The Female of the Species
This time last year, I was looking forward to competing as a member of Team USA at the World Veteran Fencing Championships in Stralsund. I had also just started blogging about what I had seen in Milo’s campus tour, and I was eager to enter the fray on the side of the Dangerous Faggot. Little did I know what adventures my blogging would bring!
The sense of being caught up in an archetypal story, playing a character I had never thought to be able to imitate. Watching a friend rise in popularity and fame, only to be brought down by the betrayal and calumny of those whom he had called friends. The attention of the media, for good and ill. It has been quite the whirlwind of adulation and infamy, love and hate, all the while I have been attempting to chronicle what it feels like to be living a myth.
And you wonder what fencing has to do with it?
Nothing – my competition year was more or less completely shot, so preoccupied have I been since Worlds with finishing my book and blogging about Milo.
And yet, everything.
It has nothing to do with weapons as such, but it has everything to do with competition. It has nothing to do with feeling physically threatened, but it has everything to do with being willing to put oneself at psychological risk. It has nothing to do with proving myself as a woman, but everything to do with training myself to be strong enough to take the worst that other women can throw at me. Including myself.
After all, as the poet once famously put it,
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.All of the speakers in the above conversation (see screenshot) are women. Again, they are all younger than I am. All three are in English, not History, but only one is a student of medieval literature, so perhaps they may be forgiven for not understanding the spiritual significance of the martial arts. Certainly, it does not seem like any of them have experience as sport fencers, although I am intrigued at the suggestion that speaker number three is practiced in rapier and dagger. (Judging from her cv, she seems to work on Elizabethan tales of treason and murder, but that could just be Shakespeare’s influence. Perhaps she knows my friend Greg Mele.)
And you thought I was just a silly teddy bear?
I admit it, I am surprised at the vehemence of the response that my tagging Milo in my Facebook share of my blogpost about Dorothy Kim’s blogpost has provoked. Sure, I thought to get Professor Kim’s attention. She has, after all, been paying close attention to me for over a year. But to get almost 1,500 signatures on an Open Letter sent to my dean and department? That takes a special level of outrage, far beyond what my telling my medievalist colleagues to “learn some [expletive] medieval western European Christian history” would seem to warrant.
I am reminded of a scene from Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, in which the Elf Queen is attempting to shame Magrat Garlick into submission. The Elf Queen has kidnapped Magrat’s soon-to-be-husband the Fool, and Magrat has sallied forth wearing armor under her wedding dress to rescue her man. Before getting engaged, Magrat had served as the younger witch of the not-quite-coven of Lancre, in which she was subject to the steely eye of Granny Weatherwax and the ribald teasing of Nanny Ogg. In Granny’s formulation, Magrat was a “wet hen,” too soppy and sentimental ever to be a proper witch, not to mention bring down the glamorous Elf Queen.
But when Magrat shows up to challenge the Elf Queen, both Granny and Nanny have been overpowered, and it is up to Magrat to defeat her. Magrat makes the first move and grabs the Elf Queen, whom she discovers to be almost weightless, physically insubstantial. But then the Queen launches her counterattack, “exploding into [Magrat’s] uncertainty like a nova.”
She was nothing. She was insignificant. She was so worthless and unimportant that even something completely worthless and exhaustively unimportant would consider her beneath contempt. In laying hands upon the Queen she truly deserved an eternity of pain.
She had no control of her body. She did not deserve any. She did not deserve a thing.
The disdain sleeted over her, tearing the planetary body of Magrat Garlick into pieces.
She’d never be any good. She’d never be beautiful, or intelligent, or strong. She’d never be anything at all.
Self-confidence? Confidence in what?
The eyes of the Queen were all she could see. All she wanted to do was lose herself in them...
And the ablation of Magrat Garlick roared on, tearing at the strata of her soul...
...exposing the core.
She bunched up a fist and hit the Queen between the eyes.Back a lifetime ago, before I had ever made the medal round at a national veteran event, I was in tears yet again, talking with my friend Ed. “You are too nice,” he told me. “You need to be willing to win.” The taxi driver who picked me up last Sunday to take me to New York where, I had heard, some of my opponents were planning to protest the seminar I was scheduled to give, told me much the same thing. I was fired up and anxious and ready to fight, but he looked straight at me and said, “You find it hard to be the one who has to be mean.”
I hate mean girls. I hate the gossiping and the backbiting and the sneering about how ugly other women are. I hate the impulse women seem to feel to bring each other down, to rip and tear at each other’s reputation – to slut-shame and slander. I hate the preening and the prancing and the bitchiness that seems to be the stuff of women’s conversation about other women. I hate the way in which women refuse to compete on the basis of skills, and go after each others’ souls instead.
It is almost worse when academic women do it to each other.
The women in the above thread were not, in fact, talking primarily about me. They were talking about my dear friend and senior colleague Jane Chance, professor of English at Rice when I was an undergraduate there, and a fellow lover of Tolkien. Two weeks ago, when Jane first heard of what I had written about Dorothy Kim and wondered what on earth had happened to me to say something, in her experience of me, so out of character, she wrote to me, asking for my side of the story. I told her, and to her great credit, she went back out into the wilds of social media, attempting as a good senior colleague to mediate. She was shunned.
As she told my friend Andrew Holt, when he interviewed her about her experience in the online fray:
I felt there had to be some way of convincing [Rachel and Dorothy] both to apologize for any hurt and shake hands, at least virtually.
Returning to Facebook, where the debate had become more heated, I truthfully said, “I stand for both Rachel Fulton Brown and Dorothy Kim.” Although this got the attention of the FB posters, it immersed me even more deeply in chastisement. Some of my medievalist Facebook friends and others who don’t know me very well personally were aghast that I could support Professor Fulton Brown, period. The more I insisted both had said uncivil things to the other, the worse it became. The supporters of Kim refused to believe anything I said about Fulton, largely because of defamatory comments about Fulton Brown’s friend, Milo Yiannopoulos, whom she had come to know initially as a Catholic writer.* Having herself recently converted to Catholicism,** she began to follow Milo’s other posts and writings, often published in Breitbart. He has been accused of white supremacy, pedophilia, rape threats, and any number of things, which he has countered with lawsuits that he has won. However, Kim followers and other Fulton Brown critics falsely accuse Milo’s supporters of reacting violently at public meetings, for which she is blamed for associating with him.The more Jane tried to make peace, the uglier the responses to her mediation became, until she began to despair for our field as a whole.
I have always liked to think being part of a community of medievalists is a haven because we are often so misunderstood both by other academics and non-academics. Kalamazoo [our annual International Medieval Congress] has served as a retreat from university politics. I now deeply regret having already reserved a flight to Kalamazoo for 2018—I am afraid to go. Some of these friends have said things that are hard to forget.For example, from the above thread in which the young women were talking about Jane’s interview:
I know this young woman’s work. I was a peer reviewer for one of her books. (She didn’t know that, I’m sure. Now she does.) I liked her book and learned a great deal from it. I do not understand why she feels the need here to bring Jane down simply for trying to defend me. The things that Jane has shown me that our younger colleagues, many of them women, said about her on her own Facebook page are even worse.
You will say, so why did I say the things that I did about Dorothy? (Note, please, that throughout that blogpost I call her “Professor Kim,” and the only thing I said about her looks was a direct quotation from her own article.) Because back in January 2016, when she and I first engaged online, I had said this:
Today, the CBC ran an interview in which another of my medievalist colleagues David Perry commented on the controversy in our field. I say, controversy, but in fact it is a controversy of one (me) as against the majority of my colleagues who have no clue what the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship and In the Middle Facebook groups have been saying about me. Or had no clue, until recently.
“I think that in the last few months, the academic community has really begun to show itself as engaged in this fight in really powerful and important ways,” Perry says. But he admits not all scholars are onside. “There are fault lines. There's a medievalist who is a friend of Milo Yiannopoulos. So it's not unified, but in general I think the mainstream body of medieval scholars have joined the people who have been calling for this for years.”Note how I have achieved She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named status. I am simply the medievalist who is Milo Yiannopoulos’s friend. Which means it is more or less pointless to try to explain how this does not put me on the side of the white nationalists or white supremacists, as Milo himself has repeatedly shown. (See chapter 2 in his book, “Why the Alt-Right Hates Me.”) What matters is that I am, effectively, to become a non-person. Nothing. Insignificant. So worthless and unimportant as to be beneath contempt.
One of the things that you learn as a fencer, particularly a veteran fencer, is to take all fencers seriously, whatever their age. Someone my age can easily be taken down in a bout by a fencer of fourteen (the age at which fencers can compete in the open Divisions). Someone my age can also take out fencers much younger than I am. What’s the saying? “Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.” Not in fencing. And not in academia, either.
When I engaged Dorothy Kim a year and a half ago, I saluted her as a worthy opponent. I was sincerely grateful for the challenge that she presented my original “Three Cheers for White Men” post, and I was energized at the thought of making my argument better. What I did not expect was to spend the next year and a half receiving screenshots from colleagues showing me what she was saying about me. I appreciated that she had friends who supported her in her arguments (I met many of them in that first Facebook exchange), but what I did not anticipate was the general unwillingness of the scholars in my field to read the primary sources. To come to my blog and see what I had written about Milo. Perhaps even, like Jane, to change their minds about what they had heard.
I say general unwillingness, but of course that’s not true. I have no idea how many people from my field of study or academia more generally have visited my blog in the last couple weeks. I do know that my salon of Random Laypersons continues to grow and that I have received letters of thanks from around the country, indeed around the world, encouraging me in taking a stand against the glamour.
But the glamour is strong, as is the mob. Which is where, if you are still curious, fencing comes in.
Three years ago I quit this sport, dramatically, hysterically, humiliatingly when I lost in the direct elimination round not once but twice in the same weekend to less experienced fencers than myself after coming out of the pools both times in the top 8. Everything that the Elf Queen threw at Magrat, I threw at myself after losing the second of those bouts in two days. The pit opened up and all I could see was my utter worthlessness. And then it got worse as I fell in. And in. And in. Disdain? I knew it. Contempt? I was it. Ugly? I had never seen anyone uglier, less able to control her emotions, more despicable and humiliating than me.
I cried for almost a whole day, so overwhelming was the humiliation, not at losing, but at not being able to lose well.
And so I quit. Took the summer off. Worked on other things. And waited to receive the peer review reports on my book. Which, when they came, told me that there was no book there. That I had humiliated myself all over again by thinking I could write anything that anybody would want to read.
Self-confidence? Confidence in what?
Here is my theory about what is happening in my junior colleagues’ response to Jane and me: they are in the grip of terrible writer’s block, and they are taking it out on us. Jane has published twenty-three books, both edited collections and monographs, and over one hundred articles. She has outpublished almost everyone in our field, including the men with whom she has had to compete throughout her career. My publication record is nowhere near as impressive in quantity, partly because I write such long books. But even I am amazed at how much I have managed to write just on my blog this past year, and I did finish my second book.
Writing is hard. It takes you out into the wilderness and confronts you with all your inadequacies. It is the Elf Queen telling you over and over and over again, “You suck.” It is extremely tempting to take it out on others, to blame them for your not being able to find the thing that you most want to say. But the Elf Queen is insubstantial and the glamour is in part of our own making, our willingness to succumb to the lies about what it means to create.
I started this blog over nine years ago as a way of helping me get started on writing my second book. I began with a prayer because I had no idea what I was going to be able to say, nor was I sure that I would ever figure out how to write my book. I started fencing because I wanted to understand the metaphors that my monastic sources were using about the role of military discipline in shaping the soul. And I kept writing on the blog because it was the one place that the writer’s block did not seem to hold sway.
This was the context for that first post I wrote about Milo and the response to his talks: “A few words of advice to Trigglypuff – and her teachers.” Because I’ve been there. I know what it means not to be able to sit with your emotions. I know what it means not to be able to find that sweet spot between anxiety and boredom. I know what it means to confront the Elf Queen – all the previous scholarship in our field – and have it tell you nothing that you write will ever be as insightful, profound, well-received, important as what older scholars have said. I have been there, with the Devil bearing down on me, telling me to burn my own book.
And I have been there with the other girls telling me I suck. And believing them.
“You did well there, girl,” [Nanny says to Magrat after she battles the Elf Queen to a draw. ] “Didn’t think you had it in you to survive an attack like that. It fairly had me widdling myself.”
“I’ve had practice,” said Magrat, darkly.So have I.
*Not quite true, although Milo’s Catholicism shone out to me from the first when I started watching his talks. I told Jane I have read back through his archive of articles into the reviews that he wrote as a beginning journalist for the Catholic Herald.
**Again, not quite true: I converted this year, in the midst of my blogging about Milo, after decades of studying the medieval devotion to Mary. It was time.