My ALA Talk on Sexism and Kick-Butt Heroines

This is my best reconstruction of the talk I gave at ALA on Sunday. I’m sure I’m forgetting bits, but this should give you the gist of things…

I was originally thinking about just doing a Q&A for this. I like the informal approach, and normally I’d probably be sitting on the edge of the stage chatting with you all. But as I was driving down to Chicago, I started thinking about various incidents that have come up recently, and I decided that if ALA was going to be kind enough to give me a platform and a microphone, maybe there was a better way for me to take advantage of that.

The past few months have been pretty intense in parts of the science fiction and fantasy community. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has been in the spotlight for a chain-mail bikini cover and a follow-up essay that dismissed complaints as the ravings of liberal fascist PC thought police. We have the former SFWA presidential candidate who accused a well-known black author of being an “ignorant half-savage.” Then last week, a well-known editor at one of the major SF/F publishing houses was outed for his history of sexual harassment.

The thing is, the blatant stuff is easy. It’s easy to focus on these instances of sexism and racism because they’re so obvious, and because they create a simple separation between us and them, between the heroes and the villains. But when we draw those lines, we tend to miss the larger picture.

These are systemic problems, not just individuals. They’re problems that show up in cover art, in award ballots, in which books get reviewed, in who shows up as the heroes in stories vs. the sidekicks, in token characters, and much more. In many cases, if not most, it’s an unconscious, unintentional problem.

So how do we respond to such a problem? Well, some of us choose to write long-winded rants online, or to contort ourselves into ridiculous cover poses. We can also speak up when we see these things happening, rather than turning away or accepting it because “it’s always been that way.” If you see someone who looks like they might be being harassed, say something. Offer them a casual escape from the conversation.

As a writer, I think one of our most powerful tools is our stories.

Take the story of the kick-butt heroine, a trope that’s become incredibly popular over the past decade or two. Now, I appreciate this trope — I’m a huge Buffy fan — and I’ve written this kind of character myself on multiple occasions. But there are ways in which it’s problematic. Sure, it’s incredibly satisfying to see the heroine physically whoop the harasser/abuser/etc. But when that’s the dominant story we’re sharing, aren’t we basically suggesting that it’s the women’s job to physically overpower and defeat their aggressors? As opposed to men learning to move beyond such behaviors, or to challenge such things when we see them?

The kick-but heroine is certainly one solution, but it’s one that puts responsibility on the victims, and by implication, puts the blame on those victims if for any reason they were unable to physically stop what’s essentially an ongoing culture of systemic sexism.

There are other stories and other characters we need to share. Stories that show men and women as equals. That show relationships built on respect. Stories that give us more than one token example per book of a strong female character. Stories that move away from narrowly defined roles.

And now is when I take a minute to talk about my own stuff. Lena Greenwood is my latest attempt to engage with the kick-butt heroine trope. She’s … well, without spoiling things, she’s also very problematic. In many ways, that was deliberate. But she’s not the only strong female in these books. You have Nidhi Shah, a psychiatrist with no magical abilities whatsoever. There’s Nicola Pallas, an autistic bard. Jeneta Aboderin is full of teenaged attitude, refusing to take crap from anyone. Not to mention the sarcastic bug-eating ex-librarian Deb DeGeorge. My hope is that each of these women has their own strengths and weaknesses, that they present different ways to be powerful.

I’m not saying kick-butt heroines are bad. Any time I talk about something like this, someone responds, “Why are you trying to censor us?” Just like with cover art — I’m not saying we should never have sexualized or semi-clad women (or men) on book covers. What I’m saying is that it would be awfully nice if we could broaden our portrayals.

I’ll wrap this up with a few recommendations of authors who, in my opinion, do this stuff well. Karen Lord is a fairly new author, but her first book blew me away, in part for Lord’s choice to step away from the well-trod tropes. Elizabeth Bear is another. Saladin Ahmed, who just won the Locus Award for his debut novel, presented us with an Arabic-based fantasy and an old, heavyset, somewhat grouchy man as the protagonist. Tobias Buckell. Nnedi Okorafor. Seanan McGuire. These are just a few of the authors working to move beyond the tropes.

And that’s my time. Thank you all for giving me the chance to talk about this with you.