Wednesday, 26 June 2013

On sex, sexism, and science fiction

There has been some debate recently regarding the treatment of women in the field of science fiction authorship and production. Naturally, this has caught my attention due to my ongoing interest in sci-fi, but it is part of a much larger debate on the rights of women in modern western society and the way they are perceived. This rambling post is my attempt to express my opinions on the matter, and I'm aware I will probably offend someone in the process.

It was Stuart Douglas who first drew my attention to the appalling treatment many women are experiencing in the sci-fi community, via his sharing of articles by S L Huang and Ann Aguirre. The links are there; you should click them and read.

Now, I'm not totally naive; I'm fully aware of the unending shit that women put up with in the workplace every day. Any woman who has not been exposed to sexist or chauvinistic comments or behaviour is very fortunate. But somehow, I thought that maybe the sci-fi community was past most of that. If there is any group of people who should be open-minded and inclusive, it's sci-fi fans. I had foolishly thought that the chauvism of the fifties and sixties was behind us in this area at least. I was clearly very wrong. Fundamentally, the issue is the Science Fiction Writers of America has been accused, quite rightly so, of showing a lack of respect for its female writers and editors. It is, however, the backlash against those who have complained about these attitudes that is most disgusting. Death and rape threats sent to female writers who dare to express the opinion that perhaps their work should be judged on merit and not on their sex.

Ann Aguirre's post shows how difficult is it for women writing sci-fi today. There is a huge, violently misogynistic sector of fanhood that despises her and women like her for writing and publishing female-oriented sci-fi with - gasp! - sex in it. Now, we know there are some mentals in the fan world, but there are publishers and authors coming to light who clearly share this warped viewpoint.

And so it goes, right out into the wider world of fandom. There are old school Doctor Who fans who hate the new series because it features strong, sexually active women, or simply because in its modern guise it's equally beloved by little girls as little boys. The Doctor experiences romance? Urgh, they're writing it for girls now! Amy Pond comes onto the Doctor? She's such a slut, get her out of the TARDIS! (As an aside, there has also been a sudden surge of homophobic comments on the GallifreyBase forum, something that genuienly surprised me since Who has long been an especially gay-friendly fandom).

I know sci-fi comes from a very masculine, Boys' Own type of background. I'm just saying we should have moved on by now. I need to talk about Star Trek in this too. The original series, for all its supposed far-thinking, glorious looking to the future, was hopelessly sexist, and I plan to post on this topic in more detail. For now, I would suggest that you read through the works of Josh Marsfelder at his blog Vaka Rangi. His blog, a Trekkie take on Phillip Sandifer's TARDIS Eruditorum, is unusual in that he actively dislikes the original series but is starting his rundown the franchise with it anyway. This leads to some articles that reveal opinions notably different to the usual Trekkie received wisdom. His big bugbear is the sexism in the show, though, and it is true that there is an unpleasantly misogynistic streak to many episodes. There's the rapey banter in 'The Enemy Within,' or the abusive relationship of Khan and Marla MaGivers in 'Space Seed.'

Still, this was the sixties. That's not suggesting in any way that this makes it acceptable, but in regards to American culture at the time it was made it is not surprising. It has some context, and we can view it with such, comfortable in the knowledge that we've moved on. Except that we haven't. Most of the female crewmembers in TOS were there because Gene Roddenberry wanted to bone them and at the very least wanted to show them off in a series of very short minidresses. Yet Star Trek Into Darkness has revived this same issue, in its gratuitous display of Alice Eve's bare flesh. Eve's character is supposed to be a scientist with a personal stake in the mission; but more importantly, she looks great in her underwear.

There was, of course, a similarly gratuitous scene in which Benedict Cumberbatch, as Khan, showers. This was removed, no doubt because it was unnecessary and entirely extraneous to the plot. So was Eve's nuddy moment, but this was kept in. The point is not that we got a flash of female flesh, but that it was gratuitous and was harmful to the character, and that views on female and male nudity in film are clearly biased against women.

There's a caveat, of course. I like looking at attractive women with no clothes on. I make no pretense that I don't. (I like looking at attractive men with no clothes on, too, but that is somewhat beside the point to this argument.) For instance, I am a member of Suicide Girls, a site that is devoted to images of pretty girls in various states of undress. It is also, however, a thriving community, and one that I am very proud to now be part of. I have become good friends with several members, including a handful of the models. Though there are plenty of creeps on the site, the majority of the male members are respectful of the models and female members. Sometimes it strays into uncomfortable territory - this is a risk of a sex-oriented site - but for the most part, people are decent to each other and those that aren't are made aware that they are not welcome.

So, yes. I like looking at tits. Yet I also like talking about science fiction. One model, Iso Suicide, has become a very close friend of mine. There is something slightly odd in becoming friends with someone who I saw naked before I ever spoke to her, but that doesn't denigrate the friendship at all. We first met via the Doctor Who group (of which I have no been made group owner, oddly enough), and it was our shared enthusiasm for Who and Trek that got us chatting. There's no clash here. I love the pictures of her, and I love talking to her. Those facts are not mutually exclusive.

The thing to remember is this: it's not just about the sex. It is possible to enjoy looking at tits, and still respect women. Equally, it is possible to be a woman who enjoys showing her tits, and still expect respect. Women do not exist solely for the purposes of male gratification, but nor are they to be attacked for providing it. Our culture has an inbuilt streak of misogyny, in that it simultaneously expects women to be demure, asexual creatures and to be sexual playthings for men, and judges them as both. It seems beyond comprehension for many men that women are people, who enjoy sex and may express their sexuality, but are not defined by it.

Yet this attitude pervades male culture in general, and the still predominantly male sci-fi fan culture in particular. Men go to conventions and cannot grasp that because a woman has chosen to wear revealing cosplay, it does not mean it is acceptable to grab her, verbally abuse her or take pictures of her without permission. Men respond with abuse to female authors who encroach on their sacred male territory of sci-fi and geekdom, especially when they dare to bring their own sexuality to the table, rather than simply responding to male desire.. Men continue to treat women appallingly throughout all walks of life, but it offends me most when it is part of a group to which I feel I belong.  

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