(Author’s note: Yes, this blog is somewhat controversial. But after writing recently in my own blog about the importance of writing about those Things Left Unsaid (Writer’s Block, Part 2), I decided that it would be hypocritical to scrap it and write something else. As a woman who has been stalked at two separate points in her life, I can’t be silent on this issue. Consider it an opinion piece)
There’s been a lot of buzz in the speculative fiction community lately about issues of sexism, sexual harassment and assault, from the hysterically funny pictures of men attempting the outrageously unlikely poses that artists give to the ‘bimbos on the cover of the book’ to the divisive flame war started by some sexist comments made by SFWA members to the somber allegations of sexual harassment made against a well-known editor of a prominent publishing house specializing in speculative fiction. Do I think these things are more prevalent in our community than in the general public? Absolutely not! To the contrary, I feel safer and more respected among ‘our people’ than I do just about anywhere else. Which is why I find sexism and its darker cousins more of a shock when I find it in the SF&F world. Frankly, geeks, I expect better of us. We are the dreamers of the future and the re-visioners of the past, the creators of worlds. We gave birth to women with laser guns and kindled TV’s first interracial kiss.
This isn’t just a woman’s issue. Any man with a mother, wife, daughter, female friends or colleagues is also affected. I have witnessed a tough male martial arts instructor fight back tears as he explained why he would continue to teach women-only self-defense classes at a steampunk convention, despite a male con-goer screaming discrimination. (It should be mentioned that the con had a whole martial arts track, and only one class was closed to men.) He had had friends and students who had been victims of sexual assault, and understood that women needed a safe place to talk about their experiences and learn to protect themselves.
You may wonder why I’m lumping sexism in with sexual assault. No, I don’t think every teenage boy with a pin-up of an anatomically unlikely female in a chainmail bikini is necessarily a rapist (though if I was his mom we’d be having a Serious Talk), nor do I think that every male writer that talks about his female counterparts as if they are dancing bears would necessarily arrange a casting room couch for the next anthology he edits. But when you create a climate where roughly half the community is ‘othered’, considered lesser, not fully human, an object without brains or feelings to be pursued as a prize, you create a climate in which predators feel they have the social approval to do as they will.
So what is our responsibility as writers and as fans? First, we need to acknowledge that words have power. Before anyone starts gathering wood for a bonfire at my feet, I’m absolutely not saying that novels should read like after-school specials. A) that’s bad craft and B) no one would read them anyway. (Put out that torch, if you please. Thank you.) Nor am I advocating censorship. (I hope you’re carrying that gas can because your car stalled.) Books with nothing but unicorns and rainbows and fluffy bunnies would be devoid of conflict and therefore boring. Villains need to be bad, and even protagonists sometimes behave badly. It’s what makes them real. The question is not what behavior you are portraying but in what light it is cast. Are you eroticizing rape, romanticizing stalking, promoting the idea that a woman is nothing but an object to be pursued, or that a female protagonist does/should live only for the goal of winning her man?
I’m not suggesting self-censorship here. Just self-awareness. Far from restricting your writing, such awareness can enhance it, break you out of old tropes to create characters that are new, fresh, real. It can even be fun. While working on my urban fantasy Ravensblood, I attended a two-day workshop on character development offered by two writers, one a method actor and one a psychologist. I had a long discussion after class with the psychologist regarding Raven’s relationship with Cassandra. Was I romanticizing the old trope of the woman who forgives her man all, setting up Cassandra for misery with a man incapable of feeling? We both decided that Cass had grown enough from their earlier, disastrous relationship to stand up to Raven wherever necessary and that Raven had not only decided to change his ways but evidenced that he had, and that if the two of them remained committed to their new paths that they could build a healthy relationship (provided they survived their current adventure). We both basked for a moment in the glow of the knowledge that these two people that we had come to care about were going to be all right. . .and then we remembered that we were talking about fictional characters. At that moment, I knew I could make the book work.
If you as a writer decided to stick to the old, unhealthy tropes, well, you’re the one who has to live with you. But at least have the courage to acknowledge what you are doing and don’t justify it by saying ’it’s only a story.’ Yes, I’m talking about a comment made by a particular best-selling author of YA vampire books that glorify stalking and encourage young girls to think their lives begin and end with their relationship to a boy. I’m not sure what scares me more, the influence these books have over young girls or the fact that boys, watching all the girls in the class swoon, are actually reading these books to learn what girls like.
Readers, you’re not off the hook. How aware are you of what you are reading, and how it is informing your behavior and your attitudes?
Stories have power, folks. Why else would writers write? There’s surely an easier way to make a buck. Let’s use our Jedi powers for good. (And readers, please support those who do.)
(Author’s postscript: There is, of course, much more beyond our writing that we can/do to promote safety and equality. But that’s outside the scope of this blog. Just going to say: Women, stay safe, stay alert. Yes, you shouldn’t have to be more careful than men. But we don’t live in that perfect world. Consider speaking truth to power. When one brave woman brought the editor’s behavior to the attention of the publisher, it was addressed. And stories came out, going back years, from women who hadn’t spoken out before for fear of being blackballed.
Men, if a woman asks you to escort her out of a party because she’s afraid some creepy guy there will follow her if she leaves alone, or if she asks you to walk her to her car because it’s a dark night and a questionable neighborhood or she’s parked in a lonely place, for gods’ sake, do so. This is your chance to be a knight in shining armor, a Jedi, an upstanding Starfleet officer (insert your favorite heroic fantasy here).
Shawna Reppert is the author of The Stolen Luck (Carina Press, May, 2013) and is about to begin a Kickstarter campaign to fund the indie release of Ravensblood, the first of an urban fantasy series set in an alternate version of the Pacific Northwest. Read her other blog ramblings and get links to all her published work at www.Shawna-Reppert.com