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New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Misogyny We Inhale with Each Breath

“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.”

The original opening for the obituary of Yvonne Brill, pioneer rocket and propulsion engineer, in The New York Times, March 2013. The revised opening was barely better.


Ann LeckieImagine you’ve landed on an earth-like planet. You can live there without erecting domes, but there’s a gas dissolved in the atmosphere that makes you slightly ill. You rarely feel fully yourself. You have some difficulty gathering your thoughts, you have to take time to parse your every action. You spend excessive amounts of effort trying to get basics done.

If you’re a woman, you don’t have to imagine this. It’s called living on earth and the toxic gas dissolved in the atmosphere is called misogyny. It leads to several outcomes:

— Women do not form schools, lineages or dynasties and exceptional women are extolled (or, more frequently, demonized) as isolated one-of-a-kind anomalies;

— Women who are extolled are always presented as acceptably feminine and/or maternal first, before their contributions and vocations are discussed – and the latter as adjunct to the prestige of the patriarchal group that absorbed them;

— Women neglect daughters (who vanish one way or another) and invest in sons, their primary conduit to proxy authority; occasionally they exert indirect power and are validated through “indulgent” fathers and/or husbands.

Every single one of these patterns is endemic in the science fiction community despite all lip service to “changes” and they were among the visible foundations of a recent article at the St. Louis River Front Times titled “Is Ann Leckie the Next Big Thing in Science Fiction?” For those who live in nuclear submarines running silent, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is the first installment of a space opera projected trilogy that won two prestigious genre awards so far, the Nebula and the Clarke. The irony is that the article was clearly written with the best of intentions – unwitting proof of the toxic-gas analogy.

The first sentence of the article (under the front photo) is: “St. Louis mother and first-time novelist Ann Leckie…” and it spends its first half-page lovingly detailing how many rejections Leckie’s novel received – a tradition when discussing women’s works. It expresses surprise that Leckie doesn’t conform to the phenotype of “a typical suburban mother of two” – especially her glittery orange toenails. The article also mentions Leckie’s doubts about finding a man who would marry a brainy nerd, and her husband’s support of Leckie’s Big Decision to attend the Clarion workshop. In short, the interviewer is at pains to prove to his readers that Leckie is “just like the girl next door” because women creators are automatically considered freaks.

Despite its title, only half of the article is about Leckie; the other half is devoted to the sorry saga of the SFWA Bulletin. About a third of the portion that deals with Leckie’s achievements consists of quotes by John Scalzi. Granted, having Scalzi’s imprimatur ranks high on some people’s radars, especially journalists who want to establish instant insider cred. Scalzi (heaped with accolades for writing sanctioned fanfic, inter alia) has made himself a conspicuous ally of righteous causes within the genre. As with many others of his demographic slice, this stance has left him thigh-deep in acolytes and worshippers while non-default forerunners who expressed similar views received ostracism and abuse.

The article contains soundbites by other contemporary SF authors, most of them part of the SFWA administrative structure during the time that Leckie was that organization’s vice president. Conspicuously absent in the River Front article is any commentary by still-living foremothers: Cherryh, Friedman, Jones, Le Guin, McIntyre, Vinge, Yolen, all of whom have written space opera that shifted perimeters and parameters, if only against mountains of passive and active resistance. In stark contrast, Le Guin did a large-context review — actually a lengthy, fulsome endorsement — of Miéville’s Embassytown when it appeared, highlighting that only investment in sons (especially pre-confirmed successes) is deemed worthwhile and pragmatic. Remember, daughters are not part of any lineage. So Leckie is once again depicted as a singleton meteor, rather than as part of a solar system whose planets have nurtured complex life for millennia.

Perhaps these foremothers read Ancillary Justice and didn’t like it. I count myself among those who had mixed reactions to it; I fall into the group that Leckie names at the end of the article: “…what I really hope is that a bunch of writers look at my book and say, ‘She didn’t go far enough.’” and also into the group that has read enough to recognize it as a (worthy) successor, not a new origin. The possibility that famous SF women writers may have been asked to comment on Ancillary Justice but chose not to do so to avoid dilemmas highlights the no-win choices we have: we can remain silent, making ourselves irrelevant; we can pull our punches, undermining ourselves and cheapening the works we evaluate; or we can state our view and be labeled regressive (or be called cunts… though the British contingent continues to insist that the latter is a non-gendered term of endearment).

Also typically, the River Front article took time to note that Leckie received her Nebula award in a shimmering red gown. For me, the annoyance at this inclusion was mitigated by the accompanying factoid that the person who handed her the award was Stan Schmidt of Analog, who listed heavily toward didactic upbeat stories with young male protagonists and who had sent her a rejection addressed to “Mr. Leckie”. But tiny revanches are not the same thing as winning wars or even battles. And terraforming a planet, especially one where we can muddle along even as it subtly poisons us, is hard, thankless work.

Related articles:

Prime-minister-julia-gillardIs It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge

Who Will Be Companions to Female Kings?

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female

Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction?

Images: 1st, Ann Leckie; 2nd, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard during her famous misogyny speech, October 2012

7 Responses to “The Misogyny We Inhale with Each Breath”

  1. Asakiyume says:

    As you know, I’m a very enthusiastic fan of Ancillary Justice, so I read anything featuring Ann or the book very happily, but I found that article to be very strange. The prominence given the SFWA controversy seemed so odd in a piece theoretically celebrating Ann that at first I wondered if I was reading the article pages out of order or if there was some jumble on their website. Finally I decided they’d focused on it so minutely as some sort of way of showing the sexism in the industry, or something.

    Some of the items you cite as signs of misogyny I would argue with: I think the tale of rejections is something we get with any rising-star writer–it’s the struggles the hero went through and how all those foolish people didn’t recognize a thing that was going to end up being lionized. But I think you’re on target with some of the other ones, and I’m musing long and hard on what you say about the established women in the field extolling male successors but not female ones. Food for thought there, for sure.

  2. Athena says:

    I agree that the Horatio Alger story is typical, especially for US myths/mythmakers. But my personal opinion is that if a woman creator is the focus, it would be best not to fill the first page with it. As for extolling sons — it’s human nature to go for investments that yield sure returns. But Miéville didn’t need additional endorsements, he was already lionized everywhere.

  3. C W Johnson says:

    To the list of foremothers I’d add Joanna Russ, who thirty years ago brilliantly documented these strategies in her book “How to Suppress Women’s Writing.”

    I know you know this, Athena, I mention it for the sake of any readers who are unaware of it. And, sigh, we can see that in 30 years not a lot has changed!

    It would be an interesting exercise–and with modern databases probably quite doable–to go through articles about debut novels and to compare responses towards men and women.

  4. Athena says:

    The reason I didn’t include Russ is that she has a truly valid excuse for not providing commentary for fellow women writers: she’s no longer with us. The names I listed belong to people who are still here and could change this particular balance, if they so wished (and/or if anyone thought to ask them). I added a word to the article to clarify this point. It’s horribly dispiriting that the points that Russ raised in her book still fully pertain today.

  5. jose says:

    The Scalzi part is why I don’t attend marches, conferences or whatever act focused on women. When there’s someone covering the event they’re always like “look at the man, let’s ask the man what he thinks!” and I’m like dude you have fucking Gail Dines over there, what are you doing…

  6. Athena says:

    I think attending X focused on women is separate from noticing that people like Scalzi get disproportionate attention.

  7. Walden 2 says:

    Athena, you are amazingly empowering, I just had to say that.

    The human race will continue to be stupid, short-sighted, etc. for a long while yet, though a few strides have been made that surprised me.

    We just cannot give up if for no other reason that we do not want to sink into that morass along with the rest of the sheep.