Yes, we’re still having that conversation – sigh. Though by now it’s not one conversation but at least four different intertwined discussions, one about SF romance and how some men feel threatened by it, one about racism and sexism in the SFWA as well as two new debates about sexual harrassment at conventions and about whether women are just being mean, when they criticise men for flat-out unrealistic portrayals of female characters. Apparently, this is shaping up to be the summer of genderfail.
Blanket trigger warning: Talk of sexual harrassment and links with potentially offensive content follow!
The debate about SF romance is still going on with several more SF romance authors weighing in. Pippa Jay wonders why we’re even having such discussions in the 21st century at the Spacefreighters Lounge, a group blog for SF romance authors, while Laurie A. Green feels uncomfortably reminded of Jurassic Park. Also at the Spacefreighters Lounge, Donna S. Frelick wonders why authors of romantic science fiction even go chasing after the science fiction readership that doesn’t want them instead of going after the much bigger romance readership that just might. Meanwhile, Sharon Lynn Fisher, author of the excellent Ghost Planet, describes how romance readers found and enjoyed her crossgenre novel, even though it was published by Tor and marketed as SF. She also points out that romance readers are a lot more openminded towards trying something new and don’t feel threatened by new genres and subgenres.
Meanwhile, a big new debate was sparked by one Rod Rees, a writer I’ve never heard about, who uses the official blog of his publisher Jo Fletcher Books to ask “Can male writers successfully write female characters?” It should be a largely uncontroversial question and the answer is, “Sure they can and plenty of male authors have done just that.” However, after reading his post, I’m pretty sure that Rod Rees is not one of them.
Rees starts off by confusing radical fringe feminism (You know the deal: Those evil feminists want to outlaw marriage, ban heterosexual sex and preferably just eliminate men altogether – and was there ever a single woman in the history of feminism except perhaps Andrea Dworkin who genuinely held those views?) with feminism in general. Oh yes, and feminism is a religion, don’t you know? This is something that really bothers me BTW, religious people calling decidedly non-religious movements substitute religions, because apparently they can’t imagine anyone living happily without religion of some kind. Listen, people, feminism is not a religion. Neither are communism or atheism or SFF fandom. The only religions out there are those thought systems that explicitly identify as religions (okay, the Church of Scientology is something of a borderline case). It’s okay if you want to believe in one of them, but don’t try to transplant your spiritual preferences on those of us who don’t feel the need for religion.
But it gets worse. Because you see, some female beta readers dared to tell Rod Rees that a scene where a female character admires her own breasts in the mirror was not realistic, because women don’t usually view themselves that way. Now the whole “Woman describing her own breasts in the sort of terms a heterosexual man would use” thing is such as big cliché that it even has its own name, omniscient breasts. And while some women may certainly have admired their own breasts in the mirror at some point (I probably did sometime as a teenager when I was happy to have breasts at all), what’s wrong with that sort of passage is not that the women admires her own breasts at all, but that she does so in a way that sounds like a heterosexual man talking about somebody else’d breasts. Honestly, most women don’t think about our breasts all the time. They’re just a part of our bodies. When I was writing spicy pulpy stories for Man’s Story 2, I constantly had to remember to throw in descriptions of breasts, because I honestly don’t find breasts all that exciting. And when I indie published those stories, a lot of the descriptions of breasts came right out again, because they felt unnatural.
But it gets even worse. For Mr. Rees is really angry at those evil feminists who are trying to constrain what he writes about. Here is a quote:
Worse, I had the troubling suspicion that there was an attempt being made to confine female characters in much the same way as male characters have been. To a section of the female reading public it seems that to be ‘realistic’ a female lead must be:
Strong and resolute;
Not to see herself as an object of male sexual interest;
Never to use her sexual charisma as a means of achieving an objective; and,
Not written by a man (okay, I made this one up).
Indeed, one of those most troubling takeaways I get from this and similar debates is an attempt to eliminate female characters who are tough and not stereotypically female. There are all sorts of complaints about female characters, usually tough women, who are basically just “men with breasts” (which is very transphobic in itself). Quite often this is aimed at female characters I have loved and admired over the years. It’s not just men saying it either, but women as well (more on that later). A large part of the reason why I started reading and watching SFF was that SFF had so much better women than other genres, women who were not like the vapid, boy-crazy girls at my school. Women who knew that there was something other than men in life and who, if they did fall in love with a man, did so on equal terms. It was the likes of Susan Calvin and Jirel of Joiry, Tamara Jagellowsk and Princess Leia who made me love SFF. And nowadays, Leia and Jirel are dismissed as chicks on chainmail bikinis (Leia only wore a bikini in one short scene and she didn’t choose it herself, while Jirel wears full armour), Susan Calvin is apparently a man with boobs (and one written by a compulsive butt pincher at that) because she has no real interest in romance and no one outside Germany knows of Tamara anyway. Are those the only female characters we should have? No, of course not. But condemning the tough women of SFF ignores a lot of those who – like me – found those characters immensely inspirational.
But it gets even worse: For Rod Rees leaves us with this little tidbit of insight:
But I have a suspicion that these proscriptions affect female writers as much as they affect male ones. It seems to be a fixture at the SF conventions I’ve attended to have a panel discussion debating why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres. Could it be that the success of female writers in YA fantasy fiction is in part attributable to their young female characters being better able to adhere to this template of the ideal female? Once female writers venture into the more visceral world of adult fiction they find this stereotype doesn’t work and hence struggle. Just a thought.
So women aren’t able to write YA, because it’s easy and allows them to write tough “Go and get ’em” girls (methinks Mr Rees has only read a very narrow sliver of contemporary YA), but not adult SFF, because it’s too complex for them and forces them to write female characters that are more to Mr. Rees’ taste, namely passive and feminine and possessed of omniscient breasts. Apparently, he missed the many, many works of adult fiction written by women, both in- and outside of SFF.
Foz Meadows rebuts Rod Rees point by point in this great post and also includes a snippet of the “woman admiring her breasts in the mirror” passage:
She regarded her breasts as her second- and third-best features, having, as was often remarked upon by her admirers – many of her regrettably few admirers – big breasts. But then Odette was a very big woman, so it was natural that she should have breasts to match her great height and her equally great girth. Still, never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Odette gave a wiggle and was pleased to see that her untethered breast jiggled in quite a charming fashion.
Uhm, Mr Rees, breasts are not zeppelins or balloons. They can’t be untethered. And if your passage describing a woman’s breasts makes me think of zeppelins, you’re doing something wrong.
Foz Meadows also has a great post on deleting potentially controversial posts (apparently, the Rod Rees post was deleted for a while), while Angela Highland a.k.a. Angela Korra’ti responds to Rod Rees and also points out how the “Hey, let’s oggle my own breast” thing looks from the POV of a breast cancer survivor.
British SF writer Tricia Sullivan responds to Rod Rees and the whole sexism in SF debate and shares her ongoing frustration with SFF in general. She also wonders whether SF’s bad reputation is not deserved. Here is a quote:
But I am at a point where I have seen too many mediocre male writers succeed while my work languishes, unread, that I give no more fucks, flying or otherwise. I have nothing left to lose, you see.
Is Rod Rees what we want as a field? Shit, we’ve just fucking lost Iain Banks. McAuley and Cadigan have cancer and I hope to God they both beat it. But really, what is the future of the genre in this country when publishers have to resort to cheap tricks like this and when idiots like Rees are encouraged to open their mouths and speak with regard to issues concerning women?
Meanwhile, Jo Fletcher, publisher of Jo Fletcher Books, tries to turn the whole thing into a freedom of speech issue. Sigh, the pattern is almost predictable by now, after all people were also falling over themselves to defend the rights of Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg or Theodore Beale/Vox Day to free speech. And while I agree that Rod Rees and everybody else has the right to say as much stupid stuff as they want (unless it crosses over into hate speech, but no one except VD did) on their own blogs, that doesn’t mean they automatically have the right to distribute said stupid stuff via an official publisher blog, the SFWA Bulletin or the SFWA twitter feed. As certain people are always quick to remind us when the issue is attacks on GLBT books or erotica, a private entity such as a publisher or writers’ organisation refusing to give room to certain kinds of speech is not censorship.
Mur Lafferty also points out that there is a difference between censorship and a magazine or website or other private entity deciding not to run a certain article and calls the “OMG, those nasty feminist fascists are trying to censor us” outcries from certain quarters what they are, namely silencing techniques. Plus, there are animated GIFs from Labyrinth.
Talking of which, there are a bunch of negative reactions from a certain rightwing libertarian corner of the SFF community to the SFWA brouhaha. First of all, here’s a post to which Bryan Thomas Schmidt (who has since withdrawn from the debate) linked in the comments to my previous post, namely Andrew Fox complaining about “swarm cyber-shaming”, which he likens to witch burning (complete with a witch burning graphic from what I think is the Martyrs’ Mirror). Andrew Fox is apparently a fan of the Malzberg/Resnick column and doesn’t quite get the outrage. He also traces the origin of the oxymoron “liberal fascism” to a book by the same title by one Jonah Goldberg, which – at least going by his summary – seems to be the sort of fringe political treatise that makes you wonder how it got published in the first place.
At the Mad Genius Club, a group blog of self-identified Human Wave writers, someone named Amanda mixes a good point, namely the relatively lack of YA with male protagonists, with comments about the current sexism and racism in the SFWA discussion, which she considers overblown. It all sounds fairly reasonable until she starts claiming that only a “vocal minority” found VD tweeting his racist screed via the SFWA Twitter feed offensive. Uhm, has she actually read VD’s post? Even if you disagree with N.K. Jemisin, it’s pretty obvious that VD’s post was just horribly offensive.
But Andrew Fox and Amanda are still semi-reasonable. Other reactions from the more extreme end of the political spectrum (and yes, in Europe these people are extreme) are not. At Daily Pundit, someone named Bill Quick decides that the SFWA acronym should stand for something else. And at Liberty’s Torch, some guy named Francis W. Poretto decides that it’s all just the fault of those evil women who are collectivists and want power over men. BTW, what is it with rightwing political blogs and crappy layouts? The last two links were found via Radish Reviews, where there are also lots more links about the crying dinosaurs of SF.
One thing I must have missed is for how many fans and writers Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg are important touchstones of their journey into SF. Now I know who Resnick and Malzberg are and I have read Mike Resnick, though I don’t think I’ve ever read Barry Malzberg (unless it was in an anthology). However, neither writer is of particular importance to me, my personal touchstones were other books and other writers (and for the record, one of my personal SF heroes, Isaac Asimov, has since been revealed as a compulsive butt pincher). But apparently, Resnick and Malzberg were of enormous importance to other writers, which also explains the big outcry over perceived insults towards Resnick and Malzberg (though IMO Ann Aguirre or Delilah Dawson or N.K. Jemisin or E. Catherine Tobler suffered worse than Malzberg and Resnick). For example, here is an appreciation of Mike Resnick by Brad Torgersen.
Meanwhile, Elise Matthesen, writer and jewelery designer, was sexually harrassed at this year’s Wiscon and decided to report the guy who did it. She also shares advice on how to report sexual harrassment at Jim Hines’ blog. The big shocker here is not that this thing happened, but that hardly anybody was surprised, because apparently the guy in question, editor at a big name SFF publisher, had been known as a problem for years. Mary Robinette Kowal also explains why she is reluctant to name the culprit.
As for editors using their position of power over writers to get sex, yes, this absolutely happens. I knew a skeevy editor like that (small press, non SFF) myself. To be fair, he never crossed the line from heavy flirting into harrassment and he left me strictly alone after I made it clear that I wasn’t interested, but he certainly had a reputation.
As for how much sexual harrassment and worse is going on at conventions, check out this post about some trolls harrassing female attendees at an anime convention via Twitter and in person. Found via this very good post by Hal Duncan (with bonus Paul Grice references).
Carrie Cuinn, Alisa Krasnostein, Cherie Priest and Maria Dahvana Headley talk about their own experiences with harrassment at conventions. Tansy Rayner Roberts, Sherwood Smith and Kari Sperring also weigh in on the sexual harrassment in fandom debate. So does Natalie at Radish Reviews and also offers a lot more links about women speaking out about their experiences.
At Popehat, Ken White wonders why talking about sexual harrassment makes many people so angry. I must confess I don’t get this either. It’s particularly bad here in Germany, where sexual harrassment is widely viewed as “something those prudish Americans invented”. Now I do think that the US in general is overly sensitive with regards to matters of sexuality. I’ve personally had the experience that what I thought was harmless conversation was viewed as a come-on by an American man. And the US concept of dating is so offputting that I don’t get why Americans mourn its passing. But when I tried to discus the recent sexual harrassment cases in fandom with German friends (along the lines of “Look, this is what happened to other women. Do you really think I should go to one of those cons?”), I got a lot of “Well, how do you know it’s true? She might be overreacting. It might just have been something like he telling her her t-shirt looked nice. You know how those Americans are.”
Yes, I know that Americans are more sensitive with regards to matters of sexuality than Germans. But that doesn’t mean that behaviour which actively makes women uncomfortable is okay. And indeed, a lot of the time I am frustrated by my fellow Germans dismissal of behaviour which makes women feel uncomfortable. Now I’m pretty direct myself. I talk about sex. I sometimes tell rude jokes, though only among people I know won’t feel offended. But I can’t even begin to count the incidents where I have told – even begged – male relatives or acquaintances not to make potentially offensive jokes with random waitresses. Where I have begged them “Don’t do this thing, especially not with young women you don’t know, cause you’ll offend someone and get in trouble” and was blown off. Just lately, at a family get together, the talk came to an old man, now long dead, who had the habit of making teenaged girls uncomfortable. Crushing hands, inappropriate remarks, that sort of thing. And yet we were expected to be polite to him, because he was a sort of friend of the family. I was terrified of this guy and I know that slightly older girls, cousins and the daughters of friend of my parents, were as well. But when I dared to say at this family gathering, “Well, X was really horrible, wasn’t he? We were all terrified of him”, I got an icy response of “Well, our daughters got along with him just fine. Maybe it was because they were sporty [which I was not] and good riders.” And I wanted to scream at this woman, “Lady, your daughters were just as terrified of X as I was. We all hated him, you just chose not to notice.”
The harrasser from Honeypot is based on a real person BTW. It never got quite as bad as in the story, but he was (is) bad. And the worst thing about it is that this guy, who is old now, has been doing that sort of thing, harrassing women, for decades now. Women know about him and sometimes they warn younger women, but no one ever stopped him or told him, “Dude, this is not okay.” I didn’t explicitly call him out either, cause I don’t need the family drama. I just know to avoid him.
At All About Romance, Anne Marble sums up the current controversy and also points out that while the romance community has its share of controversies and – yes – harrassment cases, it’s nowhere near as ugly as the SFF community can get at times. Indeed, the thing that struck me most about romance blogs and discussion fora was how generally nice people were.
Paranormal romance writer Elizabeth Hunter points out how sexism isn’t just a male phenomenon, since she has experienced many reviews by female reader upset that her heroines dared to defy or at least mistrust the hero. After all, the hero was such a dreamy and sexy man, so heroine had to be a bitch for not trusting him outright. And yes, I’ve noticed this dynamic on romance sites and messageboards, too. Bad behaviour by the hero is excused (and since a lot of romance readers still love ultra-alpha heroes, they can behave very badly indeed), but the heroines are judged to a ridiculous degree. And woe betide the heroine who is “too feisty” (code for “has a spine and opinions”), “too sophisticated” (code for “slut, i.e. not a virgin”) and a “bitch” (code for “Doesn’t think the hero is the best thing since sliced bread within two seconds of meeting him”). Sexism is not just a problem with men.
ETA: Carrie Cuinn has some ideas on how to stop sexual harrassment in fandom and John Scalzi has stated that henceforth his personal policy is that he will only appear at conventions which have a harrassment policy in place. S.L. Huang has compiled a timeline of the SFWA controversy, while a Tumblr named Speculative Friction offers screencaps of established writers making arses of themselves on a private SFWA forum. Not a whole lot of surprises there – the political orientation of many people is known. Though one author really disappointed me, because I read a very good novel by said author more than twenty years ago.