Does SFF have a problem with women? Do women have a problem with it? A remarkable number of incidents over the last year or so have certainly put the issue in the foreground. It’s hard to avoid the feel of a storm getting ready to break. Here are some of the flashpoints. For the record, my personal opinion in each case is “yes, there is a problem”, but rather than tub-thumping, I’ve gone mad on links for those that want to read further.
(Although gender is currently the most high-profile clash within the genre, most of these flashpoints have analogues for other types of discrimination, and many are just as relevant outside genre and outside literature as a whole.)
Harassment and abuse of prominent women in the genre
Easy one first. The reaction to Anita Sarkeesian for tackling the representation of female characters within computer games in Tropes v Women is probably the best example. This is a campaign of aggressive and persistent abuse, not even in response to the series itself but simply the suggestion that a woman might produce one. There was also the recent situation with Jennifer Hepler, one of the Dragon Age developers – it’s been stated that her leaving was not as a result of the harassment, but the fact of the attacks doesn’t seem to be in doubt.
Harassment at conventions and similar
Again, this should be an easy one, except that people have varying definitions of what constitutes ‘harassment’ – and sometimes those definitions may vary depending on the status of the harasser. Here’s John Scalzi on the subject. Anti-harassment policies are now common at conventions.
Attitudes to rape
To some rape is just a thing to throw in to emphasise how bad the bad guy is. Or here’s Bob Chipman’s take on a piece of business at PAX that flared up again recently (or Wired.com on the same subject) The most elegant argument for why it is a topic to tread carefully around is this article by Sophia McDougall. This isn’t a “don’t mention the R word” moratorium, but it is something to bear in mind.
Representation of women in the medium
The chain mail bikini, and use of women characters as little more than motivators and rewards for the male protagonist. This is one of the oldest openly-voiced criticisms of SFF, and it’s certainly an easy target for people looking to sneer at the genre. Sarkeesian has a good take on the damsel in distress in Tropes v Women and here is Sophia McDougall in the New Statesman on strong female characters and the problem with that. The latter article is well worth a read from a writer’s POV (and similar sentiments from KT Davies here).
Fake geek girls
Women attending conventions – especially cosplayers– have met the accusation that they’re “not real geeks”, that they’re there for some nefarious purpose other than a genuine interest in the genre. Bob Chipman, again, has a good brief take on it at the start of this video. That some fans may feel that their “club” is no longer exclusive is unfortunate; that industry spokesmen feel their corner of the genre is “not for girls” is more so. On a purely commercial basis it seems mad to try and exclude 50% of your potential paying customers.
Reaction to all-female Fandom
This was a new one to me, one I hadn’t considered until I saw this. Do female-dominated fandoms meet a different kind of disdain to male dominated fandoms? A twofold issue of “they like something we don’t” and “they like something in a way we don’t”, and worse, of course, if that thing is in the spotlight and hence cannot readily be ignored. I think there are male fandoms that do have this problem – “Bronies” spring to mind – so it’s not quite so clear cut.
Diversity within fiction
This has the danger to become a hobby horse for me, so to be brief: there’s remarkably little diversity in fantasy and SF settings, whether they’re 2ndary world, historically-inspired or actually historical – less diversity than in actual history, quite often. A predominantly white male body of authors tends to write, without any malice aforethought, about the exploits of male heroes in white cultures. That’s just the default go-to. My world-building point is really just that writers can consider whether their world must necessarily default to that. The real world is diverse, and our created worlds can be more so or less so or however we choose. Martin gives us a world in Westeros that is dominated by warrior men, but he gives us characters like Cersei and Brienne to draw attention to the strictures of that social setup (see Mary Sue for some remarkable historical women), and the books are that much richer for it. Erikson’s Malazan books have plenty of female soldiers and wizards and the like at all levels, and here’s Scott Lynch responding to an objection to his female pirate captain in Red Seas under Red Skies.
Perception and representation of female authors
“Panel parity” is a convention idea that has run through various iterations, but in general it represents making a positive effort to include more women (and other underrepresented groups) on panels and other events at cons. This is positive discrimination, which gets up a lot of noses. Some conventions do it, others don’t. The standard counter-argument is that the con organizers want “the best people for the panel”, and that point of view certainly has a lot of support.
My very personal POV is that “choosing the best” is a worthy aspiration, but that human frailty can easily preclude the necessary objectivity such an ideal would require (Bob Chipman again with more detail on this). I don’t see active malice or discrimination in this, but our starting position, when we cast our eyes over the field to choose who is “best”, is informed by decades of tradition going back to much more unequal times. The parity argument is that active redressing is needed to compensate for this hidden bias.
Of course, in many areas of the genre there is a decided weighting of male authors. This post from Tor UK’s Julie Crisp gives submission figures and an editor’s take on them.
One issue that has been flagged up recently is not a dearth of women writers, but the reception met by the large body of them we already have. This was most recently highlighted by a dispute arising within the SFWA and there’s plenty of commentary on both sides all over the net. I guess this category also covers divisions into “authors” and “women authors”, which will always come over as a trivialisation of whoever you’re excluding from the main list of “authors”. In this recent overview of fantasy writing women get very short shrift (le Guin, anyone?) And this isn’t just a genre problem , but then a lot of these issues are not just genre problems. Finally, because this has been heavy going, I leave you with some satire from Jim Hines on the topic.