Tags: essays


But it’s no different from jokes about murder.


I once told a joke that hurt someone who’d lost a loved one to murder.

It was awful.

It was not even a joke about murder.

It was a joke about how some people thought I was twenty-three, but actually I was twenty-six. The context really isn’t worth explaining, it wasn’t much of a joke.

I made the joke at a gathering I was about to leave. I went and collected my things and then, on my way out, I noticed that a woman who’d seemed cheerful moments before now looked shaken and tearful.

I didn’t know what had happened. She didn’t tell me, but someone else did later – twenty-three was the age her daughter had been when she was murdered. And just the number “twenty-three” – in reference to a young woman’s age – had been enough to bring the pain to the surface.

Because it wouldn’t take much to do that, would it, when your daughter has been murdered.

I knew it wasn’t really my fault —  I couldn’t have known. But I still felt terrible. Not as terrible as she felt! But terrible. I still wished I could have taken it back. If I had made a joke about murder, and  found I was talking to a mother of a murder victim, I would have felt exponentially worse than I already did, because I would have been knowingly taking a risk of hurting someone. A small one, but still.  I’d have had to accept I’d not just been unfortunate, I’d have severely miscalculated. Either way I would not have felt bullied or censored by the person I had hurt. I never saw her again, but if I’d remained in contact with her, I would not have needed her to ask me not to make jokes about murder around her.

Murder is thankfully rare. Not uniformly rare all over the world, but I have never before or since either made, or witnessed anyone making a remark that caused pain because someone in the room had been bereaved by murder. It must happen (in which case most people would surely apologise and do what they could to minimise the damage) but in a lot of settings, assuming that the presence of murder-survivors is anomalous rather than the norm is not unreasonable. But if murder was so common that in any medium-sized mixed group I could be pretty sure someone there had been directly affected by murder, you are damn right I wouldn’t make any jokes about murder.

When someone’s been murdered, they aren’t usually around to tell us what they think of murder jokes. But  if I was in a place where I could be pretty certain that somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 of the women and 1 in 33 of the men had themselves been murdered, and some or all of those ghosts would suffer the pain of their murder all over again if I made jokes about their torment, and if they asked me please not to put them through that,  I would not be all, “But free speech! LOL murder.”

(“It’s not just being reminded”, the murdered people might say. “It’s seeing people laugh about what happened to us. It’s that they think it’s funny.”).

And if there was evidence that murder jokes actually did increase the risk of real people being really murdered … I dunno. Guys, I think I might not even want to be a murder comedian any more.

But I hurt someone not because I made a joke about murder, but because I made a joke about the number twenty-three. This hasn’t come up again and it doesn’t seem likely to, so there’s no particular reason to avoid futher twenty-three-based drolleries, should they occur to me. But you know what? If it was a cast-iron, indisputable fact that not just one person but a very large percentage of people in the world could be tipped into reliving the worst  things in their lives by jokes about prime numbers, I would not, at least not without copious warning, make jokes about the sodding number twenty-three.

Why would you?

(This is about this, and the inevitable defence of rape jokes that arose in the comments).



(I didn’t even WANT to post another geek-feminism piece so soon! But crap-on-the-internet waits for no woman.)

Originally published at Sophia McDougall. You can comment here or there.


I Hate Strong Female Characters — in the New Statesman

Here  I pour bilious hate unto the unfortunate figure of the Strong Female Character as she appears in popular fiction. From the piece

I remember watching Shrek with my mother.

“The Princess knew kung-fu! That was nice,” I said. And yet I had a vague sense of unease, a sense that I was saying it because it was what I was supposed to say.

She rolled her eyes. “All the princesses know kung-fu now.”

 No one ever asks if a Male Character is Strong.  Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that.

The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be “Strong”  by default. Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.”


You can comment here if you like. Please bear in mind the comment policy.

But you should also read my teenage poetry, or I may weep bitter, poetic, teeny tears.

Originally published at Sophia McDougall. You can comment here or there.


London: Unreal City


This article originally appeared inVector , the journal of the BFSA. I’ll be discussing imaginary cities with Kit Caless on Resonance FM at 3 today, so I thought I’d post it here.
London is fractal.

It’s dark and I’m walking a route north from Deptford that I’m sure I’ve taken before, but this time it doesn’t seem to be the same.I feel I’m getting further inward rather than further along, deeper into one of the city’s spirals, rather than closer to the Thames.  Between here and the river, there shouldn’t be enough room for this many convolutions, this much detail. I recognise that old scrapyard – nothing but trees within the walls—  but where did this little garden with its frozen pond come from? Why does the Gerkhin, occasionally looming on the horizon, above the lower, closer  heights of Rotherhithe, always seem to be apparently in the same place, the same distance away?

London is full of alternate realities: you can’t travel through it without brushing against them. In the once-Blitzed streets where 17th century livery halls abruptly give way to brutalist concrete , you can see a confluence of  Londons conquered, complicit or blissfully untouched by the third Reich.  London has time travel:  the resurrected Globe; the temple of Mithras dragged up from under Walbrook Street to Temple Court;  the anonymous remains of Tudors, Romans, and ancient Britons that the Thames sometimes recedes to show preserved in the mud.  From the Thames Path, you can peer through a rank of blackened Victorian arches  sprouting buddleias,  at the  bright, sterile palace of Canary Wharf. A green laser divides the night sky above Christopher Wren’s domes, marking the Greenwich Meridian. There’s nothing to unite these fragments except the modern heir to the Victorian smog, the ubiquitous fine black dust that coats nostrils, nail-beds, and penetrates even closed and untrodden rooms.

The skyline only began to climb only in the sixties, but now it’s hard to imagine it static,  London is always climbing itself up the ladders of swivelling cranes, always tinkering with itself. Very tall buildings are, apparently, a reliable indicator of an economy  approaching crash. Just completed, the Shard shimmers above the recession it predicted. Below, the beggars that faded from the bridges and underpasses for a decade or so are back in force.

London is a godawful mess. It offers beauty only in patches and shifts of light, rarely in steady, reliable expanses. It’s no surprise that its masters have never  been quite satisfied with it. The city owes itself now not only  to disasters overcome but to endless attempts to make it more like somewhere else.  More like an ancient Greek agora,  more like a continental cafe culture, more  like a monolithic fortress on a distant planet… architects have  shuttled it back to a romantic past or hurried it into an imaginary future.

The Olympics, the chunks of Soho have been carved away for  Crossrail, have been only the latest attempt to shift the place’s identity, to tidy it up a bit; now. In the long term, London can probably stand the loss and the waste: it  has absorbed far worse, and you can’t ruin a city this jumbled. For now, though, there’s only the spectacle of a government amusing itself by writing dystopian sci-fi it into the actual city: a missile-bearing warship to be moored  in the Thames and criminal sanctions for using the words “Twenty Twelve” the wrong way on pub signs or on the internet.

London has something dreamlike encoded into it. It will readily lend itself to visions of Hell, and it will never credibly give you Utopia, but  it has infinite room for the weird.  Shelley and Eliot saw the abyss  in its massive, relentless busyness, Dickens imagined dinosaurs roaming up the Strand. Virginia Woolf gave Clarissa Dalloway  a perfect summers’ day in a London at its freshest  and most glittering,   but always on the point of hallucinatory metamorphosis: a London  populated, in the visions of a shell-shocked war-veteran, by dogs about to turn into men, birds singing in Greek, while even the ostensibly sane wonder if perhaps at midnight the city reverts to the ancient landscape the Romans saw. Arthur Conan Doyle subtly inserted  imaginary squares and stretched Baker Street  more than double its length to accommodate Sherlock Holmes (The street numbers only went as high as 85 in the 1890s, it was only extended up into the 200s later.)

London imitates fiction imitates London. The city lives and breathes – sometimes literally – its own mythology. Once a huge slab of fog settled on the Thames  as I was crossing Tower Bridge.  Suddenly this truly was Unreal City — landmarks were reduced to transparent outlines, people to spectres – and they loved it: every cluster of people I passed was happily chattering of London’s legends and how this was just like them; they were delighted by the heightened sensation of walking from a workaday pavement straight into story. Does anywhere else open so many portals back, forwards and sideways across time and into?   Other cities are grander, many are a fusion of ancient and modern, but are any so varied as to allow for the underworlds of Neil Gaiman and Ben Aaronovitch, and Philip Reeve’s ambulatory predator-city, and Mary Gentle’s magical Tudor capital, and Susanna Clarke’s Regency scientist-magicians, and Anthony Burgess’s ultraviolent wilderness, and J.G Ballard’s submerged ruins?

But are we getting to know the multiple Londons too well? It’s been joked that adding “in London” to the blurb of a book has become the genre equivalent of adding “in bed” to the prediction of a fortune cookie. For instant awesome, shake freeze-dried werewolves and vampires, and just add London!  Are London’s dark places – abandoned tube stations, ancient catacombs, labyrinthine sewers –becoming too frequented? Need we fear that the shadows and ghouls that live down there are growing exhausted by the number of visitors?

It’s true that there’s more to the world of the strange than London. Lauren Beukes gave us a brilliant, grimy, complex Johannesburg whose traumas haunt its residents as a fantastic menagerie of animal familiars. Anil Menon’s Beast With Nine Billion Feet is set in a 2040 Pune  whose citizens  exploit advanced genetic engineering and escape their dissatisfactions into “Illusion” pods.  Ekaterina’s The Secret History of  Moscow  explores a world of folklore beneath the gloomy post-Soviet streets. And the Anglophone writers have also explored the fantastic side of Venice, Paris, Istanbul … but with so little of the world’s modern literature is translated into English that it’s hard to know, from here, what else might be out there.

But while I hope more of the outer world flows at last into this country and this city, I don’t think writers need to worry about digging too deep, or loading too much into London.

London can take it. London always has more.

Originally published at Sophia McDougall. You can comment here or there.


The Rape of James Bond

On Sexual Assault, and “Realism” in Popular Culture..


This essay discusses rape of both women and men throughout. No specific real-world cases are mentioned nor are any scenes described graphically, however as it’s about realism, it does necessarily shuttle rapidly between incidents in fairly silly texts and grim facts about the real world.

Spoilers for Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and minor spoilers for various older texts.


Last year, halfway through the second book of the series, I gave up reading A Song of Ice and Fire. I had enjoyed the first novel very much – I liked the sense that the fantastic elements were providing a different lens on the Middle Ages, removing the sense that there was something default or inevitable about mediaeval European culture, and re-revealing the fundamental strangeness of a world of knights and kings. I enjoyed the resonances with specific episodes in real history – the War of the Roses, the Jacobite rebellions. It reminded me of the songs by the Corries that I, a fake Scot, grew up on. I even enjoyed all the freaking heraldry and food.

That sense of history seemed to be dwindling away a bit in the second book, but in the end, that wasn’t what drove me away.


Instead, it was all the rape.


This surprised me. After all, I’d known going in that there was quite a lot of it, and though I was prepared to find its treatment at least somewhat problematic, I’d  also expected to be able to handle it.  I’m usually able to read fairly graphic scenes without getting more distressed than the story called for, and friends of mine who I thought were more readily upset by that sort of thing had read the books just fine. And, as it turns out,  a lot of the rapes in A Song of Ice and Fire aren’t graphic at all.









And occasionally they are really graphic. But that they’re mostly not almost made it worse for me. That made it possible for the narrative to load that many more of them by the casual handful into chapter after chapter. Rape as backstory, as plot point, as motivation – however badly handled, I can usually cope with it.

I found I couldn’t cope with rape as wallpaper.

Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at Sophia McDougall. You can comment here or there.