Interview: Kameron Hurley, Author of The Geek Feminist Revolution

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Author Kameron Hurley is responsible for some of our favorite characters in the science-fiction/fantasy realm–including Nyxnissa from the Bel Dame Apocrypha seriesand has offered up many thoughtful and poignant critiques of pop culture, the science-fiction/fantasy genre as a whole, and how writers have been making strides by creating new worlds that are (at times) more progressive than our own. In 2014, her essay “We Have Always Fought” won the Hugo Award for Best Related Work.

Her latest book is called The Geek Feminist Revolution, and it’s a series of non-fiction essays that discuss a broad range of topics–from the beginnings of her years as a writer to how we can examine films like Die Hard and Mad Max: Fury Road to living with a chronic illness. It contains a mix of several previously-published essays as well as those brand-new to the book, and is a powerful, inspiring and often unapologetic examination of the geek world. Hurley spoke with The Mary Sue via email about The Geek Feminist Revolution, her method of dealing with toxicity on the internet, and writing advice she’s taken to heart.

The Mary Sue: You’ve written fiction and non-fiction – your collection of essays, The Geek Feminist Revolution, run the gamut from essays on feminism and pop culture to your advice for aspiring writers to how to change the existing narratives in science fiction and fantasy. Do you prefer writing one genre over another, or do you take a different approach depending on what you’re writing?

Kameron Hurley: I certainly enjoy writing the speculative genres the most. I find that it’s easier to get people to question their own assumptions when I take them out of the here-and-now and put them someplace really different. Changing the rules also helps me explore my own assumptions about the world. If we put humanity onto another world, with far different governments and social mores, what stays the same? What changes? My background is in historical studies, so I know that how people organize themselves and what they consider “normal” as far as human behavior goes, has varied widely.

One of the things that makes nonfiction writing much easier for me is that the pieces are certainly much shorter than novels, so I’ve had the chance to hone the structure. While I’ve only written about seven novels headed for publication so far (and another eight before those), I’ve written hundreds of essays. Being able to experiment and hone my form in nonfiction is something that’s tougher to do in novel writing.

TMS: One of the essays in The Geek Feminist Revolution is devoted to Mad Max: Fury Road. Why do you think the film generated so much positive buzz for its female representation (it was even referred to as a “feminist film” by some, which drew both criticism and praise)?

KH: My definition of a feminist film is one that treats women as actual human beings with their own motivations. Low bar, I know, but that’s the low bar that much of our media can’t even cross. There were a lot of fans, like me, who loved the Mad Max movies and post-apocalypse settings of many movies and books and shows, but we don’t often see ourselves in those settings as active agents. This is the same across all types of media in our society, which remains a shocking thing when women make up half the world. When you realize that just 30% of this country is made up of white men but they are portrayed in media in the vast majority of leading roles in the stories we tell, it’s difficult to ignore that something other than structural oppression is going on. Film studio heads are 91% white and 100% male, which has a huge impact on which stories get greenlighted.

I wasn’t even going to watch Fury Road because I figured it would be more of the same men running around, screaming in the desert, and yes, there was that, but there was also a good deal more. It was a film that showed a society that reduced some women to a singular reproductive role, and showed them retaking their own humanity and agency. I’ve often said there’s a difference between portraying misogyny and making an actively misogynist film. As I note in the book, True Detective was a show that tried to portray misogyny and ended up being misogynist. Fury Road was a film that portrayed misogyny while validating and centering the humanity of its female characters. I admit it’s super annoying to have to type that sentence in the year 2016. “A film that validates the humanity of women,” should be films we see every day, but that’s just not the case. Over and over, we are all served up media that shows women as prizes or set pieces in someone else’s story. In this case, Max was the ride-along in someone else’s story, and that was a nice touch. It’s no wonder geeky women everywhere loved it. It actually showed us as people.

Khurley Author Photo

TMS: The Geek Feminist Revolution doesn’t shy away from talking about what it’s like to be a woman with an opinion on the Internet. How has your method of dealing with trolls changed since you first started speaking out on issues?

KH: In the very early days, when I first started my blog in 2004, the biggest issue was managing my blog comments. Blog comments are a special trash fire because people can go on and on in them. I read the first few threats, and then just started deleting them when they came in. When my first book came out in 2011, I got rid of comments all together. I realized they were a time sink, and people were having conversations about the posts in other forums like Facebook and Twitter anyway. I also set up a public email address that looked like it went to a third party publicist and didn’t appear to be a personal address. Believe it or not, people are less likely to contact you when they have to 1) cut and paste an email address into their browser instead of using a contact form 2) think their rage fest will be deleted unread by somebody else instead of you. I do now have someone screening my email, but for years I didn’t. I just made it look that way. Pro tip!

Twitter is now my primary platform, and the primary place where I need to manage trolls. I’ve had to mute a lot of mobs. Negative news and pile-ons also started to get to me. I nearly abandoned Twitter all together. Then I realized that I could mute keywords in Tweetdeck, and the experience of being online has been a lot better.

Unless someone is an active spammer, I tend to mute rather than block. If you block, it shows trolls that you 1) heard them 2) cared. So I choose to mute instead of block. But to each their own. One of the great things about Snapchat is that it’s impossible to harass someone on that platform unless you choose to follow a person back or open up your chat. I have a public Snapchat, but responses are limited only to people I follow back. It’s fabulous. I love it to pieces.

We have a long way to go to both educate folks on why trolling isn’t something real humans should do and social platforms in what sorts of tools they should give us to combat harassment. The continued shortsightedness of social media makers in this area is just astonishing to me. But it goes back to that whole “Who’s building the service?” thing. If they are all white guys, their experience online is very different from the vast majority of us, so they don’t even consider these things.

TMS: In spite of controversies like Gamergate or the Hugo Awards, do you think women are becoming more accepted in creative spheres like fiction, gaming, media criticism? Where do you still see a need for change and progress?

KH: What folks need to understand is that backlashes this big only happen when you’re winning. There are indeed more women moving into these spaces. Yes, women have always been here, but now we are demanding that the media and stories we consume actually represent us and our stories, instead of just passively accepting what the industry feeds us. I would also argue that women creators are doing work that’s so good it intimidates the crap out of some people. The recent Nebula Awards, which are sort of like the Academy Awards for science fiction and fantasy writers, had all female winners this year. They are writing exceptional stuff. And if you’re a white guy who is used to only competing with other white guys, seeing that women of all races and men of color are here, and are really good at what they’re doing, is very intimidating. The game has always been rigged for white people, white men in particular. For white people, equality often looks like a loss of power. When you play a rigged game for a long time and suddenly have to compete on equal terms, yeah, it can certainly look like that. But this is what the actual world looks like.

As for change and progress, one of the issues I’m most passionate about is trying to help more exceptional writers stay in the game longer. The business of art and creation requires a very specific mindset. People who thrive in the face of rejection and adversity, who respond to rejections with, “Screw you, I’ll show you!” can do great no matter their talent. But I see a lot of writers who have a tough time with this. Living publicly, reviews, harassment, the business of publishing and producing media, are incredibly stressful. We don’t all start from the same place and we don’t all have the same disposition. I want to see a media world that’s actually a meritocracy instead of an active mosh pit that very often feels like a long running game of survival of the person best able to get hit over and over again.

TMS: What’s one trope you’d most like to get rid of in terms of how female characters are still being portrayed?

KH: The One Woman to Rule Them All. The Strong Female Protagonist conversation started out as a way to encourage people to create something other than damsels-in-distress. Now it’s become its own trope. So you have a single woman in your show or story, you hand her a gun, you make her “tough but vulnerable” so that she is happy in both high heels seducing her man and blowing up men’s heads, and you just make iteration after iteration of her, until she is no longer a human at all but a type. One of the best bits of advice I’ve ever seen was from a female screenwriter who told men to “write female characters you wouldn’t want to sleep with.” And I think this is great advice all around. Writing real, complex people instead of fantasy women, or AI women, would be nice.

Note also the “one woman” part. You see the singular woman thing happening in a lot of media still, where the writing team was like, “Hey, we have the Tough Woman! No need for other women!” We need to see more female representation all around, especially of women of color. Where are the female friendships? The extended generations of female relatives? I’m tired of the one tough woman trope. I’m ready for real people. I want worlds that look more like the one we actual live in, to start. As for the ones we could live in, yeah, we have a long way to go yet. I see a lot of failure of imagination as far as creating future societies goes in media right now. The best television show at it right now is probably The Expanse.

TMS: What’s the most valuable piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

KH: This wasn’t given directly to me, but it was a bit of advice that another writer gave in an interview about the secret to becoming a published writer. He said what you needed more than anything else was, simply, persistence. Not talent, not skill. Those things can be learned. What you needed was the persistence to keep going long enough to learn those things, and to scale all the obstacles before you, to get up after every rejection, to keep writing, keep writing, keep writing, until you carved out your place in the world.

The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley, is available in stores and online now.

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