Warning: all the rant.
As someone who talks a lot about sexism in general, but particularly with reference to SFF and fandom, I’m often frustrated by the fact that many people either don’t understand what sexism is, or actively disagree that it still goes on: not just because their lack of understanding makes it harder to explain why Hollywood’s predisposition towards failing the Bechdel test is symptomatic of wider social problems (for instance), but because it means that, more often than not, before I can discuss the issue at hand – be it the treatment of women in gaming or the insertion of unnecessary sex scenes into HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones – I’m forced to run through the conversational equivalent of Sexism 101 in order to get my interlocutor onside. Now, being as how much of modern sexism is insidious and subtle, up to a point, I’m fairly sympathetic to being unaware of it: after all, I was in that position once, too, and no matter how repetitive it gets, you still need people who are willing to explain the basics. There are occasions, however, when my sympathy runs right the hell out, as does my patience – usually because someone has said something so fundamentally wrongheaded, point-missing and downright useless that there aren’t enough tableflipping GIFs in the world to adequately sum up my emotional response.
This is one of those times.
Behold, then, this hot mess of a post on sexism – or rather, on the author’s complete and utter misapprehension of sexism – by someone called Sarah of Bookworm Blues guest-posting at Fantasy Book Cafe. Straight away, the piece sets alarm bells ringing, beginning with the suggestion that:
While I’m sure sexism does exist in literature, I don’t actually think much of what people consider to be sexist is actually sexist.
Frankly, this is a big claim to be making, especially when prefaced by the admission that “sexism in fantasy… [is] not something I’ve really thought about before”. As this recent reprint of a 1982 article by science fiction writer Susan Shwartz can attest, sexism in SFF is something we’ve been talking about for decades now, and while that certainly doesn’t preclude a newcomer from having valid opinions on the subject, if you start out by saying that most of the existing dialogue is wrong, then you’d damn well better be able to show your working.
Alas, not only doesn’t Sarah understand what’s meant by sexism in SFF, her interpretation of the concept is so confused that it’s actually quite difficult to formulate an intelligent response. For instance: throughout the article, she continually reiterates the threefold idea that, according to some people, men and women write differently; that authors can’t write characters of the opposite gender with any degree of skill; and that women are more emotional writers, while men are more action-oriented – all of which she apparently disagrees with (and rightly so). The problem, however – and I’m struggling to even articulate this, because it makes so little sense – is that Sarah seems to think that this opinion is held by people who say there’s sexism in SFF; which is to say, the exact group of people who think these ideas are bullshit. This isn’t a case of me misunderstanding her argument: it’s literally what she appears to be saying. To quote:
After I had the discussion about sexism in SFF with that author, I became a lot more aware of people accusing authors of being sexist, or saying an author couldn’t write some character properly because the author was of the opposite gender. It actually shocked me how much of that sort of dialogue is floating around that I’ve never really been aware of before…
I think people are a little mixed up. That’s the crux of it. It seems to be a common belief that women are more emotional and character driven than men and men are more obsessed with action and adventure. Then there is a common belief that because an author is male/female they can’t properly write a character of the opposite gender because they aren’t of that gender and thus, just don’t get it.
Almost – almost! – I can parse the logicfail here. Sarah has, I suspect, seen male authors criticised for sexist representations of female characters, possibly with involvement of the phrase ‘male gaze’, and taken this to mean that, in the eyes of the person doing the criticising, men are inherently bad at writing women Because Gender. This isn’t even an oversimplification of the actual issue, which is the poor depiction of female characters by authors whose exposure to a culture that traditionally relegates women to either secondary or highly stereotyped roles in narrative has resulted in their automatic usage of sexist tropes; rather, it’s a catastrophic conflation of the critic’s position with the position they’ve set out to criticise. Thus: while some people certainly do believe that women can’t properly write men, and vice verse, this is itself a sexist belief, not the default assertion of those who call out sexism. Her misunderstanding is so total, it’s like she’s come across a group of soccer fans complaining about people who hate soccer, and come to the conclusion that they must hate it, too.
Underscoring Sarah’s confusion is her repeat assertion that an author’s gender doesn’t matter, and that focusing on it is therefore meaningless. To quote again:
“I have never sat back and thought, “Well, since she’s a woman, her writing is different than a man’s because (insert reasons here).”… I don’t think of authors as male and female in more than an observational way. The gender of an author doesn’t matter to me in the least. It has zero impact on the quality of their writing. Monet was a man who painted more water lilies than any other human being who has ever lived. Being a man had absolutely no impact on his ability to paint them.
I agree, Sarah! An author’s gender doesn’t impact the quality of their writing in any way whatsoever. But it can certainly impact on how their writing is treated by others - which is why, to take just one example, many female SF writers are still encouraged to take male pseudonyms, the better to counteract the sexism of readers who, whether consciously or unconsciously, assume that men are naturally better at SF. To borrow your example, Monet didn’t paint great lillies because he was male, but his gender certainly afforded him the opportunity to paint in a way that was denied to women. Similarly, when it comes to the impact of authorial gender on content, it’s not a question of whether our sexual biology or gender identity has some inherent, magical quality that necessarily infiltrates our writing and betrays who we are: instead, it’s a question of privilege, and the extent to which it influences our perception of other people. Like it or not, the vast bulk of Western society is geared so heavily towards the promotion and support of straight white men that, somewhat unsurprisingly, its associated narratives – whether movies, TV shows or novels – are rife with limiting, negative and prejudicial portrayals of women, POC and QUILTBAG persons. Thus: when a male writer perpetuates said stereotypes – perhaps via the inclusion of female characters who exist only to sleep with the hero – his gender becomes a relevant consideration in why he thought this would be an acceptable story to tell, because socially sanctioned sexism has told him, over and over again, that it is.
I wish that was all the article got wrong; instead, it gets worse. To quote again:
If an author portrays a female character as physically weaker than their male counterpart, they aren’t being sexist; they are probably being realistic. I will use myself as an example. I can’t lift more than twenty pounds on a good day. That doesn’t make me weak, nor does it mean that I’m weak because I’m a woman… I’m physically weak but I’m strong in many other ways and the fact that I’m a woman has nothing to do with it. There are plenty of men out there with the same disorder I have, and they are just as physically limited as I am. Portraying a character with certain limitations and other strengths doesn’t make an author sexist, as so many are fond of exclaiming. It makes them realistic.
Christ on a bicycle. This has got to be the worst and most fatally literal interpretation of the phrase ‘strong female characters’ I’ve ever seen. Listen: setting aside the fact that it’s entirely possible for women to be stronger than men, when critics talk about ‘weak’ female characters, we’re not talking about physical strength, but about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the characterisation, and the extent to which it adheres to prejudicial gender stereotyping. If the female characters have agency and read like actual people, I don’t give a shit how much they can lift, because it doesn’t matter – but if the author has (for instance) written a swooning, helpless princess whose emotional weaknesses are metaphorically emphasised in a scene where she tries and fails to lift the hero’s sword, then yeah: I’m going to call shenanigans.
What bothers me about these conversations is that they seem to divide people more than unite them. When we focus on how genders affect an author’s ability to write, we highlight differences more than similarities, and we help cement old, often unnoticed habits of categorizing authors based on the kind of underwear they wear…
Sexism? Yeah, it exists, but I think the way to truly overcome any gender bias is to get rid of these gender-focused discussions. We need to focus on quality, rather than plumbing.
Let me get this straight: the way to get rid of sexism is to stop talking about gender? That’s like saying that the way to prevent STDs is to stop talking about sex: in both instances, the latter concept is integral to any meaningful discussion of the former problem, such that omitting it would render the entire exercise moot. And don’t even get me started on the pervasive cissexism of constantly defining gender in terms of plumbing and underwear: the issue at hand concerns brains, not bodies, and trying to boil it all down to descriptions of bits is both childish and incredibly problematic.
There’s more I could say about the article, but ultimately, it all amounts to the same thing: that the writer has committed an act of misunderstanding so profound that I’m tempted to call it willful, and in so doing further muddied the waters about what sexism is, and why discussing it matters. Instead, I’m just exhausted – angry, bored and exhausted – with the terrible, sickening ignorance of it all. Calling out sexism isn’t about cementing old habits or promoting gender warfare; it’s about, you know. Calling out sexism, on account of the fact that sexism is fucking awful. The point being, if you honestly can’t distinguish between “some people think men and women write differently” and “the idea that men and women write differently is sexist”, then I really don’t know what to do with you – and so, for the moment, I’ll leave it at that.