Previous Entry Share Next Entry
It’s not a real heart, it’s a real artificial heart.
astounding
ann_leckie

So, on the most recent episode of the Coode Street Podcast, Jonathan Strahan asked, was it possible to be so enthused and relieved about science fiction without (or with a great deal less of) the normal dose of racism and sexism that this might blind readers to the fact that the work was otherwise not all that significant?

So. Disclaimer. I have no intention of attacking Jonathan Strahan, who it seems to me is genuinely interested in science fiction having less racism and sexism in it.

Here’s the thing–it really, really matters who’s asking this question. It really, really matters whose criteria you’re going by when you try to determine if a work is “really” significant. I think that if Strahan had not been a white straight cis guy, he would not have asked this question in quite this way.

I love analogies! Let’s have one.

Imagine that you dearly love, absolutely crave, a particular kind of food. There are some places in town that do this particular cuisine just amazingly. Lots of people who are into this kind of food hold these restaurants in high regard. But let’s say, at every single one of these places, every now and then throughout the meal, at random moments, the waiter comes over and punches any women at the table right in the face. And people of color and/or LGBT folks as well! Now, most of the white straight cis guys who eat there, they have no problem–after all, the waiter isn’t punching them in the face, and the non-white, non-cis, non-straight, non-guys who love this cuisine keep coming back so it can’t be that bad, can it? Hell, half the time the white straight cis guys don’t even see it, because it’s always been like that and it just seems like part of the dining experience. Granted, some white straight cis guys have noticed and will talk about how they don’t like it and they wish it would stop.

Every now and then, you go through a meal without the waiter punching you in the face–they just give you a small slap, or come over and sort of make a feint and then tell you they could have messed you up bad. Which, you know, that’s better, right? Kind of?

Now. Somebody gets the idea to open a restaurant where everything is exactly as delicious as the other places–but the waiters won’t punch you in the face. Not even once, not even a little bit. Women and POC and LGBT and various combinations thereof flock to this place, and praise it to the skies.

And then some white, straight, cis dude–one of the ones who’s on record as publicly disapproving of punching diners in the face, who has expressed the wish that it would stop (maybe even been very indignant on this topic in a blog post or two*) says, “Sure, but it’s not anything really important or significant. It’s getting all blown out of proportion. The food is exactly the same! In fact, some of it is awfully retro. You’re just all relieved cause you’re not getting punched in the face, but it’s not really a significant development in this city’s culinary scene. Why couldn’t they have actually advanced the state of food preparation? Huh? Now that would have been worth getting excited about.”

Think about that. Seriously, think. Let me tell you, being able to enjoy my delicious supper without being punched in the face is a pretty serious advancement. And only the folks who don’t get routinely assaulted when they try to eat could think otherwise.

There isn’t only one axis on which something can be significant, or advance the genre. And declaring that only the axes that are important to you matter–particularly when the axes being dismissed are ones that matter a lot to women, LGBT, and POC–is a move straight out of How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

__
*No, I am not referring here to Strahan.

Mirrored from Ann Leckie.


Oh yes! Implying (albeit unintentionally, knowing Strahan - he's a nice guy) we're not important enough to be an aspect of note isn't as bad as a punch in the face, but it isn't good, either - it's one of the byproducts of privilege.

Way back when the first Star Trek was shown as repeats on Australian TV in the 70s, my friends and I were saying (as schoolkids) look, it's possible to have real SF with all sorts of people: this was part of our discourse on the subject. This has always meant, to me, that SF with deep bias is the type that ought to have to jump through a few more hoops to be significant, for it's already behind the game. There ought to be a notice on the restaurant door announcing that women and minorities need to be aware of the possibility of fear and discomfort and exclusion. It's not always a punch - it's the waiter always asking the male's opinion and ignoring everything the female says. Comments on these thigns mean we can choose to read them. No comments mean it's the norm.

This doesn't mean that SF that gets race and culture and gender just so doesn't have to be as good (which is, I suspect, what he was saying). That's the food on the table at the restaurant. if it's poorly cooked or uses old ingredients, then we care. But to not be worried about being punched in the face while reading it, that's equally important, but for quite different reasons. It's not the quality of the literature, but the whole reading experience. Each meal at each restaurant has to be judged on its own merits (not allowing for the punches - pointing out the punches) and if a meal could be improved or is appalling or is wonderful, we should be saying so.

Having said that last, there's a huge relief at not being scared or alienated. I think we should be allowed to celebrate that, too. (I suffer, personally, from intersectionality, being Jewish, female and having chronic illness, so that lack of fear is rarer than it ought to be. It affects the choices I make every day and it affects the options open to me.) We're celebrating that, not the perfection of the meal. We're saying "Look, we can sit here and eat it - we don't have to get takeaway or eat at home or sit in fear." And I think that's worthy of comment in for itself until it becomes the norm. It's not a judgment on the food, though, but on the restaurant as a whole. We need to make that distinction clear. I agree with Strahan, then, but not at all with the way he expressed it.


knowing Strahan - he's a nice guy

I believe you! :) I get a good vibe off him, and that's part of why I listen to the podcast (when I'm cleaning or beading or knitting or whatever--I know if I get exercised it will only be mildly so and I can talk at the computer or whatever and it's all very pleasant).

I agree with Strahan, then, but not at all with the way he expressed it.

Yeah, that's why I think if he'd have been looking from a slightly different perspective, he'd have asked a somewhat different (but definitely related) question. How much are we willing to take in the name of "won't punch me in the face"?

I can't help but think, though, that in terms of the standard canon, many critics are perfectly happy to put up with an amazing amount of punching others in the face for the sake of other qualities. So, why does that stand, but the other way around gets scrutinized to the point of wondering if the qualities a work has are really enough? That would be another question to ask.

But absolutely, I do think any and every axis of quality/significance should be open to discussion and debate, and should all be taken into account when one is deciding what, if any, importance a given work has. And we should demand work that both doesn't punch us in the face, and is fabulous on other terms as well.

All this.

Thank you for the post!

That's a really good metaphor.

On quality, I'm thinking of two shows right now--Sleepy Hollow and Elementary. The first is what Genevieve Valentine calls "getting by on charm" -- the apocalyptic plot is completely ridiculous, but I don't care because the characters are so lovely. It also happens to have a quite high percentage of characters of colour--the police boss and our leading woman are black, there are Asian and Hispanic secondary characters, etc. And in using those characters well it actually makes the show more fun to watch.

Elementary is more serious bsns, but again I don't think it skates by because it has a Chinese-American female Watson. It's actually a pretty good show.

So, more like that, but on spaceships, is what I'm say, I suppose!

Hear, hear! And I am really enjoying Elementary. I was dubious at first, but I figured I'd give it a few episodes, and by the time the first season ended I was hooked. The mysteries are generally not all that, but they're not really what I'm watching for, right?

Sleepy Hollow seems like one of those silly shows that lots of my friends enjoy but I'd end up grousing at the screen. Like, I had a really hard time with Eureka. "Science doesn't work like that!" And no patience whatever for Warehouse 13. And I know they were supposed to be just goofy, and I know people I like and respect really enjoy them, so I figure it's me.

Yes, if historical inaccuracy bothers you in the slightest, this is not the show for you. Except that it gets *little* details right now and then--and then borks the entire larger picture. Monday's episode was hilarious in that regard, actually, because Ichabod Crane got wildly put out at the myths people tell children about Paul Revere...not three episodes after we found out that apparently the Roanoke colony spoke Chaucer's English.

So yes. :D

You do have me rethinking my suggestions to Chinese college students that reading early SF is a good idea because a lot of it was written in a time when English was a second language for a lot more Americans than today, even if I do warn them that some of the ideas about gender or race are ...old fashioned.

I'd actually write into the show ( or suggest they interview you). I think you have put the case brilliantly and I think that Jonathan and Gary would encourage the discussion, and would appreciate your challenging of the privilege. From memory they are quite happy to be "pulled up" on things they have got wrong.

That's my impression, too--though I'm shy about writing them directly, not sure why. I guess, I don't know either of them personally, and have never really communicated with either of them, so emailing to say "You're wrong! Have me on the show!" seems...more audacious than I usually am.

I think the other part of this is that when people aren't getting punched in the face, the diners (of all genders, colors, orientations, abilities, etc) are so busy saying, "Hey, it's so nice not to be/see people getting punched in the face!" that they forget to review the food.

And of course there's a significant portion of the dining public who say, "Yeah, the food at WeDon'tBeatYou is decent, but the experience isn't as awesome as at FacePunch Restaurant--seeing fists fly really gets my adrenaline going!"

So they downgrade WeDon'tBeatYou's review on the "ambiance" scores. The only way the place could get a Zagat average as high as FacePunch is if the food is tasty off the charts.

Wow, I'm enjoying this metaphor a bit too much, maybe.


You cannot work a metaphor too hard. Kick it! Twist it! Stomp on it! Flatten it out and roll it up and kick it again! It's pretty much one of the funnest things there is, I think.

Interesting. I recently saw "In a World..." where Lake Bell plays a woman trying to break into voiceover work. I enjoyed the movie well enough, but I kept thinking about how much I admired it for avoiding many of the terrible cliches that happen in most movies. It passed the Bechdel Test. The main (female) character has sex with a guy shortly after she meets him and she's not punished for it in any way. No one acts like a cartoon character to be banished. The love story isn't some creepy stalker story that's supposed to be funny. In fact, it's just two people acknowledging that they like each other and want to explore that more fully.

I kept thinking about how much I wish that I didn't notice all of these things and admire them because they should be standard and not unique elements.

There are other movies where I find things to admire and ultimately don't like the movie. Those are more depressing.

Like the analogy, like the sentiments.

Different axes on which to grade: yes. Absolutely. And if you're writing a restaurant guide, then not acknowledging the face-punching at Great Food & Face Punching is being dishonest. Not mentioning the lack of face-punching at the Equally Great Food Without Assault place is being dishonest. (And yes of course the food quality gets mentioned too. But EGFWA shouldn't get downgraded because it's not markedly superior to GF&FP.)

Meant to comment on this earlier because it is a great analogy (also, Jonathan is a good guy).

What I wish I saw more of was critics/review discussions that came right out and said that books written in the 21st century that include unexamined racism and sexism are so flawed that they can't be significant. By this I don't mean stories can't be written set in times/spaces where there is sexism or racism, etc, but that so many stories include it as background radiation (or punching in the face). Because I still see such a double standard in what is allowed to be called significant.


You are viewing ann_leckie