George R R Martin, a previous Hugo Award winner, has spoken out against this “nasty, nasty fight”. Photo: Getty
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How the Hugo Awards got very own GamerGate

The Hugo Awards, the influential prize for science fiction and fantasy writing, have been hijacked by a group resistant to the way the shortlists are becoming more progressive and diverse.

If you care about the Hugo Awards, I’d be willing to bet that you already have pretty strong opinions about this year’s nominees. The Hugos, arguably the most prestigious science fiction and fantasy (SFF) awards in the Anglophone world, have been around for more than 60 years. They’re presented at the World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, which was held in London last year and will be in Spokane, Washington this summer. Even if you don’t read science fiction or fantasy regularly, you’ll know plenty of past winners: Ursula K Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Neil Gaiman, J K Rowling, George R R Martin, and many others (plus, amongst dozens of wins for Doctor Who over the years, my favourite pair of episodes in the history of time and space). The Hugos are influential and respected – and this year, they’ve been hijacked.

Unlike other major SFF prizes – or, for that matter, most major awards I can think of in other literary genres – Hugo nominees and winners aren’t chosen by a panel of judges or peers. They are a populist prize – a fan prize – or, at least, they are on paper. Members of the broader fandom nominate the writing they deem strongest each year, and then they rank the finalists to pick winners in a variety of categories. It’s not completely open, though – you have to pay to participate. Voting membership is $40, though many participants are Worldcon attendees, who pay about $200. The people who pick Hugo winners love the genre enough to shell out money for that privilege. But not everyone loves what the genre – in their estimation, anyway – has become. And if I were to say that these same people are likely the guys who think it really is about ethics in games journalism, you’d have a pretty good sense of where this is headed.

In a genre that’s explored complex issues of race, gender, and sexuality plenty over the years, recent SFF award winners have largely come from one particular combo of race, gender, and sexuality (white, male, and straight, in case there was even a scrap of doubt there). SFF is far from alone here: across entertainment and the arts, a long-overdue conversation about the utter lack of diversity on our pages and screens is growing louder every day. But last year’s Hugos were actually a victory for women and people of colour: they marked a tilt in the sorts of stories that were being written and celebrated. Kameron Hurley, who won two awards last year, wrote that the Hugos, “historically rewarded popular work, set in the kinds of old, colonial, dudes-rule-everything universes that my work explicitly challenges”. She never expected to win the genre’s most coveted award, but the genre is broadly changing: “Like our wider culture, science-fiction and fantasy fandom grew and shifted; and with it, our vision of the future changed, too.”

Three guesses to figure out who really hated all this progressive growth! The hijacking of the Hugos was thankfully not another opportunity to tack “gate” at the end of a random word, because these guys picked their out their own name in advance: the Sad Puppies. The group, led first by writer Larry Correia and now by Brad Torgersen, are a charming group of people who’ve spent the past three years building up support to game the Hugo nominations. The Hugos, Torgersen writes (confusingly), have become too “literary” in recent years, and, of course, too “ideological”:

Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award: giving Hugos because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters.

The Hugos, they argue, are the voice of the people, and should reflect what people are enjoying, not some politically-correct pill they’ve swallowed. Mostly, they just wanted to get their friends on the ballot. They played up outsider status, urging supporters to reach out to like-minded people who might have felt disenfranchised by these “literary” and “ideological” swings. “Encourage people who are SF/F consumers (but not ‘fandom’ according to Worldcon) to participate in the nomination and selection of works,” Torgersen wrote. “To include gamer fans, tie-in fans, movie and comic fans, and everyone else who might want to have a say in deciding who gets selected for ‘science fiction’s most prestigious award’.”

Everyone else who might want to have a say turned explicitly political when the campaign hit the conservative blogs (notably Breitbart, with an awesome shout-out to the NS, which they say “sometimes reads like an extension of Tumblr” – thank you for a great compliment!!). It is worth mentioning that this came on the heels of last year’s Hugo controversy, when Jonathan Ross was invited and then swiftly uninvited as host when people preemptively decided he’d be offensive. This particular Tumblr made an eloquent case for why the reaction was a mistake.

After three years of growing momentum, the Sad Puppies’ campaign worked: they achieved a broad sweep of the ballot. Their nominees include the same (crazily homophobic) guy for three of the five slots in the novella category, and books published by a man (who actually self-identifies as an “anti-equalitarian”) who was expelled from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for explicitly racist and sexist attacks. One book is actually published by something (unironically?) called the “Patriarchy Press”. The Sad Puppy “slate” is a collection of winners, which I mean both sarcastically and literally, because their campaign has completely flooded the ballot.

The backlash to this backlash has been understandably swift and loud. Eligible Hugo voters are spreading the words “no award” across the web: if there isn’t a fair and decent choice in a given category, simply abstain. George R R Martin fought the good fight and waded into the fray multiple times, knowing full well the response he’d get. “This a nasty, nasty fight,” he wrote early on, “and anyone who speaks up, on either side of this, risks being savaged. It is no fun being savaged. It raises one’s blood pressure, and brings out the urge to savage back.”

If you think that all of this has deafening echoes of last year’s cultural nadir, GamerGate, you’re not alone. The very short version for anyone blessed enough to have missed GamerGate completely is boys don’t like girls anywhere near their video games (never mind that a huge proportion of gamers are female) and the very suggestion that the gaming industry has an issue with the way it depicts women and other minorities is grounds for rape and death threats. The same clash has been bleeding out of the comics world and into the mainstream in recent months, and now it’s the same story in SFF. “I just want to read something fun,” the Sad Puppies protest. “It’s just a game – why are you trying to make it about politics?” I saw a man complain recently that gender- and race-bending his childhood comics heroes simply wasn’t fair. “You can have your own toys,” this grown person said. “Why do you have to play with ours?”

One of the most curious things about this year’s Hugos controversy is the very idea of the award is predicated on the democratisation of critical voices. It’s arguable whether that was ever true in practice, but it’s fascinating in theory, especially from the perspective of a fan community, an often wildly-disparate collective of ideas. Imagine if the Booker prize was determined by a large pool of people with strong opinions and a few dollars to spare. For that matter, imagine the Oscars by popular vote. Whether it’s easy to rig the game or not – and many people who’ve been deep in SFF fandom for a long time confirm that it always has been – there’s something beautifully egalitarian at the heart of this prize, and that spirit has been abused.

There are a lot of factors at play in this particular moment of cultural anxiety, but one of the biggest is the question of who deserves to speak – and who deserves to be heard. We desperately need a shift in the demographics of creators and their characters – our fictional escapes need to catch up with reality. In broader conversations about diverse voices, you can hear the worries of the groups that have always been the loudest, the ones who’ve been privileged without question: “Who will listen to me if you get to talk, too?” I don’t think a desire to level the playing field needs to come at the expense of good storytelling. But if anyone thinks for a second that anything called the “Patriarchy Press” is just here for the storytelling, that’s a genuine fantasy.

Editor’s note, 17 April 12.11pm: This article originally stated that “the Sad Puppies” was an offshoot of another group. This has now been corrected.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.