Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Post Readercon

I had a full, rich Readercon experience this last weekend. The panels I participated in were all lively and interesting (particularly the panel on How To Suppress Women's Writing, which was led by Andrea Hairston and included me and Brit Mandelo [whom we drafted from the audience] as well as intense participation by an engaged audience, most of whom had already read the book). Reading from my novel in progress (working title "Deep Story") brought me reassuring feedback (viz., that a middle-aged woman lacking superpowers or stunning beauty or personality, holding a gray job and without a heroic bone in her body, is an acceptable protagonist). And best of all, I made new acquaintances and got to hang out with various friends I never can get enough of.

And yet, of course, at the same time I was enjoying the con, I was aware of problems. Genevieve Valentine writes eloquently of two types of those problems here. (At the time I read her post, there were already 264 comments, including one by Nora Jemison offering an excellent analysis supplementing Genevieve's.) The first type of problem, which is condescending insensitive behavior by a male panelist incapable of taking a woman panelist seriously merely because she's female, occurs everywhere at sf cons, of course. (Yes, it occurs at WisCon, too. It has occurred to me at WisCon. And this last WisCon it even occurred to one of the GoHs, who was moderating and had to physically struggle with a male panelist over possession of the microphone.) This situation occurs most often when panels have only one woman on them, but can (and does) occur even when panels have only one man on them. As Genevieve notes and several of the commenters to her post attest, the almost inevitable result of having only one woman on the panel is to make her point of view and representation of interests nearly inaudible. It is also, as Vernoica Schanoes, my roommate at Readercon this year, observed to me, means that she ends up carrying the burden of making Feminism 101-sorts of points where necessary, meaning, of course, that all the interesting things she might have had to say get subordinated to the burden of providing remedial education to people who should by now know better.

When on Friday morning, as an audience member, I saw a USian man on a post-colonial fantastic literature panel turn to address Vandana Singh (probably telling himself he was educating the audience though he was actually looking at her) and mansplain the difference between Britain's colonization of the US and Britain's colonization of India, I instantly wondered if it was his position as a man speaking to a woman or of a USian speaking to an Indian that made him so confident that she knew less about her own country's experiences of colonialism than he did, even though she'd already referred to India's 5000 years of history. (Don't worry. I knew, of course, that it was both.) The presumption of authority some men carry around with them apparently surges irresistibly to the surface whenever they are in the presence of "others" who aren't white and male. It's the sort of presumption Jane Austen loved to skewer in both men and women. But see, not all of those presumptuous white males who can't take female panelists seriously treat other white males that way. And that's where the sexism comes in.   
This is a subject that is not going away. It's not a fun subject, I know. But it's one in which a wider, greater consciousness of it will reduce the problem's presence at cons significantly.


Debbie Notkin said...

WTF happened to Andrea at that panel? It sure didn't happen to me, so it must have been Andrea.

We can keep people off WisCon programming if we need to.

Andrea Hairston said...

I was the only woman on the panel and I was the moderator. One guy was trying to dominate the conversation and also cut of and disrespect people in the audience. I gave each speaker limits in order to hear as many voices as possible. He wanted more time. I said no and he refused to give up the microphone. I had to wrestle it away from him.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks, Andrea, for the clarification. Sorry for getting the details of that incident wrong. (Which is something, alas, that is all too likely to happen when writing about something I haven't myself witnessed.) I've edited my post acccordingly.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I was moderating a panel at WisCon a year or so back. It had three women and one man, and the man just talked all the time. In that case, I think it was more that he was excited and had lots of opinions on the subject than it was that he thought he knew more than anyone else, but it was still a problem. I kept trying to rein him in because we had an audience that knew as much or more than the panel and I wanted to hear from them. I must have been blatant about it, because one of the other panelists leaned over to me and said, "He IS on the panel."

I was also moderating a panel at another con (Armadillocon, I think) discussing the uptick in women writers on award lists that year. There was one guy on the panel and he also jumped in to talk at every point. Again, he wasn't arrogant so much as he was just used to talking a lot and excited about his own ideas. But a couple of the other panelists had actually done some preparation and had figures and statistics and so forth -- much more to say.

In both cases, these guys were not really paying attention to what other people were saying. I have seen some women panelists do this, too. Sometimes it happens because the person has an agenda they want to push, regardless of whether the panel is the appropriate place for it, and sometimes it's just bad social skills. It's a slightly different problem from the blatant arrogance you're talking about, Timmi, but it's a related problem.

Andrea Hairston said...

Timmi, you it basically right! Many people thanked me for not letting him dominate the discourse. My bad experiences have been that (mostly) men don't do the social labor for a good exchange of ideas. They dominate the conversation through volume or physical presence or they interrupt or try to wrestle me to the ground. No woman has ever tried to do that!

Veronica Schanoes said...

Thanks for articulating so perfectly exactly what becomes frustrating about making (and then having to defend!) Feminism 101 points. Because on the one hand, I'm happy to do it rather than have it not get done at all, but on the other--nobody should be OK with reeling off a list of 15 authors who break genre boundaries and including only one woman at the very end. And having to spend my allotted time correcting that does distract me from expanding the conversation beyond that.