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Let Me Tell You About the Birds and the Bees: Gender and the Fallout Over Christopher Priest
c is for cat

I keep thinking about the Priest situation. You know, the one where a well known male writer took to the internets to blast the Clarke Award list, make some pointed critiques, call authors, including some of the most famous and popular names in the field, and jurors very rude names, and suggest they all be scrapped, sacked, and sit in a corner and think about what they’d done.

I can’t stop thinking about it, actually.

Everyone has had their say, including me. I am pro people voicing their opinions on literature, even unpopular ones, and I fully support Christopher Priest’s right to weep over the state of science fiction as he sees it. And while I don’t care for name-calling, this is the internet, and aside from porn, that’s pretty much what it’s for. People wouldn’t have amused themselves for the better part of a week over this if it weren’t so savage, wouldn’t make it the centerpiece of the SFF news cycle if it wasn’t a delicious piece of part gossip, part hit job, part serious business, and part playground taunt. That’s how you get pageviews, folks. Everyone loves an entertaining dick.

But it’s not the piece itself that has stuck in my mind like so many bar-room darts.

It’s that if a woman wrote it, she’d have been torn to pieces. No quarter, no mercy.

I touched on this in my previous post. But it’s more than lolz, he’s got balls of brass, I could never get away with those blognanigans. I couldn’t, of course, even if I wanted to. But neither could almost any other woman writer or blogger I can think of. Go after popular SF writers and a respected award? She’d have gotten death threats, rape threats, comments telling her everything from shut up and make [unnamed internet male] a sandwich to wishing she’d be raped to death because that would shut her right up.

I don’t actually have to imagine this scenario and speculate as to its outcome–it’s happened. It happens all the time. Sady Doyle got absolutely eviscerated, along with such whimsical threats of violence and forcible silencing, for merely stating that A Song of Ice and Fire had some serious race and gender issues. She didn’t say it was a bad book, she didn’t call George Martin a pissing puppy, she simply stridently, without compromise, and with humor laid out her opinion concerning a book. Requires Only That You Hate is regularly showered with hatred for her thoughts on science fiction and fantasy–she was called a rabid animal by Peter Watts, a luminary in our field, who received very little public condemnation for his statements. (A rabid animal! Because she thought a book was sexist! I thought humorless feminists were the ones who took things too seriously!) Hell, yesterday Laurie Penny, a well-known activist, blogger, and author, was improbably saved from ongoing traffic by Ryan Gosling and upon writing an essay on obsession with celebrity, lack of coverage of regular people doing good things, and objecting to being portrayed as a damsel in distress because she forgot which way traffic runs in the States, was treated to about a thousand different flavors of “shut up, you dumb fucking bitch” in the comments of one of the most prominent “liberal” blogs on the Internet.

You don’t even have to kick an entire award slate to the curb. I know female authors who have gotten such threats for daring to own a bred cat instead of a shelter animal, for not having their books available on the Kindle as quickly as some fans would like, for minor infractions. I’ve gotten them for, as far as I can tell, simply existing online. Most women who blog or are active in the cultural commentary game know that they have to watch what they say. Always. It’s a horrible balancing act, and one I rarely see men having to do.

Yes, I know it’s the net and comments are a festering pile of venom, but you do have to notice that the venom cranks up to eleven when a woman posts. You can tell me well, Requires is so mean! Sady doesn’t say things super nicely! And I will point to all the men who say not nice things, some of whom even call out properties for sexism, and are applauded for their badassery and edginess, for their disinclination to suffer fools, and the total lack of screeching hate speech in their comments.

Because, yeah. If you threaten a woman with rape because she didn’t like a comic book you like? That’s hate speech. That’s invoking an act of violence specifically related to her status as a female in order to shut her up. Men can be raped, too, of course and obviously, but the kind of person who leaves comments like that doesn’t see it that way. Rape is what you do to a woman who pisses you off. To hurt her especially. To remind her of her place.

And if you want to see the ugliest fandom has to offer, all you have to do is be a woman and say something negative about a popular SFF property. Bonus if it’s male-authored and male-directed. Shit on urban fantasy all you want. But Game of Thrones is holy.

The fact is, to be a woman online is to eventually be threatened with rape and death. On a long enough timeline, the chances of this not occurring drop to zero.

Chris Priest can say what he says not only because he is a giant in his field (Sady Doyle is barely less prominent in hers, and while I do think that harsh criticism goes down better when it’s not the authors in the field at hand who do it, both Sady and Requires are not SF authors of any stripe) but because he is a man. And we respond to it with some anger, but mostly reasoned philosophical or humorous posts, macros, examining what it means, the value of juried awards, defending the authors and jurors but mostly accepting what he said as either a sad gesture by an old man, a hilarious and miserable rant, or valuing that at least someone cares that much–even wishing someone would go equally ballistic about a different award. There is a marked lack of viciousness–and what he said was every bit as bad as some of the stuff that gets Requires Only That You Hate a fever pitch of loathing and seething fury just about every time she posts.

I’m not saying everyone should just put their Asshole Hats on and have at it–but some people have their Asshole Hats on already, and they take them off for men who have a beef. I keep trying to think of what a male blogger would have to say about science fiction to have someone say they hope he gets raped to death. I’m not coming up with anything.

Misogyny in the West is coming up and it’s a gross, miserable, chthonic thing swirling at our feet. It’s getting worse, not better. Sites that consider themselves evolved, liberal-leaning, and intellectual (hello Reddit! Hello Gawker!) have comments and whole sections full of such boiling hate for women that it knocks you back. I hear people say with a straight face that the younger generation isn’t sexist or racist anymore, and unpacking how woefully wrong that is would take another post entirely. And geek culture isn’t immune, not even close. Sometimes it’s worse, because it’s so convinced it doesn’t have the same work to do as the mainstream. And, I suspect, because a lot of guys were rejected by girls when they were young and see gender as the only thing all those girls had in common, and so as adults take it out on a whole gender by either outright hostility or by excluding what they see as the source of their troubles from their presence, their media, their art.

Well, I was rejected by a LOT of guys when I was young. Often cruelly, often publically. Every awful thing “girls” do, a guy has done to me. And now, as when I was in school, I find myself navigating a world where everyone listens when the menfolk talk. When women say something even slightly off the path of accepted indietechsfgamer wisdom, for offenses as monstrous as suggesting that it’s hard to be a woman programmer in the open source world and as unforgivable as crossing the street the wrong way, a large and vocal cross-section simply screams obscenities until she shuts up. When I was a kid, I was told to soften my voice, make it higher, make it sweeter, smile more, keep my hand down in class, and over and over not to be so opinionated–a word that is not even used to describe men, because when a man has an opinion, it’s taking a stand or telling it like it is or whatever brand of keeping it real you’d like to slot in there.

I’m frustrated. I’m tired of the disparity of voices, of who gets written off and who gets their blog posts discussed in The Guardian being dismally predictable. I’m tired of still having the “when men say it it’s awesome and when women say it it’s bitchy” conversation that was supposed to be sorted in 1985. Not because I have a whole bunch of horrible shit about awards that I’d like to say. I don’t. But I have to tell you that I don’t, so that you’ll think I’m a nice girl, so that I don’t come off as threatening, so that you’ll listen to what I say and not just write me off as an angry feminist…what? Bitch. Because feminist bitches are not to be listened to, don’t you know. They are not to be considered, not the way Priest was considered, even by people who disagreed, even by people who thought he went too far and too personal and too much.

And ultimately, it won’t matter. This post will still probably net me some ugly email and assumptions that I am in some fashion The Worst. Because there is no possible way to make myself as dulcet and charming and innocent and inoffensive as some people want women to be, most particularly women writers of children’s books, without killing some part of me, burning it out to replace it with a nice tea service and a demure smile.

That’s the line I walk, and most female authors and commentators walk. On one side of it is a silence which we can’t afford and on the other are the blowback and threats, which come quietly and secretly through email or boldly and baldly in comments.

I have no doubt professional life will be a bit dodgy for Priest in the near future. But no one will wish him death. No one will email him to tell him he should be raped. No one will call him a rabid animal (with the implication that such monsters are to be put down). That he will not suffer this is undeniably a good thing.

But it’s not an equal thing.

Mirrored from cmv.com. Also appearing on @LJ and @DW. Read anywhere, comment anywhere.

not sure I have anything clever to say, but just to say Thanks for opening my eyes as to how protected I may be in my bubble.


Outstanding. I'm going to be thinking about this for a long, long time.

You don't need a champion, but I will gladly behead anyone who gives you shit for having written this anyway.

You're good and thoughtful people, regardless of what kind of plumbing you have.

I'm sure you don't need to hear this, but your words prompted these words :-). To my mind we don't need champions, but we always need allies. When women aren't heard because it's not significant until a man says exactly the same thing... we need our allies. More than beheading, having all the small conversations that change the world, all the bystander things that can go uncommented on. I know I've let down fellow women, fellow people experiencing disadvantage because of color or sexuality or body image or whatever. Sometimes because I couldn't find the right words, sometimes because I was tired, sometimes because I didn't realize what was going on until afterwards, sometimes because I didn't realize I was part of the problem until afterwards.

We don't need champions, but we need allies, and being an ally is hard, exposing work and a continual process of listening, speaking and struggling to find the right words and face risk. We all have to work together to raise the boats and it takes many many conversations.

Yep. You're right. Thank you.

I suspect you've got an old link for Requires Only Hate.

Aw man. I used to like Peter Watts' work.

And QFFT. Did I like Doyle's rant about GoT? No, I thought it was bait-y and facile, like the rants of lots of smug male bloggers on the Internet. But nerddom isn't getting over its issues with being ignored by the cute male cheerleader in high school.

Again, I don't like the word rant. I think she made some very good points. She made them about a book so popular it's beyond criticism for most--clearly. This is an important activity--much more so than dissing an award.

Also, I don't think female nerds are allowed to have their personal issues represented by a whole culture. Many of us are still getting over being rejected by men. But that's not considered an archetypal experience the way the cheerleader thing is, most think women are never rejected, and men as a group are too powerful in our culture for women to be able to turn them into a cultural punching bag. We have to see our rejecters as individuals, not a gender monolith, or else how could we get by in our working world?

Women present an acceptable target for far too many people. It should be: you're not a geek if you conform to mainstream bullshit and hate women. Not you're not a geek if you are a girl, or you're not a geek if you don't like Star Wars or whatever.

Also I don't know what QFFT means?

Exactly this. Thank you.

This. In all the ways this.

I've been blogging for a few years now about feminism and culture and politics and SF, during which time I have never received any threats of death or rape, or anything even close to in terms of vitriol. In fact, I don't think I've ever been personally attacked online for having held a particular opinion. Mostly, I think, I've been protected by anonymity: my name is right there in the URL, but I'm nowhere near approaching well-known, and barring the occasional piece that gets signal-boosted by other people and puts my stats up, I don't really have many readers. Nonetheless, I don't doubt the scope or existence of the problem, because the evidence is too gross and extensive for any rational person to dismiss. And presumably, if I ever do become a more (or even marginally) well-known writer, whatever protection anonymity currently affords me will disappear.

That being said, and without wanting at all to ignore the fact that this is a problem everywhere, I'm starting to feel like there's a distortion effect in play: specifically, an American one. Australia, Canada, NZ and the UK all have their fair share of vile sexist trolls, but the combined populations of those four countries is still phenomenally less than the United States. (According to Google, the USA has a population of 311,591,917, while the tallied populations of Aus, Canada, NZ and the UK is 123,024,113.) And while there's certainly some crazy, awful and demoralising public sexism in those other countries, I don't think it's in dispute that the extent, breadth and sheer mind-blowing wretchedness of public sexism in America - culturally, legally, politically and religiously - is greater than that experienced in the rest of the English-speaking world.

The internet, though, is an international domain, so that even when people are commenting online under their own names, it's rarely apparent where in the world they're commenting *from*. So when I see these big, awful instances of sexism cropping up in reaction to female bloggers, it either seems to be in relation to American women, or to ladies who, though located elsewhere in the world, write blogs that are well-known by Americans or whose books are popular in America. And maybe that's doing a gross disservice to the many vile sexists in Australia, Canada, the UK and NZ, but if you're an English-speaker on the internet, then statistically speaking, you're more likely to be American than not; and I can't help feel that this is relevant in terms of who such commenters actually *are*.

I'm not sure I'm explaining this right. I think it's just, I feel a terrible sense of frustration when things like this happen, and the first reaction of the left-wing internet is to say, 'Augh, this specific kind of terrible sexism keeps happening EVERYWHERE!', when really, I suspect it's mostly a local (American) problem that bleeds out onto the internet and shapes its culture just by sheer dint of numerical superiority. Or maybe I'm totally wrong; maybe if there was a way of working out what percentage of misogyny on the internet came from which countries, we'd find out that roughly the same percentage of each population would be so awfully sexist, regardless of population size. But I'm finding it hard to know how to apply the problems I see online to my real-world context. I want to be part of an international SF community, but I also want to acknowledge that not all the cultures contributing to that community have the same problems to the same extent, and simply because America is so big and so problematic, it feels like the tone of supposedly-universal problems and discussions is actually, by default, American.

I actually do have a problem with, barring an extensive troll IP study, the assumption that online sexism is an American issue. We do not actually own the patent on everything awful in the world. I have met PLENTY of vile Brits and Aussies on the internet and in real life (fair point, I used to live in the UK). And the UK government is dipping its foot in some of our abortion and health care shenanigans.

It sucks here in some ways. But come on, we didn't invent sexism, and if we disappeared from the net someone else would carry on the grand tradition.

Thank you. Well said. Passing on.

I hear people say with a straight face that the younger generation isn’t sexist or racist anymore, and unpacking how woefully wrong that is would take another post entirely.

If you write it, I will read it and pass it on.

Tremendous. (Also, you got a new reader today!) I really love this post--and the thing is, you're not wrong. I know that for me it's really easy to go "Did I make that up inside my head? Is it just me?" It's not just you.

This is to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center: http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2012/spring/a-war-on-women

And I wouldn't recommend typing "Southern Poverty Law Center" and "feminism" into Google. You get a slew of very scary websites.

I dunno. When I was a kid, I thought that it would be easier for women, not harder. Turns out that a lot of people think that they see their world disappearing, and are clinging in desperation to hate speech and regressive social policies.

Thanks for that link, great report.

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We will get there eventually. The men of our community need to make a stand, to make it known that this treatment of women is not acceptable. To call out misogynist assholes regardless of their position within the community.

I hope I live to see the day.

Tell it, sister. I work in a corporate environment, and was just discussing with my (female) boss, the firing of a woman colleague for saying something we know damn well that male coworkers say too.

You might quietly suggest to the former colleague that she speak to an attorney. That doesn't always help, but sometimes it can.

You rock and gracefully put into words many of the things that have been swirling around in my head too. Thank you!

"I’m tired of still having the 'when men say it it’s awesome and when women say it it’s bitchy' conversation that was supposed to be sorted in 1985."


When I came onto the internet in 1995 it was still pretty unusual for a woman to use an obviously female name. It was a place where men were men, and so were most of the women.

I think that has changed...

Yep. And as a middle school teacher, I heartily laugh at the notion that the kids are less sexist than they were. If anything, the boys are more demanding and feel entitled to push the girls around. And when you call them on it, oh, the denial.

I snarked about crappy faux-personalized form rejection slips a while back. Oh man, did I ever get it. Vitriolic, poisonous, How Dare You Say Such Things About The Hallowed Post of Editor.

(yeah, well, when Editor uses a crappy mail merge format to pretend to critique a rejected MS and it's that damn blatantly obvious...yeah).

OTOH, I'm an alpha mare type. And if I get caught in one of those snarls when I'm in the appropriate mood...yeah.

Thanks for writing this. It is sadly too damn true.

I'm sorry to say this isn't completely persuasive, at least in the examples. I saw plenty of negative feedback to Mr. Priest's comments, mainly about, as you say, name-calling. Mr. Priest claimed the award administrators were "incompetent" but failed to clearly explain what standard was not being met, and people called him on it. Did he get death threats? I don't know, you'd have to ask him. But if there are examples of this kind of problem, the evidence would be from the evidence, not from the lack thereof.

Being called a "rabid animal" isn't a sexist comment, when it comes from Peter Watts isn't notably strong language. I greatly admire Mr. Watt's literary creativity and scientific credibility, but he aims to shock in every discussion, even with the name of his blog; he isn't targeting invective towards any particular gender. I find him hard to take online sometimes, or in person occasionally, but that's Peter's flaw, not a group cultural norm.

And "Game of Thrones" is "holy" because it's really good, because of the depth of the setting. It has brilliant male characters and brilliant female characters. The setting is loosely analogous to a late Dark Ages historical drama, and in order to have verisimilitude it shows a society where some characters discriminate against other genders, races, religions, or whatever is simply being accurate. The primary conflict arises from the contempt southern clans feel for the North, where the main protagonists are from. Having historically accurate elements in one's story isn't sexist, and criticizing such works on invalid grounds will attract rebuttals.

Not to say the problem this post describes doesn't happen, just that it isn't demonstrated by the examples cited.

Edited at 2012-04-06 02:41 pm (UTC)

I'm honestly not sure if I have the energy to point out how this comment is not correct.

Comparing women to animals is an ancient strategy in dismissing them. That's like saying bitch can mean men too. Yes. But it didn't in that case.

Priest's negative feedback came in the form of reasoned arguments. Not spewing loathing and hate.

If you like Game of Thrones, awesome. It is not a work of versimilitude wrt the Middle Ages. This is a meme rooted in ignorance. I am posting about it in general terms on Monday so stay tuned. If you have no problem with dragons and a medieval world with no Church, then you cannot cry realism to cover the constant rape and poor portrayal of women. Authors make choices. Nothing is objectively good. People are allowed to say so without being threatened with death--and men have.

Your Name Here (Anonymous) Expand
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Totally. Absolutely. And I am increasingly terrified that it seems to be getting worse.

i love you even more, and I wish I had the right words to express my profound appreciation for this post.

I've always been "a girl in a boys world". and the boys, then and now, were never quite sure what to do with me. for a few seconds i was the exotic girl in the room that maybe they had a chance with. once they realized i was married suddenly I was the intruder. and now I'm a girl who blogs SF/F, and i still think some of the boys aren't quite sure what to do with me.

I HATED that article. I almost posted about it. It was so incredibly entitled. You feel powerless. Fuck you, buddy.

Fuck, yes.

I don't know if I was in a bubble for the first several years I was on the internet, or if more women are speaking out about this phenomenon now, but I am heartened to see it being addressed more often than I used to. Maybe one of these days it will hit critical mass and more people will start to recognize the problem and call out the perpetrators.

I didn't speak about it the first several times it happened to me. There's so much shame and pain, and when you're trying to make it as a writer...

Well, thank God. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought Laurie Penny made some good points.

I didn't even find her Gawker peice all that "rude" or "ungrateful"...not that she would have deserved thteats or an outpouring of vitrol if it had been.

Edited at 2012-04-06 02:53 pm (UTC)

I can't understand the fuss about Laura Penny (I read her piece in the New Statesman, not the Gawker, so I don't know if they were the same) - she made what I think was the perfectly valid point that calling someone a hero for an act of common decency just because they were a celebrity both denigrated ordinary people who also were capable of acts of common decency but overlooked the real heroes who included those fighting for women's reproductive freedom and better medical care for all. Also, I can't help being amused that about the only person - British or American - I can recall writing words to the effect of "Everyone here's been really lovely, friendly and welcoming and very decent to strangers" about the people of New York gets slammed for ingratitude.


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