How Not To Deal With Controversy: On The Hugo Awards & Jonathan Ross.

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In 2006 during the Hugo Awards ceremony at WorldCon, acclaimed sci-fi writer Connie Willis was groped by author Harlan Ellison on stage. This isn’t a rumour or an allegation: video exists of the incident.

Last year, Ann Aguirre talked about her experiences at sci-fi conventions and the sexism within, describing an incident where a respected male author of the genre, who remains anonymous, got extremely drunk and acted inappropriately to a number of women, including Aguirre. She also posted a selection of the misogynistic abuse and threats she received. Her comments section on this post is, as expected, full of mansplaining.

Theodore Beale, a former candidate for President of the Science Fiction Writers of America who writes under the pseudonym Vox Day, described equal rights for women as “the primary threat to the survival of Western civilization”, and that didn’t even include his claims that race is directly linked to a person’s intelligence. When author N.K. Jemisen, a woman of colour, made a brief reference to this at a convention speech, Day responded by calling her an “ignorant half-savage”.

I could continue down this train of conversation. I could link to the myriad of sexism women have documented of their experiences at conventions until the sandworms come home. I could do the same for reports on sexism experienced by female authors in the field of publishing science-fiction and fantasy, something that goes back to basically the origins of the genre. I could honestly talk about his all day, and sometimes I feel the need to because as we’ve seen over the past few days, some people still don’t get it.

LonCon didn’t get it, and that led to quite the mess.

Several days ago, LonCon announced that the host of the Hugo Awards this year would be hosted by British comedian and TV presenter Jonathan Ross. The man has geek cred – he’s made documentaries on science-fiction and comic books, his wife Jane Goldman is prominent in the industry, and he’s appeared as a talking head on a number of related shows, including Charlie Brooker’s recent history of video games – and nobody doubts that the convention’s intentions were pure. Landing a prominent “mainstream” name as host gives the event a certain credence, and one can definitely see the appeal of doing so for an event related to a genre that remains maligned in many circles. However, this doesn’t excuse the major sloppiness that went on with the making of this decision.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ross’s history, British newspaper The Mirror has a list of merely 10 of his more controversial moments, not including his now infamous radio prank call with Russell Brand where the pair of them left an offensive message on the phone of British actor Andrew Sachs relating to his granddaughter. Then there’s his history of transphobic jokes. Tuning into his weekly British chat show is often a treacherous trek through inappropriate comments towards the female guests, who are expected to laugh along lest they be seen as humourless bitches. Like the above issues, I could discuss Ross’s issues all day.

Ross eventually pulled out, then launched into some less than graceful Twitter moments, including an attack on Roz Kaveney for having the audacity to question the choice behind him landing the hosting gig. Seanan Mcguire, another prominent member of the sci-fi community, received a barrage of abuse for her criticism of Ross in the aftermath. It’s not as if LonCon couldn’t have seen this coming. Even if they had been astoundingly unaware of Ross’s history, one of their own board members brought it up with them. Farah Mendlesohn resigned as a result of the decision. LonCon have now since apologised, although to call it an apology is to be extremely generous.

It says a lot that the first person LonCon apologised to was Ross. Much emphasis is put on the distress he has received. I am sure he has been on the receiving end of much unpleasantness, but so were Mcguire and countless other women who called him out, and little sympathy is shown there. It’s a classic non-apology, one more concerned with not burning bridges than sorting out the poison at the centre. What about the pain you put those women through, LonCon? Why are they the afterthought in this? If, as Aja Romano said to me on Twitter today, you don’t prioritise those you hurt in your own apology then why bother apologising in the first place?

Context is important here. This wasn’t just about Ross’s invitation. This was about the deliberate rejection of creating a safe space for those who need one in the industry. Gross misogyny has plagued the science fiction community for a long time and thrives to this day, even as more women and men push back against it. After everything the community has been through, and after all the pain women have been dragged through as a result, there’s no excuse for this kind of sloppiness from LonCon.

Ross isn’t a victim here, although his lack of briefing on why he would be a controversial choice is down to the convention, and this isn’t about Ross as a person. He may be wonderful, I don’t know because I’ve never met him and neither will the majority of people who will be attending LonCon. This is about the indisputable fact that in his capacity as a comedian and TV presenter, Ross has said countless misogynistic and inappropriate remarks. It’s his entire style as a comic. Any choice of host that results in a board member resigning is not a good choice, even if Neil Gaiman approves. Many dismissed the criticisms of the choice and claimed people were just bitter that someone not in the sci-fi community had been picked. These straw-man arguments are barely worth my time, but if you want to proudly welcome a misogynist into the community and put him on a pedestal above the talented female authors, editors, publishers and others who are at the heart of making science-fiction what it is, that says more about you than them.

LonCon will have to live with the consequences of their bad decision making, and it will sadly loom over the Hugo Awards on some level as a result, but if this storm leads to more awareness of prevailing sexism in the industry then there is a brief silver lining amongst the clouds. Just remember – when you want to apologise for your problematic actions, put the hurt first, not the offenders.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Jonathan Ross isn’t a comic, is he?

    What he is is a PRESENTER, and an experienced one at that. He may court outrage on his own shows (where the viewership largely know what to expect and outrage only follows when the Daily Mail or another tabloid gets wind of it) but give him a gig elsewhere and he knows how to respect the audience he’s given. Was there an outrage when he presented Comic Relief? Did he mock the disabled or sick for a cheap laugh? Was there an outcry when he presented at the National Comic Awards or the Eisners? Was everyone was sick to their stomachs and the comics community never quite the same again after he brought the fandom to their knees with his merciless, cold jibes?

    No.

    It seems somewhat odd that a community who deal in imagining a myriad of futures and a wealth of alternate realities could only foresee one outcome here, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary.

    I don’t doubt that there was a sensitivity that needed to be addressed here, but I saw no discourse from anyone (Ross included), just a lot of shouting, quitting, foot-stamping and EXCESSIVE BLOCK CAPITALS. Had anyone took their research beyond a list on a tabloid, perhaps we could have had a more thoughtful and meaningful debate.

    I also find it troubling when people adopt the attitude that anyone with celebrity or success suddenly hands in their ‘being a human’ card, and is expected to be impervious from being hurt or upset, and outrage occurs when they are and demonstrate it. You know what? They’re still people, like us. There shouldn’t even BE an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality, because once you get to the nub of it there IS NO us vs them, an entirely fictitious construct borne from gazing up at celebs adoringly as kids. Surely we should grow out of that at some point? It spares an awful lot of hurt, you know. If you understand people, you understand EVERYONE, but it seems some just aren’t willing to take that bold, great step of imagination and empathy.

    Jane Goldman subsequently quit Twitter, understandably hurt by the accusations levelled at her husband, as was her daughter (self described as ‘overweight’ and eager to point out that her dad didn’t spend all day howling with laughter at her but was – shock, horror – a caring father. The teeming irony when the anti-Ross brigade bristled at Jane for ‘flouncing off’ nearly made me vomit up my own anus, especially after some had threatened to quit (or flounce off) after the Ross announcement. It all comes across as a might hypocritical, and no-one really seems bothered about just showing respect and mindfulness to each other any more. Why bother, when we can SCREAM in 140 characters (or less)?

    Sigh. Well, what’s done is done – Ross is no longer hosting, Jane has left Twitter and we can hug each other on a job well done on proving how broad-minded and inclusive we are. As long as class doesn’t come into it, of course.

    I await my rocket to the moon.

  2. This example of Ross’ work is one of the most sensitive interviews ever broadcast by the BBC.

    http://youtu.be/nbSLoJ8el0c

    In contrast here is an example of the work produced by the journalist who wrote the article which was first used to attack him;

    http://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/jodie-marsh-flashes-cleavage-up-3249257

    This is a man we should be supporting not libelling. He’s done far more for minorities than the people who publish totally incorrect rubbish about him.

    Loncon was amazing, one of the best things British Science Fiction fandom has ever done. For Jonathan Ross not to have been there was a tragedy. For many of us, it had a JR shaped hole in the event

    Had JR been talked to sensibly he and his wife could have done more for any diversity related cause you could name in half an hour than the critics could have achieved in a lifetime. Both have done this kind of thing in the past. There were so many wasted opportunities here.

    The convention was remarkable because so many people from so many backgrounds, from across 4 continents, worked together on it. If this approach had been extended further then perhaps even more could have been achieved.

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