As is usually the case for me with posts like this, several things sort of converged this week. A maelstrom of thinky-thoughts, cauterized by a few news articles.
Last week the Women Destroy Science Fiction! anthology was funded on Kickstarter with over 1000% its funding. This week the Daily Dot ran a story about how some established science fiction and fantasy authors and an editor or two got super misogynistic in a forum thread…forgetting it was public. And finally, a museum in Pittsburgh is running an exhibit about women in comics.
Well, what do you know? These things are more than peripherally connected.
Most tellingly, perhaps, is this quote by cartoonist Hilda Terry, referenced in the link above about the comic exhibit. The context is that she was responding to being rejected from the National Cartoonists Society (the bylaws of which prohibited women from joining). She suggested they change their name to “National Men’s Cartoonists Society,” and here’s the relevant quote:
“Gentlemen: While we are, individually, in complete sympathy with your wish to convene unhampered by the presence of women, and while we would, individually, like to continue, as far as we are concerned, the indulgence of your masculine whim, we find that the cost of your stag privilege is stagnation for us, professionally.”
The rather disappointing thing about her quote is this: it could have been written yesterday. It wasn’t; it was written in 1949.
All of these things are connected by something rather simple: even when women are a minority or participating equally, we are perceived as dominating. There have been multiple studies (here’s one from Cambridge) that show that when there are an equal number of women present, both men and women feel like women are the majority. Studies that debunk the idea that women talk more. Studies that show that men are more likely to find female managers domineering and that even when women are in a distinct numerical minority, they may be perceived as dominating the conversation or group.
These findings are glaringly evident in the case of the SFWA forum kerfuffle. The men involved seem to think that just women being around poisons their fun. And when you factor in last year’s SFWA bulletin fiascos, it’s clear that those who think this way are fine with women if and only if women are paper dolls onto which they can paint chain mail bikinis and discuss their relative hotness.
Sure, in some ways we’ve come a long way from 1949. In others, I’m not sure we’ve progressed at all. The eerie sense of synchronicity I felt when I read Hilda Terry’s words and the forum posts by Sean Fodera was unnerving.
Shifting gears slightly, today they announced the all-female Expendables film. I’ve a fuzzy soft spot for the Expendables movies. They’re full of boom and badassery, and when I heard an all-female installment was in production, I was super excited. Until I saw the logline. Apparently the only story line they could think of was to make this team pose as high-class call girls to infiltrate a dictator’s home.
This sparked a long Twitter discussion this afternoon, and this is where this post’s title comes in.
As someone who creates fantasy worlds professionally (still excited to say that), I’ve given a lot of thought lately to how I build those worlds. What aspects of this one that go into it. Primarily, how I portray women and people of color — if at all. It’s no secret that fiction is dominated by white men. I’ve a running joke in our home with film trailers I see. White men in space! White men in the west! White men solving crimes! White men under the sea! White men on a boat! There’s nothing wrong with white men — but there are so many other people on this earth who just aren’t represented in our fiction.
The same principles above pertain to issues of race and ability and class and sexual orientation as well — when a minority is even given parity in fiction or in life, they are perceived as dominating. This diverse world that we live in is reduced to one or two demographics, and those of us who don’t fit into those demographics are expected to conform, to accept, and to relate to the protagonists who aren’t us.
When the tables are turned, that same expectation vanishes. “I just don’t relate to female protagonists.” “Well, there’s this one film with a Black lead, so you can’t say they’re not represented.” Those who are in a position of power have the privilege to ignore media that doesn’t fit their comfort zones; those who do not occupy that position of power do not have that option most of the time.
Which is why I wanted to write this post. I know there are a lot of like-minded writers out there. Writers who find that the diversity in our world is its biggest strength. Writers who want to see sexism and racism go the way of the dodo. (But can we bring back dodos? They’re cool.)
So here’s my challenge.
When you are a writer, you are god. You spin whole universes out of ink and ones and zeroes and paper and graphite and toil. You build empires and crush them. You annex nations and raise up dictators and stomp on monarchies. You make magic.
But all too often, we think and create within the confines of the world within which we live. Stories need the truth of humanity; they don’t need our most systemic failings.
Fantasy worlds don’t need institutionalized sexism or racism to have conflict. In fact, reliance on the things that have plagued our society (even though they still do) is, frankly, lazy. You are god. CREATE. SOMETHING. NEW.
Not everyone needs to be white. Tell stories where you explore new kinds of conflict, where women go through the world without the constant threat of rape or assault hanging over their heads like a smarmy cloud of nasty. Sexism and racism and all the other -isms don’t exist in your fantasy worlds unless you put them there.
For some reason, I think people assume that removing those basic, obvious, go-to -isms will somehow make all conflict vanish into a boring utopia.
Not so. Read Hunger Games lately? I can’t think of a single moment in the books where Katniss faced opposition on the basis of her gender. Where sexual violence was a threat to her. Where anyone underestimated her because she was a her. Collins almost entirely removed sexism from the books — and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a soul who’d tell you those books lack conflict. Race was also almost a non-issue (until you come to the film adaptations and whitewashing and all that jazz).
My point is not that we shouldn’t incorporate aspects of our reality into our fiction; it’s that from a creative standpoint, some of the sad frameworks of our world are bad enough in the real world — and have been done to death in fiction already. You as a creator are the reason everything in your story exists. The responsibility for representing people — whether it’s women or people of color or people with disabilities or Joffrey Baratheon — that’s on you. What you write comes from you. It may be conscious. It may be subconscious. But ultimately what you put on paper is your responsibility.
This is something that’s not just directed outward; I fully direct it inward as well. I need these lessons. I need to kick down the walls of this box just as much as anyone. My challenge for all of us is to do so cognizant of the impact fiction has on the world. Some people would rather fiction reflect a status quo clung to with bent-back fingernails and gnashing of teeth. Personally, I think fiction can be the catalyst for a more diverse and tolerant world.
Because to wrap this all up, those guys flailing and wailing in the SFWA forums and calling women dogs and interlopers — well. Their fears aren’t entirely unfounded. Inviting women to the table does change the conversation at the table. Inviting people of color to the table changes the conversation. Inviting people who are not you to the table changes the conversation. That’s the beauty of it.
So, writers — gods all* — let us change the world with our words.
To quote Chuck Wendig, “Art harder, motherfucker.”
*Some are majestic gods who fart rainbows and leave trails of glitter. Some are gods who go around in tight white briefs scratching their arses. I may or may not be the latter.