I take my role as part of the WOO YAY brigade seriously. Sometimes that means going out of my way to look at context for potentially troubling things in a sympathetic light. Sometimes it means concentrating on the pros, and passing lightly over the cons. The perfect is, after all, the enemy of the making good progress.
But sometimes criticism is necessary. I’ve been chewing something over in my head for a couple of months, ever since I came home on a bright afternoon from pouring over papers in a library to find two items side-by-side on my RSS feed: Kate Elliott on “Looking for women in historically-based fantasy worlds” and Foz Meadows on “The Problem of R. Scott Bakker.”
If you don’t remember them, or never read them, go and read them now. It won’t take long.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition. Elliott is talking about ways to include female personalities in traditionally male narratives, to consider how women have active roles in the world, even when those roles are constrained by social and/or cultural factors. Bakker, in the original comments which Foz Meadows quotes, as well as in the comments to her post, appears to be making the argument that female free agency in chauvinistic worlds is a mirage.
“I always assume [my] reader is male. As a male, I know the ways of the male gaze…”*
“[This book] caters to the pornographic sensibilities of men to shake them up, to twist and to problematize. Genre is all about giving readers what they want.”
*And white people understand racism, and straight people understand anti-queer prejudice, and the top 1% of rich people understand the experience of the poor. As you might have guessed, I’m a bit dubious about that statement. Understanding from the point of view of the perpetrator — from the point of view of the subject of the male gaze — is qualitatively different from understanding the point of view of the object of said gaze.
I’m not using R. Scott Bakker as an example just to pick on an easy target, but because he’s said directly on the internet what’s implied in the text of more than one genre novel: women are secondary. In fact, sometimes they’re so secondary, they’re hardly there at all (Prince of Thorns, Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure, The Left Hand of God, The Blade Itself, The Lord of the Rings). Sometimes there’s only one of them. TV Tropes knows this as the Smurfette Principle, but we could call it “the Black Widow Problem” after The Avengers, or “the Mistborn Problem,” if we wanted to. And even when we put more than one woman in the text, our grand wee genre still has a bit of a problem with Frank Miller Feminism. (As witness the aggressively sexualised framing of women in the television production of medievalesque soap-opera Game of Thrones.)
Despite the present flourishing of genre works with fully-rounded women in starring roles — written by Karen Lord, Kameron Hurley, Jim Hines, Elizabeth Bear, Kate Elliott, Sherwood Smith, Jacqueline Carey, Rae Carson, Amanda Downum, Leah Bobet, N.K. Jemisin, Michelle Sagara, among many others — there remains a pervasive trend, in conversations and spaces which are not majority-female, to treat woman as other, as disposable, and as consumable.
This is a trend which exists outside of genre as well, of course. But the SFF genre is not immune to it: despite sci-fi/fantasy fandom’s tendency to see ourselves as Smarter Better People, we absorb the narratives of the culture that surrounds us, and suffer from the same blindness to our own privileges, to recognising that our “innate and inalterable” ways of thinking are formed by a process of acculturation. The culture we move through is still immensely sexist and racist, and its institutions shape our attitudes and behaviours even when we ourselves do not think of ourselves as either. Witness, from some time ago, Emily Asher-Perrin’s “Hey, Everyone - Stop Taking This Picture!” in the comments to which commenter after commenter repeated some variant of “But sex sells!” without acknowledging that what they were talking about wasn’t sex, per se, but the fact that a particular view of women’s bodies is almost universally constructed as signifying sex.
(Mind you, the confusion of sex and women goes way back. Nineteen-year-old Isaac Asimov reduced the presence of women in stories to love interests all the way back in the late 1930s. The confusion has gotten slightly less in the years since, but really, far from enough less.)
See that often enough, and it gets a little tiring.
The Smurfette Problem, and the narrative of women in fear and pain which our genre has this bad habit of contributing to — not as much as primetime crime drama, but certainly enough — isn’t good for women.
It’s not good for men, either: it contributes to the normalisation of things that a) aren’t (or shouldn’t** be) normal and b) aren’t okay. Recently, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a piece criticising the new Tomb Raider videogame, after it was revealed that Lara Croft’s badassery comes about as a result of rape/attempted rape.*** In a follow-up post, she addressed herself to two of her (male) commenters who admitted that the inclusion of the main character’s rape was a plus for them.
**I’m taking the ethical stand here that women are people too, and that failing to give female characters at least as much thought as male ones is being part of the problem. Also, hey, if you’re going to sexualise dead bodies, let’s have some sexy male corpses, too. I’m just saying. Necrophilia: it’s not just for men.
***Do I really have to point out how much this is fucked up? Surviving sexual assault doesn’t make you a superhero. (Be a radically different world if it did.) It makes you a survivor of sexual assault. Making it a trigger for badassery is lazy and exploitative and.... hell, Jim Hines said it already.
Men who push back loudly against this sort of thing are few and far between, and women who criticise things beloved of the geek tribe get tremendous amounts of crap for it: crap that’s gendered in a way that male criticism isn’t.
It doesn’t have to be like that. We don’t have to perpetuate thoughtlessness, insensitivity, exclusionism - and laziness - in our entertainment. So why do we?
I don’t know, not for sure. Sometimes I think we do it because we’re so immersed in rape culture and in the blindness of privilege that we can’t see the trees, the forest is so large. The countless thousand microaggressions deployed against people lower down the sliding scale of social power are so universal, we don’t even recognise them as anything other than normal, the way things are.
But SFF is all about making up new worlds and playing with them. We can do better.
I’d really like if we could do better.