25 Things To Know About Sexism & Misogyny In Writing & Publishing

This is one of those posts where I worry about putting it out there — like, I wrote a book, Blackbirds, which features a female character who some reviewers have suggested makes me a misogynist but other reviews have suggested makes me a feminist. And I worry, “Shit, am I gonna write a post like this and offend somebody? Will I lose a reader? Ten readers? A hundred? What if I’m so blinded by my own bullshit I say a bunch of stupid stuff?”

Because that totally happens. I totally do that sometimes.

Still, it feels to me like, if I’m worried, then maybe it means I should post it.

So, this stuff is all part of a conversation. Not a list of proclamations. Not a face full of holy writs. But these are the thing I’m thinking. Let’s put it out there and see what happens.

Potential trigger warning.

1. Sexism Totally Exists

I know there’s someone out there saying, “Wait, is this really a problem? Sexism and Misogyny in writing? In publishing? In science-fiction and fantasy? Are you sure this isn’t just a small bunch of very loud women with their panties all whirled around in some kinda panty tornado?” And there I’d correct you and note that I am a dude and, in fact, my panties are indeed whirling about in a panty tornado because this is a problem in our respective industry and it sucks. I’ll gently point you in the direction of Ann Aguirre’s post (“This Week In SF“) and Delilah Dawson’s powerful followup (“Why I’m Writing This Now Instead Of Two Days Ago“) and you’ll start see just the teeniest fraction of the iceberg poking out of the water.

2. Let’s Define Our Terms: Sexism & Misogyny

Sexism is discrimination and prejudice based on sex. (In this case, toward women.) Misogyny is like sexism on steroids — sexism that has completed many of its prejudicial quests and has leveled up — ding! — and become full-on anger and hatred toward women.

3. Why I’m Writing This Post

I am a young(ish) white dude in America — and in fact I am a soundly middle-class white dude in America — which makes me a very lucky fucking ducky. I’m not quite as lucky as say, a rich white dude in America, but hey, whatever. So, you might wonder just why I’m writing this post. After all, one would think I am best served by keeping my own young(ish) white American dude interests at heart. If writing and publishing is tilted favorably toward me, well, maybe I’d be best served by shutting my fool mouth and riding this sweet, sugary wave to its conclusion. Nnyeaaaah, no. I think the community is broken. And if the community is broken, all members are, too. That means me. That means you. I want a healthy writing and publishing environment and that doesn’t mean ignoring other groups to make my group look better. If we are to assume that we’re all on the same team, the same boat, the same Galactic Arcology drifting toward our star-born utopia, then I want everybody to be treated equally and treated well. I mean, I have a wife. I have a mother and sisters. I want a daughter one day. I don’t like a world where they’re less than me. I don’t like a world where they’re targets and victims. And so, ta-da. Here I am.

4. Yes, Publishing Has Lots Of Women (And That’s A Shitty Argument)

One argument I’ve seen suggests this is all a big buncha poopnoise because writing and publishing is chock full of women. Lots of women writers. Lots of women editors and marketers and in libraries and bookstores and, and, and. LADIES EVERYWHERE, YAY, EQUALITY, WE CAN ALL STOP TALKING ABOUT IT NOW. Yeah, that’s a shitty argument. Having a majority presence sadly doesn’t mean a bucket of llama spit. Outside of writing and publishing women are 51% of the populace — and yet they still get paid less, they still suffer the brunt of rape culture, they still get treated like lesser even though numerically they are no such thing. That’s not an argument of value, so stop making it. Frankly, it doesn’t matter of women are 5, 50, or 95% of the audience; they’re people that deserve the maximum respect afforded to everybody.

5. Diversity And Kindness Are Products Of Effort

I talked about Genderflipping Doctor Who last week and, besides some of the hate mail (yay hate mail) I also saw some truly bizarre reasons given for why we can’t have an actress fill the role. Some folks shouted tokenism — which misunderstands tokenism at a fundamental level. Some folks shouted that it should serve the story and not just be a “gimmick” — as if an actor in the role is proper but hiring an actress for this flesh-shifting time-traveling chaos-theory-in-action-character would just be a stunt. Some folks said it should happen naturally, that it should serve the story — as if the story is its own magical creature that will one day evolve to embrace an actress in the role, as if these things happen all on their own and without human meddling. They do not. Diversity does not occur in a vacuum. Defeating sexism is not the default mode or it would’ve happened already. We want to evoke diversity in writing and publishing, don’t we? Then it happens with choice. With agency and action. It happens when you make it happen, not when it happens on its own. Fuck inertia. Enact change by MAKING THINGS HAPPEN.

6. I Believe The Children Are Our Future

All this shit starts when we humans are tiny. I have a two-year-old son. Boys get the BLUE STUFF. Hard. Steely! Naval. Girls get the PINK STUFF. Soft. Squishy! Fleshy. Our son loves trucks. You think, “Oh, this is genetic. Boys are biologically attracted to boy things.” Until you see him playing with little girls and the girls are all like, “YEAH TRUCKS ARE AWESOME, MOTHERTRUCKER,” and that dashes that idea into itty-bits. Then you go to buy books and you see it translates there, too: the blue, the pink, the trucks, the dollies. So you realize, this boy/girl thing starts early in terms of writing and publishing. And that means it’s where you have to do some damage control early. Let your boy play with dolls. Let your girl read about trucks. Teach them early on to respect each other and everybody else. (AKA: “Hey, kid, don’t be an asshole.”)

7. The SFWA Thing

Recent SFWA kerfuffle: in an SFWA bulletin featuring a chainmail bikini girl on the cover, a couple old white author-mummies kicked their way out of their dusty old sci-fi tombs and said something like BLAH BLAH BLAH THEM LADY AUTHORS AND GIRL EDITORS SURE LOOK GOOD IN BIKINIS and that was I guess their idea of being progressive and inclusive? Then their cranky pants got all constrictive when people (understandably) complained and then the old mummies were like SOMETHING-SOMETHING CENSORSHIP. I dunno. Creepy, right? Whatever. Point is, this is a professional organization that serves a very significant genre. That’s not awesome behavior. What is awesome, however, is that instead of just letting this slide, lots of folks inside and outside the SFWA got pissed, got vocal, and made a difference. Tuck that lesson away.

8. Dangerous And Needless Distinctions

Seanan McGuire, the SFWA’s official Murder Princess and my own Spirit Animal, said unsurprisingly smart things here about what it means to highlight women for their appearance or to highlight that they’re women at all — meaning, “lady authors” or “lady editors.” She says:

…women get forced to understand men if we want to enjoy media and tell stories, while men are allowed to treat women as these weird extraterrestrial creatures who can never be comprehended, but must be fought. It’s like we’re somehow the opposing army in an alien invasion story, here to be battled, defeated, and tamed, but never acknowledged as fully human.

9. On Display At Conventions And Conferences

The most grotesque and overt displays of sexism and misogyny is at conventions and conferences. Genre conventions in particular often have panels with a strong imbalance leaning toward DUDES and where said dudes often speak over any of the women on those panels. It’s also where you get creep-a-holics coming up on women as if they’re predators stalking gazelle on the veldt. Last year at WorldCon I watched a dude literally hit on a girl passing him by as he went to the elevator (and here’s why we don’t ‘hit’ on women, FYI); it was painful and awkward and creepy, like he was just desperately trying to find a place for his penis to live for a while, as if the woman wasn’t a person so much as a wandering dick receptacle. Then, at BEA this year, I passed by the booth of a venerable publisher only to hear an old and presumably important dude laud his female staff by, of course, talking as much about their beauty as he did their abilities in their field. (Imagine if he did that to guys, too: “John, you’re a great editor, and your ass looks like gold in those chinos, my friend.”) We counterbalance this by making sure women get represented on panels equally. And by making sure they work on staff, too. And that we treat them with respect and not like targets or victims or booth babes.

10. The Problem With Chainmail Bikinis

Isn’t just that they’re impractical (uhh, which they are). It’s that, it looks like this is how we see women — as foolish, impractical objects with gravitationally-irrational kickball-bosoms that are in fact the only thing on the woman worth defending from blade or arrow. It’s the same thing with the leather-clad urban fantasy covers or the spine-bending contortionist Catwomen on comic book covers. We’re saying that the only thing we as authors and publishers and even readers value in these theoretically strong female protagonists is their, erm, various “assets.”

11. The Coverflippers

Maureen Johnson issued a challenge not long ago where readers gender-flipped book covers — they answered the call in hilarious and eye-opening ways.

12. The Hawkeye Initiative

And, as a follow-up to that: the Hawkeye Initiative takes comic book covers and panels of female characters in, erm, extreme poses and then redraws them with Hawkeye doing them instead. It’s awesome and hilarious but also does a good job at illustrating the absurdity. Oh, see also, the masterful Jim Hines on his own cover posing efforts.

13. Sexuality Versus Sexualization

On the other side of things you have slut shaming, where women are made to feel lesser for their sexual choices (or, worse, for being sexually assaulted). It’s easy when criticizing covers (as above) to make it sound like slut shaming: “Those women are too sexy on those book covers, they should be all covered up LIKE PROPER MENNONITE MOTHERS.” The difference, I think, is between being sexual and being sexualized. The former is under the character’s (or author’s) control — the latter is controlled by someone else. Criticizing the sexualization of women has merit; criticizing the sexual nature of women is fucked up (and is slut shaming).

14. The Bechdel Test And Beyond

The Bechdel Test is a test applied to pop culture properties and stories to see if it meets a minimum requirement for not being completely dismissive of women. The test is: a) does it have two or more women characters [with names] in it? b) do they talk to each other? c) do they talk to each other about something other than men? The Bechdel Test is not the end-all be-all for making sure your work is representative of strong female characterization (strong as in, complex and compelling rather than can karate kick a vampire), but it’s a good entry-level test. And it’s still amazing how many major works of pop culture fail it twenty years later.

15. The Nature Of Rape In Fiction

Yes, you can write about rape. Saying you can’t write about rape as a subject of fiction is the same as saying you shouldn’t talk about it at all — which is a dangerous supposition to make. That said, you need to look at how you handle rape. Is it just another plot point? Is it exploitative? Is it an easy and lazy crutch in a genre where it’s used too often? Is it made to be more titillating than horrific? Rape is not just a throwaway topic. Realize that some of your readers may be the victims of sexual assault. Consider how you want to speak to them as your audience and how you want them treated in your fiction.

16. So You’re Tired Of Hearing About Rape Culture

I’m just going to leave this here then.

17. The Role Of Men In This Conversation

The role of men in this conversation is definitely not to be a bunch of pouty shouty poo-poo faces who start yelling about how they’re oppressed too and something-something our-poor-penises. But you can swing too far the other way, too — the role of men in this conversation is also not to be the swooping swinging heroes who need to jump into the fray and save the Poor Widdle Women. Women are not our damsels in distress. We are not rescuing them from the onrushing train of sexism and misogyny (I’LL SAVE YOU FROM THE ANGRY OLD SCI-FI WRITER, LITTLE NELL). Our job is to facilitate the conversation and to foster a healthy, safe, kind environment. Our job is to signal boost and to cheerlead awesome women and, ultimately, to not be dicks about any of it. Can we just say that last part again? DON’T BE A DICK KAY? Kay.

18. It Starts Inside Publishing

Hey, Giant Monolithic Publishing Industry: a lot of this starts with you. It starts with you having women across all the roles of your company, and that doesn’t just mean editors or artists, but also as authors, as CEOs. From the mailroom to the boardroom: up and down the pike.

19. And It Continues Inside The Books

Like I said, diversity doesn’t just happen. It isn’t the natural evolution you’d like it to be — you don’t one day just step into strong female characters in your books and wonder how the fuck they got there. You write them in. You put them there as author. None of this bullshit of — “Well, only if it serves the story.” Hello, you’re the DEITY CONTROLLING THIS PLACE. It serves the story when you jolly well say it does. You write the story. It does not write you.

20. And It Continues Outside The Books, Too

It’s about book covers. And booksellers. And librarians. And readers. And cosplayers. And convention-goers. It’s about ensuring that everybody gets to play. It’s about making sure we’re talking to our whole audience and that we’re not contributing to a culture of imbalance and victimization and prejudice. This is lateral. This is everywhere. Pay attention.

21. Check Your Shelves

Many years ago I looked at my bookshelves and I saw they were mostly male authors sitting there. Er, I mean, books by male authors — I didn’t have like, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King crouching there like creepy black-clad gargoyles. I’ve since made a concerted effort to put many more women authors on my shelves, so much so that I probably read as much by women as I do by men. Look at your shelves and if the ratio is out of whack — er, put it in whack, goddamnit.

22. Speak To Your Entire Audience

This is very simple: remember that you’re not just talking to people like you. With your work you’re (ideally) talking to everyone. So, try to imagine how your work will translate. Does it compel? Empower? Does it diminish? Does it perpetuate stereotypes or dangerous cultural aspects? This isn’t about being politically correct. Politics can fuck off. Real people are out there. How are you reaching them? How will they read your work?

23. Works Across Racial, Religious, Gender, Sexual, Economic Boundaries, Too

This isn’t just about sexism. Obviously the brunt of this list is written that way but you could pretty easily rewrite it to include folks of different race, religion, gender, sex, sexual preference, or economic class, too. Nobody’s asking you to be perfect. But it can’t hurt to try, can it? You don’t need to be an avatar of social justice, but a little inclusion is good for everybody.

24. If You See Something, Say Something

I hate to borrow a twee saying from our Masters at Homeland Security, but when you see inequality, it’s time to kick up some dust, time to throw a little sand. To borrow another twee sentiment: all evil requires is for good folks to stand by and do nothing. All sexism needs to thrive is for good people to do the same. Which is to say…

25. This Is Not A Time To Be Quiet

Those who resist these conversations often make a weak-boned play at having a point but it’s often frequently geared toward shutting the conversation down. You can feel the vibe — they don’t really want to debate the points so much as they just don’t want there to be a debate at all. Which is why this is precisely the time to have these debates. Change happens through noise, through wild gesticulations, though these kerfuffles both on the Internet and in meatspace. Like Delilah Dawson says: “Being quiet doesn’t get results.” So, this is not a time to be quiet. Strides are being made. So keep making them. Keep taking those steps. Keep waving your arms and pointing out bullshit when you see it. Nobody’s saying we’re going to get through this comfortably — but we’ll get through this long as we keep making noise.

311 comments

  • Heck, J.K. Rowling used her initials because she didn’t think people would publish or read a fantasy book about a boy that was written by a woman. And clearly her publisher supported that decision. To the doubters on here: if that doesn’t prove sexism exists in this business, I don’t know what does. Ironically, an early review of the novel called “Mr. Rowling” out on being “sexist,” despite having characters like Hermione and McGonagall. Yes, there are people who scream “sexism!” at every little thing. But the frightening thing is that more often than not, they’re right.

    Re: the Bechdel Test — I am guilty of nearly failing it in my current WIP. For the majority of the time, the female main character is isolated from any female friends or role models. However, I did that on purpose because I think that showing the isolation many women feel or grow up with — the whole “it’s a man’s world and you have no place here other than as a baby-making dick receptacle” — is important. I come from a fairly fortunate white family and yet I have had to fight against that worldview all my life. Like you said, it starts young: having to prove myself to the boys on our coed kiddie soccer team, to quite recently, when my pastor said he couldn’t justify putting Biblical women in his sermons because they didn’t do anything. Except create original sin and give birth to Christ, of course. When I’ve seen religion used to justify the oppression and abuse of women, hearing that kind of thing from someone who should know better is sickening.

    Oh, crap. Now I’ve brought religion into the discussion. *ducks and covers* Speaking of which, there is a huge disparity between the number of female vs. male Protestant ministers/pastors/whatever as well. It’s only even been legal in my denomination since the 70’s.

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