East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Fantasy Guilt Trip


2dw9ugiA rambling post, tonight.
A friend of mine just posted a long and rather disquieting (to me) piece on his blog, about the systematic harassing of women that seems to be an established element in what I’ll call, to be brief, “fantasy fandom” (which to me includes SF, comics, games, the works).
You find it here – it’s in Italian.
The author, Elvezio Sciallis, is an independent journalist and a fine critic.

Now, the idea of women being harassed and discriminated in what I consider my community scares me and pains me on two levels.
The first is, such behavior is not something I can accept – the examples cited really hit me hard.
I hate these guys.
The second level is possibly even harder to stomach – my experience of science fiction and fantasy fandom never caused me to think such problems were in any way widespread, or something more than an occasional asshole to be rounded up and isolated.
Therefore, now I ask myself: have I been lucky, distracted or, damn, part of the problem myself?

Does the fact that I read old pulps and fantasy and SF make me a sexist, racist individual?
Am I instinctively what I hate intellectually?
And as I normally do nowadays, I’m writing to set my thoughts straight – and you are reading my ramblings.

For starters, I get a modicum of relief recalling Michael Moorcock‘s observation, that despite George Orwell’s dark misgivings, reading Tarzan as a kid did not turn him into an animal-killing fascist.

But while I am quite ready to absolve myself from most of my sins – which are, I believe (or I hope), minor, something else emerges.

Anyone out there, causing pain or stress to another human being, by sharing my interests is implicitly causing pain and stress to me.

Now, I would laugh out loud should anyone accuse me of reading Howard (for example) because of the scantly clad women in his stories – as I’d be equally amused should anyone suggest women out there read Howard because of Conan’s often reduced wardrobe.
We human beings usually read good fun stories because they are good, and fun.
Not everything is automatically pornography just because it could be used that way.
And yet, anyone using the narrative of Robert E. Howard as an excuse to discriminate or harass a woman (or anyone else, of course), is implicitly causing me to be discriminated or harassed, because I do like Howard’s stories too.
By being an asshole, he justifies anyone thinking I’m an asshole too, because we (in theory at least) like the same author, share the same interest.
We are perceived as part of the same tribe, sharing a common set of values.
It’s not like that.


My friend Elvezio’s article quotes female warriors in chainmail bikinis and alien princesses abducted by tentacle monsters.
I can relate to that : it’s pulp, those are classic cliches, they are part of the game, they are part of the package.
But it’s not what makes me tick – it’s not my motivator, when I’m reading (or writing).
It’s not the filter through which I perceive and decode reality.
And I am not an exception or an outlier.

And it’s painful, feeling like we are on trial, and we must justify ourselves because of an old Frazetta cover, just because someone, by that cover, felt entitled to act like an asshole.

This close connection, this implied cause-and-effect mechanism between a certain set of narrative and visual cliches, and a certain set of distorted values, scares me.
Because it comes naturally, and because it is wrong.
It’s like accusing anyone enjoying the sight of Michelangelo’s David of having a dirty mind.
“You like ogling naked guys!”
Who knows? Some punters will probably have a dirty mind, and maybe fantasize in some weird way while looking at that sculpture – but they are not the standard, they are not the majority, they are not the norm.
And implying that enjoying a piece of art (any piece of art) can sort of desensitize us in some way, is a dangerous generalization.
It reeks of book-burnings and other horrors.

Are there some artists or writers that use those cliches to manipulate us into thinking and acting in a certain way?
It’s possible.
Clearly some cliches pull some of our animal strings – that’s why they are still being used.
Because they work.
But being human, we can filter our base instincts through intelligence.
There are other factors – which we might call education, maturity, sensibility, experience or what.
The problem is not the images, or the stories, but the tools we provide to the readers and the watchers (and the writers, and the artists, too), so that they’ll be able and go beyond the animal stimulation those images and stories provide.

We must spot the assholes, and act to set them straight.
But we must avoid generalizations, and we must stay clear of guilt trips – because they are easy, they make us feel good and virtuous, and because they are useless, and hypocritical,and they are a way for us to actually avoid the problem, not solve it.
The good guys get guilt trips.
Assholes will be assholes.

End of rant.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “The Fantasy Guilt Trip

  1. I have so much to say, but very little time to say it. So I’ll just leave this here…

    I commend you for confronting even the possibility that your culture harasses or belittles women. Thank you.

    While I don’t want to absolve our geek or pulp culture of its sins, I do think it’s fair to say that the marginalization of women in the world and of women as characters in fiction are bigger problems than just pulp. It’s everywhere. Watch a night of television, any network, and you’ll see male situations with just one token woman (whose role is quite limited) or female situations with just one token man… as if the genders don’t actually ever mix as equals. Any time we give in to that shorthand as creators, any time we fail to challenge those divisions, we halt progress away from gender-based marginalization/oppression.

    I am a writer – a baby one, as I’ve only had one fiction story published – but I struggle with this all the time. Being a woman doesn’t change that. I still fall prey to the patterns of narrative I grew up with.

    So I challenge myself two ways.

    First, I ask myself if my characters flipped genders, would they change fundamentally? If so, how? (There’s not an answer here BTW – sometimes it’s yes, sometimes it’s no – but in considering the question I can see the assumptions I’m making that I could change.)

    Secondly, there’s the Bechdel test. I keep it in y back pocket for any fiction/creative situation. If at the very least I can keep from failing the Bechdel test, I’m making progress.

    And I hope some day to look back on the Bechdel test as quaint, the least we could do, and silly. If not in my lifetime, perhaps in our daughters’ lifetimes.

    And when narratives change, people will follow suit.


    • Thank you for your comment – as I said, I wrote this post to try and wrap my mind around the problem, so your contribution is a welcome help.
      I agree with you – with our narratives we can change our readers’ attitudes.
      Or at least try!
      And yes, it’s easy to get distracted and slip into certain patters we inherited from those that came before us.

      To me, probably because of my training in environmental sciences, diversity is a key – my stories want to make clear that diversity is a source of strength, and respect for diversity is paramount.
      Often the issue of equality (equal rights, equal opportunities) seems to be the only issue.
      It’s not – respect for diversity is also essential.
      Or we run the risk of losing something very important to our survival – our differences.
      it’s a balancing act – I must treat you as an equal, but also allow you the right to be different from me.

      So yes, I also do the gender flip game – it helps me stay focused and not fall into bad narrative habits or the mindless replication of old cliches. And it helps me draw better characters.
      Writing some cliché-heavy genres (adventure, sword & sorcery, etc), I have to be able to use those cliches – because they are often the building blocks of my narrative. So I like when I can pick a classic, predictable situation and turn it upside down, or defuse it – again, it helps me write a better story, and it might also convey some deeper signal to my readers (such as in “see? It can go differently than you expected!”- or something like that).

      As for the Bechdel test, it’s a useful tool, but it can be easily cracked – so I’m not sure it can be applied to each and every story. But maybe it’s just me.

      There’s other tricks we can use – working not only on how the characters are described and perceived, but also on how perceive themselves and their world.
      I might as well draw up a list of tools we can use to create real, balanced and not sex-biased characters, and post it in the future.
      Could be a useful project.


  2. David, your post indicated that there was harassment and discrimination in fandom itself, that is, the community. These are acts for which we directly have recourse. I have not experienced or directly witnessed such acts, but I do recognize they take place. When it is in my power to do so, I intervene. This includes a personal boycott if that is my only available response. And I have authors that I do not read, no matter how great their stories may be.

    I have read posts elsewhere of mistreatment of feminine would-be authors whose position has been belittled by senior, otherwise well-respected authors. These seniors should instead bestow encouragement, everyone has to start somewhere. My personal belief is that these are the exception–I could be wrong. If I were to witness such an event, I would intervene no matter what his stature.

    Can I change such a person’s behavior? No. Will rants on web pages effect that persons’s behavior? No. Such well-respected authors are surrounded by loyal fans who believe the object of their obsession has sweet smelling excrement. Sales are the only way to get to these people. Sales by the junior author, loss of sales by the senior. My advice for junior authors is to improve your craft and your stories. Sell them. Then, when you share the discussion panel with the old man, tell the audience what he did when you started out. Unfortunately, without the “cred” of being a well sold author, the youngster appears to moan for the proverbial sour grapes.

    I wil go on record as saying that the SF community is the most elitist I have encountered.

    Will changing the stories we write really change society? It already has. The lead actor on those same night time TV shows is more often female. The roles are forceful and intelligent. The shows I watch very rarely belittle female leads. In fact, I have seen the reverse…lead male actors are quirky, damaged or helpless (e.g. Castle) portraying nothing of the positive qualities of maleness. Males in TV commercials are portrayed as buffoons.

    I am currently re-reading Jack McDevitt, an 80+ year old successful author who has featured women leads in most of his works, which are hard science fiction (for the most part). I should note that I am not a fan of gender reversals. the genders should stop competing with each other. The gender roles should not follow dominant-submissive paradigms (such as Gor), but highlight the complimentary nature of the genders (e.g. active-introspective). There are plenty of great stories about the “woman behind the man” that are no less compelling than those of the “man” himself (Fire and Ice Dragon Queen)

    I ramble. but I would say this. If you witness or experience gender discrimination, call them out for it. It is wrong. If you feel compelled to write genders differently, so be it. But I believe that the body of SF and Fantasy is maturing, and in the end, it is what sells, so write a better story with female roles and contribute to this maturation of the body of art.

    Norm Fenlason
    Kinstaff Media LLC


    • Thanks for the comment, Norm!
      This post sprang from the fact that I started wondering if I never noticed such behaviors (and by not noticing, compounded to the problem) or if I was lucky enough and always moved in sections of the fandom where such things do not happen.
      But considering my last convention was in 2007 – and before that it was in 1992! – and I live a very private life in a small village lost in the countryside, I guess I’m just too out of the loop to be able to judge.
      Which does not mean I should ignore such a problem.

      I agree that action should be taken, because these behaviors are unacceptable – and I’m all for acting at all levels: denouncing the individuals responsible for the harassment, discussing the problems within the community, and also write to push the community in the right direction.
      We are making small steps in the right direction: harassers are being denounced with increasing frequency, and nobody in their right mind would ever dream of justifying their behavior.

      And I’m with you about highlighting the complementary nature of genders – that’s what I mean in the comment above, when I talk about stressing diversity and bringing it to the fore.
      Incidentally, I think when Jane and myself mentioned gender flip, we both meant it just as a test to see if our characters and setting are balanced, not as a full proposal for gender-reversal stories.

      And final note – I too like Jack McDevitt’s stories very much.
      And maybe I should check if something new was published by the gentleman.


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