Posts Tagged ‘Discrimination’

Three days ago, Kameron Hurley wrote an amazing piece on the erasure of women’s stories in particular, but especially their contribution to combat, in the course of which she linked to something I wrote last year about default narrative settings. The response to her article – and, by way of the domino effect, to mine – has been overwhelmingly positive, which is both encouraging and wonderful. This being the internet, however, there’s also been some reactive dissent, some of it outrageously trollish (as per one Redditor’s complaint that “not every book has to appeal to females and you have the entire romance genre if you want to read from a females point of view,” which, AUGH), but also a special type of defensive hostility that manages to completely miss the point – in this case, for instance, by asserting that, as the majority of soldiers are still male, it’s a fantasy to pretend that the female ones matter. And as this is an argument whose variants I’ve encountered a lot – not only in response to my PSA post, but generally elsewhere – it’s one I’d like to properly address.

So: Yes. The majority of soldiers in history have been male – that fact is not in contention. Nor am I arguing that women in history never experienced sexism, or that discrimination on the basis of race, class or sexual orientation never kept anyone down. What I am saying, though, is twofold: firstly, that our popular notions of how historical prejudice worked are not always accurate (or are, at the very least, prone to oversimplification), and that this is worth examining, especially in instances where most of what we think we know about history comes from fictional extrapolations of it which are themselves inspired by earlier fiction; and secondly, that acknowledging the reality of historical prejudice is neither the same thing as saying that nobody ever overcame it, nor as believing that such prejudice is inherent to every possible permutation of sentient society. By which I mean: whatever you believe about history, unless you think that human beings are predestined to perpetrate specific injustices regardless of the setting in which they find themselves (which is incredibly depressing, and also intellectually suspect, when you consider the extent to which culture is shaped by context), then admitting the existence of historical prejudices doesn’t obligate you to incorporate them in your fictional worlds.

But, says my hypothetical interlocutor, what about realism? Aren’t all these examples you’re giving me about lady soldiers and crossdressing spies ultimately just outliers and exceptions to the norm? 

To which I say: if your definition of realism hinges on idea that foregrounding a perceived minority is inherently unrealistic, then firstly, I’m going to question whether you’ve ever actually read a fantasy novel, and secondly, fuck you.

No, seriously: have you ever fucking read a fantasy novel? All the oldest, most beloved tropes of epic fantasy are predicated on the idea of taking some impossible scenario, unusual person and/or mythical creature, and then writing an entire fucking story about them – preferably all at once! You think real history was littered with bastard princes raised in secret by wise monks or noble farmers and then sent off on quests to obtain the Magic Sword of Destiny? You think sexy assassins are ten a penny? Do you even know how many fantasy stories explicitly establish the incredibly rarity of dragons, and then spend the rest of the fucking novel trekking to meet them? Are you even reading the same genre as me?

Fantasy is all about foregrounding outliers – quite often, in fact, it does little else. So when you sit there, straight-faced, and tell me you couldn’t get into Novel X because the main character was a black female pirate and that’s so unrealistic, what you’re actually saying is, the only exceptional people I want to fantasise about are the ones who look like me. Because the thing is,  if you’re making this argument in the first place? Then the chances are astronomically good that you’re either a straight white cisgendered male or someone who checks at least one of those boxes – which is to say, someone who sees themselves so well represented in narrative that it’s downright unusual to encounter the alternative. And thanks to the prevalence of those sorts of stories, it’s easy to slip into justifying their monopoly by assuming that any departure from the norm would be, on some fundamental level, unrealistic. I mean, why else call it normal if it’s not the base state of being, right?

Except, no, it’s not. On a global scale, white people are an ethnic minority. Women make up half the population of Earth. Straight away, that’s two of your apparently immutable majority axes defeated by basic math – and as for the rest? Let me put it this way: of all the people on this planet, two percent are naturally blonde, while one percent are natural redheads (and before you ask, no: that doesn’t correlate directly with having light skin – genetically, you can have pretty much any combination on offer). That might sound like a comparatively small number – and yet, if I were to do a random tally of the number of blonde and redhaired protagonists in SFF novels, I’ll bet you I could hit over a hundred just from the books in my house. Given that there are at least as many QUILTBAG persons as redheads worldwide – if not more than all the blondes and auburns put together, the data being understandably hard to measure – then statistically, they ought to have equal representation in the foreground of SFF novels. That would, after all, be only realistic. And yet, if I were to do a similar sweep of the books in my house, I doubt I’d find even a quarter as many such protagonists. We foreground what seems realistic to us, is what I’m saying – but that doesn’t mean our perception of reality is either all-encompassing or accurate.


So, yes. Sometimes, when we’re talking about amazing women or queer individuals in history, we’re talking about anomalies. Sometimes – but not nearly as often as you’ve been trained to think. And even if they are outliers, who the fuck cares? Stories about determined underdogs overcoming adversity to do awesome things and make their mark on history are some of the best ones out there. But you know what? That doesn’t make them the only stories you can realistically tell about members of perceived or actual minority groups. The fact that there were incredible women in history who took up swords and played at politics doesn’t diminish the narrative potential of those women who managed their families and held the fort instead – in fact, those two groups aren’t even mutually exclusive. Human beings are versatile creatures, and as rich a source of inspiration as history is for SFF stories, it’s not the be-all, end-all of what’s possible. The only limit is your imagination – or rather, the biases with which you’re content to constrain it.


In the past few weeks, mass critical discussion of a YA novel by Victoria Foyt – titled Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls – has sprung up online after various people noticed that the book was, shall we say, extremely problematic vis-a-vis racism. And by ‘extremely problematic’, I mean the white female protagonist wears blackface (complete with extra-red lips), black people are called ‘coals’, the black male love interest is literally described as animalistic and bestial, the dystopian elements come in large part from black people being in charge while whites are a demonised minority, Aztec characters speak Spanish for no readily discernable reason, and the title literally translates to ‘save the white people’ – ‘pearls’ being an (apparently) derogatory term for whites, though as various other commenters have pointed out, the coals/pearls contrast is itself offensive: after all, coal is dirty and cheap, whereas pearls are beautiful and valuable.

Things might have died down had Foyt herself not waded in, angrily denying all assertions that either the book or her attitudes were racist while simultaneously speculating that African-American readers might not even exist as a category. It was at this point that an awful possibility occurred to me: what if the Stop the GR Bullies site were to start defending Foyt on the grounds that calling her racist constituted bullying? It was a cynical thought, and one I was prepared to categorise as uncharitable even as I tweeted about the possibility on Wednesday; surely, even STGRB could recognise that in this instance, the accusations of racism were both legitimate and extremely relevant to any discussion of the novel, given Foyt’s claim that the story was meant to “turn racism on its head” – after all, how can you assess whether a book has succeeded at its stated goals without analysing the author’s efforts at achieving them? How can you discuss the presence of blatant racism in a novel without asking why the author included it, and whether they even realised it was there, let alone offensive?

But as it turns out, my cynical predictions proved accurate: this morning, STGRB has come out in defence of Foyt, asserting that:

“…calling the author racist (when she has clearly stated that she is not) or calling her ignorant, disgusting, terrible, sexist, etc., or saying that she and her agent, editor, and publisher should be sued – that is bullying.”

Which is, apart from anything else, monumentally hypocritical given that the site’s entire purpose is to label as bullies people who actively state that they aren’t. If Foyt can be deemed definitely non-racist simply by virtue of asserting that she isn’t, then how can STGRB accuse anyone of bullying who doesn’t openly identify as a bully without contradicting their own logic? Regardless of whether you agree with their judgements or practices, the primary assertion of STGRB is that sometimes it’s necessary to bestow negative labels on people who deny their applicability – but in this respect as in so many others, the site is determined to enforce a double-standard: one for them, and one for anyone who disagrees. Site manager Athena’s assertion that “someone’s intentions do define them” is fundamentally flawed: she assumes that someone with good intentions can’t cause actual harm, or that if they do, they shouldn’t be held responsible for it. I’ve written before about intentionality versus interpretation in YA, but what it all metaphorically boils down to is this: if a driver accidentally hits a pedestrian, the fact that they didn’t mean to is immaterial. The pedestrian is still injured, the driver is still negligent, and if, despite these facts, the driver continues to assert that they’re actually very good behind the wheel of a car, we are right to question them. If it really was an accident, a genuinely responsible driver will nonetheless acknowledge their error and take every precaution to ensure they never replicate it; but if it turns out that the driver has been drastically overconfident in their assessment of their abilities, their entire approach to driving needs to change.

Victoria Foyt is being called a racist because the number and severity of the problems present in Revealing Eden are such that the novel ultimately serves to reinforce the very same toxic behaviour it sets out to debunk. The assertion isn’t that Foyt is being consciously racist, in the sense of actively believing black people to be inferior, but rather that, despite her apparently good intentions, she has nonetheless subconsciously absorbed and then actively replicated certain impressions and stereotypes about black people without realising that they’re offensive – and when the extent of her cognitive dissonance was pointed out to her by myriad readers, both white and POC, she responded by asserting that their accusations were “exactly what creates racism”. She has well and truly hit the pedestrian, and has responded by declaring herself to be an excellent driver.

I’ve said before that STGRB is not a subtle site, and now more than ever, I stand by that. In many instances – perhaps even a majority of instances – reviewing the author rather than the book is a bad thing to do; but it would be both impossible and irresponsible to try and fully separate a writer from their words, particularly in instances where they’ve chosen to openly discuss their inspiration or intentions. Foyt is being critiqued as much for the tenor and content of her blogged responses to criticism as for the book itself, and however strongly you might object to references to her as a person cropping up in reviews of the latter, attempting to outlaw commentary on the former is utterly unreasonable. Authors exist in the world, not a vacuum; we are influenced by everything around us, and when that influence transfers itself to our work – whether intentionally or unintentionally – it isn’t unreasonable for critics to take notice, and to comment accordingly.

But let’s take a moment to consider what racism actually means, as both the STGRB crew and several of their commenters appear to be confused about the issue. Contrary to the stated opinions of the STGRB site owners, racism isn’t exclusively an active, conscious phenomenon – by which I mean, the terminology doesn’t only apply to people in KKK hoods who openly assert that black people are inferior. In a cultural context where discrimination is still a daily fact of life for an overwhelming number of people, but where openly stating disdain for POC is socially frowned upon, racism has become primarily a subconscious affair. But this by no means blunts its effect; in fact, it makes it even more insidious, because it breeds in people a problematic belief that hating racism is identical to not actually being racist.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, a grass roots smear campaign sprang up to defend his killer and paint the unarmed, teenage Martin as a thug; some people even started selling shooting targets printed with his face. One newscaster blamed Martin’s death on the fact that he was wearing a hoodie, saying that “black and Latino youngsters particularly” shouldn’t wear them to avoid looking suspicious. Meanwhile, George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, defended himself using Florida’s Stand Your Ground law: his exoneration was instantly contrasted with the prominent case of a black woman, Marissa Alexander, who’d fired a gun while being physically assaulted by a violent partner. Alexander was told that Stand Your Ground didn’t apply in her case; subsequent journalistic investigation found that “defendants claiming ‘stand your ground’ are more likely to prevail if the victim is black”which prompted an investigation into racism’s influence on the law by federal and state officials. By contrast, the extrajudicial killing of black people by law enforcement in America was recently recorded to have reached the rate of one every forty hours, while just last Friday, a member of the GOP stated that members of the Republican party in Florida had actively sought to suppress black votes.

Outside the courtroom, men and women of colour still earn significantly less than their white counterparts. A white Baptist church recently refused to marry a black couple, despite both parties being regular attendees. A poll conducted in March this year showed that 29% of Republicans in Missisippi think that interracial marriage should be illegal, while a recent study of college students showed that“white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes” – a result which showed a strong correlation between colour-blind attitudes and a tacit acceptance/non-recognition of racism. Similarly, implicit association tests (IATs) have frequently shown that the cultural effects of racial bias are widespread, while the shaming of and self-loathing among black girls who’ve been culturally conditioned to view their own natural hair and skin as disgusting is utterly heartbreaking. I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea: racism is everywhere, it is frequently subtle or subconscious, and its effects can be utterly devastating.

So when, to return to the case of STGRB and Victoria Foyt, I see site manager Athena responding to the suggestion that “Accusations of racism are no different than 17th. C. accusations of witchcraft” by praising the commenter’s “understanding and intelligence,” it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that Foyt isn’t the only party to lack a meaningful understanding of racism. I cannot overstate this enough: calling someone out for racism is not worse than actually being racist. If you care more about being called racist than about the possibility that you actually might be racist, then you have a serious problem, because what you’ve just done, right there? Is concluded that it’s more important to appear to support equality than to actually support equality.

Distressingly, this isn’t the first time that race has become a prominent factor in discussions of YA novels. Negative fan reactions to the casting of POC actors in the respective film adaptations of two successful YA series – first to Amandla Stenberg as Rue in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, and now to Godfrey Gao as Magnus Bane in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments – serve to highlight how toxic the assumption of ‘whiteness as normative’ can be. Even in instances where characters are explicitly stated to be POC, as was the case in both Clare’s and Collins’s work, many readers assume otherwise – not necessarily due to conscious racism, but because they unconsciously edit out information that contradicts the culturally learned assumption that whiteness is the default setting.

Intentions are meaningless if contradicted by our actions, and doubly so if we refuse to even acknowledge the possibility of dissonance between them. Victoria Foyt is not being bullied; she is being called out for having written a horrendously racist book in the first instance and then for completely dismissing her critics in the second. Trying to turn the existing conversation about the negative themes of Revealing Eden, the reactions of POC readers, Foyt’s behaviour and the general problem of race in YA into a discussion about the appropriateness of various reviewing techniques is, ultimately, a form of derailing: however important the issue might be otherwise, it’s a separate topic to the one at hand, and the STGRB site managers have done themselves even less credit than usual by so hamfistedly conflating the two. Subconscious racism is a real problem – but so is the refusal of would-be allies to acknowledge that, despite all their active efforts and intentions, it can still affect them, too.

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.

Let me show you how it works:

  1. A female, POC and/or LGBTQ politician/leader is appointed in your area. This is cause for celebration, because
  2. while you aren’t sexist, racist or homophobic, you’re all too aware of the fact that other people – and, more specifically, The System – are frequently biased in those directions, making it harder for such candidates to be accepted regardless of their qualifications. Certainly, this new person is a definite a minority among their high-powered brethren, which suggests that
  3. they must be exceptional in some way. Depending on the context, this specialness could be ascribed to any number of skills, passions or characteristics, but the most important thing is that
  4. despite their gender, race and/or sexual orientation – or rather, despite the biases of less enlightened people who consider such things a handicap – the candidate has succeeded. But no matter how glad you are to see them installed, it’s important to remember that
  5. the candidate did not succeed because of their gender, race and/or sexual orientation. Regardless of whether quotas and/or tokenism are a relevant in this instance (which depends entirely on the individual circumstances), it’s generally seen to be the job of obnoxious, right-wing objectors to claim, sneeringly, that so-and-so was only let in because of their gender, race and or/ sexual orientation, this being a basic means of undermining such a candidate’s qualifications from the get-go. Nonetheless,
  6. it’s clear that their gender, race and/or sexual orientation is a relevant factor in terms of how they’ll be perceived in their role, no matter how irrelevant it might be to their actual portfolio. But even though these details only matter to you in terms of your being happy to see The System veer away from straight white male dominion,
  7. should an instance arise (as it inevitably will) where the candidate is in a position to act (or not) on left-wing issues – and particularly where, either accurately or not, you perceive those issues to overlap with their own gender, racial and/or sexual identity – your natural expectation is for them to Do The Right Thing. And as you’ve already acknowledged that the candidate is special,
  8. you’ve automatically set yourself up to hold them – albeit with the best of intentions – to a higher moral, social and political standard than their straight, white and/or male counterparts. Even if you can acknowledge that people in positions of authority must, of necessity, compromise their own values in order to maintain alliances, get work done in the long term and keep their position within the party/organisation, all that hopefulness about seeing a female, POC and/or LGBTQ candidate in the arena can turn swiftly to feelings of betrayal should they compromise on the issues you care about,
  9. because they, of all possible candidates, should know better. But now they’ve gone and abused your trust; they’ve proved that they weren’t special after all – no better than their straight, white and/or male colleagues, really, and certainly worse in terms of causing you heartache, because of how they should have known better. And because you took their betrayal personally, rather than viewing it as a pragmatic (if irritating) function of their being a human in office, you can’t bear to support them any more. You’d feel like a hypocrite now, and anyway, keeping them in just to maintain diversity and at the expense of your principles would really be tokenism. And so you take the only remaining, logical course of action, and
  10. vote them out of office. It’s a shame they couldn’t live up to your expectations, but maybe the next woman, POC and/or LGBTQ candidate to come along will be different. After all, is it really so unreasonable to expect that your chosen leader be a flawless paragon of virtue?

Congratulations! You have now succeeded in holding minority candidates to such an unreasonably high standard on the basis of their gender, race and/or sexual orientation that you’ve effectively recreated the same type of discrimination you were so angry about in the first place. Wash, rinse and repeat, until society collapses or insomniac authors die from an overdose of facepalm.

This tutorial/rant brought to you by politics, the internet and human nature.

I’ve just been reading this interesting post over at Katharine Kerr’s blog about trying to define what constitutes a work of literary fiction, as opposed to a work of genre fiction. She also talks about the dangers of arguing against litfic and the literary establishment by way of derogatory strawman arguments, not only because this is exactly the kind of negative pigeonholing SFF fans and writers have always railed against when it’s turned our way, but also because it’s unhelpful in trying to understand what literary fiction actually is. It’s an interesting question, but in trying to answer it, I ended up in quite a different place to where I started. Rather than hijack the conversation, therefore, I’m going to take the comment I left as a starting point for answering a slightly different question: how might a lack of named literary subgenres be impeding the success of women literary writers?

As a casual glance at the blogsphere will reveal, there’s been considerable recent debate in SFF quarters about the feminisation of epic fantasy and the nihilism of gritty fantasy, conversations that have been in no small part facilitated by our ability to distinguish between the different SFF subgenres. We know that Tolkien is the Mitochondrial Eve of fantasy writers: one way or another, all our works descend from his. But as with the human race, things have grown more and more diverse with successive generations, such that trying to use fantasy as an exclusive, catch-all terminology has become, except in the most general sense, both useless and inaccurate. Without a language of subgenre terms with which to discuss these differences, it seems inevitable that SFF writing would automatically default to using Tolkien as a blueprint for all new stories – and indeed, up until very recently, we can see that this was the case. Only when writers started trying to break new ground did an alternate language spring up to try and describe their efforts. Partly, it must be admitted, this happened as a means of distancing such heretical works from their canonical predecessors, but also because it was suddenly necessary to look back over everything that had happened since Tolkien and ask whether fantasy could – or should – be more than just the same old Eurocentric, medieval vision of elves, dwarves, men and halflings fighting a succession of ultimate Dark Lords over and over again.

Suddenly, fantasy ceased to be a universal term, and once we started talking and thinking in subgenres, it became easier to understand why new types of story were arising; to pinpoint the tropes their authors wanted to address or change, and for what reasons. True, it also became harder to classify individual works, and the need to fit each and every book into a particular box is something we’re all still arguing about. But the fact is that language is important. Naming a thing allows us greater control over it, and that’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about the magic of Earthsea or the politics of Earth. Consider, for instance, this article by feminist philosopher Jennifer Saul, wherein she talks about the significance of language in feminism. To quote:

“Languages may also lack words for things that matter a great deal to women. This sort of gap is another way that a language can be seen as encoding a male worldview. The term ‘sexual harassment’, for example, is a recent feminist innovation. Women’s discussion of their experiences led them to see a certain common element to many of their problems, and as a result they invented the term ‘sexual harassment’. Once the problem was named, it became much easier to fight sexual harassment, both legally and by educating people about it.”

Which brings me to the matter of the Orange Prize – or rather, to the recent suggestion that an equivalent award is necessary to combat sexism in the Australian literary scene. It’s none too encouraging a sign when women take steps to set themselves apart from men, not because they want or ought to, but because discrimination has left them with no other means of achieving success. For an intelligent and comprehensive rundown on the issue, I highly recommend this excellent piece by writer Benjamin Law, wherein he says, among other things:

“If you take Brookner’s insistence that a meritocracy exists, what are you supposed to make of the raw figures? Books written by women are reviewed less. Women win fewer literary prizes. If that is a meritocracy, then you have to buy into the argument that books by women must be inherently inferior. I can’t accept that. The danger on relying on meritocracy is assuming one actually exists.”

But what, I hear you cry, does any of this have to do with SFF subgenres? Only that women SFF writers seem to have a stronger platform from which to argue their case for equality, simply because their dialogue about content, bias and narrative is so much more linguistically robust than in the literary community. This is not to say that the problems outlined by the recent VIDA statistics on the representation of women vs men in literary reviews are absent in SFF; indeed, it has been demonstrably proven that they aren’t. But when it comes to the question of awards, it doesn’t seem unduly optimistic to say that change is in the air. The Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel in 2011, for instance, are all, with one exception, women, and the situation is identical when it comes to the Nebula. The 2010 Campbell Award was won by a woman, Seanan McGuire, and for the purposes of my argument about subgenre, it doesn’t strike me as irrelevant to note that McGuire’s debut novel, Rosemary and Rue, was the first work of urban fantasy to win its author the Campbell, nor that it did so in competition with another female-authored UF novel: Gail Carriger’s Soulless.

So much of the debate I’ve seen about the disenfranchisement of women literary writers centers on anger at the perception of women’s novels as being “domestic” (where such a label is pejorative) compared to those written by men, which naturally deal with Big Themes and Important Issues. What has always struck me about this complaint – aside from the fact that it appears to be correct, both intuitively and in terms of critical perception – is the difficulty these writers seem to have articulating the problem. They talk about literature and literary fiction as a single entity, grasping after a magical phrase that will allow them to explain simultaneously why women might indeed be more prone to writing about domestic topics, why this is not a bad thing, and why it still counts as literature. Because such amorphous justifications are exactly what subgenre terminology exists to prevent, allowing us to acknowledge that two different types of storytelling are related to one another, that they share a common ancestry and ultimately a common genre, but that their conventions and approaches may nonetheless be very, very different. As in the case of last year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel, it allows us to put vastly different works like China Mieville’s The City & The City, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest on the same ballot, despite the fact that the first is heavily noir/New Weird, the second is dystopian SF, and the third is urban fantasy/mythpunk.

It also puts the SFF community in an excellent position to discuss tropes and archetypes. A communal, cultural resource like TV Tropes provides a go-to lexicon for discussing narrative structure in shorthand, with many such terms finding their way into the mainstream dialogue as a matter of course. Perhaps it’s because the origins and inspirations of SFF are so heavily rooted in jargon-heavy areas like mythology, science, linguistics, pop culture and folklore that the community has taken so readily to isolating and naming its parts; alternatively, it seems reasonable to assume that any group of people who spend a significant proportion of their intellectual lives reading made-up languages, interpreting new cultures and memorising invented systems of magic will inevitably come to appreciate the deep precision and relevance of language. Whatever it is, the literary community doesn’t seem to share it – or if it does, then to nowhere near the same extent.

As more than one would-be inventor of slanguage has come to realise, there’s no telling which new terms will enter our collective vocabularies or die a series of quick deaths. But as corny and New Age as it might seem, it strikes me that the writers most deeply concerned with the state of literary fiction and its biases against women could do a lot worse than trying to coin some terms of their own: to name the archetypes they wish to invert or criticise and thereby open up the discussion. If authors can be thought of as magicians in any sense, then the root of our power has always rested with words: choosing them, arranging them and – most powerfully – inventing them. Sexism won’t go away overnight, and nor will literary bias. But until then, if we’re determined to invest ourselves in bringing about those changes, it only makes sense to arm ourselves with a language that we, and not our enemies, have chosen.

Consider the following story: the refusal of a Christian school to train a Muslim teaching student. Rachida Dahlal, of Victoria University, was knocked back on her application to undergo work experience at Heathdale Christian College on the grounds of her faith. The university’s acting vice-chancellor pointed out that Mrs Dahlal, a devout Muslim who wears the hijab, had already been ‘counselled’ about Heathdale’s policy of ‘taking those whose values aligned to its own’, while school principal Reynald Tibben rather contradictingly stated that the school’s position was not that they had ‘anything against her or her beliefs’, but rather that their education policy was ‘nominal, it’s actually what parents want for their kids’, and that  hiring a Muslim teacher would have been both ‘inappropriate’ and ‘confusing’ for students.

For those who might question Mrs Dahlal’s choice of Heathdale to begin with, her decision was based on the proximity of the school to her home, and its position as one of few institutions offering both French and mathematics, her specialty subjects. Given also that it was her choice, and made in full knowledge of the school’s denomination, Principal Tibben’s guff about her likely discomfort during morning prayers seems frankly condescending. Would he have been so concerned about hiring an atheist? Would a Jewish applicant have been equally off-limits? In Mr Tibben’s eyes, would the presence of such people have proven similarly ‘confusing’ to students? Or is it just the fact that Mrs Dahlal’s faith is visible through her hijab, and not merely an internal ideology? More and more, it seems, society is struggling with the notion of discrimination; but what this case exemplifies – and yet what few people are willing to acknowledge – is that any set of beliefs associated with a specific ideal is, by definition, discriminatory.

This is not something we can legislate away. The vast majority of human interactions are predicated on conflict: disagreements over a favourite film, the appropriate price of food, who has the greatest claim to which resources, which is the best way to discipline children, how the universe began. At the far end of the scale are grandoise religious and philosophical abstractions, while at the other are trivial matters, debates that no sane person would try to legalise. But the middle regions are often indistinct, a blend of all such concerns, and it is here we live our lives. Politically, socially, sexually and legally, we have moved forwards in recent decades, making headway against racism, sexism, homophibia, explotation of children and religio-cultural discrimination; and yet despite its presence at the forefront of many such debates – if not all of them – the discrimination inherent in religious systems has remained the elephant in the room.

Put simply: if a person believes that their own religion is unshakeably correct to the exclusion of all other systems, and then refuses to hire a worker on the grounds that they are living outside of God’s rule and will set a bad example to other employees, passing a law to prevent them from doing so becomes tantamount to declaring that the logic which underpins their faith is wrong. The same thing lies at the heart of all the legislative drama over gay marriage: how do you allow someone freedom of religion while simultaneously declaring that certain of their religious or ideological tenets constitute a violation of human rights? There’s not an easy answer. But to anyone who believes in the separation of church and state, different religious beliefs should be equally accommodated – or refused – under the law, be they derived from shari’a, the Talmud or the Bible. Defending the values of one faith on the basis of its historical relationship to the nation is neither objective nor helpful: instead, it only serves to embed a lopsided definition of discrimination and entitlement in our cultural identity.

Which brings us back to Heathdale Christian College, and the reason why, in our secular state, Reynald Tibben should be found to have acted wrongly: because although a fair state must allow the existence of both secular and denominational schools, it should have no vested interest in preventing overlap between the two. Just as state schools hire teachers of all faiths, so too should their denominational equivalents. The difference between such institutions should be purely a matter of extra religious instruction, not the individual disposition of their teachers. Because if things are otherwise – if we state that a school has the right to hire or fire teachers on the basis of their personal values – then we may as well say that other Christian principals are equally within their grounds to fire teachers for apostasy, for expressing agnosticism or for religious conversion. The fact that Mrs Duhlal practises Islam does not affect her ability to speak French or teach mathematics, just as the Christianity of her students should not affect their ability to learn. As the saying goes, it’s impossible to please everyone. At the most basic level, discrimination simply means choice: to differentiate between one thing and another. We load the word with negative connotations, conflating it with prejudice in all instances, but saying that our society disciminates against racism is just as valid a useage as complementing someone on their discriminating taste. Because discrimination, be it deemed neutural, positive or negative, figures equally in choice, legislation and religion alike. And the sooner we start to confront that fact, the better for all of us.

Gay marriage is now legal in California.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a long overdue development. The claim that marriage is just for men and women has always rung hollow, not in the least because no religion or culture ‘owns’ the concept. Marriage wasn’t exported to the rest of the world by a particular group: rather, the idea has flourished with variety in almost every human culture. The Christian argument that gay marriage is invalid because God dislikes homosexuality is, ultimately, hypocritical: people are already married under the auspices of different, scripturally untenable traditions, religious or otherwise, but nobody is protesting those. Unless the dissenters start taking placards to Hindu ceremonies, they’ve already acknowledged that the state has a right to legalise marriage in a non-Christian context. Protesting homosexuality is, in this sense, mere semantics.


Whether the church must preside over gay weddings is a different issue – one, methinks, which is best left to a case-by-case basis. Or would be, if not for the uneasy truce between discrimination law and religious tradition. This, perhaps, is the legalistic nub of the problem: if the church were to be treated like any other organisation, then any refusal to ‘serve’ couples on the basis of sexual orientation would count as discrimination, with all the liabilities that entails. Going back a few decades, it’s the equivalent of hanging a ‘no blacks’ sign in a shop window. It’s a no-brainer to say that political uproar would follow any instance of the state trying to force a church to marry a gay couple against its will – and yet, a similar uproar would result if shari’a law were allowed to trump that of the state.


Socially, we’re at a turning point. Overseas as well as at home, western nations have begun the institution of universal human rights: protection from racial, religious or sexual discrimination, women’s rights, the rights of the child. In many cases, this has involved colliding head-on with previous religious or cultural mores: the idea of rape inside marriage, for instance, remains non-existent in many countries; in others, the marriage of girls as young as ten or thirteen is still common practice. But more and more, we are reaching a point at which, if we are to remain faithful to the idea of innate, universal rights, we must actively contradict religious doctrine – our own, as well as that of others.


Due to a combination of religious, historical and socio-cultural factors, many such rights are already part of western law, while still allowing for difference between individual nations. In many instances, Christian practice has already changed to accommodate these rights: the investiture of women bishops, the availability of contraception, the right of divorce and, in some cases, the legalisation of abortion are all examples of this. But with the exception of women in the church, the scriptural arguments against these things tend to be contextually extrapolated, rather than explicitly forbidden. Even divorce, while frowned upon, is ultimately permissible in a number of instances.


Homosexuality, however, is expressly called a sin. The most doctrinal leeway to be found is in forgiving it, as one might forgive theft or murder. With this in mind, it is almost miraculous to consider how much the gay rights movement has achieved. But still, the church has not been required to alter its own position. This is the wall foreign aid workers have run up against time and again: the idea that an injustice, if backed by religion, cannot be assailed in the usual fashion. At some level, total change is always circumscribed by – ironically – the universal right to freedom of religion, the worst incarnation of which, as with freedom of speech, is the freedom to be purposefully bigoted.


Sooner or later, the system needs must bend. There are three potential outcomes, only one of which seems even vagely palatable. But until that day comes, I’ll be content with such progress as comes my way. California now allows gay marriage – and I say, good on ’em.