Who owns popular culture?

Share this post

Something very weird happened in the run up to this year’s prestigious Hugo awards, voted for by science fiction fans.  In the culmination of a long campaign against what they see as the takeover of the awards by liberals, progressives and feminists, a right-leaning group calling themselves the Sad Puppies, led by author Brad Torgersen, successfully lobbied for an approved slate of books to receive nominations.

Although the Sad Puppies actions are legal within the rules of the Hugos, they have also been controversial.  Some people feel it’s not playing fair, and others are concerned by their motives.

Marko Kloos and Annie Bellet, authors who’d been nominated by the Sad Puppies, withdrew their works from the competition, with Bellet saying, ‘All joy that might have come from this nomination has been co-opted, ruined, or sapped away. This is not about celebrating good writing anymore, and I don’t want to be a part of what it has become.’

George RR Martin, author of the Game of Thrones books, criticised the Sad Puppies, saying the Hugo Awards might be permanently ‘broken’ as a result.

It’s an odd story, covered more fully here, (and let’s face it, all over the internet).  It also feels like part of a wider culture-war taking place, with both sides arguing the other camp is focusing on ideology at the expense of good writing, film-making, game-design and story-telling.

In another example, Mad Max Fury Road has just been released to calls from Men’s Rights Activists to boycott the film, with Aaron Clarey complaining that ‘Men in America and around the world are going to be duped by explosions, fire tornadoes, and desert raiders into seeing what is guaranteed to be nothing more than feminist propaganda, while at the same time being insulted AND tricked into viewing a piece of American culture ruined and rewritten right in front of their very eyes.’

And these sorts of battles can turn nasty, with not just trolling and online attacks but people losing their jobs, and threats of actual violence, as the Gamergate controversy showed.

Does any of this matter?  Sci-fi’s just for nerds and weirdoes anyway, right?  I mean, what do I care if a bunch of sad blokes don’t want to see Mad Max Fury because they think Charlize Theron has too many lines in it, and should just sit around looking pretty while her male counterpoint rules the post-apocalyptic wasteland.  I was never that interested in seeing Mad Max Fury Road anyway, and I’m guessing my own favourite sci-fi films of the last couple of years – films like Ex Machina, and Upstream Color – wouldn’t interest these guys either.

Except that when I think of the Hugo Awards, I think of writers I love, who’ve influenced me and been with me my whole life, such as Ursula Le Guin and Kurt Vonnegut.  Writers who remind me that sci-fi can be entertaining and important, that funny and action-packed aren’t incompatible with big ideas and plenty of heart.

The claim that explosion-loving, right-voting, hetero, white men are under-served in the TV, film or video game market does seem faintly ridiculous to me (but perhaps there hasn’t been enough sexual violence in Game of Thrones recently?)  I mean, a lot of the time popular culture seems like nothing but explosions and sexy chicks.

So what to do?  Keep making stuff you love, and sharing it with others, hoping there are people out there who get it.   Don’t be intimidated out of cultural space by people who don’t agree with your ideas.  Be willing to critique work you have a problem with, whilst not arguing for its non-existence, or threatening its makers with with on- or offline violence.

Come on people, we can manage that, can’t we?

7 thoughts on “Who owns popular culture?

  1. Pingback: Love in the Time of Collars 5/21 | File 770

  2. LostSailor

    Uh, one person, who doesn’t even identify as a “Mens Rights Activist” posted something about boycotting Mad Max: Fury Road. And, naturally, his single post was used in media to smear others. And you wonder why there might be conflict over “popular culture”?

    Be willing to critique work you have a problem with, whilst not arguing for its non-existence…

    Sound advice. For all sides. But in recent years, it’s been more traditional SF & F that’s been deemed if not worthy of non-existence (though I have read some bloggers lamenting that they not only wished some work had not been short-listed for a Hugo, but had not been written at all), but deemed irrelevant and certainly not worthy of consideration for awards.

    Why? Because the apparent lens by which quality in SFF is judged is whether the work is “progressive” enough, and if lacking in “progressiveness” it’s irrelevant. Unfortunately there are quite a lot of SFF readers (fans, small “f”) who disagree. And the rather aggressive response to the push-back tends to reinforce the idea that “progressives” don’t want to live and let live.

    Sorry. SFF, and the Hugos, belong to all of us who read and love SFF; we’re not going away. SFF has always been subversive and progressive, but more subtlety so than in recent years where the progressiveness has tended to overwhelm the SFF-ness (or skiffiness, if you will). Progressive themes are no longer to be allowed to be natural part of stories, the progressive themes must be overt and stories only in their service. Traditional themes are deemed “problematic” and not really allowed at all.

    So, who owns popular culture? We all do. That’s not the question you’re really asking. The real question is who is going to win what has become a battle for SFF culture. The best outcome is that we all do and agree to live together and give all types of SFF their due. The worst outcome, and unfortunately the more likely, is that the fight to “own” SFF, in this case the Hugos, continues until nothing is left but a smoking ruin.

    1. Becky Post author

      Hi LostSailor,

      Firstly, thanks for correcting me on labelling people Men’s Rights Activists when they don’t identify as such. I take the point that this is a lazy way of discrediting someone, and I won’t make that mistake again.

      Thanks also for taking the time to share your thoughts here; you’ve given me lots to consider. I suspect there may well be things we disagree on, but I absolutely defend your right to a point of view, and to your own taste in fiction, film and so on.

      When I said we shouldn’t be arguing for the non-existence of stuff we don’t like, that wasn’t empty rhetoric. I, like you, am interested in entertaining stories. I don’t want to live in a world where popular culture has to be vetted by some kind of ‘progressiveness police’.

      Where I suspect I differ from you is I’m not convinced that’s what’s happening here (though I don’t doubt for a moment there are extremists on both sides). I think a female perspective on the world has been side-lined and silenced for too long. I think it’s telling that when women try to speak up about representations of women in films or video games, or include a female perspective in an action movie, say, the reaction from some men (and do please note the *some*) borders on the hysterical.

      I’m interested in a male perspective on the world too – I enjoy books, films and TV shows written by men, and about men. I’m interested in masculinity, male sexuality, in male perspectives on the world. I don’t want men to shut up. I just want women to be allowed to speak too.

      We may well disagree on where the balance lies, but isn’t that the nature of healthy dialogue? Perhaps the reasonable tone of your comments here, and my openness to hearing what you have to say, might offer a route towards the ‘best outcome’ you describe, and an alternative to the ‘smoking ruin’?

      I’d be interested to know what you think anyway…

      1. LostSailor


        I appreciate your level response to my comment. I’m sure that there is quite a lot we disagree on when it comes to popular culture, but that’s fine; if we all agreed on everything, it would be pretty boring. But my current focus is more on SFF literature rather than films or games.

        One point of disagreement (which doesn’t have to be disagreeable) I have is that female voices have been sidelined or silenced in SFF. Women have been involved in the field from the beginning, if not in great numbers in the early days (with Mary Shelly widely credited with writing the first science fiction novel). But through the 70s and 80s, more women writers were entering the field and winning awards, with even “feminist” SFF. See writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffery, Joanna Russ and moving into the 90s Sherri Tepper and Nicola Griffith.

        But for many years now, when it came to things like the Hugo awards, the “progressive’ gate keepers increasingly side-lined more traditional SFF. In part because interest in the awards dwindled and few fans bothered to participate in the nomination process (though more voted for the short-list for the awards). It wasn’t hard to do or particularly secret, though largely behind-the-scenes. When it took as few as 40 nominations to get on the ballot, it’s not hard for a few pros to quietly log-roll behind the scenes. Over the last couple of years, there’s been push-back, with this year’s nominations seeing the most. The resulting hue and cry from the “progressive” side have ranged from hysterical to vicious.

        Even in SFF films, women have been featured from the Aliens films to Gravity. And while I don’t really want to get into the minefield of GamerGate, there has been horrible behavior on both sides. I have one friend, a female gamer, who took the GamerGate side and was silence when she was contacted by an anonymous person who had her personal info and threatened to “out” or “doxx” her–and her three small children–if she didn’t stop writing and tweeting on the subject. So she did.

        But here’s my major disagreement: the progressive side seem to be saying to culture, you must change for us according to our dictates. But especially in film and games, both are at their most fundamental businesses. Demanding change without making a solid business case is going to be met with less success. The better course, which we’re starting to see in film, if not games, is women not demanding change of others but creating their own works. Which I applaud. Instead of just saying change should happen, make change happen by creating and showing that progressive work is profitable. Do that, and even a male-dominated industry will take heed.

        My final comment is about how the debate has been distorted, which lead to the acrimony and vitriol. A single idiot (and Aaron Clarey is indeed an idiot, I’ve run across him before) complains about the Mad Max film, and within days numerous mainstream media outlets are writing stories claiming that Men’s Rights Advocates/Activists are demanding a boycott of the film. I understand that in progressive and media circles MRAs are not popular and any excuse no matter how tenuous will be used to discredit them, but this is just another distortion of the battle for popular culture.

        Which is why when it comes to the Hugo awards, my best-case outcome is unlikely and the worst-case outcome is almost inevitable. I certainly don’t want to silence anyone, but by the same token I don’t want to be or have literature I care about silenced either.

        Anyway, this has become over long. I’ll end by saying I appreciate the conversation and discussion rather than argument. Cheers.

    2. Becky Post author

      Hello again, LostSailor. (Replying here because I don’t think the layout of comments on this blog could take another indent…) There’s so much I’d like to say, but I’ll keep this brief. I’m heartened you agree AC is an idiot. You reminded me how much I loved Anne McCaffrey when I was younger – thanks for that! I’m largely in agreement about making-your-own-stuff-rather-than-just-critiquing-other-people’s, but I feel this ignores some of the structural inequalities operating in cultural markets, as well as the impact that the representation of women in popular culture has on real women’s lives. But we could leave those for another time perhaps… I guess the main thing I’m reflecting on right now is how my preferred news media (and I imagine, everyone else’s) tends to point me in the direction of the most extreme exponents of a particular point of view, thereby making it easier for me to dismiss an entire position as bonkers. So lesson learned about not seeing the ‘other side’ as a homogeneous bloc (and you don’t come across as a rabid misogynist to me.) You’ve made me question my assumptions, and that’s always a good thing.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *