Kerfluffle Watch, SFWA Edition: Thanks, Jim Hines!

I spent Saturday writing a blog post that became three, because I was that peeved by a series of kerfluffles lately, culminating in a dustup at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America over several pieces spanning three issues of the SFWA Bulletin. This is post number two.

In very brief, in Issue 200 a dialogue between Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg raised some hackles, as did the cover, which featured a metal bikini-clad warrior woman crouching over the corpse of some cold-climate beast. In Issue 201, another contributor, CJ Henderson, opened his mouth and inserted his foot by saying that, like Barbie, women should maintain a “quiet dignity.” And in Issue 202 Resnick and Malzberg responded to the complaints the SFWA received about both the cover of and their contribution to Issue 200 by saying the complainers were idiots, if not outright attempting to censor and suppress them.

But there was another response in Issue 202 to the reader responses to 200. It was by Jim C. Hines, and it came in response specifically to the cover and the outcry it prompted. Echoing a blog project he did some time ago in which he himself posed as closely as he could to the contorted positions in which cover chicks find themselves, Hines argues that the problem is not primarily the fact of the skimpy clothes and the sexuality—it’s the specific ways in which those things are drawn, and the fact that men on covers are not required (or at least, not required nearly as often) to break their backs in the name of sexy poses. In his blog post he very generously speculates that the idea behind these covers is probably to portray strong, sexy women–not just pinups in costume. But in the course of sexing the poses up, the artists have put these women in nearly impossible postures—certainly postures from which they could not possibly fight or in fact, function without pain.

In his Bulletin column, he points out: “Our barbarian swordswoman is more than able to take down monsters with three times her mass, but she doesn’t have the slightest idea how to dress herself. As both armor and protection from the snowy environments, her wardrobe puts her clearly in the “too dumb to live” category of characters.” Therefore, if you want to draw a sex-kitten/warrior woman, you’d better be able to justify your choices. Preferably, dress her in something she can actually fight in, and pose her as a fighter, not a pinup. And (adds Kate) if you don’t think you can accomplish both with the same picture, you’re not trying hard enough. That’s all. Full stop. You’re an artist. Try harder.

Interestingly, Hines’ article, which directly follows Resnick and Malzberg’s, includes on its first page the following statement: “I’ve been talking about sexism in cover art online and at conventions for more than a year now, and I believe it’s an important conversation to have. I certainly understand that not everyone agrees with me, and I’m not about to try to force everyone to take part in that conversation, but I wonder sometimes when people seem so eager to shut it down. Whether it’s dismissing concerns about the objectification and sexualization of women as knee-jerk overreaction from people looking for reasons to be offended, or proclaiming that the PC Police are coming to paint burkas over all the old Conan the Barbarian covers.”

I said it in yesterday’s post, and I’ll say it again: the conversation is important. The conversation has merit. And in the interest of keeping the conversation going (and in response to something I mentioned in yesterday’s rant, the fact that the Resnick and Malzberg took issue with their detractors’ purported “anonymity”), Hines is also keeping a roundup of the (not at all anonymous) responses to the Kerfluffle. You can find it here.

And here’s another thing to discuss once we get that conversation going: there’s a problem with the way that some people use femininity and female sexuality, and the way they defend their uses (some would say abuses) of it. A sexy woman on the cover of a magazine doesn’t immediately have to equal sexism. But when that woman is fairly obviously sexy just for the sake of the sexy, well, then there might be a problem. But when women (and sometimes men) complain about hypersexualized female images, they are often countered with something like this: she’s not hypersexualized, she’s strong and powerful and in charge of her own sexuality, and by the way, why are you ashamed of the female body/female sexuality?

About a year and a half ago DC Comics went through something like this when they rebooted Catwoman and Starfire and a Kerfluffle resulted, in which many (mostly but not all female) readers objected to what they saw as a massive and misogynistic oversexualization of characters they cared about and many (mostly but not all male) readers countered that people were reading “misogynistic oversexualization” where they should have been reading “strong, sexually empowered, and badass” and demanded to know why those angry readers were offended by beautiful women who weren’t ashamed of their sexuality.

My response was what I hoped would be a helpful tutorial on how to write better female characters, in which I argued that, if only for financial reasons (namely, increasing market share by not pissing off female readers who would otherwise spend their money on your product), DC writers ought to consider just writing better women. Because really, that’s all the angry folks were demanding: female characters who were written so that their entire personalities were not based upon their sexuality. (Now, to be clear, I wish people would write better women and not assume or claim that sexuality is a sufficient stand-in for personality and strength because it’s the right thing to do, much like I wish we could all have equal rights and pay and generally be treated with respect because it’s the right thing to do, but on matters like this I admit I default to being cynical.)

I guess the parallel for artists (and designers and publishers, if they’re listening) is: you can have your sexiness, just please make it make sense. Otherwise nobody’s fooled and people get pissed off because it starts looking like you’re pandering to men and objectifying women. And writers/editors/artists/designers/etcetera: you can do that, if you feel that strongly about it. You can continue to pander and objectify. Of course you can. You’re allowed, to put this on the kindergarten level of discourse. Nobody’s going to come to your home or place of business and stop you. But you should expect some negative reactions and you should expect to lose a chunk of your audience. Weigh that into your calculations, is all I’m saying. (I’d like to say, be reasonable and do the right thing, but again, cynicism. Plus, if we were ever likely to agree on what “the right thing” looks like, we wouldn’t have kerfluffles like this, would we? Evidence: this response to the Kerfluffle. But look: just don’t click on that link. And if you value your blood pressure remaining at healthy levels, for God’s sake, do not read the comments.)

But let’s go back to the positive, because there are positives here to talk about. In Hines’ article he speaks to an artist named Lee Moyer and asks “how a professional made the distinction between painting a beautiful woman (or man) and objectifying them.” Moyer’s response included the following: “I cannot speak for other illustrators. But for myself, the goal is always to paint the person first. To paint women as persons in their own rights is key, as opposed to painting women for the male gaze.”

So again: people who feel so strongly about having your SF/F served up with sexy sexy covers–you can still have that! But maybe the artists and designers just have to work a little bit harder. They’re professionals. They can handle it. And frankly, so can you, probably. It’s not like anyone’s asking you to eat kale or anything like that.

Yesterday I posted a massive rant. I tried not to write it as a rant, but that’s pretty much what it was. But I finished the post by commenting that on the bright side, the SFWA is taking the Kerfluffle very seriously and really actively looking to foster meaningful discussion. Thank you, Jim C. Hines, for taking part in that discussion, and challenging others to do the same.

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