Sensitivity Readers: Another reason to go indie

I just got back from my cruise–a very long day yesterday flying back!  Anyway, I ran across this article this morning on “sensitivity reader” to look for offensive content and was horrified that the industry is doing this.

It’s a form of censorship, plain and simple.

It starts with the simple thing of avoiding stereotypes, which sounds reasonable.

And there is a problem with that.  Most of it, in my opinion, comes from the media.  The news tends to focus on what sells and that often crosses into stereotype territory.  Films, TV, and even commercials tend to use stereotypes as a shortcut because of time limitations.  If you were, say, a soldier in an all-male company and grew up without any sisters, you might think the images of women being helpless victims on every TV show are true.

However, let’s suppose I create a nasty individual–character’s well-drawn and the motivations for the nastiness is obvious in the context of the story.  It’s even something that’s the heart of the story.  And maybe I decide to make the character a woman.

Enter sensitivity reader, who gets offended that I made this woman such a nasty person and publisher tells me I need to change the character.  Yet, if I’d done the character as a male, no one would had noticed any problems.  That’s just plain wrong.

People can be offended at pretty much anything.  Maybe I get offended because someone mentions rabbits.  Does that mean writers should jump and change their rabbits to cats because one person is offended at rabbits?

I grew up watching Star Trek, the original one, when it went into syndication.  There was something magical about it, seeing a woman on the bridge in an important position. As good science fiction does, it slipped in issues that could be brought up in the context of a fictional futuristic story.  And it pushed a lot of boundaries that made people uncomfortable (especially judging from Gene Roddenberry’s battles with the network).  But suppose a sensitivity viewer said that Uhura’s mini-skirt was offensive and GR’s response was to change the character to male?


I know the sensitivity reader idea has good intentions, but it takes control of the story away from the writer.  It takes away our ability to push boundaries that need to be pushed.

The Disruptive Influence of Star Trek

Today is Star Trek’s 50th anniversary.  That’s hard to believe.  I still remember when it was the 20th anniversary.  A big deal to me then, but not as much to the outside world.  Now it’s become more mainstream, and even some aspects of it embedded in our culture.

But I also remember when people looked at it and sneered with utter contempt.  All they saw were the spaceships, the pointed ears, and the monsters.  My guitar teacher would tell me repeatedly that her son had worked on the set and how fake everything looked, like she was trying to justify what was wrong with me watching and enjoying it.  A fellow student informed me repeatedly that Little Rascals was soooo much better (it was airing every day on KTLA at the time).

No one got it.

Moreover, I’m not sure the people who didn’t get it made any effort to try.  It was just something for weirdos and nerds, and those were strange people.

But it was representative of a small bit of change that started, that caught the attention of a few.  And the thing about Star Trek is that it had so many layers that the appeal varied from person to person.  Some people liked how it took current events and put them in a science fiction format.  I didn’t understand enough of the news to understand those events, so I missed most of that completely.

Mine was more simple:  I grew up in a world where books didn’t have much for women readers.  Women could get married, they could be rescued—but they couldn’t have adventures.  Though women were making their way out into the working world slowly and change was happening, the expectation was that women would get married, have kids, and cook and clean.

I didn’t like that being the only expectation.  I wanted choices.

And here we had Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise, handling communications.  Even though I was pretty young and didn’t know much about the military beyond what I’d seen on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and read in submarine books, I could tell it was an important position.

Looking at it now, her role is disappointing, and Star Trek doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to women.  Then, it was better than we were getting anywhere else.

But the other thing Star Trek had was that it said things would be okay in the future and we would resolve our differences.

We need that more than ever now.  But is anyone up to taking the chance like Gene Roddenberry did 50 years ago?

Despite having the internet where anyone can say literally anything, there’s even more influences trying to hold this change back.  A new version of Star Trek is coming out, and I heard one of the movie actors saying that no one was ready for the Star Trek of the 1960s.  I don’t think he understood the original Star Trek and what it did—it was more likely the studios were not ready for it.  They’ve become so risk adverse that they want something safe that will make money; a show or movie that pushes the envelope scares them because it might cause controversy.  It might not—gasp!—not make any money.

Star Trek was never about playing it safe.  It was one of the things the executives really hated, and what the fans really loved.

We need this disruption.

Leonard Nimoy LLAP

TV has an ability to take preserve an actor in time, and it’s easy to forget how old he is.  Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock, died today.  He was 83 years old.

I still remember him as Spock on Star Trek.  I first became a fan of the show in 1976.  KTLA ran the show back to back with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Saturday and Sunday.  The kid I was then was magnetized by Uhura because she was a woman in an important position of the bridge.  It doesn’t look like as much now, but then, I was being told women could only aspire to be housewives.

But Spock showed that we could all be different and still get along.  Spock was always kind of an outsider because he was so different than everyone else.  Yet, he was accepted by the people around him.  But I found in watching some clips of the character and Uhura, there was a quirkiness between the characters.  One of my favorite bits (in the clip) is when Spock comments on Uhura’s skills.  High praise, and I don’t think it would have worked with another actor.

Live long and prosper, Leonard Nimoy.

Desert Storm: The hazards of preparing for deployment

One of the challenges for my army unit during the mass build up that would become Desert Storm was that we didn’t know if we were going or not. I’m on a Desert Storm mailing list, and one of the veterans asked when we were notified, and i had to say that no one ever came out and said, “You’re leaving on XX date.” It simply happened, as a natural, logical conclusion on the process.

We would be preparing for deployment for about three months with this not knowing. I’m not sure if it would have been easier if we had a date or leaving it to the unknown. An actual date would have brought in the anticipation as we approached. Yet, as we did get closer, the rumor mill churned out that there was indeed a date. But it was also constantly shifting, so maybe that’s why no one told us anything. I think a shifting date would have been the worst of the three choices because I would have readied myself for that date, and and then it wouldn’t have happened, and I would have had to go through it all over again for the new date.

Every day was spent in some form of preparation. Getting supplies ready, making sure we had wills done, getting shots, and, of course, training. It was constantly wearing on us, almost like a river flowing down stream that eats steadily at the rocks on the shoreline.

The women soldiers couldn’t really have a reaction to this stress. If we had tried to relieve the stress — if that was even possible — in ways that women tend to, the men soldiers would have sneered at us for being weak.

There’s a scene in the most famous of Star Trek episodes, The City on the Edge of Forever, which kind of sums it up. The crew that beamed down to the planet has just found out that Dr. McCoy somehow changed the past and the Enterprise simply no longer exists. They’re effectively stranded unless they can fix the problem.

Uhura has the following line of dialogue: “Captain, I’m afraid.” (Sorry, I couldn’t quite get a clip of her saying this, but occurs right after this scene.)

If we even said anything like this, most of the men would have taken it and exaggerated it to point where we sounded like we were the most incompetent people, as proof women were not competent of doing anything men could do.

The men tended to express their fears one of two ways:

  1. They strutted around with a tough guy facade and proclaimed, “I’m going to kill me some (OMITTED).”
  2. They played soccer and football.

The later was done during physical training in the morning, and the men soldiers got very aggressive during the games. The games were actually pretty violent, and the women learned to stay out of the way. I still had to participate because it was physical training, but I had no desire to be squished flat. I went down to the end of the field to be the goalie, where it was at least somewhat safer because most of the action happened on the middle of the field.

The games got so aggressive that one soldier broke his toes during pool volleyball! Another sprained his ankle on the playing field, and a tackle broke the leg of another, making him non-deployable.

But women had no such stress reliever. We were simply expected to suck it up and drive on and pretend like we weren’t who we actually were. Like I said, the Army had no idea what to do with us.