Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Round Table: Gender Bias in SF/F Part Two

Life's been pretty hectic lately, but in the best ways possible. I tied the knot two weeks ago and am settling into life with the best wife on the planet. The honeymoon was followed by a trip for a promotional exam for my second job as a martial arts instructor. So between things marital and martial I've had precious little time for anything. But I am finally getting back to my usual schedule. So with out further preamble the second part of the Round Table on Gender Bias in SF/F. I've included my response to the first talking point, which leads into this part of the discussion. A link to first post is
                                            provided below if context is needed.

Matt: What excellent and revealing responses from everyone. It’s astounding how deep the gender blind spot is ingrained and how much conscious effort it takes to overcome in it, despite our own self-conceptions of being beyond such far reaching and systematic biases.

 Mazarkis asks a good question about marketing and reviewers. I’d like to be able to point the finger at publishers, but I can’t. My reading choices are my own. The review copies I receive, still not a large amount, are a direct result of my inquiries for specific titles. With that said, I have noticed a trend to read work by authors I have read in the past. Before I started reviewing and had more information on upcoming releases and critical buzz my purchases were determined largely by bookstore browsing and Amazon recommendations. That leaves me wondering if Amazon’s recommendation system includes the customer’s gender in its algorithm, but I imagine my purchase history could account for that all by itself. I’m not really interested in attributing my habits to any other outside source.

 But I would have to agree that the marketing efforts of the publisher probably reflects and in doing so reinforces this bias. Stina’s covers are an excellent example of this. The cover art chosen seems tied to the gender of the writer first and whatever audience segment the publisher thinks the work should be marketed toward second. As a reader of Stina’s fiction, I can’t help but wonder if the people responsible for the covers even bothered to read the books. Because there is a distinct disconnect between the wrapping on those particular gifts and their contents. Cover art impacts me less these days, but I can’t say they have no impact at all. Men are widely considered to be visual creatures and the covers of many female authors’ books don’t offer much in the way of impetus to pick them up and read the back copy. Word of mouth is much more likely to lead me to those novels, but when I’m at a loss for what to read next, cover art definitely has an impact. Often, more than it should.

 Even with all of that, I am responsible for my own choices, well informed and ignorant, conscious or unconscious. I’m a savvier consumer these days when it comes to making an effort to read more than just old white dudes, but as this experience points out all too clearly, I could do better. That’s what this discussion is about for me; exposing the blind spot and the reasons for it, and hoping that readers who are made aware will be willing to put in the work to reprogram their habits to better reflect their perceptions of themselves.  

 Which brings me to Zach’s comments which I believe in many ways are the most important here. While it is important to get to the bottom of why this culture of assumptions and blind spots exists in the first place, and to see how marketing, cultural bias, and gender assumptions impact all of us on a deep level, the most important thing is to determine what we as voices in the community can do to lessen it’s pervasive impact. And the only way to do that is to acknowledge the programming we’ve been receiving since childhood, and make a concerted effort to not make our reading decisions on auto-pilot.

 It’s the tendency to be simply drift along, content to follow programming that is embedded that makes the problem such a hard one to address in a meaningful way on a larger scale. To use this conversation as an example, I reacted to my choices being called a mistake with a reflexive defensiveness, even when it is delivered nicely by someone I respect and would consider a friend. I squashed that reaction, but that’s not the instinct. The thing I took from my initial conversation with Stina about all of this was that good intentions don’t matter. Only our actions and the impressions that they leave, independent of our best intentions have any impact.

 With that said, do you think the disconnect between intentions and these programmed behaviors is part of the reason why we have so much antagonism when these long standing blind spots are challenged? What in your opinion is the best approach to challenging these misconceptions and the sexist behaviors these cultural behaviors tend to breed? 

Mazarkis Williams: Of course, our identities are a little wrapped up in what kind of person we think we are. We don’t see ourselves as biased. We are capable of being rational about it - knowing that women are just as able to complete an intellectual or creative task as any man – so when our choices don’t bear that out, it’s uncomfortable.
I can talk about sexism very easily, in fact I can go on and on – but getting inside the minds of reviewers who did or did not pick women authors to review is tricky. I don’t know what they saw on the promotional rack, or what web sites they visited, or how much the covers influenced their decisions. In short, I am guessing.

But women getting fewer reviews of their work is an issue, as you can see from the lady business blog every year, or from this Guardian article.

There are so many insults based around being a woman. “You throw like a girl” is one way to tell someone they are bad at sports. For cowardice, you have: “You ran away like a girl” or “you screamed like a girl.” (There should be a t-shirt: "You write like a girl!") Alternatively, “man up” is used as a way to get people back on track. It’s funny how we have to create these divisions between ourselves in the first place, and afterwards, decide which group is inherently this or inherently that.

Last year Teresa Frohock did an experiment on her blog. She posted various short pieces and readers were invited to guess whether the author was a man or a woman. I broke down the various assumptions they used to guess here. According to them, women are empathetic, focused on internal rather than external conflict, and go for themes about challenging social norms and coming of age (YA). They also might spend too much time describing clothes. Men are task-focused (plot-oriented), and concentrate on themes of self-determination, hierarchy, and vengeance. They also might think too much about lesbians and breasts. [This is just a general summary – of course not every reader made these types of judgments.]

So readers thought they could tell whether a man or a woman wrote a piece, and offered up lots of reasons for this assumption. [To be fair, that was the nature of the contest, guessing man or woman, so they could have been making it all up as they went along – after all, they wanted to win – but the reasons they came up with rang bells for me.]

This is how we end up with “chick lit” that is apparently suitable only for women, and how the idea that lots of women could be writing epic fantasy seems unlikely. Women don’t write strong plots about men with swords and hierarchies and vengeance ... right? Except they do.

By the way, the correct guesses on Teresa’s blog were “well within the bounds of expected statistical variation for a random set of guesses” – in short, people couldn’t tell. So choosing what to read or review based on any assumption about what will be in the book is a huge mistake.

Stina Leicht: Yes and no. I think Maz touched on the biggest problem: nobody wants to be perceived as the bad guy. Notice I used "guy" because, more often than not, men get far more defensive about feminism than women do--instantly so. Even my husband, who has been married to me for going on twelve years this coming October, gets twitchy. He's my best friend in the world, and he gets a deer in the headlights look every time. When I complain about men not understanding or men man-splaining he can't subtract himself from the equation because he is a man. I'm going to highlight this because I suspect there's something important going on language-wise.

Women do not, on a subconscious, psychological level, feel included in the word "man" even when it is used in the generic sense. So, the statement "for all mankind"? My subconscious (which is very literal) firmly believes I am not included.

Understand, this statement is a generalization. Speaking for myself, this is totally true. I was raised by a pack of wild misogynists, you see. Thus, a misogynist was installed in the back of my brain at birth. I fight it constantly. It's why I'm so vocal and passionate about Feminism. (It's also why I sometimes get it wrong, but that's another subject.) Anyway, as John Scalzi put it so well, White Straight Male is the Default setting. Women spend every waking moment of every single day of their lives reinterpreting their environment because they are not the Default setting. I know when I talk to a good friend who happens to be male about feminism--particularly if I believe him to be a feminist ally--I automatically (and non-vocally) make them the exception to the rule I'm talking about. This is important: I assume I'm not talking about them. I'm used to editing, you see. Woman is not the default setting.

Men don't do this.

The world is *always* about the penis. Rant involves penis-owners? They haz penis. Therefore, rant target = them. PERSONALLY. In fact, every single woman who has had a problem associated with penis-owners = them. It's what I'd term a conditioned automatic reaction. I believe that's the biggest part of the defensiveness. Of course, this is a symptom of *all* oppression, not just oppression involving gender. Those in power will instantly become defensive whenever the oppressed speak out against oppression. Guilt by association. Denial is the first response by those with power--denial and anger. The more strongly an insecure person identifies with and has an investment in the status quo, the more negative their reaction to the possibly of change. If life sucks this much when they have an advantage, what happens when they don't even have that?

I've been actively talking about Feminism with males for going on twenty years. I've had a lot of practice. I'm kind of proud of the fact that a male acquaintance once tweeted (not very long ago,) "Stina talks about Feminism in a way that doesn't make me cringe and want to hide my naughty bits." I believe this is because I've been able to process a majority of my rage. I'm better at directing it in a constructive way. I'm a big believer in working on the aspects of problems over which I have the most control: myself. Thus, I first allowed myself the space to process my rage, and I did it for however long it took. That's key. Most women are not allowed to be angry. Anger is not an attractive emotion. I was told, "Ladies don't get angry." Women are instantly shut down when they have a strong emotion. They're told they're crazy, unbalanced, overly emotional, unreasoning, taking things too seriously, and so on. The more you bottle up that crap, the bigger bang it makes when it forces its way out via the internal pressure. Second, I've trained myself in debate via years of trial and error. I've learned to approach men with logic and facts--more so than I might deem necessary because men are allowed to state opinion as fact. They are allowed to be shoddy with their arguments. Women absolutely are not. Third, I point out that I am not perfect in all this either. None of us are. It tends to ease the sting when it's understood that the party pointing out an error doesn't see this as a huge deal. I admit that I have an inner misogynist--because I do. (It's also far more common among women than you'd think.) I demonstrate that I can relate to making that mistake. At the same time, I don't tolerate repeated instances. (And that's where the stompy boots come in.) 

In any case, we all make mistakes. Trial and error is how human beings learn best. Just try to not make the same mistakes over and over. This is progress.

Zachary Jernigan: Well, hell, saying it's your intention not to be sexist and saying you're not sexist are... well, they're great things to say. But as I get older, I grow more and more tired of someone saying, "That wasn't my intention," or, "I don't consider a person's gender." 

Yay! You didn't intend to be an asshole! Way to go, asshole!

Yay! You didn't see gender! Way to go, person who just made a bunch of shitty assumptions!

Of course it's going to piss off someone -- and by "someone" I mean men, who, after generations of being able to say whatever they please are the people least primed to be able to handle criticism now -- when you point out to them that what they think of themselves is in fact not who they are. Actions are more important than words, and if your actions suck then, big surprise, you in fact suck.

No one wants to be wrong, especially me. I mean, look at me: I'm a white male who was raised by middle-upper-middle-class parents. I grew up in a fairly rich area of the United States, which, all things accounted, must therefore be one of the richest places on planet Earth. I went to church every Sunday (my parents converted to the LDS/Mormon church when I was a toddler). If you know anything about the Mormon church, you know that it's fairly divided by gender. There are men's roles, and there are women's roles.

I am not, in other words, a person trained to be sensitive to the problem of sexism. And I'm not even slightly unique in this regard. I get butthurt so often, it's embarrassing. This is why I force myself to read the words of aggressive, angry women. Seriously. I read things that would curdle the stomach contents of the folks I grew up with. I take in as much anger as I can because it's not healthy for any man to simply assume he gets why a woman is angry at how she's being treated.

I allow my "kind" to be attacked because, like any overbearing bully, we deserve to be fought against. I've grown to like how it feels, being taught a lesson so different from those taught to me as a child.

Humility, another thing I'm not primed for, is the most attractive trait in the world. And humility that allows you to admit the truth of your privilege and how it warps the world around you? Culturing that particular kind of humility -- that which is not afraid of truth, despite knowing acknowledgement of it will hurt for a while and minimize your own unearned importance -- is the one thing that will make someone like me no longer one of the bad guys who would see things stay the same.

As for way to challenge these misconceptions? Hell if I know. I don't know why my opinion is being asked, frankly: I'm a piss-poor example, as I stated earlier. And yet, knowing I'm a piss-poor example -- that six out of the seven books I bought recently were written by men... I guess that's good, right? Like you, Matt, I can't hide from the fact that I'm making mistakes.

Despite how much it hurts for someone to tell you you've made a mistake, you own up to it.

I guess, now that I've rambled on and on, the only bit of advice I have is this: If you are a man with an ounce of sensitivity to this issue, speak to other men. There is power in this act, just as there is power in touching another man. We are, no bones about it, duh, different in many ways, men and women. To think that achieving a sense of solidarity with other men is not a damn good opportunity to communicate humility... well, that's just stupid. And let's face it, some men are so close-minded that they will only begin to listen if it comes from a non-threatening source. Women, because of their ever-increasing assertiveness regarding social justice, can make a certain type of dude feel on the run. 

I figure, why not be compassionate to those sad, misguided men by recommending a Maureen McHugh book?

Matt: There are so many interesting and critical points in everyone’s responses that I’m almost at a loss for the best possible direction. So like, you professional wordsmiths, I’m going to fall back and tell a story.

I was talking with a few of my students this weekend, (for those who don’t know, I teach martial arts in what little spare time I have) and this discussion on gender bias, came up. One of my students, a wonderful student and all around awesome guy, spoke up and said that he just doesn’t read female authors. He made no bones about it what-so-ever, stating it as a point of fact. Shocked, I asked why. His response, while pertaining to crime fiction rather than genre, was this. His experience with female writers mirrored many of the presumptions that Maz referenced in her last response. He found the action to be watered down with too much talk about relationships and feelings. So because of that, he just doesn’t read female writers. One of the other students and I challenged him on the position. I mentioned series’ written by women that don’t fit that mold, and when he mentioned that one author’s famous protagonist’s romantic interests are throw away characters because they are forever being kidnapped, abused, or killed, I countered that that kind of sloppy writing was part of the problem and was inherently sexist. And then something magical happened. He mentioned another very prolific series from the thriller genre and mentioned that despite the main female character in the novels does all of the work, she is constantly in the shadow of her partner and love interest, who is only the brains behind the operation. She’s Watson and he’s Holmes. After a ten minute civil conversation with people he knows and respects, he could see the pervasive problem with a piece of literature for himself. He’s now aware of his own bias and the sexism in the books that he reads, and knowing him well, I doubt that he’ll forget that the next time he looks for a new book to read.

That’s why I think Zach’s on to something. Dialogue is important. If we don’t talk about it, nothing changes. And it’s not about just doing it once. We have to put our money where our mouth is. Knowing what marketing factors impact our reading choices, what ingrained biases that carry over from our upbringing that cause us to simply not see the disparity in the way we treat others. Once we are educated we have to put that knowledge to use. For me that means reading, reviewing, and promoting equal treatment for every author in the community. It means admitting your mistakes, and doing better. Apologies are nice, but they only matter if they are followed by action.

1 comment:

  1. Matt can't fix the missing links until later, so I'll post them here.

    Ladybusiness: http://ladybusiness.dreamwidth.org/46742.html
    Guardian article about review disparity: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/jun/25/ladies-london-review-books
    My blog post analyzing the responses to Teresa Frohock's gender experiment: http://mazarkis.blogspot.com/2013/01/quick-observations-regarding-gender.html
    Teresa Frohock's results: http://teresafrohock.com/blog/2013/1/7/gender-bending-the-big-reveal.html