There has been a lot of conversation lately about sexism in speculative fiction–no, not the buxom wenches still lingering on covers and the awful “sure I’ve got a rack but I can still kick your ass” characters (though both of those things are legitimately horrid), but real-life sexism towards real-life ladies: writers and editors and fans. I’m not going to jump in on the debate, really, because 1) I am already late to the game, and 2) smarter people with more feminist cred than I have have done a far more intelligent job of the critique. Plus, I generally stay out of things like this, because aside from doing your personal best and fighting your personal battles, what else can you do? Get real mad? Well, yeah, but then what? Go into politics? Uh, no. Despite the pajama pants I wear every possible moment I’m at home and the baby-talk voice I catch myself using with my puppy, I do have some dignity left, thanks.
I have surprised myself, though, by having an opinion. And not the opinion I expected to have.
I’m kind of grateful.
Wait, let me finish!
My entree to the Seattle spec culture was extremely fortuitous and totally accidental. When I started writing seriously and needed someone to be accountable to, and I found a brand-new Meetup group with its first session scheduled two weeks in the future. It had a really evocative name: Seattle 20’s and 30’s Women Writer’s Group. Really conjures an image, doesn’t it? Close your eyes. You can feel it. I can tell.
I was ambivalent about the idea of writing with other women. Would I be subjected to soggy romance plots and endless personal essays about the magic of childbirth? (Turns out, sexism isn’t limited to dudes.)
I’d never been much of a girls’-group lady, and the one time I did have a lady-friends group we’d bonded over our mutual lack of lady friends, love of whiskey and devotion to sad-bastard songwriters. So it was kind of a revelation, joining this group and watching its awkward beginnings turn into a network of story-savvy ladies who write with snark and cynicism and find endless unique, horrible ways for characters to die (or not quite die, which is often worse). I learned that a lot of my hang-ups were stupid. For example: chick lit is really fun to write. Especially the flirty bits. Autobiographical essays are not automatically red wine- and tear-soaked menstrual journal excerpts. And my deep, judgmental horror of genre was not only unfounded, but downright embarrassing. I was a pretentious jerk, and these women coaxed me out of my badger jerk-hole by being smart and funny and just plain talented.
My lady writer friends kicked my assumptions’ ass. They became friends and guides and cheerleaders. They were and are almost all sci-fi, fantasy, speculative or horror writers of some ilk or degree. And turns out, that’s what I wanted to be, too. This happened by accident.
Speculative fiction began as a man’s game and a man’s market. But the ladies I know have reacted to this in a way that is so overwhelmingly positive, and built a community in reaction to and in spite of it. Adversity, even if it seems distant sometimes, smooshed us together. When my lady writer friends and I write and talk about our characters, we are hyper aware of what they represent and the void that they’re only now beginning to fill. It makes us careful and intentional and much better writers. We don’t put princesses into towers; that shit is old and lame. We have better ideas than that.
I recently attended a one-day Clarion West workshop. It was fully half women. In a genre that’s known for being extremely white and extremely male, and in a city that is only diverse in a very specific way, this room had more varied slices of humanity than any of my college classes ever did. And I went to a big fancy university, too.
I think this is partially due to Clarion West itself. The board is almost entirely female. Their alumni are a study in diversity.You can be damn sure that this is intentional, a reaction to the history of the genre.
The class I took was led by Connie Willis. Do you know Connie? She is, in a word, badass. The lady has won more awards than anyone else in the genre, and she’s funny, and she loves hokey television, and she is a wonderful teacher and speaker. I’ve been in her workshops twice and I left both feeling like I could mow down an army of stories before bed. In this room full of women, with this mind-blowing woman teaching us, and my lady writer friends at my elbows coming up with fantastic ridiculous ideas (arranged troll princess marriages, come on), it seemed hard to imagine how we could be marginalized.
And look at my recent reading pile: Cat Rambo, Kij Johnson. Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Jo Walton, Karen Joy Fowler, the Fantastic Women collection from Tin House: women basically own slipstream. I didn’t even realize this until I started thinking about this blog post.
But then: even at that Connie Willis class, there was a moment where two dudes (accidentally) took over a pair of protagonists our group was working with and presented them to the class as male, even though all us ladies in the group had been very meticulous about not assigning gender quite yet. While the women in the group were busy considering what the gender of the characters would mean for the story, the guys were just, bam: male. Because they protagonists in a fantasy world would obviously, naturally be male.
And this: when out with a group of coworkers and passing around the question “if you had to change genders, what would you miss most?” the middle-aged, intelligent, respected, well-known-for-his-human-rights-campaign-involvement man to my left said, “I think I would most miss reading sci-fi.” I took immediate, loud umbrage, to which he countered, “Oh, but Margaret Atwood doesn’t count.” I wanted to cram my collection of Robert Charles Wilson novels down his goddamn throat. And–wait, what? Margaret Atwood doesn’t count? What miserable, narrow, mathematical world are you reading in?
So yes, there’s plenty of deeply-entrenched sexism in the genre. There are editors and writers and readers that are invested in keeping it that way. But they won’t last. They can’t possibly. I’m rarely optimistic about anything, and surprised at my sudden onset of confidence here. But I feel lucky. Now is a great time to be a woman in the sci-fi community–the best it’s ever been–and Seattle is a great place to be. And if the people I know and read and admire keep creeping closer to the captain’s chair, there’s no way to go but up.