The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays by double Hugo Award-winning essayist and fantasy novelist Kameron Hurley—available May 31st from Tor Books!
Unapologetically outspoken, Hurley has contributed essays to The Atlantic, Locus, Tor.com, and others on the rise of women in genre, her passion for SF/F, and the diversification of publishing. The book collects dozens of Hurley’s essays on feminism, geek culture, and her experiences and insights as a genre writer, including “We Have Always Fought,” which won the 2013 Hugo for Best Related Work. The Geek Feminist Revolution will also feature several entirely new essays written specifically for this volume—including “Where Have All the Women Gone?” presented below.
Where Have All the Women Gone?
Reclaiming the Future of Fiction
“WOMEN DON’T WRITE EPIC FANTASY.”
If I had a dollar for every time some dude on Reddit said something that started with “Women don’t…”, I’d be so rich I wouldn’t be reading Reddit.
Erasure of the past doesn’t always follow a grand purge or sweeping gesture. There’s no great legislative movement or concerted group of arsonists torching houses to bury evidence (that’s usually done to inspire terror). No, erasure of the past happens slowly and often quietly, by degrees.
In her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, science fiction writer Joanna Russ wrote the first internet misogyny bingo card—in 1983. She listed the most common ways that women’s writing—and, more broadly, their accomplishments and contributions to society—were dismissed and ultimately erased in conversation. They were:
1. She didn’t write it.
The easiest, and oftentimes the first appearing in conversation, is the simple “women don’t” or “women didn’t.” If delivered to an indifferent or ignorant audience, this is often where the conversation stops, especially if the person speaking is a man given some measure of authority. “Women never went to war” or “Women simply aren’t great artists” or “Women never invented anything” are common utterances so ridiculous that to refute them becomes tedious. As I grow older, I’ve ceased making long lists of women who, in fact, did. More often, I’ll reply with the more succinct, “You’re full of shit. Stop talking.” If, however, the person who says this is challenged with evidence that yes, in fact, women have and women do, and here are the examples and the lists, the conversational misogyny bingo moves on to…
2. She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have.
I hear this one about my own writing a lot, and I see it applied to romance writers and other outspoken feminists in particular. The writing is too sexual, too political, too feminist, or even— funny enough—too masculine to be real writing. This type of writing, because it is written by women, is considered somehow deviant or disorderly. It puts me in mind of those angered at the idea that science fiction is only good if it isn’t “political,” which is code for “does not reinforce or adhere to the worldview shaped by my personal political beliefs.” The reality is that all work is political. Work that reinforces the status quo is just as political as work that challenges it. But somehow this type of work is considered particularly abhorrent when it’s written by women.
3. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.
Men, famously, can write about anything and be taken seriously. Jonathan Franzen writes books about family squabbles. Nicholas Sparks writes romance novels. Yet these same subjects, when written by women, are assumed to be of lesser note; unimportant. Jennifer Weiner is especially vocal about this erasure of the weight of her own work. Yes, she wrote it, they will say, but of course she wrote about romance, about family, about the kitchen, about the bedroom, and because we see those as feminized spheres, women’s stories about them are dismissed. There is no rational reason for this, of course, just as there’s no rational reason for any of this erasure. One would think that books by women written about traditionally women’s spaces would win tons of awards, as women would be the assumed experts in this area, but as Nicola Griffith’s recent study of the gender breakdown of major awards shows, women writing about women still win fewer awards, reviews, and recognition than men writing about… anything.
Writers of color also see this one in spades—yes, they wrote it, but it wasn’t about white people’s experiences. Toni Morrison labored for a very long time to finally get the recognition her work deserved. It took a concerted effort, complete with very public protest, to finally get her a National Book Award. Arguments were made that Morrison’s work was dismissed because she wrote about the experiences of black people. This type of erasure and dismissal based on who is writing about whom is rampant. While white writers are praised for writing about nonwhite experiences, and men are praised for writing about women, anyone else writing about the experiences of the people and experiences they know intimately is rubbed out.
4. She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it.
Few creators make just one of anything, including writers. It generally takes a few tries to get to that “one-hit” book, if one ever achieves it. We also tend to remember writers for a single, seminal text, as with Susanna Clarke’s massive undertaking, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Yet Clarke also has a short story collection available—though few hear about it. Others, like Frank Herbert, write a number of wonderful novels but become known for just one great text, like Dune. Few would argue that Herbert only wrote one novel worth remembering, but I have checked this off on the bingo card listening to someone dismiss Ursula Le Guin because “she really only wrote one great book and that was The Left Hand of Darkness.” A lack of reading breadth and depth is on the reader, not the author. But one sees this applied most often to women writers. “Yes, that was a great book, but she only wrote one book, so how great or important could she really be?” one says, forgetting her twelve other books.
5. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art.
Genre writers have contended with this one for years—men and women alike— but this excuse for dismissal is still more often used against women. Even within the genres, women’s work is skewered more often as being not “really” fantasy, or science fiction, or simply not “serious” for one reason or another. It’s a “women’s book” or a “romance book” or “some fantasy book with a talking horse for God’s sake” (I actually saw a female writer’s book dismissed this way after it showed up on the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist one year, as if whale-shaped aliens and time travel were any less ridiculous).
Women’s backgrounds are also combed over more than men’s, especially in geek circles, and you see this with the “fake geek girl” backlash, too. Is she a real engineer? Okay, but did she actually work for NASA or just consult for them? “Yes, she wrote a science fiction book, but it doesn’t have real science in it” or “Yes, she wrote a science fiction book but it’s about people, not science” are popular ways of dismissing women’s work as being not “really” part of the genres they are written in, or simply not real, serious art the way that those stories by men about aliens who can totally breed with humans are.
6. She wrote it, but she had help.
I see this one most with women who have husbands or partners who are also writers. Women whose fathers are writers also struggle with this dismissal. Rhianna Pratchett, a successful writer in her own right, finds her work constantly compared to her father Terry’s, and, coincidently, folks always seem to find ways her work isn’t as “good,” though Rhianna’s style and her father’s are completely different. For centuries, women who did manage to put out work, like Mary Shelley, were assumed to have simply come up with ideas that their more famous male partners and spouses wrote for them. The question “So, who really writes your books?” is one that women writers still often get today.
7. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.
The “singular woman” problem is… a problem. We often call this the “Smurfette principle.” This means that there’s only allowed to be one woman in a story with male heroes. You see this in superhero movies (there is Black Widow and… yeah, that’s it). You see it in cartoons (April, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). And you see it in awards and “best of” lists, typically but not always written by men, who will list nine books by men and one book by a woman, and that woman is generally Ursula Le Guin, Robin Hobb, or Lois Bujold. The singular woman expectation means that when we do see more than one woman in a group, or on a list, we think we’ve reached parity. Studies have shown that when women make up just 30 percent of a group, men and women alike believe there are an equal number of men and women in the room. At 50 percent women—a figure we see so little in media representation that it appears anomalous—we believe that women outnumber men in the group. What this means is that every woman writer is given an impossible task—she must strive to be “the one” or be erased.
When we start to list more than one female scientist (“Yes, there was Marie Curie” tends to be the answer when one asks about women scientists), or astronaut, or race car driver, or politician, we’re often accused of weighting women’s contributions more heavily than men’s. Though my essay “We Have Always Fought,” about the roles of women in combat, was largely well received, most criticism of the piece rested on this accusation: that by focusing on remembering and acknowledging the roles of women in combat, I was somehow erasing or diminishing the roles of men. “Yes, women fought,” the (largely male) commenters would admit, “but they were anomalies.”
8. She wrote it BUT. . .
The experiences I write about in my fantasy and science fiction novels tend to be very grim. My work comes out of the tradition of both new weird—a combination of creeping horror and fantastical world-building—and grimdark, a label most often applied to gritty, “realistic” fantasy that focuses on the grim realities of combat and a nihilistic “everything is awful” worldview. Yet when my work hit the shelves I was amused to see many people insist my work was neither new weird nor grimdark. There was too much science fiction, or not enough sexual assault against women (!) or too much magic (?) or some other “but.” Watching my own work kicked out of categories I was specifically writing within was a real lesson in “She wrote it but…” And lest you think categories don’t matter, remember this: categories are how we shelve and remember work in our memory. If we’re unable to give those books a frame of reference, we are less likely to recall them when asked.
I am still more likely to find my work remembered when people ask, “Who are your favorite women writers?” than “Who are your favorite science fiction writers?”
And that, there, demonstrates how categorization and erasure happen in our back brains without our conscious understanding of what it is we’re doing. Yes, I’m a writer, but…
When you start looking at reactions to the work of some of your favorite women writers, you will see these excuses for why her work is not canon, or not spoken about, or not given awards, or not reviewed. I could read a comment section in a review of a woman’s work, or a post about how sexism suppresses the cultural memory of women’s work, and check off all of them.
The question becomes, once we are aware of these common ways to dismiss women’s work, how do we go about combating them? These ways of disregarding our work have gone on for centuries, and have become so commonplace that men are used to deploying them without challenge as a means to end all debate.
I’d argue that the easiest way to change a behavior is first to become aware of it. Watch for it. Understand it for what it is. And then you must call it out. I’ve taken to typing “Bingo!” in comments sections when these arguments roll out, and linking to Russ’s list. When we see sexist and racist behavior, the only way to change that is to point it out and make it clear that it’s not okay. The reason people continue to engage in certain types of behaviors is because they receive positive feedback from peers, and no one challenges them on their assertions. If we stop swallowing these excuses, and nodding along when people use them, we take away the positive reinforcement and lack of pushback that’s made it possible for them to use these methods of dismissal.
Because I write such dark stories, many people think that I’m a pessimistic person. But that’s not true. I’m a grim optimist. I understand that the road to a better future is long and bitter and often feels hopeless. Yes, there is a warm gooey core of hope I carry with me at the very center of myself, and it is the hope of someone who knows that change is difficult, and feels impossible, but that even a history that has suppressed and erased so much cannot cover up the fact that change is possible.
 Nicola Griffith,“Books about Women Tend Not to Win Awards”.
Excerpted from The Geek Feminist Revolution © Kameron Hurley, 2016