Objectifying women is not a constitutional right

There’s a SFWA storm a’brewin’ today, this time by someone who’s not even a member. A number of current members were sent a petition this morning. You can read the whole thing here [PDF].

To summarize:

You may remember the kerfluffle last spring when Mike Resnick and Barry Malzburg wrote in the SFWA Bulletin #200 about ‘lady authors’ and ‘lady editors’ (it’s apparently important to prefix the term ‘lady’ in order to distinguish them from ‘real’ authors and editors who were born with more acceptable genitalia.) The same issue had a cover with a woman in a chainmail bikini, a tired sff trope to which many people objected. You can read my summary of them here and here.

This petition, written by David Truesdale and signed by Robert Silverberg, Greg Benford, Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg, is in regards to the job listing SFWA recently put up in their search for a new Bulletin editor. The job requirements include soliciting Bulletin topics, columists, and cover art that’s in line with the SFWA standards. It also mentions that the editor will ‘Participate in proofing and review process with select volunteer and board members’

To quote the petition:

The search for a new Bulletin editor followed the Summer 2013 resignation (under pressure) of the then (lady) editor (for the use of an “inappropriate” cover among other alleged crimes), and the brouhaha involving two long-time and well respected Bulletin columnists whose use of the words “lady editors,” “beautiful,” and a few other innocuous descriptive words led, for the first time in the history of the Bulletin, to its suspension (as of this writing no editor has been selected and the Bulletin remains in limbo).

Truesdale writes that the requirement that topics and cover art be in line with SFWA standards is code for a new policy of censorship ‘based on political correctness’, a turn of phrase that is generally used by people who are personally offended by having to acknowledge the opinions of people who aren’t like them. In writing about the Bulletin cover with the chainmail bikini, Truesdale puts the words “offensive” and “sexist” in scare quotes, another telling sign. One can almost hear the words ‘I wasn’t offended by the woman in the chainmail bikini, and my opinion is the only one that matters!’ wailing in the distance.

His major concern is that the new editor will need to work with ‘select volunteer and board members.’ This requirement in particular is allegedly an example of SFWA violating the freedom of the press. I’m not sure whether Truesdale understands that the First Amendment only applies to the United States government interfering with the press; it seems few people who reference the amendment are aware of that point.

Truesdale includes an exchange of emails between himself and current SFWA president Steven Gould. In short: Truesdale asks what are the guidelines for acceptable content. Gould replies that while there are no official guidelines, the general intention is to avoid alienating portions of the SFWA membership. Truesdale asks how such a thing would be possible, given the wide variety of viewpoints within the membership, and asks whether this will result in intolerance toward those with less politically correct views. He believes that a Bulletin that publishes a variety of alternate views on racism, sexism, etc would be best for the membership.

How do you get around this perception that the Bulletin is naught but a politically correct mouthpiece controlled by any number of various factions who are forever offended at the slightest variation from whatever political agenda they may espouse? This is the great fear I have, and I know others do as well.

Gould’s final response is that Truesdale’s definition of free speech is not in keeping with the needs and aims of SFWA’s publications, and is irresponsible to boot.

Truesdale’s diatribe resumes with defense of that chainmail bikini cover. He says covers featuring scantily clad men and woman have a long and proud history in sff, and that while people of a variety of sexual orientations find all sorts of people attractive, it’s only seen as an issue when it’s straight men enjoying a picture of a scantily clad woman.

So why are straight men held up as the only objects of feminist anger, as those who see women only as sex objects, when all sexual persuasions use whichever sex they’re aiming for, for exactly the same reason? Is the question really that easily and clearly defined, and is there obvious hypocrisy at work here, letting members of the GLBT community off the hook by the feminists whose apparent selective anger at straight men cause them to turn the other way in their campaign to banish attractive, sexy women (fully or partially clothed in a traditional SF or Fantasy setting) from all future covers of the Bulletin?

Before I get into my response to this, I’d like to refer readers to this lovely Shortpacked comic that neatly defines the difference between “sexy, large-breasted scantily clad woman” and “buff, hulking scantily clad man.” The first is a sex object; the second is a power fantasy. (See also: this Mary Sue post). But let’s get to his other point: that GLBT people are let off the hook here, since they also might find sexy women attractive. Since I’m a lesbian, I like to think I have a little authority on this particular subject. When I see a cover like the one in question, I don’t think “Wow, that’s one sexy piece of ladyflesh. I wish all Bulletin covers looked like this.” What I think is “Wow, I’m clearly not the target demographic for this Bulletin.” Because I’m not. That cover wasn’t made for lesbians. It wasn’t made for bisexuals. It certainly wasn’t made for gay men. It wasn’t made for women in general, who are getting tired of being the sex object instead of the hero. It was made for the same demographic that nearly all books, movies, comics and video games are made for: straight men. There’s nothing wrong with finding that woman attractive, but there’s no disputing the fact that her appearance on the cover is a message to the majority of readers that they are not the intended audience.

Pop quiz: in this picture, which one is nude to show off their sex appeal, and which one to show off their power?

The point I’m trying to make here is that this is exactly what President Gould is talking about in his response to Truesdale. Back in the day, it was fine to market your product to straight men, and ignore the existence of the rest of your audience. Science fiction and fantasy were boy things, and if girls happened to like them too, that was fine, but it wasn’t made for them. Now, that’s becoming less acceptable. The fact is, just as Truesdale acknowledges, the SFWA membership is extremely diverse. Alienating part of it for the sake of nostalgia isn’t acceptable for a professional organization.

I do understand why Truesdale is upset with this. If the organization broadens its focus to accept the viewpoints of the entire membership, the straight male viewpoint is necessarily a smaller portion of the whole.

Moving on. After doing the typical “my black lesbian friend wasn’t offended by the cover” thing, Truesdale bemoans the fact that people who liked the cover are being oppressed by the people who were offended by it:

What about them? Wherefore SFWA’s forward-thinking and oft-touted policy of inclusiveness and diversity, when one group’s opinion and view on any given subject—with the President’s blessing and endorsement—denies by fiat the rights of many others to view art, or read text more in line with their taste? Are worthy ideals now but lip service under President Gould, as he favors one group’s philosophy of “offensiveness” over that of the rest of the membership?

The end of the petition devolves into paranoid ranting about sock puppets and the powerful self-righteous voting block who are censoring the poor sexist minority. Truesdale points out that he’s not against people being offended by sexist things; what he objects to is just that they are silencing sexist people, and that form of censorship just cannot stand.

Let’s end this summary with a look at Truesdale’s call to action:

I exhort SFWA members who hold the concept of free speech dear to wake up and smell the roses. Read the fine print to see what SFWA President Steven Gould has put forth as duties and requirements for the new Bulletin editor. Far from an editor, this person will be nothing more than a slave, dragging his bundle of copy to the mansion from the field, where the “review process,” and some proposed “volunteer and advisory board,” and the President himself will be making the real “editing” decisions. You gather the cotton, we’ll spin it into what we think looks good for us.

Wow. Just wow.

Other views on the topic:
Editing is not Censorship

Oh Dear: SFWA Bulletin Petition