There was an interesting exchange on Twitter today sparked by a tweet by Cat Valente. Cat spent yesterday evening going through a slush pile, presumably for Apex Magazine. One one point she tweeted in frustration asking why male SF writers are always writing about prostitutes.
Several answers were offered to that, but the trail I want to follow is one that started when Kev McVeigh suggested that male writers see prostitutes as strong, independent characters. That then led other people (hi Paul, Jona) to note that a prostitute is a much more believable strong, independent character than the “kick ass babe” so beloved of Hollywood and urban fantasy.
Now in one way they are absolutely right, and it is worth noting that the “kick ass babe” is just as much a sexualised character as a prostitute. There’s a definite suggestion here that many male writers can only envisage female power in terms of sexuality. A lithe, athletic girl in a tight-fitting leather costume is not a significant improvement, in feminist terms, on a whore.
The point I wanted to make (and thanks to Kathy Sedia for nudging me into it), is that while this isn’t an improvement, that fact doesn’t absolve male writers from the need to write convincing women characters. It shouldn’t even absolve male writers from the need to write strong women characters.
A lot of my friends express a preference for gritty, realistic fiction, because it is more honest. The real world doesn’t do consolation and happy ever after, let alone sparkly ponies. I have a lot of sympathy with that point of view. But it can also lead you down a very dangerous path. You start by saying you want fiction that reflects the brutal realities of life. That means you need victims, and as women have less power in the world than men they are more often victims. Go too far along that road and before you know it you are writing the sort of fiction that appeals to people whose idea of “entertainment” is reading about women being brutally murdered.
Kudos then to Graham Sleight for mentioning Joanna Russ. The point of speculative fiction is that it allows you to imagine how the world might be different. And feminist speculative fiction therefore allows you to imagine a world in which women are strong characters and occupy positions of power in society, without having to be sexualised. It is a long time since I read an Alyx story, and I don’t have any Russ books here, but I have a sneaking suspicion that she didn’t spend all her time in skin-tight leather costumes.
Writing strong female characters isn’t hard. It just requires a bit of imagination.