I don’t know if it’s just me, but being asked what I do is a source of unrepentant dread.
I write. I write here and I write on a couple of different websites, including Women Write About Comics, which you should be reading. I also do a podcast on geek culture. When I tell people these things, they always want to know what they’re about.
And I appreciate that enthusiasm and interest, but I can never seem to find a good answer. As much as nerdy stuff is popular right now, saying I take it seriously enough to critique it still feels like I’m asking to be shoved in a locker. It’s one thing to enjoy, say, Game of Thrones, and it’s another to discuss the implications of lily-white Daenerys’ subjects all being poor brown folks, right? Like, who cares? It’s a television show. Can’t we just turn off our brains and stop being offended by things for two minutes?
(No. Well, yes, but I believe the question is not can we, but should we. I’ll get there.)
And the writing–more than once, I’ve had the reception to my answer of “fantasy” for what I write about be…less than enthusiastic. It has put me in more than one uncomfortable position where I wriggle around in my seat and try to dodge the question to avoid the stares of well-meaning but skeptical family members.
Which inevitably leads me down a sad and well-populated road full of questions–most important, does what I do matter?
Does fantasy matter? Does pop culture criticism matter? Who really cares about that awkward Mhysa scene from Game of Thrones (I am perpetually picking on Game of Thrones, I’m sorry, I love the books but the show and I are currently seeing other people)? Does it matter that Dragon Age‘s representation of multiple sexualities made me or anybody else happy? Why talk about Black Widow’s speech about infertility making her a monster in The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron? The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina made me feel good because sometimes being villainous and dark is delightful, but is that even worthy of comment?
Throughout my education, I ran into the dreaded “no genre” rule, which I frequently ignored. The message (which I believe was unintended) that I got from that rule was that genre fiction was trivial, unimportant, lesser. And I get that the reason for the rule is that some writers throw in dragons and robots and oppressive governments to make up for a lack of plot or character, but, uh, there are only so many stories I can read about old white English professors cheating on their wives, college students doing lots of drugs, and everybody dying of cancer before I have to ask why genre is the problem.
I feel pretty strongly about destroying the highbrow/lowbrow distinction (at least in the sense of quality–audience, components, et cetera, are different animals), but I still continuously ask myself if maybe I shouldn’t be doing something else. Shouldn’t I be writing about, I don’t know, adult things? Mortgages, taxes, old white English professors cheating on their wives? Those things aren’t interesting to me, but if what I’m interested in is so likely to be bad, isn’t it also…I don’t know, juvenile?
And the podcast–there’s so much going on in the world that’s scary and awful and more important than my opinions of Life is Strange, right? There are kids dealing with those issues in real life. And here I am, yammering on about a video game like it’s the most important issue in the world rather than a fun way to spend 15 hours.
I mean it. I ask myself these things often. Maybe not daily, but near enough.
We consume pop culture every day. It not only reflects what our culture values, but also how we shape and identify ourselves. You know that feeling when you meet somebody who likes the same thing you do? It doesn’t have to be a so-called geeky thing–remember the first time you found somebody who’d read and loved your favorite poet or your favorite obscure short film? Or, conversely, the betrayal at knowing that someone you don’t like enjoys your favorite thing? Remember how you knew something about that person just from that moment?
Culture shapes pop culture shapes us. That’s why representation is so important, and that’s why we keep asking more of the media we consume. It’s very easy to write things off as just fiction or just fantasy or just games, but there is so much more to it than that. There is always more at stake.
Maybe writing stories about succubi isn’t going to change the world, but I discovered something about myself in the process, and I’m sure the same is true for many of my favorite genre fiction writers. Recently, I re-read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and there was so much truth in it among all the fantasy that I broke down crying (I was already feeling pretty weepy, but when I say “broke down crying” I mean the kind of full-body sobs that rob you of all your strength). I saw myself in somebody else’s work and I found hope in it, even though it’s just a fantasy novel. I connected with a piece of fiction and found comfort in it in a way that I didn’t with all the non-fiction articles I’d been reading earlier that day to try to achieve the same thing–a moment of clarity and understanding and hope that I couldn’t find on my own.
And consuming all of this stuff–fantasy novels, pop culture criticism, and so on–has been incredibly important. It’s been escape, certainly, but it’s also been where I learn to construct the person I am. Who would I be without Alanna of Trebond, Lyra Silvertongue, Lucy Pevensie, or Yuna? What kind of person would I be if pop culture hadn’t taught me to empathize with people who weren’t like me? Would I care at all about social issues if pop culture criticism hadn’t ushered me in there first?
There are always important issues out there, and there will always be battles to fight. Talking about media or writing speculative fiction is not a way of avoiding those issues, but rather a way of framing the discussion a different way. If we can make changes in the way our media represents all kinds of people, we can change the way that we think, the way we raise younger people to think. I don’t mean that in a brainwashing, creepy 1984 sense–I mean that in the way where reading Tamora Pierce when I was eleven not only introduced me to cool women with swords, but also Daja, a black lesbian character who totally blew my mind because no other novel had ever let me step into the shoes of a character like that.
I think about whether anything I do is important and then I think about myself as a kid, growing up in a town with a 98 percent white population where LGBT+ students were regularly beaten up and swastikas were spray painted at the high school, and I realize yes, it is important.
Kids are probably better informed today than I was. That’s a good thing. Maybe my podcast is just another pebble in the ongoing river of cultural criticism, but we still get emails from people saying they learned something, that they appreciate what we do. And we learn something from it too–we question our thoughts and push each other to do things better, and that is, unquestionably, a good thing.
Maybe I’m not a professionally published author, but writing gets me through a lot. Every time I finish something I look back at it and see something of myself there, even if it’s something I don’t particularly want to see. All this writing is teaching me more about myself, and learning more is pushing me to do better, and whether my journey to self discovery is important to anyone else or not, it matters to me.
So yes, what I do matters. What we all do matters, and that is why it’s important. Game of Thrones has far more reach than anything I do ever will, so if my podcast and drabbles and blogs and are important in a tiny, tiny way, explode that importance by 8.1 million and you’ll find something like where Game of Thrones ranks.
I don’t think I’m doing life-changing work over here, but I’m going to keep doing it anyway. It makes me happy. It satisfies me. It keeps me learning. And if listening to my best friend and I talk about social issues and Outlander teaches anybody anything, no matter how small, I’ll consider that important until the next round of imposter syndrome kicks in.