Sexism in Science Fiction

I’d heard the rumblings about sexism in SF around social media this morning and been warned about how heated the topic had gotten.

Why must it be so heated?

It’s the elephant in the room. Sexism in science fiction is the creepy uncle we all know about but are afraid to mention. We just avoid being cornered by him at family gatherings.

I like to think I’ve come to terms with the fact that “real” sci fi is a male-dominated field that denigrates any work, written by women, that contains an element of emotion.

But isn’t that what good writing is all about?

One of the first lessons I learned in writing fiction was that it was VITAL to evoke an emotional response in the reader. If sci-fi eschews emotional topics and subject matter, like something so primal as romance and love, isn’t the genre unnecessarily limiting itself to telling only half a story?

I had to check out Ann Aguire’s post on the subject. The tone of her blog post is furious and frustrated. I felt compelled to comment. I liked my comment so well, I posted it here because I felt compelled to offer *my* take on the subject to my readers.

It is a constant struggle for acceptance that science fiction romance writers have to deal with. We don’t like being pigeonholed as “science fiction romance” because it makes it easier to marginalize what we do and to denigrate the stories we tell. I prefer to bill my books as “space opera” and “character-driven” which I consider by definition a closer description to what I write.

***

After struggling for over a decade to get a toe in the door of mainstream SF, I realized that it is indeed a male-dominated field. I had to endure the same derision you are talking about because my books are character-driven and focus on relationships set against the backdrop of space and adventure.

I realized early on if someone like HG Wells or Edgar Rice Burroughs had written books like mine, they would have received critical acclaim for exploring the human side of science fiction. That’s why I chose to write under my initials rather than my given name. JC could be male or female… a little trick I picked up from D.C. Fontana.

As a female fan of science fiction, I found that the women written by the male authors were unrealistic, two-dimensional, and borderline — if not outright — cartoonish. It’s obvious a writer cannot do justice to a subject for which one has nothing but contempt.

This is the reason I have no interest in membership in the SFWA. It is the original “old boy” network.

Science fiction is about pushing the boundaries and imagining the future, other worlds and societies. The urge to form pair bonds, the quest for love is universal among humans. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs places sex on par with breathing, food and water with love and a sense of belonging coming in just behind safety. Mainstream science fiction that ignores the human need for love and companionship tells only half a story.

To say that romance and love have no place in serious fiction is to deny a formula that has worked since Homer’s time. The surest way to complicate an issue is to interject an element of love and romance into it. Homer understood this. The Iliad was not only about the Trojan War. It was about Helen ~ The Face That Launched A Thousand Ships ~ and the men who loved her, desired her, and wanted to control her. In the Odyssey, what was Odysseus battling overwhelming odds to return home to? A throne? A kingdom? Responsibility? More likely it was his wife Penelope, a formidable woman who held his kingdom intact, keeping her faith that he would return. Don’t even get me started on Shakespeare and the tales of chivalry! At the heart of the legend of King Arthur is a love story with an unhappy ending.

The misogynistic old relics of “real” sci-fi are welcome to their anachronistic old-boy society. However, I will warn them that the women of sci-fi are coming. We are writing. We do not require their approval or permission to speak or publish. We do not require their support. Whether they like it or not, the future of science fiction lies in embracing the human condition in all its messiness.

To the neanderthals who consider females feeble-minded and incapable of comprehending complex concepts of time and space, I say get out of the way. A future without love or sex may be their idea of Utopia, but it is implausible to anyone who understands basic psychology. Women like complex plots, characters and relationships. Male SF writers have for the most part demonstrated their… inadequacies… in that area.

If women sci fi writers are so inferior, what are the men so darn afraid of?

***

What are your thoughts on sexism and science fiction? What can be done to change the status quo?

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6 thoughts on “Sexism in Science Fiction

  1. I don’t know that we can change it exactly. There will always be a hard core group who will think and often say ‘women can’t write *good* scifi, and shouldn’t try’. They will continue to denigrate and invalidate our work, then throw up their hands in horror that we should take offence. The good thing, and the thing we can do? They can’t stop us writing. They can’t stop us blogging. They can’t stop us from being published. And most importantly, they can’t stop people from reading and enjoying our work. Because we have an audience. We have a readership. We have fans. We might be small just now, but we’re growing. And we’re not going to go away.

    1. Well said, Pippa!

      My mother always told me that men will treat you as poorly as you let them. If you don’t put up with being treated badly, if you demand respect you are far more likely to get it.

      Where once, women fans and writers of SF were few, now we have growing numbers on our side and the tide is turning in our favor as you pointed out. If we stand together, demand respect and do not accept being marginalized, we are far more likely to get it.

  2. Can’t we all just learn to respect each other and get along? I’m tired of the fighting. I get sneered at for not writing hard enough sci-fi by the SF fans, and slammed by the romance authors for not putting enough emphasis on the romance in my books. I get smacked by indie authors for going with a publisher and derided by NY pubbed authors for going small press.

    It’s time to move past the petty bickering and respect each other and our personal choices. I’ve read male SF authors who handled the romance and relationships beautifully. I’ve read female SF authors who didn’t.

    I do agree that SFWA is hide-bound in their traditional old network ways. At least those at the top. Until they move on, I have no interest in joining their fraternity. My one interaction with them convinced me that they believed women existed as sex objects for their amusement and pleasure.

    The majority of SF readers (who are pretty much evenly split between male and female anymore judging by my experiences at conventions) don’t seem to care whether an author is male or female, as long as they can tell a great story. It’s the authors who place such heavy emphasis on it. Until we can meet as professionals without having to know what body shape we are, that bias isn’t going to change any time soon.

    And just FYI, I classify my books as science fiction adventure.

    1. You are spot on Jaleta. It’s the pigeonholing and marginalizing that I object to.

      There are some wonderful male authors out there who write female characters brilliantly and who handle relationship far more deftly than some female authors. Cary Caffrey and Patrick Stutzman are two such men who spring to mind.

      The readers really are wonderful. They are only interested in being entertained and they don’t care a whit about the author other than the fact that he/she tells a good story.

      It’s the industry old timers who make up the old-boy network who have made an issue of author gender. Their outdated views on women jeopardize the future of science fiction as a viable genre, in my opinion. Until those fossils have moved on to become the crude oil they deserve to be, I have no interest in dancing to their tune or seeking the approval of “mainstream” science fiction.

      Thankfully we live in a time that those out-of-touch relics are no longer the gatekeepers standing between writers and readers.

  3. SFWA has always been an elitist organization…before this latest kerfuffle, it was their attitudes towards anyone who wasn’t published by a company they felt “worthy” enough to be part of their membership requirements.

    Myself, I write what I like, and read what I like…and find membership in any organization that seeks only to limit who can join (regardless of how or why) to be absurd.

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