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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

on the hidebound misogyny of (some) science fiction fans… and pros

Silly me. I always thought that science fiction is a genre that encourages freethinking, that lets the imagination roam to places that the “ordinary” world couldn’t even see, that serves as an outlet for those among us who feel somehow excluded from the mainstream.

Apparently, though, some male geeks have very limited imaginations. Because a whole buncha them have been demonstrating this week that when it comes to flights of rational fancy and daydreaming about the world being a bigger, better, more inclusive place, women need not apply.

There’s this, for one: a thread at Doctor Who TV polling readers about whether they’re happy to see Matt Smith leave the show, the comments thread of which descended into guys mansplaining why there’s no chance in eternity that the next Doctor could possibly be a woman. Because ick. A few examples:

sexist Doctor Who fans

sexist Doctor Who fans

Not wanting a woman playing the Doctor isn’t about being sexist, you see. It’s about the integrity of the show. A woman would ruin that integrity, by being not a man. It’s about the dynamic, and about how little boys could no longer run around on playgrounds pretending to be the Doctor. Those little boys would be emasculated, either by having to pretend to be a subordinate male companion or — worse — by having to pretend to be a lady! (It’s not a thing worth worrying about that little girls on playgrounds have had to pretend to be female companions, though perhaps someone should be concerned that little girls are getting a head start on learning the mighty powers of empathy and imagination by having to pretend to be a man when being the Doctor themselves.)

And this:

sexist Doctor Who fans

Imagine the horror of an all-female cast! Won’t someone think of the 12-year-old boys for once?

Finally, it’s just tradition:

sexist Doctor Who fans

I mean, clearly it’s tradition. If it weren’t traditional, it wouldn’t have been traditional all this time!

I’m sure there are lots of reasons fans may have to reject the notion of a female Doctor that aren’t sexist, but this is the gist of the objections I’ve seen, and they’re pretty disgusting in the context of the fandom of a show that has more potential, at least — even if it hasn’t been fully exploited — for pushing cultural boundaries. If ever there were a pop culture character who could change gender and have it make sense within context, Doctor Who is it. It’s like these people have learned nothing from the show’s ethos.

And then there’s the professional organization Science Fiction Writers of America, which deemed it appropriate to put this image on the cover of its Winter 2013 bulletin:

sexist SFWA Bulletin cover

This was apparently not ironic, not part of a commentary on how images of women in speculative fiction have evolved over the years, nothing. This was simply something that SFWA thought would appeal to its membership, some of whom dare to be women themselves.

Wait. It gets better. Within the recent pages of SFWA’s bulletin, SF writer C.J. Henderson (a man), explained that Barbie is popular

because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should.

And two other male writers, Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg, have discussed

at length how the campaign to raise awareness on how women are depicted in SF/F art is nothing more than thought-control and censorship.

But they’re not sexist, oh no, because they’ve mentioned

lady writers… and lady editors and publishers

in other issues. Apparently without even asking the ladies to make them a sandwich or anything. Though they did see fit to describe one lady editor as

beauty pageant beautiful… [a] knock out.

Because of course that impacted what sort of editor she was.

(SWFA stuff via the Guardian, Betsy Dornbusch, Jason Sanford, Radish Reviews, and e. catherine tobler.)

This sort of crap depresses me when I encounter it in the mundane world. But it’s worse when it happens within the realm of science fiction. These guys can conceive of starships plying intergalactic wormhole lanes and alien cultures, but their vision does not extend to women as fully human in the same way they perceive men as.


posted in:
Net buzz | talent buzz
  • Lynn Reynolds

    Depressing and infuriating. And as far as Doctor Who goes, I’m starting to wish they would cast Naomie Harris as the next Doctor just to confound all the traditionalists.

  • Julian Porter

    Okay, I’ll do this in three bits.

    (1) Dr Who.

    Looking at all the so-called ‘arguments’ deployed against a woman as the Doctor, they basically boil down to saying ‘The Doctor can’t be a woman because [insert pretentious, but meaningless, gibberish here]’, in other words, ‘it can’t be a woman because’. I find the argument that the doctor cannot be a woman, because so is the side-kick especially strange. It ties in to an interesting phenomenon in comics, which is that gay men are now de rigeur, but gay leading ladies are still too scary or the fanboys. In their recent revamp, DC even went to the extent of destroying one well-known (if not entirely acknowledged) lesbian pair, in the process making one half of it somewhat excessively enthusiastically heterosexual. So obvious gay women, or just an all-female Tardis Team are threatening to the weak male psyche that doesn’t like to consider the possibility that woman may not actually need men.

    (2) General SF stuff.

    Oh lord. That’s so depressing. I would question your definition of SF a bit, as I think a more classical definition of hard SF is the full working-out of the answer to a ‘what-if’ question. Now, that provides, and always has provided, a magnificent way of questioning societal prejudices and assumptions, but that’s not strictly necessary. Then, much hard SF does seem to come from writers with liberal convictions. But, of course, women with big, big swords, big, big boobs and small, small costumes tend to not arise from hard SF, do they? Unless it’s satire. But again, the quotes you provide clearly show a group of inadequate men who need to feel that woman can’t get on without them, and can’t face the fact that everyone can get on without them.

    (3) A general thought

    Bomb Queen is a comic series created by Jimmy Robinson, which is a deliberate satire on the massively over-endowed massively under-dressed heroine of so many bad comics and SF series. She is utterly monstrous, evil, amoral, inhuman, with a ridiculous shape, and yet the frightening thing (and this is the point) is that it’s impossible not to like her, because she just enjoys herself so much, even though a lot of what she does is enough to make the sane person recoil in horror. Naturally Robinson was criticised for creating this ludicrously sexualised figure. Because, you see, she was too violent. And she didn’t get beaten at the end. If she’d been more demure, or reformed or something, the scanty clothes and the JJ bust wouldn’t matter at all.

    Sad, isn’t it?

  • Danielm80

    Look at Star Trek. First they cast an African-American man as the captain, and then they cast a woman. Everyone stopped watching the shows, and the franchise died out completely.

    There are always cases where the people posting on the Internet don’t represent the average fan. I’m hoping this discussion will go the way of people who said Americans will never vote for a black president. But then there’s the H.L. Mencken quote:

    “No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

  • singlestick

    RE: Silly me. I always thought that science fiction is a genre that
    encourages freethinking, that lets the imagination roam to places that
    the “ordinary” world couldn’t even see, that serves as an outlet for
    those among us who feel somehow excluded from the mainstream.

    It’s not just about the sexism. SOME (some, some, some, obviously not all) SF and Doctor Who fans rigidly want the show to be exactly whatever they decided it was when they first saw it. So, they insist that the Doctor must be asexual or avuncular. And of course, male. Just because! Canon! Tradition! Continuity!

    And yet even those who would like to see a female Doctor Who assume it would be a white woman, again, just because. They might throw out the name of a nonwhite actress as casting bait, but their biggest yearnings are not that much different from those who insist that the Doctor must be a white male.

    The one saving grace is that most fans love SF in general and Doctor Who, in particular, and in the end would accept whatever the show runners decided, no matter how much they might continue to grumble about it all around the Internet. You know, like those fans who insisted that Matt Smith was just too young to be the Doctor, and who now gnash and wail because he is leaving the show.

  • dash_bannon

    I’ve often thought a female Doctor would be fun. Considering how he’s always changing to a new doctor each time he dies, it’d be fun to see the doctor as a woman.

    As a time traveller, it’s sort of surprising he hasn’t bumped into another of his kind and travelled with her for a bit. Imagine two Time Lords!

    All that being said, I don’t think they should radically change the gender or ethnic background of a character for the purpose being PC. I do think some characters could stand being upgraded to fit contemporary audiences and be more inclusive.

    Nick Fury was originally a gruff and grizzled World War II vet that fought side by side with Captain America. In the movies, Nick Fury is played by Samuel L. Jackson and the Captain America movie was afraid to mention anything about the Nazis or the real origin of the Red Skull. (He was a Nazi version of Cap.)

    Things change. I think they should change for dramatic reasons that keep making storytelling fresh and fun. I don’t think things should change just to make a demographic happy.

    I think authentic storytelling wins in the end anyhow.

  • dash_bannon

    Deep Space 9 lasted seven seasons just like Next Generation and Voyager. Star Trek wore itself out with “more of the same” storylines. Brannon Braga petered out with Enterprise.

  • dash_bannon

    I think the Batwoman series is still going strong. She’s a lesbian protagonist. The comic is a cool comic. Well written and well drawn.

  • singlestick

    RE: Then, much hard SF does seem to come from writers with liberal convictions. But, of course, women with big, big swords, big, big boobs and small, small costumes tend to not arise from hard SF, do they?

    I would really dispute both of these contentions. A long time reader of SF, I have often been dismayed at the racism, sexism and general sense of exclusion that has commonly been a part of much SF (especially from some writers who are self-described libertarians). The best writers try hard to get past their own upbringing and cultural assumptions, but it is not a guarantee.

    But I am also reminded of Robert Silverberg’s summation of fellow writer James Tiptree Jr (they corresponded with each other, but had never actually met): “a man of 50 or 55, I guess, possibly unmarried, fond of outdoor life, restless in his
    everyday existence, a man who has seen much of the world and
    understands it well.”

    Tiptree, of course, actually turned out to be Alice Sheldon.

  • Bob Devney

    Wow. I’ve seen comments from MRA types that are actually a lot more strident, or viciously aggressive, or obscene. But for sheer lack of lookatyourselfessness, those comments — if everything in our entire universe were made of clues, those comments would be antimatter.

    I’m no hard-core Whovian. But someone to play the Doc that would have me GLUED to the set?

    Two words:

    Quvenzhané Wallis.

    — Bob Devney

  • hard SF is the full working-out of the answer to a ‘what-if’ question

    Isn’t it interesting, though, that the what-if question — in the minds of some of these men — is never “what if women were treated with the same respect that men are?”?

  • I think Danielm80 was being sarcastic.

    Your point about Enterprise is a good one, though: it most closely mirrored the original series, and it was the worst of all of them.

  • And those DW fans assume a woman must be sexualized, too. One comment I didn’t quote from that thread was the complaint that the Doctor is asexual, and that would have to change if the Doctor were a woman. Because (I guess) there’s no way a woman could be asexual.

  • As a time traveller, it’s sort of surprising he hasn’t bumped into another of his kind and travelled with her for a bit. Imagine two Time Lords!

    You need to see the Tom Baker episodes with Romana: she was a Time Lady!

  • I know young Doctors are a thing now, but isn’t that going a bit too far? :-)

  • Drave

    Oh man. I don’t care. I would LOVE to see her play the Doctor. It would be utterly fascinating, even if it completely flopped. Failing that, I am completely on the same page with Neil Gaiman as far as casting the Doctor. I don’t want it to be somebody who has ever played an iconic role.

    “I want to be taken by surprise. I want to squint at a photo of the person online and go ‘but how can that be The Doctor?’. Then I want to be amazingly, delightedly, completely proven wrong, and, six episodes in, I want to wonder how I could have been so blind. Because this is the Doctor. Of course it is.”

    Having said that, I will be ecstatic if the next Doctor is non-white, and a woman. I’d take either, but both would bring me real joy.

  • Texphile

    Alex Kingston would be Awesome as the Doctor….too bad she is still a current character. I’m sure Moffat could make up
    some sort of preposterous explanation for it if needed.

  • Arthur

    As a longtime reader of the Filosopher, I’m embarrassed to admit how little Dr. Who appeals to me. However, (a) a female Doctor would be the one thing that could snare me, and (b) unfortunately I suspect the fan base would resist this for violating their expectations (sure he changes bodies but gender??).
    As far as the putative enlightenment of the SF community, I think there will always be a market for sexist SF, and so it will persist. Hopefully with time it will decrease in significance. After all, someday women might get the right to own property too!

  • Starbuck’s companion

    Wait, Dr Who is asexual? I guess some viewers missed the Christopher Eccleston episodes, eh?

    And a couple of those comments above made me think of Starbuck. It’s just tradition that he’s a man with a female companion. Anything else would just be weird. Well at least it was for some of us once. And I say that remembering the twelve year old girl who loved the show but wanted a woman hero on it. I just didn’t want the woman hero to be an altered, ball-less,male….there were already so many women who could have been that hero. Disappointing.

    But the Dr is about change, at least every once in awhile. Maybe it’s about time the Tardis found her masculine side for a time. After all she’s a complement to the Dr. And always more than she seems.

  • RogerBW

    Have we previously talked here about the Geek Social Fallacies? Because I think this situation is a result of GSF #1: the person who thinks women should be barefoot in the kitchen can’t be excluded from a community of fans, so the people who find that offensive end up taking themselves elsewhere, and the people like him become all that’s left.

  • beckymonster

    Things change. I think they should change for dramatic reasons that keep making storytelling fresh and fun. I don’t think things should change just to make a demographic happy.

    I would think that the Doctor regenerating into a woman would be a case of ‘cake and eat it’. There’s still the drama of the companion dealing with this stranger with a new face also it would bring something very different to the table. A woman protagonist in SF that can handle any situation thrown at her with wit, intelligence and a sonic screwdriver. And if it brings thousands of new viewers to the show, it can’t hurt now can it?

    Re: meeting other timelords – The Time War kind of put an end to that.

  • amanohyo

    When I’m killing giants in the freezing passes of the Icewind Dale, I have to look my best – you never know when a photomage will wander by and bind your likeness to a magical frame. That’s why I use the BBS system – Bronze bikini, Breast Implants, and anabolic Steroids. There’s nothing quite like the feel of bare metal on skin shrink-wrapped silicone in subzero temperatures. Mmmm – bracingly refreshing and guaranteed to block 94% of all areolar and vaginal attacks. Ask your author for the BBS system tonight – because honey, you’ve come a long way, and you’re worth it.

  • RogerBW

    “Fortunately, I was wearing my armor.”

  • cal

    And when BBC America did a 50th anniversary special on the 4th doctor, they completely omitted her! In both incarnations!!

  • singlestick

    RE: All that being said, I don’t think they should radically change the gender or ethnic background of a character for the purpose being PC.

    In some ways you have it backwards. Pop culture has often deliberated excluded people in order to placate those who hold narrow stereotypes. For example, there were always nonwhite cowboys and even Deputy US Marshals in the Old West. But Western novels and later movies deliberately omitted this. This was done just to make a demographic happy.

    A historically accurate Nick Fury would either be dead or 150 years old. Updating the character both with respect to age and ethnicity makes dramatic sense.

    On the other hand, there is no historical or dramatic reason to limit an ancient multi-lived Time Lord to any particular race or gender.

    And in a way, the character always had this potential. It’s non-gender specific “Doctor Who,” not “Mister Who” or “Who, Esquire.”

  • singlestick

    RE: it most closely mirrored the original series, and it was the worst of all of them.

    I respectfully disagree that “Enterprise” mirrored Original Trek; it didn’t seem to have much of a personality at all, and there wasn’t much charisma or real sense of camaraderie among the main characters. And Captain Archer loved his beagle too much to be the horn dog that was James Kirk.

  • englerp

    >Wait, Dr Who is asexual? I guess some viewers missed the >Christopher Eccleston episodes, eh?

    Well it’s one of the beefs Diamanda Hagan has with the new show. I don’t think she’s opposed to a female doctor though. I personally also would prefer an asexual doctor since not every chara has to be motivated by romance or sex, but it’s not really a big deal.

    Although why asexuality is supposed to be an argument against a female Doctor, i don’t really know, Asexuality isn’t limited to men. .

  • RogerBW

    Although why asexuality is supposed to be an argument against a female Doctor, i don’t really know, Asexuality isn’t limited to men.

    Quite! Dimensions in Time was a parody of the old series that’s completely lost its punch because of the changes in the new one.

  • Jonathan Roth
  • RogerBW

    Yeah, I’m not generally a fan of Scalzi’s style, but he’s getting this one right. “Yes, things have gone wrong; it’s my responsibility; I’m going to do something about it.”

  • Jonathan Roth

    Ugh, while I have a little faith I have in the leadership, there are an awful lot of assholes in the comment section who believe criticizing assholes is CENSORSHIP!!!

    Just once, I’d like some of these guys to take a brave stand for a cause other than being a sexist dipstick in public.

  • David Prentice

    Hi, could you make me a baloney sandwich or something. Thanks.

  • J. Nick

    I was going to send you this link as Dr. Who stuff, but it fits into this discussion so well.

    http://gilcomics.com/comics/june-9-2013/

  • Bob

    Putting aside all the Who related posting for the moment, I’m surprised to see Barry Malzberg’s name amongst those contributing sexist, or just plain stupid material to this Bulletin. He was one of the most radical, and inventive science fiction writers of the seventies, very much a counter-cultural voice, with a neat line in subverting genre cliches. He also collaborated with Kathe Koja in the eighties, on some disturbing and thought provoking horror fiction. I’ll have to read his contribution, because I just have trouble seeing him in this company.

  • Eh

    I hope they cast Whoopi Goldberg, just to complete the inversion of being young, white, male, pretty, and British.

  • It mirrored the original series in structure and intent, I meant. Of course there were some differences.

  • What?! Criminal!

  • The Time War kind of put an end to that.

    I like to think that there must be a few other rogue Time Lords out in the universe who escaped the destruction of Gallifrey. Surely the Doctor inspired a few other dissatisfied misfits to take off on their own…

  • Regarding Kingston or not: This is Doctor Who. It’s the most imaginative form of science fiction in that its adherence to actual science is questionable sometimes. Quite literally, allmost *anything* can happen, and be made to work within the context of a plausible story.

    The biggest failing of Doctor Who — not just within Moffat’s reign but throughout the entirety of the show’s run — is that it has failed to live up to this potential.

    The saddest thing in the case of whom Moffat is going to cast as the next Doctor is that it’s hard to see that he won’t go with a white man.

  • Beowulf

    I must admit, as a young reader of the OZ books, I was gobsmacked when the male hero (name?) suddenly turned into a girl — Ozma! But I got over it and still read her adventures with pleasure.

  • Cautia

    To say that Doctor Who fans don’t want the Doctor to be a woman because they always want it to be the same is a pretty striking statement to make given that this is a show where the lead has been played by 11 different actors all with their own physical appearance and personality. All those differences, and the ones that are too much are the Doctor being a different sex or race? That is sexism. That is racism. That is sexism and racism distilled down to their purest form.

  • Cautia

    Things shouldn’t *not* change just to make a demographic happy either….

  • RogerBW

    Do I want to see a female Doctor? Sure.

    Do I want to see a female Doctor written by Moffatt, who only seems to have the one female character in him? Not so much.

  • teenygozer

    Lalla Ward took over playing Time Lady Romana from Mary Tamm after playing Princess Astra in Mary Tamm’s final episode, so it’s not even as if Moffat would have to make up something new. It’s been done!

  • BatWatch

    Did anybody actually read this because it’s massively long? I thought I was longwinded, but wow! That’s not a criticism, I’m just saying…wow!

    Anyway, I did skim about the first seven pages, and I did want to say this. I think the Red Sonja thing is pretty ridiculous too, but Gail Simone who gets credit as this ultra progressive feminist is writing her, and she continues to go into battle with stripper clothes. It just goes to show that the feminism movement is ill defined if a character being portrayed as a skank is somehow empowering, and yes, I am saying if you dress like that, you are probably a skank.

  • LaSargenta

    Impractical clothes for battle. How much or little they fill the “skank” checklist is irrelevant.

  • BatWatch

    No, the clothes are stupid both because they are impractical and because they are skanky unless you believe skanky clothes are empowering.

  • Julian Porter

    Um: _hard_ SF. Note the rather important qualifier.

  • Julian Porter

    Part of the problem is that a lot of the authors tended to exist in little liberal ghettos, e.g. Phil Dick in Berkeley. It’s entirely plausible that he didn’t realise that women in the rest of the world were not like unto those from Berkeley because, to be honest, he didn’t have much experience of the rest of the world, did he?

    Also, his case singles out the interesting problem of unconscious sexism. He is generally quite vocal about gender equality and all that. But then he drops, obvious unconsciously, into comments about enjoying ‘girl watching’ and the like. So, again, being unaware that even he, mighty, liberal anti-Nixonian Phil, was a bit of a sexist, he wouldn’t necessarily realise there was a problem to tussle with.

    And finally, and this is not intended in a negative sense, but, how interesting a what if question is it? It’s hard to tell, but I can’t immediately think of any big ideas or shocking outcomes. Adjustments and general improvements in justice are just what we need, but don’t necessarily make for good stories. However, a possible good story is a modification of Dick’s ‘Human is’. He asks which is more human, a monstrous human being, or a good, decent alien disguised as a human being, and concludes that it’s the latter. You could do something with a twist that made it impossible to distinguish whether people were men or women, and looking at the consequences of that…

  • You don’t think it would be interesting to explore how very different our culture would be if women were treated as people the way that men are?

    Hmmm.

    Okay, then, how about this: Where are all the what-if stories about the positions of the genders being completely reversed? If women were dominant and men were crushed down?

    I bet this wouldn’t even cross the mind of most male SF writers as a good basis for a story. Not even the most liberal ones.

  • dwa4

    “I bet this wouldn’t even cross the mind of most male SF writers as a good basis for a story”

    Well that’s setting the bar pretty low, but if that’s what is offerred, I can think of at least 2 episodes in Star Trek that led to actual stories. TOS had an episode “Spock’s Brain” and TNG “Angel One”..both of which involved women being the dominant gender on the planet, both of them written by men. Unfortunately, while most Trek episodes handle their subject matter quite well, disappointing would be an understatement in how well these came off.

  • I have an idea along these lines. Maybe I can find some time to write that novel…

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Perhaps, but with each passing season, the question, “OK, then where are they?” becomes harder and harder to answer satisfactorily, without it seeming like fanservice or a ratings stunt.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Y’know, I’m not sure I ever heard that before. In fact, I usually hear that, if anything, Enterprise didn’t hew to TOS closely enough.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Actually that idea is a cliché which has unfortunately produced as much bad science fiction as any trope you can find in a John Norman novel.

    There have been a few fairly decent efforts ranging from the old Norman Lear show All That Glitters to the Sheri Tepper novel The Gate to Women’s Country. But more often than not, it ends up being used in the type of stories that Amazon Women on the Moon parodies.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Actually apart from Barbarella and maybe Heavy Metal, that type of cliché is more likely to be found in the heroic fantasy / sword and sorcery genre. But, hey, it’s not like SF — hard or otherwise –doesn’t have a lot of sexist clichés of its own.

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