Why Do I Care? (On gender disparity and the Star Wars VII casting news)

The Star Wars VII casting news has caused a lot of disappointment and not a small bit of outrage on the internet today, largely related to its lack of diversity. And a lot of that is focused on the fact that of all the newly introduced cast members, exactly one is female. This stings. I’m not so much angry as just disheartened, because I was hoping for better. It’s hard to say I expected it. My awareness of the way this industry works is a little too acute for that. But I hoped.

Detention cellTo be fair, I suppose it’s possible that that one female (Daisy Ridley) will be the central figure, the Luke of this trilogy. I’m not overly optimistic about that, but it’s possible. Far more likely from the current buzz, however, is that that primary protagonist role is going to John Boyega. This post articulates a lot of what I’m feeling about the casting news itself. Does it mean this will automatically be a bad movie? No. But I think it means it’s not going to be as good a movie as it could’ve been.

I’m proud of how much outcry there’s been, from both men and women, about this. I’m glad my geek sisters are standing up and shouting together, and I’m glad so many of our geek brothers have our backs. I’m glad to be hearing stories of little girls who, like I did, want to play with lightsabers and get into blaster shoot-outs in defence of the galaxy, and of little boys who are learning that, yeah, female-led stories can be just as fun as the male-focused stories they’re used to.

But of course, this is the internet, with all its attendant troubles. So in addition to those displays of solidarity, there’s also been a lot of bro-culture nonsense slung all over the place. At worst, it’s… well, exactly what you’d expect. But even the more benign responses are insulting and aggravating — the men asking, “But why do you care?”

So, just in case anyone’s honestly asking that question, not just using it as a roundabout way to get we silly women to shut up, here’s why I care:

  • Because I have loved this series since I was 11. Despite its problems, I have continued to love it. I have an emotional investment.
  • Because this series was a lot of what shaped me as a writer. As I’ve discussed before, this was the impetus for choosing this career path, and I honed my skills in the Star Wars universe. It means a lot to me professionally as well as personally.
  • Because this series was a lot of how I identified — and was identified by others — as a geek. My formative years were tied up in it, and as a girl, that experience was different than it was for my male friends. I was even more of a freak than they were. I was fighting the “Fake Geek Girl” nonsense a generation before that was the name anyone put to it. I had to work harder to prove my devotion, had to earn my stripes, and I damn well did so. I proved a long time ago that I get to care about this.
  • Because representation matters. Girls have as much a right as boys to see themselves represented in the stories they love, and they deserve better than a single default character to choose from. Girls should get to decide if they want to be the princess, or the cocky smuggler, or the clever scientist, or the intrepid explorer, or the grave and noble leader, or the wise mentor, and they shouldn’t have to strip themselves of their femininity to do it. (It’s also well worth noting that an interest in science fiction can easily beget an interest in science — and we need more girls to grow up into women who work in that field).
  • Because it’s important to our world that boys learn to see girls as more than just one thing, too.
  • Because girls can have heroes’ journeys. I seriously saw someone on one site trying to argue that the main character had to be male because “that’s just the archetype.” As though women don’t struggle with issues of identity, conflicting priorities and responsibilities, and determining their destinies. As though girls can’t go on adventures, wrestle with the question of death, overthrow darkness, and come out on the other side bruised and battered but stronger and wiser, too. As though men have a monopoly on good stories.
  • Because Star Wars, thanks to its sheer size and force, does a lot to set the standard for the genre and as such, I feel, has a responsibility to the genre. The original trilogy did so much to innovate technologically. Now is the time to be innovative when it comes to storytelling.
  • Because Star Wars has never been great about gender representation in the past, yet I keep naively hoping for better. The original trilogy had The Chick. In fact, The Chick who would pretty much come to define The Chick in the genre. And don’t get me wrong, I love Leia and still sort of want to be her when I grow up. But she was what we got. Other women were relegated to a spare few lines in a single film of the trilogy (Aunt Beru, Mon Mothma) or were alien slave dancers (sorry, Oola). And things didn’t get a whole lot better in the prequels. We get Padme and we sort of get Shmi. Shmi gets blatantly (and brutally) fridged in order to provide Anakin a reason to go to the Dark Side, and Padme never lives up to her promise (despite Natalie Portman’s efforts to triumph over the script). Other than them, there are some background Jedi and counselors, sure, but no other figures even approaching what you’d call central. They do a lot better character-wise in the EU (Mara Jade! Bria Tharen! Jaina Solo! and so forth, including expanding some of those background figures from the prequels), but, as I noted a while back, the content creators? Still overwhelmingly male. So we still tend to see female figures through the male lens.
  • Because this is a missed opportunityStar Wars is one of the most popular franchises of all time, and now it’s backed by freaking Disney. They’re safe. They’re going to make piles of money on this no matter what. They could tell any story they wanted to. Not branching out beyond the familiar is an error in judgment.
  • Because I’m a woman trying to write in the SF/F genre. I know. Shocking. Yet we do exist! Lots of us! So to anyone saying, “Well if you want to see X represented, just write it yourself”– Trust me. We’re trying. It just ain’t that easy. SF/F is still a boys’ club overall. Much of the female-oriented success, at least by broader media standards, in the genre has been in YA — which is, not coincidentally, also dismissed by many of the Powers That Be as inferior to the adult, “serious” side of things.  Trying to tell a female-oriented story and actually have it heard, published, put out into the world — that’s hard. You’re at a disadvantage before you even begin. So many great stories by women get shunted to the side because they “don’t really fit the genre”. It’s well beyond time to change what those narrow boundaries of “in the genre” mean. Star Wars could be helping that, and instead they’re reinforcing the status quo.
  • And finally, if all that weren’t quite enough, I care because I am a human being with emotions, and those emotions have validity. Dismissing the outcry against this casting news as a tempest in a teapot is patriarchal gaslighting nonsense, and believe me, I’ve had enough of that for one lifetime.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go re-read The Paradise Snare in an attempt to make myself feel better.

I will see a division

Reading “SFF in Conversation: Women Write SFF” by guest blogger Andrea K Höst over at The Book Smugglers kicked me in the pants to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while — actually tally up all of my books and see what the male-female ratio is.

So. My shelves as they currently stand contain 302 books by female authors, 219 by male.

It breaks down thusly:

Fantasy: Female – 47, Male – 58
Historical: Female – 108, Male – 67
Romance: Female – 96, Male – 0
Thriller: Female – 3, Male – 22
Spiritual: Female – 11, Male -3
Academic (Shakespeare): Female – 12, Male – 21
SciFi/Speculative: Female – 23, Male – 31
SciFi Reference (Star Wars): Female – 2, Male – 17

Some further notes on all of that —

This tally does not actually include all the books that I own, just those currently out on my shelves. There are three boxes of “miscellaneous” that have remained in boxes since I moved a year and a half ago, and I was not quite dedicated enough to this little whim project to unpack them. (Yes, I know I own a ridiculous number of books and should probably downsize).

The fantasy shelf would be almost equal if it weren’t for Terry Pratchett, since I own about half of his Discworld series. Neil Gaiman accounts for a large chunk of the rest. But, in fairness, a good chunk of the female novels on those shelves are due to Mercedes Lackey.

The historical shelf is not divided between fiction and nonfiction. I didn’t tally this up, but I can tell at a glance that most of the “hard” histories — primary sources like Suetonius or Boccacio, or nonfiction secondary sources — are by male authors, most of the “soft” historical fiction novels are by female authors like Jean Plaidy, Michele Moran, etc.

It is perhaps no surprise that my entire extensive collection of romances (primarily Regency, some Victorian, a very few Georgian, a very few contemporary) has been written by female authors. It is interesting that if you take out this category, my books are otherwise almost equally represented.

The thriller shelf is dominated by the fact that I own everything Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have ever written. (I counted them as one person, so that number almost doubles if you count them individually).

My spiritual books are all pagan in nature, another realm often dominated by female authors.

The disparity on the academic shelf is saddening but not surprising. Women are making considerable strides in that field but haven’t closed the gap yet.

Sci-Fi/Speculative, though, was the big shocker to me. Those numbers were actually almost even until I got to my Star Wars shelf, thanks to a variety of authors like Gail Carriger, Suzanne Collins, and Veronica Roth. And then, when I hit my nostalgic SW shelf, the women disappear almost entirely, which is why I actually separated out the reference books — because, yes, I still have and proudly display my Star Wars encyclopedia, role-playing handbooks, and the guides to droids/weapons/planets/characters/aliens/etc. And the disparity there is breathtaking. In this tally, I only included the top listed name for each book, usually the editor or project director. But things like the roleplaying handbooks had dozens of contributors. The one I opened and counted up had nearly 40 male contributors and 2 female. Just. Astonishing. That franchise needs some female voices in it, fast.

So — I don’t know that I have any grand point about this, but it was a curiosity I had and felt the need to sate.

Book Meme (with bonus matching game and sociopolitical commentary)

So, I stole this meme from Facebook, but decided to post it here because I wanted more of a chance to pontificate about these books — specifically, what sort of a reader and writer I think they’ve turned me into.

List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be ‘right’ or ‘great’ books just the ones that have touched you.

  1. The Scarlet Pimpernel – Emmunska Orczy
  2. Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
  3. Deathless – Catherynne Valente
  4. The Last Unicorn – Peter Beagle
  5. Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  6. Catherine, Called Birdy – Karen Cushman
  7. Kushiel’s Chosen – Jacqueline Carey
  8. Lords and Ladies – Terry Pratchett
  9. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J K Rowling
  10. Sandman Volume 3: Dream Country – Neil Gaiman

First off, I’m pretty pleased with myself that the list features six female authors. I walk the walk when it comes to supporting women in media. (Numbers 11 and 12, for what it’s worth, would probably be Gone with the Wind and Julia Quinn’s Everything and the Moon. And The Handmaid’s Tale probably comes in at 13 — so there’s three more female authors who rank highly in my esteem, all for very different reasons). I don’t know what it says that of the three male authors, two of them are featured twice, except that I really like what those guys write. I’m also fairly pleased with myself for not copping out and listing entire series, as I often do with these memes. Narrowing it down made me think harder about what it is that has stuck with me, even out of those series that I most cherish. But the list came easily, for the most part. These are all books I revisit frequently, old friends who always welcome me back.

So what does this list say about me? I like epics. I like sweeping romance, but I like it complicated. I like the middle volumes of things, where it’s dark and twisted and unresolved. I like history and fantasy, and I have little interest in modern reality, so far as my pleasure reading goes. A lot of these books have stuck with me for a really long time. I first read Catherine, Called Birdy when I was nine and The Last Unicorn when I was twelve (though I’d seen and loved the movie since I was two). A good chunk come from my mid-teenage years: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mists of Avalon, Good Omens. The most recent addition, Deathless, I only read last year, but it made a huge impression.

I’m certainly attracted to an elegant turn of phrase. While not all of these authors write in the same style, I would say they’re pretty much all writers who really love language for its own sake — and that lends itself to a similar felicity of expression, even if it manifests in dissimilar ways. I can definitely quote all ten of those books off the top of my head. Which is making me want to play a matching game. So we will! Because it’s my blog and I do what I want.

  1. “Things need not have happened to be true.”
  2. “A woman’s heart is such a complex problem – the owner thereof is often most incompetent to find the solution of this puzzle.”
  3. “If I had to be born a lady, why not a rich lady, so someone else could do the work and I could lie on a silken bed and listen to a beautiful minstrel while my servants hemmed? Instead I am the daughter of a country knight with but ten servants, seventy villagers, no minstrel, and acres of unhemmed linen. It grumbles my guts.”
  4. “…muttering prayers and love-words like a curse…”
  5. “And they branch. But, and this is important, not all the time. The universe doesn’t much care if you tread on a butterfly. There are plenty more butterflies. Gods might note the fall of a sparrow but they don’t make any effort to catch them.”
  6. “‘All this time, and you speak to me as though I were a flighty pinprick of a girl. I am a magician! Did you never think, even once, that I loved lipstick and rouge for more than their color alone? I am a student of their lore, and it is arcane and hermetic beyond the dreams of alchemists.'”
  7. “Pride, she thought drearily, was a cold bedfellow.”
  8. “The men in the room suddenly realized they didn’t want to know her better. She was beautiful, but she was beautiful in the way a forest fire was beautiful: something to be admired from a distance, but not up close.”
  9. “‘They deserve their fate, they deserve worse.  To leave a child out in the snow…’   ‘Well, if they hadn’t, he couldn’t have grown up to be the prince.  Haven’t you ever been in a fairy tale before?'”
  10. “‘Don’t worry. You’re just as sane as I am.'”

I also (shockingly) like heroines. Of the ten books on that list, only two, maybe three, don’t have what I would consider central female characters — Harry Potter, since no character manages to be as central as he does (but we do still get, y’know, Hermione and Minerva and Luna and Ginny, all of whom shine so brilliantly in that book in particular), Good Omens is such an ensemble work (but still features Anathema, Pepper, War, etc), and Sandman, since if it has a central figure, that would be Morpheus, but that particular volume is even more ensemble than most of them. Of the rest? Marguerite Blakeney. Phedre no Delaunay and Ysandre de la Courcel. Morgaine and Vivivane. Amalthea and Molly Grue. Birdy. Marya Morevna. Esme and Gytha and Magrat. It’s a wide spectrum and no mistake. There’s not just one way to be a heroine. The only thing all those women have in common, really, is that they act. And this has always been true, in other media as well as in books. My heroines growing up were Princess Leia, Xena, and Queen Elizabeth I.

There’s a chicken and egg thing here, I think. Did I like these books with these amazing heroines (and anti-heroines, and occasionally female villains) because of the type of person I am, or did reading books with those characters shape me into that person? A little of both, probably. I can credit my parents with the fact that I think I internalized a lot less misogyny than a lot of women of my generation. Not none, mind — I’m not sure that would be possible, even in the most liberated of environments. But it was never, ever implied that there were things I couldn’t or shouldn’t do because I was a girl, whether it was playing with dinosaurs or learning to rappel at the age of five or dressing up like Disney princesses for Halloween. I could do all of those things — and did. And that spread into the media I consumed, too. My parents bought me books by both male and female authors, with both male and female characters. When they made up bedtime stories, it was always a little girl going out and adventuring. And so that’s what I sought out as I grew old enough to choose my own media.

I can look back at my very earliest writings — the stories about the people inhabiting my Playmobil dollhouse, the Star Wars fanfic — and from the very beginning, I was writing ensemble casts that were at least 50% female, if not weighted even more heavily to the distaff side. I was too young then to have done it to prove a point — that was just the way I saw my word, and so it was the way I sought to tell stories. It startles me sometimes, to remember that some people actually have to put conscious thought into that — that the idea of more than one prominent female character in a story is still radical in some ways.

Now, what I know I’ve had to get better at is racial diversity. That’s a very white list up there, both for authors and characters. That, I did internalize. I certainly never sought to be exclusionary, but I started off with some default assumptions that needed interrogation and, often, demolition. And so, the past several years have been a quest to better educate myself on those cultures that don’t derive from western Europe and to incorporate them — and I’m damn sure my stories are better for it.

I think a lot of narratives about writing focus on the writer discovering him or herself, but I think you get better stories when you’re more interested in discovering the world.

On David Gilmour

Just a quick note regarding the ongoing David “I only teach real manly manly men, no homos, no lady bits, you understand?” Gilmour controversy — this post by Anne Thériault is one of the best things I’ve read on it so far. So go read it.

Because the thing is, if you’re not a cis white straight male, you are constantly expected not just to expose yourself to, but to immerse yourself in media that is not about you, not written by someone like you, not written for your experience. Gilmour’s flat-out refusal to examine any experience other than his own (and his promotion of that viewpoint to his students) is, well, a lot of what I feel is wrong with modern culture, really. Our world needs a greater degree of empathy and a greater capacity for divergent thinking. Gilmour — and the many, many others like him who deserve but aren’t receiving equal castigation — have a lesson to learn about that.