Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

I am not in a good mood right now.

I have spent the last few weeks dealing with my landlord and his real estate agent, both of whom act like they’re doing me huge favors by, say, not illegally breaking my lease or being willing to pay for professional cleaners to clean their property before their open house event. No acknowledgment is being made of the fact that I am the person in this situation who is hemorrhaging money and time and stress from the inconvenience.

Where is our compassion?

I am supposed to be appalled at how non-inclusive the science fiction community is becoming because of the recent hoop-la about this year’s Hugo host. Did things get out of hand? Yes. And ultimately both sides of this drama suffered. How terrible it must be to have to worry about having your win of a major writing award punctuated with a joke about your weight or gender. Can we stop for a moment and imagine what that would feel like? (Kameron Hurley has more to say about this, and it’s worth reading.) And how unfortunate that the con committee didn’t prepare Jonathan Ross for the current climate of SF&F and take more care in making and presenting their choice. Meanwhile, how ironic that this is being held up as an example of science fiction not being inclusive, when the circumstances from which this situation arose exist because of a backlash against science fiction not being inclusive.

Where is our compassion?

I recently had a conversation with a female writer, who also happens to be a mother, about how she was told that since she is a mother, she will never be as good a writer as either someone with no kids OR a man who is a father. How painful a comment that is, to tell a serious writer, “Nope, sorry, since you have reproduced, you’ll never live up to the rest of us. Oh, and by the way, if you were a man, this wouldn’t apply.” Painful, unnecessary, and untrue.

Where is our compassion?

Photo Credit: jorgempf via Compfight cc

Now that I try to be very mindful about setting boundaries and standing up for myself (go, Backbone Project, go), I notice it all the time, this lack of compassion. Some of it is simple thoughtlessness, and some of it is deeper and more troubling. Some of it is people who honestly feel if they can get away with taking advantage of somebody, then they should do it. I have been told there are entire cultures based on this principle.

There are two obvious choices when confronted by this problem:

Choice 1: Shut up, sit down, pretend everything is fine, blame everything on yourself, learn to believe your emotions aren’t valid or important, become used to being treated like there’s something wrong with you for having perfectly normal emotional responses to being treated badly, take what is given and be thankful for even that much, lose your voice if you ever had one to begin with, or else never learn to speak in the first place, let people trod all over you as you sink deeper and deeper into the muck and learn to value yourself as little as you’re being valued. In short, be a victim.

Choice 2: Stand up and demand respect. Value yourself. Protect yourself. Set boundaries and don’t allow yourself to be talked or shamed out of them. Be compassionate, but do not allow your compassion to be used against you. Trust people, but only when the trust is deserved. Love people, but do not try to save them because they’ll be perfectly happy to pull you down with them. Give yourself the compassion other people may not be willing or able to give you.

With the landlord situation, I picked Choice 2, and I am now going to be compensated for my time and inconvenience. This would never have been the result if I hadn’t spoken up. Loudly. More than once. And I’m prepared to do it again.

Where is our compassion?

It starts with ourselves.

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I don’t generally do many link round-ups, but I have so many interesting links open in my browser right now, and they deserve to be shared. So if you were feeling short of reading material this week, mourn no longer.

Female Creators in Science Fiction and Fantasy Television

This is such an important essay that it probably deserves an entire dedicated post by me, but I’m sharing it now in case I don’t get around to it.

The Truth of Wolves, Or: The Alpha Problem

The alpha-beta system of wolf behavior is actually incorrect. And yet we still use this system, one that often encourages misogynist behavior, in werewolf-based urban fantasy. Why?

Sexism at Fantasy Book Cafe

While I’m sharing Foz Meadows, I’ll also point you to her response to the post on how there isn’t actually much sexism in literature, during a theme month of focusing on Women in SF&F. Gah.

Why Do Men Keep Putting Me in the Girlfriend-Zone?

Funny and sad.

The Gender Coverup

Hopefully you’ve all seen this one by now. Maureen Johnson, a successful YA writer, talks about how book covers are gendered. It’s really worthwhile to take a look at the covers of popular books with the gender of the author changed.

It’s not about Gender

I like the analogy the author uses to make her point.

Academic Men Explain Things to Me

I find this Tumblr so valuable (and sometimes hilarious), I’ve added it to my reader.

Nerds and Male Privilege

Do yourself a favor and don’t read the comments.

For writers: Brandon Sanderson’s creative writing class is coming online this summer, and it’s FREE. Check out the details here. 

The Lethality of Loneliness

Loneliness affects physical health. No big surprise there, but an interesting read.

Student’s self driving car tech wins Intel science fair

Yay for science!

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Very soon after I decided that I wanted to be a YA writer, I learned the following “truth:” that girls will read novels with both male and female protagonists, but boys will only read novels with male protagonists. So if you want the widest crossover, you write a boy protagonist, and if you write a girl protagonist, that means you’re mostly writing for a female audience.

Then I heard the oft repeated story about how J.K. Rowling decided to use her initials as her author name so that the readers would not know she was a woman. And I heard about how YA was dominated by women writers, sometimes as though this were a bad thing.

Then I heard a couple of male writers who I respect talking about the problem of there not being enough boy books in YA. Later on, I heard about what a problem it was that there were too many female protagonists and “girl books” in modern YA.

Shall I define “boy book” for you? A boy book probably has a male protagonist. It features action and adventure and is quick paced. It probably doesn’t have much if any romance. The language and structure might also be more straightforward and simple, since one of the main reasons having YA boy books is supposed to be important is to encourage reluctant boy readers to read.

A “girl book,” by contrast, probably has a female protagonist. It may have action and adventure and be quick paced. It almost certainly includes a romantic element. It might focus more heavily on social interactions and relationships in general, as well as issues of social status (because of course, men aren’t interested in status at all. Ha!). There might also be a stronger focus on emotions. The language and structure run the gambit between simple and complex.

I’m not going to mince words: these truths about boy readers, the YA genre, and boy and girl books are harmful and sometimes flat-out false. If boys won’t read books with girl protagonists, especially by the time they are teenagers, this is not a good reason to write and publish fewer books with girl protagonists. This is a red flag that something is wrong with the message our society is sending to these boys.

Often this argument gets lost in the rush to emphasize the importance of boys learning to read. It’s fine to perpetuate this “truth” of boys being unwilling to read anything not entirely male-centered, the unstated message goes, as long as we can wheedle them to read anything at all. And this is how sexist thinking gets passed on to the next generation.

Obviously boys learning to read is important. It’s important that everyone learn to read. And it’s also important that we throw away outdated and harmful ideas about gender and stop teaching boys that girls and anything related to girls are somehow shameful or uninteresting or embarrassing. THESE CAN BOTH BE IMPORTANT AT THE SAME TIME. Revolutionary idea, I know.

If YA did have such a predominance of female protagonists, I’d be happy, given all the messages female teens receive to the contrary, that there was at least one place where they could experience other females being front and center, having agency and their own individual identities. But it is not necessarily even true that YA has more female protagonists than male. According to this study, 49% of YA protagonists are male. 49%. And only 36% of YA protagonists are female. (15% have protagonists of both genders.)

You know what else isn’t true? That YA is dominated by women writers. The same study found that 56% of YA writers were women, which is hardly an overwhelming majority.

When we talk about female protagonists in YA books as if they’re somehow a bad thing, we’re strengthening harmful stereotypes. When we believe boys won’t read books with female protagonists, we’re sending them the message that they shouldn’t want to, or that there’s some kind of problem with reading these so-called “girl books.”

The Feminist Batwoman wrote a fabulous essay called “Boys Don’t Read Girl Books and Other Lies My Society Told Me.” She ran a successful experiment exposing her little brother to novels about girls as well as boys, and she has this to say about boys not reading books with girl protagonists: “My outlandish theory is that if boys aren’t belittled for reading books about girls, if they’re not taught that girls are lesser, if they’re not teased about cooties, if we don’t teach them to fear the feminine… they’d probably like more “girl” stuff.”

We need to stop talking about boy books and girl books as if this is some kind of important and valid distinction. We need to wake up and realize that 56% of YA writers being women does not mean that women dominate the genre. And we need to think long enough to realize that if girls are happily reading novels with protagonists of both genders, there’s no reason we can’t work towards encouraging boys to do the same. Plenty of boys already do.

For a long time I took these assumptions about YA and YA readers for granted. I’m guessing I’m not the only one. Therefore, if you think this is an important and interesting issue, I encourage you to share this essay or start a conversation with your friends and colleagues. Let’s challenge what everyone knows and find out what lies underneath, shall we?

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I always wanted to have a voice. What I didn’t know about were the obligations that come along with it.

Last night I sat with a group of friends and watched the Academy Awards. Aside from one meaningful look, I didn’t say anything about the Boob Song. It was exactly the brand of humor that I don’t know what to do about, because I can see why people think it’s funny, and yet, if I think about it for more than five seconds, it’s not at all funny. (Libba Bray’s suggestion, however, is.) It actually completely pisses me off, especially in reference to an already deeply misogynistic industry.

But I didn’t say anything. (Although I did splutter indignantly at the joke at Penelope Cruz’s expense that combined sexism and racism. I mean, wow.) I’d like to think it was a world-weary kind of not saying anything, but it wasn’t. It was a self-doubting, “other people find this funny so maybe there’s not actually a problem and anyway I don’t want to seem like a negative killjoy” sort of not saying anything. Even when I have a voice, it seems, it can be difficult to use it.

When I started writing, I knew very little about social issues: sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, classism, etc. But I very quickly became aware there was a lot for me to learn, because I began following the science fiction community in early 2009, which was around the same time the Racefail conversations were happening. It was at that point that I realized how much I didn’t know and how important it was for me to start educating myself.

I still have a lot to learn. I know I don’t always get it right. But I feel strongly that with the privilege of having a voice, of becoming a writer whose works will be read, whether that’s here on the blog or in my fiction, comes the responsibility for me to learn about issues of gender, of race, of class, and of sexuality. Because whether I like it or not, whether I mean to or not, whether I am conscious of them or not, my own biases will come through in my work.

I can’t erase all my biases, certainly not in the four years I’ve been thinking more deeply on these subjects, but at the very least I can examine myself, aspire to understand more, and do what I can to counteract these biases. Because as a writer, I am engaging in the conversation of our society, and what I say (or do not say) matters. The words I choose matter.

So when I fail to say anything about a derogatory Boob Song, I have to examine that response. I have to ask myself if I’m being wishy washy in my writing, if I’m worrying about being un-fun and trying to convince myself things are fine when they aren’t instead of working harder and writing about my convictions and observations.

This kind of self reflection makes me want to tell you how offensive I find the premise of the new Oz movie, Oz the Great and Powerful, which seems like it’s going to be about all these awesome, powerful, and magical women who, in spite of their power, need a bumbling man who’s not from around here to set everything (and everyone) straight. And then I begin to wonder if the movie is going to feminize magical power while the Wizard saves the day with common sense and practical and/or technical know-how that the magical women can’t possibly do themselves. And then I think about how the original Oz stories, in spite of being written in the early 20th century and being deeply problematic in several ways, featured Dorothy and Ozma as the prominent protagonist-heroines. I think of how uncomfortable I was the first time I read The Marvelous Land of Oz at age seven when –spoiler alert–the boy protagonist Tip turned out to be the girl princess Ozma, and how this made me question gender assumptions until upon re-reading I was completely on board with that particular plot twist. And how having this movie set in the same world in 2013 only with a man to save the womenfolk seems like we’re going backwards instead of forwards.

This self examination makes me wonder how many times I’ve decided not to write about things like the Oz movie here on the blog, because it’s so much easier not to speak up.

The truth is, since I’ve begun learning and thinking about social issues, I see and experience things that make me uncomfortable all the time. And one of the most uncomfortable thoughts of all is knowing there’s so much stuff I’m missing, so many problems I’m not seeing because they’re so tightly embedded into my cultural context, into my upbringing, and into the assumptions I bring with me when I view the world. And one of the other uncomfortable thoughts is how often I keep my mouth shut.

So this is me, using the voice I worked hard to get. The Boob Song wasn’t actually funny as much as it was depressing and offensive. The Oz movie looks dreadful, even if the previews are pretty. We are all informed by the society we grew up and live in, whether we realize it or want it to be true or not.

And we can try our best to say something about what we notice and what we learn.

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In the wake of the sexual harassment at Readercon that is being discussed all over the internet, (and there is a petition you can sign if you wish to object to the Board’s handling of the case), I’ve been thinking a lot about sexual harassment. I’ve written about it a bit before, and I want to call up one of the comments that old post received, from Cyndi:

“As another post said, life isn’t fair. Get over it. Live your life, your way, and stop looking for ways to claim you’ve been oppressed/denied/overlooked. We all have been, in one way or another.”

What, you may ask, did I say in the post to elicit such a response? Was I whining or crying or talking about how unfair life is? Um, no. I wrote a calm and reasoned essay talking about what it meant to me to be a feminist, and bringing up, among other points, the existence of sexual harassment that women experience in their professional lives. Which, apparently, we are all supposed to just get over.

In fact, we’re not even allowed to talk about sexual harassment without being dismissed or being told that we’re looking for “special” treatment. Because apparently having one’s sexual and physical boundaries be repeatedly violated is par for the course, and we should lie down and take it without a murmur.

And then we wonder why feminists are sometimes angry.

Genevieve Valentine was incredibly brave, both in reporting the harassing incidents to the Readercon board and in publicizing what was happening. Both of these actions are ones that many women will choose not to do, for many reasons. Because we don’t want to be any trouble or cause a fuss. Because it is embarrassing. Because we might not be taken seriously or be believed. Because it might have future repercussions to our careers or to our very safety. Because we don’t want more confrontation with the person who has harassed us. Because we don’t want it to have happened.

But it IS happening. And it is not expecting special treatment or playing the victim card to bring it up, to talk about it, to ask that one’s basic expectations of safety while attending a convention be met. Not only was Genevieve Valentine harassed, but the same man who harassed her had previously harassed another woman to the point where she no longer felt comfortable volunteering. There was the infamous series of incidents at World Fantasy in 2011. I myself had an uncomfortable incident occur at Worldcon in Reno last year, which–guess what?–I did not report. And that is not the first such incident I’ve personally experienced in the field, either.

I firmly believe that this is not a problem for only the people who are harassed, but rather a problem that faces our entire community. And on a larger scale, a problem that faces our society. Because when we look the other way, when we say that this behavior isn’t so bad, then we are perpetuating the problem. When someone says, “Oh, but this has never happened to me,” that person is saying that because they haven’t experienced something personally, that means–what? That it’s never happened? That it’s not really a problem? That they don’t want to be bothered with dealing with something they aren’t forced to deal with?

Unfortunately, some of us don’t have a choice as to whether we’re going to deal with harassment.

Another quote from that old post of mine, this one from Jessica:

“Life isn’t fair, period. Only we can decide how to navigate through it & when we say we believe in equality perhaps we should consider what that word really means because it takes countless selfless acts & the removal of one’s own selfish needs to see what’s truly needed for a greater good.”

It sounds like she is saying that sexism in the workplace is needed for the greater good, and objecting to sexism and harassment is therefore selfish. And I’m sorry, I generally try to be respectful, but that is one of the stupidest ideas I have ever heard. It is not selfish to not want to be treated badly. It is not selfish to want to feel physically safe while working, whether at an office or at a convention. It is not selfish to want to feel physically safe period. It is not necessary for women to be selfless and allow men to paw them and make sexual jokes at the woman’s expense. Please. Next thing I’ll be hearing is that it’s selfish for a woman to not want to be raped…especially if she is wearing a low-cut top and a short skirt. Oh, wait. People say that kind of stupid thing, too.

Talking about the problem is the first step. I don’t know what the next steps look like. But I know that saying “get over it” isn’t one of them.

I’d love to hear from you: your experiences (at the workplace or not, as a writer or not, from any gender because I’m very aware that it’s not just women who get harassed), your thoughts about sexual harassment and the Readercon debacle in particular, etc. I am going to be wielding a particularly hefty mallet in the comments section for this post, because I want this to be a safe place for discussion of a difficult issue.

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Conventional blogging wisdom for fiction writers is that we should avoid talking about politics and religion. (Science fiction writers are perhaps the exception to this rule; see John Scalzi, one of the most prominent examples, and on the other side of the American left-right fence, Orson Scott Card.) The idea is that such views can be unnecessarily divisive and that by talking about them openly, we can alienate potential readers.

I have, for the most part, followed this advice. I don’t talk about religion on this blog or anywhere else, really. I rarely talk straight politics, although I couldn’t quite suppress my concerns about habeas corpus. But feminism keeps creeping in through the cracks of this blog and in the material I choose to share on the internet, and isn’t feminism at least partially a political issue? It certainly is a touchy one.

One result is that I’m been forced to rethink the conventional wisdom. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it is easier not to blog about religion or politics or social justice. And I can understand the choice not to do so when it feels like a livelihood hangs in the balance of what we allow ourselves to discuss. Plus some of us find conflict to be very unpleasant. But at what point does talking about matters of importance become more of a question of conscience?

Does blogging give you a voice?

I’m not talking about being safe here. There’s this trend that happens in the science fiction blogosphere, wherein a few of the really big bloggers share their opinions of a current issue, followed by a quiet ripple of smaller bloggers chiming in with “Me too”s and “basically exactly what has already been said about this issue in almost the same words.” Because when we follow in the footsteps of the big guns, then we’re relatively secure. I’m not saying it’s bad to offer a show of support, but it’s not the same as pushing the discussion forward. The conventional wisdom is consunmately safe.

Let’s talk about danger instead. If, as a writer, we develop a greater reach, then we have to decide how to use that reach. We have a greater ability to help, and an equally heightened ability to harm. We can set the topic of conversation instead of merely echoing and reacting. We can affect the way people view the world, often subconsciously, through our stories and our words. We can decide whether to point something out as problematic or whether to be silent and let it float on in obscurity. And whether we like it or not, these abilities come with certain responsibilities.

We don’t have to blog about politics or religion, not if we don’t want to. We can choose to communicate exclusively through our fiction. But at some point, I think every artist has to ask, “What am I really trying to say here? What do I really need to say about human experience and about the world? What might I be saying by accident that I don’t actually want to be saying?”

But sometimes, we might be compelled to blog about something risky, about something uncomfortable. And sometimes we are willing to pay the price for having a voice. In which case, that conventional wisdom can go right out the window. There are times when safety is not the most important goal.

What do you think? Do you ever talk about politics or religion on your blog or over social media? Are there issues that you feel compelled to talk about, even though they lack an approved-for-fiction-writers (or approved-for-polite-conversation) stamp?

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On Tuesday I read a blog post in which a female blogger made a list of people in her acquaintance she’d put in charge of governing society if she was a monarch. All the people on her list were male. When called on this fact in the comments, she mentioned one woman she knew who she felt was “awesome,” but then proceeded to say she’d listed people she knew who were “wicked smart” and that offhand, she couldn’t think of any other women she’d put in that category.

Typing that just now makes me want to yell and scream and possibly hurt my foot by kicking something unexpectedly hard.

As a woman who is “wicked smart,” let me explain something to those of you who haven’t thought about such things. High-IQ women often do not present in the same way as high-IQ men. That doesn’t mean they’re not just as smart; they just behave differently, in ways that are not typically identified with high intelligence.

For starters, smart women often work very hard to fit in. We blend. We spend a lot of time listening to other people talk. We don’t always put ourselves forward, even when we have expertise or insight about a certain topic. We are not as likely to offer or even form opinions, since we are supposed to be nice and agreeable. We are not as likely to argue. We deliberately choose topics of conversation that don’t show off our intelligence, partly because being an intelligent woman is somewhat fraught in our society and partly because if we want to have a real conversation instead of expound, it often works better to choose a topic in which intelligence doesn’t matter as much. We do much of this unconsciously because it tends to get us better social results, ie people like us more.

Women in general are also not encouraged to be as ambitious as men. We get more flak about being ambitious. People patronize us and tell us we have delusions of grandeur. In many professional arenas, we have to adopt masculine behaviors in order to realize our ambitions, not to mention deal with sexism. We also have to do better than men at the same positions in order to be recognized. And then people will minimize our accomplishments and say catty things about our appearances and personalities. Not to mention, women who want to have kids know they’ll end up with more of the work involved, even if they have full-time careers as well. So high-IQ men are often very “successful;” they might be wealthy or have a fast-track career or a top-notch reputation in academia. High-IQ women don’t always have any of these things because we either chose not to follow ambition in the classic sense or because we felt we should not.

Finally, our society privileges the sciences over the humanities and the arts, and factual knowledge over both raw intelligence (which is more about speed and ability to learn, understand, and synthesize) and emotional/social intelligence. And yet, women are less likely to go into the sciences, less likely to offer up their knowledge in conversation, and more likely to be encouraged to focus on emotional intelligence. And for those of us who have focused  on synthesis as opposed to factual memorization, our talents are often entirely overlooked.

The secret land of intelligent women?

My husband and I are a great example of this. By both our assessments, we are more or less equally intelligent. He has a PhD in physics, an important job at Google, and impressive amounts of knowledge on a variety of intellectual subjects. I’ve spent most my time pursuing music and writing and focusing on personal growth and interpersonal issues. It is not uncommon for people to tell me my husband is one of the most intelligent people they’ve ever met. No one ever tells him the same thing about me. He presents himself very differently in social situations, has many of the expected achievements, and studied string theory instead of music, so this doesn’t come as a big surprise.

I didn’t want to talk about this subject because we as a society seem to have a deep discomfort with intelligent women, and talking about it leaves an opening to be personally attacked or categorized as stuck up. I can hear it now: “She’s not as intelligent as she thinks she is, and her husband is just playing up to her big ego.” Admitting to intelligence, at least here in the United States, is not the best way for a woman to gain friends and influence people. And ironically, gifted people tend to be more sensitive, more likely to be perfectionists, and more likely to hold themselves to impossibly high standards…all while suffering from impostor syndrome. But I’m so tired of the misconceptions that abound, and I don’t hear enough women speaking out on this subject, so I felt I had to say something.

There are plenty of very smart women in the world. You might just not realize who they are. So the next time you are listing off smart people you know, think again and consider whether you can add some women to your list.

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As many of you know, I’m a big Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan. I’ve watched the series more than once. I have a Buffy T-shirt. I even own a replica scythe. So what I’m about to say may shock you.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not a feminist show. It is sometimes egregiously sexist, in fact. It showcases repeatedly negative portrayals of female sexuality and engages in blame-placing on female characters (Buffy is accused of leading Spike on, Buffy is blamed for Jenny Calendar’s death even though Angel is the one who did it, etc.) while excusing crazy behavior of male characters (Buffy should obviously instantly forgive Riley for cheating on her with vampire women). There’s the problematic treatment of dismissing rape in Season 7. And I could go on.

However, I strongly disagree with the idea that Buffy is not a strong female character. Indeed, I’ve begun to worry about our culture’s definition of what a strong female character actually is. Yes, we obviously want to get beyond the idea that a strong woman is simply a man with boobs–what a ridiculously simplified idea. But I’ve been seeing some commentary that suggests that strong female characters still have to be…well, perfect and together and always making the right decision. And heaven forbid they ever show emotion or, you know, CRY.

Is Buffy a strong female character?

I’m going to unpack a few of these ideas in relation to Buffy so you can see what I mean. First up is Mur Lafferty’s critique of Buffy the character. (I actually agree with much of this article, especially the part about The Princess Bride, which is an awesome movie if you ignore the horrible female characters and particularly the passive MacGuffin who is Princess Buttercup.) “Buffy failed this test [of emotional strength] when Spike attacked her in Season… 5? Since the attack was sexual in nature, Buffy lost all ability to fight, and just struggled on the floor and cried…we’d seen her kill so many monsters – including her lover – I can’t believe she’d cave under that attack. It didn’t fit with the character.”

Okay, so the attempted rape scene in Season 6 is definitely an emotional moment. But that’s all it is: a moment. Buffy struggles against Spike and cries for all of fifty seconds before she succeeds in pushing him off her. (Yes, I timed it, just to be sure I was remembering correctly.) Not only that, but she does this while already badly injured, after dealing with several months of deep depression, and while dealing with the shock of having a former lover try to rape her. But her reaction time of fifty seconds, no, it’s just not quite good enough for her to be considered emotionally strong? Um… Yeah, it must be because she committed the cardinal sin of crying. (Not to mention this assessment smacks of victim blaming.)

Or does crying automatically make her weak?

Here’s another great one, this time from The Mary Sue (again, this article makes many great points but I quibble about the strong/weak character identifications): “And Buffy is textually weak in all her relationships. She falls apart not only when Angel leaves her, but when Parker (yeah, you don’t remember him, either) doesn’t want to pursue more than a one-night stand with her, too.” It goes on to discuss the badness of Buffy chasing after Riley when he flies off in the helicopter.

So does this mean a strong woman isn’t allowed to have feelings or make mistakes, even out of inexperience (as was the case with Parker)? I mean, are we just supposed to shrug after a painful break-up and decide not to care? After all, Buffy sends the vampire she loves to hell in order to save the world–not an act I’d call particularly weak. Sure, I wasn’t a fan of Buffy running after Riley, but she received bad advice from a trusted friend and had a moment of weakness. But I guess in order to be a strong woman she would have to recognize the sexist parameters of her world at all times and never have a second of doubt, disappointment, or grief… Or maybe it’s the crying.

From the same article: “And inherently problematic is the idea of the Watcher, a predominantly male presence that is the male gaze made manifest – a source of constant looking that is an explicit form of control.”

Yes, the idea of the Watcher is sexist. The origins of the Slayer are deeply problematic. But Buffy fights against this time and time again: she fires her Watcher, she rebels against the Council, she orders them to give her the information she needs about Glory, and at the end of the series, she thwarts their original intent for the Slayer by giving the power to all the Potentials. She is constantly second-guessed and undermined by everyone in her world, friends as much as foes, and yet she continues to fight and to believe in herself. How exactly is this not strong behavior? I really have no idea.

Strong female characters can still be human. They can be flawed, they can have moments of bad judgment, and they can cry. They can feel overwhelmed, and they can have bad taste in men. What they can’t be is only existing because of and judged in relationship to male characters. What they must have is some kind of personal agency. Even, and this is my key point, the agency to make mistakes and be less than perfect.

Rose Lemberg wrote an excellent article on feminist characters, and I really hope you go read the whole thing. She says:“But what we often do in genre is allow men to be uncomfortable and difficult, but erase the women who are less than warm and fuzzy-making.”

Yes. Even to the point of having unnecessarily limited definitions of what makes a strong woman. Buffy is a flawed character, but she exists in her own right, not as some kind of set piece for the male characters on the show and not only as a girlfriend, or friend, or sister, or protegé. She ultimately calls the shots and makes most of the hard decisions. And if anything, the facts that she suffers, that she feels loss and fear, that she cries, these things show how strong she really is.

So what do you think? How do you define strong female characters? And what are examples of them that you think are done well?

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I read two essays relating to feminism last week, and I can’t get them out of my mind. They offer very different perspectives on living in the U.S. as a woman, and how to navigate the sometimes tricky waters that this entails.The first one was an explanation by Zoe Winters of why she doesn’t call herself a feminist. She offers several reasons, among them that feminism brings with it connotations of angry man haters, that feminists look down on women who have chosen to be housewives instead of career women, and that it’s better to look for win-win situations in the workplace–that if a man is unwilling to hire you because you’re a woman, you’re better off working somewhere else anyway.

The second one was by Justine Musk: “‘Well-behaved women seldom make history’: redefining what it means to be bad.”  She talks about the black-and-white choice for women in our society: to be a good girl or a bad girl. She brings up the different standards of behavior for men and for women, comparing Charlie Sheen with Brittany Spears. She discusses how convenient it is when women choose to be “good,” which is possibly another way of saying something I’ve been talking about a lot lately, choosing to be a people pleaser. (I understand that men can be people pleasers too. However, I suspect the pressures and causes might be a bit different for women than for men in our society. Feel free to argue with me in the comments, though.)

For a long time, I didn’t really self identify as a feminist. You could even say that I was a bit wishy-washy on the whole subject, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I thought I was lucky because sexism had never really affected me or my life.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t actually lucky. I was just naive.

I completely bought into the “good girl” thing that Justine was talking about in her article:

“Raising a girl to be ‘nice’,” a therapist – a woman in her sixties, married and with daughters — once remarked to me, “is like sending her out into the world with one hand tied behind her back.””

That nice girl is me. Was me, is perhaps more accurate. Sexism has affected me my entire life, sometimes in profound ways. Our society’s ideas about gender roles have played a role in shaping who I am, whether I like to admit it or not.

I don’t hate men. Actually, I really like men. Some of my very best friends have been and still are men. There have been times in my life when pretty much all my friends have been male. I have also been friends with guys who are obviously sexist. (Unfortunately, the more overtly sexist, the less likely the friendship will last, because ultimately it’s kind of hard to maintain a friendship with someone who is treating you poorly. Wish I had learned this one a lot sooner.) So I guess I’m the kind of feminist who doesn’t hate men and is only occasionally angry? Oh, and thinks being a housewife is a perfectly fine life choice, thank you very much.

I find the idea that I’d be better off finding a win-win situation in the workplace a bit shallow at best, though. I mean, it sounds great in theory, but what if I work in an industry in which I’m going to face discrimination for being a woman regardless of the company or my boss? I was talking to a female engineer the other day, and she told this story that really appalled me about her male co-workers’ behavior. When I told her that I didn’t know if I’d want to deal with that in my workplace, she responded that her company is actually pretty good to its female engineers. And I believe her; it might very well be worse elsewhere. That doesn’t mean that better is particularly great though. But she has to put up with it if she wants to continue being an engineer, and doing it with good grace is preferable for her career prospects.

As a writer dealing with sexism, it really matters what sub-field I’m in. The kidlit community seems to be made up of about 90% women. I have never experienced any noticeable sexism or inappropriate behavior in the kidlit community. Because I, as previously stated, like men, I’ve hung out with many of the men in the community, and they have always been respectful and treated me like any colleague.

The science fiction/fantasy community, on the other hand, is made up of about 40% women. On the plus side, women writers in the field also win about 40% of the major awards, which is great. Unfortunately, I am sometimes treated differently in the community because of my gender. I have heard about sexual harassment problems at conventions, and I have no trouble whatsoever believing them based on my own experiences. And because I am the “nice girl,” more often than not I let it slide. I push through my discomfort and keep right on smiling. This is the current reality of being a female speculative writer (or at least a relatively young and cute one). So should I stop writing science fiction and fantasy and find a more women-friendly environment in another genre? Or just not be part of the community? You have got to be kidding me. That’s not a win-win. It’s a big fat lose if I feel forced to leave a genre that I love.

Like it or not, sexism is a reality most women are forced to deal with (if you haven’t, I’m happy for you, but I also don’t really believe it). Some of us may not recognize that it’s happening. I often don’t recognize it’s happening. I’ve been watching movies all my life, and it’s only recently that I began to notice how gender is so often portrayed in Hollywood. Now that I’m breaking away from being “too nice” or the “good girl,” I find it valuable to try to notice. Sometimes there might be nothing I can do; sometimes I might have to stand there and smile. Sometimes someone might assume that I’m a man-hating hormonal nightmare of a woman if I use the word “feminist” or a bitch if I don’t temporize, soften my opinions, or stay quiet. But if I notice, at least I can make my own decision about how to respond and have a greater understanding of what’s going on around me and how society is encouraging me to have certain behavior patterns.

For me, feminism is not about fighting against men. It’s about fighting against stereotypes and preconceived boxes that are too small to fit who I am. It’s about being able to be taken seriously in the avocation of my choice, whether that be composer or teacher, science fiction or romance writer, engineer or housewife. It’s about taking a stand against having to fit into the definition of “good girl,” a definition I had no part in creating.

Okay, have at it. Is there anything I missed? Do you consider yourself to be a feminist? Why or why not?

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If I become a successful writer someday, will you like me less? According to this TED talk, the answer might be yes. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, talks about the negative correlation between power and likeability in women (whereas for men, power and likeability are more likely to go hand in hand). She cites a study in which two managers are presented, in which the only differences (literally) between the two are their names (Heidi and Howard). The results? While both were ranked as being equally competent at their jobs (which is some good news, at least), Howard was seen as being a great guy to work with whereas Heidi was seen as being too much out for herself, with many more reservations about working with her. The same person, described with the same language. Chilling, isn’t it?

Luckily women in the writing profession don’t face the same endemic problems as those trying to rise to the “C” level of corporations (CEO, COO, CTO, etc.). But I began to think about how this might affect female characters in the stories I write.

I use a lot of female protagonists in my work partly because I think that historically, there haven’t been enough of them in the speculative field (particularly science fiction). Hopefully things have gotten better in this regard (although I haven’t done any formal surveys for protagonist gender in recent short fiction), but I enjoy writing female characters in any case. Now I can’t help but wonder, though, whether some of these characters will be less liked and less sympathetic than their male counterparts if they’re put into positions of power.

Sometimes I’m able to sidestep this problem completely because I write a lot of teenage female protagonists who inherently lack power because of their young ages. But if I write a female president, will her anger read justified, or will it read like a mood swing? Will a discontented female read frustrated or merely whiny? And how much of this will be because of my mistakes in characterization vs. our society’s preconceptions about women in power?

It’s also easy, as a writer, to fall into one way of showing gender. For instance, I have a couple of stories about relationships in which it’s fairly obvious that the man has most of the power over the woman, and I show the women grappling with (and possibly overcoming) this imbalance. But being that I’m a science fiction writer who gets to write about the future, I don’t want to limit myself to portraying women who find ways to empower themselves while starting out unequal. What about the women who start out confident and in power, who can take over the traditional “hero” role in a story? What about the women who take for granted that they can be both powerful and likeable in a changed future society? I certainly don’t want to forget about showing those women characters.

What has your experience been as a reader or a writer? Do you find women characters in power to be sympathetic? How much do you think our society’s bias against this is reflected in our current literature?

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