Thursday, June 2, 2011

Feminist Science Fiction: It's Too Soon For Joanna Russ To Be Spinning In Her Grave Already

I'm beginning to think my expectations for human beings to evolve their thinking may be a little too high. But that's me, the eternal optimist. I'd like to think that one day, eventually, within my own lifetime would be nice, people would get it...

That women writers aren't as invisible as people have been lead to believe.

It's been 28 years since Joanna Russ published "How To Suppress Women's Writing", and yet they still are invisibalized by ToCs and "Best Ofs", such as this discussion that took place at The Guardian: "The incredible shrinking presence of women SF writers" by David Barnett. This piece (and it's rotten commentary) was sparked by a Guardian poll asking readers to list their favourite SF novel.

Some interested parties with more eloquent (and less hulk smashy) tendencies than I took the time to disseminate the information. Author Nicola Griffith discovered that out of about 500 SF books mentioned only about four percent of them were written by  women.

In "A Shocking UK Favourites Score: men 500, women 18" she says:
Clearly, women's sf is being suppressed in the UK. Oh, not intentionally. But that's how bias works: it's unconscious. And of course sometimes it's beyond a reader's power to change: you can't buy a book that's not on the shelf. You can't shelve something the publisher hasn't printed. You can't publish something an agent doesn't send you. You can't represent something a writer doesn't submit. Etc.
You can imagine what happened. Danger Will Robinson! Women being feminist on the internet!

The commentary to the Guardian article ("don't read the commentary!" is a mantra like "don't cross the streams!") and discussion around the Twittersphere threw up the usual headesk inducing bingo that would have Joanna Russ spitting tacks. One author in particular I encountered, who I won't name because I'm not that rude - well, not as rude as calling feminist science fiction fans/writers/editors/publishers "whiny" - busted out a perfect set of bingo against her fellow writers including the perfectly eye-roll inducing "I'll fight sexism but those (imagine the emphasis) feminists (can you almost hear the spit?) like to wield the sexist club against everything (yes, because feminists are so violent)". Typical attempt at shut down. I shall point out said writer benefits from certain privileges including a career in an industry which women before her fought long and hard to make sure she had the access and right to! But I get it...I get having to protect what little patch you've been afforded by the Big Boys (and Girls Who Buy In) and be seen as not "whining" and "ungrateful" and *insert violent rhetoric* against the system because that's just *Tone Argument*.

Cheryl Morgan tackled it with her usual grace in a blog post entitled "Female Invisibility Bingo".
Is this just women being whiny? Are we finding sexism where none exists? Personally I disagree, because the point here is that sexism is a cultural phenomenon, not just a few random acts by bad people. If you define sexism and only occurring when a man does something prejudiced to a woman then you are likely to find Nicola’s post irrelevant, but unless you get at the root of the issue — what Fay Weldon succinctly described on the BBC Book Review Show as the idea that men are more important than women — then sexist actions will continue to happen. Which is why, every time we see something that suggests men are much more important than women, us uppity feminists make a bit of noise.
She and Nicola Griffith have actually been a lot more circumspect than I, and are offering up solutions (while I flail helplessly). They have encouraged commentary free of anti-feminist bingo so that the discussion can move forward without devolving into tiring, teaspoon bending 101. Nicola has offered up a simple solution in "Taking the Russ pledge" - it's time to simply start thinking more about gender when you're reading SF. Take notice of whether you're picking up a male or a female writer, take a good look at your bookshelves/favourites to analyze internal bias, make an effort to read more female writers.

It's time to stop the reinvention of the wheel with every new generation of writers, fans and publishers. It's exhausting and time wasting, when we should spending that time and energy on being great artists. This acknowledgement of women's history in science fiction should be genetic knowledge, it should be taught, not relegated to (incredibly good) special interest textbooks, blogs and conventions. We shouldn't be whispering out the corners of our mouths.

We shouldn't be burying our progress with Joanna Russ. Can you not hear her spirit screaming at you from across the void, from the pages of her book?

"She didn't write it..."
"She wrote it, but she shouldn't have..."
"She wrote it, but look what she wrote about..."
"She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it..."
"She wrote it, but she really isn't an artist, and it really isn't art..."
"She wrote it, but she had help..."
"She wrote it, but she's an anomaly..."
"She wrote it, BUT...."

And perhaps now "She wrote it, but because internalized bias left it out of history you can't put it BACK into historical context..."

Bullshit. This is not about history being written by the victors - it's not a battle of the sexes. It's about history being written by ALL of those who took part.


  1. Face it... if 50% of the population only managed 4% of the stats, then either women are *incredibly* incompetent at writing (despite even the people who insist the genders are hugely different claiming that women are better at words) or there is sexism in the publishing industry. I'm sure some claim that's it's not writing in general, it's science fiction that women suck at - but generally SF also includes fantasy since there's some level of overlap between the genres and while admittedly my understanding of the gender stereotypes is shallow at best, I would have thought fantasy would be a genre that stereotypical women would excel at. Personally, I think it's far more likely that there's sexism in the publishing industry - it's a much simpler, more rational answer that holds up against facts.

    Then again I don't see how anyone can look at the world and *not* see the huge inequalities that exist. So maybe that's just me.

  2. Well, Fantasy is a bit of a different kettle of fish in this discussion, because it is generally held (where "generally" is some societal trope) that it's more "acceptable" for women to write fantasy (because of all that icky kissy, floaty, fairy stuff /sarcasm). The discussion about women "can't write SF" comes back to "women can't do math/science/be rational".

    I also think the bias against women writing SF comes from some women writing sociological science fiction, and to many that's not "real" or "hard" science fiction. And Alice Sheldon would blow raspberries at anyone for that, because she was lauded for writing hard SF with sociological twists. Men thought she was great at it...when they thought she was a man.