Rhiannon Frater is the award-winning author of the As the World Dies trilogy.


Sexism is Alive and Well in Genre, But Female Writers Are Speaking Out

When I was a little girl I used to love watching I love Lucy. I thought it was hilarious. Lucille Ball was so gifted that just the slightest twitch of her lips would make me giggle.

 Years later, as an adult, I decided to sit down and watch an episode with my mother. We were both giggling until this happened. 

 

 Suddenly, we both stopped laughing. The show ceased to be funny. I remember we looked at one another with dawning horror. 

 My mother and I talked for hours afterward, revisiting old episodes we remembered and discussing how much things have changed for women over time. The complete dominance of Lucy by Ricky (despite her “disobedience” that was played for laughs) was something I could no longer enjoy. I didn’t want to see a man dictating what his wife could or could not do, ordering her about, disciplining her, and then kissing her affectionately when she “learned her lesson.”

 I haven’t watched I Love Lucy since that day. I probably won’t ever watch it again.

In the last few months I have had a distinct feeling that there are quite a few in the literary world who’d love to return to the days when men could tell women to shut up. And, honestly, in the face of some very blatant sexism, a lot of female writers have done just that for years.

Finally, we’re starting to speak.

 One of the most eye-opening articles I’ve read on the topic of sexism in the writing world was written by Deborah Copaken Kogan for The Nation. She detailed ongoing sexist attitudes and behaviors leveled at her throughout her career. She also spoke of the fear of speaking out and jeopardizing her career. That fear is one many women in the literary world share with her. I know I do.

 Soon after that article posted, Maureen Johnson wrote about the gender politics of cover artwork. Though I do believe that covers for certain genres should be aimed at a particular audience, I have also noted that when men and women write in the same genre and address the same themes, their covers often reflect their gender.

 Amanda Hocking wrote a blog post about the Gender Coverup, then followed up with an addendum post. I was forced to consider my own views on certain points she addressed. One comment really stood out when I read it ”From a very young age, I knew that “girly” meant inferior, so I avoided it like a plague.”

 She goes on to discuss her own self-hatred and how she tried to alter those things about her that were considered feminine. She notes “Having emotions – particularly sadness and love – are associated with the feminine…”

 Of course, that also translates into the literary world. If a woman writes about emotional connections among her characters, its trash. When a man does it, it’s literary.

For example, when a woman writes about complex characters dealing with the difficulties and sometimes tragedies that come with falling in love, it’s automatically slotted as a romance novel and disregarded by many.

 But when a man writes about the same themes, it’s suddenly high art, touching, and fabulous.

 If Abbi Glines is a romance novelist, so is Nicholas Sparks. 

 Just sayin…

 About the time all of this was blowing up, I had my own run in with sexism. I’m NOT going to mention names. I don’t want to start a flame war. Honestly, I still don’t think the male author realizes how absolutely sexist he was when dealing with me and my fans.

 Anyway, here is the story: The Last Bastion of the Living was being read by a group online. A male zombie writer basically said that he liked the book before it devolved into chick-lit and became about who was hogging the bed sheets. There was an immediate response from the people reading the book. I didn’t see the initial kerfuffle because I was at Texas Frightmare and had very limited coverage on my cellphone. I became aware of what was going on because of a tweet I saw after we left the hotel and were on our way home. I followed the link, saw the comment, and was just floored.

 First off, Maria and Dwayne are both adults in a committed relationship and their love for one another is a major motivator in the decisions they both make throughout the course of the book. There is one very brief sex scene, and the two leads spend a majority of the story apart. Secondly, The Last Bastion of the Living is Sci-fi/Horror.

 This is the definition of chick-lit:

Chick lit is genre fiction which addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and lightheartedly.

 I cut and pasted the description and told the male writer that I seriously doubted he would have made those comments if I was male and my main character was, too. I then posted on my personal Facebook page and made sure not to mention or tag the writer while expressing my great displeasure at this comment.

 Then we dropped out of service for a very long time as we traveled home to Austin. I discussed at length with my husband about how irritating it is to deal with sexism as a female horror (and zombie) writer. I’d already encountered several instances of sexism that I blogged about previously. Whenever I am the brunt of sexism, I’m left feeling dirty. It’s almost like I’ve been dunked in mud and can’t wipe it off. 

 When I came back into cell service, I was floored. The male writer had unleashed on me and my fans. He accused me of sending my fans after him (which I didn’t. I didn’t even tag him or mention him by name), and he tagged me in a post I was later told was supposed to be an apology. It wasn’t. In fact one of his fans visited my Facebook page after reading that post and dismissed me as a “fan fiction writer.” The male writer had also gone onto my personal Facebook wall to respond to my complaint. I was shocked to see him describe me as a “bitch” due to some of the fan comments and there was an offer to beat up any of my fans willing to fly to where this writer lived. I was just beyond words. 

 Like most women in the face of sexism, I started to lower my head and go silent. I fought the urge and told him that I had not tagged him in order to keep his anonymity nor sent anyone after him. I also informed that no one speaks for me but me. Any fan comments were their own and I didn’t necessarily support them. I continued to stand by my assertion that he would not have labeled my novel chick-lit if not for the fact I am a woman and my lead character is female.

 At some point he told me to “pay attention” to what we were really arguing about. I’m still mulling that over, because what I was upset about was his blatant sexism. That was what I was arguing about. I wonder what he thought we were arguing about.

 I almost wrote this post a month ago, then decided to go silent. Yeah, I gave into the instinct to lower my head and be quiet. I don’t like to fight. I don’t like to get into heated discussions. I don’t like engaging with someone who calls me a bitch and offers to beat up my fans. Though he accused me of blocking him during the fiasco, I didn’t. And I won’t now. I hope all my posts about sexism and the fight against it will open his eyes. Honestly, I suspect that he has NO CLUE that he was ragingly sexist that day. 

  But like I said…I went quiet. I hate drama. I hate rocking the boat. 

 And then…

 The SFWA was hit by a huge controversy about the horrible sexism in The Bulletin, it’s publication. You can read about it here and here. Outgoing SFWA president, John Scalzi, released his own statement addressing the issue.

 “We could spend a long time here discussing whether the offense was intentional or accidental, or whether it is due to a generational, ideological or perceptual schism. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, too many of our members have felt their contributions and their place in the industry and within the organization belittled; too many of our members see other members being treated so. If we believe that we represent and serve all our members and not just some of them, then we need to listen and address those member concerns.

 That begins with recognizing the problem. And here is the problem: SFWA, through the last few issues of the Bulletin, has offended many of our own members.”

The first line really struck me because it DOES matter. It matters a lot why these self-described “white, old men” felt they had a right to demean women and then mock the people who pointed out their sexist comments.

 We NEED to talk about the roots of why this keeps happening.

 

Ann Aguirre spoke out on her blog on June 2, 2013 about the sexism she has endured in the SFF community. You should read it. It’s eye-opening, infuriating, and gut-wrenching to read.  

 I am a huge fan of Ann’s Sirantha Jax science fiction series, and I have always been bothered by it being labeled Science Fiction Romance.  I have read books by Charles Stross and Ian Banks with about the same amount of romance in them, yet they’re not considered Science Fiction Romance.

 Ann opened up the comments for people to tell their own stories, and I shared a shorter variation of my own. Afterward, I decided to finally stop being silent and write my own post.

I’m tired of hearing comments like “So…is this a romance novel with zombies” “So is this like girls crying all the time or something” “I read ADULT horror” “Why don’t you write a romance novel or something nice like that?” “Does this have kinky sex in it?”

 I’m tired of sexist reviews being left on my books because I’m a woman who writes about the human condition in the face of horrific events. “This is a zombie book for twelve year old girls!” “This is Mills and Boons with zombies!” 

I’m tired of being silent. I’m tired of listening to men (and sometimes women) mock me to my face because I dare to write horror novels.

 I’m so…so…tired.

  Yet, I have many horror fans (male and female) who are amazing supporters of my work. I have had my male horror writers treat me with dignity, respect, and kindness. 

 I have seen the best of my community and the worst.

 Maybe if we finally start addressing the latent sexism that permeates the various genres we can see effective change. Men and women working together can make a huge difference. If we all speak up when sexist comments are made, then people will learn that sexism is not acceptable.

Sexism is so insidious and all around us that even I sometimes miss it.

 To finish up this very long post, let me tell a little story.

 My friend, Kody Boye, and I went to see a movie. While we were waiting for the feature to start, there was a behind the scenes commercial…for a commercial. HA! It was for the new Microsoft tablet. Anyway, during the course of the commercial one of the male dancers was highly praised for his abilities. Then they showed a woman. The narrator described her as a female version of the male he just praised.

 “Female version,” Kody scoffed. “Nice.”

 I sat in stunned silence for a few seconds, then I got angry. For two reasons. One, the woman had been defined not on her own merits, but the man’s. Two, I didn’t catch it.

 At all.

 So…I have a question for you.

 Are you paying attention?

 I am.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05235628363081574896 Pili

    Something really to keep in mind and have your eyes open.

    It makes me way too angry to think that there’s still so much sexism out there…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06781244608701905826 diana

    That guy sounds kind of jealous of your success. To describe Last Bastion of the Living as chick-lit is purely nonsensical. Another one of my favorites, Jonathan Maberry wrote Dead of Night, had a female protagonist dealing with a complicated relationship. I loved the book, but I would consider that more romantic than LBOTL by leaps and bounds. I think maybe it’s because a lot of the male horror writers these days (excluding Mr Maberry) have a tendency to write a lot of just plain gore for gore’s sake and shock value. Some people might like that kind of thing but I would take your style any day over that, and yes, I am a female reader myself but I hardly consider myself a fan of romance and chick-lit. I like horror, and yours is top notch, creepy horror.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04884113621201620171 Rhiannon Frater

    Every time I experience sexism, it just floors me. I never expect it. I suppose I should.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04884113621201620171 Rhiannon Frater

    One of my fans (a male) said it was to diminish me. I think that’s absolutely true.

    When I first wrote “Tiny Fingers” the short story that gave birth to AS THE WORLD DIES, I posted it on a forum where a lot of writers were posting fiction. Nearly all were male. Two writers had a ton of fun mocking that opening sequence. It was hurtful. But I got so much positive feedback, I continued. Thus…ATWD was born.

    Years later one of those male writers contacted me and apologized. He said he made fun of Tiny Fingers because it was so well-written and elicited such intense emotion from him it was intimidating. He said he stopped reading my work because he feared it was better than his. I was very touched that he took the time to talk to me about what happened and to make things right.

    So, yes, a lot of times when my work is diminished by a male writer, I automatically think “So, you’re afraid of me?”

    Thanks for your support, Diana! It means the world to me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08643228807730738670 Ashley @ The Bibliophile’s Corner

    Oh my gosh! I can’t even wrap my head around this. I truly need to keep my eyes open more.

    That I Love Lucy bit at the beginning. Oh. My. Gosh. I can no longer love that show.

    As for this male writer who called you a bitch, this is not okay. I hate that when a female defends herself she’s called a bitch, but when a guy does he’s a “guy” and it’s okay.

    This is quite the provoking post. I love it. But I’m so sorry that you have to deal with this sexism crap.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04884113621201620171 Rhiannon Frater

    I have noticed the same exact thing. The minute a woman speaks up and points out the sexism, she’s branded as over-reacting, a bitch, blowing things out of proportion, etc. It’s all a way to get us to shut up. As I said in my post, the male writer told me that we weren’t arguing over sexism and to “pay attention.” I have no idea what he was arguing over, but I was definitely talking about sexism. It came across very much as a condescending comment in the vein of “woman, pay attention to the man speaking and get it right.” *shakes head*

    The only way we can push back is to speak up.

    Thanks for your comment.