Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

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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I’m in the mood to open a can of worms today, so here we go.

I spent the morning at my local eye doctor/eye glasses shop, getting an exam and picking out new frames.  It was painless process this time around, which was a pleasant surprise.  Picking new glasses frames is the ultimate fashion choice since your glasses are the one thing you’ll always be wearing no matter what (well, except in the pool or in bed), so the choice can be a daunting one.  This time, I only deliberated for around twenty minutes, a personal best.  It didn’t seem like a big deal.

I remember a time when it was a huge deal because I was hugely self-conscious about my glasses.  This was partly teenage and young adult appearance angst, but the outside world gave me no help whatsoever.  I lost count of the number of times I was wearing contacts to perform in a show and some well-meaning but horribly insensitive person told me how much better I looked without glasses or passed along some inane comment about how it was too bad I usually hid my eyes.  Please note at the time I had no choice whatsoever about wearing the glasses: contacts irritated my eyes so badly I’d be popping them in and out of my bright red eyes all day long, and this was before Lasik was available.

It was worse in college when one of my best friends told me how much better I’d look without them to “desensitize” me from other people’s rude comments.  Or when another “friend” said I could never rate above average in appearance because the glasses took away so many beauty points.  Or later on, when I was a young twenty-something dating and men would, and I kid you not, reach over and *take off* my glasses, without even asking, before commenting on my beauty.  A few years ago, I even had a massage therapist, while performing what was supposed to be a relaxing massage, tell me that I should really consider ditching the glasses because I looked so good without them.  Um, backhanded compliment much?

I’m telling you this not to whinge about my past trauma but to make a point: that as a woman, I was constantly bombarded by messages, from individuals as well as from the media, telling me that I could not look beautiful if I wore glasses.  The very best I could hope for was a “sexy librarian” sort of look, which, after being subjected to years of being blasted by peoples’ negative opinions about glasses, honestly didn’t make this girl jump up and down for joy.

Since the idea of beauty is socially constructed, maybe these messages were, in their way, correct .  Maybe I can never be beautiful in the way that everyone wanted me to be.  (And here’s another question: why did so many people seem so invested in me looking a certain way, anyway?)  But I don’t buy this imposed estrangement between me and beauty.  Today, even though I have more choices (better, more comfortable contact lenses, possibility of corrective eye surgery), I wear my glasses without self-consciousness.  They are a part of who I am.  Personally, I think I’m just as beautiful with or without some stylish plastic on my face, in the same way that I’m just as intelligent either way.  And people making random negative comments on my appearance are not only incorrect, but also rude and therefore do not deserve my attention.

So the next time you find yourself about to comment on how a woman’s glasses affect her beauty, try to see past how you think she’s “supposed” to look and appreciate instead how she does look.  Maybe even notice how her eyeglasses enhance her natural features.  All of us bespectacled women will love you for it.

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