Women in SF&F Month Banner

Today I’m pleased to have a guest post from Jessica of Read React Review!  Although she doesn’t talk much about science fiction and fantasy on her blog, I have known her for many years and very much respect what she has to say on any number of issues, including ideas involving women and gender in fiction.  As such, she was one of the first people I thought to invite this month and now she is kicking things off with the first post!  She is a philosopher who specializes in gender theory, among other things, and I am very interested to hear what she thinks about the idea of women as a distinct group in fiction.

So, without further delay, here’s Jessica!

Read React Review header

When Kristen asked me to write a guest post for her Women in SF&F event, I panicked. I don’t read much SF&F, and when it comes to understanding the culture of SF&F reviewing, I’m pretty clueless. Luckily, or perhaps depressingly, the question of women and fiction can be raised in relation to any kind of fiction, and any review site. Just the other day, in the New York Times, literary fiction writer Meg Wolitzer discussed it:

“This is a tricky subject. Bringing up the women’s question — I mean the women’s fiction question — is not unlike mentioning the national debt at a dinner party. Some people will get annoyed and insist it’s been talked about too much and inaccurately, and some will think it really matters. When I refer to so-called women’s fiction … I’m referring to literature that happens to be written by women. But some people, especially some men, see most fiction by women as one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them.”

Wolitzer’s comments followed the 2010 dustup when “commercial fiction” authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult complained about white male novelists getting all the mainstream reviewers’ attention and praise.  And you don’t have to use much Google-fu to find essays like Why Crime Novelists Don’t Get Women or The Spectre of Sexism Haunting Horror Fiction.

I’m especially glad that members of the SF&F blogging community are asking about gender bias in reviewing. The implicit assumption is that independent blog reviews matter, and that it is just as important that they be looked at for different kinds of problematic bias as mainstream media reviews.

As the month here at Fantasy Cafe gears up, I thought I’d just be a typical philosopher and suggest that it might be worth taking a step back and asking what we mean when we use the term “woman.”  On a common sense level, ‘woman’ refers to human females, and being a human female means having certain biological features (chromosomes, genitalia, etc.). But a second’s reflection suggests we use ‘woman’ in a lot of ways that don’t correspond to this sex-based definition (like when a female is admonished that she’s not “a real woman”, or when a young man is called a “woman” as an insult). And anyway, when we start asking about the representation of women in fiction, or in reviews of fiction, we’re undertaking a feminist project of some kind, and most feminists understand ‘woman’ as something other than a biological category.

One feminist tactic has been to separate the biological and social aspects of womanhood into “sex” and “gender.”  You’re probably familiar with Simone de Beauvoir’s claim in The Second Sex (1954) that “one is not born a woman, but becomes one.” The idea is to counter the notion that biology is destiny. I wish I could say that the threat of biological determinism is long past, but even today we have claims that women’s and men’s brains are “hardwired” to produce empathetic women and system-building men.

There are loads of different gender theories. Some say that gender is the result of socialization, both overt forms like not letting girls play football or telling boys not to cry, and more subtle cues like parents of hours-old babies unconsciously  describing them in gendered ways (the boy babies as “strong” and “alert”, the girls as “beautiful” and “sweet”).  Highlighting strong female protagonists or images of powerful women in book covers are examples of attempts to counter socialization.

A more radical approach says we can’t look at gender as two neutral sets of temperament, interests, status, gestures and expressions. Rather, we must always at the same time be looking at them in reference to the power one has over the other. That is, gender is by definition a matter of domination and subordination. To become a woman, to be gendered feminine, is to become subordinate, period. In particular, it is to become sexually objectified. So seeking “gender equality” is a folly. Because sexual dominance comes before gender difference, as long as there is gender, women will be sex objects, and they will be oppressed.

These two views are pretty different, but they actually share something in common: gender realism. Gender realism is the idea that women as a group are assumed to share something, a characteristic feature, an experience (mothering?), common condition (being oppressed by men?) or criterion that the possession of which makes some individuals women (as opposed to, say, men).  However gender is defined, a gender realist says all women differ from all men in some way.

The problem with gender realism is that it seems to assume that there’s a “gendered” part of woman that is separable from other parts, like her race, sexual orientation, class, etc.  The person who put this point best is Elizabeth Spelman, so I’ll quote her here:

“What makes it true that Angela and I are women is not some women’s substance that is the same in each of us and interchangeable between us. Selves are not made up of separable units of identity strung together to constitute a whole person. It is not as if there is a goddess somewhere who made lots of little identical ‘woman’ units and then, in order to spruce up the world a bit for herself, decided to put some of those units in black bodies, some in white bodies, some in the bodies of kitchen maids in seventeenth century France, some in the bodies of English, Israeli, and Indian prime ministers (1990, 158).”

Spelman goes on to say that this “golden nugget of womanness” all woman are supposed to share is actually a very specific version of womanness, the one most familiar to the majority of the women doing feminist theory: white, middle class, heterosexual woman. Feminist writer and poet Adrienne Rich, who died just last week, called this “white solipsism”, the tendency to act and speak as if whiteness described the world.

As a result of Spelman’s kind of arguments, it’s become much more common to understand gender as intersecting with other aspects of identity. To be a ‘woman’ means something different depending on how one is situated with respect to their race, class, etc.  To really do this, you have to forgo privileging one version of femininity. So, for example, if on my women’s studies syllabus I had all white women writing about white women, and then at the end threw in some women of color, or women with disabilities, or lesbians, for a “twist”, I’d still be basically asserting that the white, middle class, heterosexual experience of womanhood is the default, “regular” sense of ‘woman’, and these other things are, for lack of a better word, “flava.”

Maybe this point should be put in an even stronger way. For some feminists, like Judith Butler, trying to define ‘woman’ at all means setting up a kind of norm, such that anyone who doesn’t meet it, is somehow lacking.  If we say that being a ‘woman’ means being gendered feminine, and that femininity requires sexually desiring men, then lesbians, for example, aren’t doing their gender “right.”  Not to mention transgendered persons. But that’s not what feminism should be about. So, on this view, feminists should forget about the category of ‘woman’ and instead help us understand how power functions and shapes our understandings of womanhood not only in the society at large but also within the feminist movement.

Butler goes even further to say that we should forget completely about the distinction with which this all began: the sex/gender distinction. Sure, it’s easy to think of sex as natural, given.  And then gender as the social construction that gets layered over it. But feminists like Butler (as well as feminist philosophers of science) point out that biological sex has always been socially constructed: the minute a doctor says “it’s a girl”, a whole host of constructs are in place that make that a constituting speech act. A doctor could just as easily use size or hair/color to categorize newborns. We picked genitalia – we decided it mattered.

Asking “what is a woman?” is, as I’ve tried to suggest here, important from a feminist point of view, and interesting from a philosophical one. SF&F can be a vital source of imaginatively interrogating seemingly common sense concepts. Sometimes SF&F authors ask them in their writing. Sometimes readers, reviewers, and bloggers utilize SF&F to ask them. And I think it’s worth doing so even in the context of this event Kristen’s hosting. When you think about “Women in SF&F” who exactly are you thinking about? And why?