|Cover art by Christopher M. Jackson|
Today's guest post comes to us from William Galaini. He is the author of The Line, a sci-fi tale involving time travel and modern themes.
Suspended in the nothing between timelines, the station Janus is an unseen marvel: the greatest technological achievement in human innovation. From Janus, Gustavo and his hand-selected team of historians and engineers venture into the past and observe history, unseen and unnoticed.
But they are not alone.
Another traveler is shattering history. Unhindered by desires to remain scientific and uninvolved, the intruder’s technology is far advanced with methods more brutal and a present more terrifying than anything Gustavo and his team are prepared for. As they apply their intellects and skills towards solving the mystery of the ferocious interloper, they discover than they have its full attention.William grew up in Pennsylvania and Florida. His mother gave him an early love of reading, especially when it came to the great classics of science fiction. He is also a history buff and fascinated by mythology and folklore. His various vocational pursuits include being a singer in a professional high school choir, manager of the call center at a luxury resort, U.S. Army medic, prison guard, and middle school English teacher. As such, he is perfectly suited to breech a solid metal door, humanely restrain the enemy within, and politely correct their grammar all while humming Handel’s Messiah and drinking a lovely cuppa tea.
He currently hangs his hat, rucksack, and tweed smoking jacket in Northern Virginia.
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Today’s guest post tackles the touchy issue of gender tropes in modern genre fiction. As a male author who writes crime and mystery fiction (from a female narrator's POV none-the-less,) I often find myself tempted to fall into the same old stereotypes that have long defined the genre. One need only look at the cover of a dime store novel to see the streetwise dame in distress motif and the grizzled probably somewhat older gumshoe (Spade, Marlow, Hammer) who she will ultimately inexplicably throw herself at.
These tropes have their counterpart in sci-fi as well, the genre our guest calls his own. In fact, the only real difference being the grizzled anti-hero of mysteries is generally replaced in space opera and fantasy by a clean-cut Lothario (Kirk, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers) who is more of an actual hero than an anti-one. You know, all the characteristics that defined Zapp Brannigan.
It's also significant to recognize that in my genre, the "woman sleuth" sub-genre is the fastest growing sub of them all. So the topic of avoiding these pigeonholes in today’s post-feminism, Bechdel aware landscape is a particularly interesting one for me.
Ah, genre writing…where the heteronormative, straight-jawed men battle hordes of Nazis/ninjas/cyborgs/cultists or an awesome combination of any two of those. Or three. If you manage all four, you’ve got something special going on.
Sorry. Genre writing. RIGHT. In regards to fiction writing, genre leans toward the more pulpy side of literature. Maybe you are thumbing through H. Rider Haggard’s adventures in Africa or engrossed in Heinlein’s troopers of the Starship variety. Either way, when you pluck a book like this off the shelf you have expectations of the genre. You want aliens, slithering monsters from the deep, and buried civilizations with names nobody can remember.
At no point do you pick up a genre novel and think, “I can’t wait to read a misogynistic adventure!” and if you do, just grab Twilight and call it a day. In genre, especially with science fiction and fantasy, we have grander and more ambitious desires. Yet we are still saddled with a predominant focus on masculine idealism that panders to the primal insecurities and lusts of a youthful male demographic.
Why are our fun, adventuresome books so shackled by brutishness? Aren’t genre books supposed to be loaded with ideas and imagination? Why are the Conan stories, filled with some of the loveliest prose in fantasy writing, loaded with minimally dressed, curvy women who are accomplishments for the male character to either achieve or lose? Why do we have so many damsels in distress or femme fatales misleading our male characters down treacherous paths?
Can our genre stories evolve beyond their mid-century, male-centric growth spurt? And what would that look like? Would progressive genre stories still look and read like the pulp we love?
Let’s explore the question and worry behind it. Genre writing has exploded into the mainstream, and we see people sporting their geekcred with Marvel t-shirts and Firefly memes on their Facebook page. Genre stories are BIG and men, women, children, and the elderly alike adore them. They appear, despite much of genre fictions boy’s club origins, to be bridging all gender and racial gaps. Some areas still need work, but it is happening.
And it has been happening for some time! What’s more, I will give you several examples of how the titans of our genre have treated women magnificently.
Let’s talk about Isaac Asimov. In his series “I, Robot,” we find an amazing female character in Dr. Susan Calvin. She is a calculating woman with a controlled exterior, but tender and compassionate on the inside. Dr. Calvin might be my favorite female character in written science fiction and nobody blinks when she arrives or comments that she is a woman. None of her characters are fazed by her gender, and it in no way deters her or complicates her life. Susan isn’t defined by a male, and her conflicts do not revolve around her sexuality.
Interesting how progressive “I, Robot” is given that it was published in 1950. When compared to its film counterpart starring Will Smith, Dr. Susan Calvin is tossed into the roll as sidebar eye candy, her entire narrative stolen by a hulking man. And of course, the film gave her a shower scene and held her at gunpoint. Don’t worry, though, she saves Will Smith by blind-firing an automatic carbine. Because she can’t handle a weapon. Because she’s a woman.
We’re not done. When we think of pulp genre and its tropes of adventure and exploration, a film that rages to the surface almost instantly is Indiana Jones. My god, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a crazy good movie. I cannot wait to show that film to my son so he can see how excellent genre films can be without a mountain of digital noise propping them up. I also can’t wait to show him my favorite scene in the whole film, one that involves Marion Ravenwood playing mind games with the smitten Belloq in his tent. She turns his male expectations against him, knife drawn, and regardless of her betrayal, Belloq is still delighted by her. Marion embraces her femininity, uses it as a tool when needed against lesser men, but still carves out a life in the frozen parts of the male dominated world.
I think we all loved Marion. Such a shame the two following films replaced her with a screeching prima donna and a seductive villainess.
These two incidents are hardly isolated. In quality genre writing, we find that male dominance is not required for them to be effective pieces. You can still have your tropes that involve train-car fight scenes and sinister aliens without needed to diminish women. Ripley, of Alien and Aliens, will be a paragon of womanhood and motherhood while beating the tar out of her rival female villain, the alien queen. Robin, of Stross’s Glasshouse, changes gender and still is a complete badass either way without flinching in a sword fight. Some of our best genre works are flooded with equal and honorable treatment of their female characters. I’d go even further and say these works are fantastic and enriched because of their equal and honorable treatment of their female characters.
So why is Conan flanked with toys in the shape of women, and why are so many horror and science fiction stories loaded with busty women running upstairs, desperate for a man to save them? Is this type of writing pandering to primal male desires in an effort to earn their dollar? Is this type of writing lazy and unintelligent?
Yes to both. “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” as H. L. Mencken put it, and when you watch a movie like Transformers that has the protagonist’s underage daughter being violated by the cameraman in IMAX while you are sitting next to your kid, Menken’s validity is reinforced with terrifying efficiency.
There is no excuse for poor representation of female characters, and the genres we love are no longer stifled by male gatekeepers to a boy’s club. And not only can I cite examples of how misogyny is exclusive of genre stories, but I can write genre stories that prove it wholesale.
My first novel, The Line, was to be a hardcore time travel work of earnest science fiction. I chose my main character, Mary, to not only be a historian but an archivist of their time travels and discoveries. This was intentional because nearly all of history has been recorded and peer-reviewed by men, and historical feminist revisionism is a mindset that is still in its infancy. I wanted a woman’s perspective of American history, World War II, and West African conflicts.
Writing a woman was terrifying, but not as challenging as I expected once I finally calmed down about it. I simply wrote a brilliant, calculating woman with a hard edge to her, and as long as I kept the conflict within the context of her character and not her gender, The Line held up. My beta reading team was all women, every single one with a master’s degree, and the first question they were asked after reading it was “what gender was the author.” None of them felt that The Line was overtly written by a man.
My second novel, Withered Zion, had a rape scene with one of my male main characters. Rape is often a present danger against female characters in genre writing, but I wanted to be clear and brutal in regards to a male being raped. Sometimes we might read a rape scene in a novel, and it is clearly a male writer sexualizing and glorifying the rape in an attempt to make it sexy and forbidden. You’ve read that book. So have I. And it infuriated me. Go ahead, Mr. Heteronormative-Misogynist. Try and get off on my male protagonist being raped.
My third novel, currently in the works, has a homosexual main character. It is about Hephaestion breaking into Hell to rescue his true love, Alexander the Great. I’ve had a gay friend read it as a gay litmus test of sorts, and he gave me the go ahead, and it was far easier than I thought. Basically, I thought of my character, how I’d feel if I were him, and the rest was simple. He doesn’t prance around, squealing, “gosh, I am so very gay,” just like a female character doesn’t prance around announcing, “gosh, I am on my period.”
I will say that a love scene between two men gets very tangled when it comes to pronouns. That was the sole challenge in the novel so far.
So, there you have it. Three works of genre that I wrote that either promote feminism overtly, illustrate that men are as susceptible to sexual crime as women, and has a homosexual character doing exactly what I would do in his position.
The trick is to never take your audience for granted, always have people investigate your work and give you earnest feedback in regard to your intentions, and listen to that feedback. Your genre work isn’t about you. It’s about your character.
“Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” as M. L. Mencken said. But let’s not forget: those gender-equal classics and the new genre works that smack of feminism like Firefly and Buffy are hardly driving folk broke, either.