Doing some preparation for a post about Ursula K. Le Guin, I began to get worried. I am part of the problem. In wanting to say that I think we have something to learn from Ursula K. Le Guin, and in suggesting that she is different from main-line SF, I implicitly, accidentally set up a dichotomy. It is all-too-easy then to retrofit this onto a framework of gender, and then we just have another piece of text which has been sucked into the same old sexist vortex of male SF authors are from Mars, and female SF authors are from etc. Even looking up a copy of Worlds of Exile and Illusion online, I read that here we find that ‘three classic novels are offered in one volume by SF’s greatest living female writer.’ Greatest living female writer. Right. Even to get rid of the problematic italicized word there, it would still be read as ‘greatest living
To deal with this to my own satisfaction, I am going to borrow from
male gay David M. Halperin’s wonderful book, How to be Gay. In a chapter detailing the development of his book from a seminar he offered at the University of Michigan, he delineates his own attempts at developing a theoretical framework for his project. Gay studies, scholars of homosexuality, and queer theorists do not often speak the same conceptual language. Where once queer theory was a part of the extra-academic discourse around homosexuality (that is beyond academia, among the activist community, and then to the statistically average LGBT person in the street) now it has much of guild-speech about it. This has made it less useful to those who most need it, those requiring a theory of who they are and why they are:
“But as queer theory has become institutionalized, the understandable reluctance to accept essentialist assumptions about lesbians and gay men has hardened into an automatic self-justifying dogmatism, a visceral impulse to preempt the merest acknowledgement of any cultural patterns or practices that might be distinctive to homosexuals.” [p. 63]
Halperin begins then to develop the notion that we can point towards commonalities which need not be regarded as coercive. That we can indicate similarities, without these being an opportunity for those with power to oppress those without it.
So I have a framework at least now for how to approach my problem, but having worked for a time in the world of research and quantification, I would like to have some framework of approaching this matter. Thankfully, there are analogues. For instance, in writing about women in science, the
woman science writer Ann Finkbeiner detailed her approach to a magazine assignment she was given, and this was codified by female Christie Aschwanden as ‘The Finkbeiner Test’. To pass the test, an article about a female scientist cannot mention:
- The fact that she’s a woman
- Her husband’s job
- Her child care arrangements
- How she nurtures her underlings
- How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
- How she’s such a role model for other women
- How she’s the “first woman to…”
This became a hot topic recently with the New York Times’s obituary for the rocket scientist, Yvonne Brill, with the obit failing the Finkbeiner Test miserably (as this article on iO9 helpfully details ‘The New York Times fails miserably in its obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill’). Aschwanden’s post also pointed me in the direction of the ‘Bechdel Test‘, used to identify gender bias in fiction. Alison Bechdel, a
lesbian woman cartoonist, introduces it in her strip, ‘The Rule’.
Here the movie worth watching is described as worth watching if:
- it has to have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other,
- about something besides a man.
(NPR has an item on this here, exploring the possibilities of extending it to representations of African Americans, and Latin Americans).
One argument against these (vaguely tongue-in-cheek) attempts at quantification of exclusion is that they are reactionary, simply going in the other direction. The suggestion is that we should not draw attention to matters, and get on with it. The problem with effacing any sort of difference is that ‘just getting on with it’ will always favour the status quo, will always favour things staying just the same, will always favour the same hegemonic representations of this masculine, heterosexual, western world. By drawing attention via these humorous metrics (with serious intent) to how our most prevalent and pervasive cultural representations of our world habitually exclude half + of this world, we show that our forms of speech and art and writing are never neutral in ethics, nor exhaustive in description.
Just after finishing this, I came across the wonderful ‘”We Have Always Fought”: Challenging the “Women, Cattle and Slaves” Narrative’ by Kameron Hurley. Read it.