Feminism, SFWA, and what I think

I’ve been mulling over the latest SFWA kerfuffle, and here’s what I think: I find it unsurprising, disappointing, encouraging, and disturbing.

Let’s break these down in order.

Unsurprising: okay, a couple of old white males who write hard sci fi penned an article in which they bemoaned the overreaction of “lady authors” to “compliments” on their beauty and sexiness. Well, color me shocked. Never would I imagine something like this would happen. NEVER.

Disappointing: while the fact that this article got written is not surprising to me, the fact that it was published was definitely disappointing. These guys didn’t write this on their own personal blogs, they wrote it in the SFWA bulletin. And it made it past the editor and board without comment. Now, I suspect it’s quite likely that the editor and board of SFWA are busy folks and don’t necessarily vet every article in the bulletin because they don’t have time. This doesn’t make what happened right, but it does cast it in a less menacing light. We’re probably talking about a case of things falling through the cracks, not a case of intentional collusion with and support of outmoded and insulting ideas.

Encouraging: the response to this incident has been, for the most part, encouraging. There’s a lot of outrage. SFWA’s president immediately took responsibility for what happened and steps to try and keep it from happening again. This all shows that there are a lot of people who get why this is a problem and want to change the culture of sexism in our field.

Which brings us to…disturbing.

What disturbs me about all of this is not what got published in the bulletin or the reactions to it. It’s the people who aren’t saying anything. The ones who are quiet because they either agree with Resnick and Malzberg, or because they don’t understand what the big deal is.

See, the thing is, it isn’t just old white dudes from another era who don’t see why women object to being called attractive. There are a lot of otherwise reasonable people who think this way too. Now, some of them are trying to understand, but plenty of them aren’t.

So, in what I hope is a clear explanation, here’s why it’s objectionable to call a woman beautiful or sexy or anything else related to her physical attributes in a public forum:

First, and most obviously, it reduces a woman to the sum of her physical attributes, stripping away any other relevant quality about her. That is demeaning and insulting–doubly so when it’s done in a professional setting, such as the SFWA bulletin, or a convention panel, or whatever.

A lot of times when this complaint is raised, people point out that we are biologically hardwired to notice the physical — especially secondary sexual characteristics such as breasts and butts — and hardwired to respond to them. This response has always bugged me because it’s such an easy “out” for men. The “my biology made me act that way” response. Ugh. We moved past biological hardwiring about 10,000 years ago, people.

We eat domesticated plants and animals, which are not the foods we evolved to digest. When someone gets sick, we don’t say ‘oh, too bad. Their biology has doomed them.” We developed and use medicine to help those people get better. We’ve put culture ahead of biology for a long time now, and there is no reason that shouldn’t be true for gender as well. Yes, maybe you notice a woman has a nice shape. Maybe you think she’s really pretty. WELL, KEEP THAT SHIT TO YOURSELF.

There is no reason that you have to act on that observation. No reason you have to let it guide your behavior. No reason you have to assume that a woman’s body is the thing that should structure how you approach her. Culture has shaped the way we deal with a lot of things that are biologically based — gender and sex should be no different.

Further, it’s a ridiculous double-standard. As many people have pointed out, you wouldn’t say “I’ve heard male author X writes pretty good fiction but, more importantly, he’s got a great ass!” or “I think we should publish a calendar of male editors in speedos – or better yet — barbarian fur undies, because those dudes are hot.”

Too often men are the default and women are a sexualized variation on them. Not cool.

This is the tiresome part of it, but there’s a menacing aspect to all this as well. While many times these comments are meant as “compliments”, the fact remains we live in a culture where men rape women. Way. Too. Often. And that very much shapes how women experience and perceive the world.

Theodora Goss put it aptly on her blog, when she wrote:

the point I want to make is that something that may not seem threatening to a man may seem profoundly threatening to a woman. I’ll give you an example.

Scenario: A woman passes a man on the street. He says, “Hello, beautiful.”
How the man perceives this: “I paid her a compliment.”
How the woman perceives this: “Is he going to attack me?”

I don’t know if this is true for all women, in all circumstances, but if I’m the woman in that scenario, particularly if I’ve been walking down that street absorbed in my own thoughts, as soon as I’m spoken to I will immediately check my surroundings. What time of day is it? Is there anyone else on the street? How threatening does the man seem? (Although I have to add, if I am completely honest, that I never walk down a street lost in thought. I used to when I was younger. I’m smarter now.)

Yes. Absolutely. I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t have this experience on a regular basis. Imagine that, men of the world. Imagine having to engage in that kind of situational awareness on a daily basis just because you were born a particular gender. It sucks.

And this scales up from strangers on the street to male acquaintances and sometimes even male friends. For instance, we have to be careful when we make new male friends, always wondering if maybe we’re being too friendly or too effusive on a shared topic of interest. Will he misinterpret my enthusiasm for sexual interest? An uncomfortable thought. After all, I don’t know this man very well. If he does misinterpret my offer of friendship for something more, will he act on it? Is it wise to be alone with him? What if I try to clear up the misunderstanding and he doesn’t care? Doesn’t stop?

So, if you’re a man, the next time you meet a woman, consider that she may be grappling with all these concerns and fears — just because she’s a woman. Consider that your admiration for her loveliness may not be the “compliment” you intend but instead a minefield of danger and potential misunderstanding.

Consider that the things you take for granted (that people are interested first in who you are and what you do and second – if at all – in how “beddable” you might be) are the very things women are asking for when they say “please don’t call me a ‘lady author’ and please don’t tell me I’m pretty’.

Instead of looking at me, try talking to me.

Life isn’t fair

I’ve been thinking a lot about women lately, about the hands we’re dealt in society and they way we’re portrayed in media, and about the very strong (often violent) emotions that underlie most discussions about gender relations in the US.  It’s stirring up strong emotions in me, too–ones that aren’t entirely new or unfamiliar.

Most people who’ve met me in the last couple of years probably don’t know or wouldn’t guess that in a former life I was a rather vocal third wave feminist anthropologist.  I researched marginalized and alternative genders in prehistory and published books and articles on the ways that society (and feminism itself) needed to seriously reassess the way they were conducting business.  I launched myself out of a prestigious Ivy League university with a PhD, hell bent on becoming a tenured professor who would change the system and make a difference.

That was 7 years ago.  Today I’m happily married, teach part time, keep house, cook, and write fantasy and science fiction novels.  My life bears almost no resemblance to what I imagined it would.  All I need is a passel of well-behaved children, some cocktail onions, and a frilly apron and I’ll be a modern day June Cleaver.

This transformation could be viewed as a series of compromises and sacrifices made because of my gender.  Alternatively, it could be seen as choices I made based on the way my dreams for the future and ideas about what constitutes happiness were evolving.

The latter is a lot closer to the truth than the former.

No one forced me to abandon pursuit of a career in academia.  I chose to.  But one of the reasons was because the way forward seemed untenable.  To succeed, I’d have to made sacrifices that were personally unacceptable (e.g. take a job somewhere horrible, live apart from my husband, extend my field seasons past what I wanted, etc).  I know people who did choose to make those sacrifices and I leave it up to them to share whether they are glad or sorry.

I know I’m glad about the choices I made.  I’m happier now than I was then and the decision to throw all our eggs in one basket and support my husband’s career has paid off.  I am now afforded the space and time to pursue a new dream —  that of becoming an author — and my husband could not possibly be more supportive.  So it’s not as simple as it seems.

But just because my particular situation has come up roses doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t feel a tight, hard fist of rage in my heart at the unfairness of the world when it comes to gender.

Growing up, my dad always said that life isn’t fair.  It’s the truest thing anyone has ever told me.  Life is most assuredly not fair.  But it’s extra unfair for women and there’s no clear way to fix that, no evidence it can ever be fixed, or that enough people (including plenty of women) even want to fix it.  Though there are, of course, exceptions to this, many men, even very liberated and progressive ones, are reluctant or unwilling (when push comes to shove) to make career/ambition-related sacrifices when they have a women in their life who can make them instead.  And that pisses me off and makes me sad in equal measure.

A couple of things have got me thinking about this stuff lately.  A recent discussion about whether women can really “have it all” (which is a stupid phrase anyway because no one can ever have it all, male or female), some debates within the F/SF community about male privilege and the portrayal of heroines, and interaction with the young women in my life — in particular my nieces, aged 1 and 4, who I’m headed off today to spend some time with.

They are being raised in a loving and progressive household.  They will be taught, as I was, that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to and work hard for.  And they will discover, just as all women do, that there is an unspoken caveat attached to that, a set of invisible shackles that may not fetter them when they’re young but will appear and begin to pull harder and harder as they age and make decisions about career and family.  Those sacrifices and decisions their gender will force upon them aren’t always (or even ever) bad.  Sometimes they’re wonderful and lead to lasting happiness.

But they exist for women in a way they don’t for men, and that sucks, and to pretend otherwise is a lie.