I’ve held off writing this post for a while now. Because I’m so tired of it all. Why won’t this noisy minority of folk with offensive and irrelevant opinions just GO AWAY! Let the vast majority of SF&F readers and writers who are decently socialised human beings living in the 21st century get on with discussing the increasingly intricate and inventive ways in which speculative fiction explores and celebrates the human condition in all its diversity (racial, sexual, tentacle etc)
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the noisy minority have scored big this week. I’ve just been sent a link to that dailydot.com story, revealing a mind-bogglingly offensive forum exchange among some SF writers and publishing professionals – from a friend active in crime fiction circles. Y’know, in case I hadn’t already seen it. I wish….
So this is one reason I’m writing this post. This stuff matters when onlookers unfamiliar with the current debate within our genre are noticing. When they read headlines like ‘Sexist, racist sci-fi writers forget their horrible rants are public.’ Because chances are, a great many won’t bother reading beyond that frankly ill-advised headline to discover the truth in an otherwise pretty good article. That the sexists and racists are squawking so loudly precisely because they’re being challenged and told their attitudes are unacceptable.
No, most onlookers will just glance at that, think, ‘ah yes, I see SF is still full of neck-bearded long-hairs* with Neanderthal attitudes to women and people of colour. I need not bother reading the article just to confirm I can continue ignoring that section in the bookstore.’
And in case any UK readers are tempted to think ‘Well, that’s over the US. We don’t need to worry’, do cast your mind back to the headlines and articles following the shortlist announcements for the 2012 and 2013 Clarke Award. One disgruntled non-shortlisted author started hurling insults at those who had been listed and also at the judges. This got picked up by the national press. Since he also saw fit to insult a crime writer he’d shared a lit fest platform with, Twitter soon filled up with astonishment from other crime and mystery authors that this tantrum could be considered remotely professional behaviour.
My inbox filled up with email from folk I know who work in national newspapers, broadcasting and other journalism, whose response can be best summed up by one internationally and award-winning author I have the honour to know: ‘Why on earth do you waste your time on a genre full of such horrible people?’ So the time and effort I’ve put in over a decade and more, trying to convince these people that SF&F is a mature, nuanced literature worthy of respect had been effectively trashed by one entitled individual’s spiteful fit of pique. That infuriates me.
Then we had the newspaper article in 2013 ‘Arthur C Clarke award announces all-male shortlist. Mostly female judges overlook women in choice of contenders for UK’s pre-eminent science fiction prize.’ Er, no we damn well didn’t, as Liz William’s follow-up article made clear. But that’s first article is the one that established the impression that’s lasted, that’s still being raised in conversations with me.
A common response when I say this is ‘Ah, well, we true keepers of the SF&F flame don’t need validation from the vulgar mainstream so that doesn’t matter.’ I can only assume folk with this attitude have never worked in retail. As a professional writer, it sure as hell matters to me, because it is onlookers unfamiliar with the genre who will make key decisions based on this stuff which will have a direct impact on my career. Not to mention a significant influence on my available choices as a reader.
I know this for a fact. I used to work in bookselling, working for Ottakar’s here in the UK. I was well up to speed with SF&Fantasy, also with Crime & Mystery and children’s books – because they were all genres I read and had a direct interest it. I didn’t read Horror. I never have. I simply don’t understand its appeal. But as a bookseller I had a professional duty to keep generally current with new authors and trends. I did that by checking reviews in the papers, and other mentions, via an invaluable paper newsletter called Books in the Media and other sources like the weekend papers and monthly genre magazines. This was in the mid-90s so the Internet wasn’t really A Thing. I was diligent because it was in my interests to present Horror reading customers with the books they would buy and thus ensure the shop’s sale targets were met and that would be reflected in our pay rises.
Then I became an author and started going to conventions – and discovered that I had significantly underestimated the number of women both reading and writing horror fiction. Because as an onlooker, the picture presented to me through the commercially-relevant media was badly skewed.
This is still going on. With the upcoming fourth season of A Game of Thrones about to hit TV screens, you will soon see ‘If you like reading GRR Martin, why not try these authors?’ displays going up in bookshops. I will give a book of mine, of their choice, to the first person who can send me a photo of such a display that isn’t entirely composed of male authors. Because I’ve yet to see one. I have challenged staff in bookshops about this, to be told ‘women don’t write epic fantasy’ Ahem, with 15 novels published, I beg to differ. And we read it too.
But that’s not what the onlooker sees in the media, in reviews, in the supposedly book-trade-professional articles in The Guardian which repeatedly discuss epic fantasy without ever once mentioning a female author. That onlooker who’s working in a bookshop and making key decisions about what’s for sale, sees a male readership for grimdark books about blokes in cloaks written by authors like Macho McHackenslay. So that’s what goes in display, often at discount, at the front of the store. So that’s what people see first and so that’s what sells most copies.
Six months down the line, the accountants at head office look at the sales figures and think excellent, Macho McHackenslay is one of our bestsellers – and the order goes out to ask publishers for more of the same. Now, chances are, the publisher will be dead keen to promote the second or third novel by P.D.Kickassgrrl. Unfortunately her sales aren’t nearly as good, because her book’s on sale at full price in the SFF section at the back of the shop or upstairs, where retail footfall studies have proved people just don’t go to browse any more, especially now that booksellers don’t routine carry authors’ backlists.
When it’s a numbers game like retail, the most passionate editor will struggle to get a hearing, however much he insists the body count and hardcore ethics of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s excellent book will surely appeal to Macho McHackenslay fans – especially when that bookseller won’t have seen any reviews of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s work, but that’s another discussion I’ve already written on several times.
You can see the same thing at work in the movies. How long have we been waiting for a female-led superhero movie? Wonder Woman has languished in development hell for decades. It’s taken the success of Black Widow as a character in (The) Avengers (Assemble) to convince decision makers to take that chance. Decision makers and money men whose choices are influenced by such things as the comic industry’s persistently sexually provocative and exploitative artwork, and trade events which see no problem in having no women creatives on panels at all. They don’t see the very hard work being done within the comics world by men and women alike to change all that.
Returning to books, this has little or nothing to do with the actual authors. Macho McHackenslay’s personal credentials as a fully-rounded, decent human being who shows genuine respect to folk different to himself are most likely excellent. Chances are he learned such attitudes at his great-uncle’s knee, the famed ray-guns and rocketships, square-jawed hero SF writer of the 1960s, Blokey McZoom, who marched for Civil Rights in the USA and wrote passionately in support of Roe vs Wade and all manner of other progressive causes.
Which brings me to the second reason I’m writing this is because I have seen people saying ‘oh well, it doesn’t matter, we just need to wait for the dinosaurs to die off and it’ll all be fine.’ Unfortunately this isn’t going to work. If it did, these rows wouldn’t keep recurring.
Having read getting on for 200 SF books over 2012-2013 as a Clarke Award judge, I found a range of attitudes from socially conservative/sexist/veiled-racist to adventurous, progressive, informed and thought-provoking social commentary. There was absolutely no correlation between the age and gender of the author and the presence of outdated or offensive ideas. Some of the worst offenders were younger men and women. Some of the best work was written by middle-aged and older white men, for whom age and experience had brought perspective and insight.
There’s a logical fallacy at work here. A spider has eight legs but having eight legs doesn’t make something a spider. It can be an octopus. The currently noisy and offensive crowd may be predominately old white men. That doesn’t mean anyone who happens to be old, white and/or male automatically holds outdated and offensive views. Please don’t make that mistake and add further venom to this already toxic mix.
I did see one correlation in my Clarke reading, mind you. Where authors came ‘genre-slumming’, trying their hand at SF&F, there was definitely a higher incidence of tedious books trying to tickle the fancy of the mythical mouth-breathing SF fan only interested in sex and violence. Because when that’s what the onlooker sees, those are the boxes they’ll aim to tick and hey, there’s no need to write decent prose because neck-bearded, long-haired* Neanderthals won’t know it if they read it, right? Okay, I exaggerate slightly – but not much.
So this stuff matters. This is why we need to speak up and make our voices heard above the noisy, spiteful old reactionaries. So that onlookers realise that SF&F is a genre worth looking into, for interesting, thought-provoking writing as well as thrills and spills and tales of high adventure. So new readers and writers continue the genre’s ongoing mission to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilisations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.
* I have two sons of 18 and 20 both with chin-strap beards and very long hair and have no prejudice against such personal grooming choices except when I am the one declogging the plughole in the shower
As the centenary year of The Great War opens, I see outrage on Twitter and Facebook at the choice of Lord Kitchener’s in/famous recruiting poster for the UK £2 coins to be minted in this year. Don’t people know what atrocities he was responsible for, the objectors cry, throughout his long military career?
Well, since it’s quite likely that a good few folk don’t know Kitchener’s full story, I’m all in favour of them being better informed, if that can be achieved without descending into pointless arguments. The thing is though, as I look at this image, I wonder how my sons will see it, not least since they’re now both of an age which would have seen them shipped off to the trenches a hundred years ago, to do and die and never question why their elders and betters had ordered it.
But that was then and this is now. My sons have grown up reading Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett, and seeing the stage production of Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, and War Horse at the cinema. They’ve laughed through the DVDs of Blackadder Goes Forth and shivered at the intensity of that final scene. They watched Daniel Radcliffe going well beyond Harry Potter in the TV drama My Boy Jack. They’ve been on school trips to the Flanders cemeteries where they were all individually given the personal history behind a stark white tombstone and stood at the Menin Gate at sunset. Causes and Consequences of The First World War has been a staple of their school History curriculum. They’ve studied the War Poets in English Literature. Since we live in Oxfordshire, they see local traffic halted and diverted as hearses bringing dead soldiers home from Afghanistan go by.
What does Kitchener on a coin mean to them? A symbol of a bygone age when the deference ingrained in a class-ridden society saw men slaughtered by the thousand for the sake of a war they’d had no say in? A warning of the dangers of unthinking acceptance of ‘patriotic’ propaganda, most especially spouted by politicians wrapping themselves in the flag, while staying safely distant from bullets and shells? A reminder to look carefully for the self-interest or outdated thinking behind the words and motives of those who will be soliciting their votes in 2015’s general election?
You know, I don’t think I have a problem with them carrying that in a pocketful of change.
The last film I saw in the cinema with Robert Downey Jr in had me hissing with irritation at its treatment of women most particularly The Woman. Yesterday we saw the Avengers movie and oh, what a cheering contrast. Not only with the second Sherlock Holmes but with so many of the other recent superhero movies, most notably, Green Lantern.
Let me explain, as far as I can without hideous spoilers. Because you don’t want this movie spoiled, trust me. You want to go and see it at your earliest convenience.
There’s Scarlett Johansson/Black Widow, a full member of the team, treated as a fellow professional, respected by her boss and useful in a fight. But definitely not because she’s essentially another bloke who happens to have boobs. Just to make that clear, she uses her femininity very effectively against someone who can’t see beyond the fact she’s a woman and therefore assumes he naturally has the upper hand. She contributes actively and continuously to the team’s fighting – and thinking – skills as they tackle successive challenges.
Yes, okay, the zip on her black leather superhero jumpsuit is defective, permanently stuck mid-cleavage but I did say the film gets it ‘very nearly’ right. And actually, when it comes to aesthetically pleasing visuals, I would say the female viewers get their fair share of entertainment, certainly those of us whose tastes run to muscular physiques.
So far so good but it gets better because Samuel L Jackson/Nick Fury’s second in command is Agent Maria Hill/Cobie Smulders, another significant female role wherein a woman is professional, trusted and effective. In a role where there is no intrinsic need for that character to be a woman – Marvel Universe continuity aside which the majority of cinema goers will know nothing about. But once you realise that’s noteworthy because the Boss’s Sidekick is so usually a man, you also see there’s no absolutely reason why that character cannot be a woman in this day and age. And that’s really worth thinking about. (Agent Hill also has a more functional zip on her jumpsuit and a vest underneath it.)
Let’s also consider what these two women don’t do. They don’t get captured. They don’t get rescued. Yes, they get into dangerous and difficult situations – and they get themselves out of them. They don’t, alas, get any interaction or conversation which would enable the film to really nail the Bechdel Test but their respective roles, and particularly the pace and plot don’t really offer any natural opportunity for that to arise.
All this is in such sharp contrast with Whatshername in Green Lantern, whose supposed power and influence running an aerospace firm is rendered utterly meaningless because we never see her actually being powerful or influential on screen before she is reduced to Damsel in Distress (who will naturally then spread her legs with gratitude for her rescuer).
Back to the Avengers, Black Widow and Agent Hill most especially don’t get casually killed just to motivate the Alpha Males. Indeed, we see a good-hearted man in the role of innocent suffering an undeserved fate – and well, I can’t say more about the way that movie theme/cliché is handled without spoilers. Suffice it to say, I can’t recall when I saw that particular plot element done better.
Possibly in an episode of Buffy or Angel? Maybe Dollhouse? I’d have to give that some thought. Because of course, we have Joss Whedon to thank for this awesome script. The man who when asked ‘why do you write these strong women characters?’ famously replied ‘because you’re still asking me that question’.
And before that, he said “Because—equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women. And the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who is confronted with it.”
Yes, as a woman, I expect and warrant equality for myself. I also want my teenage sons and their pals and their pals’ younger brothers to see equality in action, especially as a naturally accepted element of a superhero action movie. So they don’t see Black Widow or Agent Hill as in any way remarkable. I want the upcoming generation to be baffled by the notion that women couldn’t be in a story like this on equal terms with the men.
Edit: and as I have been reminded, let’s not forget Pepper Potts on the film’s roster of capable women treated with due respect.
We – that’s myself, husband and Senior Son – went to see the English language version of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ last week – and we all agreed it was very good indeed, both as regards the lead and the minor performances. I was particuarly interested to see that plot and character all hung together well for Husband and Son who don’t know the books nor have seen the Swedish original. I was also relieved to see it hadn’t been overly’Hollywoodised’.
I’ve read and re-read the books and have seen the Swedish cinematic releases – though not as yet the extended versions/TV mini-series – and thought this adaptation was well done, making allowance for a couple of very trivial plot tweaks which I thought so trivial as to be unnecessary. Overall, I reckon this film is both sufficiently distinctive from the Swedish as well as sharing that version’s strengths to have been worth seeing in its own right – though granted, I probably wouldn’t have gone if Husband and Son hadn’t wanted to see it.
While Mara Rooney simply cannot match Noomi Rapace’s screen presence, she brought her own take on Lisbeth Salander to the role, reflecting the books in a slightly different but equally valid way. Just as Daniel Craig brought other aspects of Mikael Blomkvist to the fore, compared to Michael Nyqvist. In particular, I did find the theme of male bafflement and fear at being placed in the agonisingly vulnerable position of abused women had all the more impact when it’s the 007 actor who… no, no spoilers.
Talking of impact, I can’t decide if That Scene was slightly underplayed compared to the Swedish version – or if my reactions weren’t as heightened, since I knew what was coming. What I was very interested to see was just what a shudder that all gave my 18 year old son – so much for endless computer games desensitising the youth of today to violence. No, not in this case – he’s well able to distinguish between pixellated fantasy and cinematic representation of reality.
I would also be very interested to know what he made of the 18-cert straight-forward, grown-up sex depicted, as opposed to 15-cert naked-limbs-montage-occasional-flash-of-tit cinema. But since that’s a conversation I can’t see either of us being comfortable having, I will just have to wonder …
Anyway, both Husband and Son are keen to see the next two books filmed asap – and Son has collared my copies of the books to add to his TBR pile.
As to whether a remake is necessary, and whether or not viewers should just get over subtitles, I can see that argument. Then again, I can see the likes of my husband, who really hates watching subtitled films. Having to concentrate on reading text means he feels he’s not actually watching the film – and he is a very strongly visually oriented person, so that really, badly, limits his enjoyment.
Since he’s of the generation that either did maths/science or languages/humanities at school with no overlap – and he did maths/science, he has no foreign language skills at all to help him out. Whereas, having done Latin, Greek, French & German, I can get the gist of an awful lot of languages I don’t actually speak by listening closely and just glancing at the subtitles. Apart from Danish for some reason – I *cannot* get my ‘ear’ tuned right for The Killing at all – and for the first time, I actually get an idea of what he means!
I’ve very much enjoyed both the movie A Game of Shadows and the series opener to the BBC’s updated Sherlock. Despite – and please do not underestimate the strength of my feelings here – the truly appalling way both stories ripped up (and worse) the character of Irene Adler as depicted by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
NB: If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read on until you’ve seen the film/programme.
In A Scandal in Bohemia, she is beautiful, a supremely talented singer and – this is the crucial bit – she outwits Holmes and departs to live her own life on her own terms. Now she is a pawn of Moriarty, to be killed off in the first instance, and in the second facing death only to be saved by Holmes’ melodramatic intervention. Yes, in the original story, she is ‘an adventuress’ in her youth, but at this point, she is devoted to the husband of her own choosing. Not some dominatrix whose power over men and women apparently begins and ends with her naked body.
This really pisses me off and I am not the only one. See here for CE Murphy’s reaction – and please do read the comments as well . Also this from Another Angry Woman and from The Guardian, Jane Clare Jones on ‘Is Sherlock Sexist?’.
These are only the pieces that have caught my eye, I imagine there are more. What I’d be very interested to know is if there are any similar expressions of outrage from men. Because it’s women I see getting really incensed by this, online and in person.
Why is that? Why am I so thoroughly and lastingly annoyed, tarnishing all my other enjoyment of both film and TV programme? I’ve been giving that some thought. Well, I first read the Holmes books in my early teens. Looking back I don’t think I consciously noticed the lack of female characters with any authority and agency; the realisation of such absences in ‘classic’ fiction and the misogynist implications when such patterns are followed unthinkingly by contemporary writers came later. But I’ll bet I noted it subconsciously, because I really loved those stories. The classic teen response to beloved fiction is to identify with the particular character whom one imagines is most like oneself, maybe even imagining oneself into the milieu in fan-fiction fashion. That’s really hard to do for girls reading Holmes – until we encounter Irene Adler. The Woman. A Woman we can all aspire to be, even if we don’t yet realise it.
Not in these two recent stories. Not any more. And for no compelling reason in either case. Not for plot purposes that couldn’t have been achieved in some other way. Thus betraying the enduring and infuriating blind spots when it comes to male film makers and script writers writing women characters – the way in which even the strongest so often end up defined by their relationship to men. Grrrrrr.
And I’ve realised something else that reflects back on just what a lasting impact this one character, only appearing in one early Holmes short story, had on me and ultimately, on my writing.
I’ve been doing one of those email interviews where we swap questions and answers (and I’ll post a link when it’s available for reading). One of the questions is about influences and I’ve said how I always find them impossible to identify. For instance, a good while ago, when conversation turned to the works of Alan Moore, someone, I forget who, remarked on the clear influence of Halo Jones on my first female protagonist Livak. I looked at them in astonishment. Not because they were wrong. Because they were so right – and I would never have seen that for myself.
With that in mind, and thinking about Irene Adler this morning, I’ve just realised what a major element she is in Charoleia’s character-DNA. For those of you who haven’t yet encountered Charoleia, she’s an ‘information broker’; which is to say, she gathers and trades information about the rich and powerful, profiting handsomely in mostly unspecified ways, thanks to her extensive network of contacts from highest to lowest in political and criminal circles (especially where those overlap) across all the countries that once made up the Old Tormalin Empire – and beyond. And here’s something crucial; she isn’t a kiss-and-tell, pillow-talk merchant. Yes, she’s strikingly beautiful and will use her allure as and when that’s the most effective tool to hand. But she’s no whore, nor even a courtesan. When Charoleia takes a man to her bed, it’s on her own terms, of her own choosing and not for coin.
She and Irene Adler have a lot in common, in my writerly subconscious at least. So that’s definitely one element in why I am quite so cross – though by no means the only one.