Tag Archives: gender

To Boldly Go Toward Diversity in Science Fiction

With the sad little white men known as the “Sad Puppies” shitting all over the Hugo awards, diversity in science fiction has been a hot topic of late. And it likely will continue to be a conversation, in literature. But right now I want to talk about another medium, and a body of science fiction that has definitively transformed the cultural landscape for the better. Because it was diverse.

I want to talk about Star Trek, a TV show, several movies, and a long string of spin-off books. Because my friend died, and it’s what they loved.

I’ve written about my love of Star Trek before. But I don’t know that I’ve explained how important it has been in my life. Star Trek was the show that my brother, my dad, and I gathered around to watch most nights growing up (and sometimes mom joined in, too). We predominantly watched Star Trek: Next Generation, but we weren’t choosy and have dabbled in all of them. We didn’t always watch them in order, but that wasn’t important. I can’t even tell you which of the movies I’ve seen, except to say “yes.” I had a crush on Wesley as an awkward teenager, because he was a smart awkward teenager about the same time I was just awkward, so he seemed to have a lot to aspire to.

My parents were the type who didn’t allow us to watch anything they deemed “inappropriate,” and heavily favored those they viewed as “educational.” And Star Trek absolutely fit that bill (lucky for me). I probably didn’t learn that much about actual science, but I learned a great deal about philosophy, about friendship and familial relationships, about hope. And I most certainly learned about acceptance.

Of course we all know it was Star Trek that braved to blast through the color barrier on TV, with the first interracial kiss. But more than that, Star Trek taught that anyone could be accepted. You could have weird spoon indentations on your head, or a tendency to fight at a moment’s notice, or the ability to read emotions and strange marriage rituals, but it wouldn’t matter: Starfleet would find a place for you. You were respected for who and what you were. It may not have always been logical or the easiest choice, but it was Captain Picard’s (and later, Captain Janway’s) prevailing approach. To learn. To welcome those who are friendly and demilitarize or avoid those who aren’t.

I can’t have been the only one who learned tolerance from Star Trek. I know it has inspired others. It inspired my friend, who I first met the first week of college; they performed Hamlet‘s “To Be or Not To Be” speech… in Klingon. They made an impression–not necessarily flattering, but certainly brave and owning their geek pride. And I could respect that.

I’m using the pronoun “they” because, though in college my friend presented as male, some time a few years later they decided/realized they preferred the pronoun “they/their.” They identified not as male, but as “genderfluid.”

Yet again my friend stunned me a bit. I mean, that is a tough thing to wrap your head around, for sure. But I hadn’t been in close touch with this friend for years, and even so they felt the need to reach out, to share this very intimate part of their life, with me. I was touched, and felt guilty for having been so far out of touch. I admired them their brave eccentricity, their self-acceptance, their newfound sense of confidence, of self.

I think Star Trek had a lot to do with that. See, in Star Trek, no one would blink twice at this kind of switch, about the idea that gender is not fixed or biologically determined. Sure, what else is new? We’ve got these furry things that reproduce like mad, let’s go deal with them. The captain’s banging a green alien again, what else is new? We’ve got solar systems to explore, who cares about a stupid pronoun?!

My friend loved Star Trek. I mean, they were fluent in Klingon, of course they loved it! But I can’t help but think, now, that one of the big appeals for them must have been that acceptance of diversity. That dream of a future utopia wherein poverty has been eliminated, where disease can be cured by a flashy light, and where people can be who they are…whoever and whatever that may be.

My friend passed away very suddenly last week. I never got the opportunity to tell them how brave they were. But they reminded me of something important, even now: that diversity in science fiction is absolutely not a bad thing. It’s a beautiful thing. It is perhaps the best thing about science fiction, that we can create safe spaces in which we can explore the possibilities of a bright future.

I hope my friend has found their Nexus.

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The Gender Bias in Books

Last week, a coworker left me speechless. I was reading my book at lunch when she asked me what I was reading (I hate when people interrupt me that way, but you’re not allowed to be huffy about it!). I was reading Abaddon’s Gate and was about to start telling her how much I enjoyed it when she asked: “Is that science fiction?” This, honest to goodness, is how that conversation progressed from there:

“Yeah, it is.”

“Oh… Does your husband science fiction?”

“Oh yeah, my husband and I both love it, and–”

“Did you like it before you met him?”

“…uh, well, yeah, I mean, it was practically a requirement for me to–”

“Oh.” (pauses, biting her lip) “Well, it’s lucky you found a husband who liked it. I guess it’s probably easier for a woman to find a man like that than the other way around, though!”

I think I gave her this face:

Apparently being a woman and liking science fiction means I’m basically unmarriable and should be incredibly lucky that I found a forgiving man to marry me.

And if that were it, that would be one thing. I could shrug off one lady as just being kinda crazy.

And then author Catherine Nichols wrote about her query experiment—she sent her exact same book and exact same query letter to agents under a male name. And the male version of her got far, FAR more favorable responses than her real name.

Read about it here.

Here is one of the more salient points:

Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25.

And even the rejections she got were more favorable, with more long-form responses and positive reactions.

This article—particularly following those outdated, sexist comments from my coworker—just was a real punch in the gut. I may be getting tanked before a single word is written, all because of unconscious (or perhaps a little bit conscious) bias on the part of the agents, the very first gatekeepers in the traditional publishing journey.

Bias against female authors in sci-fi/horror is part of why I use my initials with my book, Undead Rising. But I thought that was just for the reader who may be wary of a “girly” book…I had no idea that this sort of bias had leeched all the way through the system. But I can’t say I’m truly that surprised. Publishing is one of the most opaque, challenging industries, with a convoluted process and a lot of gut feel on the part of agents and editors in determining who gets in the door. And with the recent events at the Hugo Awards, I think there is a good reason to be concerned.

I used to sign my query letters with my name, thinking it would be more personal and therefore welcoming for the agent on the other end. I thought I was improving my odds by being warm and friendly. But perhaps I need to switch to only using my initials there, too; perhaps that is what it will take for my fiction to get a fair shake (especially as the book I’m querying is either sci-fi or literary fiction…both genres which carry a reputation as a boys’ club).

I’m deeply frustrated by this revelation, and sure, it’s one woman’s experiment with a relatively small sample. But her results are huge. I hope it leads to some careful thought in literary circles.

Do you see a bias in publishing? What should we do about it?

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Which Way to the Ladies’ Library? Turns Out Even Reading Is Gendered

Book-reading cataloguer Goodreads made some waves when they recently released a study about the gender of a reader compared to the gender of the authors they typically read.

Lots of good data to chew on there: men and women read about the same number of books, collectively rate their Goodreads books at an average of 3.94, women read a lot more new fiction, and men write a lot more really long fiction (500+ pages).

Here’s a stat I stumbled over, though: in the first year of publication, 80% of a female author’s audience will be women; 50% of a male author’s audience will be women. Interesting….

Women authors’ books were also rated, on average, a teensy bit higher than male authored books (just by 0.1, though).

But the 50 most-read books for each gender fall on starkly gendered lines: Of the 50 books published in 2014 that were most read by men, 45 are written by men. Of the 50 books published in 2014 that were most read by women, 45 (46 if you count stealth J.K. Rowling, which you should) were written by women.

That’s the odd one, to me.

A lot of commenters jumped in with “well I never pick a book based on the author.” Assuming that is true, what may be going on here? I’m guessing there are quite a few factors:

  • gendered genre: it’s pretty well-understood that certain genres traditionally tilt to one gender or the other–romance is heavily read and written by women, while “literary” fiction and science fiction both heavily favor men. It stands to reason that these topics would pull the average one way or another.
  • cover design: there’s been some funny/interesting looks lately at the way a book cover is gendered when it goes through a publisher. This is intentional; they’re trying to attract an audience, so they market the book–typically by old and stereotypical methods–to whomever they think it will appeal to. But that also means that a book that both genders really may enjoy equally could get shunted in one direction or the other just because of which photo someone decided to put on the cover. Lots to think about there.
  • the “Oprah effect”: book clubs. From what I can tell, book clubs are overwhelmingly female, tend to pick new authors, and follow recommendations from talk show hosts like Oprah in order to find their next “it” topic. This may be having a powerful effect. (Sue Monk Kidd has said book clubs were the driving force behind her book, The Secret Life of Bees, becoming a best-seller.) The downside may be that book clubs try to pick a certain kind of book…most authors may not be able to harvest the “Oprah effect.”
  • maybe people really do like reading someone of their own gender; maybe they are, even subconsciously, actively selecting for a gendered read.

Personally, I find this kind of breakdown fascinating…and a little scary. I want to read a variety of backgrounds, so sometimes I do actively try to mix up my reading list and get a different genre, gender of author, etc. But there are times I’ve noticed that I’ve read a lot of books written by, say, white males in the 1950s. That’s not a bad thing, but it probably is flavoring my tastes and my writing voice.

But it also worries me as a writer: I’m interested in sci-fi–the male-dominated genre unpopular with book clubs. Uh-oh.

What do you think about the “gendering” of books? Is it an issue at all? Is it surprising?

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People are Making Threats Because of Video Games, Everything is Awful

I thought I was well-prepared to handle interacting with people online; I am pretty savvy, know how to avoid the trolls, not to click on suspicious links, and generally fly under the radar and try to be nice to people. But browsing Twitter for less than 5 minutes on Tuesday night left me horribly shaken, scared, and sick to my stomach. Those five minutes left me afraid to voice my opinion, made me want to quit a hobby I’ve enjoyed for years, and made me want to pack up and become a hermit in the woods, because damn, people are even worse than I thought.
What shocked me was the sudden realization that, even in America, where many voices are praised and generally accepted, where we’re supposed to know better than to oppress different ideas with violence, someone thought it was ok–acceptable, reasonable, even!–to threaten to murder an auditorium full of people who were going to listen to someone speak… just because they disagreed with the speaker.
Even more sickening, though, was that was not an isolated incident. It’s a repeating pattern of awful, horrible, wretched behavior, and not from one person, but from many people who feel safe under the cloak of internet anonymity.
All I did was click on the Twitter hashtag #GamerGate.
If you aren’t familiar with what’s going on, Vox had this pretty solid breakdown.
The short of it is: a lot of people (men) are upset that someone (several women) have offered critiques of the video game industry as not doing enough to be inclusive of women. These upset men then decide that the appropriate response to the criticism should range from mild internet dissent to–much more prominently–repeated, specific, violent threats of rape, murder, personal attacks, and damage to property.
To repeat: because someone said something they didn’t like about a hobby they enjoy, people are threatening to assault, harm, and KILL.
 
When I happened to look at it, I stumbled onto the most recent happening: because Anita Sarkeesian was going to do speak about her critiques of video games, someone decided to threaten “the worst school massacre in U.S. history” if she was allowed to speak. You can find the details in this CNN article and elsewhere.
And because Utah is an open-carry state, school officials couldn’t do anything about people bringing guns to the speech. So Sarkeesian had to cancel.
It isn’t an isolated incident. In literally just five minutes of browsing about 100 comments on Twitter, I stumbled on people supporting Sarkeesian, yes, some expressing disagreement with her views but distaste with the threats, and–this is what left me shaking with anxiety and horror–repeated threats of more violence.
I’m not going to dignify the tweeter by linking to his actual post, but I read one tweet that said, “My last tweet led some to believe #GamerGate may be pro-rape. Let me be 100% clear: #GamerGate IS pro-rape.”
****
This whole nonsense–and let’s be honest, the inciting incident IS nonsense–made me scared to write up this piece, for fear of catching even a fraction of the grief that Sarkeesian and others have had to tolerate from the horde of online assholes. Because I am a woman who writes things online, who has opinions and plays video games, so maybe I’ll be swept up and readied for the firing line by these types.
But it didn’t feel right that reasonable conversation should be suppressed by the whims of terroristic asshole children who don’t understand it’s ok for someone not to like what you like. Or even, more appropriately in this case, to like what you like but suggest that there could be more and different kinds of it. 
 
There is no reason–no reason at all–for these women to be attacked for having opinions. And any possible goodwill or reasonable debate those who agree with the “GamerGate”ers has been utterly obliterated by the vocal minority (majority? Hard to tell) who are so afraid of admitting girls to their club (girls who have actually been there, quietly, all along!) that they feel it is acceptable to threaten violence and expose people’s private information so that others can commit violence.
Our current laws haven’t quite kept up with the changing technologies. It’s unclear when a comment on Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere on the internet is grounds for an arrest. I’m not one to advocate for the tightening of laws against expression, but you know what the First Amendment doesn’t actually give you the right to do: Openly FUCKING threaten to harm someone.
This is ridiculous. And tragic. And sickening. And, if you’re at all involved in the gaming community in any way, it’s highly likely that someone you know–likely that someone I know–thinks it’s not a big deal to threaten these women in this way. But of course it is a big deal. A huge, terrifying big deal.
I don’t know how to fix it. I wish I did. But don’t be assholes to each other. And call out those who are. That’s a good place to start.

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A Stegosaurus Blasted My Gender Stereotypes

stegasaurus, stomping gender normsI consider myself to be pretty thoughtful regarding gender issues. I was the kid in kindergarten who, when asked to draw a doctor, scribbled a woman in a lab coat, not a man (earth-shattering at the time, let me tell you (I’m sure this had nothing to do with the fact that my doctor was a woman and we watched  Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman as a family. Nothing.)) I care about feminist issues and try to be considerate of the issues faced by LBGTQ individuals. I made a female lead character for my science fiction dystopia and wrote a genderless novel for my gamebook.
I think about this stuff a lot.
And yet, I still have so much to learn sometimes. Unconscious biases can be a bitch.
Neil Gaiman was my teacher, as he has been so many times previously. And he did it with a children’s book.
You’ve read Fortunately, The Milk by now, right? I mean, I gave it a breathlessly positive review, so you definitely went out and bought it already, right?
Well, if not, you may not want to read the rest of this post, because of spoilers.
Anyway, I read Fortunately, The Milk. (And it’s marvelous. Practically perfect in the most Mary Poppins way.) One of the main characters is a time-traveling stegasaurus named Dr. Steg. (I mean, of course).
I’m as enchanted by the story and the misadventures as the children in the story, and then… everything came to a screeching halt.
90% of the way through the book, you are informed that Dr. Steg is a “madam.”
LADY DINOSAUR ALERT
To be fair, this comes as a surprise to the narrator/father as well, but this really hit me like a ton of bricks. Why did it throw me off so much? Why did I automatically assume Dr. Steg was a Mr. Dr. Steg?
I’ve given this some thought, and I think there are several reasons:
  • The drawings include no eyelashes or gaudy bows, cultural codes for “lady cartoon.”
  • The drawing depicts a rather heavyset dinosaur. Often, absent other markers, heavyset cartoons are male.
  • Dinosaurs are “boy things.”
  • Despite my kindergarten drawings, doctors, particularly “sciencey” doctors, are male.
  • Time-travelers are male.
— And they all still amount to “you still probably shouldn’t have made that assumption.”
And that’s what triggered me to write this post. Question your assumptions. It doesn’t have to be “that way,” even — especially! — if that is how it has always been done. (I mean, I’d like to see someone write some elves that are not musical, arrow-wielding, thin blond people. (Yes, I’ve just seen The Hobbit…)).
What assumptions did you have squashed by a fiction book?

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The Battle of the Sexes Will Be Won By Robots

A dude promoted his book last week by publishing a long, bloated, purple prose opinion piece in The New York Times Sunday Review that set out to solve the gender gap in who has to do the housework.

His brilliant “answer”? Men don’t want to do housework because housework sucks, so women should just not care about whether the housework gets done or not. No one wants to do it, so women should just do enough and then stop whining.
Unsurprisingly, that answer didn’t sit well with a lot of folks.

Rosie the Robot Poster by Tim Goldman

Beautiful poster from timgoldman.com

But I’m a fan of speculative fiction, so I have the answer: Robots.

Obviously we aren’t quite there yet, but pretty much everyone can agree that basic, boring house chores are both essential and absolutely craptastic to have to do. If men don’t want to step up (plenty do, book-selling NYT guy!), and women are sick of doing it, we need a third option.

If you haven’t yet seen “Robot & Frank,” head out and rent it/Netflix it pronto. That’s the kind of robot I’m talking about. Or basically a non-sassy Rosie. Or a super-powered Roomba. Something that will clean the floors, remember to do the dishes, wipe down the countertops, dust the shelves, maybe water that peace lily you cherish. Nothing fancy.

Sure, we’ve made some art/movies/books about how these domestic robots would be a problem, but really, I think they’re the answer. They wouldn’t replace many jobs — in fact, it may elevate those butlers and housecleaners to a higher-pay position, because having a human housekeeper would become a status symbol. And we’re a really long way off from autonomous robots, so the first tiers of these helper-bots would be pretty limited, and therefore not a serious threat to human jobs.

But if we want that — and I think we can agree, we ALL want that — we are going to need some clever lady engineers to get on that for us.

Why lady engineers, do you ask? Before you cry sexism, just look at history: most of the time-saving housekeeping products we rely on today were invented by women (even if they themselves didn’t do much in the way of housework).

  • Cannister Vacuum, Nancy Perkins, 1987
  • Cooking Stove, Elizabeth Hawk, 1867
  • Dishwasher, Josephine Cochran, 1872
  • Electric Hot Water Heater, Ida Forbes, 1917
  • Mop-Wringer Pail, Eliza Wood, 1889
  • Refrigerator, Florence Parpart, 1914
  • Washing machine, Margaret Colvin, 1871
  • The Practical Kitchen layout, Lillian Gilbreth, 1920s
  • Scotchguard, Patsy Sherman, 1952
  • Improved Ironing Board, Sarah Boone, 1892
  • Vacuum canning and oil burners, Amanda Jones, 1880s
  • Gas heating furnace, Alice Parker, 1919

Really, I don’t care who invents our perfect butler-bots, but history implies it’s going to be a woman. Ladies, just let me know when I can place my order, okay?

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‘Don Jon’ is the Most Feminist Movie

It helps that the leads in this movie are both totally yummy.

Joseph-Gorden Levitt’s new movie “Don Jon” has more naked breasts, mostly naked butts, and revealing outfits on skinny, attractive women than any other movie I’ve ever seen. It probably deserves a Razzie for “most naked boobies to appear in film without losing its rating.” It features a caveman-like guy who aims to score with a different chick every weekend and an uptight controlling bitch.

It’s also the most feminist movie I’ve seen in years.
Before I go any further, let me say I LOVED “Don Jon.” It is a great film. The ending is a bit open-ended, and I’m not in love with that style, but the rest of the movie is so smart I didn’t mind that my fiance and I paid $22 bucks to watch an 86-minute movie. It’s also not for everyone; in fact, I’m really surprised it got made at all. It’s not a movie you should see with any friends or family that you would be uncomfortable watching porn with, so, um, beware before you go. But I absolutely think you should see it.
The movie is about a New Jersey-ite named Jon, considered so good with the ladies his bros have given him the appellation “Don,” thus “Don Jon.” He’s a man of simple tastes: he cares about his “pad,” his family, his Roman Catholic church**, his “boys,” his “girls” (a different one every night), and… his porn. He sees nothing unusual about the inclusion of the last one, and goes into great voiceover detail about what exactly he likes about porn over “smashing” with real ladies.
**(Sidenote: There’s also potential for a really interesting theological discussion when it comes to the Catholic church and Jon’s ability to wipe his sins clean every week, to the point that he uses the number of Hail Mary’s he’s assigned as a marker for how “well” he’s done that week. But that’s for another time.)
But then he meets a ‘dime.” Barbara (Scarlet Johansson) is a perfect 10 for Jon, and when she goes home without sleeping with him, he thinks maybe he needs to change his strategy. So he tracks her down and asks her out.
What about this setup is so brilliant? Because “Don Jon” lures you in by telling you it’s about porn and sex, when really it’s about the way the media we consume makes us think about gender roles.
[Moderate spoilers below!]

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