Reframing and Punching Down

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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March 6, 2014

Or, you know, more tilting at windmills.

I’ve been watching the discussion around the Hugo/Ross fiasco for most of the last week.  I was offline when much of the backlash started earlier this week but once articles in the mainstream media started appearing I found myself getting angrier and angrier.  I started to feel like my mood was stuck on “angry shrill bitch,” to be honest.

There have been a lot of fantastic posts about this.  Here are links to a few:

Then there were some other posts that I found to be less than fantastic. Many of them boil down to “chill out and settle down, be nice”.

There have been a number of articles in the mainstream media–mostly British outlets–but the one I want to concentrate on is this one: Jonathan Ross and the Hugo awards: why was he forced out by science fiction’s self-appointed gatekeepers?

That essay, dear readers, was written by Hayley Campbell, Neil Gaiman’s goddaughter.  This is not disclosed anywhere in the article.  And yet it is a critical piece of information, as that informs the way Campbell has framed her essay.

Read that article carefully. Read exactly who is allowed to have a voice in that article, who is quoted, and who is given a name.  Read who is reduced to a mob, to an irrationally shrill group of bullies.

Now think about who has access to mainstream media outlets. Think about who has the connections. Think about the pre-packaged “toxic Twitter” meme that this story has, oh so neatly, been shaped to fit.

Are you angry yet?  Because you should be.

This entire conversation has been reframed to cast Jonathan Ross as the victim here.  I have looked for the abuse that was supposedly directed at Ross and his family and, like this commenter, I have been unable to find any.

Instead, the story is that Seanan McGuire is a bully for speaking to her own fears in this situation and not even tagging Jonathan Ross or his family (note: dragging someone’s family into this sort of thing is seriously Not On; people’s personal lives are just that: personal).  Instead the story is that a bunch of people–mostly women–bullied a celebrity into resigning a hosting gig that he was being nice enough to do for free.

And I am furious.

I am furious that there is the appearance of Jonathan Ross is using his access to the media to punch down onto a group of people who have historically been made to feel unwelcome in fandom–from the procurement of butts for Isaac Asimov to pinch on stage to Harlan Ellison groping Connie Willis during the Hugo ceremony and through the discussion and controversy around other harassment at conventions and the SFWA Bulletin.

This is yet another way that voices are marginalized. People who are afraid of being hurt again are being told that they’re overreacting. That they need to be kind and generous and give people a chance.

When I was younger, I was often told by my father that I was difficult and hard to get along with because I was too outspoken. That I needed to be nicer and listen to other people and that I’d eventually get a chance to speak.  You know what I discovered?  That if I followed that advice, my chance to speak never came.  And this feels very much like that.  For me, that is no longer an option.

The only way we can change our culture is by speaking up when we can.

As for Jonathan Ross and his wounded ego?

sound of music fucks

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  1. Craig Laurance Gidney

    Good post.
    Sadly, it is often the marginalized are often the ones who are “hysterical” or “irrational,” or, my favorite, “have no sense of humor.”
    McGuire’s story actually reminds me of a similar situation I faced when I was the only black kid in a religious school, and people were listening to a shock jock’s racist humor on the classroom’s radio. When I turned the radio off, you can guess the uproar that happened.

  2. Jim C. Hines

    Well gosh, Craig – if only you weren’t so *sensitive*. It’s just a joke, you know? Why do you always have to go looking for outrage?


  3. Ann Somerville

    @Craig Laurance Gidney: So, I have nothing to add on this great post or your great comment, but investigating your site, I see you’ve written what I consider absolute catnip, and so just bought Fur&Gold.

    Dark, queered fairy tales? Gimme more, sir!

  4. Stefan (Far Beyond Reality)

    I also notice Mr. Gidney has a collection that shares a title with a Cocteau Twins song (Sea, Swallow Me), which is my personal version of catnip. Must investigate!

  5. Jack Womack

    Good to hear you on this, Natalie (and hi, Craig!).

    Re: Asimov, which link I found horrifying and not surprising at all — some years before I met anyone in SF he came into Scribner’s Book Store, where I worked, and asked for one of the volumes of the Beards’ multivolume history of the US, which we kept in Standard Authors (at the time he was pretty recognizable, even to those who weren’t regular SF readers — popular science etc.). A young woman colleague of mine directed him upstairs.

    A minute or so later the whole store looked up when they heard his two-finger whistle and shout at the top of his voice, “HEY, GIRLIE! UP *HERE*? ARE YOU *STUPID*?”

    He naturally hadn’t walked the additional two feet that would have taken him to the appropriate section; when he did, it wasn’t there — we were out. He came downstairs, immediately began to berate everyone he saw — “*ANY* OF YOU LESS STUPID THAN *SHE* IS? DIDN’T THINK SO!” (She was already off the floor, crying.) He finally went over to the special order desk where a different colleague, taking his order, asked him his name. “ASIMOV!”

    “Is that with two esses?” colleague asked, who knew how to spell it.

    He grabbed the copy of Books in Print in front of him, slammed it open to the As, pointed. Had never seen anyone look so infuriated in my life. He walked out.

    Years later he wrote a short feature in the NYT magazine about what My Most Satisfying Moment, and he wrote about that incident specifically, from a rather different point of view, concluding by how he satisfied he was that the store had gone out of business and all those people had lost their jobs. He himself, he said, walked from there to Simon & Schuster (who published the series) where they happily gave him a free copy.

    When I did come into the field a decade or so later, I was told by a noted SF [male] personage that he was well entitled to act like that. Why? I asked. Shock — shock. At my asking, I suppose.

  6. Katje

    It is interesting to read that article, then read it again with the thought that she is Neil Gaiman’s goddaughter. It did say at the bottom that she was writing a biography on him, but I’m ashamed to say that wouldn’t have registered particularly deeply if I hadn’t known they were that close.

  7. hapax

    You know, I’ve been reading all these posts and comments about “Oh, well, these concerns were *justified*, of course, but don’t you all realize how this ‘dustup’ will make SFF Fandom Look Bad?”

    And I haven’t heard any one point out that somewhere, there may be a marginalized person in the UK who has maybe seen Avatar and a few episodes of Dr Who, and who reads about this and says, “Wow. There’s a community out there that really cares about and protects its members from abuse and oppression. Maybe I should check this out!”

    But then, she’s probably just some fat trans* chick with funny-colored skin. We don’t want any more of THEM at our cons, after all.

  8. hapax

    [That last para was intended as sarcasm, in case it wasn’t clear]

  9. Alasdair

    To hapax above – I can’t share that optimistic take on things. A big angry Twitterstorm, with insults being thrown left and right, and women coming in for particular hatred, is hardly evidence of a community that ‘cares about and protects its members from abuse and oppression’. Pretty much the opposite, arguably.

    I sympathise with the message of the original post above – asking minority groups to stay polite all the time is a form of oppression, and sometimes loud, vicious anger can be the most effective response. But I can’t agree that what happened over Jonathan Ross did any favours for the image of the SF community (at least those parts of it on Twitter). If the original aim was to try to make the community more of a friendly, ‘safe space’ by discouraging offensive and sexist comments, it backfired spectacularly.

  10. hapax

    @Alasdair: If the original aim was to try to make the community more of a friendly, ‘safe space’ by discouraging offensive and sexist comments, it backfired spectacularly.

    Wait, WHAT?

    It’s late, I may be having reading comprehension problems, but I have difficulty in understanding your comment as anything other than that you believe that the “insults being thrown left and right, and women coming in for particular hatred” are the fault of those who were were OBJECTING to the pattern of and potential for “abuse and oppression.”

    Is saying “I’m afraid” and “Ouch!” loudly now in the category of a “vicious” response?

    Or maybe I am completely misunderstanding your point?

  11. squishydish

    When I read that Hayley Campbell article before, I saw at the end that she’d written a book about Neil Gaiman, so I thought she might be a bit slanted toward the Ross/Gaiman side. But Gaiman’s goddaughter? That should have rated a disclaimer. The whole article is disingenous, because it seems to start out making an effort to be balanced (although condescending), but it sure doesn’t end that way.

    Too full of feels to react to the rest of your article right now, but thanks very much for putting it all together.
    Okay, one reaction: go you!

  12. Veronica Schanoes

    “Oh, well, these concerns were *justified*, of course, but don’t you all realize how this ‘dustup’ will make SFF Fandom Look Bad?”

    Something that’s still not clear to me: Who cares?

    No, really. Who gives a fuck? And why?

    What is the big scary horrible threat of having SFF Fandom Look Bad? SFF Fandom has been the butt of jokes for literally years and years. Why now is it so terrible that we must all wring our hands because woe, woe, woe is we? How is this going to do any actual harm?

    Is it because Neil Gaiman is so very disappointed in us? Because that’s a two-way street, and I’m rather disappointed in him. Surely a genre and a fandom that has survived Harlan Ellison’s bullshit isn’t coming over all “what will the neighbors think” because of this?

    And what about the publicity that’s been avoided? You know the one. The one that would’ve happened when a woman went to the stage to claim her Hugo and Ross and decided to tell her she had great tits? Or are we all just supposed to pretend that the concern and distress about Ross was baseless, that surely if those pesky women, women like Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Charlie Stross, hadn’t made a big shrill fuss over nothing, everything would’ve just gone swimmingly? And that the blame is on those who kicked up a fuss, when this all could have been resolved smoothly if the chairs had had the brains God gave gravel and therefore listened to Farah Mendlesohn?

  13. Veronica Schanoes

    I mean, wasn’t it the English who came up with “They say? Who says? Let them say!” Have I just taken that too much to heart?

  14. another damned medievalist

    To be fair to Ross, I am pretty sure that the tweet he referred to as slanderous was one that flat out said that he abused women. His response also referred to lawyers.

    The use of words like “abuse” which can be understood in so many ways, from the outset has been very problematic for me. I haven’t seen anything that indicates he abuses women, or anyone, in a sense I would recognize. What I have *seen* (that is, by actually watching his show and presenting without having followed cherry-picked links) is that his humour is often sexualized, frequently misogynistic, targets people’s bodies, and can be homophobic and transphobic and pokes fun at foreigners. I’m honestly not sure about the accusations of racist comments, because some of the ones people have pointed to read to me as criticism of how others treat race.

    BUT based on what I have *seen*, and what I know from reading an awful lot on privilege, patriarchy, survival of abuse, etc., I have no problem in saying that the sort of humour for which he is best known can and do reinforce ideas and attitudes that make fandom and cons feel like they are dominated by the younger, nerdier brothers of the least pleasant characters from Mad Men.

  15. J Scott

    I don’t think the driving point in that New Statesman article is that Hayley Campbell is Gaiman’s goddaughter (though it would have been worth her mentioning relevant connections). The point driving it is that she is a comics person – she’s Eddie Campbell’s daughter and knows other comics people in the UK scene. There has been a massive split on this topic between comics people (who have overall sided with Jonathan Ross, who feels like ‘one of us’) and sff people (who overall haven’t). That’s what’s behind the article that Hayley references on Bleeding Cool (, which set the scene for the way a lot of comics folk saw the situation. Actually, you fall into the same trap as you’re pointing out – you don’t reference the Bleeding Cool article (written by a man) but rather the angrier-sounding article written by a woman.

    (NB I agree with a lot of what the sff community are saying right now, and I was pretty annoyed with Hayley’s article and with the Bleeding Cool article before that. Not that the UK comics community are rushing to agree with me, mind you.)

    • Natalie Luhrs

      Good point, J Scott. I wanted to focus on the New Statesman article because it was the one that really made me angry; I felt like if I were going to reference other articles that I would need to go find them all and honestly, I didn’t want to because I was already angry enough. One can only do so much, you know?

  16. DameB

    Dang. Thank you for this summary — I’ve been offline all week and turned on the internet today to see I’d missed something altogether.

    I was sad to see that Mr. Gaiman is pulling a face on his blog about this. I hoped for better. He starts out well: “The weirdest bit was, I understood some of the worry; I’d had it myself, 25 years ago, when Jonathan and I had first met, and he asked me and Dave McKean to be on his chat show to talk about VIOLENT CASES. I said “No, you make fun of people. This is comics. It matters to me. I don’t want you making fun of it.””

    But then he goes on to pooh pooh everyone else who has *those exact same fears*, but who don’t have the protection of being a SF rockstar and Mr. Ross’s personal friend.

    sad sigh.

  17. Anya

    Yes this. You make an excellent point of how much like gas-lighting this whole thing seems to be once you look at who is being told what. The day that Seanan McGuire is a gatekeeper to our community would be a great day since I’m fairly confident she would let in any fans as long as they don’t disparage women on their way past. That being said, it’s not even really like it was gatekeeping. I didn’t get the impression that anyone thought Wossy couldn’t be a fan, just that they didn’t want him to MC and potentially harass people…. In the end, I guess I’d rather be a bitch that sit silently by, but it’d be great if there was an actually reasonable option.

  18. Alasdair

    Hi, sorry for the late reply. And sorry if my post last night wasn’t as clear as it could have been.

    I wasn’t meaning to hold the people complaining about sexism responsible for the rampant misogyny and general abuse that followed. I was regretting that what was a well-intentioned campaign/discussion about safe spaces spiralled downhill so quickly into an ugly, abusive mess that left fandom looking bad. Though such consequences do also rather prove the point of the initial complainers.

    Hmm, I’m trying not to engage in victim blaming here, but I guess I’m still veering into the position which was being attacked by the original post above. Think I’d better leave this one here.

    Anyway, thanks to Natalie Luhrs for this post. The way this was reported so widely as ‘Good Guy Jonathan Ross hounded out of fandom by mean feminists’ is shameful and revealing. Thanks also for pointing out that Hayley Campbell is Neil Gaiman’s goddaughter, which should definitely have been mentioned in her article.

  19. J Scott

    @Natalie Luhrs: I’ll grant that it was easier for me to trace the antecedents of the NS article having watched them happening real-time in my own time-zone. (And having argued with a section of my comics FB timeline, who suddenly felt very… blokey… in a way I hadn’t noticed before.)


  20. DemonHellfish

    @Jack Womack:

    “Is that with two esses?”

    That response is so full of win!


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