Friday, February 21, 2014

Class and Fandom

Class and Fandom
• Class, Race, Fandom, and Dr. Who
• Damien G. Walter and “class envy”
• Are poor people invisible in fandom?
• The hardest panel for an f&sf convention

• Class, Race, Fandom, and Dr. Who

The Doctor of Dr. Who reincarnates whenever a new actor takes over the role, so, in theory, the Doctor could become anyone. But so far, all the Doctors have been white, male, British, and vaguely middle-to-upper class.

Except one.

Christopher Eccleston is known to fans as the Ninth Doctor. I loved him because his incarnation, with a Northern English accent and a black leather jacket, evokes the working class. Some people hated him for that reason; a snobbish Guardian writer referred to Eccleston’s Doctor as “looking like an EastEnders extra.”

The Doctor is traditionally accompanied by a companion or two, the Watsons to his Holmes. My favorite, Billie Piper’s very working-class Rose Tyler, began with Eccleston and continued when David Tennant  became the Tenth Doctor. You may argue whether the Ninth’s working class status is a matter of sympathy or identity—though he was reborn in a new human form, he was still a Time Lord—but Rose Tyler was, in the words of the actress who played her, “a bit of a chav.” The show made that explicit when Rose, possessed by an alien intelligence, looked in a mirror and exclaimed, “Oh my god! I’m a chav!

Many fans saw what the snobbish Guardian writer missed. Backword Dave noted in “The new Doctor Who” at A Fistful of Euros: “Both Rose and the Doctor seem to be “working class.” So far they’ve stood up for enslaved corporate hacks against unnamed bankers, overthrown a despotic billionaire who considered his staff “disposable,” supported an honest (and Labour seeming) MP against a corrupt system, visited a Victorian funeral parlour (where the most likable characters were a maid and Charles Dickens). In the second episode, the sympathetic character was some kind of maintenance worker, and in episode 1, Rose worked in a department store. Where is the middleclassness?”

The white Rose Tyler had a black boyfriend, Mickey Smith, who could be considered a companion, but his part wasn’t as important as hers. The first major black character in Doctor Who was Piper’s successor, Freema Agyeman, who played Martha Jones, a middle class medical student.

Just as Rose was an excuse to acknowledge class issues, Martha was an opportunity to explore race. How well the writers did depends on who you ask.

Now, the Doctor always reincarnating as a white male has bugged me for decades. Whoopi Goldberg hinted long ago that she would love the part. If the producers insisted on someone male and British, Lenny Henry proved he would’ve been great in a Dr. Who spoof in 1985.

People who talk about race and Dr. Who focus on a scene from “Human Nature”. Martha, who had been pretending to be the Doctor’s housemaid in 1913, tries to convince an upper-class Brit that she’s from the future:

MARTHA: I’m training to be a doctor. Not an alien doctor, a proper doctor. A doctor of medicine. 

JOAN: Well that certainly is nonsense. Women might train to be doctors, but hardly a skivvy and hardly one of your color.

It’s a brilliant scene. The comment about “hardly a skivvy and hardly one of your color” tackles race and class simultaneously. To an upper-class Brit in 1913, being a doctor isn’t for the working class, and it’s especially not for brown-skinned members of that class.

But K. Tempest Bradford denounced that scene on Tumblr. then accused its writer, Paul Cornell, of unintentional racism at “Let’s Talk About Human Nature”, where she also complained about the Doctor getting to pass as a teacher while Martha had to be a servant.

No one at Tumblr said a word about class, nor did Bradford at her blog. But Cornell, replying at Bradford’s blog, mentioned class immediately: “...the question is, do we have everyone in (upper class, somewhat sheltered) 1914 be portrayed as absolutely non-racist, or do we note the possibility? I hate it when series set in the past ignore the racism of previous eras to extraordinary degrees. (To not have Martha hammered with it *every time* she sets foot in the past was, though, I think, the right decision.) I think it airbrushes the suffering of individuals back then out of history, by implicitly saying things were always all right. However, as you’re in the group portrayed here, I think your voice should have weight, and I don’t want to push it aside through my own privilege. It’d be really good if we could manage to have the (perhaps first ever) caring, dignified chat about race in the series. Mainly because I’m an enormous wuss and if it gets heated I could well disgrace myself with the wailing and the sobbing.”

Bradford continued to ignore the subject in her response to Cornell. He did not, saying, “I think it’s clear that, in some ways, we simply let you down, and I’m sorry about that. Some of this stuff one just can’t argue with, really. Back then we saw ‘chosen by the Tardis’ as a more poetic way of saying ‘by a roll of the dice’, but yes, it’s our choices that mattered. As a British person, the idea that in 1914 Joan would have known about women of colour being doctors feels very strange to me. That sort of cultural information would have been hard to come by (people of her class would have been surprised by that, I think, up until the 1950s, some much later), and I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to assume her ignorance. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think one of the reasons the text is problematic for you is that you feel kicked by the heroine expressing such things. The way institutional bigotries touch good people (because I think it’s important to be able to acknowledge one’s own racism, so I also think it’s important to show racism as a flaw in otherwise positive characters) is a theme in my work. I’ve read the Butler, which is, as you say, the best sort of SF.”

Bradford replied, “I will have to defer to historians on this one, because I admit I don’t know.”

Despite acknowledging her ignorance, Bradford didn’t change her mind. At Tumblr, she said, “Having a discussion with Paul Cornell about this episode over on my blog. I’m realizing again (always have to re-realize this stuff) how some people just do not see the world the same way as others. They just don’t fathom how everything in this episode is just… arg.”

To people who care only about the depiction of race, class and history are always irrelevant.

I can suggest answers to her plot complaints, though whether my explanations are implied by the script or are only fan-spackling, I don’t know. She says, “People have pointed out that the Doctor did not choose the time and place, the TARDIS dd. Well, TARDIS: wtf? Still not okay. ... In the world of the show that is bad enough. But I find it to be handwavy and bull on the part of the writer/creators/whoever came up with this idea. It looks like they’re trying to absolve the Doctor of responsibility here, and that’s a dick way to do so. Plus, it doesn’t fly for the TARDIS, either, as it’s been well established by this point that it has a consciousness, too.”

1. Having the Tardis rather than the Doctor choose a time and place at random seems like a good plan if you’re trying to hide from creatures who can travel in time and space.

2. Throughout the show’s history, the Tardis has been presented as slightly damaged and not completely dependable. Maybe it goofed up when it chose 1913 Britain.

3. The Tardis, a time-traveling vehicle with an alien consciousness, might not know or care to avoid sending Martha to any place with a history of racism.

4. The Tardis might have thought the Doctor’s pursuers would never think to look for him in a racist time.

Bradford also complained, “It’s yet another example in a long list of examples where Martha is put into the Mammy role. I might have let it slide except it happens so often it’s a damn theme, and that’s really problematic.”

It’s actually another example of companions put in servant roles. Did anyone complain when the working class Rose Tyler was put into a maid’s role?

For the social justice critics of the handling of Martha Jones, the question isn’t whether the stories accurately present the prevailing attitudes toward race and class—as evidenced by Bradford’s comment about deferring to historians. The question is whether it’s racist for a middle-class black woman to visit a time where black women are assumed to be working class. That Martha is heroic isn’t doubted; she’s a much-loved character in Whodom. I think the fans who wanted her written differently are missing something the writers know: part of her heroism comes from confronting racism. She could have been written like Star Trek’s Uhura and only visited post-racial and non-racial places.

Which would have meant keeping her out of the last five hundred years of history where English was spoken.

Or it would have meant ignoring racism in those times.

Good writers know a truth that fans don’t: A writer’s job isn’t to give fans what they want. It’s to give them what they need. If fans are upset because a beloved character faces hard realities, their upset may only be a sign that the writers are doing their job.

• Damien G. Walter and “class envy”

On July 10, after writing about Jemisin and Beale, I got a tweet from Damien Walter (@damiengwalter5), columnist for The Guardian. This part of the discussion stuck me:

Damien Walter
No, Will. This is the whole point. As we covered already, this isn’t about Jemisin. It’s about you, and your victim complex.

Damien Walter
And your class envy, and your being beaten up as a kid. And your anger, which you’ve turned in to racist insults, when…

Damien Walter
…you could have turned it in to something better.

Will Shetterly
Ah, “class envy.” On this side of the pond, that’s what rich folks say about the people who don’t know their place.

His “class envy” reminded me of Jemisin’s use of “flyover country.” In identitarian terms, classists are classist.

He didn’t clarify what he was thinking of when he said I deal in racist insults. I do my best not to insult anyone, though I realize that to people who think in terms of “class envy”, any disagreement from someone lower in the class pyramid is insulting.

• Are poor people invisible in fandom?

If fandom has an entry cost, it’s the price of building a collection of books, comics, or movies that you love. That’s become harder for poorer folks. In 1960, you could buy a paperback for 35 cents, a third of the federal minimum wage of $1.15. By 2010, paperbacks cost as much or more than the minimum wage of $7.25.

Convention fandom isn't cheap—two adults who go to a major convention that's further than a day’s drive from home can easily spend a thousand dollars or more on transportation, hotel, and meals. Attending distant cons simply isn't possible for many Americans. Even local cons are unaffordable for many in this land of great privilege and great poverty.

Three fannish organizations help people attend conventions. TAFF, the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund, brings fans on trans-Atlantic visits. DUFF, the Down Under Fan Fund, does the same for trans-Pacific visits. Con or Bust provides assistance for fans of color in North America. TAFF and DUFF are only for a few well-known fans, people who’ve been contributing to fandom for years. Con or Bust is open to any fan of color, regardless of economic background—one of Con or Bust's first beneficiaries was Deepad, who described herself as upper-class. Poor fans of no color are not eligible, which eliminates two-thirds of the US’s poor.

Fandom reflects the US’s middle-class, people with disposable income for fannishness. It’s become far more diverse in terms of race and gender in the last fifty years. While that deserves to be celebrated, another change has been missed. As fandom’s been gentrified, fewer working-class fans of any hue have the money to join.

• The hardest panel for an f&sf convention

F&SF conventions have been doing panels about gender and race for decades, but panels about class are new. I propose them wherever I go, and I’ve found they do well at general conventions like ArmadilloCon  and LepreCon, and poorly at literary conventions like Fourth Street and World Fantasy. I suspect literary conventions attract a high percentage of liberal identitarians who happily talk about racism and sexism, which they can blame on conservatives, but hate thinking about their own economic privilege in ways that aren’t as easy to dismiss.

The class panel at Armadillocon was the best I’ve ever been on, probably because none of the participants were defensive. Joe Lansdale was funny and honest about growing up working class,  and pointed out that if you have a southern working class accent, middle-class folks will assume your IQ is at least ten points lower. Marshall Maresca had the best observation about how the class system makes people take its workings for granted: his wife once said everyone in Mexico City had servants, and he had to point out that was mathematically impossible. Scott Lynch talked about how writing about con artists led him to writing about class. Since I was the moderator, I spent most of my time asking questions and making sure everyone participated. The audience laughed a lot and asked great questions.

My advice for anyone doing a class panel is to start expecting trouble: I noted in my opening statement that class is often called the US's last taboo, so if anyone wanted to leave, they were welcome to. I think that seriousness made it easier for people to say, “Dude, we know this is dangerous; now let's run with scissors.”

If you noticed that the panel consisted of four men who look white, I'll add what I pointed out to Marshall Maresca when he mentioned his reservations about being a good person to speak about class: Marx and Engels were middle class white guys, too. It isn't what you are that matters in class issues; it's who you support.

The World Fantasy class panel was one I proposed: “The Role of Class in Fantasy and Horror”. I’m not sure if the description was mine, but I’ll take credit for it: “Science fiction often deals with class conflict. How does fantasy and horror pursue the same concepts? Are vampires and elves the bourgeoisie? Are werewolves and orcs the working class? Who are the working class heroes of our genre?”

I should've dropped off it. Six panelists is at least one too many for a difficult topic. The best thing about it was Kari Sperring’s presence; she brought a British perspective that I especially enjoyed.

Afterward, I noted a few things we didn’t get to:

1. Fear of the working class in our genre. That's obvious with Morlocks. Is it implied with Frankenstein's monster? How often are rednecks used as "the other"?

2. Who are the genre’s working class heroes? Is Sam Gamgee a class traitor? If Conan's a prole and Elric's a king, where do Fafhrd and the Mouser fit?

3. Contemporary fantasy is a rejection of the imaginary setting of pseudo-medieval fantasy, but is it also a rejection of rigid class systems?