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Memory and Identity in “Twice Upon a Time”

Identity and Memory in “Twice Upon a Time”

by Kristin King

One time, the Star Trek crew cheated death with the transporter. Our hero dissolved in atoms, presumably dead, but luckily, the transporter still had his pattern. After I saw that, I began questioning every single use of the transporter. Did it move somebody from place to place or did it destroy one body and create a clone, with all the same memories? Does consciousness continue or cease?

From there it’s not hard to wonder: is the person who wakes up in the morning the same as the one who went to sleep at night? My consciousness ceased, for a time, as my unconscious mind pruned memories and integrated what remained into the semblance of a whole?

What remains the same, sleeping to waking? What makes a person themself? Is it memory? Or is it something else?

Doctor Who turns out to be the perfect show for pondering this question, and showrunner Stephen Moffat took full advantage of this opportunity during his tenure, culminating with a deeply philosophical regeneration episode, “Twice Upon a Time.”

Who emerges from regeneration? Outgoing showrunner Russell T. Davies gave this problem to Stephen Moffat when the Tenth Doctor said, “Even if I change it still feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away… and I’m dead.”

The Eleventh Doctor had a new perspective in his final episode, with this tearjerker:  “It all just disappears, doesn’t it? Everything you are, gone in a moment. Like breath on a mirror.”

But he followed up optimistically:

“We all change, when you think about it. We’re all different all through our lives. And that’s okay, that’s good. You’ve got to keep moving. As long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”

That need to remember plays a huge role in many of the character arcs during Moffat’s tenure. Amy Pond loses family members to a crack in time but regains them once she remembers — and she saves Rory as well, and finally the Doctor. Next, Clara’s theme from the beginning is “Run, you clever boy, and remember me,” but the Doctor ends up making mistakes (including the mistake the Tenth Doctor had made in erasing Donna’s memories), and he must pay the price by forgetting Clara. And finally, Ashildr, becomes immortal but her human mind cannot possibly remember everyone she used to be, and she finally simplifies her identity to “Me.”

The question of the Doctor’s memory also plays a crucial role in the episode “Heaven Sent,” in which he must repeatedly undergo the horrific procedure of fleeing from a monster until mortally injured, then annihilate his own body to create himself anew — by throwing a switch that looks uncannily like the TARDIS takeoff control. And yet, although his body is destroyed, some part of him remembers.

“Twice Upon a Time” concludes Stephen Moffat’s exploration of memory and identity with a mysterious entity, Testimony, that manipulates both memory and forgetting. Testimony removes people from time just before their death to copy and thus preserve their memories, and then makes them forget the event and returns them to the moment of death. But the First and Twelfth Doctors accidentally interrupt the proceedings and end up trapped in a frozen landscape in which nothing can change. Not even a snowflake can move: when the Doctor tries, it simply returns to its place of origin.

And then Bill appears. But is it Bill? Or is it a copy of Bill, trapped by Testimony in glass just as surely as the snowflake is trapped in midair? The answer, for her, is yes to both. Testimony-Bill asserts that she has all Bill’s memories, and she is Bill’s memories, so she is Bill. Identity is memory.

The Twelfth Doctor disagrees. At the same time, though, he has his own past self to make sense of. He enjoys meeting the First Doctor and remembering who he used to be. And at one point, when the First Doctor makes a keen observation, the Twelfth lays claim to having made it. (“I said that!” protests the First Doctor. The Twelfth dismisses it: “Same difference!”)

In the end, of course, the question of identity has no answer. When the Twelfth Doctor is ready to regenerate, he gives explicit advice to the next Doctor. “I’ve got a few things to say to you,” he begins (in a Tom Baker voice). And then: “Basic stuff first. Never be cruel, never be cowardly. Never, ever eat pears. Remember: Hate is always foolish, and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, and never fail to be kind. . . . Laugh hard, run fast, be kind.”

He finishes up with heroic grace: “Doctor, I let you go.” The statement gives us the emotional effect of resolution, but it’s also quite ambiguous. Who is the “I” that lets go of the Doctor? We could all ask that question. Who is “I”?

And so the Doctor regenerates, going out in flame right along with his partner the TARDIS. And Stephen Moffat has cleared the worktable for the new showrunner and for the new Doctors, whoever they may be.

Brilliant.

Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_The_Gate_of_Memory

The Gate of Memory by Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. That’s not a TARDIS in the background . . . is it?

 

Anglicon 2017 “Should the Doctor Be a Woman”? Panel

This panel on the past and future of female Doctors may have been poorly named, considering that Jodie Whittaker has already been cast as the Thirteenth Doctor, but the conversations were great. Raven Oak moderated, and the panel consisted of Eric Gjovaag, Mark Dando, and Denise Nilsson.

Eric Gjovaag got the conversation off to a productive start with a brief video showing fan appearances of female Doctors, starting with a clip featuring Barbara Benedetti. (More info on these films is available on director Ryan K. Johnson’s website.) That way, the panel and audience started out with a lot to chew on. The video also had a moment from The Curse of Fatal Death and some other works I can’t recall off the top of my head.

The audience conversation was lively, energetic, and thoughtful. A sampling of some of the questions and comments:

  • There’s a generation gap in fan reaction. People who grew up with Classic Who may find this quite a departure. On the other hand, the younger generation seems ready.
  • Some of these videos continually referenced the fact that the Doctor was a woman. If the new show does that, it won’t turn out well.
  • Some of this came up when Missy appeared as the latest incarnation of the Master. While it’s true that the Master has always been a complete ham, there was some discomfort about having her gender and sexuality continually referenced.
  • Someone popped his head in and got the audience roaring with laughter by asking: “Will she get equal compensation?” GOOD QUESTION.
  • Someone proposed Idris Elba as the fourteenth Doctor. I agree.

We finished up with a look at the publicity photo of Jodie Whittaker’s costume (below), described on a UK news site as “navy culottes with yellow braces.” Apparently that’s in fashion in Europe. Folks spent some time speculating on whether the rainbow ribbon on her shirt might have come from an earlier Doctor or companion, like Dodo (who was filmed during the black and white era). Panelist Mark Dando expressed dismay at the photo: “But what have they done to the police box?” (It’s darker blue and one panel looks black.)

Denise Nilsson finished out the session by expressing optimism for the series, saying, “It’s still the TARDIS, still the Doctor.”

doctor-who-costume-reveal-jodie-whittaker

Anglicon 2017 Recap

I went to Anglicon this year, along with my son, to revel in Classic Doctor Who fandom. Much fun! It’s nice to meet people who liked Doctor Who before it was trendy. Highlights:

I lived the Classic Who tropes (not always on purpose):

  1. Losing track of companions: This began the moment I left home. I hopped in the car to pick up my spouse from the bus stop, but due to bad directions, I drove around aimlessly only to find he’d walked all the way home. It was a good omen.
  2. Wandering through corridors: The hotel room was a half mile from the convention area, along a twisty route. This would have been true to the show, except the walls didn’t wobble.
  3. Tea: I enjoyed a proper black tea in the Hospitality Suite.
  4. An unattended TARDIS: And as usual, someone had left the door open, and someone else had wandered in. (They fixed this by Saturday, though.)
  5. Losing track of companions (again): In the end, exhausted beyond belief, I kept trying to gather family members, and they kept wandering off.

Fanstruck by Sylvester McCoy:

I lined up early for a photo op with Sylvester McCoy so that I wouldn’t spend the entire con worrying about getting one. I needn’t have worried, since there was plenty of time for photo ops, but it was a delight to see him show up and perform crowd control.  Later, during his Q & A, he put on another stellar performance, getting down into the audience to answer questions with a quick wit and well-timed comedy. And finally, I hung out in the general vicinity as he wandered through the art show with his “handler,” admiring the art.

And Peter Davison:

He had so many stories to tell about his acting career. The audience questioned him about everything from his first time acting to his upcoming works. My second favorite: his account of directing The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, including the moment when all the actors were in their spots, the cameras adjusted, the lights on, and he was waiting around to hear people shout “Action!” only to realize that was his job.  And my favorite: his account of filming All Creatures Great and Small, with . . . actual animals about to give birth.

The game room:

I got a chance to play my first Doctor Who role-playing game, run by a game master who kindly took into account my inexperience (and that of my son as well). Something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.

The panel “Should the Doctor Be a Woman”?

Poorly named (because the next Doctor is a woman) but great in-depth conversations about the past and future of a female Doctor. I’d like to spend an entire post on that, so I’ll skip it here.

The film festival:

I only had the chance to see two short films but liked them both. The first was a sci/fi zombie crossover, “Father’s Day”, that was at the same time gross and heartbreaking. The other film, “Renegades,” by Grant Pierce Liester, was riveting, with small moments gorgeously done.

All the costumes:

So many people put so much detail and care into dressing up. It’s a delight to watch.

The Corgi parade:

One of the guests of honor is a Corgi who starred in Dirk Gently, along with his sister. I missed most of the Corgi antics. But on Sunday as I walked down the hallway, I found everyone lined up for something, and it turned out to be a parade of dogs (many in costume), led by a Dalek. Boy, were those dogs pleased with the attention!

And the conversations:

I mostly kept to myself (introvert!) but the conversations I did have were fun.

All in all:

I don’t attend many cons, finding them exhausting, but this one was worth it. Thank you to everyone who worked so hard to put it on.

anglicon-staff-2017

Are Fans Ready for Jodie Whittaker?

jodie whittaker doctor whoI never expected to see a woman play the official “Doctor Who,” but here we are, with Jodie Whittaker cast as the 13th Doctor. Are the fans ready? Not entirely. This weekend at Anglicon 2017 I had one telling experience, with one high-profile guest doubling down on previous comments opposing the casting. He had already been publicly criticized for those comments and had taken those comments as “getting in trouble” unjustly. This tells me that either nobody sat down with him and had a thoughtful conversation on the topic, or that somebody tried and he didn’t listen.  Either way, the communication failure is frustrating!

I was most frustrated at having to listen to these comments without the ability to talk back, but well, since I am a writer . . . . I’ll just pull out my trusty soapbox. (It’s bigger on the inside than out, by the way.)

What follows is my recollection of the comments, to the best of my ability, though memory is fallible, and my response.

1. It’s unfortunate to see politics in Doctor Who

Some of the best episodes of the show have been political satire, like “Aliens of London,” where the top figures of government are replaced by windbags, or “The Long Game,” where human civilization is controlled by aliens, through the media. So what do you mean by “politics”?

 

2. Casting a woman as the Doctor is “political correctness”

It’s the opposite. The simple truth is that for a long time casting a female Doctor was considered “politically incorrect” and even now, it’s a risky move. She will face criticism like you would not believe, from women and men both.

3. All future Doctors will be women

The logic of your comment seemed to be: Since we’ve had fifty years of male Doctors, to balance the ledgers we’ll have fifty years of women. Don’t worry! Misogyny is alive and well in Western culture, and men and women alike both judge powerful women harshly. How many fans liked Captain Janeway? How did Hilary Clinton lose the election? But even in the absence of misogyny, why bar men from the role. That makes as little sense as — well — barring women.

For the record: I vote for Idris Elba as the fourteenth Doctor.

4. Losing a role model for boys

Okay, some people in the audience were offended by that, but I used my magical ability to create “head canon” (fandom’s phrase for “the show as we wish it was”) to convert it to “losing the Doctor as a male role model for boys,” and I’m actually sympathetic to that. There is a gender-utopia view that kids can be anything, do anything . . . and yet, many if not most still look to same-gender adults when shaping their identities and planning their future careers.

And yes, the Doctor is unique as a male role model. He hates guns and uses intellect to solve problems instead. He has boundless compassion and is not afraid to cry. The truth is, we have precious few heroes like that.

But.

See #3. There will be plenty more male Doctors, I’m sure. A generation of boys will not lose that.

And.

Boys can take women as role models.

And.

By the way, I’m the reason my son is a Doctor Who fan.

And.

Since a gender-specific Doctor is so amazing for our sons . . . why would you want to deny that opportunity to our daughters?

I grew up a Star Trek fan and gladly imagined myself in the role of Captain Kirk, and later the Doctor. That worked for me. It doesn’t work for my daughter.

We’ve got a new generation coming to Doctor Who, and, in the words of Captain Jack Harkness, “The twenty-first century is when everything changes. And you’ve got to be ready.”

Review: Leviathan Wept and Other Stories by Daniel Abraham

Chewy, heartfelt, philosophical, concrete magic. Trigger warning for at least one of the stories, “Flat Diane,” a story I personally wish I hadn’t read. (I’m only halfway through the book.)

Lately, as in the past five years, I’ve gotten pickier and pickier in what I’m willing to read. Most books tell stories I’ve already heard and therefore can’t distract me from the ten thousand things on my mind these days. Not this book. I couldn’t predict a single ending, but when it came it was just right, and the journey was always full of allure.

I came across the collection after watching the first two seasons of The Expanse and wanting to read the books, which turned out to be written by James S. Corey, who is in fact not one person but two: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. It was hanging out at the local library and I’d passed over it many times, seeing pretension in the title.

The first story, “The Cambist and Lord Iron,” is an exceptional “three attempts” fairy tale. Our hero Olaf, who is a cambist (an exchanger of currencies) must contend with the impossible requests of Lord Iron, a monstrous excuse of a human being. Olaf’s misfortune is that he understands that it’s possible to exchange anything for anything. For instance, it’s true you can buy bread for money, but it’s equally true that you can buy money for bread, or exchange a horse for some number of lemon mints. Lord Iron brags about this ability and next thing you know, lives are staked on a bet. Can Olaf answer this question:

What is the value of a day in the life of the king, expressed in a day in the life of a prisoner?

This is starting to look like a Sufi riddle. It’s a seemingly simple question that breaks our usual way of thinking. Anybody can have an opinion, but to find an actual, correct, concrete answer?

I never saw the answer coming until it smacked me in the face. But it was true.

And that’s really as much as I can say about the story without spoilers. It’s a thinky story, also full of deep emotion and understandings, and concrete sensory experiences.

I’ll skip “Flat Diane,” which by the way is an International Horror Guild award-winner, so read it at your own peril, and move on to “The Best Monkey.” Just a taste. It begins like so:

How do men choose the women they’re attracted to? . . . It feels like kismet. Karma. Fate. It feels like love. Is it a particular way of laughing? A vulnerability in their tone of voice? A spiritual connection? Something deeper?

All the studies say it’s hip-to-waist ratio.

This snippet shows a tension between deeper meanings and concrete answers. The format – a question deep with longing and introspection, and a cold, abrupt answer that nevertheless sings with its own poetry – is repeated throughout the story, a seeming diversion from the detective-story plot, until the last. Then boom.

I won’t easily forget any of these stories.

– Kristin

leviathan-wept2

My path to getting woke, part two

At the end of Monday’s post on getting woke, I promised to write about Professor Colleen McElroy and what she taught me while I was in the creative writing graduate program at the University of Washington. I regret to say I am skipping over my entire undergraduate education, largely for lack of time.

She was an amazing professor with a vast quantity of fascinating stories, which she always told with a conspiratorial twinkle in her eye. For a small taste of her life and her personality, here is an article by Bethany Reid on HistoryLink and an interview by Elizabeth Hoover in the magazine Sampsonia Way. I enjoyed her classes a lot but was fairly silent in her classes, partly because I was shy then and partly because of the awkwardness that comes from systemic racism. Now if you’re a person of color reading what I’m about to say, you might be surprised, and if you’re white you might think, “Oh yes, I know what you mean,” but anyhow, for the longest time, for many years, or rather several decades, I had the mistaken assumption that the internalized racial prejudice that I held — that everyone holds, to one extent or another — would be revealed to all the world if I spoke up and said the wrong thing. This has stopped me from speaking up about race, many times, when I should have.

Where I was most mistaken was in thinking that my internal racial prejudice was unique to me, or that most other white people would care about it one way or another. But even more so was my naive assumption that because the civil rights movement had happened, segregation theoretically ended, and so forth, that if a person held back from making some racist comment it was because they were ashamed of it, like I was. It’s clear now, from the enormous backlash against “political correctness,” that a whole lot of white people were silent only because of social conventions.

In other words, I cared a lot more about racism than a lot of other white people, but I was less likely to speak up. I’m still in recovery on that one. I find it much easier to write about racism than to speak about it, even with close friends.

Colleen McElroy exposed me to a wide swath of voices I would never have heard otherwise. To name a few: bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Isabel Allende, and Carolyn Forché. These voices framed my understanding of concepts such as the politics of art, race, and immigration; and they also provided a launching off point for learning more and more and more.

One of the books she taught was:

Points of Departure: International Writers on Writing & Politics, David Montenegro, University of Michigan Press, 1991

points-of-departure-book

From the cover blurb:

In these times of political transformation and turmoil around the globe, Points of Departure offers incisive and passionate reflections on literature and politics by ten of the world’s leading writers. David Montenegro’s interviews with these novelists and poets, some living in exile, focus on the relationship of the writer’s work to political violence and oppression and examine the troubling tensions between art and social responsibility.

There’s an ongoing debate about “whether or not art should be political” and I have to say, after reading this book, I look at people who believe you can separate the two and wonder: What world are you living in?

The texts here put me on the path to getting “woke” not exclusively about racism but also about the lived experiences of people who have endured imperialism, colonialism, and so forth. And the understanding that many terrible realities have been too often whitewashed in our history and our news. This is of course still going on.

Below are quotations from two texts that provided a-ha moments for me, one by Isabel Allende and one by Carolyn Forché. I will leave them as is without discussion or interpretation.

From David Montenegro’s interview of Isabel Allende about the day of the military coup in Chile, in which her uncle, Senator Allende, was deposed and killed, here are some snippets.

 

Well, I was a journalist at that time, and that day I got up very early in the morning, as I usually do. I prepared my children for school, like any day, and went to my office. I didn’t realize there was a coup. . . .

By two o’clock, more or less, I learned that Allende was dead and that many of my friends were in hiding; others were killed; others were in prison. But at that moment it was very difficult to realize exactly what was happening. It was a time of great confusion. And rumors. On television we only had military marches and Walt Disney movies. It was so surrealistic, so strange. . . .

[T]he very day of the coup, soldiers would cut the pants of women in the streets with scissors because they wanted ladies to wear skirts, which was proper. . . .

(pp 110-115)

And here is a bit from Carolyn Forché prose poem “The Colonel,” which details a poet’s interview with a colonel. It begins in mundane domesticity, with the wife bringing coffee and sugar and the daughter filing her nails. Midway through the interview:

The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. . . .

(pp 75-76)

So then.

Opening my eyes to the world in this way was not the most pleasant gift I have ever received, but is certainly one of the most important. Thank you, Professor Colleen McElroy.

colleenjmcelroy3

image from awritersalchemy. wordpress.com

– Kristin

Neo-fascism trounced in sci fi, 2016

Last year I posted an essay about neo-fascist goings-on in the science fiction community. To make a long story short, a racist, misogynist troll who calls himself “Voice of God” and owns a publishing house in Finland used Gamergate tactics to hijack the ballot for science fiction’s prestigious Hugo Awards.

At the time, I was shocked and alarmed by the blatant neo-fascist rhetoric used by the troll and the normalization that had taken place in the science fiction community. (He had run for president of Science Fiction Writers of America even after using an outrageous racial slur against N.K. Jemisin, and a stunning ten percent of people had voted for him.)

In hindsight, I see that the racist far right has made inroads everywhere. Because about a fourth of the U.S. electorate voted in someone who is looking to be an actual fascist.

But here’s the good news: the science fiction community organized and the science fiction community won. Whatever else happened in 2016 that sucked, a bright spot is that he was roundly defeated. You can read more about that in the IO9 blog article “Hugo Awards Celebrate Women in Sci-Fi, Send Rabid Puppies to Doghouse” by Beth Elderkin.

Science fiction represents the dreams of our community. And dreams are powerful. If science fiction fans can come together to defeat neo-fascism with their own community, then everyday people in the U.S. can defeat white supremacy, actual fascism, and all the rest of that garbage.

We can win.

I’ll finish up by a quote from N.K. Jemisin:

. . . all this anger and discussion reflects a struggle for the soul of the organization, which is in turn reflective of a greater struggle for the soul of the genre, and that overall struggle taking place globally. . . .

Diverse voices are here to stay.

Spaceship_Kawaii

Yes, we can win

Recent events have been a shock, the next four years are going to be a nightmare, and too many of the people I know are discouraged. But we can win. How do I know this? Because of the mass movements that have won, across history and across the globe.

But there are obstacles, including some that are not at all obvious. The two I’ll touch on today are:

  • social anxiety
  • ignorance about our own history

This morning while I was in my children’s school the intercom came on and I heard the story of Rosa Parks changing the world with her one refusal to sit in the back of the bus. It’s meant to be inspirational: look what one person can do!

But the vast majority of people who hear the story think, “I could never do that!” Not even for fear of being arrested. Social anxiety is enough to stop most of us.

Once I stepped far outside my comfort zone and freaked out the entire leadership of a big nonprofit. (It’s a long story but I’ll tell it one of these days.) It took me weeks to recuperate. I could not possibly have done it without social support and collective planning ahead of time. So we need to do scary stuff, but we all need help.

To do that, we need to organize. In person. Face to face. With actual people.

We also need to know our history. Rosa Parks was a great leader, but there are also thousands of unsung heroes who contributed in many different ways. Their stories are buried but not lost.

Here’s the book that tells that story. It has the who, what, where, when, how, and why of a mass movement that won. Go read it. Then tell me something: if you could be any civil rights hero from this book, which one would you be?

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom by Charles M. Payne

light-of-freedom

 

– Kristin Ann King

Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown

This summer I read the book Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown, and I did a mini-review, but it was in the middle of another blog post, so here it is again:

Wow, wow, and wow! When the Jewish “modern girl” in 1935 New York gets accidentally knocked up, what’s she going to do? Especially since her 42-year-old mother is in the same situation. I feel like I got plopped down right in their little apartment and met all their friends and relatives. Everything about mothering felt genuine to me, too–all the ambivalence, the love, and the hard work. Overall, a remarkable read, fun without being candy, deep and thoughtful–treating some serious issues–without being a downer. I want more.

#

I went to her reading tonight at Phinney Books, and it was a blast. She pointed out the perk of writing a historical novel: you get to read a lot and it’s considered Respectable Official Work — at least after something gets published. She also talked with great enthusiasm about the period in question. And I learned the difference between Yiddish and Hebrew.

So a confession: I’m a bit biased here. We were in the MFA program twenty years ago. We moved to different states and lost touch, and separately struggled to a) write something good and b) publish it. We also gave birth to our kids at about the same time. Go figure. Anyway, for both of us, persistence does pay off.

It’s a great book. Go read it.

And by the way, if you’re reading this post and you live in Seattle, go get it from Phinney Books. I hear they have some copies.

 

modern girls cover

– Kristin

 

 

On racism, sexism, donuts, and dictionaries

(updated 9/14 to include a little more nuance)

Yesterday I made a trip to the doughnut shop to look up words in old dictionaries.

Guess I’d better explain that. Our local doughnut shop, Top Pot Doughnuts, is decorated with four walls of bookshelves, holding gorgeous old books. Children’s classics, old encyclopedias, dictionaries . . . you name it. It looks like this:

(a picture of the walls of a Top Pot Doughnut shop in Seattle)

The walls of a Top Pot Doughnut shop in Seattle

It’s a lovely place to sit and have a cup of coffee and a doughnut.

But yesterday, I had a question on my mind: how have the definitions of the words sexism and racism changed over time? That question came out of the frequent arguments over whether “reverse sexism” and “reverse racism” exist, which ultimately comes down to the meaning of the words themselves. And of course, people argue about that too.

Who’s the final authority on such things? Listen to what the Merriam Webster editors have to say in an entry on racism:

Dictionaries are often treated as the final arbiter in arguments over a word’s meaning, but they are not always well suited for settling disputes. The lexicographer’s role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used, not how some may feel that they should be used, and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named by a word, much less the significance it may have for individuals. When discussing concepts like racism, therefore, it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.

It makes sense when you think about it: a dictionary entry is not an authoritative answer but an attempt to define the actual usage of the word. But by whom? Everybody. So if there are multiple usages of a word, arguing over which usage is correct is foolhardy.

Or is it? When we argue over what a word means, do we change its usage? No one person changes it, but maybe our insistence of one definition over another is one little vote, to be added to the world’s constant project of language-making.

Context for the word “sexism”:

Here are two of many possible usages of the word “sexism”:

  1. “Prejudice or discrimination based on sex.”
  2.  “Prejudice or discrimination based on sex–specifically discrimination against women; behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.”

Which definition is the correct one? Neither, of course. Both are in common usage these days.

A better question: which one should we use?

Hence, my interest in the dictionary. Here are some definitions, starting from today’s and going back in time to when sexism existed, but nobody had a word for it.

Merriam-Webster’s online definition, as of 9/12/2016:

  1. prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially :  discrimination against women

  2. behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex

Webster’s, 1988:

Sexism [SEX + (racism)] discrimination against people on the basis of sex; specif. discrimination against and prejudicial stereotyping of women.

Webster’s 7th, 1967:

(entry not present)

Funk & Wagnalls, 1956:

(entry not present)

Well, of course it’s not present in 1967. It had only been coined two years previously, and it hadn’t made it out of feminist mimeographs. It wasn’t dictionary-worthy. Here’s some background from an online etymology dictionary:

sexist (adj.) Look up sexist at Dictionary.com1965, from sex (n.) on model of racist, coined by Pauline M. Leet, director of special programs at Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, U.S., in a speech which was circulated in mimeograph among feminists. Popularized by use in print in Caroline Bird’s introduction to “Born Female” (1968).

And the definition in “Born Female” (from a Feminism 101 blog post) is:

There is recognition abroad that we are in many ways a sexist country. Sexism is judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter. Sexism is intended to rhyme with racism. Both have used to keep the powers that be in power.

The quotation goes on to say that women can also be sexists, but the definitions provided makes it clear that she’s talking about women being sexist against women, not men.

Of course, the usage of a word in the past doesn’t dictate how it should be used in the present. However, in any argument over definitions, it’s worth noting that feminists coined the term for a specific purpose, and are still using it for that same general purpose. It includes some important context. For example:

  • there is widespread prejudice and discrimination specifically against women
  • people stereotype women
  • sexism is a tool for maintaining unbalanced power relations

When all that context is taken away from the term, something important is chipped away from the feminist movement too.

On the other hand, gender stereotyping and discrimination happens to men too. And to boys. This poster sums it up beautifully:

for-every-girl

Another thing that might be changing about the term: its use to describe prejudice and discrimination faced by trans people. There’s definitely some argument about this. Within some feminist circles, people feel that trans women can use the word “sexism” but trans men should use “gender prejudice.” I don’t agree.

All in all, it’s an ongoing conversation, which is as it should be.

At the same time, there are anti-feminists who are using the word “sexism” to refer to slights made by feminists against men. That’s being advocated on ultra-conservative websites such as Breitbart as part of a feminist backlash. It sounds reasonable, but in reality, it’s a way of shutting us up when we talk about sexism.

For that reason, I propose that the moral right to define the word “sexism” belongs to feminists. (Of any gender.)

Context for the word “racism”:

The word “racism” came into popular use after the French word “racisme” was used, by people who were fighting the Nazis in the 1930s. Just to be clear, the Nazis were a group of white supremacists intent on killing off people they considered a lesser race.

There were two earlier words, “racialism” and “race hatred,” both of which were apparently less specific and could refer to racial prejudice against whites. But after Hitler’s rise to power, the use of the term “racism” supplanted both.

You can find out a lot about the word “racism” from a dictionary, but there’s another cool tool: Google Ngrams. It shows the relative frequency of words in all the books Google has scanned, so it’s a nifty little tool for watching the way our collective minds have processed words. It can also give you insights you won’t find in most etymologies – it shows when a word first became popular. It’s not exact science; this Wired article talks about its shortcomings. It also has the amazing ability of linking you to typical publications of the time.

Here are the terms “racialism” and “race hatred” up to 1930.

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=racism%2Cracialism%2Crace+hatred&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1850&year_end=1930&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t4%3B%2Cracism%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bracism%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BRacism%3B%2Cc0%3B.t4%3B%2Cracialism%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bracialism%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BRacialism%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BRACIALISM%3B%2Cc0%3B.t4%3B%2Crace%20hatred%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Brace%20hatred%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BRace%20hatred%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BRace%20Hatred%3B%2Cc0

After about 1940, the term “racism” supplanted both, and then it really picked up during the Civil Rights Movement:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=racism%2Cracialism%2Crace+hatred&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1910&year_end=1990&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t4%3B%2Cracism%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bracism%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BRacism%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BRACISM%3B%2Cc0%3B.t4%3B%2Cracialism%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bracialism%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BRacialism%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BRACIALISM%3B%2Cc0%3B.t4%3B%2Crace%20hatred%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Brace%20hatred%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BRace%20hatred%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BRace%20Hatred%3B%2Cc0

I could look at Google ngram for hours. Try it. It’s a bit addictive!

How about dictionary definitions of the word racism? Here’s something to consider: for most of Western publishing history, the people in charge have been white. So I’m taking their definitions with a grain of salt.

Funk and Wagnalls, 1956

Racism – An excessive and irrational belief in or advocacy of the superiority of a given group, people, or nation, on racial grounds alone; race hatred.

Websters 7th, 1967

Racism – 1) A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race; 2) Racialism

Racialism – racial prejudice or discrimination

Websters, 1988

Racism – 1) A doctrine or teaching, without scientific support, that claims to find racial differences in character, intelligence, etc. that asserts the superiority of one race over another or others, and that seeks to maintain the supposed purity of a race or the races. 2) Any program or practice of racial discrimination, segregation, etc. based on such beliefs.

In conclusion . . .

It’s fascinating: you can see the hand of history all over these definitions!

The word sexism came specifically from feminists and was apparently once more radical. Once it came into common use, it began more often to refer generally to gender and less often specifically to women.

On the other hand, the word racism probably did not come from the actual targets of racism, but rather from people doing antiracist work (fighting the Nazis). The earlier dictionary definitions were unlikely to have been written by the actual targets of racism. Because, you know, prejudice and discrimination.

When did people of color start having the power not only to define the word racism for themselves, but also to get their definition into common usage? Do people of color have that power?

Another way to put the question: are white people listening when people of color define racism? And if not, why not?

I proposed that feminists have the moral right to define the word sexism. By that same token, I acknowledge the right of people of color, fighting racism, to define the word racism.

Of course, what actually happens to either of these words is under nobody’s control. It’s up to the hand of history to decide.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll go for a donut.

– Kristin

donut-dictionary

from mel-o-cream.com