Often when I say critical things about Gamergate—or more particularly, about Gamergate’s roots and the conduct of the man who whipped up the initial harassment squad that became Gamergate’s core—I will get a gator in my mentions sidling up to say something like, “Oh, and of course you think that Zoë Quinn is a perfect darling little angel who could do no wrong.”
I don’t know what Zoë Quinn’s faults are, but I’m quite sure that she has them.
I’ve certainly never asked her for her side of the story told by her abusive ex, never bothered to see if she’s told it anywhere. It doesn’t interest me.
I’ve read his side, though, and even if I take everything presented as fact (i.e., just the events, not the editorial asides designed to whip up or channel abuse), the picture he paints of the character of Zoë Quinn as she exists in his story is just a relatively young, somewhat naïve woman who overpromised in a relationship that she wasn’t prepared for, someone who had these ideas and ideals about how things were supposed to be and who ultimately couldn’t live up to them.
The result, in his story, is a bad relationship that ended badly, and sheesh, could I feel him on that, if that were the story he’d wanted to tell.
But nothing in his post justifies his post, or the way he promoted it and the people he promoted it to. Nothing in his side of the story makes him look good, or even like a victim, only someone interested in portraying himself as one.
I was aware that Zoë might be present for at least part of WorldCon. I didn’t think it was likely I’d see her, or that it would be appropriate for a stranger or virtual stranger from the internet to get too invested in finding her, given her recent history, so I didn’t really put her on my “Would Like To Meet” list.
I was never that interested in her as an internet personality until very recently, when I wound up following a twitter handle she uses without initially realizing it was her. I think that was the turning point because it was the first time I was able to see her for herself, and not a character in a drama written by someone else. The ~*controversial figure*~ of Zoë Quinn was based on a real person, but I never assumed it had much to do with her.
The character in the original post is unflattering to say the least; the version of that character in the ongoing spin-off series created by Gamergate is a cartoonish caricature worthy of a political cartoon. The handle I followed on Twitter belonged to a person who said things that were interesting, clever, and funny, to varying degrees. We had some overlapping interests and some similar riffs on topics. I didn’t assume we’d have much in common beyond that.
But when I unexpectedly found myself at a party in a single crowded medium-sized where I knew she was likely to be, I found myself looking for her all the same. Simple human curiosity. The weird thing was I realized I had no idea what she looked like. I mean, that’s not that weird for me. I am not a strong visual thinker and I have medium to severe prosopagnosia. I check the license plate on my parents’ car before getting in because for much of my life, I was more likely to recognize it than them.
I think of people’s appearances in words. I store the words and use them to recreate a rubric for recognizing them in person. But I had no idea what Zoë Quinn looked like, even in words. All the words I found when I tried to call anything about her to mind were from the caricatures, from the stories people told. As it happened, they were no help in spotting her when she was physically present in the room.
Then someone who had bumped into her told me: she’s dressed as a unicorn. Well, not really like a unicorn, but unicorn-like. A unicorn themed aesthetic. Like a unicorn in human form who was still recognizably a unicorn, and also carrying several unicorn-themed accessories.
It was the shoes I spotted. If you’ve seen them, or heard of them, you’ll understand.
I will confess that in all my own human failings, I have wondered how much of the caricature is based on reality. Five seconds after I spotted the shoes, I was pretty sure the answer was 0.
First: she looked amazing.
I want to be clear here that the verb “to look” in the sentence “She looked amazing.” Is not being used as a mere passive linking verb describing her passive appearance. She did a look, and the look was amazing. She—Zoë Quinn—executed a look in an amazing fashion. That’s what I say when I mean she looked amazing.
Sometimes men who have been chastised for objectifying women and/or who aren’t fond of women getting affirmation from sources they cannot control try to draw a parallel between women complimenting each other on our looks (in an all-encompassing sense of aesthetics and fashion choices) and them commenting on our looks in the sense of “On a scale of 1 to 10…” It’s not the same thing. It’s not even close to the same thing, which I think is why my boyfriend Jack says things like “Congratulations on your life and your choices!” so often after complimenting someone, just to make sure they know where he’s falling.
But while you don’t have to be a woman to compliment a woman’s choices, there’s something magical that happens when women and femmes of all stripes compliment each other. It’s a wonderful thing that I really only discovered after I started going to cons and started getting over my shyness at them.
We spoke with each other for maybe a minute, mostly about looks. Our looks for the evening were very different. Hers was ethereal unicorn princess. Mine was… I’m not sure. Dangerous clown? I don’t know what vibe my looks put out, but I’m very particular about assembling them, particularly at cons. I’m not going for “Girl version of Kefka from Final Fantasy VI at a literary convention”, but I think I land somewhere near there. If I could put them into words, I probably wouldn’t need to use looks to get the point across. All I can say is that it’s been refined over the years, and I’m getting pretty good at it.
The main thing we talked about was each other’s hair. She told me how she had come to start coloring it, in quick and general terms, and how it now feels real, feels her, to do so. Making her outside match her inside, making her body represent itself, making it represent not just herself but her_self.
And we were actually on our way to the door when I spotted her, so we didn’t really dig into this, but I think I got it. And it provided an interesting contrast to the caricature that both of our overlapping groups of detractors and harassers have of us in general, the caricature that is the gendered form of “SJW”, the “Tumblrina”: always brightly colored hair, often fat and hideously ugly, brittle, angry, and alone.
This stereotype has as much to do with our actual lives as their caricature of “Social Justice” or “Radical Feminism” (they keep on saying those words; I don’t think they mean what they think they mean) has to do with anything we say or do. It’s not a shorthand they use to understand us, but to save them the trouble of needing to.
“Of course she has [colored] hair,” they say.
“Of course she’s on Patreon,” they say.
And of course I do have rainbow-colored hair and of course I do have a Patreon (Hint, hint.), as I’ve been crowdfunding my career since long before that was a word. But they don’t mean these things as bare, unadorned recitations of neutral facts. They’re invocations of the stereotype. They are reminders that we are not to be approached as human beings leading individual lives with distinct circumstances and personalities, but as a series of checkmarks next to a list of identifying features for target confirmation purposes.
Men even outside these alt-right, ultra-reactionary cliques make similar (if less pointed in their formulation) observations about women who sport pastel or neon or multicolored hair, and what it boils down to is something like this: she’s just doing it for attention, but jokes on her because it totally kills every man’s boner, but still a girl that desperate for attention will probably do anything…
If we complain about the attention, or tell a guy that we’re not doing it for them, we get a response along the lines of “Well, who are you doing it for?”
And the answer, as Zoë said, is for ourselves. Our. Selves. To be true to ourselves. It’s like wearing an outfit that suits us particularly well (and is often part and parcel of doing so), but a little more intimate, a little closer to the skin, metaphorically and in some respects literally. Hair color is a transitory and mutable characteristic, but so are clothes, and I think most people would agree that it’s possible to dress up like yourself and dress up not like yourself.
And the mutability of hair color, I think, matches the mutability of one’s self to a greater degree than more permanent body modifications or more fleeting changes, such as a change of clothes. A hair color might last days or weeks or months. It might change over time; mature, deepen. It might be touched up or altered. It might be allowed to grow out and fade.
Zoë’s hair isn’t much like my hair. I am not much like her. But we both looked at each other and were able to recognize that her hair was her and mine was me, which is to say, we were able to look at each other and admire each other, in this respect.
It was a fascinating exchange at the time, and one I wish we’d both had the time to delve into (we were leaving, as I’d said, and I suspect she had many more people to talk to, if not places to be, too), but in the course of sitting down and writing this post, working through what happened and what it meant to me, I’m finding myself working through so much more.
When I talked about the caricature of the Social Justice girl above, even the generalized one… well, that affects her more than it does me, as she’s a higher priority target for the people who make use of it as a rhetorical tool. I have been harassed by many of the same people, but mostly as a corollary to attacking someone with a higher level of unasked-for notoriety or someone with a higher degree of marginalization. My appearance and actions and beliefs (or the caricatured versions thereof) are used as an attack vector for people more important and more vulnerable than me.
But when I do come to the attention of the hate-hives, the way I get talked about… well, I’m not just a Social Justice girl, I’m a trans woman. I don’t just have brightly colored hair, I have rainbow hair. The last time I was told I was mentioned on a Gamergate forum, the comment on my appearance was “She looks exactly like you’d think she would look.”
At one point, someone made an animated gif meme using my face cropped from a profile pic and text representing the sort of thing that the person making the macro would imagine the character of me would say. It wasn’t something I’ve ever actually said. It doesn’t accurately represent my beliefs or behavior in the sort of discourse they were commenting on. But it’s not about me. It’s so not about me that people only two and three degrees of separation removed from me were sharing the image as a joke about “those Social Justice types who go to far”, honestly and earnestly believing that the person in the image was literally a caricature, not a real person.
When I found out about that, it freaked me out badly. I felt violated in a way that’s how to describe. I knew the reductive stereotyping the picture represented. I had even had it applied to me. But never so widely or so viscerally.
It affected me deeply. I reacted very badly. And I never really got over it, the knowledge that the picture is out there and being circulated.
But after talking to Zoë Quinn at the party, I found myself feeling better in a way that was hard to describe. I felt my spirits had lifted. I felt like I was suddenly less worried, though about what, I couldn’t say. It’s not like I’d gone around thinking about the picture all the time, or all the other pictures like it that might exist now or in the future. I wasn’t actually actively caring about it at the time, so it’s not like I could have noticed the moment I stopped caring, except in retrospect.
I didn’t—and don’t—believe that Zoë Quinn or anyone else is a precious perfect darling angel who can do no wrong. Nor do I believe that anyone can be.
And I’m certainly not the sort of person who seeks approval from certain people because they’ve been elevated to authority figures in my mind or that of society. I can get half a dozen earnest compliments on my hair in a day when I’m not at a con, and at a con it’s often non-stop. It gives me a little boost. Of course it does. And when I can return the compliment, about the other person’s hair or anything else, there’s this little moment of connection that makes it better.
It lifted a weight I hadn’t even noticed I was carrying. As I write this post, and think about the caricatures, and the way I’ve been caricatured, I realize: I’ve put the weight down. It doesn’t bother me anymore. Not at all, or at least not noticeably, not right now… it probably will flare up and twinge a bit in the future at odd intervals, but right now I’m thinking about it, thinking about how it felt, thinking about it cropping up on Facebook where I could see it, and this used to destroy me, and it doesn’t bother me.
That brief exchange with Zoë… it healed my soul. Honestly. That sounds hyperbolic, but that’s what it felt like.
Not because Zoë Quinn has magical powers or Zoë Quinn is perfect or Zoë Quinn is some kind of an authority on my very different life, not even because I know Zoë Quinn has been there done that but because I stopped and talked to another human being who gets it, not about the harassment that is heightened but about why we did it in the first place rand why we do it anyway.
Zoë Quinn, I’m told, is into body modification. I don’t know what’s true about her and what’s story. As I’ve said: I don’t ask Zoë Quinn about her life. My thing is idiosyncratic accessories. I don’t pick them to be idiosyncratic. I pick them because they are me and I recognize that they are idiosyncratic. I like wearing distinctive sunglasses—novelty, fashion, or costume—over my actual glasses. I hang them off the o-ring on my collar when I’m not wearing them. I collect hats. Just lately I’m into wearing long cardigans that make me feel like I’m wearing a wizardly trenchcoat or cape without actually wearing one. Though for that matter, my winter coat is a long black woolen cloak.
When I was of middle school age, I tried a thing for a couple of weeks where I had a bandanna tied round my neck like a scarf. The other children asked me if I was trying to be a cowboy or a pirate or what. I wasn’t trying to be anything, except me, wearing a thing around my neck that for a time made me feel more like myself.
The hair is the same, except in all the ways that it’s not. Hair is more visible than discreet body mods and more constant than any given accessory. It’s there. Always. Or at least usually.
There is a whole genre of posts that go around Twitter and Tumblr where the punchline is basically, “I don’t dress for boys/other people, I dress for the moments when I see myself reflected in a store window.” And that’s basically me, in terms of how I stopped dressing as a shapeless mass of dark cloth and started dressing in ways that make me feel like me. I still dress for the reflections, but not just dim and accidental ones in windows. I dress for how I look reflected in a mirror. I dress for the way it gets reflected back to me from other people.
My hair is part of that. It is part of me.
And Zoë Quinn was part of me internalizing that.
I know she’s not a darling perfect angel. I know she’s not some platonic exemplar of victimhood who has suffered worse than anyone in the history of the world or the internet. I know she’s not the character in her ex’s nasty little play, nor the one presented in the MS Paint webcomic drama that is Gamergate. I can’t really claim to know her as a person after sixty to eighty seconds of interaction on my way out of a crowded party, though even without that I can safely say that she is one.
And that, brief though our meeting was, I’m glad I met her.