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


Even more on SFWA

SL Huang has a timeline of the SFWA debacle that’s much more in depth than mine, and has a bunch of things I missed. It includes a link to an anonymous Tumblr, Speculative Friction, that has been posting screenshots of comments on private sff.net forums. The Tumblr itself probably won’t be around for long (the most recent post is about a DMCA takedown notice) so if you’re interested, check it out now. Most of the comments screenshotted seem to be mourning the good old days when a middle aged author could walk up to young female and say “Let’s fuck” and everyone would chuckle indulgently. Kids these days just don’t know how to take harassment with an uncomfortable smile on their face and back quickly out of the room, etc etc. There’s also some bizarre talk that “SFWA is being taken over by a cabal of sorts”, presumably led by Scalzi? Not sure about the story behind THAT one.

Mary Robinette Kowal, who has been putting up with far too much, has an eloquent response to members like those, if not those people specifically: Dear Twelve Rabid Weasels of SFWA, please shut the fuck up. Well said, Mary.

Edit: Why do I even bother hitting “publish” when I know there will always be more links to add? Here is THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION SWIMMING CLUB: More Thoughts on SFF, Sexism, Racism and General Badness by Maria Dahvana Headley. For more of this ilk, check out the #sffragette tag on Twitter.

SFWA woes

Man, SFWA’s been having some problems recently. Seems like every couple days, some new scandal pops up. To their credit, the administration has been dealing with the issues very promptly and professionally.

For anyone who hasn’t been keeping up on the news, this is what’s been happening:

* In SFWA Bulletin #200, (discussed here), Mike Resnick and Barry Malzburg discuss the physical assets of various “lady authors” and “lady editors”. Also, on the cover is a woman in a chainmail bikini. The chainmail bikini thing is nothing new, but is just icing on the cake.

* SFWA #201 (discussed here), C.J. Henderson writes about Barbie, saying “She has always been a role model for young girls, and has remained popular with millions of them throughout their entire lives, because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should.”

* SFWA #202 (relevant excerpts here), Resnick and Malzburg defend themselves, and in their apology they still use the terms “lady editors” and “lady writers,” proving they missed the point. They also complain about their anonymous attackers, who were nowhere near anonymous.

Many people talked about leaving SFWA due to this whole thing. Understandable, but I think the reaction of the administration showed that no one thought this behavior was acceptable, and it was quickly addressed. Whether there will be permanent change remains to be seen.

But wait! There’s more!

The elections for the President of SFWA were held this spring. John Scalzi was stepping down, and one of the people running was a douchebag named Theodore Beale (aka Vox Day). VD’s personal beliefs are pretty foul. You can read all about them here but mainly they can be summed up by this one line he wrote in an article against women’s rights: “I very much like women and wish them well, which is precisely why I consider women’s rights to be a disease that should be eradicated.” He also spoke about removing the right of female members to vote. That might have been a joke, but with him, it’s pretty hard to tell.

Luckily he didn’t win the election, although he did get 10% of the votes, which was… troubling. N.J. Jemisin referenced this in her Guest of Honor speech at Continuum.

Now, to put this in context: the membership of SFWA also recently voted in a new president. There were two candidates — one of whom was a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole. In this election he lost by a landslide… but he still earned ten percent of the vote. SFWA is small; only about 500 people voted in total, so we’re talking less than 50 people. But scale up again. Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges, not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.

Today, VD responded to her speech with a vile, racist blog post. Not out of character for him, but he had it posted on the SFWA tweet stream. (SFWA members who include a particular hashtag in their blog posts will have their blog automatically posted to the twitter account). Since the post wasn’t SFWA related, it’s clear he only did it to be an ass. You can see some screenshots of his post here. In short, it was a racist tirade against “ignorant half-savage[s]” like her. A lot of people want to kick VD out of SFWA, and for good reason. It’s within the SFWA bylaws, and lord knows he’s not contributing anything useful to the organization.

I don’t think SFWA is an especially sexist or racist organization; this is just a public manifestation of an endemic problem. I feel like I’ve been seeing it all over the place recently (furious male gamers’ reactions to the idea of putting more female protagonists in games; racist and sexist rants about casting a black and/or female actor as the Doctor/James Bond/Spiderman/etc; I could go on). These things are cropping up with tiring regularity.

As a response to some of this, Chuck Wendig has a series of posts on sexism. Matt Wallace posted yesterday about how he used to be a sexist bag of dicks until he got better. Good posts, and hopefully they’ll inspire some people to be more active when they see this sort of thing.

The more I write this post, the more links I remember that I want to include. Before this post gets too much longer, I’ll bring this to a close. John Scalzi announced today, for no particular reason, that he’s going to match donations for the Carl Brandon Society, whose mission is to “increase racial and ethnic diversity in the production of and audience for speculative fiction.” I think I might toss a few bucks their way, and I hope others are inspired to do the same.