Choice. A good thing?

I came across two wildly different pieces of information, and their juxtaposition sent my brain into cartwheels on the subject of having choices.

choiceConsider having no choice. I read the Economist most weeks, because it is one of the better ways to keep informed about the world outside my home country. If you’ve read my books, you’ve noticed that I am fascinated by the rest of the world. I also consider myself somewhat informed, so I read the following from the Feb 25 2017 issue of The Economist three times.

In a 2012 household survey … more than half [of Indian women] said they could not visit a shop, or even a friend, without someone else’s approval … and 52% thought it normal for a husband to beat his wife if she ventured out without telling him.

2012? Half the population? But I know women from India who live in the US, and my writing and the internet have combined to introduce me to women who live in India now as well. This doesn’t sound like their reality. The article adds

For wealthy and middle-class Indian women, freedoms have steadily grown.

Oh, right.  Those are the women with whom I have contact. In fact, those are generally the women with whom I have contact here as well. Both education and the influence of others work to increase a woman’s freedom. I wonder what percentage of poorly educated women in remote rural locations live a similarly constrained life here?

Then I came across this.

While people like having choices, too many options makes settling on one specific choice difficult. There is a technical term to describe this problem: the excessive choice effect (ECE). The ECE refers to the inverse relationship between the number of options and the ability of a person to make a choice. It is most famously related to a study involving jam. Authors Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper found that consumers more likely to purchase jam when presented with six choices than when they were presented with 24 choices.

jamIt was part of a newsletter from the American Association of Independent Investors. If you’ve read d4 you know that I handle stock investing for myself and other family members, and so I’ve subscribed to a wide variety of newsletters on the subject over the past decade or so. Most make money, but mostly for the people who write them.  However, the AAII aims to provide “unbiased, actionable investment education” often playing the role of a sort of “Consumer Reports” for the individual investor. Here, they were trying to help the non-professional navigate their way through mutual funds. (There are an awful lot of them out there.) So I checked out the jam story, and apparently it is true.

I have always believed that having no real choice about what you can do is the very definition of misery. The essence of happiness is the freedom to choose the alternative you believe is best. You may choose to defer your happiness, or to forego it altogether to aid or please another. You may choose to do something difficult; you may choose to take a nap. When circumstances beyond anyone’s control give you a lousy set of choices, that might make what you pick all the more valuable to you.

growing-bolder-8To artificially restrict anyone’s decisions (visit a sick friend and get beaten, or don’t) is to artificially limit their joy in life. No, you can’t study to be a doctor because we say so. No, you cannot try to run a marathon, because I don’t like the idea. This exertion of control, this limiting the potential of others with arbitrary rules, is of course not confined to the experience of women. However, women have far too often been on the losing end of it. On this blog and in my life, I cheer on the women who have found a way to regain their options.

But what an interesting idea that we also don’t like to have too many choices. At least when it comes to something trivial like what cookie to eat, a half dozen options are good. More important decisions like what career to pursue or what mate to choose presumably warrant having more than six to pick from. But can we suffer from choice overload even then?

Maybe what we all want is enough meaningful choices, in all aspects of our life. We don’t like being forced to pick among things that don’t matter that much to us. Ask anyone who has recently had to plan a wedding and pick from dozens of nearly identicle type-fonts. And yet, we rebel deeply against not being able to choose the things that matter most to us. Of course we do.

Funny creatures, aren’t we?

Am I writing sexist science fiction?

daxI’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager; longer than that if you consider wanting to be the chief science officer on the star ship Enterprise as a sign of early feminism. And yet, like other like-minded authors of speculative fiction, I struggle with feminism in my writing.

My first problem is that I define feminism as the radical notion that women are people. This means that some of them (women, or people if you prefer) are foolish. Some are selfish or incompetent, and a few of them are downright mean. All of them have flaws. I believe that to make every female character, or even most of them, models of virtue is to not treat my female characters as people, but rather as carriers pigeons for an ideology.

I recently stumbled on an online group discussion about a book I read years ago. Dreamsnake (a multiple award-winning 1978 science fiction novel written by Vonda McIntyre) defied the stereotypes of the genre way back then by putting a gutsy lady hero in the middle of a broken world. I wanted to like this book so much. But I didn’t, at least not all that much.

dreamsnakeThe main character Snake seemed two dimensional to me. She was everything a feminist hero should be, which was great, and she was never anything else, which kind of bored me. The rest of the women in her post-apocalyptic world were equally unwavering in their strength and capability. There may have been exceptions (it has been many years since I read the book) but my lingering impression was of a cast of characters carefully crafted to make a point. Interesting, but not engaging.

So, my female characters are all over the place. Most of my protagonists are strong women, but my novel y1 features a gay male shape shifter, and his friends.

I remember being so excited when a blog called The Future Fire agreed to review the book, and being so disappointed when the reviewer remarked “I do have to say, I am not really impressed by the depiction of women here. Of the two main female characters, one is shown to be foolish and unstable (where have we seen those words before?) and the other a child-like creature who runs from one daddy figure to another.”

y1-final-smallNo, I wanted to scream. That’s just two of the characters. What about capable Chloe? Resilient Raven? They are just as important to the plot. But of course one of the things you have to learn when you write books is not to scream at your reviewers, even in your own head, no matter how much you think they are missing the point. You just try to make your intentions more clear in the next book.

The other problem I have with my own sense of feminism and writing, is that I want my world to feel real to my readers. Sadly, our cultural stereotypes are internalized from childhood whether we like it or not, and they color our sense of what is believable. A writer can easily have one top surgeon at the hospital be female, and I think a good story ought to have a few of them. However, if the writer insists on making well over half of the doctors female (and more than half of the nurses male) then today’s reader will struggle to settle into the plot. This works fine if gender is supposed to play part in the story, or in the world-building. But if it isn’t, then you’ve got a bright light shining where you don’t want one, and you have to choose between making your point and engaging your reader.

A while back I read a fascinating article on a blog called Mythcreants entitled Five Signs your Story is Sexist.  This wonderful and helpful post included such gems as

“Patriarchy conditions us to think of men as normal and women as special exotic creatures. That’s why in many stories, particularly stories written by men, characters are only women if the storyteller thinks they have to be.”

Excellent point. If every female in the story is someones girlfriend, sister, daughter or mother, I think a good storyteller should seek out a few other characters and change their gender. You know, the helpful bartender who notices something that saves the hero can be a girl, and no, your hero does not have to fall in love with her. She can even be an old woman.

Here is another gem.

“Because most of us have a very skewed sense of what ratio of men to women is normal, the only way to ensure equal representation is to actually count them up and tally the total.”

This is an exercise well worth doing. While I think that a writer may not be able to achieve “equal representation” without making gender an issue in a novel meant to be about something else, I bet writers of all genders will be surprised by how far we all lean towards predominantly male stories. Yes, we can lean less that way and still tell a tale that sounds like it is real.

I’m already working on the novel I hope to write after I finish my 46. Ascending series. My protagonist will be a she, of course, and I already know that she will be smart, capable and kind. That part is easy. Now I’m working on what she doesn’t do well, developing the ways in which she is vulnerable. To me, those traits will be what makes her story interesting, and also what makes her fully human.

One Great Idea From the Misogynist Wing of the Alt Right

Like almost everything you can imagine, and a whole lot of things you can’t, it exists on the internet. The same wonderful, amazing tool that fuels my stories by letting me see locations I’ll never visit and open doors into the minds of others I will never meet, also allows me to find voices that repulse and frighten me. In fact, it allows me to find them easily.

Like most people, I avoid the dark corners of the internet, until my desire to make a character or incident more authentic drives me back to some putrid place. This time, I was trying to do something that seemed pretty safe. I was trying to learn more about Argentine women, because I was writing about one. Flipping through sites, I landed on a blog about how to get laid in Argentina. It seemed to be part of series of posts advising men about how to obtain casual, consensual and free sex in every country on earth. Crass but harmless.

The author advised me that women in Argentina were far too high maintenance and that I would be better off just heading over to neighboring Brazil. Something about the general tone started to bother me, and I filed it away for a possible future blog post of my own.

geniusBecause I’m a news junkie, over the last few days I’ve heard a lot about Trump’s new campaign chief executive Stephen Bannon, who also heads up Breitbart News. I had not heard of Breitbart News before, but according to a wealth of sources it is part of an alternate reality known as the alt right, in which a wide variety of paranoid white-centric ideas are held as truths. I checked it out for myself, and found headlines like “Obama Golfs as Louisiana Floods” and “Texas Voter ID Case Compared to Area 51 Alien Conspiracy” (two actual headlines used today). Okay, I’m going to go with the talking heads.

I also went back to the how-to-get-laid-in-Argentina blog, thinking I might write about it, and lo and behold I found another post there entitled “If Trump Doesn’t Win We’re Screwed.” Hmm. Seems like this guy writes about more topics than effective pick-up lines. It didn’t take much in the way of looking around to find a post called “Ugly Minority Girls Are Winning Beauty Pageants To Satisfy The Diversity Agenda” and to find comments like (I quote the exact words and apologize in advance for any offense) “overweight and obese girls have more sexual partners on average than girls who are in shape, because the same lack of impulse control that leads them to stuff their faces with food also leads them to hoover up cocks left and right” and “homosexuals and bisexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to be mentally ill: their malfunctioning sexual impulses lead to their entire personalities being dysfunctional.”

By this point I was looking for some bleach to clean out my browser. Ick. Yes, people can believe anything they want and they can also share those thoughts with others. But does this blogger seriously believe what he writes, or, like much of the alt right, does he just enjoy shocking people with outrageous statements?

I decided to look further into this. The blogger has a name, Daryush Valizadeh, and he achieved a small amount of infamy when he wrote a post in 2015 suggesting that rape be legalized on private property. His argument was that such a law would coerce women into becoming extremely careful (or paranoid), to the point of never being alone with a man with whom they did not want to have sex. Thus rape would be eliminated. After a lot of criticism, he claimed that he was being sarcastic.

sungazing5The Southern Poverty Law Center follows him due to his “specific examples of misogyny and the threat, overt or implicit, of violence” and you can read their latest on him. (I am happy to provide a link to the SPLC site, but will not link to his blogs.) According to the short Wikipedia entry on him, he is against female promiscuity, which seems a rather odd stance for a man who writes books with titles like Bang Lithuania: How to Sleep with Lithuanian Women in Lithuania and Don’t Bang Denmark: How to Sleep with Danish Women in Denmark (If You Must). I  have no idea what he has against Danish women.

Another odd contradiction is that along with his clarion call for men to be sexually aggressive, he has recently begun to rally his followers to reject globalism and adhere to nationalism. It seems a strange stance for a man who is the child of two immigrants, who has lived in multiple other countries and who writes travel books. Perhaps he is trying a little too hard to merge his philosophies about sex with the politics of the alt right.

I do confess to reading one of his posts from start to finish. It was titled something like “don’t have sex with feminists” and it advised men that the feminist movement could be seriously diminished if males would simply refuse to become intimate with women who held unacceptable ideas like wanting equal pay. (I’m serious, equal pay was the horrible feminist idea that he used as an example.) His plan for stopping feminism is for every man in every bar to respond clearly and firmly to every such statement with something like “then forget it, I’m not attracted to feminists.” He thinks this would make women feel so rejected that they would rethink their silly ideas.

I almost wrote the man to say “Please get all of your followers to do this. Please. What a service this would be.”

Imagine the scene in the bar. He says “Forget it, lady, I’m not attracted to feminists.” She says “Thank you so much for telling me. I’m not attracted to assholes.”

And everyone leaves the bar happy. See, even I can find one idea from the misogyny wing of the alt right movement with which to agree.

 

 

 

A feminist looks back at Valentine’s Day

candyIt always was a problem holiday, wrapped as it was in girlie expectations of flowers and candy. I understood that the female, of course, was expected to do for him also, usually by way of, wink wink, you know. It had enough of that underlying sex for treats aspect to it to make me cringe, but I couldn’t help wanting to acknowledge the day. I was still a member of my culture.

My friends always asked. Did he get you flowers? Take you out to dinner? Somewhere romantic? My answer was always a slightly sad no.

roseMy friends would sigh. “It wouldn’t have hurt him to at least, maybe, bought you a single rose or something.” No, it probably wouldn’t have. But I knew that I was sending out mixed signals. I was one of those girls who was usually in a relationship, and with the kind of boy who thought Valentine’s Day was stupid. Not surprising, really, given my own independent beliefs. Still, why couldn’t he make one tiny exception and buy me some dark chocolate? Then I would have had had something to tell my friends. Besides, I like dark chocolate a lot.

Finally, and to no one’s surprise, I married one of those independent thinking guys who had declared early on that no collective of greeting card salesmen and florists was going to tell him when to act romantic, dammit. And they didn’t. I got used to telling people that we didn’t celebrate February 14, and I focused on sending cute cards to relatives instead and just bought my own chocolate. Problem solved.

sparklyFunny thing. As the years went by, Valentine’s Day began to seem more and more like a contrived holiday to me as well. I bragged about how he was too smart to buy me $70 roses. Then one year he surprised me with a silly card. Just for fun, he said. It made him think of exchanging valentines at grade school class parties. I laughed and the next year I got him a silly card too. That became our little tradition, the exchange of a card, the goofier the better.

Then a few years after the card tradition started, we somehow got in habit of making a special meal sometime in mid-February, on a night that was convenient. It included lobster and sparkling wine and maybe even some sort of chocolate dessert. It became our own secret celebration of love, held on a day of our choosing and far from the crowded restaurants with their over-priced menus designed for the occasion. This worked for us, and all was well.

Then, this year happened. The fancy meal was had Saturday night. The cards were exchanged Sunday morning over coffee. By Sunday evening, I was done with Valentine’s Day and happily writing away on my blog when I was informed, with just a touch of petulance, that dinner had been ready for awhile.

You made dinner? Of course he had, I was told.  It was Valentine’s Day, so would I please get off of my computer and come eat the chili rellenos he had made for me because he knows how much I like them.

Why did you bother to do that? Because it is Valentine’s Day, he told me. And because I love you.

Oh. Well now. If that doesn’t just make up for all the flowers and candy I never got and said I never wanted, I don’t know what does.

So, Valentine’s Day. It’s a holiday about loving someone. If you celebrate it right, there isn’t a better occasion on the whole calendar.

blooming

(Text from “The Word Virus”)