sexism

Black Widow and Power

I’ve been thinking more about Avengers, particularly about Black Widow. I liked her character, but something wasn’t sitting quite right. It wasn’t until I read cleolinda’s post on LJ that things started to click into place for me.

There be minor spoilers ahead…

When we first see Black Widow’s character, she’s captured, tied up, and being interrogated by nameless Russians. We see the Standard Villain Torture Kit waiting on a nearby tray. But when SHIELD calls, Black Widow goes from helpless prisoner to fully in control in an eyeblink. By allowing her captors to see her as weak and vulnerable, she got them to tell her what she needed to know. It’s set up as a reversal of expectations: the men expect the woman to be powerless, and she does a masterful job of turning that against them. She was in control the whole time, and you know it.

So far, so good. I liked the scene. I also liked the way it set up Black Widow’s later confrontation with Loki on the Helicarrier. Once again, Black Widow allows a man to play on her apparent vulnerabilities and weakness, and in doing so, tricks him into admitting his plan.

But this time, as she turns away, you realize the vulnerability wasn’t faked. She wasn’t in control the same way she was in that earlier scene. Loki got to her. You see it in her expression, and you see it again later.

Some of what bugs me is the intersection of Black Widow being both the only female Avenger and the only one to use her vulnerability as a weapon like that. In a way, it feels like a subversion of sexism, since she’s using her targets’ expectations against them. But it also feels seductive in a way that disturbs me — in the case of Loki, “I’m going to let you paw all over my very real pain so I can get the answers I need.”

And look at the way Loki treats her. He rips into her more viciously than he does anyone else in the film, including his own brother. That level of scorn and loathing is reserved for Black Widow alone — for the woman who dares to be as powerful as the men. He also — and I missed this in the theater — calls her a “mewling quim.”

I wasn’t familiar with that particular verbal assault. I believe the modern U.S. equivalent would be “whining c**t,” making it the most hateful and sexist insult in the entire film.

All right, so Loki is an asshole. But then I thought back to when Black Widow went to recruit Bruce Banner. Banner was calm and cool, except for one moment when he slammed the table and shouted something like, “Stop lying!”

Black Widow jumped back, visibly shaken. Banner immediately calmed down, saying it was just a test to see how she’d respond. He was fully in control, of himself, and of the situation. He learned she didn’t come alone, and that he’s completely surrounded by SHIELD agents. I.e., he learned what he wanted to know.

Yet the way he did it resonates with Loki’s treatment of Black Widow later on. He lashed out in a way we never see directed at men, and in that moment, everyone knew exactly who had the power and who didn’t.

I’m certain some people will read this and say I’m overthinking, or that I’m reading too much into it. To be clear, I loved this movie. And I liked Black Widow’s character a lot. She’s capable, competent, and kicks plenty of bad guy ass. However…

  • The only female Avenger is sent in to use her vulnerability as a weapon of interrogation.
  • There are at least two scenes that feel like she’s being “put in her place” by a more powerful man.
  • The phase “mewling quim” was utterly unnecessary and not at all in keeping with the rest of the dialogue, so why it used?

I find this problematic.

Comments and discussion are welcome, as always.

Sharing my Own Privileged Dumbassery

This is going to come as a tremendous shock to people, particularly my wife and children, but I am not, in fact, perfect.

When I write about things like sexism, racism, bullying, homophobia, etc. in SF/F circles or society in general, I do it because I believe it’s important. But I also do it because it’s personal, both because so many people I love and care about are directly affected by these things, and because — having grown up in this society — I’m still working on my own assumptions and behaviors.

I came across a blog post discussing the Hugo nominations. (I’m trying to avoid these discussions, because they do bad things to my brain, but that’s a mess for another post.) In this one, someone was pointing out that for the past six years, the Best Fan Writer category has had only a single female nominee each year (or in 2007, no women at all).

As I read, that privileged, sexist crap I complain about came crashing through my head. My brain was a bingo card of dumbassery.

  • Wait, is she saying I only got on the ballot because I’m a guy?
  • People shouldn’t vote based on gender. It should be about the writing!
  • Why oh why has fandom declared War on Penises?

Okay, I’m exaggerating with that last one. The point is, my initial, gut-level response was to take it personally, and to go through some of the same reactions that piss me off when I see or hear them from others.

You know what? They piss me off when they come from me, too. Because the poster is absolutely right. There are brilliant, powerful, amazing women writing out there, and it speaks ill of us that we’re not recognizing more of them.

Nobody’s saying I only got on the ballot because I’m a guy. I don’t believe anyone looked at their Hugo ballot and said, “Well, I like Cat Valente, but Jim Hines has a Y chromosome, so I’m nominating him instead. Go Team Penis!”[1. It’s been correctly pointed out in the comments that having a penis or Y chromosome does not equal being a guy, and vice versa. It’s not that simple or straightforward.]

But does the fact that I’m a guy give me an advantage? Yeah, it does. I have more freedom to write whatever I like, with less fear of backlash. I’m given more respect and authority when I write, I’m taken more seriously.

That’s not a comfortable thing for me to acknowledge. I want to believe that everything I’ve achieved has come 100% from my own inherent awesomeness … but it just ain’t so.

This doesn’t change the fact that I’m a good writer. (That’s right, I said fact! My ego blows raspberries at the haters!) It doesn’t change how honored I feel to be on that ballot. It doesn’t diminish the things I’ve achieved. What it does is start to acknowledge the reality of the context in which I’ve achieved those things, the advantages I’ve been given.

None of us are perfect, and most of us have absorbed ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that we need to work on. It’s hard, sometimes painful work to dig up and examine those beliefs, and to start to change our behaviors.

But it’s important work. And it’s work I hope and expect to be doing until the day I die.

You’ll Probably Ignore Me Because I’m An Evil Straight White Dude, But…

Dear Internets,

Please do me a favor. If you ever find yourself speaking or typing words like the ones above? Shut up and walk away.

Cat Valente wrote a powerful post about Gender and the Fallout Over Christopher Priest, comparing the responses Priest received with the much more vicious, hateful threats and attacks women receive for similar posts.

Naturally, one of the commenters jumped in with, “I’ll probably get vilified for saying this, but I’m a guy…” Just in case you missed the point, he added, “Unfortunately, I’m a guy, and so far as I can tell, therefore I’m evil.”

I’ve seen this preemptive crap a lot lately. Look dude – it’s not that you’re a guy. It’s not that you’re white or straight or whatever. It’s that you’re being an dumbass and a coward.

A dumbass because nobody is saying anything about guys all being evil! Go read Valente’s post and show me where she says men are evil. Show me where anyone in the comments says it. Take your time, I’ve got all day. Nobody said it, nobody suggested it, and if you really believe that’s what’s going on, then I have very little hope for you, but I’d be happy to recommend some remedial reading courses.

A coward because in most cases, I suspect you know perfectly well that nobody’s saying that. You don’t actually believe Valente is suggesting all men are evil. You’re saying it to protect your ego. Because by preemptively writing crap like, “I know you’re all going to dogpile me for being male,” you’ve given yourself an excuse. Everyone who points out that your argument is full of crap isn’t doing it because you’re an ignorant, misinformed, condescending jackass. They’re just doing it because you’re a guy.

Bullshit.

Let me break it down as simply as possible.

1) Blogger writes a post pointing out the inequality in how men and women are treated online. She gives multiple examples of women who receive threats of rape and death, where men receive far less viciousness.

2) Random dude reads this post and immediately feels defensive and attacked as a man.

Why is that, I wonder? Is it because harassing and abusing women is, in your opinion, part of being a man? Is it because you’ve personally done things like this and you dislike being called on it? What is it that makes you read this as a personal attack on your gender?

Because you know what? If you haven’t done these things, then it’s not about you! And if you have, then it’s not about you being a guy; it’s about you being an asshole.

Like I said, it’s not just one commenter. It’s one person after another pulling out this same rhetorical garbage, and it’s tiresome.

Enough from me. Go read Valente’s post, if you haven’t already. I’d also recommend Seanan McGuire’s follow-up thoughts about gender and literature.

Jane C. Hines

In an alternate universe back in 1974, a girl named Jane C. Hines was born. Her family moved to Michigan when she was four years old. She grew up with a little brother, had a three-legged black lab named Silver (after Long John Silver), and wanted to be a teacher, a veterinarian, a psychologist, and ultimately an author.

Her first fantasy novel, Goblin Quest, came out in 2006 from DAW. She sold two more goblin books, then published a series about three kick-ass fairy tale princesses. She’s currently writing the third draft of a modern fantasy book called Libriomancer. She also maintains a moderately popular blog.

But while she and I have had parallel careers, the results haven’t matched up exactly.

  • Jane’s sales haven’t been as good as mine. The books were the same, but hers weren’t reviewed quite as widely, and there are some people who simply won’t read female authors.
  • As a blogger, I’ve been accused of being an asshole, a pretentious asshat, told to die in a fire and so on. It’s not common, but it happens. Jane, on the other hand, recently started up a “Bitchometer” feature which tracks how many times people call her a bitch. It’s currently in the triple digits.
  • A few years back, I had a fan squee and ambush-hug me at a convention, which was … disconcerting. That’s only happened to me once. Jane can’t recall the last con she attended where at least one person didn’t touch, grab, or grope her without permission.
  • Remember last year when Jane and I wrote about obesity? We both included a photo of ourselves to illustrate what “overweight” looks like (I was topless; Jane wore a bikini top and jeans). I received hundreds of comments praising me for that post. Jane received a lot of positive comments as well, but she also received e-mails calling her a fat cow, and to this day gets follow-ups from that post demanding that she “Show us your tits!”
  • I receive significantly more comments and linkbacks to my posts about rape than Jane, despite the fact that we’re writing the same words. Jane does, however, receive e-mails and anonymous trolls telling her she needs to get laid, or threatening to “Do to her what a ‘real man’ should have done a long time ago.”
  • Like me, Jane works a full-time job because she needs the benefits and a steady salary for herself and her family. But where I’m occasionally told what a great father I must be, Jane is criticized for being a neglectful mother and not spending enough time with her husband and children.
  • Both my authorly name and my legal name are Hines. Jane began writing as Jane C. Hines, and got married after beginning to build a reputation with that name. To this day, she questions if she made the right choice about whether or not to change her name.
  • No one has threatened me, my family, or my pets. I have never received death threats. Jane has not been so fortunate.
  • When I post this, I expect the comments will be generally positive, with some argument and discussion. Jane expects to be told, “Shouldn’t this all boil down to quality? Isn’t this really about YOUR books not getting enough attention?”

Both Jane and I intend to continue writing and blogging. We plan to finish Libriomancer, and to blog about everything from fandom to sexual harassment to poverty to kick-ass books, and maybe even to post a few more stick figure comics.

But Jane is stronger than I am. She’s braver than I am. Because for more than ten years now, she’s faced far more negativity and ugliness when she writes, and she hasn’t let that stop her.

This post was informed in part by statements and posts from Shauna James AhernSeanan McGuire, Laura Anne Gilman, John Scalzi, and Juliet E. McKenna.

Editorial Boob

ETA: Based on suggestions in the comments, I will be contacting the major publishers to try to find out who to contact if you’ve experienced this sort of harassment from one of their employees.  I will publish that information as soon as I can.

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Yesterday I posted about the good that was WFC.  Today I wanted to talk about some of the bad and the ugly.

Over the course of the convention, I ended up talking to several different women about a particular editor from one of the major publishing houses.  Each one of these women, all of whom are writers, described how this editor would ogle their chests, give uninvited massages, or explicitly compliment them on their breasts.

The more I heard these stories and thought about them, the angrier I got.  Bad enough when a random creep at a con puts his hands on you without permission, or sits there leering at you.  What do you do, as a writer, when it’s an editor?  Someone who might be able to give you your big break, but could also ruin you, at least at this particular house?

(Gosh, it’s a good thing there’s no sexism in SF/F anymore, eh?)

And what do I do?  I didn’t witness this behavior first-hand.  Oh no, this guy was always perfectly civil around me.  Nor do I feel comfortable telling other people’s stories for them.  Meaning … what?  I just write a vague post about editors who sexually harass writers?

So far, only a few other options have come to mind.

1. I can point out the back up project.  The project does make a good point that, “it is unlikely that a woman who is already being followed around a con hotel by a strange guy will feel as comfortable asking another strange guy to walk with her to her car as she would asking another woman.”  But if you feel comfortable asking me for backup, I’ll say yes.  And if I see this behavior, I’ll do my best to challenge it.  (Hey, he’s not my editor.  The dude has zero power over me…)

2. I can point out that he has little real power over anyone else, either.  Editors are not as powerful as they think.  The truth is, if you’re a good writer, this guy isn’t your only option.  There are other editors looking for good books.  And ultimately, if your writing isn’t ready yet, then it doesn’t matter how much he looks and/or touches you; he’s not going to buy a book from you.  Either way, this individual has no actual power over you.

3. I can point out that you’re not alone.  I know sometimes this sort of thing can make you feel alone, but if you’ve been harassed by some guy at a con or elsewhere, I guarantee you’re not the only one he’s done it to.

I suspect this sort of thing is often overlooked because people tell themselves it’s not that bad.

I think it’s bad enough.  It’s an unforgivable abuse of one’s position as editor.  It’s an inexcusable way to behave toward others.  And it’s not something that anyone should have to put up with.

Thoughts and discussion are welcome, as always.

Judging the Past Through the Lens of the Present

Today’s rant comes courtesy of debates about Robert Heinlein.  Tor.com has an ongoing discussion about Heinlein and his work, one which has spilled into Twitter and a number of blogs.  Stirring up the anger and ire: claims that Heinlein and/or his work is sexist (possibly racist as well?)

Responses to these claims range from the thoughtful to the religiously righteous.  Fair enough, as the initial accusations probably span that same range.  But I want to focus on two kinds of responses.

1. “[I]t is fallacious to judge deceased writers by the political fads and fashions of the modern era.”  I.e., it’s unfair to judge Heinlein, because his work is “a product of the time.”

Taking that train of thought further, is it unfair to judge the American colonists for the attempted genocide of the Native Americans, because that was just a product of the time?  Is it unfair to condemn slavery, because times were different back then?

Historical context is important.  It’s also good to recognize the lens through which we’re analyzing a text, whether that lens is political, theoretical, or whatever.  And I’m well aware that many countries view the United States’ attitudes toward racism and sexism as a bit wacky.  But to claim that just because your perspective is, like Heinlein’s, grounded in a particular time and culture, it’s therefore invalid and/or fallacious is … well, a little silly.

I can read Tarzan and recognize that views on race were different in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ time.  I can also argue that, given Tarzan’s casual murder of blacks in the jungle, and a text that treats these incidents in precisely the same way as the hunting of animals, there’s racism here.

Is the historical context different than if the book were written today?  Sure.  And I recognize that my own moral framework is far from perfect.  Does that mean I’m not allowed to feel disgust at Tarzan’s joy in killing “savages,” or to talk about the racism in that portrayal?  Give me a break.

2. Then there’s “How dare you call Heinlein sexist?”

There is a valid point here.  As an author, it makes me uncomfortable when people blur the work with the writer.  I’d hate to think of someone reading the goblin books and deciding Jim C. Hines is a closet cannibal, for example.  The work =/= the writer, and I think we need to be aware of that distinction.

Going back to Tarzan, it’s clear that Tarzan never considers blacks as human.  For much of the book, he doesn’t even view himself as human, for that matter.  This is the character’s attitude … but the text never questions this attitude.  Even after Tarzan learns of his own humanity, he never makes the connection that those dark-skinned beasts were people.  The text supports Tarzan’s view, and you can argue that this is due to racism on Burroughs’ part.

But there are those who’ll say “racist” or “sexist” are the nuclear option, nothing but insults intended to destroy the recipient.  If you dare utter those words, you aren’t interested in conversation or discussion; you’re just name-calling, trying to slander poor Burroughs.

…which makes it kind of difficult to talk about issues of race and gender and discrimination and so on.  But then, sometimes I think that’s the point: to shut down discussion.

If you want to examine the distinction between author and work, and to argue for one or the other, then great.  I love debating literature and exploring different interpretations.  On the other hand, if you’re just going to say “Hey, you called Heinlein the S-word!  You can’t do that!!!”, then to me, you’re simply announcing your unwillingness to discuss or listen.

Jim C. Hines