Literary Explorations: Gender Normativity, Genre Fiction, and Other Such Nonsense

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In a past episode of The Skiffy and Fanty Show, we (Paul, Liz Bourke, and myself) discussed, however briefly, the paucity of women among published science fiction authors in the UK.  Specifically, we were talking about their minority status in the present while acknowledging the existence of a long string of incredible female SF writers in UK SF history.  Though I am not an expert on the UK SF scene, my impression as an American peeking in has confirmed the notion that there is a great deal of sexism within the broader fanbase, and a systemic gender-bias problem in the publishing sphere.  The latter has been attributed to sexism (today); I am not convinced that this is necessarily true — at least, not in the sense of a deliberate action.  The former is probably a reflection of who speaks as opposed to a true assessment of UK fandom as a whole, and it is certainly true that this perception is changing.  Perception, of course, is not everything.

I say all of this not because I want to talk specifically about the UK scene, but rather because the recent discussions surrounding the Clarke Award’s all-male finalist list offers one of many
gateways into what I actually want to talk about here:  the perception of SF as a boy’s world.  I’m certainly not the first to take on this argument, or at least to funnel it to the public.  In 2009, an anonymous writer blasted science fiction for having given in to the whims of the lady folk, adopting narrative stylings specifically geared towards everyone not-male.*  The post elicited a sea of negative responses (expected, really) and once again opened the floodgates on discussions about the position of women in genre.  In 2011, David Barnett asked where all the women had disappeared after Damien Walter’s post calling for the public to name the best SF novels resulted in a remarkably male-centric list (I still think we’re recovering from that one).  Other related discussions have occurred since:  Ann Grilo recently discussed the visibility of women in our community; others covered the news that women are still encouraged to use male pseudonyms because men don’t read books by women; ladybusiness analyzed the available data to determine the gender divide among reviewers and the books they discuss; and, throughout most of 2012, Jim C. Hines explored the way women are posed on SF/F covers.  Most recently, John Scalzi and Strange Horizons have dived into the debate again — the former ran the gender divide numbers on his Big Idea feature; the latter did the same for several major publications with review sections.

I’m understandably scratching at the surface here…

The continued discussion about the position of women within our community, whether as characters, writers, or reviewers, has made me wonder why science fiction, in particular, has remained such a boy’s club.  I spent a short while trying to Google an answer to the question, assuming bloggers, critics, and so on would have covered this topic as frequently as the “absence of women” topic — but I came up empty.**  There are probably a number of obvious reasons:  publishers have traditionally held a bias against female writers (intentional or otherwise — as a result of submission numbers or for some other reason I know not); SF’s readership is perceived as primarily male; or a host of nonsense reasons, from “women don’t like space stuff” to “SF is written for boys.”

That last phrase, however, may have some unfortunate truth to it.  Before you dig your claws in, let me explain.  SF has been seen as a relatively boy-oriented genre since its arrival into pop culture.  The Edisonaides, the Pulp Era adventures, and so on and so forth have traditionally been viewed as the domain of men.  The reason for this, as far as I’m aware, has little to do with whether the themes of SF are “men-oriented themes,” but more to do with the traditional assumptions about gender.

You’ll notice that I included “gender normativity” in the title of this post.  Because science, war, technology, and other traditional thematic subjects in SF are still perceived as a “male thing,” SF has maintained an image as a genre “for boys,” even while great women writers (and male writers) have challenged this perception by either writing SF OR inserting female characters into a “male world.”***  Gender normativity, as I understand it, assumes that there are behaviors and positions that are inherently “male/masculine” or “female/feminine.”  In literature, gender normativity tends to function by way of associating genres with gender:  romance and certain non-fiction categories for the ladies; SF, business, and so on for the menfolk.  SF’s association with careers and fields that are still dominated by men has helped keep it on the male side of the spectrum, even while women have rightly challenged the paradigm within fandom (or outside of it).  Let’s face it, the last decade has seen a dramatic change in the dialogue surrounding this subject…

Gender normativity, of course, is complete nonsense.  There is no such thing as a “female behavior” or “male behavior.”  Culture determines these boundaries, which is why children are frequently indoctrinated into assumptions about what are acceptable “gender practices” throughout their lives.  Girls are supposed to wear pink, play house, maybe get into the liberal arts or social sciences, and pay attention to their looks or behave in submissive ways (see Jane Kilborne’s excellent video, Killing Us Softly).  Men, however, are supposed to wear “boy clothes,” play with cars or soldiers or other “aggressive” objects (even firetrucks fall into this category), and otherwise behave in aggressive ways, from asserting oneself physically to associating intellect with domination.****  When people behave outside of these paradigms, our culture does not respond kindly  (see this story about a little boy who wanted to wear a dress).  And it’s all nonsense.  A girl playing cops and robbers is no more behaving like a boy than a boy playing house is behaving like a girl.  These positions are, in truth, completely interchangeable.  Our culture is what says it’s not OK for a boy to play house or a girl to play cops and robbers.  There is no biological necessity for these divisions.

SF’s problem, I think, stems in part from these assumptions about gender, however flawed or nonsensical they may be.  The degree to which gender normativity influences who gets involved in the SF sphere (primarily as a writer or a publisher) is up to debate.  In our contemporary moment, which I think marks the dawn of a full-fledge “wave” of feminism (either the 3rd rearing its head again, or a 4th, distinct wave), the challenge to these normative assumptions has resulted in a slow upheaval.  More and more, we’re becoming aware of the struggle for inclusion in our genre.*****  We need to keep having this discussion to upend all the assumptions we hold about masculine and feminine behaviors, to change the way our culture views gender, and to change the publishing game.

Onward, ho!


*No, I will not link to that post.  You can read the highlights in the critiques.

**To be fair, I didn’t spend a long time at it.  If you happen to have any interesting posts trying to determine why women don’t write SF, please drop a link in the comments.

***I’m oversimplifying here.

****Again, I am oversimplifying to make a point.

*****Not just in regards to women, of course.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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