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

  • June 11, 2013 at 8:37 PM // Reply

    I was so glad to come across this post. A few months back, I called an author out on using rape as a plot tool, and having horribly misogynistic characters. Before I was even finished with the book, she contacted me all smiles and sweetness offering a refund and basically telling me I shouldn’t finish a book if I didn’t like reading it. She also told me she wouldn’t be offended if I left a “nice little review” saying the book was awful and I couldn’t finish it. At the exact same time, she was complaining about me behind my back where I couldn’t see, calling me rude and telling her fans she was laughing at my “bitchy goodreads statuses”. I found out about it, and told her I’d finish the book and post the review as planned, without letting her influence me, and she sent her fans/friends to down rate the review after it was posted, and complained even more behind my back on social media. I never blew the whistle on her behavior, publicly. I talked to a group of friends in private, and they all agreed that what she did was wrong. It was a huge mess, and I felt so manipulated and bullied by the author. It was totally unfair that she treated me that way when I simply called her out on something she desperately needed to be called out on. I’m sick of seeing these types of things in literature. Thank you for standing up to it yourself, and make people like me feel less alone in this fight.

      • There’s so much of it permeating literature (especially in the hard genres) that it seeps in without writers even realizing. People who don’t have a misogynistic bone in their body can WRITE misogyny because they consume it so much.

        That’s exactly why this conversation is good to have regularly. I always have a knee jerk reaction when I start reading these articles (the “Oh, another Male Guilt article” reaction), but then I’ll reflect on the invisible misogyny that we don’t even realize we’re consuming and I shake that reaction off. I’m not one to believe media is to blame for violence or other abhorrent behavior, but it definitely can’t help that we essentially soak ourselves in this type of crap day in and day out.

        A little reflection can go a long way, after all…

        • I’ve done it myself, accidentally, for that very reason. I was writing a story which is the Darkness From Within anthology. It involves a soldier who is assaulted during Desert Storm and she was contaminated with a parasite by the close contact. Two other soldiers have to use magic to try to save her. One sentence crept in that implied something different than I intended, that she was being punished somehow for what happened. I wasn’t even aware I’d done it until someone pointed it out in critique. The minute the critiquer said it, I knew exactly what sentence she was referring to. I ended up revising the story more extensively because of it. It is very hard, because some of those elements are very subtle.

  • June 11, 2013 at 9:23 PM // Reply

    Chuck- I don’t know how else to say this but I will with honesty and sincerity. Thank you. Thank you for writing this now, of all times. This reached me after weeks of hearing all the excuses from people who have said ‘haven’t we heard enough about this?’ and ‘haven’t you spoken up enough about it?’ Thank you for articulating where so much air has been filled with noise that makes me want to quit being in gaming and writing sometimes. It never ceases to amaze me your candor and your zeal. So thanks for being you.

  • Chuck, you are so right about it being learned behaviour, and that we must DO something, not just shrug and assume it will get better one day. I had an eye opening experience several years ago when I was in Hollywood shopping a screenplay – an fantasy action animation with an 8yr old girl as the protagonist. I’d entered it in the major competitions and got far enough to win some meetings with managers, agents, and to have my screenplay read by some big production companies. Every manager and agent (there were 12) and the producers who got back to me asked me to do the same thing – change my protagonist to a boy.

    I took lots of advice and was told to make the change “to show you can take notes” but, to me, this was more than a note, so I asked a few of them why they felt it necessary. The response I got was the following:
    It’s not sexism, it’s money – girls will go to see movies about boys, but boys won’t go to see movies about girls – one producer actually used the sentence “it’s such a great action adventure character, it’s wasted on a girl.”

    My response was this: Perhaps the movies that girls and boys both go to see have characters which are INTERESTING, and have interesting things happen to them, rather than it being because the protag is a boy. Perhaps, if we made movies with female protagonists who did INTERESTING things, as well, rather than just being princesses wanting to get rescued and married, or princesses being sassy and not wanting to get married (until they are tamed by the right boy), that maybe boys might go to see those movies, too?
    Especially if boys are exposed to such things as normal.

    Of course the response was just that I didn’t know the industry – which I don’t, but I wasn’t going to “take that note”, either.

  • I need to think on it some more, but at the moment I disagree with point 21. I don’t pay any attention to the author’s name when I pick up a book, unless it’s someone whose work I’ve read before. To make a concerted effort to read more by female authors would just be taking the sexism in the other direction, and that would be wrong too.

    • How is it sexism? If you are stepping outside of a comfort zone, so to speak, and are reading more widely than you generally would, how is that reverse-sexism? That’s not even reverse-sexism when applied to reading more from female authors! You are not reading at the expense of more men authors, you simply want to experience a bigger slice of the industry. You are NOT discriminating against men, and making claims of reverse-sexism in this context is like saying “won’t someone think of the men?”

      • That would be descriminating against men because I don’t have an unlimited amount of reading time. I would have to purposely not buy books written by men, possibly passing up a lot of great books, just because of the authors gender, in order to even out the numbers on my shelves.

        • No offense intended, but if that’s your definition of sexism and discrimination, then its a fairly shallow one. And you made my point for me: you are purposely not buying books written by women, and thus possibly passing up a lot of great books, just because of the author’s gender.

          • What you are saying is that women need a helping hand because they can’t count on the merit of their work garnering the attention needed for sales? With all due respect, that is shallow.

          • I’m not purposely avoiding books written by women. I stated in my first comment that I don’t pay attention to the author when I’m choosing books.

          • @DisastrousCreations
            Is it shallow though? In an industry where women often have to change their names or writer under pseudonyms? Where their work is automatically derided as substandard? You tell me what’s shallow.

  • June 15, 2013 at 12:33 AM // Reply

    Firstly, good on you! This needs to be said, over and over. I deplore the fact that a man saying it carries more weight because women saying the same stuff are accused of being whingers. But you’re saying it, this is good.

    It takes men *and* women creating diversity in the arts so that diversity may be imitated by life. It took a middle class man to write Tyrion Lannister, bringing a kick-ass character with a disability onto our TV screens and not just as ‘visiting actor of the week who is only pretending to be disabled.’ I’ve been saddened by how the TV series has diminished Tyrion somewhat, but he’s there on the screen and some of the prejudice he faces is still in the TV series.

    Write more. I enjoyed Blackbirds. I haven’t written a review yet – I need some headspace to mull it over first: it’s intelligent, thoughtful and has an interesting protagonist who, I think, could almost have been either sex with a few changes. More power to your pen. Or cursor. Whatever.

    With regards to sexism in the broader community and sexism within the SF/fantasy community specifically:
    In a video released Wednesday, Lt-Gen Morrison of the Australian Army says, “Those who think that it is OK to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have NO place in this army … Female soldiers and officers have proven themselves worthy of the best traditions of the Australian army … If that does not suit you, then get out … The same goes for those who think that toughness is built on humiliating others … The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” (reported in the Salon)
    Science fiction as a genre leads the way for society to follow by predicting technological and cultural change, by exploring ethics, morality and philosophy. The Australian Army has led the way this time, and it is my hope that the SFWA and the SF/fantasy community in general (including conveners of conventions) will follow the example of the Australian Army. (Excerpt from a recent Dark Matter blog)

  • Just want to point out that a lot of tropes that tend to be perceived as “feminine” also fall within a “white privilege” sub-sector. Thank you.

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