SF and Gender

There’s been a bunch of debates about Gender and SF of late, all of which seem to end up with someone defending themselves with a variation of “I filled all the spots on project X with men because I was choosing on the basis of quality, not gender.” This answer flummoxes me every time it’s trotted out; not because the people who use it are not bad people or knowing oppressors, but just because it often reveals itself as a blind-spot in the approach of someone whose work I’d otherwise respect. And, to be honest, I just don’t get how people can’t question that statement, since SF itself has often been denigrated and ignored using the same excuse.

Think about that moment that all SF fans seem to share – that moment where you’re talking to someone who doesn’t read the genre, and you reveal that you do, and their response is a muted “oh” followed by a look that suggests you’ve actually just revealed that you mutilate kittens. It’s a power-play between you, the reader of a non-mimetic pulp genre, and the other person (who, if you’re lucky, will not follow their momentary scorn with the next salvo of “I only read stories in which real things happen”).

The reason that “oh” moment exists is because quality is a social construct, and like many of our social constructs it’s been inherited from a predominantly white and male (and, for that matter, educated) point of view. From that point of view the final arbiter of quality is Literature, in which works are loaded with metaphorical meaning and fancy language use. SF, to borrow the phrasing of China Meiville, has a habit of literalizing its metaphors – the dragon in a story may be representing capitalist greed, but it’s also a physical dragon that exists within a secondary world of the narrative. The un-literalized metaphor – aka the metaphor that’s actively presented as metaphor rather than inherently real – is one of those quality markers that separated literature from everything else. It’s a class distinction more than anything, as a quick look at the pulp roots of SF should show – the literalized metaphor is for the populace mass, and the un-literalized metaphor is for those trained to read for such things by their grounding in the classics. This is one of the reasons SF fans had to reclaim works like 1984, The Handmaids Tale, and even seminal texts like Frankenstein as part of our genre; the default assumption of the authors and readers of these texts lie in their metaphorical power rather than the sense-of-wonder that marks SF. It’s nice to think that we know better than that now, but when Peter Straub was editing the New Wave Fabulist issue of the Literary Journal Conjunctions a few years back he was still put in a position where he was arguing Fantasy’s way into the literary field during his preface (and, for that matter, to address his own status and the status of many of the authors as populist writers).

And lets be honest for a moment here – some SF fans like it this way. I’ve had enough arguments with people who decry any attempt to apply literary theory to SF to know that the intrusion of metaphorical readings of a text are occasionally unwelcome; to suggest a deeper meaning, or an critique that seems unguided by authorial intent, is the stuff of sacrilege in some parts. At its best this impulse leads to a means of reading against the positioning implied by that “oh” – but more often than not these outcries are an act of complicity in keeping SF denigrated. I do it myself – every time I refer to my love of ‘Trashy SF’ I’m contributing to an understanding of SF that’s beneath other understandings of literature, but occasionally salvages my reputation as white, intelligent male (oddly, I do this primarily when talking to people within the genre, to keep my love of a metaphorically active Kelly Link story separate from my joy at watching a pulpy action film like, say, Underworld or Conan the Barbarian; obviously my own relationship with this issue is as complicated as anyone elses, and as a white male I have more than enough of my own blind-spots).

Now SF has primarily been a boy genre (and I stress the boy here, since SF is traditionally presented as an adolescent genre and thus excluded from the importance that texts written for white adult genres). Writing aimed specifically at women (soap operas, romance novels) copped a much greater shellacking, often because it had the potential to address notions that were inherently subversive to a patriarchal culture (an awareness of  female desire as an active force, rather than passive, for example) and thus needed to be completely disempowered by accusations of being shallow, cheap, and devoid of metaphorical meaning. Again, it’d be nice to think that we’ve moved beyond that, but there is still a cultural conception that a narrative addressing feminine desire is still addressing primarily female concerns rather than an issue of general interest. I could go search for a bunch of academic and social examples to back this up, but lets just go with an example that’s personal and handy – when you walk into my flat the first thing you see is the big shelf full of DVDs and CDs. The first things people tend to comment on (in a “why do you have these?” kind of way) are my collection of Gilmore Girls or Sex in the City DVDs. If we live in a world where a single male owning such things is a cause for comment, then it says something specific about the perceived audience for those shows are and it doesn’t suggest the wide and diverse audience that good work in any genre is supposed to be able to attract. Literature is supposed to have common appeal, something to say for everyone on the matter of being human (read: human in a patriarchal setting); SF and Romance and all the other pulp genres are often denigrated *because* they speak to only small groups of society, and often with the social expectations of a white male voice behind them.

And realistically, all this is pointing to the one reason that people with a vested interest in real equality between the genders (and, for that matter, sexuality and race) call bullshit on justifications on cause of quality – the perception of quality has long been a means of control and denigration, and it’s usually come up the patriarchy’s way even when the text is marketed towards a group that isn’t white, upper-class and male (IE Romance). The participation of a non-anglo male audience does not necessarily free us of that – Romance’s social status as a guilty pleasure and SF fandom’s clinging to the notion of entertainment without reading for social/deeper meaning are both the voice of the audience being complicit in their own exclusion. In short, if you’re going to go all-men on the basis of quality, then you need to think long and hard about where those standards of quality are coming from and how they exclude in their own subtle way, because you can be sure that the people who are asking questions are aware of its ability to do the same.

None of this is to say that I’m incapable of doing any of the above – I’m as culpable as anyone when it comes to using mockery and denigration to re-position myself and others – but I’ll also freely admit that a lot of what comes out of my mouth is driven by the fact that I’m an insecure asshole. It’s something I’ve tried to get better about over the years, but some days are better than others…

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