Tag Archives: feminism

Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy Starter Kit

I have always loved reading Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF); I loved exploring what it might be like to live in a completely different world.  At some point I began to realize that the genres I loved didn’t always love me back. The most respected stories were by men and about men, and women were often not portrayed at all, as in early Asimov, or portrayed in problematic ways, e.g. Heinlein’s women who are incredibly othered.  Newer books may be a bit less blatant, but their portrayal of women can still be really problematic. Female characters often seem like afterthoughts and women’s stories are rarely given center stage.  SFF offers a lot of ways to explore gender, yet a few months ago, when Alex Dally MacFarlane posted on Tor.com suggesting the gender binary should not be the default for SFF, she was attacked.

As a teen I read lots of books that I would now avoid. I read quite a few problematic books. I read what I could find in bookstores and libraries and on my parents’ shelves.  Some of what I read was lovely, but most of my teen reading was really sexist. Books by women and books with feminist themes were not always easy to find. Over time, I’ve figured out new ways of finding books to read so I can avoid these issues. I joined online communities (like Sheroes!) where people talked about feminist books, and I started reading SFF blogs with a feminist focus. But I know it can still be hard to find feminist books that aren’t pushed through the main channels, especially older books.

This post is for people who like the idea of feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy but aren’t quite sure where to start. I attempted to include a mix of older classics along with some newer favorites of mine. These books consider feminism and gender in a variety of ways. There are books that foreground female characters or explore gender and society.

200px-woman_on_the_edge_of_time_book_coverWoman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: Simultaneously dystopic and utopic, this book is about a woman in a mental institution who visit a utopic future. The mental institution is as grim as any dystopia; however, the future she visits is very feminist with roles such as “mother” being detached from the gender of the person performing the role.  The book also explores how women are disempowered and how even people who feel powerless can shape the future.

A-door-into-oceanJPGA Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski: This book uses and subverts the planet of women trope.  The planet is called Shora and the women are purple and have the most awesome eco-tech. The women have a managed ecosystem that provides for all their needs. As someone who studies ecology, I especially loved this aspect of the book. Slonczewski’s Quaker values are very much in evidence, as the main characters attempt to resolve their problems with nonviolence.

41A2XSAMWHLSlow River by Nicola Griffith: All of Griffith’s work is amazing and worth checking out, but this one happens to be my personal favorite. It’s about troubled families and finding one’s place in the world, and also using bio engineering microbes to treat sewage. I love it when the science in science fiction is biology! The main character is a queer woman, who was kidnapped and is now estranged from her family, and must work to find herself again. (Trigger warning: Child abuse)

4b98224128a0b3494b677010The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin: All of Le Guin’s work touches on feminist themes, but this one deals with gender most directly. The book features a planet were the people are physically sexless most of the time, except for a few days a month, when they become either male or female bodied in order to procreate. It is beautifully written.

 

spiritwalker

The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott: This series engages with feminism in a much more political sense than the works I’ve discussed so far, and features more direct discussion of the legal rights of women. This book offers a complex alternative earth, were the ice age didn’t end, the intelligent descendants of dinosaurs are still with us, Rome didn’t defeat Carthage, and, oh, there is magic. I loved Cat, the main character, who is fierce and unapologetic, and has an important relationship with her cousin, Bee.

12974372A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan: This book is secondary world fantasy about a young woman in a restricted society who wants to be a scientist. The book addresses the obstacles she faces in a very feminist manner. Brennan has a background in anthropology and folklore, which really shows in her world building.

 

cover_red_stationOn a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard: This book is a study of two women in power. It’s also an awesome story about a complex family that lives on a space station that makes its own fish sauce.  I find the focus on domestic issues, such as running a household and planning dinner parties, traditionally women’s work, to be very feminist.

 

908311The Female Man by Joanna Russ: An under-rated classic, The Female Man mixes together the stories of women from different timelines, including the female-only society of Whileaway. Russ really focuses on feminist issues like presenting oneself as feminine and saying no to men. This book is postmodern and can be a bit hard to follow in places.

 

Bonus Nonfiction:

51aLzdI9XfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier: A great history of feminism and SFF that looks at not only how stories have been used to discuss gender, but also the role of feminist debate within science fiction fandom. The history of women participating in SFF is often erased, so I found it very valuable to have this resource.  This book acknowledges that women have always been part of SFF, both reading and writing.

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Glory is graduate student who studies ecology, history, and community planing. She also spends too much time reading, and loves science fiction and fantasy.

 

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Keeping YouTube celebrity in perspective

TRIGGER WARNING: The following blog post includes discussion of rape, sexual assault, and underage sexual behavior. Please be careful and read at your own discretion.

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Say “YouTube” and what comes to mind for most people are cat videos, grainy home footage of dads getting hit in the crotch with tennis balls and rakes, and comment sections populated by anonymous trolls who are most likely actual Neo-Nazis. What the average Joe doesn’t know, or knows only in passing, is that for nearly two million viewers, many of whom are teenaged girls, the name of the website brings to mind almost subconsciously the word “community,” tacked onto it like a shadow.

The community is comprised, on the one hand, of a group of people who make YouTube videos for a living (“content creators”), and, on the other, of the fans who tune in on a regular basis to keep up with their favorite artists. For these people, YouTube can be a refuge from ordinary life, and a place to make likeminded friends. Most of the time, the community is warm and inviting, and whole videos may go by with nary a racial slur.

In March of 2014, however, the YouTube community was shaken to its core when sexual assault and rape allegations against at least nine high-profile male YouTubers emerged on the blog-hosting site Tumblr. Fans’ reactions to the news typically fell on one of two very different sides of the fence: visceral horror and outrage on behalf of the victims, or a reflexive defense of the beloved YouTubers.

My own response to those defending the rapists and sexual harassers was disgust, and I wrote them off as young, impassioned teenagers who had completely missed the point. Caught up in their own feelings, they were reclassifying the perpetrators as victims in need of protection, instead of empathizing with the young women who experienced sexual assault at the hands of content creators who had age, experience, and celebrity all pulling to their advantage. I didn’t understand how so many responses could be lacking any sense of measured, thoughtful distance from the shocking news.

But then, allegations appeared targeting a YouTuber I followed. Alex Day is a 24-year old white British male, an irreverently funny entrepreneur whose vlogs amplify the comedic element of day-to-day minutiae. He is also, it turns out, an expert emotional manipulator who admitted to coercing young female fans into sexual behavior they had explicitly refused.

Until this past March, I had watched Day’s videos regularly since 2011. When the accusations came to light, I had to actively restrain myself from responding with pity for Day, and redirect my emotions to where I logically knew they belonged: with the victims. Yet I felt a personal sense of betrayal, hurt, anger, and disappointment, including, but going far beyond, a natural empathy and sadness for the young women who were stepping forward.

Why?

Handily enough, YouTuber Anthony D’Angelo uploaded a video in response to the sexual harassment scandal called “The Science and Dangers of YouTube Celebrity” explaining this very phenomenon, which discusses “para-social interaction” as a reason for the knee-jerk desire to defend our favorite celebrities against negative claims. Para-social interaction is a sociology term that can be defined as “one-sided intimacy, at a distance.” Mass media is rife with opportunity for one-sided intimacy to manifest, as it offers viewers at home frequent chances to develop a feeling of community with content creators. The nature of YouTube engenders a seemingly personal connection, blurring the line between performance and reality. YouTubers often vlog from their bedrooms on a weekly basis, and many don’t use scripts. While the intimacy is fictitious, it can feel incredibly realistic.

Over the course of three years of watching his videos, my brain constructed a pattern of fondness for Alex Day, developing something that is, chemically at least, very akin to friendship. I was therefore deeply resistant to the criminal allegations that upset my expected patterns of his behavior. Instead of immediately setting aside my enjoyment of Day’s work and writing him off, I felt both the urge to defend him and a sense of betrayed friendship.

These are false feelings that must be set aside in order to fully support and honor the victims and survivors in the community. As D’Angelo says in his video, the phenomenon of para-social interaction is especially common on YouTube, “which, by its connective and egalitarian nature, puts celebrities closer to fans than ever before.” Such closeness, however, is a fabrication. While we are eagerly watching someone whom our brain has counseled us to recognize as a “friend,” we must always remember that the person on the other side is merely staring into the impassive eye of a camera.

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Marie is a writer and editor who lives with her feral cat, and, like most people, prefers dance parties to homework.

 

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A Faith of Flesh and Blood: An argument for visceral Christian art

Three years ago, at a high school art show, my teacher used masking tape to cover the genitals of the nudes in one of my paintings.  Other students had nude figures in their work, but mine were nude Madonnas, represented dancing, in youth, maturity, and old age, as a parallel with the threefold Goddess.  My teacher told me that she had gotten complaints from several parents; not only had I represented a holy figure “naked and profane,” but she had body hair, sagging flesh, and wrinkles; she wasn’t even a “pure and classical nude.”  It seemed contradictory to me that, in a religion characterized by the humanity and mortality of the main protagonist, the corporeality of aging human flesh could be seen as unacceptable. Christian imagery has always been harshly regulated; it’s run the gamut from the sincerely faith-driven to the blatantly politically oppressive, and all conventional critiques of the institution of the Church apply here.  As with all regimes, art has always played a vital role in the propagation of all the most oppressive aspects of the misogynistic, imperialistic Christianity under which so many have suffered.   This statement functions as a sort of disclaimer, in that the history of Christian imagery, in all of its complexities, is an ocean of study and thought unto itself, and this essay barely skims the surface of those murky and vibrant waters.  As an artist and activist who is also a Christian, and not as a theologian, I’d like to discuss my problem with the insistence on a pristine Christian iconographic tradition.

"Madonna of Choice" by Katherine Cavanaugh
“Madonna of Choice” by Katherine Cavanaugh

In his painting Death of the Virgin, Michelangelo di Caravaggio, a 16th-17th century Italian artist, modeled the dead Madonna after the corpse of a pregnant prostitute who was infamously murdered by drowning and publicly pulled from the Tiber river. The church that commissioned it rejected the piece; the parish objected to the model and to the idea of a bloated cadaver as the holy Virgin.  Official Church doctrine denied the Madonna any bodily humanity; according to those who would see real women condemned for corporeal functions, the Madonna, an “ideal” woman, did not suffer the pain of childbirth or the indignity of an actual bodily death.  Taboos on the mortality of Mary have their roots largely in misogyny; however, Caravaggio was also criticized for giving his holy figures in other paintings characteristics of real life, such as dirty feet.  Social insistence on a pristine Christian iconography, and on a refusal to embrace the Christianity of flesh and blood, has ostracized important expressions of Christian art up to the present day.

"Death of the Virgin" by Michelangelo di Caravaggio
“Death of the Virgin” by Michelangelo di Caravaggio

For example, Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” of 1987, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine and blood, caused knee-jerk public outrage.  Few seemed to consider the beauty of the photograph and the possible commentary on the beauty of God’s grace through Christ manifested in the most primal of moments, present in all the messiness and pain of living.  Likewise, Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin displays an intrinsically Christian compassion toward the murder victim; by modeling the Virgin on her, Caravaggio relates her suffering to that of the Madonna, and underscores the humanity of both.

"Piss Christ" by Andres Serrano
“Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano

As recently as last year, Timothy Schmalz’s sculpture of Jesus destitute and sleeping on a park bench, recognizable only by the stigmata (the marks of nails on his hands and feet), was rejected by several major American cathedrals (though it was eventually welcomed to the Vatican by Pope Francis).  It seems that many Christians still resist the immediacy of Jesus’ message; we don’t want to remember the desperate, sticky, painful, primal moments when we experienced grace, and we don’t want to acknowledge that we belie our faith every time we fail to see Jesus in all other messy, struggling humans, including those we would rather forget, including ourselves.

"Jesus the Homeless" by Timothy Schmalz
“Jesus the Homeless” by Timothy Schmalz

I actually think that discovery of holiness in the profane is what has made Christianity such an enduring story.  My faith is woven into my mortal flesh, into all my fears and desperations.  When I paint, I try to express this grace. The most compelling expressions of God’s grace come from art of all disciplines, and regardless of how such art is received by mainline ideology, it’s how I come back, again and again, to the beating heart of my faith.

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Katherine Cavanaugh studies painting at the Rhode Island School of Design; when she’s not doing that, she reads, sorts mail, and answers a domestic violence hotline.  She’s currently abroad in Rome, Italy.

 

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