Misogyny, racism and homophobia in SFF

Speaking of The Guardian, I just read an interesting article on misogyny, racism and homophobia in science fiction and fantasy. Here's an excerpt:

There is a paucity of simple respect and human understanding which would enable authors to create women who are not token geishas (or, given the genre, wild assassin women, escaping court hookers or muscly babes in bronze breastplates), non-white characters who are not noble magical heathens with psychic abilities and a strong connection to the earth, or perverted gay interplanetary warlords. It is odd that writers in fantasy and SF, the most imaginative of genres, can describe entire fictional planetary-wide alien societies with precise detail, but still not reflect the fact that women are the biggest group in society, and not all hot and young either.


The problem of how exactly to stop misogynists despising women, racists despising non-whites and homophobes despising gay people remains. The haters hate because they love it, it's a buzz and they're bullies. But science fiction and fantasy lovers must never forget that ours are the genres which imagine wild solutions. Ignore the bigots, log onto Amazon and get browsing, buying, recommending and commenting – better still, get writing. An entire universe of true human (and alien, and animal, and angelic, and cyborg, and part-werewolf, part psychic vampire) diversity awaits.

You can read the full piece here.

This article was written in response to this Elizabeth Bear post on her LiveJournal. Here's an excerpt:

So I was thinking this morning about what I said about having a problem with the lack of female characters (other than the redheaded assassin) in Ken Scholes' book, and that got me thinking again about an ongoing problem in all writing (and most art), which is, of course, Writing The Other without being a dick.

I still hold by the unpopular theory that it's actually pretty simple. (Simple, in this case, still does not mean "easy.") That in the long run, we are all people, and the basic similarities in the Venn diagram are more prevalent than the differences.

Please note, as a fantasy and science fiction writer, I spend a lot of my time writing things that are really Other--intelligent wolves and giant talking stag-headed ponies, for example. Also angels (fallen and otherwise), hyperintelligent supercolloids, virtual winged dinosaurs, and other stuff. So I keep thinking, well, if I can write something that doesn't even have the same senses I do, how hard can it be to write a Jewish former Army Captain from St. Louis?

As the Guardian piece pointed out, the geeks are a-buzzin'! So I thought it would be a good idea to post, as I believe this can generate a lot of discussions. . .

16 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Bears post is interesting, but that guardian piece is so bad my head hurts from it.

enelya said...

I think it is a very interesting idea. I hadn't thought about it like that really....Elizabeth Bear makes a good point.
As for reading tips I could point everybody to Lynn Flewelings Nightrunner series, in which the main characters are a gay couple

Anonymous said...

I like to think that the change is happening right now. As far as male authors go, Robert Jordan and GRRM had at least a small degree of global inclusion in there work, while modern SFF top dogs like Steve Erikson and R Scott Bakker have massive worlds with a cultural makeup comparable to our own. Plus a factor that most overlook is that many of the SFF writers have a white suburban background, which would of course be reflected in their work. Only recently have men and women with varying backgrounds taken up the SFF mantle. The Guardian, like most mainstream outlets, is a few years behind and nowhere near as well researched as they would be on a huge, mainstreamed topic.

Anonymous said...

That Guardian piece is pretty stupid. As previously mentioned, there's a series featuring a gay couple. Then there's Ursula LeGuin who frequently features non-white humans as protagonists. George RR Martin's women are both realistic and compelling and avoid the clichés: Brienne, Sansa, Catelyn, Arya, Melisandre, for instance. Hyperion also has a colourful cast with non-cliché women.

There are a lot of clichés in SF&F, but that's the same for every genre. I don't think SF&F is more misogynistic, racist or homophobic than any other genre, and there's no evidence to suggest it that I have seen.

Anonymous said...

What a whiner.
If your looking to read a politically correct sco fi book, wouldnt it be a bit dull?

Anonymous said...

Well, important topic, I'd say. Although SFF often lives from stereotypes (which is not necessary a bad thing!), I am a little bit surprised because I thought of the fantasy genre in general to be one of the most imaginative and open-minded genres ever. As a gay person myself I am glad of the change within the last year and that - foremost - female authors like Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mercedes Lackey, Tanya Huff and especially Lynn Flewelling showed their readers that there can be great (non-stereotype) homosexual characters in (genre) novels.

Although it's a little bit disappointing that authors like J. K. Rowling state that one of their main characters (Dumbledore) were intended to be gay but didn't mention that in the novels itself. I always thought it would have been a great chance to see a gay student in Hogwarts. Because, let's face it. It's still to much hatred going on. In my lunch hour I will attend a protest action because a gay student was beaten up last weekend and lies in the hospital with his life still at risk.

There's something true in Elizabeth Bears post - when it is possible to write about fallen angels and winged dinosaurs, it should be easy to come up with believeable human characters as well: women, old people, gay people, transgender people, non-white people and so on.

Darkstar (www.fantasy-news.com

Baptiste said...

Surprisingly, I think I'll be the first one to really disagree with what has been said.
First off, let me point out that in real life, I'm all for sexual and racial equality and so on.
However, when writing fantasy, you set yourself in a medieval world often with little or no magic.
In that kind of world, it does make sense for men to constitute most of the fighter class (as they are physically more fit) or for people to be more racist(as they are on average more ignorant) than we would like.
Picturing things otherwise doesn't strike me as a problem, but one should remember that there are reasons other than base hatred for building medieval settings that don't uphold the same moral values as we do.

Tegan said...

Baptiste, I think you're missing the point. It's not that characters should have "good" attitudes about race or gender. Like you say, it's totally realistic for characters, especially in medieval type fantasy, to be misogynistic or racist. But in those worlds, there are women and there are people of color. In fact, if the world is like ours, half the people in it are women and the majority are non-white. These characters can be written as full people without resorting to cliche. Plus, plenty of fantasy and science fiction authors are creating entirely unreal worlds not based on any historic period... why not mess with race and gender along with all the other facets of the culture that are alien?

Anonymous said...

Oh dear. First responding to a couple of points that were made

Anonymous 1: The fact that you can list "a series featuring a gay couple," Kind of points out that there is a problem. If you have to cherry pick to find fantasies that aren't all white straight males with big penis extensions... I mean swords... finding nubile women and saving the world, I think it makes a fair case that the vast majority of the genre is about such people.

Anonymous 2: You think the writer is a whiner and that 'politically correct' SFF is boring? The writer of that article lists about 20 authors in a paragraph that Pat didn't quote. Do you think all those authors are boring? Have you read any/all of them? Or are you commenting from ignorance.

Baptiste - I take your point, but a lot of fantasies are actually set in non-earth medieval style worlds, rather than medieval earth itself. There is not reason to suppose that said worlds would have the same social development and/or hangups about different races/genders/sexualities as we do. Sure, if the authors makes the artistic choice to include those prejudices and does a good job with it, justified by the story, then fine. But it doesn't HAVE to be this way.

I'd be interested to see what you think of the state of the genre in this area, Pat. Come on, if you're going to post for discussion, the least yo can do is share your opinions :).

Personally, I would like to see a few more gay and/or non-white lead characters in fantasy. The most prominent recent one I can recall is Ringil in The Steel Remains, and his 'in your face' gayness is the thing that a lot of people disliked about that book. Other people have done this well, like Jim Grimsley, EBear, and the aforemention Lynn Flewelling, but it would be nice if it were more common. I think the reason it isn't more common is simple - large publishers don't think emphasising gay (or black, for that matter) main characters will sell well to the general fantasy market. Which is mostly (not entirely by any means, but certainly mostly) white, straight, male, and looking for escapism.

It's a bit of a tongue in cheek thing to say, but I'll believe that the fantasy genre has grown up when there's a best-selling epic fantasy trilogy, marketed towards teenage boys a la the Belgariad, which features a sword wielding black gay teenager looking for his handsome prince ;).

Anonymous said...

Let's not have our genre's authors being "afraid to go there" or fail to consider the possibilities. But I'm skeptical whether any fantasy outline that starts first and foremost to ensure the character is such and such a race/orientation solely for the sake of highlighting that demographic and then tries to craft a story to feature that character is ever going to be better than an outline that begins with a great story idea and then populates it with whatever characters are best suited to carry it out. That's a scenario for which "black gay teenager looking for his handsome prince" in the central role is rarely going to be the best fit. My point being, to say these characters should appear is to oblige an author to make them appear, and I would hope/expect authors will remember that should never come at the expense of artificially manipulating what could otherwise have been better told. If it works, let it work; if it doesn't, I don't expect any author to try forcing their story to do it.

For an entirely unrelated and off-topic reason I hope the fantasy genre never "grows up": those fragments of restored childhood wonder, however brief, is what it's all about for me.

Baptiste said...

Eddie Clark - Tegan

I understand what you're saying and mybe I didn't make my point clear enough.
what I was mostly trying to say is that the absence of well though of charchaters that aren't hetero white male is not necessaraly the result of hatred from the author as the article implies but can also come from other causes such as artistic choices or simply put lack of talent.
It's always easier to write about things you know or to make things up rather than write about things that exist but you don't know much about as this takes both research work and talent. As most SFF authors are white hetero male, this is what we get the most and when they try to do something else it comes out as cliched if the author is too lacking.
Of course, as a reader, I love 3 dimmensional charachters whatever their background and also love the kind of SF that tries out novel social concepts but I don't think we should be too hard either on authors who can't for whatever reason produce good charachter that aren't too close to their own social group.
On a last note, I have to say for the genre as a whole that the most successful authors do deal with these things decently : Erikson, GRMM, Baker, Morgan, Hamilton, Hobb, Miévillle, Stephenson...

Anonymous said...

Cecrow, I take your point re childhood wonder. I really like that, and wasn't really suggesting that that be removed.

As for the first point, well, it makes no sense. Really, it doesn't. You're relying on the assumption that straight/white/male is the default, and that anything other than that is a deliberate choice to be more diverse. WHY is a story with a black, or a gay protagonist any more 'politically correct'? It's not so easy to see S/W/M as the default if you're gay, or a person of colour, or female.

Anonymous said...

The first main character that immediately comes to my mind is the Fool in Hobb's trilogy of trilogies.

Having said that, I don't remember having read about any homosexual sex scene in a fantasy/sci-fi setting nor a relationship a la Brokeback Mountain.

As a reader, I'd welcome it as long as it adds to the story and to the character development.

I'm not so sure about the racism argument though. There are many fantasy books using different settings such as far eastern or middle eastern/arabian etc.

Misogyny? Hmm... Most of the books that I read have pretty impressive female characters in them. And not all of them are hot :).

Anonymous said...

fiction is a reflection of the author, and the author is to some extent a personal reflection of his society. The racism of sex objectified female characters is due to the failing of the writer and nothing else

Anonymous said...

In a lot of the books Fantasy books that I have read it does not specify the colour of the skin, so really, whoever reads it, pictures the character as they please.

There are always great details regarding appearance, but never have i read a character's introduction that specifically said that he/she is white. (Except Snow White.)

Unknown said...

Since when are only whites racist?