Feminism and Fandom

Sherry Coldsmith (1987)


Fans are often seen applauding themselves in bars; one of their most cherished excuses for self-praise is that of tolerance for differing beliefs and values. Fatherly hippie types get on well in fandom. Earnest maladroits do just fine, and God forbid that we should smirk at some crater-faced kid for extoling his vinatge collection of pickled Congolese tapeworms. But all this talk of tolerance often conceals an active dislike of 'extremists'. In those same real ale bars one often hears the term 'feminist' prefaced by descriptives like 'rabid' and 'rampant'. Such descriptions tell us more about the observer's own yardstick for sizing up feminists than it does about feminists themselves. At last year's Novacon [1986] SF convention, I tried to take my own measurements of fandom's stomach for feminist ideas, particularly with reference to science fiction works. The feminist cloak has been finished by the dress-maker, but are fans wearing it?

However blatantly or subtly fans may dismiss feminists, no one can deny that feminism is very much part of the cultural foreground. Fans have more of an interest in feminism than others might because they are consumers of the culture-machine par excellance. Records, books and movies are as large a commitment for us as microwaves are for Mr. & Mrs. Suburbia. Since feminists are increasingly involved in the manufacture and tuning of the machine's parts, it is not surprising that I found many Novacon attendees well informed on the subject of feminism. 55% of mainstream fiction readership is female, whereas for SF it is 35% [a figure largely unchanged since this article was written]. One reason offered by a respondent is that women readers, victimised by Jackie and Seventeen, prefer other kinds of novels. The assumption is that men and their tastes are the norm. Women's tastes are so much damned silliness perpetrated on a female readership by women writers, not male publishers [in 1998 the number of women editors working in SF is, coincidentally, about 35%, yet publishing as a whole can lay some claim to equality of numbers in male/female employees (except in most publicity departments, where women outnumber men about 10-1!). This, of course, says little about who actually own the publishing houses -- about 95% are men!]. To me the disparity should be explained from a different starting point -- why is SF so unappealing to women?

Women readers cited the marketing of the genre as the most obvious killjoy; all those male behemoths, pop-gun at the ready, like the star-stud adverts for Battlefield Earth. Fans, including the women with whom I spoke, are willing to forgive this mass-produced yuk as so much evolutionary residue, the worst examples of SF inspired by the social simplicities of the Golden Age. Accepting that space operas are no more harmless than a quaint, old-fashioned read, what of the identifiably more modern SF, for example the works of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling? My respondents felt uncomfortable with cyberpunk, but few could target the reasons for their unease. Feminist readers commended cyberpunk novels for the absence of background, fluffy-chested girlies cooing softly. Nonetheless, cyberpunk females feel like token figures, a bone tossed in the direction of the punters who are blessing the feminist publishing houses with a brisk trade.

Thankfully cyberpunks are not the only writers around. Women may be deterred by science fiction's packaging, even the contents of the more popular novels but shouls she persevere, the female enthusiast will soon hit paydirt. Among my respondents opinions varied widely on what the signs of a feminist novel are. Some women came precariously close to regarding any novel with a sword-wielding heroine as feminist. One respondent thought novels in the genre of heroic fantasy, such as Elizabeth A. Lynn's The Northern Girl and John Varley's Titan trilogy, feminist since the female characters are role models. A feminist novel was also thought to be one which provided examples of certain feminist tenets or demonstrated the disadvantages that women endure. Many novels which achieved these were cited, from the perennial favourite, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time to Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue.

Something most respondents shared was an abhorrence of writing by feminists whose purpose was too obviously instructive. One man interviewed considered consciously feminist writing to be inherently sexist, since it could not propose to be neutral on the grounds of gender. No women I spoke to echoed his views; the reason for this, I suppose, being the longed-for neutrality on the part of this commentator is simply an acceptance of the status quo in another guise. All respondents agreed that the feminist writer must write to entertain as well as to challenge.

Another notion held by some feminist critics is that there is a specific kind of Women's writing. Most of the respondents, men and women, agreed that such an idea is spurious. Those who had read novels which tried to use what these critics say is an inherently feminist style, found the works were judged to be failures in their own terms, since the criteria of a feminist style of prose -- progression by association rather than logical structure, the use of many protagonists often stalling the plot to debate points of morality -- can be satisfied by any male writer. In fact no respondent was willing to say that a man could not write a feminist novel, and some suggested that those as diverse as Delaney and Varley had done just that!

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