Sunday, May 22, 2011

We're not here for eye candy

I'm sitting in the Oakland airport, about to head home from the American Atheist Rapture RAM. Overall, I had a great time. I really enjoyed the talks by Rebecca Watson, Greta Christina, and Matt Dillahunty - who I finally got to meet in person, and who was promptly added to my List of Awesome People. And like always, I enjoyed meeting a bunch of the attendees and some of my blog readers. Kudos to the organizers for a great conference.

But (from the title you knew there had to be a "but") there was one incident that served as such a good example of the subtle sexism that's common in the atheist movement, I have to bring it up.

During a talk on how we need to make the atheist movement less about arguing and more of a community, David Eller brought up bloggers and videobloggers as an example of a good aspect of community. With photos of popular atheist videobloggers Laci Green and Cristina Rad (ZOMGitsCriss) on the screen, he quipped that it was so helpful that they're "pretty" and that we have a "pretty blonde Romanian" on our side. Without any mention of their intellect, wit, or content.

My patience was gone. I had three very inappropriate remarks made during the conference about my chest, and another woman confided in me that a male attendee made an astoundingly inappropriate remark about her appearance. When there was time for Q&A, I purposefully raised my hand. Eventually the mic made it back to me, and I said (paraphrased to the best of my ability):

"I have a brief comment. If you want to make the atheist movement more social, we have to be aware of the concerns of minorities, not insinuating they're only helpful because they're pretty and blonde. There are plenty of pretty blondes people can watch - these people are popular because they're intelligent and witty."

I barely got the whole statement out because people started applauding and cries of "Thank you!" sprung up across the audience.

Eller then offered a not-pology - saying he obviously knew how witty and intelligent Criss was, but being pretty doesn't hurt because it can still attract more guys to the movement.

...

One, when someone calls you out on something stupid you said that obviously upset the majority of the audience, stop at "but" before embarrassing yourself further.

Two, if you are using popular videobloggers as examples because you think they're intelligent, don't reduce them to their looks. It blows my mind people need this spelled out for them. It perpetuates the idea that we're just keeping atheist women around as trophies or booth babes, not because we appreciate their input. Sure, Criss is attractive - but that is irrelevant and inappropriate for a talk on community building at a conference.

Three, the atheist community doesn't exactly have a problem recruiting men. Nor would I stoop to suggesting we need to recruit hot guys to lure in the ladies to solve our gender problem. It's insulting, and not to mention heteronormative.

Yep, someone giving a talk on how to improve our community was horrendously out of touch with one of the most important and commonly discussed issues in said community. The irony has not escaped me.

Part of me hates blogging about stuff like this, because I don't want to promote in-fighting or tarnish an otherwise successful conference with this issue. But the more we let crap like this slide, the more it's going to get perpetuated. And I don't want the atheist movement of 2021 to be a room full of white men scratching their heads, wondering what went wrong.

EDIT: Eller has offered an apology. More here.

EDIT 2: For people wondering about tone and exact wording, audio clips of Eller's statement, my comment, and his reply are up here.

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