Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fighting Sexism With Sexism in the Horror Genre?

Update, March 2021: I came across this old post of mine recently, and cringed a little. In the past 10+ years, I’ve seen this topic come up repeatedly, and tried listening to the people affected the most, so I’ve changed somewhat. If I rethought this post, I’d, at the very least, use different language to describe the situation. Maybe I’ll revisit the topic someday, but I’m leaving this up as a record of my evolving thoughts, even if I don’t completely agree with my past self. Here’s the original post:

The British Fantasy Society has recently taken criticism because their new collection of 16 interviews with horror authors failed to include any women. It's pointed out that there are "a lot" of women who write horror, and of course, Mary Shelley's name comes up. On the surface it does appear to be blatant sexism. But I think it's important here, as with many gender issues, to look deeper and make sure we're not accusing people of sexism based on premises that are themselves fundamentally sexist. What proportion of horror writers are female? And of those, what proportion are among the best in their field? This list of the top 20 horror writers of all time does not include any women. Maybe its author is himself biased, but there is no question that serious horror (i.e., not Twilight) is a male-dominated community. Let's estimate that, say, one out of every ten serious horror writers are female. And let's say that, for this controversial interview anthology, its creators had to randomly pick from all of the horror authors worthy of inclusion based on their writing alone (i.e., not their gender). The probability of, by chance, picking 16 male authors, then, is (.90)^16 = .185, or 18.5%. So not a great chance, but still a chance. In the lingo of science, if lack of sexism were the null hypothesis, this wouldn't be enough to reject it (i.e., prove sexism). My numbers could be off, but I predict my point is valid: even if no sexism were operating and authors were picked from a pool based on merit alone, there is a non-negligible chance that the collection would include zero females. One could argue that a woman author should have been sought out for inclusion just to represent her gender in the community. But this is itself a sexist premise. It is proposing that a woman should have been given special privilege based on her gender alone, rather than her merit as an author. It's the same principle behind affirmative action, and in my humble opinion, horribly misguided. It should be self-evident that the key to eliminating sexism is not more sexism. What is the key? That is a complex question, but I think it needs to start at the bottom. We can't force the top of any merit-based honour to comprise 50% of each gender. What we can do is make sure there are no obstacles for women on the road to the top, and that safe passage there is based on merit alone. Even more importantly, we can encourage more women to get on that road in the first place if they want to. Even then, there is no guarantee of a 50/50 split - it's quite possible that horror simply appeals to men more than women because of some genuine difference between the genders - but any women that do hop on board shouldn't face any sexist roadblocks. It's possible that some sexism occurred in this interview collection (either consciously or unconsciously), but there is not enough evidence to convince me either way. I am convinced that writers should be judged based on their writing rather than their gender, and that knee-jerk accusations of sexism need to be carefully examined lest we make the problem even worse.


ash b. said...

While I am certainly inclined to agree that inclusion of women for the sake of inclusion is a misguided attempt at gender equality I think it is also important to recognize that the discrimination inherit to sexism is very different than that inherit to affirmative action-like acts; whereas sexism (racism,heteronormatavism, cisism etc.) is about specifically precluding a group from participation in society, affirmative action attempts to include groups. As such, in my opinion it is wrong to call it 'reverse-sexism' or 'sexism'.

I think it's also important to note that while of course merit-based programs are commendable, we must also examine what is meant by 'merit', who is defining 'merit', and what forms of sexism (etc) are operating in merit structures. A good way of ensuring diversity in merit-based frameworks without artificially stacking the deck, so to speak, is to include diverse perspectives (read genders, ethnicities, etc.) in the adjudication process.

I also think it is not a detriment to the merit of literature or the fight against sexism to intentionally include women's voices in compiled volumes even if every male author is 'better' than her for again, we have to question what influences those types of aesthetic decisions. ie.historical lack of inclusion of women's voices

Yvonne said...

Hmmm. I was also going to ask who decides the "merits" of horror, and who defines what horror is,, pointing out the subjectivity in the judgement alone may already have inherent biases...but Ash has addressed my concerns concisely. :)

shine said...

I concur.

Sexism is one of those words that people use without really understanding. Much like feminism.

Phronk said...

Hey Ash! I was hoping you'd weigh in. Von too.

I agree with much of what you wrote and we obviously have the same goal, but a few counterpoints:

whereas sexism (racism,heteronormatavism, cisism etc.) is about specifically precluding a group from participation in society, affirmative action attempts to include groups. As such, in my opinion it is wrong to call it 'reverse-sexism' or 'sexism'.

Don't the two boil down to the same thing, though? Especially with gender, where there are (usually) only two choices. With limited spaces, any attempt to "include" a male based on his gender automatically "precludes" a female based on hers. In my opinion, gender should not be an issue at all in deciding who is included OR precluded in almost all activities.

we must also examine what is meant by 'merit', who is defining 'merit', and what forms of sexism (etc) are operating in merit structures

I definitely agree with this. But I think that 1) We should be careful in ascribing the operation of sexism in these structures without sufficient evidence (especially when it comes to speculation about unconscious motivation); and 2) Again, the way to eliminate sexism in these structures is not with more sexism. An adjudication process is just another merit-based structure (who is fit to judge?), and artificially forcing diversity will only make it worse. However, I think diversity is beneficial, and thus happens naturally in a bias-free environment.

I also think it is not a detriment to the merit of literature or the fight against sexism to intentionally include women's voices in compiled volumes even if every male author is 'better' than her

I disagree here. How does it benefit the fight against sexism to include a voice simply because it comes out of someone with XX chromosomes? If the goal is to represent issues specific to females, then include the best representations there are. On average those will come from women, but it is not because of their body parts that they were included.

I don't deny that there are historical inequities in existing structures, but the best (perhaps only) way to eliminate them is to have each role filled by the best person for the job, regardless of their gender.

Phronk said...

Shine: True.

To be honest, I sometimes feel uncomfortable talking about feminist issues because I don't have a solid definition or know all the lingo that's been written about it.

So maybe I'm one of those people.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see them try to interview Mary Shelley.

Hey Lady! said...

I think it should be based on works alone, period. Best person (or story) for the job. Yeah, It's not written all eloquently as y'all is, but whatever. I would personally be offended if someone was including my work because it was "better then other female authors", and not "better then other AUTHORS". Take the names away, then we'll see who wins, which I'm hoping is the case with the list you provided.

Dan said...

I consider myself a feminist. Completely. But given the different definitions of that word I know some people would think I'm not. Maybe they even consider me the opposite of feminist, I don't know. I believe that every woman should have the right to be judged alongside a man based solely on merit. I believe that every woman should be able to apply for any job, be able to join any sport, be able to say no to any situation she deems too awkward or uncomfortable. I find it offensive however that in certain fields, such as the police force and with firefighters, that women are given a different set of standards than men to be proved acceptable for the job. Does that make me a misogynistic asshole? To some it does.
A conversation recently about the merits of strip clubs and porn made me realize that my brand of feminism is at odds with a perhaps large group of women.
As far as literature is concerned.... The best judge of what makes for good reading would be.... The reader. It's different for everyone. I know that some of the things that Phronk himself reads I consider to be.... Well, crap. And I know he thinks the same for some of the stuff that I read. And we're both men (more or less). The issue itself of sexism is sexist. It assumes that women need to be protected when in reality.... Some of the strongest people I know are women. Some of the most vocal people I know, the most helpful, compassionate, angry, abrasive, argumentative, wonderful best people are, in fact, women. let their work stand for itself, in the end that's what will win this argument..
My apologies if this argument didn't make a whole lot of sense, I'm in a laundromat trying to get some clean clothes together.

Hey Lady! said...

Dan, I totally agree. And thanks for putting it a bit more simply, so people like me can understand and not zone out from too many big words.

Jennifer said...

Dan, I agree. Either you can yank me out of a burning building, or you can't.

Something I'm surprised hasn't come up yet - perhaps the possible bias starts far far before this list of the best horror authors. Caveat, I don't read horror, the closest I got some was some Ravenloft crapola when I was a teen. I am reading Anne Rice ATM (again, more crap) and I sure wouldn't call it horror, let alone anything worthy of being on a top list. ANYWAYS. Where I am trying to go here is perhaps female authors are getting the shut out at a lower level. Publishers may not be picking them up, or if they are published, they may not be getting the exposure that other (male) authors might. I don't know, just a thought.

When I first went to U I wanted to start going by Jay, as I wanted to be genderless in print. However, I was pretty sure all you people would never make the switch so I didn't do it.

Duncan said...

You make a good point and you see this in other areas too. I had a professor once talk about how "appalling" it was that 90% of all construction workers were men... um, maybe women don't want to be construction workers? Maybe they aren't strong enough in some cases and don't get hired for that job?

There is equal opportunity but that doesn't mean equal inclusion.

Oh, I could go on and on on this topic and veer off into similar racial cases but I'll save that for another day. Good post, though.

Phronk said...

Jack: Me too. Someone should write a novel about a mad scientist creating a Mary Shelley golem out of dead body parts.

Hey Lady: Yeah exactly, remove the names and see who rises to the top. Kinda like anonymous peer review in science (which acknowledges that even scientists are too stupid to intentionally avoid bias).

Dan: I think your brand of feminism agrees with most definitions. But definitions can differ from gut reactions, and that can colour the reactions of both genders to issues like this. But why are you doing laundry? That's a woman's job.

Jennifer: That's what I mean when I say that changes need to happen at the bottom. Biases have to be removed, first off, in encouraging/discouraging women to become writers in the first place. And then in getting published, marketing, etc. All that comes before looking for bias in the consumers of the final product.

Oh and the male Gelfling in The Dark Crystal was named Jen, so you were already gender neutral.

Duncan: Thanks. Yeah exactly, it should be equal opportunity.

Should we be appalled that no male strippers are women?

sarah said...

Ash B. is absolutely right. Phronk, I love you, but you're ignoring a whole host of social forces, not to mention the perspective of women. Probably cause you don't know the perspective of women... You're so clinical in your analysis when it's so much more complicated than that. We need to talk about this.

Phronk said...


I think I did acknowledge the complexity of the issue (e.g. when I said it's complex). Especially with such a complex and loaded question, it's essential to be clinical. Going with gut emotional reactions is what got us into this mess in the first place.

And I always take issue with the accusation that I can't understand something because I am a man. It's as wrong as saying women can't be in positions of power because it requires "a man's perspective." No amount of historical inequity can make that right.

But yeah, we should talk more, because I want to know what specifically you think is wrong with my analysis, and I'd be happy to have my mind changed.

Rachel said...

Excellent post. One of the problems I have always had with a lot of feminist thought is that it confuses equity with equality. In this case, the collection should include the best writers, period. While this is no doubt subjective, I also think that people are often looking for something to be offended by and would see "subtle biases" where there are none. Perhaps there are long standing 'social forces' that factor in to why there aren't more women horror writers but it does not follow that a bias is at play here.

As a women, I find it frustrating to have other women try to speak for me in terms of inclusion. I don't WANT a woman included in this collection just for the sake of gender representation and I don't think this means I've been brainwashed by the patriarchy either.

Tatiana said...

Whoa this is waaaay too deep for my first coffee.... so I'll chime in as a reader. An absurdly prolific reader. A reader who does not discriminate based on genre or author or whatever.

I have never read a female horror writer. Period. (I have not in fact come across Mary Shelley's book nor seeked it out specifically. So for me the point is moot, if I were doing a profile of what I thought were the best horror writers, I would not include a woman either.

And it would not even occur for me to wonder if I should or anything. Or care about someone's opinion on the topic.

Jennifer said...

I would just like to add that I am also being oppressed by laundry.

Dan said...

If laundry is a woman's job I have yet to meet a woman who can do my laundry the way I like it done. I am anal about my laundry. My clothes may not be nice or new or fashionable but BY GOD they will be cleaned to within an inch of their souls!!!!!!!
And I'm glad some people agreed with me about my definition of feminism. And to be honest, I'll never be a firefighter, not only can I not carry someone out of a burning building, I just plain don't want to.
I respect woman, and their ability to stand up for themselves, on their own terms. Enough said......

hanletsghost said...

What might also have an effect is the make-up and selection of the judging panel. If the people who choose the top twenty lists are all male, then they might have a preference for one style of literature over another, whether or not the fiction is anonymised.
A crude example would be the selection of top ten film lists, where the sex of the selector might influence the genre selected

Shora said...

Wow, me thinks you've touched a nerve.

What about Anne Rice and her vampire chronicles? That's damned good reading.

How many books with Fabio on the cover do you see written by men?

Different but equal... that's a perfect world in my eyes. Whether it be race or gender or whatever.

Happy weekend babe.

Jesa said...

Well, an interesting idea would be to have a well established female author go under a pseudonym. That would take forever to prove,since the "new author" would need to establish a fan base. I'd forget to check the stats by then.
I never considered Mary Shelly a horror authoress.More psychological and empathetic then the droll gore that often passes.