Am I writing sexist science fiction?

daxI’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager; longer than that if you consider wanting to be the chief science officer on the star ship Enterprise as a sign of early feminism. And yet, like other like-minded authors of speculative fiction, I struggle with feminism in my writing.

My first problem is that I define feminism as the radical notion that women are people. This means that some of them (women, or people if you prefer) are foolish. Some are selfish or incompetent, and a few of them are downright mean. All of them have flaws. I believe that to make every female character, or even most of them, models of virtue is to not treat my female characters as people, but rather as carriers pigeons for an ideology.

I recently stumbled on an online group discussion about a book I read years ago. Dreamsnake (a multiple award-winning 1978 science fiction novel written by Vonda McIntyre) defied the stereotypes of the genre way back then by putting a gutsy lady hero in the middle of a broken world. I wanted to like this book so much. But I didn’t, at least not all that much.

dreamsnakeThe main character Snake seemed two dimensional to me. She was everything a feminist hero should be, which was great, and she was never anything else, which kind of bored me. The rest of the women in her post-apocalyptic world were equally unwavering in their strength and capability. There may have been exceptions (it has been many years since I read the book) but my lingering impression was of a cast of characters carefully crafted to make a point. Interesting, but not engaging.

So, my female characters are all over the place. Most of my protagonists are strong women, but my novel y1 features a gay male shape shifter, and his friends.

I remember being so excited when a blog called The Future Fire agreed to review the book, and being so disappointed when the reviewer remarked “I do have to say, I am not really impressed by the depiction of women here. Of the two main female characters, one is shown to be foolish and unstable (where have we seen those words before?) and the other a child-like creature who runs from one daddy figure to another.”

y1-final-smallNo, I wanted to scream. That’s just two of the characters. What about capable Chloe? Resilient Raven? They are just as important to the plot. But of course one of the things you have to learn when you write books is not to scream at your reviewers, even in your own head, no matter how much you think they are missing the point. You just try to make your intentions more clear in the next book.

The other problem I have with my own sense of feminism and writing, is that I want my world to feel real to my readers. Sadly, our cultural stereotypes are internalized from childhood whether we like it or not, and they color our sense of what is believable. A writer can easily have one top surgeon at the hospital be female, and I think a good story ought to have a few of them. However, if the writer insists on making well over half of the doctors female (and more than half of the nurses male) then today’s reader will struggle to settle into the plot. This works fine if gender is supposed to play part in the story, or in the world-building. But if it isn’t, then you’ve got a bright light shining where you don’t want one, and you have to choose between making your point and engaging your reader.

A while back I read a fascinating article on a blog called Mythcreants entitled Five Signs your Story is Sexist.  This wonderful and helpful post included such gems as

“Patriarchy conditions us to think of men as normal and women as special exotic creatures. That’s why in many stories, particularly stories written by men, characters are only women if the storyteller thinks they have to be.”

Excellent point. If every female in the story is someones girlfriend, sister, daughter or mother, I think a good storyteller should seek out a few other characters and change their gender. You know, the helpful bartender who notices something that saves the hero can be a girl, and no, your hero does not have to fall in love with her. She can even be an old woman.

Here is another gem.

“Because most of us have a very skewed sense of what ratio of men to women is normal, the only way to ensure equal representation is to actually count them up and tally the total.”

This is an exercise well worth doing. While I think that a writer may not be able to achieve “equal representation” without making gender an issue in a novel meant to be about something else, I bet writers of all genders will be surprised by how far we all lean towards predominantly male stories. Yes, we can lean less that way and still tell a tale that sounds like it is real.

I’m already working on the novel I hope to write after I finish my 46. Ascending series. My protagonist will be a she, of course, and I already know that she will be smart, capable and kind. That part is easy. Now I’m working on what she doesn’t do well, developing the ways in which she is vulnerable. To me, those traits will be what makes her story interesting, and also what makes her fully human.

I’ve waited my whole life for a woman president, but

I saw this on Facebook, and you can imagine how the rest of the post went. Because I have remained politically undecided up until now, I was surprised by how sad this post made me.

time2I considered that all manner of male politicians have come and gone over my lifetime, but only one qualified woman has ever been a serious candidate for the US presidency. That alone means that I would like to see her win.  And I have to ask, is this discrimination? Or just plain foolish? Well, let’s look at some facts.

As a disclaimer, I consider myself a pragmatic, slightly left-leaning moderate who wants to live in a safe and fiscally responsible country in which the rules are fair, or at least are becoming more fair and not less so. I would like to see compassion triumph over other concerns.

As you might guess, I like a lot of Bernie Sander’s politics. I don’t particularly like him, however, because I don’t see him being an inspiring leader of all Americans, or a particularly effective representative to the rest of the world. I’m not sure I want him to be president, even though I like some of his ideas.

On the other hand, at one point in my life, I was a Republican. It was long ago, during a time when one could believe that the GOP was really on the side of the small business owner (which my parents were) and on the side of personal freedom (which I was and still am.) Over the years, the party has split into those who fight for advantages for big business and those that have turned their social agenda into a justification for inserting government control into life’s most personal matters. I’m sad that the sort of Republicans I once respected are not running for president.

True, some of the remaining candidates are less scary than others, but that is a low bar to cross. Rand Paul’s sense of the importance of most liberties (not just those valued by the far right) inspires my respect. John Kasich has yet to say anything terribly unreasonable (that I’ve heard), and in this strange year that is worthy of commendation. Carly Fiorina (yes, I realize she is a woman too) lacks qualifications for what is arguably the the most important political office in the world, and she has failed to show the sort of leadership abilities that would make me want to overlook her lack of experience. (Railing against Planned Parenthood based on a falsified video does not constitute leadership to me.) So it is hard to imagine a scenario in which I am voting Republican in 2016.

Which brings me to Hillary Clinton. Am I rooting for her just because she is a woman? She is ridiculously qualified. She is intelligent and she sharers much of my politics. I believe that she has a good heart. I was very impressed with her testimony in front of congress and I believe that she would at worst do a decent job of governing this country.

But she isn’t perfect. In my case, I’ve held back on my support because she’s too hawkish and her ties to established politics and to big money in this country are closer than I’d like. She has yet to charm me, to melt me with her sincerity or warmth. She’s not perfect.

However, I’ve voted for nine men for president, and none of them were close to perfect in my mind, or in reality. I didn’t expect them to be. I’m pragmatic, and election after election I picked the person I thought could win and also best represent my desires on how this country should be run. I had no use for Ralph Nader or his supporters late in the 2000 election, when the chance to be noble and alter history for the better was cast aside for hubris.

sungazing3So why am I now anguishing over this particular candidate’s lack of perfection? Maybe my issue isn’t supporting her because she is a woman at all. Could it be that I am holding her to a higher standard because she is one? Have I really bought into the belief that I will follow a good man or a nearly perfect woman? Deep down, do I think that a female can only lead us well if she is a head and shoulders above all the males who could lead instead? I sure hope not.

So back to my question. Am I guilty of discrimination? Inverse discrimination? Is this whole discussion just plain foolish? It’s time for me to make some decisions.

This is it. I’m thankful to Bernie Sanders for pushing the conversation and the democrats away from the status quo. I would love to see him play a role in the new administration. I hope many of his ideas receive serious consideration. But now that he almost won Iowa, I have to say that I really, really hope that he doesn’t march his way to a nomination. It would be unfortunate enough if he got there on enthusiasm for his outsider’s ideas, without due thought on the part of his supporters as to how good he would actually be at the job of president. But it would be particularly sad if part of his successful march was an ingrained tendency on our part to demand more of a female candidate.

So tonight, I’ve made my decision. I think that we have a chance to make history as a nation, and a chance to elect a decent leader at the same time. I think it’s high time for girl to be president. I’ve waited my whole life for it, damn it, and I’m voting for Hillary Clinton.