Honestly I never cared about this cover. At least not in the negative sense. I’ve been collecting Red Sonja comics for years. And I have also been studying arms and armor since my first visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, when I was six years old. Yes, I’m aware that chain mail bikinis are silly and always have been, so far as real fighting goes; they are not fightingwear, but fetishwear–clothing designed to provoke a sexual response. And for the record, I’m not particularly interested in the whole debate about whether provoking a sexual response with an image or a piece of clothing (or having the desired sexual response to such clothing), is valid or not.
My take on fetishistic clothing AND sexual responses is that they’re fine, so long as we recognize that there is a time and a place for everything. Including your boner. Perhaps the PTA meeting to discuss your son’s behavior problems is not the best place to wear your black latex catsuit. And perhaps the cover of a trade journal for genre writers is not the place for a chick in a chain-mail bikini, in Ye Grande Olde Year of 2013.
Sometimes whether you have a legal RIGHT to wear a piece of clothing (or display a certain image) doesn’t necessarily make it appropriate for a certain occasion. It’s not always an issue of censorship; sometimes it’s an issue of context and social skills.
In any case, I didn’t have a strong enough opinion about this cover to be willing to fight about it, pro or con. I like Red Sonja, but I”m not willing to shout down and refuse to listen to people who find this image inappropriate for SFWA’s Bulletin. I was willing to accept that they had objections to the image in the context of a professional trade journal, and I could let them make the case against covers with women dressed in fetishwear.
What really did bother me in that issue was actually what went on between the pages, in terms of real written content. There had been a chatty discussion of “lady editors” and “lady writers” between Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg which was ongoing for more than one issue. And here we had a REALLY inappropriate place to intrude a sexual response, folks. This is a professional magazine for a guild of people who pay dues to have their best interests as artists and professional businesspeople defended. And these were two highly decorated professionals in their field, talking about a woman who should have been respected as a professional peer.
It was a really bad place and time for locker room talk about her appearance.
In general I was really uncomfortable with having a woman’s professional contributions framed by any discussion of her sexual desirability or appearance. No, contrary to what people may think, the fact that the comments were generally “positive” did not make a lick of difference. Judging a woman by her appearance and validating her as a professional in a field like writing or editing based mainly on her sex appeal is just a gross, ugly thing to do. Honestly, it doesn’t matter whether your boner gives her a thumb’s up or a thumb’s down–there’s just a core flaw in the logic of intruding Mr. Boner into the discussion at all.
And for the record, this criteria isn’t even great for people who depend much more on their visual appearance in their professional lives. Even actresses, dancers, models would prefer to be praised for their professionalism and achievements, rather than be validated solely in terms of blood flow to some stranger’s genitals. Even sex workers often prefer to be praised for skill, personality, professionalism.
So…for the record, although I didn’t squawk a lot about it at the time, I was one of those people who thought those comments were rude, unprofessional, inappropriate, and the sort of talk that creates a bad atmosphere for the profession of science fiction writing. I didn’t take to the blogosphere to yell about about it in 2013 for three reasons:
1. I was reading the comments and posts of many other professional writers and editors at the time, male and female. I thought they were probably saying anything I would want to say about the issue, and handling it quite well.
2. I had no intention of abandoning SFWA as an institution without giving the leadership and membership a chance to hash things out.
3. I honestly was having trouble coping with my own personal and professional issues at the time, and I cannot tilt at EVERY. SINGLE. WINDMILL.
Sexism is a very big problem. Yelling once in a while is certainly part of the solution, and everyone should take their turn both yelling and taking productive action whenever they can. But no one can yell every time. Everyone gets tired of yelling once in a while.
Anyway, the situation at the time was hashed out to a significant degree, and a lot of changes were made. In the end the Resnick-Malzberg column was terminated, after Resnick and Malzberg had reacted to criticism by claiming they were being censored and essentially doing a lot of sticking-fingers-in-the-ears and shouting LA-LA-LA-LA-LA until the bad bad feminists went away (except they didn’t).
The editor of the Bulletin stepped down and resigned her membership to SFWA. The President of SFWA took responsibility for the lapse of professionalism of the Bulletin under his watch and a new President took over the helm. The new leadership promised to put together a task force and create a better Bulletin for all.
And honestly I wish that had been the end of it. But unfortunately, that couldn’t be the end of it. Because this is not the French Revolution, and we don’t cut off people’s heads when they are resistant to necessary social change. We leave them alive, to stew in their own bitter juices and retire to their echo chambers to validate their errors of social skills and judgment. And thus emboldened by the chorus of approval for this kind of sexism in public, the Old Guard decided to strike back.
And now we are dealing with the fall-out. AGAIN.
I’m not going to summarize everything that’s been floating around the SFWA community for the last couple of weeks. If you’re a member, or a professional science fiction writer or editor–you already know. And you already know what side you take in the whole controversy. If you’re NOT a professional, and just a reader or fan of science fiction and fantasy…quite honestly I don’t want to be the one who drags you head-first through this embarrassing mess. If you want to catch up to speed, here are the links you need.
There are plenty of other links worth following, but I think these pretty much summarize the events and the kind of misogynist rage that is floating around the professional space of SFWA right now. I can say with certainty that seeing some of the names on that list was one of the saddest and most discouraging moments I’ve ever had as a feminist science fiction writer.
I was particularly hurt to see the names of people who had been mentors to me personally (Gene Wolfe). Or who had been enormous influences on me as a younger reader (Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Larry Niven). Or people that I regard as role models for outstanding contributions to the field by women (C.J. Cherryh). Or people whose contributions to science fiction media and to political awareness within the science fiction community stirred much admiration (David Gerrold).
Am I going to lay down and die over this? Will I stop believing that science fiction and its community and professional spaces should be inclusive, progressive, respectful to people of any gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, whatever?
Nope. Here’s my face while I’m reading all this nonsense.
It’s depressing, yes, but it’s not the end of the world.
At the end of the day, I’m just going to keep paying my dues, doing the best work I can, and trying not to let this crap drive me into a life of crime. I see no solution other than to write, read, review, buy and vote for the science fiction that I think is the most beautiful and meaningful, regardless of the skin color and genitals of the author.
I’m sorry that I can’t be more help in resolving some of these conflicts. And no, for the record, I do not believe that raising the editorial standards of the trade journal of a professional writer’s guild is “censorship”. And no, I will not appreciate people who frame my professional contributions in the future with a discussion of whether I was Hot or Not, even if the verdict is “Hot”.
And no, I do not want to think that 50 years from now, two old guys who should really know better may actually publish their locker room talk about how I looked in a bathing suit, when what they SHOULD be focusing on is the quality of my professional work.
Because I find that thought incredibly depressing and demeaning.
Especially since I’m pretty sure that when I’m leaning on my own cane in a couple of decades, no one is going to want to read a column that consists of me and one of my fellow Lady Writers going on and on about which of the male editors and writers of my own generation were Bangworthy Studs Back In the Day, Hubba Hubba.
Naming no names, of course. Because that would be unprofessional. 😛