As a student majoring in Women’s Studies, I learned about feminist theory and about the history of the movement. I learned about each different wave, and about the critiques that postmodern feminists like Chandra Talpade Mohanty made about white, middle-class, second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan. My classes also had the obligatory reading of Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” so we could prove we were intersectional. I could sling opaque, academic prose and decry sexist, orientalist portrayals of characters in pop culture with the best of them.
But what I didn’t learn was how to use the tools of argument to deconstruct and call out the derailing tactics of our world outside the university bubble -- hell, I didn’t even know about the term “derailing” until about a year ago. I grew up in a supportive environment where realizing that Barbie was sexist and women should be treated equally were givens (because my older sister is totally awesome, but that’s a story for another day). And I ended up studying in a similar environment where those things appeared to be givens there too.
As a result, I got complacent. Sexism was obviously wrong, so what was the problem? Why couldn’t people just shape up and, y’know, stop being douchebags? It’s not like recognizing that women are human beings is difficult…right?
Enter me signing up for Twitter in 2010, a few years after I graduated.
More specifically, enter the science fiction and fantasy authors I started following then -- they’re the ones who showed me how to live feminism as a day-to-day practice. (It’s something I’m still learning, and I come up against my own limitations a lot.)
Over the past few years, the speculative fiction community -- of which I’m at the periphery, if anything, because I currently read slush for an SF/F magazine and used to write SF/F book reviews -- has really started to deal with its own ingrained sexism. And there’s a lot of it to deal with. I don’t have enough space to go into the history of sexism in speculative fiction here, but knowing why Alice Sheldon used a male pseudonym, about Isaac Asimov’s habit of pinching women’s asses, and about the whole chainmail bikini trope should give you a taste.
Before I started following these authors online -- people like N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, Aliette de Bodard, Kameron Hurley, Lynne Thomas, Jim C. Hines, Chuck Wendig, Saladin Ahmed, Mary Robinette Kowal, Tobias Buckell, and more -- I didn’t realize just how unsavoury a lot of the supporting structure of science fiction and fantasy was, and just how many people are so invested in maintaining an unfair status quo. And of course, the more I learn, the more I want to continue learning.
The essays I wrote as an undergrad didn’t help me nearly so much as these people have. They’ve not only broadened my understanding in a way that feminist theory in university never did, but also shared resources about other forms of bias that I’ve been too sheltered to know about. Want to read some great analysis of how autism is portrayed in SF/F? Check out Ada Hoffmann. Want to learn more about escaping the gender binary? Check out some of the stuff from Alex Dally MacFarlane. Or take a look at Mary Robinette Kowal’s excellent demonstration of an extraction strategy you can use when a woman is being harassed.
The thing is, in the grand scheme of things, I’m still really privileged. I’m white, middle-class, cis, neurotypical, and able-bodied, and English is my first language. There are a lot of systemic problems out there that I am lucky enough not to have had negatively affect my life. I try to keep what these writers are saying in mind when I look at the world. The fact that things like GamerGate and Jian Ghomeshi happen just forces me to stay sharp -- I’ve realized how lucky I’ve been in that I’ve had relatively few brushes with sexual harassment in my life, and that my reliance on luck and societal privilege shouldn’t continue.
Do I still mess up a lot? Yeah. Do I still need things explained to me about how I’m using the same thought processes as the people derailing the conversation? Yeah. Do I still have a lot of ingrained sexism inside myself that even my increased knowledge hasn’t fully extricated, like the assumptions I make about who the manager of a retail store is? Yes. Do I still unconsciously make my voice sound higher when I’m around unfamiliar men? Yup. Do I still sometimes commit the cardinal ally sin of apologizing just to let people know I’m oh-so-sensitive and that “I’m not like that”? Unfortunately, yes.
Are there people way more articulate out there than me who can deconstruct sexist and racist arguments with mastery because they have to live with that bullshit on a day-to-day basis while I don’t? Hell fucking yes.
Learning how they approach and respond to these problems has given me a template for making changes in my own life -- even if it’s something as simple as reading as many books written by women as by men, or reading more books by PoC authors. I’ve got a (slightly) sharper eye for a lot of the stuff that I was too naïve or too comfortable to see. And of course, once you see it in one arena, you start seeing it everywhere. Science fiction and fantasy publishing. Politics. The stand-up comedy industry. The hiring practices of the tech industry. Video games. It’s insidious, and even the time I spent four years supposedly breathing the theory inside and out didn’t help me see it all.
So what can you do if you’ve realized your own education hasn’t been enough? Be humble. Recognize that in the grand scheme of things, you don’t know shit. And read, read, read. Here are only some authors, editors, and publications that have contributed to my real education, simply because of the stuff they post online:
I’m not perfect. I never will be. But knowing just how far I have to go is better than nothing.