social standpoint: diverse characters, inclusive storylines, strong women in positions of leadership and authority. We have Sarah Lance leading the Legends and next year we’ll have Supergirl’s adoptive sister Alex leading the DEO. White man Barry Allen married Iris West, a black woman. Two of the smartest people in the universe are Felicity Smoak (a woman, and also Jewish) and Cisco Ramon (Puerto Rican) and they come through to save the main heroes every episode.

Just on Supergirl we have gay characters planning their wedding, a black hero/vigilante afraid to take off his mask because cops kill people like him, the chauvinism of how the world affords much more respect to SuperMAN than SuperGIRL, and a huge crossover series where the ultimate point of the storyline was to punch Nazis. And yet?

And yet they can not conceive of relationships as anything other than monogamous.2

What brought this to mind was the storyline on Supergirl over the last two seasons between Kara and Mon-El. It started off traditionally enough and, in true Superhero fashion, ended tragically (so we thought) when Mon-El had to leave earth. We open season three with Kara mourning the loss of her sweetie just seven months prior and dreaming about him. So of course, before she’s fully healed from the tragic and sudden end of her relationship with Mon-El, before she’s stopped loving him, he returns. From 1000 years in the future. With his wife.

For him it has been seven years and he’s “moved on.” But of course, he hasn’t. In good 3 television fashion, the writers set up a potential love triangle between Kara, Mon-El, and his wife Imra. It’s obvious to everyone that all three are conflicted about what’s going on. Kara respects the fact that it has been seven years for him, but it hasn’t for her and she tries to deal with that by not telling him how she feels because she ‘respects’ his marriage. Mon-El begins to remember what it was that he had loved about Kara in the first place but doesn’t say anything for Reasons and lies to Imra when she asks him how he feels. Imra sees that there is conflict and wants to know what her place is because 31st century woman passively wait for the guy to choose just one.

Why? Because in the 31st century they still have 20th century idealized relationship structures?

We’ve seen relationships change, radically, even within my lifetime. Divorce and gay marriage just two of the most obvious changes, not to mention singledom and cohabiting without marriage or even plans for marriage, all of which are part of the Arrowverse. And yet, one thousand years from now, the very ideal of coupledom as the sole basis for relationships hasn’t changed? At all? Not even a little bit?

I’m not saying that the characters would eventually choose polyamory or even that they should. But I am saying that the very concept that love is boundless should be given some screen time. Because even now, in the 21st century, ethical nonmonogamy is a thing, practiced by uncounted thousands of people in the US alone. More and more people recognize that attraction and love can happen without it being the end to a current, agreed-upon relationship structure. No, I’m not suggesting that in 1000 years everyone will be poly. I am suggesting that the writers of Supergirl might have found a progressive way of writing a storyline involving three people that wasn’t trite, overdone, completely predictable, and the least progressive thing about the show.


  1. As noted, these authors were almost all men. You’d think that ‘the male gaze’ would have at least noticed flapper dresses. 
  2. Maybe the writers can imagine such a thing. Chances are that some of the writers may even practice ethical nonmonogamy themselves. But that’s one social element that has not made it to the screen. 
  3. And by that I mean boring, unimaginative, and predictable. 

Edited to remove typos and to clarify some of the text.

I’m Not Insecure! S/He’s Not Safe!

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I’ve been following Polyamory Weekly for years now, pretty much since the podcast first began, more than a decade ago. But just because I love Cunning Minx and the resources that she provides, that doesn’t mean I always agree with her or her co-hosts.

In her 507th episode, How do I get control of my fears? she and co-host Kevin were discussing a letter from listener “Lost and Confused.” Lost and Confused asked how to get control of her fears and insecurities so she can feel more comfortable in poly situations.

From what I recall of the episode1, the letter writer presented a situation where she and her hubby were in the beginning stages of poly. She had asked him to limit his sexual encounters with his new sweetie, to not engage in PiV (penis in vagina) sex. He agreed to those stipulations.

And then he violated that agreement.

Okay, “just a little bit” (what does that even mean?). We’re told that he then stopped what he was doing with his sweetie and went to talk to his wife about it all.

To be fair, I agreed with about 80-85% of what Minx and Kevin suggested. So please, go to the link and you can read those suggestions for yourself. But there is one element of this that Minx got wrong — and consistently gets wrong — that I felt strongly enough about to write my own blog post about it.

Both Minx and Kevin call the letter writer “insecure” and ask rhetorically why she is trying to control her husband’s sexual interactions. “What’s the big deal?”

Holy crap, where to start?

How about the fact that she’s not “insecure.” Her husband has just shown to her that he is not willing to keep to his agreements. She is actually, justifiably, INSECURE because he’s proven to her that she should not feel secure in his promises.

Our letter writer is just getting started in poly. She’s had however-many-years of learning the monogamy rules and how life works on the relationship escalator. She honestly doesn’t know how she is going to feel, how she’s going to react, to a polyamorous situation because it is all new to her. So she asks her husband to take his sexual relationship with another woman slowly. Give them all — but maybe mostly her —  time to acclimate to the changed reality. Minx and Kevin both — rightly — call what she’s going through “experience shock.” Yes! And she tried to minimize the experience shock by setting some boundaries.

  • A boundary which her husband agreed to
  • A boundary which her husband then violated. Twice.

Would it help to call them “expectations” instead of boundaries? No. Not at all. Because in either case: she asked. He agreed. He did what he had agreed not to do.

In the long run, it really isn’t about the sex. People who have been poly a long time may not even think to create the sort of stipulation that would limit what our sweeties do sexually with their sweeties. But in this, an early test of how the two of them will do poly together, she learned that he isn’t willing or able to abide by decisions he’s agreed to. Her feelings of uncertainty, fear, unease are all perfectly justified. Not only that, they are smart feelings to have. Poly relationships rely on trust as much as communication and the husband in this case has proven himself untrustworthy.

Of course, this can be overcome. These are growing pains. But they are NOT her growing pains. He has to learn how important it is to abide by his agreements. Yes, she has to learn how unimportant it is where his dick (consensually) goes. But to dismiss her rightful feelings of unease over his failures does neither of them good service. The husband has to abide his agreements (as does she, of course). The letter writer needs to learn she can trust that he will (and that she, in turn, will keep to her agreements).

The biggest problem is that I hear this dismissive attitude ALL THE TIME. “Oh, you’re just being insecure” is a phrase that is flung about as if it is an irrefutable argument, a taunt to shut down discussion, to shame the person feeling uncertain, leaving the person who is being an unsafe partner free of scrutiny. The reality is, the lack of feeling secure is because they know that they don’t get to ask for what they want and to have that request respected. Minx and Kevin were right to discuss the ways in which feelings of unwarranted insecurity can be overcome. But where they messed up was in dismissing the feelings of this letter writer as unwarranted.


  1. Minx paraphrased the letter, so it is entirely possible that the letter writer didn’t make explicit her expectations or boundaries. So the specifics may be off. But, alas, I’ve heard enough laments about ”insecurities” from hers and other podcasts that my larger point stands. 

NaNoWriMo 2014

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Back in 2007, I joined and “won” NaNoWriMo with what eventually (like 5 years after that one month) my novel A Call of Moonhart. That time, I knew I had a novel-length idea, I had the world building in hand, and the timing was right to get a jump start on all of it. Eventually, that 50k words formed the basis of two novels (one still more-or-less in draft form) totally nearly 250k words. NaNo was a good way to get all that started.

This time around, I’m in a totally different place. I have two, no THREE totally different projects that I’m thinking about at the same time. One of them, which seems the most commercial, is going to take a whole lot of research that I’ve only just begun. An entire time and place that I’m only passing familiar with. Don’t get me wrong, the research is half of what I like about my writing. Maybe even two thirds. But the story idea is strong for that and I’m excited about the project.

I’m not writing on that for NaNoWriMo this year.

Another project, taking least as much research as the first but with extra added world building required, is a really powerful concept. I LOOOOOVVVVVEEEE the concept, and it includes an expansion of one of the worlds I first began writing in about 20 years ago. But I have a concept, not a story (although I may finally have an inkling of one now) and it takes a story before I can write. Even me, a “pantser” by NaNo terminology. If there isn’t a story, then what I have are research notes, and no one wants to read that.

I’m not writing on that for NaNoWriMo this year, either.

What I’m working on isn’t even a novel. Unless I’ve badly underestimated how long the frame tale is, or I come up with another entirely new idea for a set piece, this is novella length at about 30,000 words. Even so, I won’t know until I get there if this is even a story with a defined arc, or a series of character sketches. You see, these are some of my favorite, most familiar characters. I’ve been writing them, or versions of them, or their friends, or people who hung out in the same area at one point, for at least 30 years. They are comfortable old friends to hang around with. They are all too pretty, too smart, too good to hang contemporary fiction on. To borrow from Ellen Kushner, I love to write about these fine people all hanging around, drinking, and having sex. Fun to write but boring to read and it isn’t commercial. In my case, my NaNo project this year is going to be some very self-indulgent crap that I’m taking the month of November to churn out. But, you see, (and I have the time lines if you’re silly enough to ask for them) there’s this gap where I have my male character making his way alone in the world, nursing a hurt from ten years before when his best friend/sometime lover left without a word. I have a later period where he is reunited with this woman, but not as lovers, for he is with a third woman. What I don’t have is: what happened in those ten years? How did they reunite? Just how awkward was it when the love-of-his-youth comes back into his life just as he’s beginning a very adult relationship with an amazing woman? What happened to make them all friends? More than friends?

I have been doing very little writing while I shopped for an agent for my last novel. At the end of that period, I have no agent and no new writing. Pulling out these old, friendly, comfortable, well-loved characters is a great place to find my writing flow again. I wrote an extended character study in early October, but now I want to know what happened in those ten years, and how it all resolves.

I won’t “win” NaNoWriMo this time around, but that’s not my goal. I want to write. I want to answer these questions. And I want to try out a new set of writing tools. Instead of OneNote and WordPerfect and a laptop and desktop, I’m now using Evernote, and Scrivener, and a tablet and the desktop. Getting to know Scrivener and developing a new toolset seems like it would be a “win” to me.

Escape Velocity

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If you drop a penny, does it fall to the ground? Do you ever expect it might not? Cultural attitudes towards children, relationships, and religion can be described in a similar fashion. Most people don’t even think to think about these beliefs any more than they think about gravity because to even question the general flow of the cultural zeitgeist takes an enormous amount of energy, let alone break free from the gravitational pull.
A few weeks ago, Time Magazine had their cover story on people who decide to remain child free. There are many reasons that people give when they defend this choice, but the point is, they have to defend it, especially if they are white women, as Jill Filipovic points out in this post for The Guardian:
Bring up the possibility of educated white women choosing not to have children and you’ll be met with intense hostility. The desire to forgo childrearing is a “banal fantasy“; having kids is the only way for adults to avoid “destructive self-absorption”. The photo of the child-free couple on the cover of Time Magazine this month showcases “lazy yuppies” whose “matching swimsuits reek of self-satisfied, in-your-face Dinks [double income no kids].” The cover model’s smile “is supposed to communicate her disdain for her uterus and her utter satisfaction with her size-4, cellulite-free, vacation-filled life”.
That’s a lot of pressure. What kind of energy does it take for someone to decide what is best for them when the cultural gravitation is pulling in another direction?
Perhaps part of the same gravitational construct is the idea of monogamy as a cultural constant. A recent post on the MS blog for MS Magazine asks whether feminists should be questioning “compulsory monogamy” as many have come to question the assumption of heternormativity and, I would add, having children.
Filipovic pointed out the censure that child free women meet but that’s actually less than the cultural condemnation of non-monogamy. A recent Salon post by Angi Becker Stevens currently has over 600 comments, most of them condemning the woman who wrote the post for everything from narcissism to child neglect. It was even worse for Sierra Black after her Huffington Post article of a year or so ago, with over 1000, mostly censorious comments. Those are just the ones I’m most familiar with because I read all of the comments. On both. The pull being exerted on both Black and Stevens can very rightly be seen as the hands of thousands trying to pull them back to earth. They might say “reality.”
There is something, besides simply tradition, to the powerful indoctrination of “grow up, get married, have babies” that adds to that cultural gravity. As Stevens says in a post on the MS Magazine blog:
Of course one function of compulsory monogamy is that polyamorous relationships are widely condemned, by both liberals and conservatives alike. But it’s important to reflect on the root of that condemnation. Whenever a society prohibits a certain behavior or identity, that prohibition is most likely serving the interests of people in positions of power.
Finally, the report of a study making the rounds the last few weeks purports to show a relationship between how “intelligent” a person is and the likelihood that someone is atheist. Religion is one of the biggest cultural gravity wells we have in our society. America is one of the most religious countries on earth. Most people grow up with a religion and even for those who don’t, religious beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions abound. Pull a dollar bill out of your wallet and take a look. Go to a baseball game and wait for the “God Bless America” to be whipped out in the seventh inning. Even from a simply literary point of view, the assumption that a god exists underlies much of western literature.
Pulling away from that sort of gravity well takes a lot of effort. Is intelligence one of the boosters helping people escape it? As posted at PZ Myers site, the abstract of the report says:
First, intelligent people are less likely to conform and, thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma. Second, intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs.
Now, as Myers points out in the link above, there are plenty of issues with the studies that have been done and none of us atheists can go high-fiving each other over our smarts. Filipovic thinks that “[t]o see some nebulous, grainy, other potential for which there are few mainstream models and say, “I want that,” takes courage and imagination.” Stevens says “We all stand to benefit from supporting relationships that serve as a model for less patriarchal, less hierarchical ways of intimately relating to one another.”
To me, these three things: living childfree, nonmonogamy, and atheism all question the dominant paradigms of our culture. As such they are incredibly threatening to those who either benefit from the current paradigm or call into question another person’s acceptance of that paradigm. It takes a lot of energy to fight against that gravitational pull.
Maybe it takes intelligence, however broadly defined, so that someone can be less likely to “conform” or more “analytic” in order to question the inherent inconsistencies within the dominant paradigm. Maybe it takes “courage and imagination” to envision a way of life different from those around one and then stick to it. Maybe we just like being nonconformist and maybe shaking the foundations of those in power, even just a little bit.
  
Maybe it takes affluence and privilege. The Time article talked mostly in terms of Western white women, where “an increase of 15 IQ points decreased the odds of [a girl] becoming a mother by 25%” (p41) and then goes on to point out that these women are also more likely to have had higher education. Self-identified polyamorous folks tend to be white, middle class, and with graduate degrees. As too many news articles to mention point out, higher ed costs money. There’s a safety in money, in being part of the dominant class. There’s less need to rely on institutions such as family, marriage, the church. The freedom to make one’s own way is a kind of power itself, maybe the greatest power launching towards escape velocity.