Guest Post: Baby, It’s Creepy Outside.

10 12 2010

I’ve been away from the blog for awhile. I don’t have any good-enough excuses. I moved across the country and started a new graduate program? Seems feeble; it’s been, like, 5 months. To bring back the blog, here’s a most excellent rant from one of my favourite people, the Happiest Sadist.

Baby, It’s Creepy Outside

It’s the end of November, and that means I’ve been hearing Christmas music every time I leave my house for about a month already. Of course, that includes the perennially creepy “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. I mean, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a nice holiday date rape anthem, right? (Here’s a link to the lyrics)

The thing that really gets me, aside from the fact that this song still gets played as a charming, sweet thing, is the legion of very stupid defences that people love to come up with for why it’s just an innocent song, why you gotta be so serious, you feminazis?

So, I thought I’d take apart a few of those defences. Because they’re terrible, and frequently, so are the people who make them.

– The “Say, what’s in this drink?” line is a big one. Mostly because it’s one of the most immediate “Wait, WHAT!?” lines. “Ahh, but you humourless feminists are imposing a modern interpretation on that!” is the most common rebuttal. “Rohypnol wasn’t even invented back then!” says the dudebro smugly, confident that he’s punctured any argument.

Except, y’know, that it’s actually long been that alcohol is the most frequently used date-rape drug. Being that it is legal and stuff, and that plenty of judges still think that just because she was unconscious from drinking doesn’t mean she didn’t necessarily consent. And that there had been drugs to spike drinks for a long time before Rohypnol, so that argument sucks even more.

-There’s the “The answer is no” line. I’m really not seeing how that’s at all fuzzy. And yet our charming creepy dude pushes on. Because that was back in the day, when “no” was simply a sign that you need to push more. Not, y’know, a statement of another human being’s wishes. This idea that a woman’s default state when it comes to sexual contact is “yes” is the goddamned core of rape culture.

– Then there’s the combo of “At least I’m gonna say that I tried” and the invocation of a possibly vengeance-seeking family waiting for her. Sure sounds like enthusiastic consent from a partner that’s enjoying it to me!

I really, really hate this song. Almost as much as I hate the people who defend it.

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Quote of the Day

19 07 2010

In an effort to, you know, update this here blog more often, I’ve decided to post a quote of the day – something thought-provoking, or beautiful, or grotesque that I’ve found in what I’ve reading. Maybe it’ll spark interest in the book. Maybe it’ll spark discussion. But either way, it will help me remember that I have a blog to update.

Here is the first.

“But they can’t just go off into the wilderness,” said Luz, who had been listening to her thoughts as well as to her father’s words. “Who’d farm our fields?”

Her father ignored her question by repeating it, thus transforming a feminine expression of emotion into a masculine assessment of fact. “They can’t, of course, be allowed to start scattering like this. They provide necessary labor.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin, The Eye of the Heron, p. 21

I like this. Luz (who is an educated woman in her early twenties) is in the process of figuring out her own economic and social privilege as she moves toward taking action (the cover blurb promised me action). She’s working her way through information, speaking up to her kingly father. And without missing a beat, he translates what she says – her feminine discourse (and it’s decidedly feminine, in this universe where City women are denied the right to participate in the power-structures of their community and men rule the world in a third-generation-removed parody of pageantry on earth) – into useful, authoritative masculine discourse. He re-expresses her thoughts as if they were his own, and takes credit for her insight.

I like this passage because in bold, obvious strokes, it demonstrates a couple of processes that happen much more often than one would think in our supposedly liberated twenty-first century world: the appropriation of subaltern speech and the way in which it is then re-interpreted and integrated into the dominant group’s power structures for their own purposes, and their own purposes only.

Needless to say, Luz and her father have quite different uses for this thought.





Sometimes, the way people write about women really makes me squirm. SF anthologies c. 1959.

27 05 2010

About once a week, I walk or bike down to Gerry’s Books in Steveston Village, to poke around in their surprisingly large science fiction section. It’s my favourite part of the week: 10k of exercise, amazing wildlife along the dike (turtles, ducks, sandpipers, herons, blackbirds, bald eagles…), beautiful views, and a treat at the end. Treasures reveal themselves to me as I discover new authors; the books were always there, I just didn’t know that I wanted them. And the skinny paperbacks – the ones that can be really difficult to find in more mainstream (or less perched-on-the-edge-of-the-city) places – are usually around $2.99; less than the library fines I would probably end up with if I borrowed the books from the public library.

The selection is wide enough, and the prices low enough, that I pick up books by authors I’ve never heard of because I like the blurb, because they’re women writing in a certain period, and sometimes, because of interesting, quirky little paratextual things or their relevance to the history of women in SF in general. It was there that I found Tiptree’s Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and Russ’s Souls as a double volume. And an anthology with a story published under the name “Raccoona Sheldon.” I often flip through older anthologies, looking for short stories and novellas by women authors that interest me.

Last week, I picked up Star Science Fiction 5: Nine Top Original Stories Never Before Published Anywhere, edited by Frederik Pohl and published in 1959 because it had a story by Katherine MacLean, whose work predates much of what I’ve been reading. It also had a story by Rosel George Brown. Both are introduced by wonderful blurbs, which fit in nicely with the story of women in SF that Helen Merrick traces in her “Resistance is Useless? The Sex/Woman/Feminist ‘Invasion'” in her The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms, which is a chapter all about women gettin’ all up in ur sf, participating as full, intellectual, interesting and interested members of society in their own right (how dare they!).

This is a gem. Brace yourself:

Katherine MacLean is a young lady of charm and talent — not the only one such among science-fiction writers, but nearly the only one who turns her back on the feminine-writing hallmarks (love–the family–children) in order to compete with the hairiest-chested males on their own territory. How well she succeeds, this story (her first in collaboration with Tom Condit) amply demonstrates.

The language there is just brilliant. “Young lady,” “charm,”; she’s one of the few playing with the grown-up toys, but don’t worry; she’s not a threat. She may be “compet[ing] with the hairiest-chested males on their own territory” (ed: wtf?) but this story was written in collaboration with a man, so it’s okay; if she wins, she had help*. The blurb is a wholesale dental extraction; in this story, at least, Katherine MacLean will not bite.

By 1959, Katherine MacLean was 34 years old and had published several well-received short stories and novellas. She had done post-graduate studies, and worked in fields beyond the traditionally feminine ones. Her works had been in print for ten years. In 1959, she was nominated for a Hugo. To call her a “young lady of charm and talent,” at this point in her career, emphasising her age and personal graces rather than her work, diminishes her as a skilled writer.

I do like that he said that she has “talent,” because it does contradict some of the contemporary blah blah out there about how girls can’t be brilliant (like boys) (in math and science), but achieve what they do through hard work and determination alone. However, in this collection, the only authors who are described as having talent are the two women who bookend the collection — both of whom achieved considerable success — and a young male first-time writer, whose work is also described in infantilised terms.

The male writers ” burst like a bright exhalation,” are “bright young star in STAR’s firmament,” are “are lighter, brighter,” and “beam with pride.” They are “incomparable,” they have “mastered,” they tackle “complicated” things. They have “versatility,” and reach “flavorful peaks.” They do not need “talent,” because they are Great. And they are never described in terms of “grace,” and “charm,” which are pleasant, but ultimately superficial qualities which have very little to do with their work.

Here is what Pohl had to say about Rosel George Brown:

A young Louisiana housewife sat down to a typewriter one day last year to find the answer to a question: Was there anything hard about writing science-fiction stories? The answer, it turns out, is “no” — provided you have the wit, the talent, and the grace of Mrs. Brown. Because of the idiosyncrasies of publishing schedules, this may not be the first of her stories to see print, but it’s the first she sold– and STAR is proud to present it to the world.

While in 1959, many women were ‘housewives,’ and it would be foolish to argue that the work that women who stay at home do is not very important work, this is a term that marginalizes women and excludes them from public and intellectual life. If you consider the fact that Brown is identified in this way together with Pohl’s dismissal of the so-called “feminine-writing hallmarks (love–the family–children)” earlier on in the book, Pohl’s use of language definitely pushes Brown to the margins of the book. In 1959, she was 33 years old, and held an M.A. from the University of Minnesota. She may have been a housewife, but she was no child, and no intellectual lightweight.

In 1959, she was also nominated for a Hugo.

One can see how the ways in which editors have written about men and women’s work have differed in the past. Given these examples, it’s really not surprising that this made for a field somewhat hostile to anyone who was not a cisgendered, heterosexual man.

(This post was intended to lead into a discussion of some works that have handled the “feminine-writing hallmarks (love–the family–children) in sophisticated ways, and have demonstrated how these topics, like all aspects of human life, do deserve to be present in the worlds of SF. But the language was just so –ugh!– distracting, and this post has got rather long, and that will have to wait.)





I didn’t like “The Female Man.” It will probably take three posts for me to tell you how much.

21 04 2010

I’ve read about four books since my last post, and I am terribly behind on the blog. If there is any excuse for this, it is that one of them was The Female Man by Joanna Russ, it made me extremely uncomfortable, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about it. The books I read between The Female Man and this attempt to write about it have given me some insight and direction, but I still haven’t come to terms with the book. Perhaps the time has come to force it.

In The Female Man, we meet Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, and Jael, who live in versions of reality in which the conflict between men and women plays out in different ways. Joanna’s reality is the most like ours, that is, the most like ours was around the development of Second Wave feminism. Jeannine lives in a reality in which the Great Depression never ended and women’s role in society is quite restricted. In order to become a whole person, Jeannine must marry and produce children. Though she is not comfortable in this role, her family members remind her of it regularly, and she gives up hope for a better life. Janet is from a planet called Whileaway where all the men died in a plague about 800 years before the story takes place, and the women live a strange, communal lifestyle in which very young children are raised together in nurseries by mothers enjoying the one year of vacation they will experience in their lives, older children roam the world learning, young adults travel and do physically demanding work, and eventually join families, and the older women do sedentary, intellectual tasks. In Jael’s world, men and women are at war with each other – literally – and Jael uses violence in her interactions with men because she has long ago learned that attempts to achieve equality are futile. The book offers us insights into the feminine condition by sharing each woman’s reaction to the lives and difficulties of the others, potentially inspiring us to think about our own experiences as women.

Some critics describe The Female Man as one of the most influential and important works of feminist SF ever written, so it must have made it through to someone. There are certainly many works of wonderful feminist SF out there now, and Joanna Russ is responsible for blazing that trail, I am glad for this book. I don’t know enough about the history of feminist SF to guess at whether or not these claims are exaggerated. But there are other works of feminist SF from the 1970s that are much more radical and that resonate with me today. This one just makes me cringe.

My first minor complaint is a stylistic one. Each J-character takes the role of narrator, sometimes telling the story from an omniscient point of view, sometimes from a more limited first-person one, and it’s not always obvious when these transitions take place. At times, it is difficult to differentiate the narrative voices. This is surely a stylistic device, intended to demonstrate that the characters are in fact the same woman, nurtured by the environment in different ways, proving that women’s apparent weakness is the result of their upbringing, rather than any natural feminine deficiency, but it made it difficult to keep track of where the story was going and, more importantly, why the story was going there. I don’t need an easy-to-follow literature for dummies structure to appreciate a story – there are plenty of postmodernist texts that I adore and have no problem with, but reading The Female Man, I was more frustrated by the deliberately disconcerting structure than enlightened by it.

My second and third complaints – the important ones – are that The Female Man is surprisingly misogynistic, and horrifyingly transphobic. I realize that Joanna Russ is apparently no longer anti-trans, but the incredible, sexist disgust with which Russ portrays trans characters in the book is downright creepy by my standards. The fact that she no longer feels that way and that societal values are different from what they were when she wrote it doesn’t make me like the book any more. But more on both of those topics later; each one deserves a rant of its very own.

Currently Reading: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest