Thursday, July 14, 2011

When Bad Questions and Defensiveness Cut Off Conversation

In The Guardian, David Barnett asks: "Is science fiction sexist?"

He ponders this question after noting:

"Earlier this month Damien G Walter asked users to suggest the best novels in the genre, following on from the Guardian's special SF-slanted edition of its Saturday Review supplement.
The results went online last week, and displayed a great love for science fiction: more than 500 books, classic and contemporary, were suggested for inclusion. However, according to Seattle-based author Nicola Griffith, who did a bit of number-crunching on the stats, there's an overwhelming bias towards male authors.

'I scanned the Guardian comments – yes, all of them – and counted only 18 women's names. Eighteen. Out of more than 500,' she wrote in a blogpost at the weekend."

So, is science fiction sexist?

I think this is a poorly-worded question to ask and that, frankly, it's shitty of a man- who has a different stake in the answer than do women- to basically Just Put It Out There in so cavalier a manner.

For one, science fiction is a genre of fiction and not, say, a sentient being and therefore it is incapable of being sexist. (Although, if any genre was going to morph into a sentient being it would totes be science fiction, right?!). Yeah, it's a small point, but I abhor that sort of lack of clarity in writing. Like, who specifically, is the author asking is sexist? Publishers? Fans? Writers? All of them? Some of them?

I don't think it's wrong or bad to ask if something or someone(s) specifically is sexist, but to accuse a ginormous genre of sexism is going to provoke way more heat than genuine introspection and conversation.

So, instead, in light of an internet poll in which respondents "overwhelmingly" prefer male authors, I contend that what we need to be asking and discussing is:

1) Is this skewed ratio problematic?

2) What are the implications being drawn from such a poll? Are some using it as proof that male science fiction writers are inherently better than female writers? Are some using it as evidence that the respondents have a bias in favor of male writers?

3) How many of the respondents were male? How many were female?

4) How many of the respondents have been exposed to, are familiar with, and have read, science fiction written by women?

5) Do books written by men tend to be more readily classified as science fiction compared to books written by women? If so, could this skew the results?

6) Do science fiction fans tend to believe that male experiences represent a default human experience, while female experiences represent a specific gendered experience? If so, how could this attitude result in a bias against books written by and/or about women?

7) What is the ratio of male science fiction writers to female science fiction writers?

8) Are any male science fiction writers women, writing under male pseudonyms?

Barnett does raise a couple of these questions (which he does not answer) and then leaves it to the commentariat to discuss.

Unfortunately, as happens so often whenever people utter the s-word, many of the highly-rated comments were hyper-defensive reactions of the "how does participating in a poll make me sexist!?" type. Yeah, the author's question was poor, but suddenly, commenters weren't actually speaking all that reasonably and were instead angrily condemning gender quotas in science fiction, as though that was an option even on the table, and failing to seriously examine why respondents favored male writers.

Given how quickly so many people interpret "is this sexist?" to mean "you sexist asshole," it is clear that the burden remains on feminists and women to raise non-alienating questions that people who want to keep thinking of themselves as Nice People Who Definitely Don't Have Privilege Or Bias can handle.

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