Tuesday 6 September 2011

F is for Feminist SF

I remember growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, looking out at the vital civil rights movement and imagining that I would one day live in a world where women were seen as equal partners in all things, a world where we didn’t suffer from a gender gap in terms of respect, power, airplay, or paychecks. I envisioned a world where gender wouldn’t matter, unless someone wanted to create a new baby. In contrast, I looked at stuff like Dick Tracey’s cool wrist communicator more as science-fantasy.
Yet today, videophones (ones that also check your e-mail, host videogames, live-stream TV and radio, and take better pictures than my single-purpose camera did back then) are commonplace, while equal pay for equal work is still a dream, and women and genderqueer people continue to suffer prejudice and disadvantages in nearly every legal and social aspect of life.
So, what does this have to do with science fiction and fantasy? Everything. As a race, homo sapiens is incredibly adaptive. With our technology and culture, we have found ways to survive, at least for a while, in every environment we’ve been to, even the vacuum of space. We have found ways to defeat terrible birth defects, viruses, bacteria, and injuries. We have even created more than a million ways to defeat boredom. But we have limits—we cannot create what we don’t dream first.
Over and over, I’ve seen our dreams made real in big and small ways. Not only do we, like Captain Kirk, have the ability to speak to our computers and be answered in plain English, but you can answer many cell phones by flipping them open just like his communicator. We can look inside a pregnant woman’s belly to see her baby-to-be has a heart condition and do surgery while the child is still in the womb. There are many, many examples of how, technologically, we are living in the future. But gender equality is not one of them.
Is it simply that it’s easier to create gadgets than change how people behave? I’m not convinced of that. People were changing human behavior long before the industrial revolution, after all. No, I think the problem lies elsewhere.
I look back at the literature I loved while I grew up, and I see many male authors, and not so many women. Of the women I do see, many, like Andre Norton and C. J. Cherryh were not published under names like Alice and Carolyn. I see male hero after male hero, and while there are a few fabulous female heroes, they remain (like female CEOs) in the distinct minority. Many, like Red Sonja, exist in the shadow of more famous males. To put it bluntly, I see a failure of vision regarding equality in gender even in the literature that I love and that helped me grow into an independent woman.
This isn’t just a matter of behavior in decades past. Less than two weeks ago, Charlie Stross asked, “what do you think is the most important novel of the past 10-and-a-bit years (published since January 1st 2000)?” and he states that although 55% of speculative fiction writers are female, less than 10% of the responses were novels by women. This prompted him to do another poll at http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2011/08/more-on-books.html asking only about female authors. One respondent admitted to not having read any female writers in the last ten years; a number of others just didn’t think to include them.
If we cannot knowingly respect female and male writers equally in the literature of the future and imagination, how can we expect more conservative parts of our society to provide equal economic opportunities?
In modern society, our writers and recording artists are our dreamers. I think it’s important to be aware that our visions of fictional futures and alternate worlds, both bright and dark, help shape the thoughts and dreams—and culture and technology—of our own present and future.
To me, writing as a feminist means imagining a world where all people—boys, girls, intersex, and genderqueer—have an equal chance to achieve their dreams and live the life they choose. It means imagining not just the goal, but the struggle to achieve that goal, and depicting one or the other in stories. Working for change isn’t easy, and we need role models for how to confront and undermine prejudice as much as we need visions of what a world without that prejudice might be like. (Besides, you need conflict to make a good story, and people who succeed against the odds make great heroes.)
My primary goal regarding my protagonists, however, is to write about interesting, believable, and likeable people regardless of their gender (or lack thereof). Because at the core, what feminism has always meant to me is that people are people, and gender is just one of the many things that, taken together, makes each of us unique.


Djibril said...

Thanks for this very thoughtful account, Deirdre. The first kind of story you describe: that which includes female characters as a matter of course and treats men, women and people of all genders and alignments as real people, would be a sine qua non for a good story in TFF, I think. Any story that ignores or belittles female characters, however great it may be in whatever other social-political elements and however beautiful a story, is failing in a significant way.

We're also keen to see stories that are actively about feminist issues, of course: stories about overcoming (or being crushed by, if you prefer the negative cautionary) prejudice. We've had both in the past, and will always welcome such stories. (So long as they are also good stories, beautifully written, and don't fail in other significant ways.

Unknown said...

Fantastically put, and sums up precisely the reason why I enjoy feminist texts.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very kindly for this thoughtful insight.

Anonymous said...

I came to your post via xjenavivex, and I'm glad I did.

This is an excellent observation of the problem that still exists, long after the establishment of equal rights. I read an article within the last few years that projected it would still be at least another 10 years before women had a chance at equal pay for equal work.

As a woman in the workplace, that's discouraging.

As a female writer, the lack of credability male writers offer their female counterparts is perhaps worse. I'd have to say, though, that within my own circle on Live Journal, men seem to have a greater respect for female SF/fantasy writers, and that gives me hope.

I much prefer the types of stories you mention, where all characters have an equal chance, even though all characters are never created equal.

Recently, I've beta read some promising novels in progress that showcase women and people of other sexual orientations. I hope they make it out into the reading world, though I'm not so certain publishing would treat them as equals.

Deirdre Murphy said...

Thank you, Djibril, for inviting me to write on this topic.

I appreciate your comments, Paul, Xjenavivix,and QueenoftheSkies.

I do find the very slow progress in my lifetime discouraging, even as I take hope from progress made on other fronts. I hope I get to see some of these novels, when they are done!

Lynda said...

Hi Deirdre! And Djibril. Remember me? You published an Okal Rel story "Making History" years ago. Now expecting book 7 of the series in November. Reading Deirdre's article I recalled how surprised I was to realize my main characters in the Okal Rel Saga are mostly men. There's a strong cast of female characters, but I'd have to admit Amel and Horth in particular are the "mains". Maybe when I know why I did that, I'll have greater insight into many things. But I am coming to suspect some intrinsic bias in human nature towards focusing attention on men.

Anonymous said...

No wonder I like you and your work so much, Deirdre. Been there with you. I was surprised and pleased to discover--after reading her work for years--that Andre Norton was a woman. The increase in women whose work is published in the SF/F world is a step on the way. Your observations regarding how we women writers present our female characters is good food for thought.

Lynda, I'm thinking the bias you mention isn't so much intrinsic to human nature as it's programmed into us from the earliest books we read, television we watched, and movies and magazines and newspapers and history class and so on. Perhaps we've been subtly trained to ignore or downplay women's roles in stories and in life. I'm going to start paying more attention to changing that unconscious predilection.

Deirdre Murphy said...

Val, I don't think the societal training is at all subtle. "Who wears the pants in the family?" is just one example of dozens of ways we're told that men should be the boss. Or think about how many women's names are diminutives of the male form. It's not just modeled in people's behavior over and over again, for us to learn as we grow, and it's not just taught as religion in many quarters, it's embedded in our language.

Lynda--what evidence suggests, to you, that the bias is intrinsic rather than cultural? Certainly, I have come to see more inherent differences between men and women than I realized exist when I was growing up. For example, estrogen helps tear ducts to work well, thus making it easier for women to cry. So women crying more isn't just cultural. Perhaps there are other differences you have noticed that I've missed?

I don't see evidence of ease or difficulty of crying as evidence that one gender is better than the other at anything else. Both hiding one's emotions and expressing them are useful, after all.

Djibril said...

Interesting. Many thanks everyone for the comments. I took Lynda's "human nature" remark as almost metaphorical--many many things that we think of as human nature are in fact cultural, yet we readily talk about things such as "natural" phobias and "natural" tastes for food. Sure there are physiological and genetic/hormonal differences, some of which affect behaviour and may well have been selected for over millions of years of evolution ("hunter vs. gatherer" and all that), but let's not appeal to a hopeless sense of determinism to explain things away while there are still plenty of social factors that we can see right in front of us and have a chance of addressing.

(For that matter, very few biological influences on behaviour cannot be overcome by conditioning if we really work at it.)

pat said...

I don't think a bias against women is intrinsic to humans - I think a bias against *being corrected* is. If you don't catch us at the right age, we hate being corrected and will fight back by clinging even tighter to our original beliefs, whatever they were and wherever we got them. Whereas technical gadgets have no trouble with that at all.

Deirdre Murphy said...

Hi, Pat!

You're certainly right about people preferring to not be told they're wrong. :-D