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WisCon - Sexism: A Spotter's Guide

70 Sexism: A Spotter's Guide
Feminism, Sex, and Gender•Capitol B• Saturday, 1:00-2:15 p.m.
It's relatively clear what makes a work feminist—relatively—but in these days of more subtle sexism, when at least lip service to equality is required, what makes a work non-feminist, or anti-feminist?
M: Lyda Morehouse, Lee Abuabara, M. J. Hardman, Betsy Lundsten, Graham Sleight

Listen up, you women and men, I found this panel to be extremely informative and thought provoking. I had considered attending Liking Your Life in an Unlikeable World: Personal Energy for Political Work, in this timeslot, but the Sexism panel kept cropping up in my mental to-do list. I was also concerned that it would turn out to be nothing more than a litany of “that’s anti-feminist” objections and I would be expected to apologize for not noticing, or worse, liking something objectionable. Of course, I was a n00b, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect the excellent moderating skills of Lyda Morehouse. Besides being witty and sharp, Lyda kept the conversation moving, and made sure there were lots of opportunities for interaction and clarification. She wasn’t afraid to wrest everyone back on topic, nor was she hesitant about sharing her very strong opinions. I like that in a moderator.
vito_excalibur</lj>began a summary of this panel, and as vito says, “Well, MJ Hardman was on the panel, and largely as a result of that, I just don't think it could have gone better.” I totally agree. MJ is a doctor of linguistics and a professor. She is studying the language of a culture that has no hierarchy or ranking in its expression. It’s a very weird concept for us traditional westerners, and one she had difficulty mastering. I’m not sure if the study of Jaqi languages caused her to notice the sexism inherent in our western languages, or if she was already aware of this phenomenon and was searching for an exception. MJ is very passionate about the topics of linguistics, feminism and equality, and her passion kept the conversation from ever becoming dry or boring.

The first new thing I learned about is “denial of agency.” English is constructed and expressed in a way that “denies” a female’s “agency,” where denial ~ negates, denigrates or ignores, and agency ~ action, will or ability. As an example, MJ shared a story a student told her: He had been keeping his 4-month old daughter entertained in a hospital waiting room. Her favorite game was pulling herself to a standing position in his lap while holding onto his fingers. A woman who was waiting also, tried to strike up a conversation by opening with, “Aren’t you the strong little boy, pulling yourself up like that?” The father answered, “yes, SHE is very strong, and she loves this game.” To which the woman replied, “Oh, how cute you are letting daddy pull you up over and over!” Can you hear the pins dropping? The room was silent for a second before the outraged gasp took over. As MJ pointed out, this woman had no agenda for saying this. It’s just the way our society has ingrained us to automatically deny a female’s agency, and the tool that keeps it ingrained is the structure of our language.

Even when a woman does something that is clearly active, her accomplishments are expressed in the most passive terms possible. A female cannot be the subject of the sentence, only the object, especially if there is a male in the sentence too. So, if I excel at my job, and my boss notices, my co-workers are way more likely to say “The boss promoted her again,” instead of “she worked hard for (or deserved) that promotion.” The only time our language structure allows for the woman to be the subject, is when she is also a victim. MJ rather flippantly called this “taking the perp out of the subject.” But it has merit. e.g. If you are going to discuss the crime of rape, you will say, “She [subject] was raped [passive verb].” You might also add, “…by the frat boy, milkman, whomever” but the very structure of the sentence makes the perpetrator-as-object forgettable, and does nothing to hold him responsible for his action. The properly equal way to express this crime is “He (or the frat boy, milkman, whomever) [subject] raped [active verb] her [object]. In the first case, the victim is made the ‘responsible party’ because she is the subject. But the true responsible party can only be held accountable if he is the subject. As I was listening to the words ‘subject’ and ‘object’ being bandied about, I recalled that I had read a book several years ago that hammered home the definitions of those terms for me, “The Bonds of Love, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination,” by Jessica Benjamin. From the overleaf: “She reveals that domination is a complex psychological process which ensnares both parties in bonds of complicity, and shows how it underlies our family life, our social institutions, and especially our sexual relations, in spite of our conscious commitment to equality and freedom.” It was a fascinating read that would have been even more noteworthy if Benjamin had also examined how our language reinforces this structure and complicity.

The group spent a good deal of time identifying movies that appeared to be about strong female leads, but were still subtly denying the agency of those women. Lyda’s favorite example is “Alien.” She stated that it was a great movie with the first female action-hero right up until “she went back for the damn cat. And then she took her clothes off.” Would James Bond ever go back for the damn cat? No! And would anyone hate him for it? Also no! So why would the female hero who spent not one moment exhibiting any kind of nurturing or sexy characteristics in the previous 114 minutes spend the last two rescuing the cat and taking her clothes off? Lyda, that’s a damn good question. I used to love that movie, and now I am mad. Yes, that’s just the kind of thing I was afraid would happen, but as Lyda said, cut the last two minutes off and it’s still a kick-ass movie, and besides, I got more out of this discussion than I lost. (Also, Bond does tend to at least imply taking his clothes off in the last few moments of his movies too, but it’s really not the same thing.) Afterward, I asked her what her response to ‘Ever After’ was, because ‘Cinderella’ does a heck of a lot of rescuing in that movie, including a very physical rescue of the prince. Lyda hadn’t seen it, but wrote down the information and promised to look it up. I hope we get to discuss her reaction to it someday.

I have been hyper-aware of active vs. passive and subject vs. object for the past 10 days. And this idea has been percolating in my head all this time. This isn’t the newest hypothesis in the world, but maybe the reason I like slash fiction is that the characters are both always the subject. I have heard many times, people explaining their love of slash by saying it’s because the men are more equal than in a female/male relationship. For me, the best, most well-written slash, the stuff that keeps me coming back for more, is the stuff that has both guys in an active mode. They are equals in the relationship. They’re both the subject and they have to trade off. They both are always guys. I can’t abide reading the stuff where one or both of them starts acting like a girl (not even a woman, but a girl). My preference really became apparent when a friend asked me to beta her first slash story last week. There were these weird places where the younger character would go distressingly passive for no reason that would advance the story. And whenever that was happening, there would be tense changes and overly flowery language to accompany it. (Don’t worry, we tracked it all down and stomped it all out before the story was posted. I knew I was on the right track because the author didn’t object to it at all.)

It made me think of Harlequin romances, written ‘for women.’ The language is always flowery and passive. The heroine is always being done to. Ripley and Laura Croft are female action-heroes. They are not action-heroines. Action-heroine is an oxymoron. Heroine is a derivative of hero, just as woman is a derivative of man. According to MJ, the derivative is always considered secondary in importance in language. This is why she says we should say ‘women and men’ from now on, or until it doesn’t matter anymore. This is the final cool new thing I learned in the Sexism panel. You don’t need to say the male part first, because as the root, no matter where it is placed in the order, it will be perceived as most important. Also, whatever comes after the most important part of the order, will automatically be reduced in importance, and thereafter, forgotten. So, if you place the derivative first, you elevate its importance to nearly equal that of the root, and then they are heard and remembered equally. Always saying “women and men” is simple, eye-opening, and subversive, in the best possible way, but it is certainly not easy to implement. I think it will be worth the effort though. Call it part of my ‘conscious commitment to equality and freedom.’

I’m not sure the panelists actually answered the questions in the blurb, but I don’t care. It was a great panel.



( 19 reviews — Review )
Jun. 8th, 2007 01:49 am (UTC)
Thank you for the excellent write-up! I think you should consider posting this to the WisCon community.

So, I haven't read fanfic in years, but now I'm curious. Could you suggest some good stories? I do like novels with male-male pairings (by writers Lynn Flewelling and Sarah Monette, for example), probably partly for the reasons you mention, and also because it's usually a different perspective on romance from the traditional storyline, which has been done so many times that it's beyond hackneyed.
Jun. 8th, 2007 02:15 am (UTC)
Well, what fandoms do you think you'd like to read? My core list is SportsNight, Due South, CSI & Stargate: Atlantis, with occasional forays into Stargate: SG1, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings. I'm trying to resist Supernatural, and I haven't read much CSI lately, but it was my drug of choice before the Stargates. Or you could poke around the links in my sidebar. Or check out my 'rec' tag. I'm happy to be more specific once I know what you're interested in. Oh! I just betaed something for Smallville - want the link?
Jun. 8th, 2007 03:26 am (UTC)
Great! I will check out your links. Since I don't watch TV consistently, I've been getting DVD sets via NetFlix to try and catch up (and after WisCon, I've gotten more excited about fandom in general). Currently I'm watching SGA season 1. I'm also a fan of Firefly, Dark Angel, and in previous years, the Pretender (I even wrote a Pretender fanfic once upon a time). I think I'd like fanfic based on books as well, but really writing quality is the more important factor.
Jun. 8th, 2007 12:46 pm (UTC)
ooh, ooh, ooh! I've got a good one for you. It's a "Master and Commander" AU. You don't need to know the books (although I've seen the movie) - I don't know the fandom at all, but a favorite writer of mine wrote this and it's phenomenal:


For SGA - oh woman! so many good choices linked over there <==. I haven't linked to 30toseoul, she doesn't have a website, but she has an index post at her lj. Her early stuff is amazing, and then she started in on the OT4. Yowza.
Jun. 8th, 2007 05:37 pm (UTC)
Jun. 9th, 2007 05:02 am (UTC)
Oh, what is OT4?

I've been reading the linked-to SGA stuff, and it is amazing. These people could professionally write if they so chose. And it is truly enhancing my enjoyment of the TV show becuase it's getting at the subtexts and the background of life there, whereas the show is understandably plot-driven.
Jun. 9th, 2007 08:53 pm (UTC)
OT4=One True Foursome or 'Team Fic.' Alot of people are scarily attached to their OTP (P=pairing), but it's hard with SGA to go all the way that direction, especially after Ronon arrived on the scene. They all work almost equally well as pairs, so why *not* indulge in the polyamorous both/and/everything philosophy? hee!
Jun. 8th, 2007 06:05 pm (UTC)
i looked at your rec link but couldn't zero in on sports night fic but would love to try reading some?
Jun. 8th, 2007 06:52 pm (UTC)
Sadly, the Sports Night archive went down some time ago, and I haven't really found a decent replacement. Even one of my favorite authors in that fandom, Emily Brunson, hasn't updated her web page with her actual SN stories (she's kinda fixated on Supernatural right now).

You could try here, but a lot of the links may be broken due to the archive being down. But definitely look for anything by Bone aka thisisbone :)
Jun. 8th, 2007 02:00 am (UTC)


So *this* is why I felt you were drilling me several new assholes in the nicest possible way! ;-D

I've found Clark to be a bit passive anyway, but I think we got it sorted. When I was writing about feminism for my thesis, I remember the whole "denial of agency" thing, and of course it got drowned out later in life, but I think it's a good thing to remember. I probably need a course in remedial feminism. Or, y'know, feminism for the real world.

Jun. 8th, 2007 09:45 am (UTC)
I wish I had read your post before I wrote my book review. i had to go back and change one word. Thanks for writing about the panel especially the clear description of "denial of agency."
Jun. 8th, 2007 05:26 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a totally kick-ass panel - I wish I had gone! :D

I'm going to have to check out the book you mentioned. And does MJ have any easily accessible writings (even if I have to go to the Mifflin branch to read them)?

I wish I could remember what book it was in, but I found a little tiny book when I worked at Borders in the Linguistics and Language section that told the "his"tory of "man"kind in entirely feminine/female terms. The author discussed its use in classrooms and the distinct uncomfortableness and sometimes anger of the males in the room.

One of my subversive ways of trying to balance the scales with my children is by calling animals/insects alternately "she" or "he". Most people default to calling an animal of an unknown gender "he".

The sad thing? My kids are still sometimes surprised when I say "she". They ask "how do you know it's a 'she'?" and will sometimes default to asking where her babies are, instead of focusing on her current actions. :(

It's a constant struggle, one I can't even say I'm aware of all the time. Sometimes I need a reminder, and yours was a doozy!

Thanks!!! :D
Jun. 8th, 2007 05:28 pm (UTC)
Oops! Never mind about the "writings of MJ"...

If I had just bothered to click on the link instead of devouring your entry and being so excited about posting a response, I would have found her webpage much much sooner!

Jun. 8th, 2007 05:29 pm (UTC)
Jun. 8th, 2007 06:47 pm (UTC)
One of my subversive ways of trying to balance the scales with my children is by calling animals/insects alternately "she" or "he". Most people default to calling an animal of an unknown gender "he".

Dogs are he, cats are she!

I've been trying to remember to switch the sex of characters in books, since all too frequently there are few females. I did it recently with the minor characters in a Curious George book, and will probably try out switching George's gender, next reading - we'll see if my son goes for it. After all, there are girls named George, as anyone who read Nancy Drew knows.
Jun. 9th, 2007 05:44 am (UTC)
I was at this panel and still really appreciated your summary -- very concise and informative. Thank you for linking it in wiscon!
Jun. 9th, 2007 01:32 pm (UTC)
Many years ago, I heard Gordy ("Gordon R.") Dickson on a panel point out that there is no female version of "hero". "Heroine" certainly isn't. It's a missing word.
His example was Pilar in (oh, dammit -brainfart- NOT _Farewell to Arms, Hemingway's Spanish War novel. *ah* bless Google!) _For Whom the Bell Tolls_.
Jun. 9th, 2007 08:55 pm (UTC)
A missing word. Wow, that's an amazing concept. We have so *many* words, it's hard to believe we're missing any, but I can totally see the point. *thinky thoughts*
May. 15th, 2014 07:52 am (UTC)
I'm embarrassed to say that if I were Ripley in Alien I probably would've gone back for the cat (animal lover that I am) but the stripping bit - when I'm pretty sure that everyone emerged from their sleeping pods at the beginning in jumpsuits - was gratuitious and unnecessary.
( 19 reviews — Review )


Bette Davis

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