All good things etc etc…

All good things etc etc…

Beautiful unicorn Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in the series finale of Parks and Recreation, which is still making me misty-eyed.

It’s almost over! As of tomorrow morning, I’ll have spent a full since I watching, reading, listening to and playing things starring women. Though I haven’t been perfect, I’ve been more successful than I expected in sticking to my media diet. I’m actually surprised at how easy I found it, once the Ladyist Experiment was properly underway. Within a matter of weeks, I’d lost the taste for anything else, and my pop culture radar quickly learned to tune out stuff with an excess of Y chromosomes. I thought that last part would be harder, that I’d need to strap myself to a bed so I didn’t go running off to see Generic Blockbuster 4: The Busting of Blocks, but I mostly forgot that the world outside the Ladyist existed. It got a little solipsistic every now and again, when I’d see a friend talking about a TV show, or an album, and I’d realise after a moment that no one else was on the same diet.

Now that the year is up, there’s one essential question: what was the point? It’s a tough question to answer, and I’m immensely grateful to the many people who intuited the purpose of the Ladyist without me needing to articulate it. What I can tell you, though, is what I’ve learned from doing this (hint: heaps).

I am a liar.

I lied to myself for a long time. I told myself that I paid plenty of attention to women, that I had a bunch of books and albums by women, and so on. It’s a lie that I think a lot of us tell ourselves, and the media works hard to reinforce that. We assume that the media is a meritocracy, that it reflects only the best and brightest, when there are far bigger factors at play. On some level, we all know that airtime is bought, not earned; why do you think it takes over a million dollars to make a Rihanna single? Creating that kind of zeitgeist-pop doesn’t come cheap, and the same applies for just about every movie, TV show and game you’ve ever heard of. There are industries built around this, and those businesses work to maintain the status quo. That’s not restricted to major outlets; if anything, insular channels like comics blogs or ‘nerd-culture’ podcasts can exacerbate the issue too, as they so often reflect a masculine world view. It was one of the earliest lessons the Ladyist taught me, but I never stopped realising how complicit I’d been in dismissing and devaluing the stories of women.

It takes a lot of conscious effort to change your relationship to the media, and finding out where to look was a real challenge for me in the early days to the Experiment. Hell, it’s still a challenge even now. But you only start finding when you start looking, so don’t delay. And when you do…

There is LOTS to find.

Not pictured: the records, games, DVDs on my pile of shame

I’ll try not to repeat myself, but I need to make clear: there is SO MUCH out there that is about women. Some areas are harder than others, sure. Podcasts are still a cockforest (or ‘wanggrove’) for the most part, but I’m still coming across amazing podcasts starring women. (Kudos in particular to Radiotopia for their conscious effort to support and signal-boost women behind the mic. Check out Criminal or The Allusionist for some great storytelling or word-nerdery as your heart desires). It’s exciting to hear more women’s voices, literally so in the case of podcasts, but also figuratively in other media, because…

We need more women creators.

One of the catalysts for the Ladyist Experiment was a letter that appeared in Ms. Marvel #2. Leela, a 13-year-old half Gurjarati and half Filipino girl from Virginia, had seen herself represented in a way that was revelatory to her, and the sense of joy and empowerment leapt off the page. With that in mind (consciously or not), I chose to focus on representation, looking to see stories about women told in pop culture. Seeing people like you on TV, or in comics, or in bands, is an experience that is totally ordinary to me, but for someone like Leela, it can be life-changing. Not only does it reaffirm that Leela’s experience is valid, and important, it opens a wealth of possibilties: if a girl like me can be a superhero, what else could she be?

Jamie McKelvie’s cover from Ms. Marvel #3

I still think representation is essential, but I’ve started to recognise how important it is behind the metaphorical camera as well as in front of it. As great as it is to see men writing stories from perspectives other than their own, that still limits the kinds of stories we’ll get to hear. With more women in creative and powerful roles, we’ll see a whole variety of stories, informed by new and different experiences than we usually come across. Think of Selma: the Oscar-nominated film about Martin Luther King’s march to secure equal voting rights in 1965 received a great deal of critical approval, with many remarking on the strength and variety of women on screen. Though we can’t know for sure, it seems unlikely that a male director would’ve placed as much significance on, say, Coretta Scott King as Ava DuVernay did. Such a choice isn’t exclusively the province of women, but the more varied our creators, the more varied our stories can become.

Women are the beginning.

There are so many voices that are steam-rolled by the status quo that I can’t begin to imagine the breadth of experience we’re ignoring. By choosing to tune in to women’s voices, I began to see the other marginalised groups: people of colour, of different abilities, of different sexual orientations and gender identities.

This struck me one morning, when I was locked in the autopilot routine of opening a store. PRX’s How Sound did a feature on Julie Shapiro, and included some of her work as Executive Producer on ABC Radio National shows Radiotonic and Soundproof. One of the pieces included was The Real Tom Banks, which I recommend you listen to right now.

The announcer spoils the reveal that I thought was so critical to the piece, so I feel less bad about doing the same here. For those of you who aren’t able to listen, it’s the story of Tom, a young guy in a small Australian town who tells us about Grindr and how it works. He talks us through some of his experiences with the app, and shares an instance where he’d arranged to meet up with a guy, only to have the guy see him and run.

The reveal comes when the smooth, confident voice we’ve been hearing is replaced by Tom’s own. It’s a marked difference, as Tom has a great deal of difficulty in speaking. Tom has cerebral palsy, and he usually uses a lightwriter to communicate. I remember stopping dead, standing in the aisle of a deserted store; radio folk call this a Driveway moment. In that instant, I realised with startling clarity how little I knew. I’d never consciously dismissed the idea that people with disabilities could and would know sexual desire; if you’d asked me, I would’ve laughed the question off as self-evident. But right then, I saw the boundaries of my own experience, and the unknowable expanse of ignorance beyond that.

The real Tom Banks

That was three months ago now, and the Ladyist Experiment hasn’t felt the same since then. I have absolutely no regrets about the decision to cut out the stories of straight white men for a year, but I now see that I also excluded other critical voices. That’s a lesson I’ll carry with me, because…

This ride doesn’t end.

Yeah, I’ll once more be free to read, play, listen to and watch whatever I like, but it won’t be the same, even with the Ladyist finished. I find myself hyper-aware of podcasts that are full of men, and feel uneasy when I see dramatic gender imbalances in things I love (looking at you amongst millions of others, Avengers). Though I could do whatever I want, I’m not the same person I was at the beginning of the Ladyist, and that will affect the way I consume pop culture from here on out. Because if nothing else, the year of Ladyist has proven…

Men are boring.

Straight. White. Men. We are boiled rice; we are Everybody Loves Raymond; we are muzak; Omnipresent, oversaturated, over-hyped and under-developed, we’ve been in this hegemonic state for so long that we no longer know what to do with ourselves except, y’know, talk about ourselves; that, or revisit the toys of our youth (did you see that the Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot has been greenlit for a sequel? Are you feeling more or less suicidal now?). I’m tired of the same stories, with the same actors. Now more than ever, I crave variety; I crave different ways of thinking, of seeing. Having one woman (Avengers), one black person (…Avengers), one queer person (nope, didn’t even hit this mark, Avengers); these token gestures aren’t enough to keep me happy any more. And the same goes on the creative side: I’ll be more excited to see a woman’s name before a film, or buy a record by a person of colour, because those voices are the ones I want to hear. I’ll still see things by and starring straight white guys (Avengers 2 comes out soon!), but, to borrow a phrase from Shonda Rhimes, I’m working to ‘normalise’ my pop culture, so that it looks more like the world as it is.


The ride doesn’t end, but the Ladyist must. This is the last blog post, and I’ll also be wrapping up the Ladyist podcast (which, to be fair, has been languishing in podcast purgatory for months now).

I’m still refining some ideas for what I’ll do in the future, but I’ll definitely be making more podcasts. If you’re reading this and would like to start one of your own, let me know! I’m a pretty capable producer, and I’d love to help you get your voice heard. Women, people of colour, genderqueer folks and non-cis people get priority treatment; straight white guys, it’ll cost you a little, ok? Seems only fair to me. 😉

All good things etc etc…

The Last of the Ladyist

When I told people about the Ladyist Experiment, most were supportive. Lots were confused, and absolutely none were hostile or aggressive (which was a nice surprise). Plenty of people reacted like I’d declared a plan to live as a possessionless monk in some far-flung forest; that, by limiting myself to pop culture focusing on women, I’d forced on myself an ascetic lifestyle where I’d subsist mainly on silence and Charmed re-runs.

There’s a good reason we think there’s no pop-culture about women, and that’s because we almost never see any. The films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar were uniformly stories about men (and mostly white men, with the exception of the Martin Luther King biopic, Selma). TV shows tend to prioritise men’s stories, even in more diverse casts (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones), and Coachella, one of the world’s biggest music festivals, looks pretty bare when you leave only the bands with women on the poster:

*tugs shirt collar*
*tugs shirt collar*

Games are no better. When Bioshock Infinite was initially released, the cover featured the square jaw and bracing pose of Booker DeWitt, whom you NEVER ACTUALLY SEE IN THE GAME because of the first-person perspective. All this at the expense of Elizabeth, who was the game’s real breakout star and an inspiration to cosplayers all over the world. Why was she left off in the first place? Because the industry theory is that people don’t buy games with women on the box art. This is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy, because no one puts women on the cover in the first place, (though having Lara Croft on the cover didn’t seem to hurt 2013’s Tomb Raider, which sold a million copies in less than 48 hours).

That scarcity teaches us to believe that there just isn’t much out there about women, but in repeating that idea, we only reinforce the structures that ignore women and their stories, and justify our own unwillingness to go looking for them. Because I can tell you from personal experience: once you go looking, you start to find stuff. It’s not just hard at first: it’s always hard, scrabbling past layers of grizzled anti-heroes and interchangeable, chinless dudes, while every bit of the Western world is trying to make you pay attention to them. Eventually, though, you learn to tune it out, and keep digging. What you find depends on how hard you want to look, but your effort will pay off trust me.

Take comics, for example. Want more than Wonder Woman? You’re in for a treat. Woman have begun to boom in the comic world, as characters and creators. Try Captain Marvel, Batgirl, Subatomic Party Girls, Spider-Gwen, Bee and Puppycat, Lazarus, ODY-C, Rocket Girl, The Kitchen, Gotham Academy, Saga, Elektra, Revival, Batwoman, Silk, Wayward, The Unknown, Stumptown, Black Widow, Sex Criminals, Copperhead, Thor (you know the one), Lumberjanes, or the amazing Bitch Planet, which is basically an angrier, more explicitly feminist Orange Is The New Black, only in space. Look for staggering creators like Kelly Sue DeConnick, Becky Cloonan, Kate Leth, G. Willow Wilson, Natasha Allegri, Noelle Stevenson, Ming Doyle, Stacey Lee, Kate Beaton and Marguerite Bennet to see what’s so exciting about modern comics. Download the Comixology app, or go to the site, and get a taste!

From top-left: Spider-Gwen, Bitch Planet, She-Hulk and Batgirl
From top-left: Spider-Gwen, Bitch Planet, She-Hulk and Batgirl

In need of some tunes? Shit yes there are tunes for you. What do you feel like? If you want to jump on your bed and thrash along, try Bully, Tacocat or ‘Rollercoaster’ by Sleater-Kinney. Need a song to match your wicked strut? Cue up ‘Love Letter’ by Clairy Browne and the Bangin’ Rackettes, or Janelle’ Monae’s ‘Dance Apocalyptic’. Serious authentic types will love Neko Case, Hurray for the Riff Raff and Emmylou Harris, but there’s also plenty for the bubblegum popsters in the form of Carly Rae Jepsen, Colleen Green and Veronica Maggio. Glossy groovers will feel super-chic with Metric, Yumi Zouma or Solange in their headphones, while those who want to stare out a window on a rainy day and just, y’know, feeeeeeeel will be at home with FKA Twigs, Emmy the Great and Sharon Van Etten. And then there are the ones that just don’t sound like anyone else: tUnE-yArDs, Sylvan Esso and Julia Holter are perfect to inject something new into your day.

That seems like a lot to take in, and it is. Plus, there’s more! All on this Spotify playlist, made for you. It’s a hodge-podge of stuff I’ve listened to over the last 12 months (minus the Spotify-reluctant Taylor Swift and Vivian Girls). Go listen, and find something new!

I don’t have as many recommendations for books, since I started the year with Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which is dense both in its page count and in the writing. It’s an extraordinary novel, and well worth the time and energy it will demand. The storytelling skips back and forth across decades, mixing an uncommon love story, Canada’s post-WWII economic hardships, and some fantastical in-story science fiction that will only tempt you to read all of Margaret’s work (if you’re anything like me, that is). That started me on a path of amazing sci-fi, and though I haven’t yet started on Octavia Butler’s work, I’m very excited to do so soon.

In fact, my reading list is immense, and I’ll probably still be chipping away at it around this time in 2016. I’ve only just begun, and fallen in love with, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton, while my shelves groan with other books to be read. Rainbow Rowell, Girls to the Front, Sarah Silverman’s Bedwetter; there are too many to list (also several are in-transit after a move, and my memory is not so sharp as it once was).

Special mentions must be made of the few books I finished. I’ve already thrown a few words at trying to explain the immense impact Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had on me, and that impact has hardly diminished in the months since I finished it. The specificity of her writing, and the clarity with which she picks apart her own experience as an immigrant, will stay with me for years. Though totally different in tone, Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half is similarly life-changing, as her frank tone and crude but evocative drawings offer a startling insight into mental illness, depression and the ownership of a very strange dog.

On the subject of rough-but-brilliant art, please bless your eyes with this Kate Beaton cartoon.

I could spend days rapturously talking about the critical fourth panel, and how Kate’s loose style works better than any photo-realist in capturing the intent focus on the King’s face, upon which the whole joke hangs. Like Allie’s book, Kate’s collection, Hark! A Vagrant!, was the cause of many nights spent in breathless, silent paroxysms as I tried to stop myself from bursting into gales of laughter that would wake my sleeping partner. Kate’s work is absurd and gleeful, but manages to slide in some incisive observations on gender, history and religion. She’s a marvel, and I hope she writes her ridiculous (and alarmingly well-researched) histories and critiques for the foreseeable decades.

If I talk about any TV here, it’s only so I can talk about Leslie Knope.

In the toughest parts of the last year, I’ve turned to Amy Poehler’s unicorn/government employee for comfort, sweetness and unalloyed joy. There’s a unique light that shines from deep within Amy, one that’s we’ve seen since her earliest performances, but the character of Leslie Knope somehow magnifies that magnificent glow to almost messianic levels. I cared for her more than I thought I could; I still tear up at the thought of Ben proposing to her, or the moment she and Ann share before the wedding. Parks and Recreation just ended its seventh and final season, and as such there are plenty of more assured and interesting pieces on it, so I won’t repeat the internet’s major talking points. I’ll miss Parks and Rec for more than just Leslie Knope: Rashida Jones’ Ann Perkins was the only thing that could approach Leslie’s pure glow, and the friendship they forged is the kind of high-watermark that I can only aspire to in all of my relationships; April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) wrapped herself in ironic distance and sarcasm, but eventually revealed herself to be vulnerable and human in the company of such amazing women. Donna Meagle could’ve been a cartoon character, and heaven knows the early scripts didn’t give Retta much to work with. Over time, though, she carved out a hedonistic lust for life that made Donna an icon, and built her into a complex character.

Of course, there are many stellar male characters: Ben Wyatt, Andy Dwyer and Ron Swanson are iconic in their own right, but they are all stars that orbit the sun that is Leslie. Because of her, the tiny, mostly horrible town of Pawnee, Indiana became a haven, a home that was always warm and full of love. Knowing that I’ll always be able to visit is a special comfort.

Miss you already
The Last of the Ladyist

Taking myself to task

 The key word in that tweet, for me, is “quietly”. I could overlook that, and flatter myself by thinking that I live up to that standard, but I’d be lying to myself. I’ve blogged, tweeted, posted on Facebook and made a podcast, all of which have a self-promotional bent that might not invalidate my choice, but certainly undermines it. Now, less than a month from the end, I don’t regret starting the Ladyist Experiment; I do, however, regret all this talking about it.

That’s not to say there haven’t been good things that have come from it: lots of great people have offered recommendations, lent me things, and generally expressed support for my choice. I’ve pushed myself as a writer, and remembered how much I enjoyed doing it. And maybe, if I’m lucky, some of you folk heard a musician you might not have otherwise come across, or read a comic that you might’ve overlooked. All of those are wonderful things, and that’s before I reflect on the ways I’ve changed in the past year (spoiler: there are several). None of this, though, required me to make public declarations about my diet. I still think it has been a great thing to do, but I wish I’d cut myself out of it.

Aside from the ego element, there are other issues with the nature of the Experiment, and the ways in which I talk about it. However much I steer clear of terms like “girl band” and “woman in rock”, the focus I put on the creators and characters still creates a sense of the ‘other’ about them. It separates the artists and their work from their contexts and places them in a special category based entirely on their gender. That just helps to reinforce the idea that women can’t compete with men, that they need rarified air to allow their fragile species to flourish, which of course is not true.

Neko nails it once again.

Neko Case rightly pulled up Playboy for doing much the same thing. Their phrasing reinforced the idea that there is a distinct subcategory for women who are also musicians, outside of the norm. (Neko herself tackled this on ‘I’m From Nowhere’, which you should listen to right now.)

That idea of “women in music” as ‘other’ affects the lives of musicians like Neko every day, when they have to contend with a patronising sound guy, or a rival band who accuse her of sleeping her way to the top (or to the middle, or…). That sort of industry-wide obstacle forces women out, and reinforces the status quo. It’s a wretched state of affairs, and I’m not thrilled that I helped perpetuate that image, well-intentioned or otherwise.

If I could address my past self, I’d still tell Joel of 2014 to read, listen to, watch and play stuff about women for the next year (I’d probably encourage him to push harder and stick to women as creators, too). Then I’d tell him to scrap the blog, delete the Twitter account, and do it for no other reason than it’s a good idea.

Taking myself to task

 The key word in that tweet, for me, is “quietly”. I could overlook that, and flatter myself by thinking that I live up to that standard, but I’d be lying to myself. I’ve blogged, tweeted, posted on Facebook and made a podcast, all of which have a self-promotional bent that might not invalidate my choice, but certainly undermines it. Now, less than a month from the ned, I don’t regret starting the Ladyist Experiment; I do, however, regret all this talking about it.

That’s not to say there haven’t been good things that have come from it: lots of great people have offered recommendations, lent me things, and generally expressed support for my choice. I’ve pushed myself as a writer, and remembered how much I enjoyed doing it. And maybe, if I’m lucky, some of you folk heard a musician you might not have otherwise come across, or read a comic that you might’ve overlooked. All of those are wonderful things, and that’s before I reflect on the ways I’ve changed in the past year (spoiler: there are several). None of this, though, required me to make public declarations about my diet. I still think it has been a great thing to do, but I wish I’d cut myself out of it.

Aside from the ego element, there are other issues with the nature of the Experiment, and the ways in which I talk about it. However much I steer clear of terms like “girl band” and “woman in rock”, the focus I put on the creators and characters still creates a sense of the ‘other’ about them. It separates the artists and their work from their contexts and places them in a special category based entirely on their gender. That just helps to reinforce the idea that women can’t compete with men, that they need rarified air to allow their fragile species to flourish, which of course is not true.

Neko nails it once again.

Neko Case rightly pulled up Playboy for doing much the same thing. Their phrasing reinforced the idea that there is a distinct subcategory for women who are also musicians, outside of the norm. (Neko herself tackled this on ‘I’m From Nowhere’, which you should listen to right now.)

That idea of “women in music” as ‘other’ affects the lives of musicians like Neko every day, when they have to contend with a patronising sound guy, or a rival band who accuse her of sleeping her way to the top (or to the middle, or…). That sort of industry-wide obstacle forces women out, and reinforces the status quo. It’s a wretched state of affairs, and I’m not thrilled that I helped perpetuate that image, well-intentioned or otherwise.

If I could address my past self, I’d still tell Joel of 2014 to read, listen to, watch and play stuff about women for the next year (I’d probably encourage him to push harder and stick to women as creators, too). Then I’d tell him to scrap the blog, delete the Twitter account, and do it for no other reason than it’s a good idea.