Genre and gender

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2011

One of the things that interests me most about the genre fiction community is its politics of race, sex and gender. While only a fool would call it a utopia of enlightened equality (far from it), I’ve long suspected that the frequent flarings-up around these sorts of issues are actually a sign of subcultural health; to make a brief comparison with one of my other favourite cultural spheres, to even attempt to discuss the objectification of women or the undercurrents of homophobia in rock and metal music is an exercise in futility that does little more than remind you of the sheer extent of the problems you’re trying to address*.

I suspect that genre’s status as a comparatively safe harbour for alternative politics is due at least in part to the fact that it’s always been a group that identified as non-mainstream (which brings certain counter-compensatory problems with it, but that’s a discussion for another time). Another important component is that genre fiction itself provides a toolkit for creating thought experiments where alternative politics can be played out, and Kyle Munkittrick of Discover‘s Science Not Fiction blog has come to a similar conclusion with respect to sex, gender and sexuality:

Sci-fi sex is fun to talk about, of course, but how can all of that help us understand the actual future of humanity? Simply put: we imagine what we hope to see. So the question is: what is it we imagine and hope for? An utter free-for-all of alien-cyborg-A.I. bacchanalia? I don’t think so. Instead, sci-fi is teaching the diversity of our own human sexuality back to us.

It’s an interesting piece, though I think it could be accused of taking the most optimistic reading possible of the genre as a whole, and of individual texts. Munkittrick sees The Fifth Element‘s Ruby Rhod as “perfectly and outrageously androgynous”, for example, while the same character crops up at io9 in a top ten list of embarrassingly terrible racial stereotypes; the reader’s perspective holds primacy in their own world, and for every player who finds playing a female character in a computer game enlightening for its ability to let them empathise with an unfamiliar sexuality, I suspect there’s rather more than one that does it because they simply like watching a pixellated female form more than a male one.

But Munkittrick’s underlying point is very valid, I think; by setting itself in worlds different to the one of our daily experience, non-mimetic media – especially science fiction, but by no means exclusively – gives artists a chance to sneak issues of gender and sexuality “under the wire” to an audience that might well baulk at the same ideas presented in a more everyday context. The battle for understanding and empathy is far from won – in the genre community and the wider world alike – but genre remains an important theatre for it, and that’s something to be proud of, I think.

[ * The persistent misogyny, homophobia and playground-grade discourse of mainstream metal may well explain my continued drift toward its fringes. That, and the fact that I get bored easily. ]


Preventing potential lesbianism in the womb

Paul Raven @ 01-07-2010

Science has brought us many wonderful things, but it sometimes gets picked up as a blunt instrument by people with deeply screwed up ideas about what is right and wrong. Worried your unborn female child might grow up to be uninterested in having children, or attracted to “traditionally masculine” career choices? Or – heaven forfend! – homosexual? Fear not: pediatric endocrinologist Maria New of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine reckons that her experimental hormone treatment for pregnant women can ensure the birth of little girls who think and act just like Jeebus and the Founding Fathers would have wanted. [That link via Cheryl Morgan; MeFi links to PZ Myers’ take on the same story.]

I don’t know which makes me more angry: that a medical practitioner – herself a woman! – could come up with such a plan and still sleep at night, or that there will be thousands of people who will be happy to have the body chemistry of their unborn child tampered with so long as it can prevent them turning out to be one of The Gays. So much for the Western societal myth of parental love being unconditional, not to mention the one about doctors being ethical.

In case you’re thinking “well, it’s a matter of parental choice, surely?”- try reversing the polarity of the story and thinking about how the guardians of public morals would respond. If a doctor announced a hormonal treatment that could ensure the expression of characteristics opposite to those traditionally associated with the sex of the child in question – a way of *gasp* manufacturing queers! – there’d be a white trash jihad on their home and clinic within hours of the news breaking. Hi-ho, heteronormativity.


Get over it, Orson

Paul Raven @ 30-07-2008

Same-sex marriage for the win!Via pretty much everywhere on the sf grapevine comes news that Orson Scott Card is being a reactionary ass-hat again, writing a column for the Mormon Times that states – yes, states, not infers – that same-sex marriage “marks the end of democracy in America”.

WTF?

I guess I’m just lucky to have been raised by parents who taught me to value people by their actions and character rather than their gender, skin colour or sexual preference, but I just don’t understand this attitude. I mean it really makes no sense to me. Why does Card care? Really? How does gay marriage harm him, or anyone else? How does it undermine democracy?

Card’s not a homophobe, though – or so he’d have us believe. I think I’ll leave it to Yonmei at the Feminist SF blog to shred that claim:

He riffs a bit on how