Friday, November 22, 2013

Remember Gywneth Jones's Eve Wars?

Remember my post last month linking to a NY Times article about the problems faced by women and girls doing science? And about how the article discussed the difficulties created by US culture in particular? Browsing the SF Signal's linkpost for today, I came across a piece titled "Saving Science Fiction from Strong Female Characters." (If you want the link, you'll have to go to the SF Signal to find it.) This lengthy rant is a farrago of assertions so confused and irrational that I finally had to give up trying to make sense of. What I did make out, though, is that the post's author, one John C. Wright thinks science fiction is (once again) being threatened, particularly by reviewers who draw a distinction between sex and gender-- on the grounds that it is obscuring the true, essential categories of "masculinity" and "femininity." I gather, also, that he sees the distinction as an attack on culture tout court (not on a culture, but on culture itself).

Here's the nub of his argument:
Anyone reading reviews or discussions of science fiction has no doubt come across the oddity that most discussions of female characters in science fiction center around whether the female character is strong or not.

As far as recollection serves, not a single discussion touches on whether the female character is feminine or not.

These discussions have an ulterior motive. Either by the deliberate intent of the reviewer, or by the deliberate intention of the mentors, trendsetters, gurus, and thought-police to whom the unwitting reviewer has innocently entrusted the formation of his opinions, the reviewer who discusses the strength of female characters is fighting his solitary duel or small sortie in the limited battlefield of science fiction literature in the large and longstanding campaign of the Culture Wars.

He is on the side, by the way, fighting against culture.

Hence, he fights in favor of barbarism, hence against beauty in art and progress in science, and, hence the intersection of these two topics which means against science fiction.
I suspect it's significant that the author's antagonism is directed at reviewers (who are, in his view, apparently only innocent dupes). Whether these reviewers are male or female or both is unknown, since we can safely assume that someone who suggests that innocent reviewers are subject to the corrupting influence of "mentors, trendsetters, gurus, and thought-police" is likely to insist that "he" is a "universal" pronoun. The very idea of a gender-neutral pronoun, of course, would be anathema to someone who believes that drawing a distinction between sex and gender is barbarous. And distinguishing between culture in general and US culture in particular is also probably anathema.  Regarding US culture as merely one of many cultures (and US culture as it currently exists as only one possibility among many) would of course make gender essentialism impossible, since the white heterosexual male of US culture could not then stand for the unmarked universal human such arguments insist he is. 

Why, you may wonder, am I granting any attention at all to such a confused mess of a post written by someone I've never heard of? I suppose it's because I see it as coming from the same place as the more laconic but equally simplistic pronouncements of more powerful speakers who keep insisting that "real girls" and "real women" have only limited capabilities for doing so science and that women/girls who excel at science must therefore not be "real women" or "real girls." What particularly interests me in this case is that it illustrates how visible and more apparent the complications of gender have become in our field than in US culture as a whole. This rant against "strong female characters" is not unusual within the field, of course. (And certainly the attack last summer on NK Jemison was by far more vicious.) But it strikes me as significant that the argument here has shifted from attacking the active presence of women in the field to attacking an acknowledgment of any degree of complexity of gender, making the very idea of gender the enemy of science fiction in particular and culture in general. It is precisely the scenario of Monique Wittig's utopia Les Guérillères.When a translation of that novel was first published in the US, the very idea of separating sex from gender was still new and strange. And so quite a few people reading it didn't understand that the war "the women" were fighting was not against men, but against gender essentialism. (Gwyneth Jones's "Eve Wars" in her Aleutian series offers another version of that war, fought by men and women on both sides of the conflict.)

Have defenders of gender essentialism actually become conscious of the distinction between sex and gender? If so, we might be entering a new phase of the struggle. Changed consciousness about gender isn't necessarily a positive thing. (See the Aleutian series for more on that.) But it is certainly something to think about, especially with reference to certain works of feminist sf.


James said...

Jesus, what a mess that guy's essay is. I congratulate you on having the fortitude to trudge through it.

I couldn't get past this, myself: "Different reviewers no doubt mean slightly different things when they speak of strength of a female character: but the general meaning is that the strong female character is masculine."

Just because he conflates the words "strength" and "masculinity" doesn't mean the rest of the world does.

Eleanor said...

I could not force myself to read the essay.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I tried to read it, but it was so long. And I tried to read the comments, to see if anyone had taken him to task so I could add words of encouragement for them, but the commenters all seemed to agree with him. I know I should read it and should add to Timmi's discussion of how idiotic this all is, but I lack the strength today.

However, while looking it up I came across Foz Meadows's post How Many Male Novelists Does It Take to Screw In a Lightbulb (SFF Edition), which is a good antidote.

Cheryl said...

Mr. Wright has a long and inglorious history of bizarre ideas about the nature of femininity. I wrote this back in 2003:

Some of his books also exhibit a rather unwholesome obsession with spanking.