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On Stereotypes and Sexism in SFF
I looked up from my computer one day and discovered, via this website, that there was a debate about sexism going on in the SFWA Bulletin (issue #202). I read the recent Malzberg/Resnik exchanges and a few of the replies and found that they had generated more heat than light, as such arguments seem to do. Nonetheless, the whole discussion did raise a few points and gave me an occasion to put them into essay form.
One point Malzberg and Resnik make quite clearly is the danger of censorship, something of which all writers must constantly be aware, especially because it can creep in without our knowing it. This document I’m writing right now is a good example—I’m responding to someone else’s statement, and the content of theirs will determine the content of mine, if I’m not careful.
So self-censorship is perhaps the most insidious—because it’s the most necessary. After all, if I’m going to submit a statement for publication, I want to make sure it’s something I really believe, not just a reaction to someone else’s words. I may have fallen into that trap a few times, specifically because I try to avoid it.
I’m very much aware of the dangers of promulgating gender stereotypes, so in designing my characters, I deliberately subvert stereotypes by reversing them. Of the female heroines in books and movies, how many are young and beautiful? Most of them—just look at any Disney princess. Now, let’s stop and think about it from the other direction. How many female villains are there? How many of them use weapons? And if there are female villains, how many tend to be ugly, like the sea witch in Disney’s Little Mermaid, or beautiful and sexy like most women supervillains in comic books—temptresses and seductresses a Black Widow in human form? Now, how to subvert those stereotypes.
More importantly, since becoming father of a son and two daughters (the third was not yet born at the time), I had to deal with the contrasting problem of trying to raise a boy to be a man and girls to be women, when the traditional gender roles and associated characteristics of both had suddenly come very much into question.
So, odd though it may seem, I had to begin by figuring out what those gender roles and characteristics were. This is somewhat like a politician extolling family values without being able to give us a list of what exactly they are.
More to the point, should anybody make up such a list? When people do that, a few very important items may be left out. Still, if anybody wants to see my first attempt at building such a catalog, let me know and I’ll answer you here, or in the Forum.
Okay, so now I had two jobs: to create a female hero who did not conform to our standard ideas of beauty and strength. I find myself continually reversing course to create a female villain who, again, does not conform to the stereotype of evil personified, then a feminine hero who is not what we ordinarily consider beautiful—and values being as they are in our culture, weight is an obvious place to begin.
In A Wizard In Bedlam, the leader of the rebels is not a muscular male warrior, but an overweight woman named Lapin—French for “rabbit,” the most incongruous example I could think up—but also appropriate for a rebel leader who has to be able to run and hide at a moment’s notice, and who has to survive by her wits. She was also tremendously charismatic, with great strength of personality. In contrast, the villain in The Witch Doctor also had to be overweight and plain, to make it clear that neither set of characteristics is exclusively linked to good or evil, and to give Queen Suettay the charisma and strength of personality to lead an evil horde.
Another note—context. Several of the articles I've read tell me there have so far been three waves of feminism, and we may be starting a fourth. This has been very confusing for us—all of us, men and women alike, because cultural shifts like these don’t have exact starting and stopping dates—nobody stands up and says, “Okay, people, from now on, mini-skirts are going to be a fashion, not an exploitation.” Nonetheless, If you agree or disagree with the ideas that have not been enunciated, you can seem to be a sexist without intending to be so at all.
When I first started writing, I was pretty much in tune with the women’s movement at its beginning—after all, The Feminine Mystique had not yet been published, so my first novel, The Warlock In Spite Of Himself, was pretty much in tune with the times—the male hero saw himself as ugly but saw Gwen, the female hero, as gorgeous—why he didn’t fall for her right off the bat was simply a matter of his own self-esteem, which was well into negative numbers. Gwen was very strong, at least in terms of magical power—the most powerful witch in their medieval culture. She might not have embodied an outright reversal of stereotypes but was, I like to think, a good beginning.
However, ten years later, several readers expressed some discontent about her being a traditional, submissive woman. I will admit that there were a few booby traps waiting. Late in the book, the secondary hero and the queen’s first and most devoted suitor, Tuan, gives her a very sharp spanking so that she won’t be able to ride into battle the next morning and risk her life. Many of the female readers at the time (the late Sixties) were delighted to see the spoiled brat get her just deserts. Today, at least one reader is aghast at the idea of giving a queen a spanking, brat or not. I have to plead guilty to that one (though I’ve been hearing some odd things about a book called Fifty Shades Of Gray...).
So what has changed? Not Gwen—we were dealing with a reissue, not a rewrite. Not Gramarye, for the same reason. What had changed was our culture itself, moving toward a woman becoming able to be herself without feeling pressured into body images or behavioral gender roles.
If that’s the sort of progress we’re moving toward, I feel honored to be a part of it.
If you’d like to enter into a dialogue on the subject, please tell me so in the Forum. In the meantime, if you’re really interested in the topic, I recommend an M.A. dissertation by Vicki Medly, a graduate student at Eastern New Mexico University. In this, as in technology, space exploration and so much else, Jack Williamson was always ahead of his time.