Monday 19 March 2012

Feminist Utopias: What’s Gender Got to Do With It?

In January, I posted to this blog on the subject of utopia, a perfect place. Is such a society possible?

Do certain conditions, such as the absence of crime, poverty, racism and other inequities make for the perfect place? Utopian narrative is a place to explore these questions, but these same narratives could be termed dystopian. Who decides what conditions are the most important, and how can these conditions be established and maintained without creating new modes of oppression?

One way to approach the inherent teetering between utopia/dystopia is to acknowledge and use that tipping point as a point of departure. In feminist utopian literature, narratives often complicate the easy answer, avoid closure, or look to examine multiple perspectives but provide no simple solution.

I hope I don’t have to explain or defend “feminist” here, but I welcome relevant dialogue.

Let’s just say by way of definition that feminist utopias are concerned with the search for equality in the ideal community. They consider both the existence of social stratification based on difference (sex, race, race, class) and the humanist ideal of sameness to be problematic. Gender inequalities are part of the exploration but not the totality. Feminist fiction tends to project its desires for perfect community and to investigate problematic elements of those desires. As such, some may seem neither utopian nor dystopian per se.

Three perfect examples are Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (she even subtitles it “An Ambiguous Utopia”), Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. These works look at social inequalities and suggest structures or processes to enable more equitable ways of living, but they’re not easy.

In The Dispossessed, the protagonist Shevek is forced to travel from his anarchist/socialist world to a repressive capitalist one to share scientific ideas which are deemed disruptive and self-serving to the functioning of his community. In The Fifth Sacred Thing, factions within a radically democratic city disagree about how to peacefully resist attack from militaristic invaders. Piercy’s novel presents an alternate society that may or may not be the hallucination of a mentally ill narrator.

Compare these narratives to utopias such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which projects a desire for the perfect human community or dystopias like Orwell’s 1984 which predict extreme, dim futures as cautionary tales. Their approach is humanist, focused on repression of citizenry, not issues specific to women's social roles and intersections of identity.

What are your thoughts on these intersections, and what other texts explore this?

What's useful about this kind of literary exploration?

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Sex percentages of authors reviewed...

Having just read the post on Coverage of Women on SF/F Blogs by Ladybusiness (read it for the stats and some analysis), I decided to tot up the TFF Reviews figures for last year. Just out of interest; this is an unscientific statistic, both because it's such a small sample, and because the count is open to interpretation (as I'll explain) and I'm hardly an impartial statistician. But for what it's worth...

Of the 51 reviews we posted in 2011:
  • 31 (61%) were of works authored or edited by men (to the best of my knowledge);
  • 18 (35%) were of works authored or edited by women;
  • 2 (4%) were of works or collections the gender of whose author or editor I cannot immediately tell.
For the record: for magazines, anthologies and other edited work, I used the sex of the named editor if one was given (or if I happen to know the person who edits the zine). Also for the record: we have a mixed team of reviewers, almost equally divided between male and female (53% of reviews had a male byline, against 47% female). For what it's worth, our current list of 34 titles available contains 20 with male authors, 10 female, 4 ambiguous (named with initials or names inscrutible to me).

The numbers are not as good as I hoped they would be, although marginally better than the average in the survey. This makes me wonder: do we need a reviewers' Russ Pledge?

I read a lot of SFF by women personally, but TFF reviews small press and indie publications, so these titles pretty much by definition have to be offered to us by the publisher or author, and our reviewers have freedom to choose anything on the list. I'm reluctant to change these rules (but would be interested to hear people's opinions on this), but I will say here that (a) we're actively looking for more women reviewers, so if you're interested in reviewing, take a look at our guidelines and drop us an email; and (b) we'd actively like to add more indie/small press titles by women authors and editors to our list, so likewise, check the guidelines and drop us an email.