Can’t you guys take a joke? – Policing women’s speech

Here in Germany, Walpurgisnacht, i.e. the night from April 30th to May 1st, is traditionally a time for partying and having fun, especially since the following day is a public holiday. Most of the time, that fun takes the form of “Dance into May” parties, though in some bigger cities – most notably Berlin and Hamburg, but also Bremen in years past – it’s also a time for rioting.

I’m not much for partying and tend to stay as far away as possible from riots (never mind that the expected riots didn’t even materialise this year), but nonetheless I had a lot of fun on Walpurgisnacht.

When I logged onto the Internet for an hour or two before going to bed, I saw people discussing and snarking about this fantasy short story contest sponsored by Baen Books. Now it’s absolutely understandable why people would be snarking about this contest, since the wording is sexist and includes jabs against whole genres like YA paranormal romance as well as “political drama with no action” (a.k.a. stories that don’t match the US conservative view of the world) and the final judge is a writer who had just relieved himself all over the Hugo Awards. And considering that this contest was announced less than two weeks after the Hugo nominations, at a point when the controversy surrounding those nominations (more here, here and here) still hadn’t died down, it’s kind of obvious why many people would be discussing and mocking this contest.

The discussion quickly turned to wondering what sort of stories would be candidates for the award, based on the sort of books and themes that make up the majority of Baen’s output. So the #BaenAwardStories hashtag sprung up for 140 character summaries of the sort of stories expected.

It was all good fun – and there was a side conversation about a naked Captain America, too – until a couple of men decided to take exception, because “there are good people working at and writing for Baen, so why are you smearing them?” As you can imagine, this rather killed the mood.

At Dreamwidth, someone called legionseagle has a summary as well as some thoughts about the whole thing (and also includes two of my own contributions). Found via The Radish.

This post largely sums up my own feelings about the whole issue. Because “Can’t you take a joke?” is a very common response whenever women, people of colour, GLBTQI people, people of non-Anglo-American origin, etc… speak up about problematic or flat-out demeaning jokes. But make a few good-natured jokes about the tropes in books that are clearly targetted at a largely white and male American readership (and it is worth noting that unlike other genre publishers you can’t even find Baen books on European bookshelves, you need to order them online).

Never mind that no one was suggesting boycotting Baen books or marching on their headquarters to burn it all down. Indeed, there were a lot of side conversations about Baen books and authors we loved. All people were doing was mocking a rather mockable contest with a badly phrased announcement and yet this mockery was immediately slammed down by the tone argument.

legionseagle also addresses some of the problems I had with Jim C. Hines’ much publicized gender-switched cover art parodies. Now I think that Jim Hines is generally a really great guy and supporter of gender, race and GLBTQI issues, but his parodies of cover art, mostly urban fantasy covers at that, left a really sour taste in my mouth, especially when they went on and on. Because here we had a man mocking the largely female dominated subgenre of urban fantasy – how original! Especially since it’s not as if the SFF community, mainly the male half, hasn’t been dismissing and mocking urban fantasy for ages, because it contains such pesky elements as female protagonists, emotions, love and sex. Did the authors of those books, not to mention the publishers and their employees, deserve to be mocked for the cover art? No, of course not. As for a man trying to tell women what kind of cover art they should find offensive – no, just no. In fact, I quite like many urban fantasy novels, including some of the covers, and I’m not a bad feminist for doing so. I even drafted a detailed blog post just why those cover pose parodies left such a sore taste in my mouth, but I never posted it, because by that point the fad had passed.

So Jim Hines has no problem mocking a largely female dominated subgenre and – by association – its authors, but a couple of women (though there were men involved as well) mocking a male dominated subgenre and a publisher whose cover art makes even the worst, most cliched urban fantasy cover look like Da Vinci by comparison is somehow offensive and smearing the good folks who work for said publisher. Yeah right.

As for how offended the good folks at Baen were by the Twitter mockery, check out this contribution by yours truly:

Among those who favourited the tweet is… drumroll… the official Baen Books Twitter feed. So that’s how offended they are.

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16 Responses to Can’t you guys take a joke? – Policing women’s speech

  1. Hines and Scalzi have apparently come to think of themselves as saviors. It’s not surprising they’ve acquired the Great White Hope syndrome, given how much adulation and cookies they’ve been handed while non-white non-males at the firing line have been ignored or attacked. So when something happens without their approval and/or leadership, their instinctive (and possibly not entirely conscious) response is to either crush it or bend it so that it continues to validate their unquestioned preeminence.

    • Cora says:

      I guess you’re on to something there – though Scalzi did get involved in the mockery, if not the hashtag. And I do think they’re both good guys, but I have noticed tendencies of “Women, have no fear, for we shall save you from the scourge of sexism” in both of them, followed by flat-out irritation, if actual women decided not to be offended at whatever “scourge of sexism” the male saviour has made out and instead felt offended or annoyed by something completely different.

  2. Fail Burton says:

    “targetted at a largely white” implies SFF is and has been an expression of white racial supremacy and solidarity. Since there is no rhetoric you can point to to back up your assertion the last word one can use would be “clearly.” If you have evidence of an across-the-board racial conspiracy by whites to maintain their own centrality in SFF you need only present the quotes. In fact SFF is and has been no more supremacist than Arab or Chinese literature. You are confusing a demographic with supremacy. By that metric, middle-weight boxing, the National Basketball Association and Sweden are expressions of racial supremacy.

    If you could point to institutions within SFF that express problems in non-fiction rhetoric and that problem is always Jews, non-whites, women, or homosexuals, you might have a point, but there isn’t and so you don’t.

    On the other hand, there are tens of thousands of words within SFF’s institutions that express racial and gender solidarity if not outright supremacy in talking about problems within SFF. The sole source of those problems is seen as white, male, and heterosexual. Your own post is an example of the view that white straight males are inherently morally and spiritually inferior. It seems to me that if you were a private detective working for an attorney to provide evidence with which to make a case your case would not only be thrown out of court but work against you yourself.

    I might also add that there is nothing inherently gender supremacist or exclusionary about a genre that began as boys’ adventure fiction than there is in having a woman’s clothing boutique.

    You seem to have a double standard where anyone who says anything about a non-existent male supremacist movement is clever and on the money while anyone who makes fun of a very real movement of QUILTBAG feminists is a homophobic misogynist.

    If one has no dog in this hunt it is not any more obvious why someone would mock the Baen contest than they would the feminist Tiptree Awards, since the first is not a reflection of an ideology and the second is.

    Until you can point to Kickstarter anthologies called “White Men Destroy Science Fiction,” white SFF awards, white SFF symposiums that celebrate “White to the Future” and other manifestations of actual racial narcissism and supremacy, you might want to think about what the word “evidence” means.

    • Cora says:

      Fail, I was not referring to SFF in general, but specifically to the subset thereof published by Baen. A lot of Baen’s current output is quite obviously aimed at straight white American men of a more conservative bend. Nothing wrong with that – straight white conservative American men should have books catering to their interests. It’s not all Baen books either, since Baen still publishes Lois McMaster Bujold, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, P.C. Hodgell and Eric Flint. But there is such a thing as the typical Baen book with an excessive focus on weaponry, manliness, action and the virtues of the free market and that’s what people were mocking.

      As for the Tiptree Awards, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of mockery of the Tiptrees in spaces where right-leaning fans and writers hang out, especially considering how savaged e.g. Alex Dally MacFarlane’s rather innocuous column about non-binary gender was in these spaces.

      • Fail Burton says:

        I guess I don’t see how one can subtract a number of authors and then arrive at “typical.” The assertion that Baen caters to racial supremacy, whiteness, and self-awareness, as if it is a house-organ of the KKK, has no evidence to back it up. Baen doesn’t cater to whites any more than the National Basketball Association caters to blacks. They are cultural demographics no one predicted or tried to manage, not a supremacist racial ideology.

        On the other hand the Tiptrees are awarded by WisCon, which has a racially segregated “safer-space” and dinner. Last year Jaymee Goh – co-organizer of the space – Tweeted “Seems lately every week is white stupidity week. And they complain about a month in a year!” She also Tweeted from last year’s WisCon “Come join us for delish Nepalese fudz and non-white company!” When is obvious obvious?

        I am unaware of any institutional racial segregation being advocated by Baen or any of its authors or any racial rhetoric like “come join us for white company.”

        If you were a football judge, which side would you say sounds more like a racial supremacy? Let’s go by facts and quotes, not assumptions. If one were presenting a court case, it’s pretty clear which side would lose, since courts don’t recognize the default morality of race and gender as evidence or speaking in code as opposed to saying straight out that whites suffer “stupidity.”

        • Cora says:

          I don’t think anybody ever said that Baen is the house organ of the KKK – at any rate, I never did. However, they do publish a lot of books that appeal to a more conservative readership and ever since Jim Baen’s death the rightward slant has become even more noticeable.

          As for WisCon and its safe space for POC, I don’t see what this has to do with a debate about the reader demographic of military SF in general and Baen in particular. Women’s rooms and similar safe space have been common for years now and the complaints mostly come from people who don’t like the idea of there being a space that is not intended for them. Never mind that it’s usually only one room (can’t speak for WisCon, cause I’ve never been there). Would you also complain about an “SFWA members only” party at a con or a nursery room reserved for young kids?

  3. Daniela says:

    I did once find a Baen-book in a Germany bookstore. Of course it was Ethan of Athos by the marvelous Lois McMaster Bujold and the bookstore in question was the gay bookstore in Berlin :-D. So, not your typical Baen-book, I guess. That’s actually how I discovered her and Miles Vorkosigan. I actually discovered a number of my favorite SFF-writers back then that way. It’s a bit telling when a gay bookstore has a better English SFF selection than any other bookstore in town.

    • Cora says:

      I suspect someone at that bookstore was an SFF fan with good taste and probably handpicked the books (and of course Ethan of Athos is on topic for a gay bookstore). When I was a teen, the bookstore with the biggest English language SFF section in town also had someone on staff who knew what they were doing, since they obviously handpicked the books on offer. Hence, I missed a lot of the creepier, sexist examples of old school SF during my formative years, for which I’m very grateful. No Bujold, though.

      But in general, Baen is one of those SFF publishers whose books are rarely found in European bookstores, not even in the UK. Ditto for Roc and DAW – both are rarely seen on European shelves. This is why there are a lot of gaps in my SFF reading in pre-Amazon times, because books by some publishers simply weren’t available. I guess it’s a distributor issue.

      Come to think of it, I did see a Baen book by David Weber in a German bookstore once, which I suspect was a special order that was not picked up and thus landed on the shelf. And Hodges Figgis in Dublin had quite a few Baen books in their SFF section, which surprised me, because you hardly ever see them in Europe.

      • Daniela says:

        I think they had some agreement with a gay store directly in the US and someone there was an SFF-fan and always sent them some of the newest books. But that was how I discovered Ursula K. LeGuin, Lois Mc Masters Bujold, Tanya Huff, Mercedes Lackey and others.

        I have a huge DAW-collection so I can’t rally comment on that (I got a lot of recommendations from US penpals). I guess English books in Europe were more Orbit, although I also have a lot from Bantam, DelRey and Tor. I can’t really tell which I picked up in UK or ordered. Although ordering US books was strangely enough easier than ordering UK-books/editions.

        • Cora says:

          It might just have been down to the distributor the store used. At any rate, most of my “bought in Germany” English language SFF from pre-Amazon times was published by Del Rey, Bantam, Ace, Avon or Tor with very little Roc, DAW or Baen (and what I have might well have been purchased in the US).

          The store where I bought my English language books always had these huge “Books in Print” catalogues on display, where you could look up the details of books you wanted to order. Of course, that only worked, if you knew the books existed and even then, it didn’t necessarily work well. I once ordered the wrong book because of a duplicate title.

  4. Mark says:

    I have missed the #BaenAwardStories thing and I don’t have a Twitter account anyway, but I’m a bit surprised/disappointed that the whole discussion afterwards is so genderized. So according to the comments only women were involved in the mocking, and only men objected to that mocking. Really? It sounds like it was fun and that no one was seriously harmed.

    As to Hines: one person being overly sensitive about something. If that would be an isolated case I would say who cares and how is this “policing”?, but I guess if somebody from the center of the universe makes a comment is has some more weight. So maybe this is a typical privileged point of view, but if you (and if I had the chance I probably would have participated) have some fun with Baen, why do you let individuals spoil the fun? It seems like a typical SF discussion where a harmless discussion is interrupted by a harmless comment and all of a sudden people burst into tears and point fingers (oh, that individual did something bad? “She was mean to Baen!” or “He didn’t approve of us being mean to Baen!”). Just the next installment of the kindergarten that is SF fandom.

    • Cora says:

      There definitely were some guys involved in the Baen mockery as well as peole of undetermined gender (random screenname plus dog avatar), but the majority seemed to be women, at least as far as I could tell (unless you specifically search, you only see the tweets of people you’re following). And the criticism did come from a couple of bigger name male authors. Plus, Baen has a reputation for publishing a lot of work in male dominated subgenres such as military SF and macho monsterhunting fantasy, so a lot of the jokes were explicitly aimed at the macho tropes that seem to be standard for some of Baen’s output.

      As for why it had a dampening effect, if one moment you’re looking at people posting funny 140 character summaries of cliched SFF stories and the next your screen is full of people defending themselves and accusing each other, the mood is kind of gone.

      Otherwise I agree that SFF fandom is resembling a kindergarten at the moment.

  5. Sean O'Hara says:

    “Especially since it’s not as if the SFF community, mainly the male half, hasn’t been dismissing and mocking urban fantasy for ages, because it contains such pesky elements as female protagonists, emotions, love and sex.”

    Excuse me, but I mock urban fantasy because SF fandom is the only place in America you will ever find “urban” used to describe a genre where 95% of the protagonists are white and people of color exist to aid the heroine. The genre is just as ookie in its own way as Baen-style MilSF.

    • Cora says:

      I’m not a big fan of the “urban fantasy” label myself and prefer “contemporary fantasy”, but that’s the label we’re stuck with. And while there actually is urban or contemporary fantasy that is more diverse and international, the books that get the lion’s share of attention are still overwhelmingly white and also white-washed, i.e. the white heroine appears on the cover, but her black boyfriend does not.

      However, even if you consider urban fantasy as ookie as military SF, it’s still striking that one subgenre is mocked much more than the other.

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