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BREAKING: The range of published science fiction caters overwhelmingly to a white male audience. - Sauntering Vaguely Downward [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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BREAKING: The range of published science fiction caters overwhelmingly to a white male audience. [20120411|11:06]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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My friend [personal profile] foxfinial has been getting a lot of undeserved flak for pointing out that some aspects of the dialogue at Eastercon were overtly misinformed and racist. Eastercon, for the uninitiated (which I certainly was before last weekend), is the annual British National Science Fiction convention.

I participated in Eastercon this year as a panelist and a speaker on the Friday. Now, I was fortunate enough to have been invited by a friend and colleague, purplecthulhu, who did a wonderful job making me feel both welcome and comfortable. He helped keep me included in the dialogue during the panel on the space race. I did some of this myself, mind, but I can't deny that it was a boon to have him checking to be sure that each time a topic was introduced, I got to have my say if I wanted, and to prevent me from being put on the spot by the more experienced members of the panel and the audience. This is not an action to be dismissed lightly when there are four people on the panel and you are the only person who is female and not white. purplecthulhu, I salute you.

Despite seeing positive responses to my talk on Twitter under the #eastercon hashtag, I can't ignore that the majority of the audience was male and white. And while I hope that being a "hardcore science bug" who loves her job, as one person labelled me, left the impression that women can indeed be dedicated, enthusiastic engineers and scientists, I have trouble believing that it's an impression that will have a lasting impact.

Why? Because I don't find that most science fiction speaks to me. I received two free books at Eastercon. I got about halfway through both of them, but have little motivation to finish because they didn't engage me. The main characters are male, angst-ridden and on journeys that involve a lot of interaction with other male authority figures. The women, if they are present, are either brawny sidekicks or romantic interests. Even if they're described as clever or technically adept, they never display it through dialogue or the mechanisms of the plot. And did I mention that everybody's white? At the very least, that's what the front covers would have you believe, and when you read the character descriptions - pale skin and white-blonde hair predominating - the image becomes indelible.

So I'm afraid that despite my willing participation in Eastercon and my enthusiasm for the future of space exploration and science, I am not willing to state categorically that science fiction and its fandoms are free of problematic racist and sexist associations that are being propagated by publisher's choices. Attacking people like [personal profile] foxfinial is not going to fix the problem. Pointing out that something is racist is not, in fact, worse than being racist. If you write science fiction, change your choices of main characters, the cultures in which you place them and the journeys you send them on. If you read science fiction, select, review and praise those books. Only then will the perception of science fiction become diverse and inclusive. Because it actually will be.
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[User Picture]From: purplecthulhu
2012-04-11 11:24 (UTC)
[blush]

Despite everything, I did make one of the classic panel blunders of putting the person least experienced and most likely to be excluded at one end of the table. So I am far from perfect!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-04-12 09:53 (UTC)
Well, I didn't notice! :D And even if you aren't perfect, you're trying and you're aware that behaving as an ally is really important. So I think it's important, in turn, that those of us to whom you are being an ally recognise your efforts.
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[User Picture]From: returntosender
2012-04-11 11:31 (UTC)
Word. Sci Fi used to be one of my most read genres, but now I struggle to find anything that interests me.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-04-12 09:55 (UTC)
Yes. For me, once I realised I was reading the same story over and over, with characters I couldn't relate to and (often) questionable standards of writing, the affair was over.
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[User Picture]From: flexagain
2012-04-11 12:56 (UTC)
I was reading a science fiction book recently (I forget the title), but it was interesting that quite a way into the book, the main (male) character was referred to as not having white skin, because at that point there was a storyline element relating to his skin colour (vs the colour of the alien's skin). Prior to this skin colour wasn't relevant to the plot, so wasn't mentioned. This does however seem to be a relatively unusual case.

At the weekend, I came across a reference to the Bechdel Test, which I'd never heard of before, and it's illuminating how few films pass it fully. I'm not sure I'd consider it a rigorous test of gender bias, but it's certainly indicative of poor gender bias in many films.

  Bechdel Test Movie List
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-04-12 10:03 (UTC)
I appreciate the Bechdel Test because it's a quick way of judging a film I might be uncertain about wanting to see. If it's something I feel should have a fair amount of female-female interaction (that isn't about men) but it doesn't pass the Bechdel Test, then I probably won't watch it. But there are some films that couldn't pass the Bechdel Test and you probably wouldn't want them to - for instance, historical war films that are composed primarily of battle scenes.
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[User Picture]From: pax_athena
2012-04-11 15:27 (UTC)
This is one of the reasons why while I still love and enjoy science fiction and love the potential that is in the genre, I stay clear of fandom and most fandom events ... I'm lucky to have read a lot of bad SF as a child and therefore learned what to stay clear off and how to find books with a minimum of fail (and there is a lot of good feminist SF without, as far as I can judge, racist tendencies out there, though much of it is older, at least what I know of), but all the ones that I try to avoid are still there and enjoyed by people. Which makes me a bit of sad :(

Edited at 2012-04-11 03:27 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-04-12 11:29 (UTC)
I mostly steer clear of fandom, too - in film, television and writing. But I worry now that by doing so I've helped contribute to the problem. Not that we should feel obliged to participate, I hasten to add, but because I probably would have earlier had my perception not been: These events are mainly attending by people I see quite enough of and whose viewpoints I'm very familiar with in my daily life, working in a white-male-dominated field. Which is still true, to an extent, but I did get to meet up with some lovely people off the internet who are not white and not male at the con as well. Maybe someday fandom cons will be comfortable arenas for all of us.

I blather, sorry! What would you recommend as good feminist SF?

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[User Picture]From: pax_athena
2012-04-12 14:55 (UTC)
Don't feel sorry! I do understand what you mean, even though my personal situation is a different one ... I like to dabble in the edges of fandom sometimes, but I just don't have the strength to be in the middle of it. But I know the thought - not only from fandom, but also from other situation, where I keep quite about things, where I could be louder -, that maybe I should. Because: who else, if not me?

I think somebody - either here or on DW - mentioned Ursula LeGuin. A name I could only support; she does use "he" in "The Left Hand of Darkness", where a gender neutral pronoun would have been better, but it's an old discussion about it which often forget when the book was written and what kind of influence it had on everything that came afterwards. Marge Piercy ("Woman on the Edge of Time" and "He, She and It") is another name; I also highly enjoyed her non-sf. Maureen F. McHugh is an author I just re-discovered. I remember reading and loving Joanna Russ' "The Female Man", but it has been ages ago and in translation and it might have been polemic in part ... (And if somebody reads this comment and has more to add: I'm always searching for new books!)

Edited at 2012-04-12 02:56 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-04-12 10:04 (UTC)
China Mieville's done a pretty good job of attempting to break the stereotypes, too.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-04-12 11:34 (UTC)
Who knows if the person had been to Peru? And if they had, would they have seen through anything other than tourist lenses? It's hard to look beyond the tourist view if you don't stay in a place for longer than a couple of weeks, and even if people make the effort they don't necessarily succeed. It takes an awful lot of hard graft - historical research can often be extremely dull - to paint a convincing portrait of a culture that you haven't lived in.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2012-04-12 11:45 (UTC)
It's...just...I...OK, someone sticks their neck out to speak up for PoCs at a con, and everyone gangs up on her for "failing to be positive"? Really? And you wonder why POCs don't feel comfortable at your con? *boggle*
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[User Picture]From: ginasketch
2012-04-12 16:09 (UTC)
Yeah, how dare people make you think about stuff.
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[User Picture]From: ginasketch
2012-04-12 16:25 (UTC)

Oops

change "you" to "them". My bad.
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