My teh intrawebs have been busy this morning. The gender balance thing has fairly exploded over the past few days, and not in a good way.
Personally I expected this, pretty much from the point where the SF Signal Mind Meld got involved. That can be a very entertaining forum at times, but when asked to discuss anything serious it tends to quickly degenerate into “don’t read the comments” territory. Since then most of what has gone on has been a male dominance game, with men on both sides yelling at each other and women mostly taking a back seat, looking on in despair.
The trouble is that posts that ask aggressive questions such as “is science fiction sexist?” or “are you a misogynist?” invite an equally aggressive and entrenched response, and so on in an ever-widening spiral of animosity. And eventually someone says something really outrageous, and it becomes a battle of his friends against everyone else, with the original issue being forgotten in the rush to arms.
Before going into the specific issue at hand, let me say that I think anthology bashing is not terribly helpful. Looking at a single anthology, you have no idea where the real problem lies. It could be the editor, it could be the publisher, it could be the submissions, you can’t tell. Also, just as an individual’s reading and voting habits are more likely to be a product of cultural conditioning than of conscious sexism, so an individual editor is more likely to choose stories based on cultural conditioning than a deliberate intention to exclude a particular group of writers. The objective of pointing out gender imbalances (or any other sort of imbalance) should be to encourage people to examine their cultural conditioning, not to decide who we are going to burn at the stake.
Rather than single out individual books or people, it is better to try to take an overall look at the field. That way, hopefully, you can show that you are examining a social issue, not attacking a particular person. I’ve been sent some interesting data about the gender balance in science fiction anthologies, which appears to back up the suggestion that there is a cultural difference between the UK and US. However, there’s probably not much point in publishing it right now as I’ll only be accused of making it up and being anti-British. We can come back to it when people have calmed down.
Even then, however, it is important to understand the conditions in which people are operating. The US is a much bigger market, and it is easier to make a success of a book that might be seen as going against cultural norms. The really big companies tend not to do anthologies, but I’d be prepared to bet that the level of sales that the likes of Prime, Tachyon, Small Beer, Night Shade and Pyr get for such books is way above what any UK-based small press can expect.
If you are running a small press (which is something I happen to do) you need to make a choice as to whether you are doing it for love, and hope that your projects break even, or you are doing it to make a living. In the latter case, if you believe that you are operating in a market where most male readers won’t buy science fiction by women — and, let’s face it, that’s what the big publishers in London are telling us — then you would be daft to publish much SF by women. You have to take a conscious decision to risk sales if you want to diversify your content.
Obviously I’m sad if someone isn’t prepared to take such risks. For me one the delights of small presses is that they are often prepared to risk profits in search of integrity of various sorts. I’m not going to criticize someone for doing what they need to do in order to keep a business afloat, though I’d prefer to see some direct evidence that this is necessary, rather than people relying on received wisdom along the lines of “green covers don’t sell”. It may be that what you have been told isn’t true at all.
What I will criticize people for is making excuses, or trying to brush the issue off, and I’m afraid that’s the way Ian Whates now notorious post came over to me. While giving lip service to the issue, he repeatedly cited women in fantasy anthologies as evidence for his lack of bias, when the debate has been largely about women being pushed out of science fiction into fantasy. He cherry-picked data such as Lauren Beukes’s Clarke win to try to show that there is not much of problem, and then had the cheek to accuse other people of cherry-picking data. As someone who has tried to present proper data, I’m seriously insulted by that.
Elsewhere, in this comment, Whates said:
At the end of the day, it’s the quality of the story I look at as an editor, and gender is very much a secondary consideration. If the story is a good or even a great one, I’ll snap it up whether written by a man or a woman.
And yet here we have Charlie Stross and Jennifer Pelland claiming that Whates’s anthologies were invitation only, and that he generally didn’t invite women to contribute unless nagged into it by others. Those two things don’t add up, and I’m not at all comfortable with someone suggesting that women writers are no good when he apparently hasn’t given them a chance to compete. Since then, various women writers have come forward and said that they were invited by Whates, but for various reasons were unable to deliver. If that is the case, a less inflammatory response would have been to suggest that perhaps women writers have more pressures on their time, thereby preventing them from submitting as often as men, rather than suggest that they are no good. (This is a very common feminist response to allegations of, “it’s all the wimmin’s fault for not trying!”)
In short, there are ways of presenting these arguments that suggest you understand the problems, and there are ways of doing it that suggest you are trying to brush the issue under the table. Whates, unfortunately, came over as the latter.
At the root of all this we find ideas about correct gendered behavior. Men are put in the blue corner where they are expected to like cars, football and science fiction; women are put in the pink corner and expected to like babies, cooking and fantasy. You can imagine why this makes me very nervous. As female-identified persons go, I am apparently fairly girly. At least several cis-women I know have told me that I am more girly than they are. But this is no real help, because once you are out as a trans person people’s expectations of your gender performance tend to go crazy. If I’m too girly them I’m overdoing it, and if I’m not girly enough then I’m clearly not “really” female. Either way, I am a social embarrassment; people don’t want to employ me or do business with me. This stuff matters.
It is not just trans people who have problems with gender expectations either. Here’s a story from yesterday’s Guardian about a woman who has quit her job at Harrod’s because she’s uncomfortable with their “dress” code that requires female staff to wear full face make-up at all times, and keep it properly maintained throughout the day. I can understand that if she was actually selling make-up, but she worked in the music and video department.
Challenging entrenched ideas like this is not easy. It requires bravery and commitment, and a willingness to risk both profit and social standing. But most of all it requires people to recognize that there is a problem, and be willing to do something about it. If you yell at them and tell them they are bad people, the chances are that they will get defensive and try to claim they have done nothing wrong, and that “OMG YOUS WIMMINS ARE OPPRESHING ME QUOTAS GULAGS MEN REDUCED TO NEKKID CASTRATED SLAVES WOMEN PLAYING FOOTBALL CATS AND DOGS LIVING TOGETHER THE END OF THE WORLD!!!1!” (N.K. Jemisin in comments on the SF Signal post).
Is it possible that we could have less chest-thumping and finger-pointing on the one hand, and less bingo card excuses on the other? I hope so. I rather doubt it.