Kameron Hurley on Geek Feminism and the Power of Narrative

I talk to science fiction writers who say, “Well, my dystopia already happened so I need to figure out a better dystopia.”

Kameron Hurley is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer whose most recent essay collection, The Geek Feminist Revolution, explores the power of narrative in the geek space and beyond. Recently, Kameron spoke with Heleo’s Mandy Godwin about Game of Thrones, the necessity of challenging our own internal biases, and the persistence involved in fighting for change.

Mandy Godwin: What is The Geek Feminist Revolutionhow do you define it?

Kameron Hurley: Geek culture has become far more mainstream. You see this huge response to Game of Thrones, for example, whereas before nobody would really have talked about it—it would have been on the SyFy channel. Now it’s invading popular culture. Each city has its own Comic Con now, and it’s always very well attended.

With the mainstreaming of geek culture, we also see the mainstreaming of some of its problems. These are the same problems we have in many other industries, especially the tech industry or Hollywood where, “Hey, it’s okay to have women in supporting roles or women as prizes, but we don’t actually want you to be real humans and interacting and telling your own stories.” Clearly women have always been part of writing science fiction and fantasy, but now everyone’s able to find each other online and say, “We’re not crazy. We recognize that there are tons of problems in how the media is not representing us.” Not only do we want to tell more of these stories, but we would like the people who are telling crap stories to realize that they’re writing crap.

I see it from the point of view of a fan. I started out critiquing books and films online. Now I’m in the position where I’m a creator and I have to listen to people say, “Hey, you screwed that up. That wasn’t great. Could you do this better? I think you’re misrepresenting some people.”

Mandy: So how would you define what a geek is these days?

Kameron: Honestly that’s really changing, too. We’re seeing some backlash. Some hardcore geeks are really upset that someone says, “Oh, I’m a geek. I watch Game of Thrones,” when they’re a bro and play soccer and are the high school guy who would beat up the geeks. As it becomes mainstream it’s hard. When you find other people outside of what you perceive is your group saying that they’re a part of it, you get very upset and you double down and try to narrow what that is. That’s a lot of what we see with that whole “fake geek girl” thing. It’s them rallying going, “No, we need to narrowly define what a geek is because now everybody’s a geek. Now it’s not special anymore.”

I think it’s amazing that geek media is getting the attention that it does, to be a creator who can see your stuff actually becoming popular culture—you don’t have to go write Friends or Seinfeld. You can write about battles in space and political families and dragons. It’s an exciting time. Of course, because it’s so exciting and it’s getting so broad we’re seeing a lot of pushback.

“Some of the decisions that the Game of Thrones show runners made were quite lazy. ‘Oh, we’ll have her sexually assaulted. That’s mean. We’ll show that this is a mean person.'”

Mandy: Since you brought up Game of Thrones, I’m curious: what’s your take on how the show has evolved in terms of dealing with the portrayal of women?

Kameron: I read the first three and a half books of Game of Thrones and I watched the first episode, and I was like, “Okay. I know what this is going to be.” On the one hand, it’s amazing, and there are so many complex female characters. On the other hand, horrible things happen to them and they’re continually sexually assaulted. Some of the decisions that the show runners made were quite lazy. They immediately reached for some of the lazy stereotypes. “Oh, we’ll have her sexually assaulted. That’s mean. We’ll show that this is a mean person.”

There are much more interesting things you can do, which I think in season six they absolutely are addressing (I read the recaps). There was pushback. People got angry. People told them men are also sexually assaulted. There are other things that happen to men, too, that we don’t talk about, but you’re more than happy to throw this on your female characters. They’re listening, which is why whenever people are like, “Hey, why are you critiquing media? Why do you even care?” I answer, “Because it does get through.” If they didn’t mean to do something they will go back and say, “Okay, maybe we need to take another look at this.” I’m very interested to see where they take it. I’m hopeful that they’ll continue listening to some of the feedback.

Mandy: There’s always that worry that it’s perpetuating the same narratives.

Kameron: Absolutely. It’s very easy to put women into a position where they are supporting someone else’s story instead of telling their own story. My hope is that they recognize that all the women need to be people and have their own stories, too. Everyone in that show needs to be a protagonist because they could all die at any moment. Everybody’s a protagonist for two episodes before they die.

Mandy: In your book you also talk about race relations and how U.S. culture and our societies are built segregated. In terms of geek culture, how has the desegregation of online spaces influenced how people can talk to each other about these narratives?

“Nothing’s going to change if we only talk to people who are just like us and agree.”

Kameron: I got a lot of pushback when I was a young person online because women wanted to have spaces where only women could have discussions. I understood the necessity for that. You need a nice, safe space where you can actually talk about things. At the same time I was like, “Nothing’s going to change if we only talk to people who are just like us and agree.” It’s great for organizing. It’s great if you need a safe space to blow off steam, but we have got to be able to get in and work in those same spaces as men do.

It’s a challenge because those spaces have been dominated by men for so long. It’s hard to work your way into those places without it changing you in a very negative way. I find that with myself all the time, like, “In order to compete with men I need to be louder. I need to be much more confident” and those all sound like great things. The problem is it doesn’t ask men to change. When women go into male spaces they have to do all the masculine posturing, whereas what we should be seeing more of is, “Hey, everybody needs to change,” and come to an agreement of what it is to be a civilized human. We’re asking men to change, and they’re really upset about it. They see it as oppressive because they’ve never had to change. They’ve always made the rules and everyone else had to cater to them.

Mandy: I know you’ve been facing online backlash for a long time, but what reactions to your work have particularly surprised you?

Kameron: One of the surprising things was to The Mirror Empire, an epic fantasy I wrote in which about 60% of the characters are female. But the character that everyone talks about, Anavha, is a male character. He’s in a female dominant society, a very violent matriarchy. People are so worried about him. “What will happen to him? Poor Anavha.” They do fan drawings of him and I’m like, “This is the one dude.” There’s a centering of the narrative on the only straight dude in the entire series. Just because we’re so used to that narrative, that’s where a lot of the attention has gone.

I saw this with Robert J. Bennett, who wrote The City of Stairs. He laughs because his main characters are these really powerful women, one’s a spy, one’s a general, but what everybody wants to know about is Sigurd, who is this big, blustering barbarian. They want him to have his own book because they think he’s the best. They write all this fan-fiction. It’s very interesting that even when we try to change the narrative there’s still reader expectation of what the narrative should be. So that has been a little bit surprising. We’ve trained readers that this is the way the story goes.

Mandy: It seems like an inertia that’s very difficult to break.

Kameron: Totally. When the rock’s rolling down the hill, that inertia is really hard to stop. My big message with Geek Feminist Revolution is that it can be done. We can change things, but we’re fighting an uphill battle.

Mandy: One of the really interesting opportunities that you’re exploring is a way to parallel worldbuilding and structural inequality.

Kameron: It’s much easier to look at something objectively when it’s not our world. What taught me most about racism in the United States was living in South Africa for a year and a half doing my Master’s thesis. Before I was like, “Oh, there’s no racists. It’s a post-racial world.” Then I lived in South Africa and was like, “Oh my gosh. We have a lot of the same problems.” When I came back I started to see our world for what it really was, and that was shocking to me. I had to take myself out of my every day. It’s inertia, right? It’s easy to get locked into certain narratives, especially ones you’ve been told your whole life.

Lots of authors choose to say, “Hey, what if the difference was there are dragons, or faster than light travel?” They don’t fully explore all of the other stuff — how technology changes society, or making poly-amorous societies. Ada Palmer wrote this great book that I’m reading right now called Too Like the Lightning, where there are six conglomerate governments that rule the world. Everybody has polyamorous relationships. There’s very complex politics and a really crazy religion. I fully understand why it’s tougher to do because it does take a lot more effort than saying, “Oh, what if there were dragons?” The payoff is really exciting, though, especially when you reach readers who say, “Oh my gosh! I completely understand the world from a different point of view now.”

In my novel, God’s War, I had a male character in a female-dominated society who was the subject of street harassment and abuse. I had a couple of guys email me and say, “I never understood the big deal about street harassment and sexism until I read about Rhys in God’s War, because I started to actually fear for him on the street.” It’s really crazy that we have to force people to look at things in that way. I do think we live in a world where, again, our narrative is white, straight guys are human and everyone else is Other. Even if we are the Other, we still buy into that narrative because it’s what we’ve been raised on. We have to fight even our own preconceptions as well.

Mandy: Our own internal biases.

Kameron: Absolutely. I tell people all the time that I used to be the biggest misogynist that I know. I would look at myself and think, “I’m not like those other women. I’m strong and smart.” It’s a classic tactic for dividing up groups. In fact, it wasn’t that I was Other or strange, it’s that our story about what it was to be female is actually very limiting. It doesn’t include the full depth and breadth of what that is.

“I talk to science fiction writers who say, ‘Well, my dystopia already happened so I need to figure out a better dystopia.'”

Mandy: What do you consider the next frontier within this geek feminist space?

Kameron: More and more we are seeing a ton done with gender, and I think that reflects what’s going on within our society. You see a lot more visibility for transgender people, which is fantastic. There’s been a lot more activism. The way that we are looking at the gender binary is really changing. Another writer was telling me, “I’m wondering if in 10 or 20 years the books that we’re putting out now are just going to look really dated for having such binary gender.” We’re starting to really change. People are introducing gender-neutral pronouns all the time into our language. Even in the United States there’s been a shift; we’re using the gender-neutral “they” quite a bit more.

I find it an exciting and challenging time to be a science fiction fantasy writer because you need to present things that really are fantastic. That bar is changing all the time. I talk to science fiction writers who say, “Well, my dystopia already happened so I need to figure out a better dystopia.”

Mandy: It seems like if we’re moving so quickly towards the future you have to keep reaching for another one.

Kameron: Exactly. It can be a challenge. Also, because things do move so quickly, they can move quickly either way. It could be to a horrible dystopia or to the bright, Utopian future. But even if they move into horrible dystopia they can be moved again. There are things that we have achieved that people would never have conceived of 20 years ago. Marriage equality is a huge one. You talk to the people who were involved in the Stonewall riots and they say, “Never would I have thought in my lifetime that we would have marriage equality.” But it happened.

Mandy: One last question: if you had to give one bit of advice to young feminists, what would you say?

Kameron: This is all about persistence. It’s a persistence game and the world is built around keeping you down because you are incredibly powerful. If we were not so powerful, people would not work so hard to police everything we say and wear and do. Just keep that in mind as you go forward into life. Persist and know that you’re not alone in persisting.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.