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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.

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Actually I had to go back to Scalzi's blog to see who had written the post; I wouldn't know who "yuki_onna" is. I admire John's ability to read about so much and summarize clearly; I don't see that as a gender issue.

Yes, Game of Thrones has a lot of sex. The "sexposition" scenes with Renly and Maester Pycelle were a bit ridiculous. The scene where the poisoner is being dragged naked to his death, with his dick hanging out, was shocking, and by "shocking" I mean "unexpected". To me the socially interesting plot development was where Daenerys told the Dothraki to stop raping the lamb women, socially interesting because that was about how social change happens, where someone in a position of authority sees advantage in making a progressive change. The show has a lot of violence too, where Ned chops off Will's head, where Ser Gregor chops off the head of his horse, in HD where the level of detail is enough to count the maggots on the dead stag. Personally I might enjoy a non-HBO version a little better, but I'm much happier to see it on HBO than not at all. Not that I cared to see more, but I noticed that the scene with Renly and Loras had Loras step out the shot at a point that they didn't avoid in scenes with other characters. If they spent more time on rape scenes than they do on other sex scenes or other scenes of violence, one could argue that it's sexist, but I don't think that happens in the series. Likewise a lot of the larger conflict in the story is geographic, between different societies. The fact that some people in different societies may dehumanize their enemies to justify their own violence is unexceptional, to the point of being obvious, IMO. Describing evil doesn't validate it; in fact in a fictional context, it sets up the resolution. If these examples don't persuade you, well, we can agree to disagree.

Anyway the link provided didn't link directly to objectionable comments criticizing the critiquer's post, so I can't comment on those. I don't think the critique itself (as it was summarized in Cat's post) was valid, and therefore I think disagreement with the critique is unreasonable.

This post is not about A Song of Ice and Fire. Full stop. I did not make the original post critiquing the book. Go argue with Sady--except the comments are closed because of the things I was actually talking about in this post.

Since you have an LJ account and are commenting here, you can go ahead and stop belittling my blog now.

Your comment about Game of Thrones is what caught my attention. I'm sorry if that led me off topic.

So you took the time to flumph around to check how many "followers" Valente has on LJ, but not the time to even skim her bio? Hrm. Class-ay. You know, Snurri's link to the Derailing For Dummies page was alarmingly instructive because I've been enjoying the aplomb with which you keep ticking off the little boxes next to ALL of the variations. I'm sure something else is wrong on the internet somewhere. I'll have to go check, now.

Edited at 2012-04-06 06:19 pm (UTC)

I met Cat Valente briefly at Boskone a couple months ago. I know she's a respected author. Didn't realize anyone would think my comment was a big deal. Sorry.

I thought you just said you'd never heard of me?

I'm pretty sure I didn't say I'd never heard of you. I used to have time to skim Locus, I follow @tordotcom on Twitter, you've been mentioned many times in those places. Of course Tor.com and Locus talk about a lot of authors, so it's fair to say I'm not familiar with most of them.

I'm trying to scale up, to get a better sense of what other people are reading. Reading John's blog helps with that. (Replying to it, maybe not so much.)

Anyway I'm sorry my first reply came out sounding like an argument.

Actually, pretty much all your replies are coming off like arguments. Hint: if you don't want people to think you're arguing, you might start by not opening every post with an argument.

Okay, I apologize. Wasn't my intent.

Usually I try to avoid arguments like this, but can I just say that perhaps it might have been helpful in this case to find out who Yuki_onna is -- which, not even remotely incidentally, is why John Scalzi is reading her blog in the first place?

Yes, you're right. I'm sorry I didn't realize that level of discourse would be called for.

Perhaps, to be on the safe side, you could attempt thoughtful, well-reasoned, fact-based discourse everywhere you go. Just in case it's called for.

Oh, Rose, you always give such lovely advice.

A study of mitochondrial DNA of the people of Iceland found that almost all the female ancestors were Celtic (from Ireland and Great Britain) while the male ancestors were Scandinavian.

The troubadours of Provence and Occitania promoted the concept of courtly love in part to improve the status of women relative to the notion that physical love was mainly a matter of sinful materialism. Around the same time, the church was promoting the idea of marriage founded on a loving relationship, again to move past the prior notions of marriage being about property and chattel.

Etymologically and historically, the term "seduction" had more of a connotation of deception than romance, i.e. putting a women into a position where she could be separated from her household. In Roman law the crime of rape ("raptus") was a crime against the head of the household for violating the father's property rights.

All of which is to say, rape was a lot more common in the Dark Ages than it was later and tolerated or at least not prosecuted in circumstances that would now be intolerable. Those are the facts as I understand them. "More common" is not at all the same as "more acceptable"; I think showing the violence is Martin's way of condemning it. Martin's setting is much closer to the Dark Ages than it is to the 21st century; that's why it's interesting.

Sorry to go into my own personal detail (because it's not important here), but basically I was brought up in what was in some ways a very traditional liberal milieu, where gender equality is a given among reasonable people. It is exactly because I'm inclined to agree with Cat's argument that I was looking for a simpler, more persuasive version of it. I could have phrased things differently. This subject is part of the whole sphere of human rights, where I have more background in other aspects (international and constitutional law, etc.), so understanding more here helps me understand the whole sphere. In other subject areas it's perfectly normal to ask for a better argument if the one presented isn't clear. It wasn't my intent to use a request for more information as some sort of rhetorical tactic of denial. I know there are plenty of websites where hate-filled comments are common, but I don't frequent those at all because they aren't useful or interesting.

My problem isn't with facts or considering questions thoughtfully; I failed to anticipate how contentious some people would find the subject or the level of formality and context people would expect. I'm sorry if I had a gap of knowledge that offended anyone.

Right, I think you're still missing the "thoughtful" part of my suggestion.

I think I've been doing so. I'm sorry if I missed relevant details coming in, or if I haven't communicated effectively. For what it's worth, to you here I was just mentioning facts about how I came to my original understanding, not continuing any argument.

Of course you didn't realize "that level of discourse would be called for" because you first assumed "Yuki_onna" was some inconsequential chick with a chip on her shoulder whose citations couldn't possibly back up her wrong opinions. She might be of some interest since Scalzi recommended her, but you were disappointed in her post. HER NAME IS ON HER LJ PROFILE. Along with a bio. And the books she has written. And the awards she has won. Her number of readers meant more to you than her accomplishments.

Good grief, just give up now. Every comment you make digs a deeper hole of unsalvageable opinions on your part.

No, I didn't realize anyone would take my comments so seriously. Yes, I should have clicked on more pages and gotten more context. I don't always ignore people who respond to me directly. Sorry I offended you.

I'd also like to point out some people are evaluating Cat's original points by evaluating her credibility. Some people are evaluating the accuracy of her data, even when calling them collective anecdotes, by citing whether they believe her or not. They may be privileging her awards, the books she's written, the people she knows, the people who know her, the hit-counts, etc. Some are claiming her opinions are not worthy because her examples aren't good enough.
Why does any of this count more?
If she had none of these backing her up, would it still be true?
She's said known-male-writers/bloggers do not get the hate and levels of threat experienced by known female ones.
I think it's true just from what I've seen in things on sites like daily Kos. For examples, all I have to do is flip over to the comments in any major media outlet and look at comments on any kind of remotely progressive and feminist topic. Try BBC and any of the major papers. Look at the hate on LA Times, or NY Times.
Some people disagree on the quality level and detail of her links. A further listing of more examples--many many examples--is still a collection of anecdotes. I agree that stats might make this point, but some people don't believe in that science either.
Try looking at Bill Moyers' site, goodness help you.
You could do a whole study on these, you could go through them when the moderators on a newspaper or a broadcast news show do their work. They often have to delete or block those who make death-threats.
You could objectively sort these by racist, homophobic, sexist responses, see how many death threats and diverting efforts are there. You could sort by name to see if a tiny minority are making all the noise. I've stopped looking there for intelligent commentary because it's so buried in this junk.
It isn't being generated out of nowhere.

Edited at 2012-04-09 12:27 am (UTC)

It's more important to tell me I'm wrong.

The fact that you refer to rape as sex is very revealing.

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