Posts Tagged ‘Intersectionality’

“But the word feminist, it doesn’t sit with me, it doesn’t add up. I want to talk about my problem that I have with it. First of all, on a very base level, just to listen to it. We start with fem. That’s good… Ist. I hate it. I hate it. Fail on ist. It’s just this little dark, black, it must be hissed. Ist! It’s Germanic but not in the romantic way. It’s just this terrible ending with this wonderful beginning… 

Let’s rise up a little bit from my obsession with sound to the meaning. Ist in it’s meaning is also a problem for me. Because you can’t be born an ist. It’s not natural… So feminist includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal, believing all people to be people, is not a natural state…

And so unless somebody comes up with a better one – and please do – my pitch is this word. Genderist. I would like this word to become the new racist. I would like a word that says there was a shameful past before we realized that all people were created equal.”

- Joss Whedon, during this hot mess of a speech

When you posit that two of the main problems with the word feminist are the offputting phonetics and unnatural implications of its final syllable, then promptly suggest a replacement word that uses the exact same fucking syllable in the exact same fucking placement while changing the part you claimed was great – which backflip you manage to perform in the space of a single, pre-prepared speech – it’s probably time to sit all the way down and shut the fuck up about feminism.

Listen, Joss Whedon: you’ve made some cool, transformative, feminist shit, plus a bunch of other stuff – or sometimes the same stuff! – which is awesome despite being problematic on multiple fronts, though as always, YMMV. That much is undeniable. But you’ve also done some truly fucked-up things, like firing Charisma Carpenter for being pregnant, planning to have Inara gang raped in order to make Mal Reynolds a hero, and repeatedly racefailing your representations of POC, especially the women; and now you’ve got the gall to stand there and proclaim the ineffectiveness of feminism at a conceptual level – to agree, in effect, with Elle UK’s recent attempt to rebrand the movement – because you don’t like the word?

Before we proceed any further, let’s get one thing straight: there are times and places for changing our language on the basis of what a particular term originally implied, or of what it continues to imply. Language is important and sneaky; it changes our thinking without our even realising it, and when we make a conscious effort to reclaim that process – to be clear and unambiguous, to avoid causing hurt, and to set aside long-standing biases better left as historical footnotes – that is an important, a powerful thing. But this is not the case with the many successive attempts to rebrand feminism; to replace it with words like equalist or genderist , which invariably involve the removal of that disquietingly feminine prefix. Rather than redressing a lexicographical wrong, it’s a way of downplaying the role and relevance of women within their own movement in order to make others feel more comfortable with the concept of equality, a form of taxological silencing derived from the same logic which recently saw a female speaker ejected from the Michigan House of Representatives for saying ‘vagina’ while talking about abortion. For as long as the word feminism is deemed both radical and confrontational for its use of the feminine prefix, it will remain a necessary word precisely because of how perfectly our cultural uneasiness with women’s rights is reflected in our uneasiness with a term that dares to make them its focus.

Because linguistically, feminism is a word rooted firmly in the female quest for equality, an origin story which speaks of combat against oppression, not its perpetuation. Which isn’t to say that the movement has never been oppressive, either then or now. Early white feminists routinely threw women of colour under the same bus Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin before her were forced to the back of, openly spouting racist views and stealing the foundations of modern feminism from the women of Iroquois Confederacy, a practice all too often continued today by the erasure of the feminist contributions of WOC, the endorsement of men like Hugo Schwyzer, the aggressive Islamaphobia of Femen (an organisation, coincidentally, which is run by men), and Caitlin Moran’s assertion that she “literally couldn’t give a shit about” the representation of WOC in media, to say nothing of the repeated transphobic abuse and cissexist attitudes of radical feminists towards trans women and their inclusion in feminist spaces. Which is why womanism has arisen as a separate institution to feminism – as a way for black women especially, but WOC generally, to discuss their rights and needs without being spoken over, condescended to, misappropriated, elided or otherwise ignored by white feminists too oblivious to their own privilege to realise that, as per the words of Flavia Dzodan, feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

All of which is a way of saying: there are many good reasons to discuss the future of feminism, its relationship with oppression and the way this intersects with our use of language. The failures of the movement – and there are many – are not derived from its nomenclature, but are rather a disappointment to all that it should encompass, but doesn’t. With so much toxic history bound up in exclusionary feminist thinking, it may well be that the best answer, long term, is to find ourselves a new title and start afresh. But when Joss Whedon comes out, completely ignores the existence of such conversations, suggests that race is a comparable side-issue to gender rather than a major intersection with it and says that, no, the way to move feminism forward is to rebrand it using a word  he invented all by himself, because apparently the true spirit of feminism is best encapsulated by our uncritical capitulation to a powerful white guy who cracks jokes about the Taliban and publicly shames Katy Perry while telling the rest of us what we’re doing wrong? FUCKING NO.

In Whedon’s recent adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing –  a film I otherwise loved – there’s a single ugly moment that perfectly encapsulates the nature of his fail. Brought to the altar to wed a woman he thinks is an unknown substitute for his beloved Hero, whom he presumes dead, the guilt-wracked Claudio declares his intent to marry her “even were she an Ethiope” – which is to say, even if she were ugly or otherwise socially unacceptable. Being as how this is 2013, rather than 1599, when the play was first written, Whedon could easily have changed this line, removing or altering it without any loss of drama. Instead, he chose to emphasise it, cutting quickly to the disapproving face of a nearby black woman – someone he might well have hired just for that single purpose, given the otherwise lilywhite casting – for a comic beat as Claudio speaks the line. It was jarring and awful and needless, and more than anything else of Whedon’s I’ve seen recently, it reminded me that here is someone who needs to have his shit called out, and loudly. Because if you can put that much conscious thought and planning into making a joke about the ugliness of black women and still get up and call yourself a feminist, then something in your view of the world is seriously wrong.

In 1929, Edward Bernays persuaded a group of women to break the taboo on female smoking by arranging for them all to light up during that year’s Easter Parade in New York City. Though cynically motivated – Bernays was acting on behalf of the American Tobacco Association – this capitalistic appropriation of the suffragette movement was wildly successful: rebranded as “torches of freedom,” cigarettes became both a touchstone for gender equality and a visible accessory of female defiance. The fact that smoking is an addictive, unhealthy and potentially lethal habit doesn’t change the fact that women were being denied access to it purely on the grounds of gender, and yet most people, on learning this particular historical tidbit, will probably feel uncomfortable – not just because Bernays was effectively manipulating the women’s rights movement in order to sell more cigarettes, but because he still had a valid point. No matter the many adverse effects of tobacco – none of which were known at the time – freedom of choice is a basic human right, and denying it to women on the grounds that smoking was a masculine pastime is fundamentally sexist, regardless of our views on cigarettes as a concept.

Similarly, I always feel uneasy whenever I see news outlets fretting about the apparent increase in violent crimes committed by women, and particularly young women. While social commentators are quick to blame the phenomenon on any number of causes – binge drinking, mimicry of “kickass” role models, a seemingly historical predisposition towards initiating domestic confrontations, family breakdown and ladette culture, a change in the definition of assault – their unifying fascination with the issues seems to hinge on the idea of women being corrupted by men; as though female violence is somehow the dark side of feminism. Well, yes, in the sense that violent crime is deplorable regardless of who’s committing it; but that’s a far cry from the view – seldom stated outright, but overwhelmingly implied – that such offences are somehow fundamentally worse when committed by women, not only in a moral sense, but as a perceived symptom of social malaise; as though violent crime as a whole must therefore have reached such epic proportions that even pure, sweet, innocent ladies are being infected by it.

Underneath such scaremongering lies a toxic view of gender essentialism: that because men tend to be physically stronger than women, violence – whether criminal or constructive – must therefore be an innately male characteristic; or at the very least, something which should be viewed with greater acceptance and sympathy when expressed by men. The idea that a certain amount of physical strength is a necessary prerequisite to possession of violent urges, or that maleness somehow excuses poor emotional control, is part of a sexist social logic that serves to validate male expressions of  anger and aggression as being both natural and powerful while demonising women who behave likewise as unnatural and weak. On some level, the cultural derision of female anger as hysteria seemingly stems from a belief in female physical impotence: if verbal disagreements are seen as either analogues for or precursors to physical altercations, then our tacit assumption of female weakness serves to characterise female anger as being somehow disembodied; as though our implied inability to (if necessary) take things outside means that our anger can never be physically felt, and is therefore  inadequate when contrasted with proper, red-blooded, bodily male anger.

Hence my suspicion that at least part of the disgust and confusion leveled at aggressive women stems from the fear that this logic no longer applies: that where before we could trust in angry women to neither hit first nor hit back and therefore discount them appropriately, now we might actually have to treat them with the same deference – or at least, the same concern – as angry men.

To be clear: violent crime is not synonymous with anger; nor is anger only, or even most commonly, expressed through physical acts of aggression. And I’m hardly coming out in support of female violent crime as some bizarre species of empowerment. What I am saying, though, is that our culture has spent so many years defending, downplaying or otherwise handwaving aggression, vice and violence as being integral to proper masculinity – or at least, the inevitable side-effects of same – that we’re now extremely uncomfortable with the idea of women entering those arenas, too. In the case of physically confrontational sports, for instance, like boxing and martial arts, one of the oldest and most universal defenses of their social utility has been as necessary outlets for male (and particularly young male) aggression. But let women into the ring – demonstrate that they can be just as skilled, combative, determined, aggressive – and suddenly that assumption comes under all sorts of scrutiny; because if the desire to punch someone can’t be solely attributed to possession of a Y-chromosome, then maybe – just maybe – all our boys-will-be-boys excuses have been less a rational defense of biology and more an irrational defense of culture. And that’s a truly frightening thought for many, because all of a sudden, centuries of excuses about why men can’t be expected to exhibit self control in any number of situations – why it’s always women who have to dress modestly, avoid conflict and not start fights; why territorial violence, or violence as response to supposed disrespect, is overwhelmingly justified – start to look like… well, excuses.

In a recent article, writer Jen Dziura contended that, contrary to the logic of gender stereotyping, men are just as emotional as women; it’s just that specific types of emotion more commonly associated with men – such as shouting, aggression and violence – are culturally viewed as positive attributes (or at least excusable ones) , whereas emotional displays that are viewed as feminine, like crying and getting upset, are interpreted as weakness.  To quote:

I wish to dispel the notion that women are “more emotional.” I don’t think we are. I think that the emotions women stereotypically express are what men call “emotions,” and the emotions that men typically express are somehow considered by men to be something else.

This is incorrect. Anger? EMOTION. Hate? EMOTION. Resorting to violence? EMOTIONAL OUTBURST. An irrational need to be correct when all the evidence is against you? Pretty sure that’s an emotion. Resorting to shouting really loudly when you don’t like the other person’s point of view? That’s called “being too emotional to engage in a rational discussion.”

Not only do I think men are at least as emotional as women, I think that these stereotypically male emotions are more damaging to rational dialogue than are stereotypically female emotions. A hurt, crying person can still listen, think, and speak. A shouting, angry person? That person is crapping all over meaningful discourse.

Note, please, that Dziura describes these particular emotions, not as being intrinsically male or female, but only stereotypically so. This is a crucial distinction to make, because without it, we miss the existence of yet another double standard: the fact that, on those rare occasions when women do manage to overcome their own socialisation and publicly express anger, rage or violence, they are still derided for being emotional. Once again, the creeping toxicity of our assumptions about who is entitled to anger – viz: anyone we think is capable of supporting their verbal aggression physically – causes us to conclude that, as women lack this ability – and particularly when ranged against male opponents – their anger must therefore be disembodied and hysterical rather than bodily and genuine. An angry man is a growling Alsatian: we listen because his bite could well be worse than his bark. But an angry woman is a yapping chihuahua: visible rage only serves to magnify her physical inability to express it seriously, and in the meantime, we laugh at how cute she looks when she’s pissed.

And then, of course, the issue is further compounded by both conscious and subconscious racism: white male anger, for instance, is viewed as restrained, civilised and righteous, whereas black male anger is viewed as savage, bestial, wild. In this metaphor, the violence of white men as expressed through verbal aggression is viewed as a holstered gun: we’re obscenely comforted to know that, if the argument came to blows, they’d be capable of defending themselves, but otherwise, we don’t worry that violent words are likely to translate to violent actions. The violence of black men, however, is taken to be overt, like a constantly brandished sword – even when their words are milder, we’re conditioned to worry that at any moment, they’ll forgo dialogue in favour of physical action, and to fear and mistrust them appropriately. That’s just one example; the stereotyping is endless. But for any intersectional group and their associated stereotypes, you can be sure that society has an opinion on how entitled they are to anger and violence, how frequently (or not) it’s perceived to be expressed by that group, how threatening this behaviour is to the privileged, and whether such expressions should be generally met with condescension, fear or outright hostility.

As a culture, we need to get past the idea that anger is sole and rightful purview of those with both the potential for physical violence and enough social privilege that their usage of it is always assumed to be justified; that aggression is distinct from emotion, and therefore a legitimate species of argument when employed by men; and that the aggression of anyone who lacks the protections of privilege or the semblance of physical strength mustn’t be legitimate anger, but either thoughtless thuggery or baseless hysteria instead. Like it or not, the right to anger is a cultural resource, and one the most privileged have been keen to reserve for themselves. Not only must we reclaim it, but – as Dziura says – we must also stop mistaking it for the only valid form of discourse; or rather, stop fooling ourselves that we haven’t embedded an unhealthy tolerance for aggression, and specifically white male aggression, in the heart of our definition of reasoned, rational debate. Anger in discourse can be justified, but we should always recognise it for what it is – an emotion – instead of only classing it as one when someone of lesser privilege is using it. That way, we can start to build a system where everyone is heard, and where legitimate expressions of outrage aren’t buried beneath a sneering weight of gendered, racist contempt.

Don’t let the title put you off. This isn’t what you think.

With few exceptions, there comes a point in every little girl’s life when she first suffers exclusion on the basis of gender. For me, this happened regularly in primary school sports: the boys didn’t like it when I wanted to play cricket, and would actively gang up to ensure I was either kept away from the bat or relegated to the furthest reaches of the outfield. Children aren’t paragons of political correctness: unlike later in life, I knew definitively then that gender was the reason for this behaviour, because I was openly told as much. Over and over again, whether it was soccer or cricket or handball or football or some other thing the boys were doing, I had to fight for inclusion, because even at the tender ages of seven and eight and nine, boys knew that girls were no good at sport; that my presence on the field, let alone my desire to play, was aberrant, and that my foregone incompetence would spoil it for the rest of them.

This isn’t the only way it can happen. Some of the exclusion is even orchestrated by adults, who, whether intentionally or not, project onto children their subconsciously-absorbed ideas about who should be doing what. Don’t play with the truck, dear – it’s for boys. Wouldn’t you rather wear a dress? Only boys have short hair; yours is lovely and long. The inverse happens too, of course, and to equal detriment: in fact, when adults police the behaviour of children, the crackdown on boys who behave in feminine ways is far more severe than what transgressing girls experience, with the result that boys are much more likely to be mocked and policed by their peers, too, and from an earlier age. My own experiences bear this out: only at high school was I ostracized for being masculine. Prior to that, none of my female friends ever minded my tomboyishness – but from the earliest years of primary school, my male friends were actively persecuted by other boys for hanging around with a girl.

The above scenarios are not atypical. Thanks to the hyper-gendering of children’s toys, clothes, television shows, picture books, dress-up costumes and perceived interests, the basic rules of childhood play are rife with learned gender politics. The ubiquity of school-sanctioned sports and games – that is, things boys are stereotypically meant to be good at – during primary education, especially when placed against the comparative dearth of stereotypically girlish activities, means that the dynamics of exclusion work primarily against girls. This is because, while boys are seldom confronted with or encouraged to participate recreationally in ‘feminine’ activities, girls are regularly taught and told to engage in ‘masculine’ ones. This means that unless, like my childhood friends, boys decide on their own initiative to befriend girls or take up ‘feminine’ activities, they may never experience gender-exclusion at school; but that girls, thanks to the gendering of sports and particular play activities, almost certainly will. Perhaps more importantly, however, this skewed dynamic means that both boys and girls are taught to associate exclusion with femaleness. In the vast majority of cases, girls aren’t penalised for behaving like boys – after all, teachers encourage them at sports, and girls are allowed to wear boyish clothing – but for being girls doing masculine things. Boys, on the other hand, are penalised both for behaving like girls AND for being boys doing feminine things. Throw in the fact that boys are invariably penalised more harshly for their transgressions than girls – adults police boys who wear dresses; peers police boys who play with dolls – and you end up with a situation where all children, regardless of gender, are absorbing the message that for many things, it’s better to be masculine and male than feminine and female.

We also teach children they live in an equal society.

Clearly, this isn’t true; and as the above should demonstrate, examples of its untruth abound in childhood. But children, by and large, are not critical thinkers, and adults, by and large, are sadly averse to questions from children that challenge the status quo. Asked whether boys can wear make-up, for instance, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that many, if not most parents would answer that no, they can’t; or that they could, technically, but don’t; or that make-up is just for girls; or even that it’s wrong for boys to do so. And because their question has been answered in accordance with what they see in the world, most children will probably nod and store that information safely away, so that if, some time in the future, they do see a boy or man wearing make-up, they’ll instinctively find it troubling – even though their original question has long since been forgotten. And all of that only concerns gender differences: throw in the additional and equally complex problems of race, nationality, sexual orientation and culture, and you’ve got yourself a maelstrom of youthfully-learned biases.

The point is, childhood matters. A lot.

Which is where we come to the inherent problem of telling these same children, once they’ve grown into teens and young adults, that society is equal. It doesn’t help – and is, I’d contend, actively harmful – that lessons which mention equality are almost always tied to the achievements of a particular historical group (the women’s suffrage movement, for instance) rather than to the pervasive bias that made their actions necessary to begin with. This creates the false impression that, as the movement ultimately succeeded, the equality of the outcome was absolute – and as the lesson tends to be about the movement itself, rather than what came afterwards or its ongoing relevance in the present day, students are left, quite literally, with the feeling that a chapter has been closed. Even if accepting the existence of total equality as gospel means actively discounting our own experiences with inequality as anomalous, the majority of students will do so – because even though teens frequently question the relevance of school or the utility of its lessons, questioning the truthfulness of their content in the absence of external prompting invokes a far greater conspiracy.

How, then, does any of this relate to the frankly incendiary notion that teaching equality hurts men?

Because of everyone, straight, white men are the least likely people to experience exclusion and inequality first-hand during their youth, and are therefore the most likely to disbelieve its existence later in life. Unless they seek out ‘feminine’ pastimes as children – and why would they, when so much of boy-culture tells them not to? – they will never be rebuked or excluded on the basis of gender. Unless someone actively takes the time to convince them otherwise, they will learn as teens that the world is an equal place – an assertion that gels absolutely with their personal experiences, such that even if women, LGBTQ individuals and/or POC  are rarely or never visible in their world, they are nonetheless unlikely to stop and question it. They will likely study white-male-dominated curricula, laugh ironically at sexist, racist and homophobic jokes, and participate actively in a popular culture saturated with successful, varied, complex and interesting versions of themselves – and this will feel right and arouse no suspicion whatever, because this is what equality should feel like. They will experience no sexual or racial discrimination when it comes to getting a job and will, on average, earn more money than the women and POC around them – and if they stop to reflect on either of these things, they’ll do so in the knowledge that, as the world is equal, any perceived hierarchical differences are simply reflective of the meritocracy at work.

They will not see how the system supports their success above that of others, because they have been told that equality stripped them of their privileges long ago. Many will therefore react with bafflement and displeasure to the idea of positive discrimination, hiring quotas or any other such deliberate attempts at encouraging diversity – because not only will it seem to genuinely disadvantage them, but it will look like an effort to undermine equality by granting new privileges to specific groups. Never having experienced inequality, therefore, the majority of straight white men will be absolutely oblivious to their own advantages – not because they must necessarily be insensitive, sexist, racist, homophobic or unaware of the principles of equality; but because they have been told, over and over again, that there is no inequality left for them – or anyone else – to experience – and everything they have experienced up to that point will only have proved them right.

Let the impact of that sink in for a moment.

By teaching children and teenagers that equality already exists, we are actively blinding the group that most benefits from inequality – straight white men – to the prospect that it doesn’t. Privilege to them feels indistinguishable from equality, because they’ve been raised to believe that this is how the world behaves for everyone. And because the majority of our popular culture is straight-white-male-dominated, stories that should be windows into empathy for other, less privileged experiences have instead become mirrors, reflecting back at them the one thing they already know: that their lives both are important and free from discrimination.

And this hurts men. It hurts them by making them unconsciously perpetrate biases they’ve been actively taught to despise. It hurts them by making them complicit in the distress of others. It hurts them by shoehorning them into a restrictive definition masculinity from which any and all deviation is harshly punished. It hurts them by saying they will always be inferior parents and caregivers, that they must always be active and aggressive even when they long for passivity and quietude, that they must enjoy certain things like sports and beer and cars or else be deemed morally suspect. It hurts them through a process of indoctrination so subtle and pervasive that they never even knew it was happening , and when you’ve been raised to hate inequality, discovering that you’ve actually been its primary beneficiary is horrifying – like learning that the family fortune comes from blood money.

To be clear: these personal hurts are not the same as cultural disadvantages (though in the case of men being forced to adhere to a restrictive masculinity, they can certainly cause legitimate pain, distress and disadvantage, the discussion of which would merit a blog of its own). This post isn’t about bemoaning the woes of the privileged, but about making clear the circumstances under which the existence of that privilege can so often go unquestioned and unnoticed by those who have it; and to point out why, when the question of their being privileged is first raised, so many people react with disbelief and anger. I say people, because although I’ve focused this piece on the privileges of straight white men, they are not the only privileged group. Intersectionality must be a serious part of any discourse centered on equality, or else those of us who aren’t straight white men but who nonetheless enjoy privilege will only be training ourselves to unsee our advantages in just as problematic and damaging a way.

We all, right now, need to stop the pretense that the world is anything near an equal place. Sexism, racism and homophobia are not only commonplace, but actively institutional. Universal suffrage and the civil rights movement are not, and never have been, the be-all, end-all of either our legal or cultural freedoms. Fraternities of straight white men have equality – but when you consider that this selfsame group has majority control of Western government, it shouldn’t be hard to understand the ubiquity of the lie that everyone else has it, too. The only way to fight for equality is to acknowledge that we don’t yet have it – and to admit that sometimes, our self-perception, no matter how well-intentioned, is the very thing at fault.

Because teaching equality doesn’t just hurt men. It hurts everyone.

Following on from my recent thoughts on female characters in YA dystopias and the Broken Bird trope, something else about the treatment of women in stories has been niggling at me. Writing those both posts, my emotional reaction was consistently stronger and more negative than seemed explicable by their topics alone – as though there was something else under it, some deeper irk I couldn’t consciously describe, but which was nonetheless feeding into my reaction. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out what it was; and now, finally, I think I’ve drawn a bead on it. So!

Regardless of their political orientation, most people can admit that:

a) sexism exists as a part of human culture; and

b) has done so for thousands of years.

Even people who insist that our current, enlightened society is sexism-free can usually admit that, once upon a time, things were otherwise, and that this has been true for the vast majority – if not all of – human history. So, following on from this logic, any SFF novel set in either:

a) a fictional society whose culture is modeled on that of a historical civilisation; or

b) a future society whose culture is modeled on that of either a present or historical civilisation

will, unless the author actively chooses otherwise, incorporate certain aspects of real-world culture into the narrative by default. These defaults are many and varied, but the one I want to talk about is sexism. Thus: because most readers, either consciously or unconsciously, expect a certain level of sexism to exist in every society – even fictional ones – authors can infer sexism as a cultural default without ever needing to explain or address it. This leads to the formation and propagation of certain tropes, stereotypes and archetypes whose existence and validity are fundamentally dependent on the narrative presence of sexism generally; and more specifically, given the overwhelming number of fantasy novels set in a sort of idealised, white, medieval Europe, on a grossly oversimplified and homogenized concept of medieval gender roles. Some examples of this are:

  • The Spirited Woman Married Off Against Her Will To An Ugly Man She Doesn’t Love;
  • The Lone And Therefore Exceptional Woman Warrior In A Culture Of Male Warriors;
  • The Widowed Queen Fighting To Keep Her Throne Against An All-Male Cast Of Contenders;
  • The Woman Who Runs Away Rather Than Be Married Off Against Her Will But Who Then Needs Rescuing From Worldly Perils;
  • The Woman Whose Love Of Books And Scholarship Is Exceptional And Odd And Therefore Deemed Socially Awkward;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Is Happy Being Unmarried And Therefore Considered An Oddity;
  • The Unmarried Woman Who Was Forbidden To Marry The Man She Loved And Is Therefore Sad And Unfulfilled;
  • The Woman Who Ran Away To Marry The Man Forbidden To Her And Who Is Now A Social Pariah;
  • The Penniless Woman Who Needs To Be Rescued From Penury As Her Gender Prevents Her From Working;
  • The Girl Forced To Dress As A Boy In Order To Live Out Her Socially Unacceptable Dreams;
  • The Adventurous Daughter Whose Parents Let Her Run Free But Threaten Her With Marriage Should She Fail;
  • The Female Scholar/Magician Trying To Make It In A Largely Male World; and
  • The Lone Female Soldier/Technician/Magician/Scholar Whose Male Colleagues Don’t Take Her Seriously.

And so on.

Now: as per the existence of sexism in the real world both historically and currently, I’m not trying to suggest that any of the above tropes are unrealistic; nor am I suggesting they should be avoided at all costs, or that they’re inherently bad, or anything like that. What I am saying, though, is that these are all comparatively common tropes, and that, even lacking specific details of the stories in which they appear, it’s still obvious that, of necessity, they all must involve societies in which sexism plays a part. What’s more, because these examples all corroborate easily with a familiar sexist framework – that is, sexism against women in a Western/European setting – they don’t require much explanation. In fact, unless the story is actively trying to write an original culture or to tweak an existing one in ways that are plot-relevant, most readers are likely to consider any actual declaration of women are oppressed for these reasons to be not only redundant, but insulting – because obviously, we already know how it works! So if I pick up a novel and learn in the first chapter that the heroine is being pressured into marriage by her father, I don’t need to ask why, and chances are the author won’t bother to tell me. Certainly, the chances of the actual plot involving a push for social justice – a sort of SFF suffragettism, if you will – are slim to none. All I’m meant to infer that sexism exists, that the female characters will be hindered accordingly, and that otherwise I should just get on with the story.

And most of the time, the author takes it no further. We are left with sexism as a background detail: one which is used to justify the plight or origins of particular female characters and the total absence of others, but which is never actually addressed. Which, in instances where the protagonist is male, or where the majority of the cast is male, leaves us instantly with a screaming, red-faced anachronism: where are the actual sexists? Why, if sexism in this society is so deep-seated, are the heroes so unusually enlightened? Here is why; I will tell you the secret. Because we are meant to like them. Funnily enough, most authors have cottoned on to the fact that writing openly sexist heroes is less heroic than it is disgusting; that it’s sort of difficult to hail Weapons McFighty, Trueking Noob and Roamer Nomadson as the exalted Lords of Awesome when they’ve spent the majority of the book acting like entitled jerks.

Except, here’s the other secret: this is completely untrue.  Offhand, I could name you half a dozen fantasy novels where open, narratively-acknowledged sexism on behalf of the characters has neither prevented the book from being excellent nor the hero from being heroic. True, it’s made them more complex (gasp!) and probably less likable, but it’s also made them more human, forced the reader to actually think about sexism, and tied the characterisation to the worldbuilding in a realistic and consistent way.

This is not the only way to address the presence of default sexism. You can, for instance, construct interesting and believable histories for your male characters which explain their unusual sense of equality – provided that you also allow the women to find it unusual, rather than just taking it for granted. You can follow sexism to some of its natural conclusions rather than focusing exclusively on those few exceptional women who’ve avoided it, such that your characters – and, by extension, the audience – are forced to view it as more than just an inevitable background detail. Then again, you could avoid writing default sexism in the first place by actually considering how gender roles work in your story, building a cultural, social and historical setting that usurps the expectations of the reader. You could write an equal society, or one whose inequalities are unusual; you could write a typically sexist society, but make sexism a major narrative focus. Lots of different ways to explore the topic!

But just using sexism as a default while simultaneously including characters whose ambivalence to, distance from or disconnect with the problem only serves to diminish its impact and make it a background issue? That makes you not only a lazy, unoriginal writer, but one who actually perpetuates sexism by training the reader to take its presence for granted: to refrain from so much as questioning or calling it out, let alone showing its worst consequences, because that’s just how things work, and anyway women’s issues are boring.

And this is my problem, the thing that underlies all the beefs I have right now with UF and YA and dystopias in particular, but also with a bunch of other things in general: the simple fact that too many authors shrink away from acknowledging the default sexism of their settings when everything in their stories suggests its relevance. I am not asking you to use your writing as a vehicle for feminist discourse – actually, no, wait, I sort of am, if by feminist discourse you mean not letting sexism pass without comment, which is also weirdly synonymous with being a decent human. I just want you to admit that this is a problem, and that perhaps making it a background detail without any sort of commentary beyond ‘Oh my female character was being oppressed but now she’s escaped or been rescued, so that’s cool,’ is, you know, unhelpful.

For instance! Are you:

  • Writing a story where your heroine is either the lone woman in her field or one of an elite few ladies? Then tell me why! If she’s battling uphill against an entrenched culture of sexism, show it to us – don’t just rely on inference. Fighting sexism in the workplace is hard enough when you’re an office temp, let alone fighting manticores or saving the world! And if there’s no culture of sexism, then why are there so few ladies? Were lots of them killed off in a major battle? Is the job itself actually considered low-status in a context where women tend to hold higher-status positions? Or did you just default to a male majority because that’s how the world often looks and you didn’t actually think about it, even though you’re trying to write about an institution that prizes equality?
  • Writing a story where, due to some stupid quirk of magical biology, the female of the species is much rarer than the male, so that all the guys fight over her and go swoony for her lady-originating specialness?  Here’s an idea: don’t. I am truly, thoroughly sick of this trope. If I happen across one more story where there’s a bajillion boy-werewolves, boy-vampires, boy-magicians or whatever and then lo and behold, a lady werewolf-vampire-magician shows up and OMG SHE’S THE ONLY GIRL BECAUSE REASONS, LET’S FIGHT!, I will SET THE BOOK ON FIRE. To me, this is the most toxic, awful form of default sexism because it builds into biology the idea that girls must either be unspecial and irrelevant or special and put on a pedestal while simultaneously providing an excuse to perpetuate all the very worst gender stereotypes (New Special Girl Resented By Special And Unspecial Girls Alike,  Boys Fighting Over Potential Mates Ladies In A Way That’s Meant To Be Hot, Hierarchy And Sexism Are How Our Society Work So Deal With It) as a species-based culture. Plus and also, this is doubly ridiculous because healthy animal populations produce an equal number of males and females; when human populations end up with more men that women, it’s invariably because sexist cultures encourage sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. So not only does it make no biological sense, it also ends up taking some of the very worst aspects of real-world sexism and using it to justify sexy romance plots. Which, I’m sorry, no.
  • Writing a story where women’s bodies and sexuality are policed, reproduction is exalted and all the hallmarks of deeply coercive sexism apply? Then actually call it sexism! Show the consequences! Or at least, show the indoctrination! Explain how the system is maintained, how it came into being, and why people believe it! Show what happens to LBGTQ people! Don’t be afraid to write radical characters! These last two are particularly important: I am getting massively tired of sexually coercive dystopias whose protagonists are always straight people in love, and whose rebellion therefore stems wholly from not being free to choose each other, rather than from the fact that, you know, they’re living in a dystopia based around eugenics, enforced heterosexuality and state-sanctioned rape. Romance is great and all, but if you’ve built a setting founded on sexual atrocities, then glossing over them because it detracts from the romance is sort of… atrocious.

And so on.

Sexism is not the only social default thus applied – racism and homophobia continue to crop up in SFF for much the same reasons. Default sexism might well be more common, but only because the exclusion of POC/LGBTQ characters from so many SFF works means that problems of race and homophobia are even more deep-seated in the real world than problems of sexism, making it harder for those conversations to be had in reference to fictional works from which they’re too often erased. Women are everywhere – it’s hard to ignore us completely – but thoughtless authors can and do whitewash and straightwash their stories without any conscious thought, simply because it never occurs to them to do otherwise. Which is, I think, somehow more terrible than if they’d made an active decision. The freedom to  ignore the relevance of intersectionality is just another form of privilege, and arguably one more vicious than benign. Remember: if your equality looks homogeneous, then it’s probably not equality.

In a nutshell, then:  I am sick of stories that pay lip-service to equality (sexism exists, and is bad) while actively working against its principles (but it’s boring, so let’s get over it). More importantly, I am sick of this process being so much in the way of a default setting that we’ve stopped even questioning it – making it a hidden process rather than something overt. In the immortal words of Caitlin Moran:

These days, a plethora of shitty attitudes to women have become diffuse, indistinct or almost entirely concealed. Fighting them feels like trying to combat a mouldy, mildew smell in the hallway, using only a breadknife. Because – like racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia – modern sexism has become cunning. Sly. Codified. In the same way a closet racist would never dream of openly saying ‘nigger’ but might make a pointed reference to someone black having a natural rhythm, or liking fried chicken, so a closet misogynist has a vast array of words, comments, phrases and attitudes that they can employ to subtly put a woman down, or disconcert her, but without it being immediately apparent that that is what they are actually doing….

It’s difficult to see the glass ceiling because it’s made of glass. What we need is for more birds to fly above it and shit all over it, so we can see it properly.