Chainmail Bikinis and Other Sexism in Science Fiction and Literature

Author: | Posted in Uncategorized No comments

Winter 1939 issue of “Planet Stories”

If you’ve seen older issues of popular science fiction magazines—think from the 1930s to the 1960s—you’ve seen cover art of half-naked women being abducted by aliens or saved by a ‘handsome’ white dude in a spacesuit. (If you’re lucky, maybe you’ve even seen a cover with both at the same time!) Done up in garish oranges and yellows, the paper covers were a staple of dime-store adventure novels as well as sci-fi magazines that published stories by writers who are now well-known: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, to name a few.

In these science fiction and fantasy stories, as you might expect, women were rarely protagonists; more rarely still were women authors of such stories. And while much science and speculative fiction nowadays is written by women and features strong female characters, nerdrage is still occasionally directed at women as poseurs in fantasy and scifi communities, and sexist novel covers still sometimes depict women posing suggestively.

Chainmail Bikinis

Recently, the cover of Issue #200 of the bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) featured such an image: art of a woman wearing a chainmail bikini. (The SFWA is the pre-eminent organization for professional writers of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction—think the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) of sci-fi). While the president of SFWA, John Scalzi, has officially apologized for the bulletin’s content, it has scarcely quelled the controversy, nor failed to invite serious criticism. The sexist cover art sparked vibrant and lengthy debate in the larger sci-fi community, on SFWA forums, and on blogs and Twitter—particularly because an attempt to process the snafu incited demeaning commentary within the next few issues of the bulletin.

As a result, the sci-fi community is now talking about an issue that has been on the back burner for a long time. Even lit legend Margaret Atwood tweeted about it. This discussion has launched a messy paradigm shift, and it’s launched it now because many authors are sick of being silent about mistreatment. Science fiction author Ann Aguirre spoke out about her experiences with sexism in the sci-fi community, which was covered by Publisher’s Weekly:

“I watched a respected male SF author get sloppy drunk and make women uncomfortable, fans and writers alike. I was one of them… I had a respected SF writer call me ‘girlie’ and demand that I get him a coffee, before the panel we were on TOGETHER. When he realized I was not, in fact, his coffee girl, he didn’t apologize.”

And on the reason for her silence up until now:

“I was in the minority, a woman writing SF, and I was afraid of career backlash. I was afraid of being excluded or losing opportunities if I didn’t play nice.”

The backlash against calling out sexism is real, but science fiction has reached a tipping point where non-male authors have power, voice, and the ability to be heard within the community. They are no longer merely a minority.

Other recent blog posts by members of the science fiction community create a three-point model for how writers can join their voices together to further combat sexism in scifi and fantasy.

A Three-Point Plan

1. The first step is to identify the issue:

Foz Meadows, fantasy author, has done this with particular force, intelligence, and humor. In response to the claim that an image of scantily-clad warrior woman is conventional in certain departments of fantasy, she notes:

“The fact that your sexually objectified, ludicrously attired and probably frostbitten warrior woman is here deemed ‘generic’—that is to say, so commonplace as to be normative—is part of the fucking problem. You know why? An actual warrior would be wearing armour, not a teenage boy’s wet dream of chainmail bikinis.”

2. Next, choose a benchmark for progress:

Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9, offers criteria to mark progress in combatting sexism:

“We can celebrate how far we’ve come from our sexist past when women and men are equally represented in the pages of science fiction anthologies…And when the next big, blow-em-up spaceship movie is written and directed by a woman. Until then, we have a lot of work to do. Work that involves challenging people who actually have the power to alter the course of SF as a genre.”

Newitz’ point is apt: representation within the pages of important literary outlets, whether a science fiction anthology or Harper’s, indicates and helps the erosion of sexist and discriminatory norms and conventions..

3. Finally, find a long-term solution for untoward community elements:

John Scalzi, science-fiction and fantasy author and president of the SFWA, has recommended a pragmatic course of action:

“Actually, the thing to do is trap such creatures in a dork snare (cunningly baited with Cool Ranch Doritos, Diet Ultra Violet Mountain Dew and a dual monitor rig open to Drunken Stepfather on one screen and Duke Nukem 3D on the other), and then cart them to a special preserve somewhere in Idaho for such as their kind. We’ll tell them it’s a “freehold”—they’ll like that—and that they will be with others of a like mind, and there they will live as men, free from the horrible feminizing effects of women and their gonad shriveling girl rays.”

While Scalzi’s solution is quite funny, it is imperfect—ridiculing the boys’ club won’t make it go away, unless that prompts an understanding of why their behavior is so harmful in the first place. Yet not letting the discussion be dictated by the boys’ club—made up of renowed male authors and up-and-coming ones alike—is an important part of the solution. The sci-fi community has opened itself up to free discussion online, and SFWA members have had heated discussion in private forums about sexism and what has happened.

So, what can the literary community learn from the science fiction community? Over the last few years, the VIDA count has started to track the appearance of women’s voices in literary fiction outlets, which is arguably accomplishing the first and second points of the three-point plan. Indeed, recent shifts in the literary world suggest it might be working: VIDA has noted that while some numbers remain the same, ‘top ten’ or ‘best of’ lists often now have asterisks or other explanations for why their lists are incomplete; and it anticipates an increased number of women being published in the future due to awareness as a result of the count.

However, the count is not as well-publicized as it could be and still merits further discussion and debate. Moreover, literary fiction on the whole is subject to more entrenched models of operation than science fiction. (Can you imagine the president of a top organization for literary writers joking about exiling writers for sexism?) Until the literary publishing world commits to the third step of the plan—not just talking about equality and setting benchmarks, but pursuing real initiatives to reach those benchmarks—their own chainmail bikinis aren’t going anywhere.