I may have squee’d when the request to write for Companion Piece, the latest in the Chicks… range, arrived. Could I possibly write an essay on Barbara Wright?
Could I? I snapped it up, then squee’d even more when one of the editors, Liz Myles, asked if I could actually cover Barbara and Ian Chesterton. Only my favourite ever companions, the ones I love more and more each year. The ones I admire for all kinds of reasons.
The essay I turned in may be one of the most personal I’ve written. It’s about being a fan who came to the show in the pre-video era. It’s about how fans experienced Hartnell before you could download Marco Polo off iTunes. And it’s about how the fan narratives developed between 1989 and 2005 have broken down the walls of canon/non-canon.
Companion Piece: Women Celebrate the Humans, Aliens and Tin Dogs of Doctor Who is edited by LM Myles and Liz Barr, and published by Mad Norwegian Press on 7 April.
Feel free to go off and order it now, as I’m about to get all political, in a post first drafted in late 2013 and therefore not mentioning a hate campaign targeting geek women that blew up in 2014…
My essay in Companion Piece is also about being a female fan when we were invisible. When a male fan could denigrate me in a convention bar as “not a real fan” because I didn’t care precisely how many episodes were in a Pertwee story. When I could literally name every fem fan in UK fandom (and most of the Australian ones). When I buried my romantic textual reading of Who because it made me too fem for fandom.
I’d love to say all that has changed. But there is still a culture in fandom that would prefer female fans to either not be fans, or not be fem in their fannishness. This manifested in 2013 with an element of fandom saying “good riddance to fangirls” when a subset of female fans said they’d stop watching as Capaldi was not a hot young man. As I pointed out at the time, if fem fans treated the response of a minority of male fandom as representative of all male fans, they’d rightly complain of stereotyping. Yet using “fangirl” as a derogatory term is still seen by some male fans as acceptable.
There’s a more subtle form of gender bias at work too. Paul Cornell has experienced this when he began his campaign for panel parity. There is a pretence that women as capable of discussing comics/books/films as men don’t exist. That if only there were more women to chose from then of course editors and con programmers would pick women. And you still get articles that think Jenny Colgan is the first woman to write a Who novel, over 20 years after Kate Orman became the first original novelist to be female.
There’s a risk that fem fans self-ghetto-ise. We did it in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I still laugh at my wikipedia entry and its claim about the Who fangrrl movement. Which was me, a Tav’zine and a yahoo group. There remains an understandable urge to create a space where we feel comfortable to respond to Who with our whole self, including the more fem elements we used to hide. A virtual room of one’s own where fanfic and going “Paul McGann! It’s Paul McGann! Squee!” to Night of the Doctor doesn’t attract sneers.
But that room of our own risks creating an echo chamber. It’s the problem of “women in [x]” panels at conventions, where the presumption is our gender alone is a worthwhile topic. This risk, that we end up being sidelined, would mean we fail to challenge the old patriarchal fandom culture. Our room of our own would keep up hidden, invisible and safely out of the way of “real” fandom. We mustn’t end up in a room with no doors. This was one of my concerns when first asked to write for the Chicks… series of books.
Like many fandoms that unite people who felt “other”, our fan culture has degrees of otherness. Go to some comic conventions and you see the same: women, cosplay or – the horror – cosplaying women are not as “real” as Grayson Perry’s (white, straight, middle class) default man. It’s this cultural problem that leads a convention like the World Fantasy Con 2013 to treat victims of sexual harassment as the problem, rather than the harassers.
I’m not prepared to accept those fan cultures. Comics conventions like Thought Bubble are inclusive. They don’t reinforce the old hierarchies. They understand that fan cultures can evolve to embrace all the fans, not just those in traditional positions of authority. And it’s important that those of us who want to have those more inclusive fan cultures support it.
In the end, I decided the Chicks… range is not a room with no doors. We don’t get endlessly poured over by fans on Gallifrey Base like some non-fiction books but no – no – non-fiction editor or con programme organiser can ever claim there are no women experts any more. There’s three books with dozens of fem fans writing about Who to chose from. We’re here, and we’re not going to be invisible.
When people began to complain there were disproportionately few female subject matter experts on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the initial defence was that there weren’t any female experts willing to appear. In response, The Women’s Room, a database of female subject matter experts was set up. In the last two years, as a listener, I’ve noticed a shift towards proportionality. Over breakfast I’m now as likely to be muttering “nonsense” about a woman as a man. The Today programme is, in effect, moving towards current affairs panel parity.
Consider the Chicks… books to be the Who version.
We are fangrrl: hear us roar.
Since I first wrote that in late 2013, things have improved. Women fans are more visible, and not confined to talking about traditionally fem interests like the emotional intelligence (or otherwise) of the Doctor. But we mustn’t stop creating rooms where everyone is welcome, irrespective of gender, colour, age or sexuality.