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09 July 2013 @ 02:27 pm
Gender in Genre, Part 2: Femmes are Useless, and Other Problems  

Here's another installment of Gender in Genre! The first post is here.

It's not that I wish to complain that femmes are, on the whole, a put upon or oppressed group. We get our fair share of sexism, certainly, but there's a lot of privilege that goes along with being femme.

Perhaps it's because of that privilege, and the fact that as nerds we've self-defined as different from the 'pretty people', that we have a femme problem in genre. As kids, a lot of us got picked on people who were prettier than us, and therefore, being pretty was the problem, right? And that would be one thing if it was equally distributed in genre - we have our share of the vain, smug men, admittedly, but the truth is, there are a lot more vain, insipid women. When you see this trope disproportionately applied to women, it becomes clear that this is not really about looking down on being vain, it's about hating on things that are traditionally feminine.

The message you get, reading a lot of genre literature, is very straightforward: if you are doing women's work, and if you are making an effort to present as feminine, you are a waste of time; you are boring; you are useless. You are baggage. (And that's the charitable version; think about all the beautiful-but-deadly female villains out there, from Snow White on down. There's an even  better message: being pretty makes you evil.) Conversely, if you are a girl and you would like to be considered interesting, you must set yourself apart from all those other girls. You must be interested in boy things instead, because boy things are the only useful things.

I understand the urge to say "girls don't need to be restricted to girl things!" This is a wonderful thing to say. But it's possible to go too far, to say that only girls who eschew their gender are interesting. Which is what we're saying in genre, every time another author takes cheap shots at a traditionally feminine character.

Now, guess what that means to geek girls? You have to choose between being femme and being a protagonist. You need to apologize for liking feminine things. If someone says that you're girly you need to figure out what you did wrong and backpedal.

It means that if you're beautiful, it negates your interest as a person. Are you pretty? Congratulations, you're an object. A fake geek girl. An outsider. Go away.

You want to know why women tend to be underrepresented in fandom historically? Maybe it's partially because we told them that the very thing their value was being judged on in real life - their appearance - made them unwelcome in fandom. Shockingly, this ties right in with our standard cultural narratives about the objectification of women. Women must be pretty to be taken seriously, but if they're too pretty, they are trying to hard, probably not competent, just eye candy. (Or they are using their Feminine Wiles against you.)

Oh, and when pretty women are just objects in fandom? Suddenly harassment culture at cons makes a great deal more sense. I'm not saying that genre's disdain for femmes is singlehandedly responsible for harassment culture, but if we make anyone who presents as feminine into plot furniture in our work, are we really surprised when people objectify women in fandom?

And, on a personal level: we talk a lot about wanting to see 'people like us' in the media we consume. I'd really like to see people in the books I read who are allowed to be femme without being vapid and useless. I'd like to see girls be interesting, compelling characters without having to be Different From The Other Girls.

On behalf of the other girls, screw that.

Debbie N. wild_irises on July 9th, 2013 11:37 pm (UTC)
Have you read Whipping Girl? And if not, why not?

(Good stuff here; I need to read it more carefully to comment more thoroughly.)
chinders chinders on July 9th, 2013 11:41 pm (UTC)
I haven't, but I can fix that. :)
Krissy rightkindofme on July 10th, 2013 03:33 am (UTC)
I have spent a lot of years not liking the women who say, "I get alone better with men than women" because I find it usually isn't that all the other women have a problem.

I do understand that there are male social environments that are more crass/rougher/whatever than many female social environments. I like hanging out with men too. Many of my best friends are men! I'm not saying that getting along with men is bad. I just dislike the attitude that women aren't so much worth it. It always strikes me as internalized misogyny.
Marissa Lingen mrissa on July 10th, 2013 04:26 pm (UTC)
I think there are several things that can be going on there, some of them jerkfaced and some not. Here are the ones where I give people some slack depending, partly because I used to be them:

1) Some people are from environments where the opposite sex is so very much not who you are "supposed" to be socializing with in anything but a romantic way that it is worthy of comment if you have any opposite sex friends at all. (These environments are not notably supportive of intersexed people, to the point of not recognizing their existence, so the binary is entirely accurate in this description.) Some people are strongly heterosocial or strongly homosocial their whole lives, regardless of context, and that's no problem with me as long as they aren't going on and on about it or making sweeping statements about other people and what it all means.

2) Some people are from such small environments that they literally are the Only Girl Who. See also some Only Boys Who in dance or theater. So if they want to be with people who share their interests, well.

3) Some people find that the dynamic of intra-sexual competition in their area is either extremely toxic or something that they just do not deal well with. You get this with girls who think that boys are much nicer but also with boys who think that girls are much nicer. A lot of people grow out of the toxic intra-sexual competition when they leave their teens and/or leave the involuntary hothouse that is secondary school.

All of these things can be completely reasonable in context. It's just when they spill over out of context that I start giving people the look and going, "Really? Really, that's your basis for judgment?"

I compare this behavior to the "I was always the smartest kid in the room when I was little": sometimes completely true at the time, but it's very useful to notice when that time has passed and you actually know quite a few smart people.
Krissy rightkindofme on July 10th, 2013 09:01 pm (UTC)
So, what I hear is my friend has a problem with Indian people. He adamantly is *certain* that all people from India are stupid and lazy. He knows this because he has spent a lot of time around them and he knows this for sure.

If it isn't ok with race it isn't ok with gender in my opinion. *shrug*

(For the record I have gotten to the point of actually shouting at him for his racist diatribes. I don't listen silently and act like it is ok. No, I don't think that shouting is awesome or anything.)

I know lots of people who say things like, "Most of my friends are not of my gender" not "I don't get along well with my gender."

One of those is a descriptive statement of reality that places no judgment. One of those probably says more about the speaker than the folks they don't get along with.
Marissa Lingen mrissa on July 11th, 2013 02:32 am (UTC)
"I get along better with women than with men" (or vice versa) is not the same thing as, "Men [or again, vice versa] are all lazy and stupid." But if I had an Indian friend who started going on about how all people from India are stupid and lazy, I would be more concerned for the level of self-hatred involved than dismissive.

But I do know women who live in very small, very insular communities. They're not where I live. But I have some sympathy for them, even as I want them to get themselves out.
Tiger Spot tiger_spot on July 10th, 2013 10:05 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think that can be a relatively neutral statement when the speaker is still in high school, or maybe just out and her self-concept hasn't caught up. But I'm very leery of it in adults now.

The idea of adults trapped in such small social environments that they can just happen to not have any same-gender friends because of unevenly distributed interests or whatever frankly terrifies me. (Same for no opposite-gender friends, but there I can see the larger social forces at work, so it seems more explicable.)
Marissa Lingen mrissa on July 11th, 2013 02:33 am (UTC)
I have relatives and shirttail relatives who have essentially no friends in person because they live in very small communities and are not gender-normative (thereby ruling out same-sex friendships) and are not romantically interested (which is the only kind of opposite-sex friendship allowed in these communities).

It is indeed terrifying.
Krissy rightkindofme on July 11th, 2013 12:35 pm (UTC)
I ignore more than half of what high school kids say. They don't know what they are talking about. I don't consider this kind of internalized gender self-hatred (because it does actually apply to non-women-identifying people as well) a fixture in someones behavior until they are older. I argue with teenagers but I rarely bother arguing with adults. If adults want to be wrong that is not my problem. It's just a good clue to avoid them.
metaphortunate son metaphortunate on July 14th, 2013 07:09 am (UTC)
OH yeah. It's always a red flag.
Rose Fox rosefox on July 10th, 2013 04:02 am (UTC)
I think people tend to forget that CHA is as important as any other stat. There's demonstrable value to looking "good" (within local cultural referents) in many, many situations. The key thing is that a lot of SF/F books tend not to be written about those situations.

I'd love to see the Overton window shift. Less slogging through the epic fantasy mud, more court intrigue and social fencing. Less of dreary spaceship interiors with everyone in grey jumpsuits, more vibrant spacefaring communities where visual coding of status, celebration of heritage, and attracting a mate are relevant and important.
Marissa Lingen mrissa on July 10th, 2013 04:28 pm (UTC)
I have run into more roleplayers who misunderstand CHA on a very obvious level than any other stat (although I maintain that it's hard to play "above your own stats" in any stat--but often in subtle ways, where CHA is often really obvious). I know a great many people who think that being charismatic means that you can get away with anything rather than that you are very good at calculating what you can get away with, among other things.
metaphortunate son metaphortunate on July 14th, 2013 07:14 am (UTC)
Or, why I hope Sansa Stark wins everything at the end.