Tiptree and gender: was it once easier?

The Tiptree Award for this year has just been announced, together with its honour list. On seeing my pal Karen Miller‘s books up there, I immediately dashed an email off to her, which completely bowled her over because she’d had no idea that her books were being considered.

The award is for “any work of science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.”

After reading the rather diverse list of works honoured, I began to wonder just how hard it must be to produce nowadays a work of sff which does in fact “expand or explore” in any real sense “our understanding of gender”, at least when thinking in terms of traditional “either-you-are-hetero-male-or-female” notions of gender.

Back in the 1960s it would have been a cinch.

Back in the 1960s, I was teaching in a highschool in Western Australia, and earning considerably less than my male colleagues who had precisely the same academic qualifications and experience as me. That’s right – same job, less pay. And that was considered perfectly acceptable because – as one of my male colleagues explained with pompous righteousness -“You don’t have the responsibilities that we (males) have – we have to support our families.” He genuinely couldn’t see anything wrong with that statement.

I pointed out to him that I was 100% supporting my brother-in-law at the time. Paying for his accommodation, daily allowance and university fees, but I doubt I budged the man’s thinking one iota.

Anyone writing a book or short story that contained a simple bit of role reversal might have expanded that man’s horizons. Ursula le Guin’s brilliant “Left Hand of Darkness” could blast a mindset like his to smithereens, if he was at all prepared to give it some thought.

But nowadays?
All the obvious problems of hetero gender inequality and prejudices have been written about endlessly. Strong, competent women leaders and sensitive heroes are everywhere. Idiocies with respect to gender roles have been uncovered and dissected and ridiculed. We can still write about them, of course, but whether we add anything new is debatable.

There’s loads of inequality and prejudice remaining in the real here-and-now world, of course. Here in W.A. today we have recently had the consecration of a female bishop. Alas, a mob of old-fashioned bigots who have the audacity to call themselves religious leaders are refusing to recognise her new status on the grounds of her gender. I know people who won’t buy a fantasy book written by a woman, on grounds of gender. Examples are endless. Malaysia is a goldmine in this respect too.

But these issues are largely piecemeal ones to do with our modern world, and are less easily explored in a sff novel set in a fantasy world or a futuristic earth, than they could be in a mainstream novel because they are so piecemeal, rather than so all-encompassing as they were back in 1965. In the 1960s it would have been so easy. Now, it’s more complex, less obvious, more subtle. It’s a little thing here, a little thing there – and it’s all mixed up with ideas of political correctness and being nice about religious sensibilities and human rights.

Can we lambast religious gender perceptions? – after all, we might upset community X! Should we criticise such-and-such a set of cultural gender mores? – we will offend community Y! Write about those things set in a land called Amarantha, and you lose the subtleties of today’s gender minefield.

I think I’m blathering. I need to think about this some more.

Anyway, congrats to you Karen. I loved being the first to tell you.


Tiptree and gender: was it once easier? — 7 Comments

  1. It was cool getting the news from you, possum! My biggest WTF???? moment in quite some time. *g* And I’m still shocked!

    An interesting topic. I remember loving Cagney an Lacey, back in the 80s. But when I went back and looked at the first season, recently released on dvd, I found it almost impossible to watch because of the antiquated gender stereotyping — and that was with an improvement!

    Likewise, Life on Mars is a real eye opener, because that accurately depicts the way women were treated, in life and in the workplace, back in the 70s. We’ve moved so far on from that, it’s a sharp shock to see it now. Which isn’t to say there’s not still progress to be made. There is. Your example of the woman bishop is one of them. And I find large pockets of the sff community still noxiously sexist. I’m still foaming at the mouth that no woman has been nominated for best novel Hugo this year. And don’t get me started on the the British natcon/awards’ track record.

    On the other hand, I watch something like the new Battlestar Galactica, and I am heartened. Sometimes the progress does feel slow … I mean, if any of the female actors in BSG had let themselves get as fat as Aaron Douglas has, I doubt they’d still be working. But on balance, things are better.

    But we have to stay vigilant. The old attitudes are hard to break.

  2. I know this is off topic, but I just picked up my (old, Jan maybe) UK SFX from the shop and there was a really good review of Tyr- 4 out of 5 stars!! Congratulations!!
    Congratulations to Karen too!!

  3. Personally, I would love to have more women in high positions within the church without opposition. More female preists with equal rights to rise on merit through the ranks as high as they wish. I also think they would do better than most males at the job.

    With thousands of years of inequality momentum and baggage behind it, the ship is slow to turn.

    As for female SFF authors – the majority of my favourites happen to be females. Anyone with pre-conceived ideas that female authors are best at romance and chick-lit are missing out on some great SFF reading.

  4. Life on Mars was interesting, wasn’t it? I saw the last parts of the season when I was in Perth. Took me back.

    And you will be delighted to know that my niece sat in front of the TV to watch the second last episode, but hardly looked at it. Why? Because she was reading a book by a certain K.E.Mills…

  5. Hi,

    With your permission, we’d like to link to this post in the Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy Carnival hosted at Heroine Content this month. If that is OK with you, please email me (avengingophelia at gmail dot com) today, as we’re publishing tomorrow.



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