This is going to be a long post. Bear with me.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, the world of science fiction/fantasy writing was rocked this week by a scandal involving high-ranked members of the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) behaving badly–very badly–not just in SFWA’s publications, but on their Twitter account. This scandal has been building for some time. As the British newspaper the Guardian reports:
A growing chorus of science fiction authors have been speaking out about sexism in the genre after much-criticised recent editions of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s (SFWA) magazine, Bulletin, which featured a woman in a chainmail bikini on the cover and the claim that Barbie is a role model because she “maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should“….
The columnists, Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg, responded to claims that their descriptions were sexist in another bulletin, where they wrote that “all we did was appear in a magazine with a warrior woman on the cover, and mention that a woman who edited a science fiction magazine 65 years ago was beautiful. If they get away with censoring that, can you imagine what comes next? I’m pretty sure Joe Stalin could imagine it … Even Chairman Mao could imagine it.”
That’s not all. In a related issue, Theodore Beale, a well-known SF writer, let loose with a disgusting racist screed which was posted to the SFWA’s Twitter feed. In this sickening rant, Mr. Beale likened black women to “half-savages” and made various other awful statements. I believe this is directly related to the sexism issue, as Mr. Beale’s rant (his name, ironically, evokes the “mad prophet of the airwaves” Howard Beale from the famous 1976 movie Network) exposes an undercurrent of very old guard, unreconstructed social conservatism in the science fiction community which is tone-deaf to the changes that have occurred in society since the 1960s. They’re two sides of the same coin.
I am not a member of the SFWA. Having written science fiction, I was thinking of joining, though my major recent publication credit is in horror, and I’m not sure what the SFWA rules are on horror authors. As of now that issue is totally moot. I have no interest in joining this organization, which brings dishonor to the vibrant field of science fiction and fantasy.
Look, the truth is that women have built science fiction. Leigh Brackett was one of the most brilliant authors of the golden age of SF. I have read and loved her books. Who can deny that Ursula K. LeGuin is an absolute giant in the field of speculative SF? Madeline L’Engle wrote one of the great classics of young adult SF, A Wrinkle in Time, which I loved as a kid. Dorothy Fontana was the soul of the original Star Trek and helped launch Star Trek: The Next Generation. As a kid, one of the SF action heroes I most admired was Ripley, the protagonist of the Alien movies, in which incomparable actress Sigourney Weaver proved that women not only have a place in SF, but can (and should) be action heroes in their own right. Despite their bluster, bravado and advanced weaponry, most of the men in the Alien movies are simpering idiots. It’s Ripley who gets the job done.
Yet, on the other hand, I have seen the other side of women in SF too–the sexist vision. You know what I’m talking about. Yeoman Janice Rand sashaying around the starship Enterprise in a low-cut uniform with a miniskirt and go-go boots. Princess Leia as Jabba the Hutt’s slave girl, lounging around in a cast-iron bikini in Return of the Jedi. Green Orion slave women. Dejah Thoris in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter books, which I loved as a kid. I admit I responded to these images of women. When I was 12 years old, Princess Leia in her cast-iron bikini was the epitome of hotness. As a boy growing up in America in the 80s–a time when, in fact, women’s rights was taking a step backward–you could not avoid these depictions. They were normal and acceptable. I didn’t give them a second thought–until recently.
My thinking about gender issues has really evolved over the past year or so. Three things really catalyzed it. First was the writing of my new book, The Zombie Rebellion, which will be out from Samhain Publishing in May 2014. The protagonist of this book is male; his sidekick, a 12-year-old boy, is also male; the major antagonists of the book are also male. As I wrote the first draft I felt like there was something wrong because the role of women was so minimal. I sought to change that by creating the character of Welania, who I decided should absolutely not be a “damsel in distress,” though the situation the plot puts her in could easily lend itself to that. I chose to portray Welania as a strong woman, a single mother who is concerned above all things with the welfare of her son, but who is also charming, tender, brave and courageous. Welania, incidentally, is Native American, a Shawnee woman. You don’t see a lot of ethnic women in horror fiction, so I’m hoping that her inclusion in The Zombie Rebellion strikes a chord.
The second was that I found myself called upon, in my professional life, to teach the history of women and gender issues in a way that had never confronted me before. I’ve dealt with gender issues in history previously. You know the traditional highlights–the Seneca Falls Convention, Susan B. Anthony, the 19th Amendment, Betty Friedan, etc. Strangely it never resonated with me. Incidentally I am a male, and I happen to be married to another male. It’s not a far jump from LGBT issues to women’s and gender issues, especially in an academic setting and a city that is known for being extremely liberal. I was forced to confront these issues head-on when I had to teach, as part of a course involving 19th century European history, the concept of “spheres” in gender relations–that is, the antiquated idea of a “men’s sphere” involving work, public life and economics, and a “woman’s sphere” involving home, child-rearing and private life. This idea is (thankfully) fading in our modern world, but in 1800 it was unquestioned truth, and it’s difficult for modern college students to wrap their heads around it.
The third was the planning I’ve been doing for my next horror book, which is tentatively titled Doppelgänger. After writing The Zombie Rebellion I firmly decided that my next book would have a female protagonist. Doppelgänger takes place in the 1880s, when gender inequality was even more grotesque and implacable than it is today, and thinking about the issues that the main character would have faced at that time has been an eye-opening experience. I feel like I’m seeing the world through a whole new set of eyes. Doppelgänger is horror–a genre that, at least in its cinematic form, traditionally verges on outright misogyny, where women are often portrayed as little more than cannon fodder for serial killers, ghosts or paranormal predators–and I have had to turn the tables on these tropes in the hope of presenting something that I hope rings a little more true with readers of both genders, and which illuminates the world of horror in a more realistic and interesting light.
So, in short, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to gender issues than I previously did. As a white male in modern America it’s easy, even comfortable, to blind yourself to these issues. They are inconvenient truths. Women make less money than men do in almost every profession across the board. Despite being a numerical majority of the population women are vastly outnumbered in government, in the armed services, in corporate management, and even in education. Issues involving rape and the sexual inequalities of women in most societies around the world have gotten a lot of press lately, and they have shown us how far we still have to go to ameliorate these terrible inequalities. As a man, especially a white man, it’s easy to internalize the justifications for why these things are the way they are. I wonder if this is what certain members of the SFWA have done, perhaps without knowing that they’re doing it.
Recently, someone on my Twitter RT’d a link to this fun and awesome article, which is a fantasy cast list for a “gender-swapped” version of Lord of the Rings–for instance, Cate Blanchett as Aragorn, Paul Bettany as Galadriel, and Helen Mirren (a perfect choice!) as Saruman. This really put the gender inequality in SF/fantasy into perspective for me. This also got me thinking about my own SF series, the trilogy that began with my book Life Without Giamotti, which I have been thinking seriously about rebooting in a new version.
The recent fracas in the SFWA, and my own thinking about gender issues and particularly the lack of respect for female voices in SF/fantasy–and in my own writing–and I’ve come to a decision. I’m not just going to pay lip service to issues of sexism in SF/fantasy and horror. I’m going to do something about it.
I’ve decided I am going to reboot my Giamotti SF series–except gender-swapped. Every male character in the story will now be female, and every female character male. That means 90% of the characters in the story will be women. I have previously shied away from writing female characters in-depth, for fear that I would do them some sort of injustice by projecting male attitudes onto them. I’m no longer afraid of that. It is only through such experiences that I think I can truly gain a better perspective on women’s view of the world in general, and at the same time perhaps I can advance, in whatever small way, the cause of increasing the visibility and respect of women in science fiction and fantasy.
This may take me several years; after all, the original Giamotti books took 19 years to write, and I have a number of projects in line ahead of this one. But I do intend to do it. If you’ve read the original Giamotti series you know there will be no place for tropes. There will be no cast-iron bikinis, no nubile slave women, no Xena the Warrior Princesses, no damsels in distress. The story deals with the creation and destruction of universes, and will depict women who are historians, physicists, corporate executives, university professors and authors. Kind of like women in the real world.
Perhaps, by the time this project is done, the SFWA will have redeemed itself and joined the 21st century. I hope so, but I’m not counting on it.
Thanks for reading.