I know sexism when I see it?

When you read a book of fiction written decades ago, you steel yourself for possible sexism, racism and general intolerance. You accept that the hero will likely be a tall, non-elder, physically fit and able, straight white male possibly assisted by inferior but lovable sidekicks from other demographic groups. I’ve listened to many a lively discussion about how much slack a writer from days past is entitled to before the enlightened reader of today gets tired of the stereotypes and throws down the book.

sustainable human 1I don’t have an answer. But I do know that there is a difference between writing that reflects cultural norms of its time and writing that has a mean spirit. It’s a little like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous 1964 quote regarding obscenity. “I know it when I see it.” I think we can all agree that we would never all agree completely on what is obscene and what isn’t, yet the vast majority of people would reach identical conclusions on either side of a small fuzzy line. That is obscene. That isn’t. We know it.

I believe that the same sort of standard applies to older fiction. I just finished reading Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s 1952 science fiction satire The Space Merchants. I enjoyed it. But being female, I’m particularly sensitive to sexism in a story and, let’s face it, older science fiction often was as sexist as anything else of its time. On the surface, The Space Merchants suffers in this way. The hero is a tall, non-elder, physically fit and able, straight white male. The women are called “girls”, every executive has a female secretary he orders around, and most of the rest of the work force is male.

As I finished the book, however, I decided that the authors’ failing was not one of prejudice, but rather an inability or unwillingness to see some parts of future society as significantly different than their own. In 1950, women were called “girls”, every executive did have a secretary, and most of the work force was male. This story was intended to focus on other changes in society. Even if the authors did consider it, reworking the common role of women was not necessary to the plot, and might well have distracted from the main messages of the book when was being read back in the 1950’s.

In the authors’ further defense, the love interest is a female surgeon, the main character’s compliant secretary is uncommonly capable, and one of the evil characters is a deranged woman who is an expert at torture. Women may play a fifties-style role in the book, but they are as three-dimensional as the males and as good at what they do. It’s hard to call that sexism.

I know that in the seventies and eighties Frederick Pohl went on to write Gateway and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, both excellent books filled with fully-developed and competent women. C.M. Kornbluth died at age thirty-four. We will never know what masterpieces he might have written as he aged.

I’m completely okay with giving this book a pass on its treatment of its female characters. Other science fiction books of that era? Well, that’s another blog post waiting to be written.

(For more about the Space Merchants, see my posts The Kinky of the Future, Through the Eyes of Another, and Predicting the Future or Shaping It.)

 

Greener Grass

I’ve never liked the expression “watch what you wish for”. I think it discourages dreaming, and pushes people to settle for what is, rather than encouraging them to make positive changes in their lives. It feeds that innate fear that anything we do will make matters worse.

Gathering vibes 1But there is a reason that we share this collective fear. Often we idolize what we want and once we do get it, the reality falls short of the the dream. It still may be an improvement over what we had, and it might even be a big improvement. It’s just not perfect. It doesn’t make us perfect. It doesn’t make everyone around us perfect. So another dream looms. A different job, a new lover, another town, or maybe better friends. The tough part is figuring out when it’s time to stop chasing perfection and embrace the life you are living.

Do this too easily, and you are settling for less than you should.  Never accept anything other than perfection, and you have chained yourself to a life of discontent. This living life well shit is so damn difficult, isn’t it?

Obviously this little tirade is based on my current situation. I recently quit my job and moved across country, to live in the mountains. I’m off a dirt road, surrounded by beauty, fresh air and all the time in the world to write. It was supposed to be perfect. Unfortunately, I really wanted to move to the Rockies. My life partner wanted to go the the east coast. We wanted to be together, so, we moved to the Appalachians.

There are trees everywhere. So many of them that you can’t tell where you are. It’s not quiet. This damn place is full of something called cicadas and they make a shrill racket worse than any city noise I’ve ever heard. I’m hoping I can write here, but I wouldn’t know because after two months I am still unpacking. This is not what I had planned. It is not perfect.

Pick up and move again? Difficult and very expensive, but possible. Or try learning to love this new home?

Yesterday, I learned how to use a chain saw.  It’s not complicated, but it takes a little confidence with power tools that I needed to gain. Point forward,  I’m going to take down one tree every week until I can see out in at least one direction. I like trees. But I figure that there will still be four million of them within my view, so I’m not exactly affecting the amount of oxygen on this planet.

grassI’ve also discovered that cicadas die off at the end of summer and the really good news is that summer ends here in September like it should. So there is hope for quiet. As to the writing? The stories are starting to form in my head again, in spite of the time I am spending unpacking. They’ll want to be put on paper soon.

They say the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Here in my new home, the grass is actually greenest right above our septic system. I’m not sure exactly what that proves, but I think I’ll stay put for now and try to figure it out.

(For more thoughts on making major life changes see my blog posts Wise and Quiet, Am I a Shape Shifter Now? and If You’re Going to be an Old Car.)

Long Way, Baby

“What were they thinking in 1968?” I ask, as I take a closer look at the faded old newspaper, crumbled decades ago around the dishes that I am unpacking. Still stark in its faded shades of charcoal and cream, it is a relic of communication that I almost never see anymore. The Wichita Eagle. It whispers to me from a place I once lived, and from a Friday August 23 of long ago.

westpointI seem to have opened the paper to the women’s section, although it is tactfully not called such. The feature article (from the Associated Press) gives a slightly breathless account of how “East Coast girls between 17 and 21 don’t have to travel far … to have one of the most glamorous, unforgettable weekends of their lives.” It goes on to detail the excitement awaiting a girl lucky enough to be invited to West Point for the week-end as the date of a cadet. There are picnics and dances and white-gloved receiving lines. It’s not all glitz, however. The article warns that up to five girls have to share one low-wattage bulb while applying their make-up.

As I read, forty-seven years melt away and I become Sherri Roth, a thirteen-year-old news freak skimming the paper as I search for answers to the burning questions about life that keep me awake at night as I try to understand the universe.

Is my goal supposed to be to date a boy who goes to West Point? The AP writer seems to think so. Hopeful young women looking for a foot in the door are encouraged to contact the Cadet Hostess at West Point to see if they, too, might be included in one of the arranged mixers held throughout the year. I’m not convinced this approach is for me.

slimsThe summer of 1968 is also when Phillip Morris introduces Virginia Slims, a cigarette marketed to young women using the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby.” I’m only 13 and I don’t smoke cigarettes, but I like the slogan and I wonder if we have come a long way. The Virginia Slims ads sure make me think so. I like how the women in them can do anything.

I think that maybe I’d rather be a cadet at the academy. Frankly that sounds far more glamorous than just dating one. I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since first grade and I’m pretty sure that a military academy education would be a sure fire way to make that happen. I decide to look into it. Over the next year, I will be disappointed to learn that the academies do not even have women cadets.

Sally RideIt will be 1980 before the first females graduate from United States Military Academies. I’ll have figured out long before then that it was the Air Force Academy I should have gone to. I’ll also have learned that women cadets there and elsewhere were not permitted to be trained as combat pilots until 1993, greatly reducing a women’s chance for flying time and advancement.

Sally Ride will become my hero for life when she circumvents that path, becoming an astronaut and the first American woman in space by way of a PhD in physics from Stanford.  I will smile that whole week in June 1983 when she makes her first space flight. This, I will say, is really what constitutes “one of the most glamorous, unforgettable weekends” of any girl’s life.

For more notes from 47 years ago, where 13 year old Sherri Roth reports the news from the Friday August 23, 1968 Wichita Eagle, see my other blogs posts for the How to Get a Standing Ovation Editionthe Vietnam Edition the Won’t You Please Come to Chicago Edition and the Race Relations Edition