Gender Equality in Science
Fiction and Fantasy Fandom and
For as long as there have been conventions, there have been incidents of harassment, from uncomfortable leering to inappropriate touches to even more serious offenses. But the sheer volume of incidents and the commonplace existence of sexism and harassment is really just coming to light. Not that people haven't talked about it before, but through social media, people have an immediate platform that didn't exist a decade ago. It's easier than ever for victims to come together and for perpetrators to be identified and handled.
And put the Internet to use we did: googling will bring up a host of commentary on recent cons, like Jim Hines' piece on World fantasy and my own comments on a SFWA gaffe.
So we're starting to get an idea of prevalence. What we're not quite coming to grips with is how to deal with it. People want to solve the problem. Women want to stop feeling victimized. Men want to stop the instant suspicion that comes with their gender. I learned that forcefully from a panel I was on at Mile Hi Con in October. It was your standard fare of late: "Sexism in SFF Fandom" or some such. I was on five such panels with similar titles this year alone. The panelists were good, knowledgeable, opinionated. We all had valid things to say. But we quickly lost control to the audience, who apparently had a lot more things to say, stories to share, and sometimes shocking betrayals of their own prejudices. From the man in the front row who refused to raise his hand or notice people were angry at his comments to the woman who shared her prejudicial view of Mexican men and was shouted down by others in the audience, it went downhill from there. The chaos reminded me of the noisy frustrations of childhood.
That panel slammed it home: Equality in science fiction and fantasy is in its infancy.
It's my belief the problem stems from all angles: society at large, certainly; the portrayal and/or lack of women in SFF stories and media; protectionism; social skills and the autism scale; even women ourselves. This is by no means a comprehensive list, of course, but I'm trying to scale down to SFF fandom and industry in particular.
Because we're a magazine and I spend my days reading and writing, I want to talk stories first. I read a lot of epic fantasy. Most of it is written by men and filled with male characters. A book I recently enjoyed had three POVs, all male. There are women with agency in the story (and some female antagonists) but the primary and secondary characters were mostly male.
I'm guilty of it, too. The SENTINEL series, not so much; but EXILE and EMISSARY are told from the POV of one man. To be sure Draken has strong, fierce women in his life, but when peopling the armies and households, I have to make an effort to include women even though I am one. I contend this is because most of the stories I read are peopled largely by men.
Fandom has its faults as well. Unfortunately, we think we have the perfect exclusive excuse: SFF fans have a reputation for lacking social skills, from the "bullied into submission" types to those on the autism scale. But fandom is merely a microcosm of society; we aren't special or that different. As much as we'd like to define and own "geek" in all its glory, we are all still members of society at large. As such, ignorance of social mores is no excuse. A cop gives you the ticket if you speed whether you know the limit or not. If someone is that socially unaware to blatantly offend and harass women then they shouldn't go about unattended.
I have few issues with harassment myself. I'm older, married, and I tend to gravitate toward men as friends anyway. It takes some, er, guts to harass a woman surrounded by her male friends, though it's certainly happened to me.
Then you get the other end of the scale: Protectionism. At WorldCon this year, I found people were pretty aware (read: uber-sensitive) of how to treat one another, at least among us writers. Once when I was talking in the bar, I had a male friend walk by me and squeeze my shoulder in a hug. The two guys I was with, who I'd just met, leaped to my defense. "Did that make you uncomfortable? Do you want me to talk to him?" While I applaud their well-meant, if clumsy, awareness of my potential discomfort, they failed to realize how patronizing such protectionism is. My friend touching me had unspoken permission to touch me-we're friends. But I hadn't asked for the protection of these guys who I'd just met. (A basic rule of thumb: if you wouldn't leap to the defense of a man you just met, you might want to rethink doing it for a woman you've just met.)
Finally, many women don't yet understand the nuances of sexism. We're taught "boys are boys" (or worse: "old men are old men") and that we have to deal with a certain amount of disregard and discrimination in life rather than acknowledging our discomfort and deciding what we want to do about it. That story I told above about the guys willing to be my white knights and rush to my rescue? They made me uncomfortable, not my friend who rubbed my shoulder. But it took some distance and thought to sort out my defensiveness around the incident because I haven't been taught from birth to listen to my own discomfort. It's a shame. I think women and girls need training and societal permission to act on their discomfort.
Even if we have recognized the discomfort, sometimes we make a judgment call between the risks of suffering in silence verses the risks of speaking out. Those risks are real and not to be discounted; I know women who have received threats for speaking up. Certainly a lot of women writers are frightened for their careers. But it's time women stand up and be brave. We need to do the hard work of recognizing inequality when we see it and speaking up about it.
Men in fandom and industry, as well, share a very real fear that they might step wrong. To them, I say take a hard look at how you behave and pay attention to how it makes others feel. If you're fearful of stepping wrong it might just be because you have in the past. But more than that, let's all focus on the future.
En masse, women have power. No, scratch that. People have power. The recent wide-ranging discussion of sexism caused a shakeup at SFWA this year, including at the Bulletin, which subsequently underwent a revamp in staff and style. At conventions, we're demanding written policies in place to deal with offenders, staff to support victims, and real action to help everyone feel comfortable and safe. The more we speak up, the more light that is shined, the more allies we create and the more normal fighting back becomes. I applaud those leaders among us, writers and editors and agents and actors and fans, who have created the frontier of equality. Keep talking, I say. As science fiction and fantasy fans and storytellers, we have long led the way in social commentary. So too can we lead in social equality. Like we have over and over in our stories, let's build a new world together, shall we?