On taking space/making space (Or, Why I am going to PAX)

By | March 10, 2011

Photo by Benson Kua from Toronto, Canada, licensed under Creative Commons.

I know a great many people have chosen not to attend PAX East this year, owing to recent events (i.e. because dickwolves), for a number of personal reasons. Some feel as though the space will be unavoidably anxiety-inducing. Some feel as though the event is now complicit in upholding cultural forces that they abhor. For some it’s a matter of not wanting to give money to an organization with which they have deep political and ethical rifts; for some it’s a matter of not wanting to be associated with certain other people that may be present. In most cases, I’d wager, it’s a combination of these factors, and maybe some others too.

All of these reasons are valid, and other reasons I haven’t even thought of are valid. No one should feel compelled to participate in a space or an event with which they are uncomfortable. Period.

I, however, am going. And I’ll tell you why.

I’ve been practicing, working in, fighting with, climbing over and tunneling through social justice activism in a multiplicity of forms for over ten years now. That’s a long time. It feels long, even to me, and I have trouble remembering a life before my activism took root and began to sprawl over everything I do, like some giant parasitical strangling vine, sucking the joy out of things I once enjoyed mindlessly and thornily prodding me to check my privilege and to allow my privilege to be checked in all things and at all times. Over these years, and even now, no one has ever willingly given me the space I needed, both intellectually and literally, to exist and to represent and to speak. The feminism I first engaged with didn’t give me space to be radical about bodies and size (and disability and race and queerness, for that matter). Even much of the fat activism I first encountered didn’t give me space to be radical about many other issues, and rather preferred to focus on its “last acceptable prejudice” as The Most Important Oppression Of All. The larger mundane world beyond such lofty politics has never graciously given me space to live and thrive as I am; I require too much from it, you see, more than my “share,” in accomodations that are called “special” or “excessive,” even as I am taking only the precise amount that I need in order to exist.

Occasionally, I have been able to find a space made by someone else that meets my needs, but these experiences are precariously uncommon and as a result—contingency planner than I am—I have never felt comfortable relying on them to be intact and available when I happen to need them. Instead I make my space, and I take my space. I will carve out room for my fat ass on the bench where everyone else is sitting, even if that means being pressed against those who regard me with resentment, horror, or disgust. I will sit down, and smile, and make cheery comments to my neighbors, and relax into the unwelcoming crush as though I deserve to be there just as much as anyone else, because I do.

While I fully appreciate and support that many of my activist compatriots do things differently, I don’t know how else to be an activist, myself. I am going to PAX because, having been somewhat invested in a positive outcome of the recent troubles, I could not bear the idea of this event happening and my not being there to take my space from it. I don’t go with the desire to fight, or expecting confrontation; I go because I like that place, and I have liked it in the past and had positive experiences there, and I am not giving it up to a ridiculous minority of selfish, cruel individuals. I go because it is a chance to engage rationally, civilly, and thoughtfully with people, face to face, the reminder of our shared humanity unavoidable, and certainly some will not appreciate my efforts, but I can assure you that they will back down before I do. I go because my life’s work is invested in exploring, analyzing, and understanding community and culture, and accomplishing that requires that I live in community and culture as fully as possible.

I don’t go about my life intentionally trying to a political road show, or a Vaudevillian satire of social negotiation, but it just happens. I’ve come to accept that this continuous performance before audiences that are often unappreciative and almost always resentful is an inevitable part of being myself—I’m odd and enthusiastic and I use far too many words and I think an understanding of these issues is important for the happiness of others, certainly, but for your happiness too, you who don’t want to discuss depressing ideas like classism and accessibility and, sure, rape culture too. Our conversation doesn’t have to be a drag! It can be funny and interesting and informative and you don’t have to feel badly about yourself, no, so long as you’re talking and thinking and trying to be the kind person you can be; the kind person you want to be, which is why you are sad and angry when others tell you that you are doing something wrong and hurting other people. You don’t mean to hurt other people. But sometimes it just happens.

PAX was created as a space for those who didn’t always have space, and who didn’t know how to go about making one, or who just weren’t inclined to do so on their own. That said, this does not mean it will always by default be a space where good things are celebrated and bad things are not tolerated. The price of safety, even relative safety, is constant vigilance; people will always want to take your space from you, especially if it’s a space for which you’ve had to fight, and which you hold with the tenderest grasp. I know this too well. I will be at PAX to spread out and keep some of that space open, for myself for sure, but also for those who cannot be there. I will be at PAX to talk and to think and to listen and to learn and to be noisy and to be silent and to play some fucking games with strangers that I will turn into friends.

Because I get to take up space there too. Let’s make some room.


29 Comments

Arwen on March 10, 2011 at 3:16 pm.

Authenticity as activism: thank you for it. Examples help.

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metermouse on March 10, 2011 at 3:30 pm.

Hooray!

This is something I’m trying to work on doing, even in the smallest and mildest ways. Like, wearing what I LIKE to wear, eating what I like to eat, dancing how I like to dance etc. I think it’s awesome that you are commited defining the terms of your own life. Thanks for being a confident visible fat person! I hope to continue to ease off the invisibility cloak, and you keep me inspired to do so!! (no pressure though :P )

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YellowValkyrie on March 10, 2011 at 4:15 pm.

I have trouble remembering a life before my activism took root and began to sprawl over everything I do, like some giant parasitical strangling vine, sucking the joy out of things I once enjoyed mindlessly and thornily prodding me to check my privilege and to allow my privilege to be checked in all things and at all times.

Boy howdy, do I ever identify with this statement. Except I remember my pre-activitst days really clearly, and often with intense embarassment. Like… I once owned Insane Clown Posse’s film “Big Money Hustlas.” Please don’t tell anyone. My face is now burning with shame.

It really sucks to have to criticize the things you like. There was a post that Snarky’s Machine did that I think she cross-posted to Shapely Prose way back in the day (which on the internet, is like, 6 months ago), let me see if I can find it…

…ah ha! http://kateharding.net/2010/03/13/everybody-loves-a-strawman/

At first activism did suck the joy out of things I once enjoyed mindlessly. I felt obligated to avoid pop culture that I deemed “problematic,” but then I realized that I would be left with like, no entertainment left.

So rather than turn my back on anything with so much as a whiff of any -ism, I adjusted my activism. It works better now. Instead of sucking the joy out of everything, it sucks the mindlessness out. Now I can enjoy both the consumption AND the critique of my beloved LoTR and Shaun of the Dead dvds, Ween albums, Resident Evil games, and Stephen King books.

Everything’s more fun when you think critically. Except sometimes my friends get really annoyed with me. That’s the only sucky part.

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Lesley on March 10, 2011 at 4:19 pm.

Yes! You know, after I posted this and reread it I thought, “That joy-sucking part sounds more depressing than I mean it to!” I actually enjoy stuff more now viewing it through a critical lens—it’s much more interesting that way. I agree that being conscious of this stuff shouldn’t equal No Fun Ever Again.

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YellowValkyrie on March 10, 2011 at 4:40 pm.

I hope that the joy sucking phase is just that – a phase – for most of us activists as we refine our ability to look critically at cultural products, especially those we enjoy. But there was definitely a depressing phase.

And I forgot to mention that there are still things that rub me the wrong way so intensely, simply from an activist standpoint, that I just can’t stand them. Like Philip K. Dick. I may well be the only sci-fi nerd who absolutely hates PK Dick. I’m also in the midst of reading A Canticle for Liebowitz, and the fact that this future apparently has no ladies may eventually prove so irritating that I won’t be able to finish it. This is a probable outcome, in fact. I mean, why read sexist sci fi when I can go fly Fem Shep around the galaxy in the Normandy? So yeah, the joy does get thoroughly sucked from a few things, but overall it’s not as depressing as non-activist, IT’S-JUST-A-BOOK/MOVIE/GAME types would imagine.

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lowbudgetcyborg on March 11, 2011 at 9:26 am.

You are absolutely not the only one who hates Philip K. Dick.

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Lampdevil on March 11, 2011 at 11:42 am.

Analyzing stuff doesn’t suck all the fun out of it! It makes it MORE fun! Isn’t that what geeks are supposed to do? Tease it all apart and spin it back together afterwards? :D

Have lots of fun at PAX. I am jealous of you! Of your ability to go, and your bravery at striding in there. (Big game conventions make me nervous, in concept. Geekdom can be pretty harsh to fat folk. I’ve been scared of putting myself out there and getting mocked for daring to Geek While Fat. Let’s not even talk about cosplay…)

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Willow on March 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm.

I actually disagree with the idea that you shouldn’t dissect something you dislike. Former racists have to unpack why they dislike other races, individual feminists have to unpack just why they dislike patriarchy, etc. There’s value in dissecting both those things you like and that you dislike.

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YellowValkyrie on March 10, 2011 at 10:09 pm.

I don’t think I ever said that you shouldn’t critique stuff you don’t like (by which I meant media/culture, specifically) – in Snarky’s post she compares it to shooting fish in a barrel (too easy); her point is that it’s harder but ultimately more important to turn a critical eye to the things you do like. I’m not sure how you came to the conclusion that you did, but I certainly didn’t mean to convey that with my comment. I mean, Christ, you should hear me go on about Biggest Loser.

I was just responding to that part of Lesley’s post that rang particularly true for me – that seeing the world through a critical lens is inevitably going to make one’s enjoyment of pop culture become fraught with difficulty. But working through that and becoming more comfortable in the grey area in between “I enjoy this uncritically” and “I hate this forever because it’s PROBLEMATIC” is an interesting process that seems at least partly responsible for Lesley’s decision to attend PAX East.

I hope that clarifies my position.

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Willow on March 11, 2011 at 12:22 am.

It does clarify your position, though I still think it isn’t necessarily easier to critique something you dislike. I suppose, reading my comment, I was responding to the blog entry you linked to rather than your comment per se – my apologies; I do tend to get excited and go off on rants without stopping to think if the rants are relevant. It doesn’t help things that I was never a fan of that particular blogger’s writing.

Your comment, and Lesley’s blog in general, have made me think more critically about pop culture – I try my hardest to avoid it, I don’t watch TV (The Big Bang Theory doesn’t count ;) ), I don’t listen to the radio, and I don’t belong to Twitter, Facebook, or any of that shit. But I can’t avoid pop culture completely – even driving by a McDonald’s constitutes exposure to pop culture. Very interesting to realise that, among other things.

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YellowValkyrie on March 11, 2011 at 10:11 pm.

It’s all good!

I see your point that maybe it’s not necessarily easier to critique pop culture you don’t like – but in my experience anyway, it’s more comfortable, perhaps? You’re already in a position where you can feel OK with criticizing it, because you just plain don’t like it for whatever reason.

But sometimes it can lead to some unhappy feelings when someone is all “Wow that thing is totally racist/sexist/homophobic/wevs” about a band, filmmaker, or author you really like. Defensiveness may ensue. Etc. But it’s very important not to give media you enjoy a free pass, however tempting it may be.

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Willow on March 12, 2011 at 2:08 pm.

I quite agree. I would even go so far as to say that, in general, it is much easier to critique things you don’t like than it is to critique those things that you do like. However, when it comes to those things you dislike but can’t quite put a finger on why… :) Then it gets quite tricky. Or those things you dislike so strongly that it is uncomfortable even to think about them… Again, tricky. And BTW, as much as I love The Big Bang Theory, there are so many things wrong with that show – the boy geeks are basically stuck at age 13 emotionally, the girl geeks are cold and sexless, and Penny, the non-geek love interest of Leonard, is of course extremely thin, relatively stacked, and blonde (not to mention white). The ideal woman for all of these geeks meets the cultural ideal, and it’s actually quite angering to watch sometimes. But at least they talk about Schroedinger’s Cat… *sigh* I could go on, but I’m rambling again. :)

I also agree with Soph, in that it is wonderful to think critically about all the things you consume (mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.) – you learn more not only about the thing that is examined but about yourself. I once had a “friend” who kept telling me to stop analysing things because, in her exact words, “You think too much.” My thought was, what else is a brain for, if not for thinking? To use Soph’s words, she “[kept] sticking [her] head in the sand” about pretty much everything that came her way. No self-examination, no examination of anything – she was a cookie-cutter human being because all she did was follow whatever was trendy and mock those who went their own way.

Remember the immortal Fleetwood Mac and Go your own way!

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Soph on March 12, 2011 at 3:31 am.

‘Everything’s more fun when you think critically.’

Million times yes! And I don’t get why so many people actively strive against it. ‘It’s just a book.’, ‘It’s just a movie.’ – it never really is, is it? Picking apart things, examining the components, it’s one of the things I enjoy most in life. I don’t see the merit, or the pleasure in sticking your head in the sand.

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FFC on March 10, 2011 at 4:22 pm.

I am not giving it up to a ridiculous minority of selfish, cruel individuals

This is very inspiring to me. Something shitty and fat-related happened to me recently at a place I frequent and I have been struggling with the decision to ever go back. Give the shit power or risk reliving the embarrassment? But here’s to not giving it up.

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JeninCanada on March 10, 2011 at 5:41 pm.

“Everything’s more fun when you think critically. Except sometimes my friends get really annoyed with me. That’s the only sucky part.”

Yeah, that part really really sucks. :(

I hope you have a great time at Pax and change some hearts and minds!

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YellowValkyrie on March 10, 2011 at 10:14 pm.

I got into an argument over PK Dick and feminism with one of my boyfriend’s best friends the first time I met him, when the gentleman had just moved to our area, we were the only people he knew, and I was hosting him for dinner at my house.

AWKWARD!

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Arwen on March 11, 2011 at 1:40 am.

Sympathy! I have had similar discussions re: Dune & Stranger in a Strange Land with fellow nerds in similar social straights! Not even particularly strong criticisms… but there I am, down the rabbit hole, trying to describe gender alienation to a defensive group of people I have been “outside” with…

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Willow on March 11, 2011 at 3:10 pm.

Oooh! What did you have to say about Stranger in a Strange Land? I read that one and there is so much there to discuss! *is very excited at the chance to talk about this book*

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YellowValkyrie on March 11, 2011 at 10:13 pm.

HOO BOY! That would be Robert Heinlein, and a whole different kettle of problematic fish altogether!

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Willow on March 16, 2011 at 11:16 am.

A kettle of problematic fish? To the Batmobile!

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Willow on March 16, 2011 at 11:17 am.

Seriously, I know this is off topic, but I would LOVE a chance to discuss these authors and their works and varying philosophies with someone who may have a perspective that differs from mine.

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Heidi on March 10, 2011 at 11:44 pm.

Ha! I KNEW there was a reason I was avoiding Philip K Dick.

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lowbudgetcyborg on March 11, 2011 at 9:31 am.

Lesley, you are awesome and inspiring.

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Val Grimm on March 11, 2011 at 10:25 am.

Go you! Have fun. Honestly I don’t go because I can’t stand the crowds, as well. And if you get a chance . . . in the hotel next door there’s an interactive fiction (aka text adventures, in the old days . . . much more literary now) mini-convention. No badge needed. We have a program room Saturday on the mezzanine of the Westin Waterfront (Alcott) from noon to midnight and a room upstairs (846) for hanging out and some program items.
To find out more, visit pr dash if dot org.

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Lesley on March 11, 2011 at 2:39 pm.

True facts: I am typing this from the PAX Interactive Drama panel right now! Ha. Thanks for the info, I’ll check it out.

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Helen on March 11, 2011 at 12:29 pm.

<3

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orangepeacock on March 11, 2011 at 8:56 pm.

This is going to make me sound like a creeper, but I totally saw you today! Over in the tabletop room in the afternoon. I would’ve said hi, but I wasn’t sure it was you and wouldn’t that have been awkward! If I see you again, I’ll come over and squee.

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Kitty on March 12, 2011 at 1:42 pm.

I loved this essay Leslie (I’ve been lurking here for months) because it reminded me of a conversation with my sister who is much smaller than me. She said she was envious of the confidence I had on the bus to just sit where I wanted to and take up space whether anyone else liked it or not. Until she brought it up, it had never occurred to me that it would be a problem for anyone. Sure I’ve been in situations where people have told/shown me their disgust for me and my size (and I am a big girl), but I always thought that was their problem, not mine. I had to come to terms with the fact that I would never be what the mainstream thinks of as attractive when I was a teenager and so I just decided to live my life and be who I am. Beyond that I have no control over other people, only myself, my attitudes, my responses/reactions and whether I choose to share them or not. My hope always, is that by discussing uncomfortable topics in an open and heartfelt way, we can change the culture. (Also sometimes a little ass kicking is called for, but that is a secondary response for me…) That way everyone regardless of size, can be given the space they need to be themselves.

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K_C on March 15, 2011 at 10:38 pm.

Well, *I’m* sure glad you made it to PAX East! :D Are you planning to do any write-ups of the panels we went to? If so, they’ll probably be more coherent than mine, hehe.

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