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I would make a terrible superhero girlfriend.

I would make a terrible superhero girlfriend.

Why? Because I’d be all over killing the bad guy. Not to mention not being willing to play the victim who gets held hostage or dropped off buildings or whatever. In fact as fantasy/horror/romance books go I’d make a terrible damsel in distress period. Because my first thought has always been that she shouldn’t be waiting around to be saved, she should be trying to save herself. Which isn’t you know…part of the formula or anything. On some level it has always felt like the women in those books weren’t quite representative of me (unless we start talking alter egos ala Jem, or secret identities, or even women like Eowyn who dressed as a man to fight for her land) and yet like a lot of genre fiction fans of color I kept reading them. Kept watching the shows and even going to the movies despite the fact that the women didn’t act the way I would or look the way I do. Because I grew up on a steady diet of Dark Shadows, Flash Gordon, Twilight Zone, Doctor Who, and Isaac Asimov.

And now? Now I’ve got people claiming that readers of color didn’t exist until the advent of the Internet. For the record? We were here at the start and we will be here at the end. Lois (Bujold in case you haven’t been following the latest incarnation of Race Fail to know that she’s the one eating her knee in that comment) seems to think that con attendance = fan. I can’t imagine why there would be so few POC at conventions held in the wake of segregation and Jim Crow. Or why fans of color today often prefer to discuss the books they love with people who don’t think the Open Source Boob Project is the height of social behavior. Oh wait, I’ve never seen the point to spending a ton of money to hang out with people who think my perspective is unwelcome or who think they should be able to touch me because they feel like it. I suspect I am not alone.

For the last time, just because it is not happening in full view of white people does not mean that it is not happening. I am so tired of dealing with this attitude that wanting sci-fi to represent and respect the reality of life as a person of color is somehow asking too much. Especially when the reaction from white authors who are told “Hey you’re doing it wrong” is to say “Well then I won’t do it at all” like we’re supposed to be a-okay with being erased, ignored, or misrepresented just to get a few crumbs from the table. I did an interview this weekend about Verb Noire, and one of the questions was about our hopes and fears for the press. You know what? As long as at least one new perspective is brought to the table of genre fiction I’ll count it as a success. Because it is time for the superhero’s girlfriend to learn to fight back and for the woman to ride as herself to save her people. It is time for the books to reflect more than one view of strength, of femininity, and of reality. And it shouldn’t be a case of “Well there’s this one author or this one perspective that represents *those* people” but I know that breaking the mainstream of this habit of viewing POC culture as monolithic is going to take a lot more than just attending cons and putting out books. We can’t be the only ones doing the work to change the face of fiction. So, less assuming and more listening? Probably for the best.

13 comments to I would make a terrible superhero girlfriend.

  • I have always thought the inactivity on the part of superhero SOs was lame. (It happens to the men at times, too, though by and large it seems the superheroines are more likely to be involved with other supers than mundanes.) OTOH, some of the major names is super-spousehood do break that mold, nowadays. Lois Lane, for example, may have started life as a passive victim (I didn’t read classic Superman) but these days she tends to get right into it.

    People are claiming there were no minority SF fans before the internet? Ye gads, my high school best friend was a fig newton of my imagination! The horror!

    I tend to disassociate myself from the majority of people, and the majority of fandom are no different in that regard. I have had a pretty good experience so far with my local sci-fi con (Convergence, in Minneapolis). I have yet to hear about any of these ridiculous things like the Open Boob Project coming out of there.

  • I recall managerial traing in a Canadian bank in the 60′s. Middle aged women were first included about the time I took the courses : a recognition of misallocation of resources which interestingly had resulted from a particular meme : that women played internal politics so well with each other that putting them on top would result in a catfight. Putting a dumb male in charge meant somebody that wasn’t as much a threat because he could be blackmailed or manipulated with sex ; and the girls would play nice together. Anybody who knows office politics would have to wonder about the success of that premise.
    You’re perpetuating black/white male/female divisions yourself. Not like I care : but I thought it interesting. The bunch of us need group therapy to get over the headbanging handed out by manistream media.
    And I do recall when women started to be published under their own names or added them instead of just initials. Andre Norton became Mary Norton, C.J. Cherryh became Cynthia Jane…and their were suddenly female protagonists. Did you notice the change of focus ? Characterization zoomed in importance and scientific rationality relatively took a beating in SF. Mental powers, mutancy and the like seemed to come out of nowhere.
    An author has individual character. I followed Heinlein until I realized the quip was true : “A pygmy writer with a giant typewriter.” Others weren’t so constrained and got out of SF for mainstream writing : where there was a paycheck.
    But really : you’re referring to a habit of characterizing people according to stereotype. Branding is a tool of propaganda : and we get exposed to an absolute shitload. So back to an AlterNet article on good old George Orwell for the denouement
    http://www.alternet.org/mediaculture/107326/former_news_radio_staffer_spills_the_beans_on_how_shock_jocks_inspire_hatred_and_anger/
    Take a look at my Overton Window entries some time > Links. It only looks like fiction at first.

  • Ico

    Yes yes yes, WORD to everything you said! Especially this: “I am so tired of dealing with this attitude that wanting sci-fi to represent and respect the reality of life as a person of color is somehow asking too much.”

    It is *not* too much to ask that POC be actually represented (and not just as stereotypes), that women be represented as something other than damsels and women in refrigerators. The fact that these things are treated as huge horrible demands that unjustly PC-ify everything is plain ridiculous. It never ceases to piss me off.

  • nojojojo

    opit,

    Do you have a point, amid the morass of irrelevancy and misogyny you’ve posted here? Please stay on-topic.

    Oh, and that was a warning.

  • Chuck B.

    Is there any valid relationship between the fact that SF&F writers whose novels are published by for profit publishers tend to be outsiders to even their own social ethnic group that a minority group is so alien they are utterly clueless?

    Aren’t most writers alienated outsiders that report from the edge? Romantic writers tend to write all white stories, white chicklit writers usually only have white chick protagonists, and we don’t even need to get into westerns. If this is the case, then shouldn’t we expect a certain degree of massive stupidity and applaud writers like Walter Jon Williams and Richard Morgan who don’t have it?

    I mean I am very saddened that Lois MacMaster Bujold is so dense as to make such assinine statements, but then as a POC who has been reading SF&F since the mid 70′s I never expected much in the way of sensitivity. I tended to look that the misanthropes that lurked amongst the stacks and cons of SF and took it for granted that POC would not increase in the gener until the number of writers of Color increased. (I also had a private theory about black writers and the rise of a true black professional class in US culture, but that’s another story)

    I was always happy if the author avoided the blatant racism that David Drake and others of his ilk leaned toward.

    That said, please do not take think for one nanosecond I am unappreciative of the current battles you and other writers are fighting for my behalf. You are schooling them and they need to be schooled.

    I just was curious if you saw credibility in my theory as why they are so clueless.

    Oh, and have you ever read the dedication in Richard Morgan’s newest work “Thirteen” (“Black Man” in the UK)?

  • nojojojo

    Chuck B,

    Is there any valid relationship between the fact that SF&F writers whose novels are published by for profit publishers tend to be outsiders to even their own social ethnic group that a minority group is so alien they are utterly clueless?

    In my opinion, SF writers’ alienation from mainstream society (where that is the case; I think that’s a bit of a stereotype) is irrelevant. The ways in which they are defending white privilege are exactly the same as the way mainstream writers, other-genre writers (as you point out), and folks in other media, defend their white privilege. However alienated SF writers might be, they’ve absorbed the messages of racism and white privilege just the same as everybody else.

    That said, I can’t speak to Morgan or Williams (never read their work), but there are a lot of white writers who Get It. They tend to be younger writers, though this isn’t always the case — one of the best-known Get It writers is Ursula LeGuin, who must be pushing 80. And the field is changing, slowly, as writers become less tone-deaf on issues of gender and race, and as readers become more demanding. But a lot more work is needed.

    Speaking of which, there’s a kind of “roll call” going on right now of online SF/F fans of color. If you’re so inclined, perhaps you could check in?

  • Rob Hansen

    Now I’ve got people claiming that readers of color didn’t exist until the advent of the Internet

    Sigh. Why do people just talk bollocks rather than do a little bit of research?
    The world’s first ever SF group was formed by New York fans around 1929. They called themselves the Scienceers and among their number were Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger, two names longtime fans of DC Comics will be familiar with. In his history of early fandom, THE IMMORTAL STORM (1954), fan historian Sam Moskowitz
    wrote:

    “The first president of the club was a colored fan whose hobby was rocketry, and the Scienceers met at his Harlem home. The willingness of the other members to accede to his leadership, regardless of racial difference, has never had an opportunity for duplication, for James Fitzgerald was the first and last colored man ever actively to engage in the activities of science fiction fandom. It is an established fact that colored science fiction readers number in the thousands , but with the exception of Fitzgerald, the lone Negro who attended the first national science fiction convention in 1938 and the single Negro members of the later groups, the Eastern Science Fiction Association and the Philadelphia Science Fantasy Society, they play no part in this history.”

    So, the fact there were thousands of black readers of SF was common knowledge
    55 years ago, and the first head of the first ever SF fan group was also black.

  • Chuck B.

    Done! as Chuckrunner…thank you nojo!

  • opit: “And I do recall when women started to be published under their own names or added them instead of just initials. Andre Norton became Mary Norton, C.J. Cherryh became Cynthia Jane…and their were suddenly female protagonists. Did you notice the change of focus ? Characterization zoomed in importance and scientific rationality relatively took a beating in SF. Mental powers, mutancy and the like seemed to come out of nowhere.”

    You have an interesting memory. Andre Norton never published as Mary Norton (you may be confusing her with the author of The Borrowers), nor has C. J. Cherryh publihsed as Cynthia Jane (perhaps because her middle name is Janice, not Jane, but even so). Ursula K. LeGuin published a story or two under her initials in Playboy, but other than that has always used her full first name. And just to show how much progress we’ve made, Joanne K. Rowling published under her initials!

    As far as your second point goes, Andre Norton had always had “mental powers” in her books. Male writers had often used “mental powers” in their work. Some female writers have stuck with “hard” science, many male writers including old school sf had not bothered with scientific accuracy. And how dreadful, to work on technical basics of fiction writing like characterization, as though you couldn’t develop characters and work on your science in the same work! I hadn’t noticed that “scientific rationality” took a beating in sf, but it sure did in your comment.

  • Robin

    “Why? Because I’d be all over killing the bad guy. Not to mention not being willing to play the victim who gets held hostage or dropped off buildings or whatever. In fact as fantasy/horror/romance books go I’d make a terrible damsel in distress period. Because my first thought has always been that she shouldn’t be waiting around to be saved, she should be trying to save herself. Which isn’t you know…part of the formula or anything.”

    Wow. Congratulations. Give yourself a big pat on the back, because you know exactly how you would behave in any crisis situation, and you’d certainly be braver those weak-willed women in the comics. You wouldn’t be “willing” to get dropped off a building? Yeah, because you really have a lot of choice in the matter. Give me a break. Do you have any sense of how much this echoes the perverse pseudo-feminism of blaming rape victims for not fighting back? I know you’re making a point about the types of roles women tend to be cast in in these genres, but the way you’re phrasing it sounds extremely thoughtless.

    The reason such damsels are in distress isn’t that they’re damsels, it’s that they’re normal people. Super heroes are not only physically, but psychologically prepared to risk their lives to any extreme. Since the genre is packed with this kind of character, it’s easy to forget that their civilian loved ones often have no such psychological preparation. They are just going about their day, with no expectation of encountering danger, especially not at the hands of superhuman psychopaths. Not everyone is an action hero waiting to happen. True, in real life a person without any preparation may rescue someone from a burning building or take down an armed attacker, but they’re the exception, not the rule. That’s why super heroes have secret identities, because the people whose safety they care about aren’t all tough-as-nails warriors. I agree with you that the roles of the heroes and victims (and villains, for that matter) in such stories ought to be more evenly split between genders. But expecting a woman with no martial training to turn into G.I. Jane as soon as a baddie shows up, just because she’s dating Peter Parker, is unrealistic, insulting, and bad storytelling.

    Furthermore, as far as empowering women in speculative fiction goes, I think it’s important to show characters who have admirable qualities other than their aptitude for violence. How about female role models with intellectual and emotional bravery, not just physical?

  • karnythia

    Robin,

    I’m a vet. I know exactly how I’d react in a crisis because I’ve been in a few. And I think only presenting women as damsels in distress is a lot more harmful than thinking a story about a girl that actually fight back. I served with a lot of women and let me tell we can do a lot more than cry and fall.

  • Westerly

    @Robin.

    Please. Talk about simplistic. In a crisis it is often not nearly as simple as ‘all-powerful’ hero and quivering, incapacitated damsel in distress. Even when people are being helped by others it is not ‘abnormal’ for them to care enough about their own survival to make at least some effort to help themselves or even ally themselves with whoever is trying to help them.

    Yes it is normal for people to get scared or frightened, and yes people can be stunned or stressed into inaction. But the damsel of distress never reaches that psychological threshold like most normal people do – it’s her normal, automatic mode of reaction for every and any situation.

    And in my own inexperience I know of so few people who became so absolutely incapacitated when facing danger that they simply sat there, wailed at the top of their lungs and did nothing even remotely useful, in the way that the classic damsel in distress does.

    Falling down on the floor, shrieking and wailing when somebody is trying to take you out and another is trying to save your ass is not ‘normal’ behaviour. (If you have the energy to do that, then why not do something useful?) Whether successful or not, most people have an instinct for self-preservation where they will at least attempt to flee or try to fight back, rather than collapse in a puddle. You don’t have to be G.I. Jane to put up a struggle.

    And yes, people are tired of the fact that if, in reality, people assisting others come in all shapes, sizes, colours and genders then there is absolutely no reason why they are all invariably white and male – as if they are the *only* people capable of helping anyone.

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