Reading between the pixels

How digital media is changing the way we communicate

Reading between the pixels

At home over Christmas, my father came into my room and declared I was spending too much time on the Internet.

Showing him the emails I was writing did nothing to assuage his feeling that I was wasting time that could be better spent. It wasn’t the solitary act of writing that bothered him, but the medium I had chosen for it. I ribbed him and called him a Luddite, because his complaint ­— that digital texts are an inadequate way to communicate — is mind-numbingly ancient, the literary equivalent of shouting about “kids these days.” Even Plato lamented that the written word rendered focal memory obsolete. But perhaps my dad had a point. There is a distinction of more than format between writing a letter and dashing out an email, or spending 10 minutes crafting the perfect tweet. I began to wonder: does the medium in which we write to each other change how we communicate? Could it even change what we choose to say?

Anyone with a university semester under their belt is probably familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s exhortation that “the medium is the message.” My father’s worries aren’t unfounded: when Facebook-chatting or emailing, I simply click lackadaisically between my 11 Google Chrome tabs. Browsing the web encourages a flightiness of attention that can result in serendipitous discoveries, but the experience of writing or receiving a letter is a sort of lexical solipsism — there’s only one communique existing at a time, only one text which is realized by the act of reading it. Digital communication naturally emphasizes the new: your phone buzzes with a new text before you can even hit send; you can follow a Twitter livefeed of a sports event and its ensuing riot. This flightiness is rewarded on the web, because the brain can easily make intuitive connections between pieces of information. Compare this to the physical act of writing on paper, which forces the writer (and the subsequent reader) to temporarily immerse themselves in individual texts in order to absorb their information.

Maryanne Wolf, a professor of childhood development at Tufts University, has said that humans were never meant to read. Each new reader’s brain must create its own method of reading; learning to read and write is not an automatic process which humans are as predisposed to as, say, spoken language. Rather, it is an “open architecture,” and how we learn to read depends on the formal structure of the language read (for example, readers of character languages which use logograms, symbols for entire words or syllables, such as Chinese, rely more on visual memory), as well as the time we put into learning how to read affects this architecture. This means, writes Wolf, that learning to communicate in a digital medium, where a shorter attention span is rewarded, could have dramatic effects on the fundamentals of how we read and write to one another. In 300 milliseconds the brain can access a huge array of visual and semantic information which allows us to decode what we are reading, but it takes another 200 milliseconds for us to further process what we have read, to begin critical analyses of the text. The way we talk on the web rewards skipping this second step, meaning we often don’t absorb or analyze this new information: in high school anatomy you might have been told to write out your notes, in order to better retain the names of 206 bones, but you can skim an email without fully absorbing its content, facilitated by the physical act of scrolling.

In his 1977 work Image-Music-Text, Roland Barthes, a literary theorist who had been bemoaning the decline of text since at least 1940, wrote about the distinction between an “author” and a “scriptor.” Though at the time of his writing the Internet was but a glimmer in the eye of the US military, this distinction between the two types of writers aligns quite neatly with the different mental processes and experiences of communicating on paper and on the web. Barthes’ “author” is our Romantic concept of a God-like artistic creator, one who forms an entirely new world out of their imagination alone. The “scriptor,” on the other hand, can only combine and re-combine existing texts and concepts in new ways, never creating anything truly original. Barthes was writing specifically about books, but we can see similar patterns emerging in e-communication. According to Barthes, the scriptor has no past, but is born with the text as it is written. This creates a new openness for the reader, who can discover in a scriptor’s text whatever she sees fit, but it also means that it is possible to get by on a much shallower relationship with the written word. Grammar sticklers decry the ruin of language brought on by instant communication, and practically speaking, they are correct: digital dialogue rewards reactionary speed and relevancy over accuracy and depth.

My father’s distaste for communicating on the web is two-fold: as a writer, I think he finds the very act of scrolling through emails, rather than holding them in his hands, to be inadequate, and he intuitively worries about what Wolf has confirmed, that when reading and writing on the web we skip those extra 200 milliseconds of analysis and understanding. As digital communicators, we choose words for their immediate value because the nature of the digital medium rewards peripheral attention to the present. This means that the web provides an amazing platform for minority opinions and marginalized voices (witness endless articles on the phenomenon of the Arab Spring and social media) where as hard texts, like letters, do not. Alternatively, physical texts protect information in a solid way that is simply unavailable to digital ephemera, but they are less intuitively accessible.

When we communicate via digital mediums, on Facebook or with email and texting, we can see patterns of shared thought emerging: on a cold day, everyone will be talking online about the weather. Social media urges us to take part in whatever the zeitgeist is presently, a communal reaction to the current mood. Alternatively, written communication like notes passed in class, or letters and postcards, is intimate by nature. We hold them in our hands, and the thoughts expressed by the writer are just for us, the reader. On the web, topics of discussion tend to be cyclical — what’s trending on Twitter, what links are being shared, ad infinitum — because our attention is so divided. No one was addressed directly, so no one was listening and everything must be shared again.

Native tradition, new theatre

Discussing community, ceremony, and cacao with director Dr. Jill Carter

Native tradition, new theatre

Comfortably perched in her desk chair, Dr. Jill Carter laughs as she huddles around the warmth of the large Second Cup coffee that she holds in her hands. “Sorry about that!” she says smiling, having just been bombarded with a myriad of questions from eager students waiting outside her office.

Carter, who identifies herself as Anishinaabe-Ashkenazi, is a faculty member in the Aboriginal Studies department at U of T. She also describes herself as an actor, a writer, a playwright, a student, and a mentor. While lecturing is her full-time job, she makes sure to include time for her greatest passion, the theatre, and for the stories that can be created on stage.

As an integral part of Native Earth Performing Arts’ newest production, Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way, Carter knows all about stories. The play incorporates creation stories of different groups of indigenous peoples from all over the Americas — specifically the Haudenosaunee (Great Lakes region), Rappahannock (Virginia), and Guna (Panama) peoples — in an attempt to reclaim indigenous cultures through art. Focusing on the elemental females portrayed in these stories, the play is centred on Chocolate Woman, a Guna feminine spirit associated with the cacao plant.

Carter, who recently received her Ph.D. from the Drama Centre at U of T, is the remount director of Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way, and has been involved with the play since the beginning of its production. Nestled in the warmth of her office on a blisteringly cold day, she spoke to The Varsity about Native Earth Performing Arts, and the role of theatre in the reclaiming of indigenous cultures.

THE VARSITY

How did you become involved with Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest professional native theatre company? 

DR. JILL CARTER

 I suppose being a young native woman, I was drawn to them… My first experience with Native Earth was seeing Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters, and I remember very clearly how it galvanized me. I came up in a time when a lot of Native artists came up — you know, people who wanted to be theatre professionals [but were] not seeing their role models and… Not seeing ourselves at all on stage. And if we did see ourselves on stage… or saw what purported to be us on stage, we often saw some very ugly pictures, so it wasn’t something to be proud of. Seeing The Rez Sisters changed everything, and it changed everything for a lot of native artists, but also for mainstream [theatres]… It really put Native Earth on the map.

THE VARSITY

So you think Native Earth Performing Arts has been instrumental in jump-starting Native theatre?

DR. JILL CARTER

Oh I would say so… Although it had its financial struggles, it has been the cornerstone, I think, of native theatre in Canada. It’s been the place where artists got a voice, and where artists could become developed. They have a Young Voices program, and in that program they invite young people who are interested in playwriting… to work with professional dramaturgists… and they do a lot. I mean, they help young native artists through every stage in their careers. It is really ground zero, so to speak, still today.

 

THE VARSITY

One of the mandates of Native Earth is to encourage the use of theatre as a form of communication and dialogue. How or why do you see this as being especially important in communicating experiences unique to native peoples in contemporary society?

DR. JILL CARTER

Oh, that’s such a layered question! Twenty years ago, Canadians did not know who [natives] were. Canadians had an image of us, [but] they knew nothing of us… So having our artists come out and speak to Canada in our voice, about our concerns and through our lens was and is still crucially important today… To be the one who tells your story, that’s important. It’s interesting though because the issue has changed. Yvette Nolan [former artistic director of Native Earth] said, and I think quite rightly so, [that] at one point, the struggle — or the question — was, ‘Who gets to speak?’ Now the question is, ‘Who is listening?’  Is anybody listening? It gets awfully exhausting, educating the main populace… And many [artists] are pushing back against that and their plays are not necessarily for mainstream Canadians. Mainstream Canadians are welcome to come, to receive, to be affected, to learn, but their plays are for their own people.

I often think of theatre as urban ceremony, in the sense that it unites a scattered body politic. The best of it creates communitas; it creates that sense that we in the audience are connected to each other… The best of it offers real healing, and permanent transformations, in that we can come away knowing something we didn’t know before… I mean, I’m not saying, ‘Go see a play’ and you’re fine! But, go see this play and something begins to work within you, that medicine begins to work within you. I think it can also be a gateway to our culture. So many of us have been separated from our communities, our languages, and a venue like this can be a gateway in. It can get us understanding a little more about ourselves and [make us] curious, eager to push further and go further.

THE VARSITY

There is a lot of silence surrounding the Native community in Canada, especially for the average citizen who doesn’t go out of his or her way to become informed. Do you see Native Earth playing a role in filling that silence?

 DR. JILL CARTER

I think it is, but it’s one piece of the puzzle. We don’t necessarily live in a theatre-going nation… So there are those that love the live experience and who come to see the theatre. But there are many who don’t, and we know that, and that’s certainly been an issue with Native Earth, an issue that is shared by theatres across Canada. The one thing you hear from [Canadian theatres] is the struggle, dare I be crude, to get bums in seats, and to bring people out… So there is always that struggle and certainly Native Earth has not been immune to that. But when we think of how many people in Toronto will be touched and educated by a piece, [it’s] not many. So Native Earth is part of something that must be larger. However, the thing about Native Earth is that in its support of plays and artists… it allows that work [to maintain] life after the production… These plays are published texts, they have a life in remounts and on tour, other theatres take it up, and I think this can all be traced back to the ministrations of companies like Native Earth.

THE VARSITY

Can you tell us a little bit about the idea behind Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way, and how it goes about reclaiming Indigenous cultures through art?

DR. JILL CARTER

I’ve been involved with Chocolate Woman since its inception in 2007… It began before that however as a drive, or a need that Monique Mojica [the play’s author] had. Monique was going through a very serious… Time in her life. [She] required healing, required something to get up and go on, and began to look back at Creation stories, and the elemental females of Creation. And I say Creation stories and elemental females, because Monique is Guna and Rappahannock… She is also by marriage and adoption Haudenosaunee. Since she has all of this cultural material to draw on, the show is an interweave.

Chocolate Woman is a Guna figure, an elemental female, I hesitate to use the word goddess because it’s not the same thing, but she is this feminine spirit that is associated with the cacao. Cacao for Guna people is a medicine… But it can also work at you from the outside in, can shield you from your enemies. So this cacao is really important. [Mojica met] with a Guna consultant and traditional teacher, who taught her these songs and stories. Rather than adopting Western theatrical form, she went back to tradition and ceremony to figure out how to… tell an ancient story to a contemporary audience, with contemporary expectations, in a contemporary venue, but to be able to affect the audience as an original rendering of the story would have affected traditional people.

Recording a scene

Offerings Magazine looks inward to discover a network for Toronto’s fringe music

Recording a scene

Offerings is a free monthly music magazine distributed through  Toronto’s record stores, bookshops, and cafés. The Varsity sat down with editor-in-chief Deirdre O’Sullivan and layout designer Andrew Zukerman to discuss their philosophy and their process.

THE VARSITY

What are you doing and how is it unique in Toronto?

DEIRDRE O’SULLIVAN

What we’re doing is trying to create a catalogue or archive of all the experimental music and arts that go on in Toronto.

 

THE VARSITY

You do lots of interviews too, right? How do you choose who to interview?

ANDREW ZUKERMAN

I guess if someone has something going on that month.

DEIRDRE O’SULLIVAN

It’s largely based on promoting events in the city. So often times things like electroacoustic music or even folk music, or anything that would be considered experimental or avant garde. There’s a pretty thriving experimental jazz scene in the city that we feel is pretty underlooked by media so our goal is to cover those events, and the aspiration is to get people to go out to the shows by informing them about what’s going on.

THE VARSITY

How do you feel that having your magazine in print affects what you’re doing, and why do you feel that print is a necessary platform as opposed to online? 

DEIRDRE O’SULLIVAN

For me, I feel that that’s more reflective of our personalities and the people working on this paper. We’re generally very object-focused people — collectors. The idea of something being on the Internet makes it kind of ephemeral. With printed paper, the goal would be not just today and tomorrow, but in 20 years people can look back and have a catalogue of what was going on in the city in 2013.

ANDREW ZUKERMAN

We both come from a background of having our own record labels so I kind of felt like it was an extension of that. It was kind of a resistance to the digital side of things. We have all kinds of art.

THE VARSITY

Is there an audience that you particularly look to get in the city, or are you really just trying to get a huge number of artists out to a huge number of people and have people find their audiences?

DEIRDRE O’SULLIVAN

 Have people find their audiences, for sure. As many people as we can reach is our audience for sure. When we were kids, if we had known about all of the amazing things that were going on in secret clubs all over the city we would have been there and we would have been supportive, but because there was no access to that information, it was lost to us. Our goal is to make that information more accessible.

THE VARSITY

How do you think the music community in Toronto can be improved? 

DEIRDRE O’SULLIVAN

 I think that improvement comes from closer networks. In places like New York and London there are large groups of people who think that what they are doing is the best thing in the universe, and so I think there are a lot of people who look to those cities to try to find out what to enjoy and where to be, but in every metropolis and every small town people can look inside themselves to find what they seek.

THE VARSITY

What are some current goals for Offerings? 

DEIRDRE O’SULLIVAN

 Our initiatives are subscriptions and once we get those in order we’ll see where things go, but there are a lot of challenges because it’s all volunteer-run. We’ve got lots and lots of people involved. February will be our twenty-first issue. The whole point of the paper is to promote a dialogue between potential audiences and artists, and the artists themselves trying to find their community for collaborations or connections that come as a result of a paper. That’s what would make us feel successful.

Behind the scenes, beneath the pages

How do ghostwriters capture the essence of their subjects without getting in the way?

Behind the scenes, beneath the pages

Uncovering international conspiracies, solving murders, watching a former British Prime Minister get shot right in front of him  — these are just some of the things that Ewan McGregor’s titular character does in Roman Polanski’s 2010 movie The Ghost Writer. The real world of ghostwriting, as frequent Readers’ Digest contributor and former Toronto Life columnist David Hayes describes it, seems a little tame by contrast.

True ghostwriting, as Hayes explains, is working “from scratch, with somebody who can’t write at all.” And just like Pierce Brosnan’s character in Polanski’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost, the figures Hayes and other writers like him work with are looking to tell their stories. “One way or the other, it always is about legacy, whoever it is.”

Discretion is a significant part of the job description, so Hayes won’t tell me about all the subjects he’s worked with. But it’s clear from our conversation at his Toronto home that he has ghosted for some prominent figures, and some real characters.

“We had a discussion with the publisher of how many ‘fucks’ would I liberally sprinkle through this [book],” he says of one particular attempt to capture the personality of a subject. “You couldn’t possibly do this and not have a couple. So we discussed where there were a couple of good spots where it was particularly effective, the context was really good, so we put two or three in there.

“They had to be there — if you knew this guy at all, and you read something that was supposedly him talking and [the word] ‘fuck’ didn’t happen once, you’d think ‘What?’ That would be like it was laundered.”

Ghosting an autobiography means writing it the way the subject would have written it, if they had been able to write it themselves. “The autobiography has to be written in the voice of the subject,” Hayes stresses. “A biography is going to be written in my voice as a writer, telling their story. I want to capture their voice maybe in quotes and things, but that book would be written in my voice. That’s the difference — [when] you’re capturing in a memoir or autobiography, you’re capturing the voice of the person.”

That ‘voice’ or style is often very different from the way Hayes writes under his own name — a repertoire that includes three books and feature articles for publications like The Walrus and Report on Business. “If I was writing for Toronto Life, I’d have much more freedom with the voice [than with ghostwriting],” he explains. “I could be a little more experimental, there could be more personality to the voice.”

Contrast that with the style used for On Equal Terms, a book by Hong Kong businessman Zheng Mingxun that Hayes worked on last year. “With On Equal Terms, I did not write it the way I would have written a book,” he admits. “I had to write it the way this 70-year-old Hong Kong-Chinese CEO, corporate-guy would have written it. He has no voice as a writer. If he had a voice as a writer, it would be a little bit dry, [an] academic type of voice, like what might be an Atlantic Monthly essay.”

The Economics

On Equal Terms was published by Wiley, a prominent international publishing house, and is available at an Indigo near you. “He paid to have that book done,” Hayes explains. “And Wiley’s got it out there all over the world. Most people wouldn’t know that it’s a book that the author paid for. I don’t know if they’d care — it’s by the author. I don’t think most people care how the book got written.”

Hayes doesn’t receive any money from sales of the book. “I get a fee, I don’t get any royalties. The royalties go to the author,” he says. Still, the nature of many ghostwriting projects means that a fee up front is often better than a cut of royalties.

“A lot of them are vanity in a sense, or the company is using them for promotion. So they’re not selling them, they’re giving them to clients and prospective clients, and to employees as a Christmas present,” Hayes says. “They’re not actually selling them and making money. So you’re actually not going to make that much of royalties from those kinds of books.”

Samantha Reynolds, the founder of Echo Memoirs, says that the books her custom-publishing house produces don’t often find their way onto shelves. “Most of our clients come to us and don’t want their book in bookstores — that’s not at all their interest. They have their audience, whether it’s family or employees, so it’s not about whether it hits bookstores.”

If a client does want to see his or her book on sale, Reynolds and her team have to believe the book will appeal to the average reader. “We don’t take that project unless we have complete confidence that it will be bookstore-appropriate and that bookstores will want to buy it.”

The modern world of custom publishing and ghostwriters is markedly different from the early days of the business. “It’s what used to be called ‘vanity publishing,’” Hayes explains. “It’s come up a lot in quality. It used to be very low quality, because nobody serious did it, nobody spent very much getting it done. They used to be crummy little books, and it didn’t tend to be the best writers doing it.

“And today, top writers are doing this kind of work, so the quality of the books is higher, and in some cases some of them go into the store.”

Reynolds mentions a project that seems to confirm the newfound respectability of custom publishing. “We’re doing a book with a client in Los Angeles right now, and we’re working with a New York Times number-one bestselling author. So they’re getting great authors.”

That kind of quality does not come cheap. “We’re fee-for-service,” says Reynolds. “Most families and individuals invest in the range of $150,000 and most companies invest in the range of $250,000.” But, she points out, that sum buys a lot of expertise. “They’re mobilizing a team of about 12 publishing professionals that are going to incubate their story for two years — that’s where they see their investment go.”

Echo Memoirs produces about 20 books a year. “These days we do about three-quarters of our work for organizations and companies, so non-profits, large global companies, and many different types of organizations in between. The balance is families and individuals.”

Hayes admits that the financial considerations motivate his ghostwriting. “It’s a money job — I do it for income. It’s part of my living as a writer. Unless you’re one of the stars, it’s very hard to make your living just from doing your own writing.”

It’s better than the alternative, though. “If I wasn’t doing this I’d be doing — well I wouldn’t be doing it — for a woman’s magazine, the sort of ‘what colours of lipsticks are coming up this season,’ service journalism.

“People grind that stuff out, and you can make a decent living grinding that stuff out. It’s not wonderful prose you’re going to labour over — it’s service journalism. So that’s one way to make income, but to me [that’s] harder.”

Screenwriting

Ghostwriters are hired for their writing abilities. Natasha Master used her expertise in a slightly different area of the custom-publishing business.

“The company specialized in working with people who were self-published authors,” she explains. “So they offered them various services and one of them was that you could have your book turned into a film treatment or a script.”

Master wrote those scripts, using the books of the commissioning authors as source material. “[Screenwriting] is a different way of structuring a story,” she explains. “There’s a whole different approach to telling a story; you have a lot less space to do it in. If you’re writing in a book format, you can make it as long as you want, but you’re pretty restricted in terms of length with a screenplay.”

How much the script deviated from the source text depended on the client. “That was one of the first things I would establish in that initial call was how much leeway did I have to change things around, how much creative license were they willing to give me.

“There’s a little bit of back-and-forth in the editing stage. They’re either comfortable with the changes you’ve made, or they want you to stick mostly to their original text. That’s an ongoing negotiation.”

Like Hayes, Master doesn’t have a financial stake in the scripts she produced. “I don’t own the rights to any of that work, so once I hand in my final edit, it’s out of my hands. I have no idea what’s happened to any of them.”

Master hasn’t seen anything to suggest that any of her scripts have made it to the silver screen. But, she explains, that’s not surprising. “Some of them were just curious to see what [their books] would look like in script form, and maybe not as serious about developing it for production.”

Whose story is it anyway?

Hayes, like Master, follows the lead of his clients. “You’re working for that person. Whether you’re doing it through a publisher or not, you’re doing it for that person, so they will decide how they want to put it and whether they want to put it in, and what they want to put in.”

There’s room for a ghostwriter to improve or re-work a story to make the resulting book more readable. “I can make suggestions that I think will improve the story. I’ll say, ‘This will really improve the book, and here’s why, and here’s an example of what it will look like.’ And often they’ll say, ‘That’s great. Fine, I like that, I understand what you’re saying.’ But sometimes they won’t.”

One client in particular, Hayes notes, was particularly easy to work with. Hayes’ first book as a ghostwriter (or co-writer, since his name appeared on the cover of the final product) was Canadian figure skater and choreographer Sandra Bezic’s The Passion to Skate.

“Sandra was incredibly reasonable,” Hayes remembers. “She thought about anything I was suggesting we do, and most of the time they were sensible ideas, and she thought they were great ideas.”

Other subjects have been more challenging. “I think in some ways it was harder, or one might say more boring, with [On Equal Terms] because I didn’t spend much time with [Zheng]. I tried to do Skype interviews with him, and it didn’t work too well over the phone. He worked better actually with email. He just didn’t give me as much as I needed, so it was a little bit of a struggle working on that one.”

Hayes notes that ghostwriters don’t necessarily have a deeper insight into their subjects than the average reader. “It’s funny, sometimes you learn less than you would if you were a journalist doing a profile. With [one of his subjects] it wasn’t my job to dig into everything about who he was. I wasn’t interviewing a dozen or 15 people who he’s worked with in the past, who still work with him, who were influential at some point in his career, friends, enemies, critics and supporters. You’d be getting this full picture because you’d be going outside the subject himself or herself.

“With this kind of book… The person’s going to give you the side or sides that they want to put in the book, and as you’re talking you pick up on things, so you do ask questions a certain way and try to bring other things out to some degree. But basically, it’s pretty much you and the subject.”

The access that the ghostwriter-subject relationship provides can sometimes mean a less well-rounded story, Hayes admits. “There are lots of profiles done where the person never spoke to the profile subject at all,” he says, citing Gay Talese’s famous 1966 Esquire article, “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold.”

“You can sometimes do a better profile than the ones where you actually talk to the individual, because you talk to so many other people that you actually get a picture [of the subject]. Often when we do have great access to the main subject, we don’t do as many interviews around the person. You don’t need to go quite as far afield, and some of those people far afield may be incredibly great people to talk to.”

Certain subjects, like Bezic, choose to acknowledge their ghostwriters on the covers of their books. Others are more reticent to credit their co-creators. Still, Hayes explains, it’s not hard to find a ghostwriter’s name.

“Look at the acknowledgements — if it isn’t explicit, sometimes it’ll just say, ‘Thank you for the valuable help given to me by my editors,’ and it’ll name two or three people,” he explains. “Google their names — one of them will be the publisher and editor-in-chief of that publishing house, the other one will be a senior editor at that publishing house, and the third person will be a writer.

“As soon as you see that, [you know] that’s the person who wrote the book.”

In the end though, the book is the property and responsibility of the person whose name is front and centre on the cover.

“You’re interpreting to a degree in ghost- or co-writing and in authorized biographies sometimes, but the subject has control,” Hayes says. “Ultimately, I am only putting in what each of these people wanted to put in.”

A place to talk

LGBTOUT’s continuing efforts to provide a safe space on campus for dialogue and self-discovery

A place to talk

Salome is on stage, and Salome is beautiful.

It’s early in the night and there’s a slight crowd huddled together around her in the club, no more than a couple dozen people upstairs total. Heads nodding to the beat. It’s early, with only a few drifts of conversation — “Did you hear about So-and-So?” “No, can’t be, that’s so unlike him, but then, I remember this one time, in September” — fading in and out of earshot. It’s the Village on a Thursday, Ke$ha’s on the speakers, warbling, “Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young,” and that’s good enough for everyone here right now.

Salome is on stage dancing and she’s a vision from the ’40s, all dark flowing hair and severely gorgeous glasses. She’s good, too good for this crowd, too good to be on so early in the night, too graceful in her slight flourishes for them to notice, too funny in split-second poses for them to laugh, too sharp for anyone to catch her edge. The crowd just stands around, mutely devoted, watching her dance, applauding the odd provocation (slap on the bum, wink and a kiss) tossed their way. Her hair comes down, her shawl comes off. The crowd cheers.

The LGBTOUT execs are standing around in one corner near the tables, quiet in conversation. Doug’s manning the ‘door’ tonight, right by the stairs, and after a smoke outside Rochelle joins him handing out gift bags, greeting people as they come up. There aren’t many yet. Second floor of Crews & Tangos, 10 pm, and it’s quiet. Josh is by the bar, polishing clean glasses. Matthew’s by the tables, looking thoughtful.

“See, usually — last year, yeah — we had them Fridays,” he says, hands neatly adjusting the brochures and cards on the table, sec pamphlets, upcoming events. “But the Barn closed down over the summer, most places already have schedules set up way in advance, and this was the only time we could get an event, so…”

So here we are. LGBTOUT’s first Homohop of the year, mid-January, on a Thursday, at a different bar, no cover charge, and no longer an all-ages event. It’s survived, and the LGBTOUT execs in charge are mostly familiar faces from last year, but it’s so different now, not just slightly different but almost outrageously so. Just about everything but the name is new. “It’s still around,” goes one argument. “But at what price?” goes the other.

And then, there’s the added worry of money. Without cover, the Homohop’s only way of making money tonight is drink sales. If things go well enough, Crews and Tangos will agree to host it again. If not, the Homohop goes away for what might be a very long time.

There’s a tension in the air, not nervous exactly, but ‘what ifs’ and ‘I hopes’ are on the tips of tongues, as everyone bustles around trying to get the place in order. Homohop’s still around, yeah, if only for a night, but what about tomorrow? The atmosphere’s full of these sorts of questions: The drop-in’s going well, at least compared to last year, but are we ever going to get new space? What about the execs? Will tabloid fervour about SEC and their party at Oasis Aqua Lounge spread to other campus groups like us? A hundred and one things to worry about before the music and the lights take over and the party can start.

People are coming up the stairs now, Doug and Rochelle hand out the gift bags one by one, and suddenly there are no more gift bags. Josh is pouring drinks as fast as they’re ordered, and there’s finally some movement on the floor: small groups, three or four people at most, have started dancing. Salome twirls on the dying bars of ‘Die Young,’ poses and winks with great camp style, and the night begins.

* * *

The Varsity

When?

DOUG

 I came out when I was 15 in high school in Venezuela — actually, I was outed by this creepy guy.

AYYAZ

 I was not out in Qatar.

 The Varsity

What was that like?

DOUG

In the end it really didn’t matter, ’cause I had already been coming out to a few people. Being gay isn’t something I’m going to hide about myself.

AYYAZ

 It was not something that was talked about in Qatar. There were no real labels of that sort there.

 The Varsity

But I mean, how was that for you back then?

DOUG

Yeah, it was really hard for a while, as the only out guy in the school. I went from basically being unknown to being ‘The Gay.’ Even my teachers knew.

AYYAZ

[Pause] Some interesting dynamics in high school, yeah.

 The Varsity

 Country-wise, I mean … how is it like?

DOUG

 It’s sexist as fuck; macho culture is the only thing there. There are some gay people there but there’s not really much [of] a community. Very clandestine organizations. There’s a march, but going there is such sacrifice.

AYYAZ

 One of the things with Qatar is there was greater acceptance of not being hypermasculine, or anything like that. There’s more affection in Qatar between men — I should say, between heterosexual men. Two men holding hands is not considered an issue at all. You don’t see that here at all.

* * *

When I heard this magazine’s theme was ‘Dialogue,’ I said “huh” and that was that. After a thankfully abandoned attempt to say something intelligent about the Socratic dialogues, I decided to try a new angle and trundled over to the LGBTOUT’s drop-in. I needed inspiration, and old newspaper instincts die hard. I knew a couple people who worked there, so I figured maybe they could say something about dialogue and give me a lead, or inspiration, somehow.

I met Cathie and Ayyaz at the drop-in centre, located under a neat arch in University College just off St. George. Both are executives and volunteers for LGBTOUT. Cathie joined this year, while Ayyaz joined in 2011.

LGBTOUT, which was founded in 1969, is the oldest university lgbt group in the country, and does much of what you would expect an LGBT group on a university campus to do: organizes social events, provides references and support material for students with questions, and runs the drop-in centre, which currently functions as a catch-all conversational centre of sorts.

“Overall there is a huge need for a space for people who aren’t out to their friends and families,” Cathy said of the drop-in centre, which aims to give them space to talk about it. Quite a few people, including several current and former execs in LGBTOUT, have first come out publicly in the centre.

“There’s also a social need and a great social value in having a social space for lgbt students on campus,” she adds.

Of course, LGBTOUT is a student group on campus, so life can be complicated and uncertain. Right now the drop-in centre serves as both a social centre and a place for people to talk over their problems, hopes, and fears. Sometimes the mix works well, but other times…

After a long, enjoyable conversation about LGBTOUT and what they do around campus, I realized I’d forgotten about why I came and improvised a question about dialogue at the centre.

Both Cathie and Ayyaz stared at me in open-mouthed wonder for several seconds, before Cathie said, very gently, “That’s the whole point, sweetie. You can talk here. You can ask.”

I made a mental note to avoid stupid questions in the future, and asked Ayyaz, who had mentioned he was from Qatar, if he had the time for a quick interview later in the week.

* * *

The Varsity

What’s different in Canada?

DOUG

The fact I can be totally myself here is a little overwhelming.

AYYAZ

There’s a huge emphasis on the idea or label of ‘being gay.’

 

The Varsity

How so?

DOUG

Due to the fact I can be myself here, I’m starting to discover more about myself. It’s been such a beautiful experience. I got a chance not just to be the ‘gay guy.’ I am gay, but back home it wasn’t like that.

AYYAZ

 It’s difficult to say exactly, but here there’s more of an emphasis on going with the prevailing majority idea of what it means to ‘be gay.’ There’s less freedom in a sense — remember earlier, about ‘coming out?’ That’s a very western thing. In Qatar, the idea of ‘coming out’ just doesn’t exist.

 

The Varsity

So for you, identities are … ?

AYYAZ

 I find it problematic to say that I identified with the ‘gay identity’ because I felt that I would be misunderstood — that’s something that comes over from Qatar, because if you’re interested in men that defines all of who you are. The same things apply in Canada — if you’re gay here then it can feel in some sense that comes to define the entirety of your personality to other people.

 * * *

Identifying as something is emblematic of our generation, and you and me and everyone we know is a beautiful and unique snowflake, and yet somehow we’ve already found a problem: what happens when a person’s group identity clashes with their personal identity?

I won’t get hilariously out of my depth theorizing about identity here, but something Ayyaz said about the western ‘gay identity’ struck me.

“It’s great that Canada exists, that it provides a model in some respects to other countries,” he began, and then trailed off to recover his thoughts. “But it’s… It might seem like a false complaint that ‘Canada gives you labels,’ but it’s a real problem.”

Ayyaz identifies as queer, not gay. Doug identifies as gay. For Ayyaz, the emphasis here on labels and how they’re used to define someone is worrisome; for Doug, it’s less of a problem. There’s not much of a point in taking the matter further. Both have valid and incontestable reasons for feeling the way they do. But I kept coming back to the differences between the two, differences of identity.

‘Identity’ is forced to play double-duty as both a personal idea and a public expression. There’s some undissipated tension here, some that recognition maybe the problem will never go away — it’s structural, in a way, when you think about all the meanings a word like ‘identity’ can have. Maybe there isn’t a solution, or maybe there is. Maybe the only way around the problem is to just keep talking, to just keep gabbing on with friends and strangers, offering confidences sure to be broken in the morning, to just keep up the conversations about what it’s like for you, what it’s like for me, and just talk talk talk until the sun comes out in the morning.

* * *

The Varsity

How has LGBTOUT  been for you?

DOUG

It has been so rewarding.

AYYAZ

I think LGBTOUT has had a huge impact on my self-discovery; it’s shaped it in a more positive way.

 

The Varsity

I kinda need to shoehorn in a quote about dialogue here — what can you say about LGBTOUT and dialogue?

DOUG

[Laughing] We’re all very talkative and opinionated in different ways. It’s great. All the dialogue at LGBTOUT has made me realize the world of sexuality and gender in a much deeper way.

AYYAZ

My hope for LGBTOUT — for its future — is that some of the discourses and discussions I’ve started with the community continue, especially those that look at the intersection of queerness, race, and gender; where all those things collide, and where those differences need to be highlighted.

* * *

Later in the night, the execs are able to relax. The gift bags, free to the first 40 upstairs, nearly flew off the tables. Doug, liberated from hosting duties at last, is dancing. Natalie’s texting, Rochelle’s out for another smoke, and Ayyaz is manning the tables.

“Having a good time so far?” he shout-asks over the music, and I nod. There isn’t much more to say right now, it’s too loud for that, and so we both turn and watch the dancing for a while.

Looking over the crowd, I’m still wondering about Ayyaz’s comments about the ‘gay identity.’ Sure, there are a few common sartorial touchstones here, some shared reference points, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, is it? I can’t make up my mind, and decide maybe I can spend tomorrow thinking and talking about it again, but for now, it’s nearly midnight and the dance floor beckons.

Soon, it’s midnight, and then one. The crowd swells, surges, and subsides in time with the music. “Starships” by Nicki Minaj comes on, and then a Spanish-language club hit we can’t place, and then the music blurs and blends into one great, hours-long track. The crowd is still alive and moving well into the night, enough empty glasses adorn enough tables to feel hope that maybe the money situation’s not all bad, and then, all of a sudden.

The air is clearing, the floor is clearing, and it’s not only two-thirty, but last call, and suddenly it’s the last song, and upstairs it’s back to where it began: a couple dozen people huddled close together on the dance floor. This time though, they’re in motion to the last fading chorus of a song, and when it ends, as it must, the lights come up, the music dies, and there’s nothing left here but groups of people talking, already talking and talking about tonight and today and tomorrow.

Bar speak

A bartender discusses the art of conversation

Bar speak

“I’ve worked in probably well over 20 different bars,” Jasmine tells me, as we walk in the cold night at Hart House Circle, the CN Tower providing a bright backdrop. “I’ve been in the business since I’ve been legally able to serve, and I’ve been in it for about four years. I’ve worked in an array of environments such as clubs, Irish bars, regular restaurants, upscale dining atmospheres — I’ve had a taste of all kinds of bar environments.

“It’s been a very rewarding experience past the point of what I thought was just a part-time job. It’s actually helped lead me to achieve others goal in my life.”

A seasoned bartender, Jasmine’s demeanour is simultaneously personable and edgy. Though she chose not to disclose her last name, Jasmine’s quickly apparent charm and magnetism makes our conversation feel like a warm chat between friends, indicative of the reason for her prolonged success in the bartending business. She laughs while recalling anecdotes about her experiences, coloured with intriguing customers and glimpses of the brief melodramas of their lives.

“Working at a bar is like witnessing a soap opera. It’s very entertaining.”

She describes the diverse crowd of people who she has met in the workplace. “Many people may think that working in a bar is just about serving customers, or you’re always just making small talk with people, or these are just one-time contacts, but I’ve met people from politicians, to business owners, to musicians. Part of the job of being a bartender is really communicating with the patrons that come in.

“A lot of the time, if you’re someone that’s very curious about other peoples’ lives, you can learn a lot about people’s successes, not just their day-to-day lives, but how their companies run… That was something that really interested me and that was why I stayed in that atmosphere, because I was learning so many different things about so many different people.”

As a bartender, Jasmine explains, much of the job consists of socializing and filling different roles for the different people who come in. In particular, people seem inclined to reveal personal information about themselves in an environment that they perceive as safe; as a result, Jasmine finds she often plays the part of a therapist at work.

“You do find people that just need someone to share their lives with,” she admits. “It’s funny because when you’re walking down the street you don’t know anything about the people you see around you… In a bar atmosphere, you learn so much about people’s lives and they open up so much… It’s like you’re the bearer of secrets, and you’re there to listen and you hear all this gossip.”

Jasmine tells me that politicians and musicians may come into the bar and divulge details  not disclosed to the public. People typically, however, come in to discuss regular conversational topics like “sports, relationships, and people that are pissing them off.”

“A lot of people come in and talk about their own relationships, or want advice from a younger person or just from an outsider. A lot of times, you can give that advice. I’ve rarely had a situation where it was a risk to give advice. It comes with common sense — you know when it’s the time to bring in help, but a lot of the time they have the answers and they need someone to just listen because there just isn’t anyone to hear them, and sometimes just someone to lift up their spirits. Sometimes, we’re the jester.”

With regulars who come in a few times a day, Jasmine says her role involves more than acting as a therapist or a random person to chat with. “In bars where I’ve been able to converse with regulars, you become more than a bartender; you become a friend for some people.”

Jasmine chooses to limit that relationship, however. “A lot of other bartenders and servers make good friends with regulars and maybe share drinks or go out with them. I’ve always left work at work, but that’s my own comfort zone. There’s been maybe one or two exceptions to that, but I do find a lot of instances where regulars cross that line. It’s best to just be friends in the moment.”

Regulars don’t always, however, establish relationships with staff. “There are no rules with regulars; sometimes they come in and just always keep to themselves.”

While Jasmine often finds that she is able to get a complete picture of the lives of customers, at other times, her interaction with them is more discrete. She simply asssists them in a small episode of their lives, be it a first date, or a minor conflict. She sometimes acts as Cupid, providing couples a with discounted dessert, or a secluded corner of the bar in which to sit.

Jasmine’s cordial relationships with customers have been known to shift over the course of an evening at work, sometimes negatively, when situations have escalated as patrons became disruptive, agitated, or excessively inebriated. “The worst kind of customer is one that doesn’t have any regard for the people around them, so that puts me in the position that I have to take care of the problem myself. If I have someone being too loud, I have to tell them to keep it down. Five minutes ago, we were friends. We were chatting and laughing… Now I have to take that authoritative position and tell them that they’re going to have to leave.

“Sometimes if you’re a woman or young, it may not work in your favour, which is when I have to contact management or kitchen staff or maybe even regulars, or in extreme cases even the police.”

Jasmine does not want to be a bartender forever, but she has found the experience inspirational, and it has impacted her future plans. “This is just a part-time job since I’m still a student at the University of Toronto, and I hope to be graduating at the end of the semester. This is a great job to do in between careers, or if you need fast cash, or if you want to go traveling.

“I don’t see it as a career because I have a degree and I want to do something with my studies, but I have thought about, with all my experience, that I have a chance at opening my own restaurant, or my own bar, or something of that nature.”

It’s the conversations that she engages in at work that truly breathe life into the job, Jasmine emphasizes. “I think, no matter who you talk to, you can learn something. That’s something I really like about bartending. You can get advice, or hear cool stories. There’s always something you can learn, and there’s always something you can give back. I think the more exchanges you can have with more different kinds of people, the more you can grow from it.

“I feel like I thrive the most with a varied group of people and that keeps me coming back. I love to hear what people have gone through and what they experience with their life.”

Speech bubbles

Two Toronto-based comic artists on the visual impact of imperfect text

Speech bubbles

When asked how the lettering of a comic helps tell a story, Britt Wilson laughs, then gives fair warning.

“You overestimate just how much I think about what I’m doing.”

That isn’t to say she doesn’t take it seriously, at least some of the time.

Wilson is a Toronto-based illustrator, who has done everything from illustrating book covers to lettering for a run of the wildly popular Adventure Time comic series. She has even taught classes about comics at Little Island, the kid-focused younger sibling of Toronto comics hub The Beguiling.

ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF BRIT WILSON

Wilson does work that involves either only lettering or only illustration — her job on the Adventure Time issues, for instance, is just lettering — but she explains that they constitute an organic whole. “I’m still pursuing both of them pretty heavily… I do a lot of cartooning and graphic novels right now, which has also led me to do more lettering, because as I do more lettering for [my projects], people are seeing it and wanting it for theirs.

“I would never want to give up one or the other. I love them both equally… They’re one and the same for me.”

Wilson’s stylistic integration of lettering with illustration is a large component of her success. Her style is whimsical and bouncy, hence the appeal of her work to children, but it’s not without an edge. “It’s hard because I love swearing. I actually was trying to think of a pseudonym for my kid’s things because I do love doing children’s things… But I hate that I can’t swear in front of children and that there are only so many potty jokes that are appropriate for the under-nine crowd.”

This consistency in visual style is present, but it isn’t really a conscious decision, nor is it Wilson’s primary aim. Whether she’s working on comics, illustrations, or editorial cartooning, her work is united by what she calls a ‘current.’ “It’s not something that I think about consciously, but it does come though… I don’t necessarily try for it, it just happens.”

The process isn’t smooth, though. The answer to a question on how often Wilson hits a creative block comes immediately: “Oh my God, every day,” especially recently as she has been working on a graphic novel, which she has to write scripts for. Wilson’s studio is in her apartment, and long hours working in a room with only her cat for company can make an outside voice the key to breaking the block. Sometimes the key to a breakthrough is walking away, or simply showing the work to someone else. Creative blocks happen more rarely with lettering, though, which “tends to just go.”

Wilson isn’t the only illustrator and letterer for whom things seem to flow organically. Zach Worton, another Toronto cartoon artist, has his own reasons for being organic.

“Everything doesn’t need to be perfect all the time. It’s, y’know, I think comics are, they have their own life. I don’t think they’re just drawings and words on a page; there’s something way more to it than that. And I think when people try to make it too perfect it becomes disingenuous, to me.”

ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF ZACH WORTON

In 2011 Drawn & Quarterly published Worton’s longest work to date, The Klondike, a set of fictionalized, interwoven stories about the Klondike Gold Rush that took place in the Yukon at the end of the nineteenth century. The comic was popular with a niche crowd, drawn in by historical interests and Worton’s unique take to storytelling. “It’s not an action-packed adventure story western. It was told very deliberately as a historical book. History isn’t always exciting… I didn’t want to make it something that it wasn’t. I feel like there was enough action, enough tension in it to be compelling.”

Worton’s careful approach shows in his work. His illustrations are tight and meticulous, though crowded when they need to be. By his own admission Worton’s style is heavily influenced by European artists like Hergé or Mœbius. It shows in his lettering too. He writes in clean, capital letters, except for the errant “i,” which is consistently lower case. Sounds such as yelling or loud noises (like gunshots) are represented by larger variations on the same lettering style, sometimes using double lines for emphasis. Worton’s letters are shaped in the same fashion as his stories are, to portray what is necessary. They’re meant to tell stories as they are.

Worton and Wilson both work by hand, and find that it brings a higher calibre of artistry to the final product. While Wilson knows artists who do amazing digital work, and though she occasionally uses digital means to speed up her process, she finds that working digitally detracts from the satisfaction she gets in creating her work. “I’ve played around with doing vector lettering either by just altering an existing font or by drawing something and tracing it into illustrator. It’s just that I feel less organic, I feel less involved in it. And I’m always …not in love with the final.”

Worton, meanwhile, voices concern for how the reader experiences digital lettering that is juxtaposed with clearly analogue visuals. “You can tell when something is done by a computer. It’s too perfect, it’s too clean. There’s no real heart in it, I feel. It’s a cold bunch of pixels printed on a page..If you look at any comic you’re going to find imperfections always. Giving it the illusion that it’s something that it’s not is doing it a disservice.”

Good lettering plays one of two roles. It either communicates with the audience by becoming invisible, allowing the actual text and pictures of a piece to resonate, or it stands on its own, adding emotion or a mood to an otherwise boring typeface. Both of these roles mean working with the rest of a comic, either by blending in or by sticking out. The best thing anyone can do to realize this is simply to look closely. As Wilson puts it, “I think the graphic novel and the lettering are very important. One isn’t necessarily more important than the other…It’s worth paying attention.”

The web for women

The messy collision of Pinterest, advertising, and gender online

The web for women

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. But chances are, they know your gender. Drifting through all that code is the promise of anonymity and equality, but for women, the Internet can be a very strange space.

1. Tell women they aren’t good enough.

2. Tell them being perfect is achievable, but only through consumerism.

3. Label these goals “feminine” and deride them as “frivolous.” Logically then, the masculine must be the opposite: the self-content and the serious.

4. If women object to such a label, or try to exit the “feminine” sphere and share your masculine one, object. Get really angry. Call them names you wouldn’t call your mother.

5. ????

6. PROFIT!!!!

What is it like to be a woman on the Internet? If you’re a woman, you probably visit social networking sites more than men do: women account for 99 million more individual social networking hits a month than men do.  Pinterest is just one of these social networking sites, the Platonic form of the Female Internet. Created by Paul Sciarra, Evan Sharp, and Ben Silbermann, Pinterest allows users to share hyperlinked images in the form of “pins” — and those images, overwhelmingly, link to items you can buy.

To say Pinterest is an example of the burgeoning gender divide on the Internet is an understatement: 82 per cent of its users are women,  and they spend an impressive average of 14-plus minutes on the site per day.  According to Internet analysis firm Comscore, this June Pinterest received around 31 million unique visits, no small total. This makes Pinterest a website of gigantic advertising appeal, because the advertising is crowdsourced: women are being recommended products by their peers, and those products and that advertising is, you guessed it, gendered.

To understand the basic premises underlying gendered advertising, all you have to do is watch some deodorant commercials: Hey, dude! Use this deodorant and you’ll be the manliest of all (Old Spice);  Really sexy angels will fall from the sky to… um, sniff you (Axe). This is positive advertising. The emphasis is on what the product can do for you, the consumer. For women, the emphasis is different: there’s no leveling up from woman to Ultrawoman with a swipe of antiperspirant; instead, it’s all about making yourself the way you ought to be. An emphasis on presumed female inadequacies is central to the majority of women’s advertising. A man’s deodorant takes him from man to manliest man, to demi-god. A woman’s deodorant simply makes her the way she should be.

Why? No one’s swiping their credit card faster than a woman who’s repeatedly been told she’s not being a woman in the right way. This doesn’t mean men don’t experience shame or poor self-esteem. It’s just that female dissatisfaction sells. This is Pinterest’s — bastion of overly-complicated manicures, throw pillows, and crock-pot recipes — stock and trade. Designed as a social networking site, Pinterest has become an advertiser’s dream. It’s the ultimate resource for deliberately cultivated female dissatisfaction because it seems to provide so many solutions, most of them for a price.

What is it that Pinterest, and the rest of the “pink” Internet sells? It’s the Kelly Ripa mythology: having it all. Having it all isn’t a concept original to the Internet, but the Internet makes it seem so much easier. It’s the idea that the actualized modern woman is one en pointe at home with the kids and in the workplace (which is outside the home, natch).

In addition to finding this perfect balance, the Kelly Ripa ideal tells women they should be well-dressed, thin, happily married, and that their homes should resemble a combination of Crate & Barrel and Restoration Hardware. But she’s not having it all, she’s doing it all; household work and child-rearing are overwhelmingly still “women’s work,” with men putting in, on average, less than 20 minutes around the house every day. The failed dream of second-wave feminism was that by entering the workforce, women would become equal to men by not having to choose between work and family.

In reality, though, men do face those choices — society just doesn’t tend to penalize them for it. Louis C.K. jokes that he’s a good dad just for showing up and spending time with his daughters. For men, childcare is above and beyond the call of duty, additional labour after a day at work, whereas no matter what it might say on her business card, a woman with children is a mother first. Yes, people have to make choices and things fall through the cracks: not all women want 18-hour office days, and not all women want motherhood. But our popular dialectic is one of the “working mom” — and when you’re trying to have it all, there’s very little that can’t be sold to you in the name of ease or style.

If Pinterest is the “pink” Internet, of course, there must be a “blue” internet. As a news aggregation site, Reddit would seem to be primarily gender neutral, but 84 per cent of its users are male. Is Pinterest the really “female Reddit” as Reddit users are fond of calling it? The site, which provides an equal platform for both serious discussion and epic trolling, makes its money from what are surely the net’s most unobtrusive ads. (Seriously, go to Reddit right now. There’s probably just an Amazon ad with a picture of Scarlett Johansson at the top of the page, and a moose on the side thanking you for not using Google Adblock. Now leave Reddit. It’s a timesink.)

In a cultural sense, Reddit is, in fact, what we think of as prototypically male: supporting demographics aside, it’s equal parts serious news, overblown debate, toilet humour, and abrasive trolling. If Pinterest is your girlfriend, Reddit is your frattiest bro — drunk. These gendered divisions are as old, and as quaint, as Adam and Eve: Reddit, the masculine, is both earnest and lewd; Pinterest, the feminine, both frivolous and functional.

Even in parts of the Internet that seem gender-neutral in terms of access and appeal, it’s not hard to discover jealously-guarded gender roles. It doesn’t take much browsing to find that women on the Internet face discrimination in every domain that is not specifically feminine, be it Reddit, gaming forums, or the scientific and skeptic communities. The propensity of Reddit users to refer to one another as “Sir” without evidence of the other commenter’s gender is evidence of this. Women commenting on sites or topics not designated as primarily feminine face gendered trolling and bullying that make sites like Pinterest, despite its emphasis on materialism, seem like a haven for women on the web. Chances are, if you are reppin’ someone’s biscuit recipe or workout routine, you won’t be called a “cuntbag” or sent threatening tweets or emails for weeks, as recently happened to Toronto tweeter Stephanie Guthrie.  However much we might like to think of the Internet as a safe and open space, the fact is that in terms of both advertising dollars and personal communication, the Internet is intensely gender-biased. You can see this tension in the linguistic tendencies of the Internet: on page after page, posters refer to women “females,” a term that while technically correct, is distant, clinical, and almost entirely confined to the web. Think about the last time you heard “female” used as a noun in real life. Outside of government forms, it’s primarily an adjective. On the Internet, the female is the alien. The pink alien.

So what happens when women attempt to join a typically male Internet community? The Internet has been abuzz lately with the threat of “fake geek girls,” women who are co-opting the attributes of the geek community for (so the argument goes) male attention. Why is the geek community — whose borders are broad and porous, reaching from Rohan or Westeros into deep space — so zealously guarded against female interlopers? Is it because geekdom, and to a lesser degree, the Internet itself, have been the province of men who don’t fit into society’s traditional masculine categories? In a post on science and entertainment site io9, Rachel Edidin, an editor at Dark Horse Comics, explains that “geek” is primarily a male-gendered noun, gendered for men who don’t fit America’s traditional model — either physical and cerebral — of masculinity, and thus that masculinity in the community is aggressively enforced.  So it makes sense that women aren’t welcome, that they’re assumed to be there under false pretenses. When women want to game, or cosplay, or draw web comics, or do just about anything on the internet that isn’t shopping or personal blogging, they’re seen as a threat to geek culture because geek culture has for so long been a masculine refuge for men who were told by society at large that they weren’t manly enough, that any feminization indicates depreciation. And geekdom is protected, with bullying and gendered insults and threats.

Those who assess Internet culture from outside its borders (say, your mother, or the New York Times) are fond of reminding us that anonymity leads to bullying. To be a woman on the Internet is to be confined to the continuous consumption of your own gender, or face serious outrage. Femininity, which has since the earliest days of advertising been linked with the frivolous and the intellectually inconsequential, has translated into binary with little change in form or function. Traditional feminine interests are met with disinterest and limited to certain sites, and any attempt to deviate from these interests is met with scorn and derision. Don’t believe me? Read the comments.