This last weekend I attended the local MALcon just a few minutes down the road from my house. I only went on Saturday, to see if it was something I’d like to participate in in the future, and with departure for Loncon just days away, I didn’t want to spend too much time away from home. On the whole it was rather enjoyable; quite small, but there was a good variety of panels on writing and topics of interest to me.
I was particularly interested in the panels on powder keg topics and misogyny in SF/F. The latter one had only two men scheduled to be on the panel, so I was invited to join them up front, but I declined because I’m not good talking about political topics, even the ones I’m passionate about. They did find a really well-spoken woman from the audience (I’m pretty sure she was a scientist) to join them in the discussion. My one disappointment though was that the topic got so derailed onto gender differences being cultural vs genetic that we seemed to spend very little time actually discussing misogyny and bigotry in the SF/F field. Near the end, the discussion turned finally to the problems women and minority writers face in the field, but mostly to talk about how boys won’t read female narratives and how women writers can get boys to engage with their SF/F. It was suggested that writers could start out with male characters then ease them into female characters.
While I’m in favor of trying to get boys to read more female narratives, my personal feeling is that this method is just more of the status quo: female characters must be propped up by male characters. And what about adult fiction? Must we hand-hold men lest they scoff and close the book? Should I have made the Bone Flower Trilogy a mixed narrative of both Quetzalpetlatl and Topiltzin’s POV, even though Topiltzin’s story has been told over and over again, in hundreds of years of myths and even in modern books such as K. Michael Wright’s Tolteca or Kenneth Morris’s The Chalchiuhite Dragon? Maybe I should have, then I wouldn’t have been told by a big publishing house that my story was “too feminist” for their predominately male epic fantasy audience. Despite all this, I have no regrets about making Bone Flower Quetzalpetlatl’s story rather than Topiltzin’s; her voice was one lost to time and reduced to little more than a tool for the amusement and ambitions of male gods. This method of couching female narratives through the filter of men and their experiences feels an awful lot like telling stories about native cultures through the eyes of their white colonizers, so the perceived predominately-white audience has someone to grab onto and relate to without having to do any work on a personal and cultural level (and man did discussion of this particular literary device cause a yelling match on a panel at WorldCon in Reno a few years back! I thought one panelist’s head was going to explode when a female panelist said that was a crappy way to write about alien cultures, or other human cultures, for that matter).
Because of the direction of the panel for most of the hour, we didn’t get into much discussion about the negatives of this approach, or what other options are available to writers, which is a pity. These are important discussions to have. From my own experience, there’s multiple points where blockades are put up against women/minorities and their stories; most are cultural and will be extremely difficult to overcome, but some are inherent to the capitalistic nature of publishing and are perhaps a bit more easily changed. Readers can only read what is available to them, and if publishers are not publishing women/minority writers/stories, then readers aren’t going to see them. The chance for exposure and change is being cut off at the source in favor of narratives that are “safe money-makers”. I often hear people defend the status quo by telling those complaining, “Well, if you don’t like it, why don’t you go write the stories you want to read then?” Newsflash: lots of writers do this, but those stories aren’t being published because they aren’t the safe, time-tested product that publishers know they can rely on to sell. Thank goodness for self-publishing and small presses these days, or else truly deserving and compelling narratives–like Sabrina Vourvoulias’s Ink–would never see the light of day. I’m torn on the whole publisher part of this equation; I understand their need to turn a profit so they can publish more books and not go under, but at the same time that very factor is contributing to the silencing of important narratives and stalling the expansion of the art form, based mostly on an inkling of what does and doesn’t sell (not to mention that often when they do take a chance on a non-status quo book, they don’t put the necessary push behind it to help it succeed in the competitive marketplace because of fear of investing too much money and losing it all).
Culturally speaking though, we need to teach boys from a young, young age that women’s/girls’ stories are worthwhile, and provide them with a multitude of narratives throughout their early lives, and get away from the whole “this is for boys, this is for girls” BS. Girls are already being taught from early on that men’s narratives are as worthwhile as women’s narratives (sometimes even more so than women’s), so we should be doing the same with boys. To me, it comes down to parenting, and is supplemented by teachers at the elementary school level. The more we expose children to a multitude of view points, the more open-minded they will be as adults.
One of the panel members mentioned a comic he saw on Facebook where two skeletons were sitting at a table holding beers and the caption said something like “what happens when men sit down to try to understand women”, and pretty much every woman in the room agreed that it was stupidest thing they’d ever heard, but also not surprising. Boys are taught from a very early age that they should only immerse themselves in things considered male while avoiding things perceived as female lest it taint their masculinity, so no wonder they grow to view women as mysterious. Quite honestly, if men want to understand women better, they can start by reading women characters and writers, and reading those genres supposedly geared towards women. Read a romance, read an epic fantasy that follows the lives of female characters rather than male characters, read mysteries with female sleuths–like Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books–and read literary fiction centered around female characters. And even better, seek out books from minority female writers about the female experience. One will soon find out that women are not inscrutable and mysterious, but are in fact human beings, and in turn their relationships with their mothers, their sisters, their girlfriends, their wives, their daughters, and their female friends will greatly improve. This doesn’t mean giving up reading the comfortable male narratives they enjoy, just expanding their reading horizons to include more challenges to one’s view of the world. Let us teach our sons that not only is Harry Potter’s story awesome and meaningful to their lives, but so is Katniss Everdeen’s; Superman and Batman are awesome, but Buffy kicks ass too. If we do this, then there will be more demand for Katnisses and Buffys, and then maybe publishing will take more chances on female narratives in epic fantasy, comics, and hard science fiction (places where androcentrism is currently at its strongest).
Men, stop living your whole literary life in safe comfort and the selfishness culture has taught you, because your comfortable reading habits are making things more difficult for those of us who don’t have the privilege of being white male cis. Be part of the solution, not a part of the problem. And women and minority authors, continue writing your narratives and trying to get them heard, no matter what publishing or the broader culture tries to tell you about their worth. Keep fighting the good fight, for your stories deserve to be told and heard.