Going on the Account: This Ship Be Not the Toughest Lady Here…

There was an article published on io9.com by Annalee Newitz concerning reactions to a statement about the “feminization” of science fiction noted by an anonymous poster at a site called “The Spearhead” and how introducing such feminized traits as “moronic relationship drama” was ruining the genre. 


(Yes, I said the site’s name is “The Spearhead,” and that relationship drama is apparently a feminine storytelling trope.  Like Will Rogers said, some days I don’t have to make this stuff up…)


So of course, considering what I’ve been doing here for close to two years, this topic is of interest.  And as Annalee points out, it’s not so much this guy’s writings that are the focus here, but what it reflects; to quote the piece:


People are piling onto this guy in a giant hatefest not just because he’s an easy target. He’s also a safe target. And that’s what worries me. Because sexism still exists in the world of science fiction, but it is just more politely masked than this guy’s overt outlier opinions.


And the sad thing is, it’s not just in SF.  There are lots of literary niches out there where women are not being given the same shot as men, where traits that are marked as ‘feminine’ are frowned upon.


Take for example the women among superheroes.  Between the existence of a title like MARVEL DIVAS and the development hell the live action Wonder Woman movie has been in, it’s clear that when it comes to folks being asked to save the world, the boys get the first crack at it.  And don’t get me started on MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND


And when it comes to hiring a PI, it seems we’re being steered towards the offices where they don’t have a key to the ladies room to offer clients while they wait for their appointment.  Anyone here remember the HONEY WEST TV series?  And what they did to Sara Paretsky’s character with the film V. I. WARSHAWSKI?  For that matter, how many other women PIs out there can you name off the top of your head?


(That last one’s gonna get me in trouble; all I need are a few readers with more time to pursue their mystery books than I’ve got to rough me up like a suspect in a Dashiell Hammett story being questioned by the protagonist when they give me their list of must-reads…)


And what makes Robert E. Howard’s Red Sonja and Dark Agnes stand out is not so much their well-crafted tales (though in all fairness the former got a lot more ink from him) than their existence among the Pantheon where the men definitely had a representational advantage.  And who can quickly point out the great sword-weilding woman found in any of Tolkien’s books?  And what do Lucy and Susan get to do in Narnia?


If the article Annalee posted did anything, it reminded us that as far as our fiction goes, not just SF but through a large swath over all terrain, there’s this sex role bias that seems to be binding characters to roles like a whalebone corset.  It’s disturbing that there’s no seeming effort to try something else, something different, if for no other reason than to avoid entropic heat death in re-releasing the same thing over and over again.


When working on the novel, I wanted to challenge some conventions, explore areas that were not so well sailed, though here that’s a little harder to do.  After all, there’s no way you can write about an Abigail Sanders or any female buccaneer without at least nodding towards the ghost of Anne Bonny.  And yet, even with history on your side, with her, Mary Read and even Grace O’Malley as historic models, how many women leads are there in pirate tales?  Top of my head, we’re looking at two films and a musical as far as visual media goes.


But why?  What is it about women doing things out in the field that they do in real life but can’t do in fiction?  Why do we not get that?  Do we blame the gatekeepers, the editors and studio execs that won’t bankroll these tales?  Are we to blame because we don’t support such offerings with enough gusto to get more made?


If this anonymous poster were a fiction character in my hands, I’d have had his rant posted on a site called “The Wedge,” partly to emphasize some of the divisiveness of his comments, but mainly to point to how the edge of tool  allowed for cutting through the larger block to get a better look at the resulting pieces.


And I’d have it revealed later on that he’s a she…

7 thoughts on “Going on the Account: This Ship Be Not the Toughest Lady Here…

  1. And what do Lucy and Susan get to do in Narnia?

    Apart from the obvious that CoN is not a SF story… Lucy & Susan get to do as much as their brothers in Narnia; and Lucy particularly is the main protagonist and point-of-view character for all the stories she appears in. You should read the books, and not just rely on the Disney movies which turns a Christian story into another conveyor-belt Campbellian story with Peter as the hero.


  2. I’m actually reacting to the versions of the characters written by Lewis in the books, especially where Susan ends up being chided by Lucy for showing an interest in stockings and boys in THE LAST BATTLE in a way that comes off as gossipy sniping.
    And even when they’re together, as written, both of them end up filling roles closer to those of the women finding the empty tomb moved and the angel (Matthew 28: 5-10 and Luke 24: 1-8 principally) during their times together in Narnia. I understand Neil Gaiman discusses this in his story “The Problem of Susan,” which means one more idea I had to develop into a piece that can be taken off my list…

    If anything, the sisters are more action-prone in the films than the source materials. Part of it’s because the folks at Walden realized that if they were to do a straight on adaptation of Lewis’ work, they would have had a reaction from modern audiences far uglier than some of the flack they picked up for having any Christian allegory in the films at all. Let’s face it, Lewis could be a bit “set in his ways,” to be polite about it, and it showed in his writings.

    As for their genre, the main point is not that women get a raw deal in that field, but in just about every area. If THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE had been written by Mickey Spillane, with major rewrites of settings and motivations, their treatment would have been brought up in the rant anyway as proof that there’s still less opportunities out there for half the cast.

    Come to think of it, Spillane’s versions of Lucy & Susan-

    No, we are not going there…


  3. I am just replying to the part where you talk about women as heroes. Some, actually more than half, of my favorite SciFi heroes are women. Whether it is genetically engineered Max from Dark Angel, genetically modified Alice from Resident Evil, gifted River Tam of Serenity, blood-hungry Selene of Underworld, diseased Violet in Ultra Violet, mutated Storm from X-Men, alien Wanda from The Host, or curious Lina from City of Ember (I could continue this list for pages), I love good strong female characters. I am an amateur novelist. If my first novel ever gets published, you are going to see Angelina, a genetically modified teenager, added to this list. What I really like about Wanda is that she is female first and foremost, not a woman body with masculine thoughts and actions. Same goes for Lina and hopefully Angelina.

    I can really rant about some authors (and movie makers) with their inability to make strong characters out of both genders, but I won’t do that here. I just wanted to point out that in SciFi there are many women that make a difference to the people around them, heroes. What I have listed is just the tip of the iceberg.


  4. I appreciate the list, Garrett, and wish you the best as you start out writing. If they were real, these ladies would thank you for defending their honor; though let’s be real, any one of them alone could kick my butt three ways to Sunday without needing to breathe hard…

    The small problem I have is that this iceberg you gave me the tip of would probably not give a sloop that many problems all said. Yes, these are all wonderful heroines you mentioned. I too am a fan of these talented ladies:

    • Max, whose character got only two seasons out of Fox and would have had far less luck there if she started today as Sarah Connor just had
    • Alice, who had the good fortune of having a gaming franchise behind her when the concept was still wide open enough to allow it, and can get a fourth film through a boutique sub-studio where the suits aren’t as picky or anxious about output as the bigger players are
    • River Tam, who along with the rest of Wheedon’s SF reimagining of THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES got damned little love from either Fox or Universal
    • Selene, whose franchise shares the same desperate patrons as Alice
    • Violet, who was an interesting reimaging of Gloria Swenson from the film GLORIA with little prospect of further appearances (and while I do think highly of Milla Jovovich, she’s no Gena Rowlands…)
    • Storm, who got great service from Chris Claremont when he wrote the X-Men titles he was on, then got the short shrift without a lot of champions on her side (and let’s face it, Bryan Singer didn’t give her as much development as he did some of the rest of Xavier’s champions)
    • Wanda, for whom it’s too early to say what will happen to her; as long as she doesn’t sparkle and go all emo like her relations the next series over, I wish her all the best
    • Lena, for whom luck seems to have been on the side of for her one book and film; Lord help her if she and her setting get franchised, though

    The point here is, not that these characters don’t exist but that we don’t get enough of them, and when they do get their chance they don’t get the support their male equivalents would. Part of which, as noted, is because of the lack of real-life heroines, the female writers and directors who could give us more such heroines were they allowed the same access as the guys. In fact, it’s interesting to notice how many of these women don’t have a lot of sisters in the back room.

    Yes, I realize that what I’m posting can be described by the last sentence. Gotta love irony…


  5. lol, I also hope Wanda doesn’t go the way of her ‘relations.’

    One minor correction about Lina, she is the focus of three books, not one. There are four books in the Ember series, but the prequel excludes Lina.


  6. Traditionally science fiction was marketed to boys. So the women characters were the ones boys wanted to fantasize about.

    Then the boys grew up, and the women characters were the ones that big boys wanted to fantasize about.

    And some women read and wrote science fiction. They were a niche market in a niche market.

    However much we object to gender stereotyping, still the mass of readers have gender-stereotyped fantasies and if you want to sell to them you need to cater to that market — or else find or create your own niche market.

    I’m sure a market could be developed for men’s romance novels. Like, say, the main character works as a security guard/bodyguard, and he sees this woman who’s incredibly beautiful but she doesn’t notice him and he doesn’t really have time to look because he’s working, he has to stop some guys who’re about to kidnap some other woman from the parking garage. And then he sees her again but she doesn’t notice him at all. And he comes looming up behind some guy who was about to snatch her purse and the guy backs off, and she doesn’t notice anything happened. And then he gets a chance to meet her and she’s completely unimpressed, and she’s firmly opposed to violence of any kind and tells him he’s a violent creep. And then sometime later she sees him taking care of a lost child and she gets that look. He asks her out and she smiles at him and say she has a boyfriend. Later he sees her with the boyfriend, a tall thin guy who wears a jacket with leather patches on the elbows and has a flower in his lapel and is carrying a book by somebody named Proust. And … about halfway through the story he actually rescues her — and the boyfriend — and she gives him the look again. She thanks him and the boyfriend gets upset that she has approved of violence and starts a long explanation about how the only valid response to oppression is peaceful nonviolent noncooperation. Not a good thing to say to somebody who an hour before stood completely still with a gun to her head while a smelly stranger cut off her panties….

    So anyway, I expect such stories would not get a tremendous number of women romance-novel readers. And men who wanted to read men’s romance novels would need a way to find the books. If they had to sort them out from the giant mass of women’s romance novels they’d get frustrated.

    Compare that to science fiction? Science fiction is so eclectic that mostly men like to read women’s science fiction, and vice versa. We actually scrape by without a separate women’s science fiction section in the store. And this one idiot complains that they don’t label the stories enough and so he occasionally picks up some women’s SF when it all ought to fit his taste.

    What can I say? Science fiction readers like to argue about stupid things sometimes.


  7. Well said, J. Thanks for contributing.

    I like the story synopsis you posted; it sort of reminds me of a few Westerns I’ve seen as a lad but am a little hazy on the details of. In terms of where my memory is actually working here, the romance does hearken a little bit to the love triangle subplot in THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES…

    The main point, getting back on topic, is indeed valid: Yes, we are victims of genre expectations. And as you mentioned, getting the fans of niche works the materials they crave is like plucking a yellow rubber ducky from within a vat of custard: The search can be long, frustrating and very messy, especially if you’re ambivalent about custard in general…

    My hope as we go on is that we find new ways to hear about what we want and can use them to get the works the audience they deserve. I do think that once we can give everyone a chance to get their voice heard that the dialog becomes that much better.

    That said, we need something better over the practice of labeling things as they hit the shelves. I’ve become less of a fan of genre labels over the years, as it seems their original purpose of trying to describe what was made has been turned into a mandate for what to make placed on a creator. Someone once told me an old joke that cuts to the heart of the issue (I think it was meant for other aspects of the product chain than just this, but it fits as well when discussing genre labels):

    A gallery owner went to visit one of her artists out in the woods, curious about how this man way too far from the city amidst bucolic isolation was coming up with the raw emotional work he sent her.

    She showed up, and spent a pleasant few hours discussing gossip and trivia (like most folk in art are wont) before she got to the point, asking him, “How do you come up with these pieces you send me?”

    He smiled, escorted her to his studio out back, and set up a blank canvas. He then took a gallery tab and showed it to her.

    She read it, noticing that it was filled out and stated that there was a price filled in on it for $75,000. He then took the tab and stuck it on the canvas.

    “You put the suggested price on before you paint?” she asked, flabbergasted.

    “Oh yes,” he replied as he set up his pallet with increasing excitement, “I do. And BOY does that REALLY inspire me!”


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