Science Fiction's Sexism Problem

Science fiction, you (allegedly) have a sexism problem. The Guardian lays out the stats, and they reveal a stark gender disparity.

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Science fiction, you (allegedly) have a sexism problem. In an incisive article for the The Guardian's book blog, Damien Walter lays out a stark gender disparity: of the 29 Grandmasters of Science Fiction (yes, that's an actual thing), only 4 have been women. And the winners of this year's other main science fiction and fantasy awards, the Arthur C. Clarke and British Science Fiction Award, were also male.

Part of the reason is that women's speculative fiction gets treated as "fantasy," while the imaginings of men are deemed "science fiction," which seems to have more of a connotation of gravitas. Science, after all, is serious, while fantasy is what children resort to.

Certainly, the dearth of female science fiction writers is a topic that has been covered extensively by bloggers, with one recently asking, quite pointedly, "Dude, where are all the women in science fiction?The Guardian itself has previously written on "the incredible shrinking presence of women SF writers."

But the science fiction community is not bending to such longstanding charges. In a letter defending the Clarke award decisions, Clarke judge and feminist Liz Williams, said that the judges "received disproportionately fewer [submissions] from women, of which many were technically fantasy." Williams went on to say that the works that year just didn't match up, adding that: 

As a feminist, I am opposed to including women writers in shortlists just because they are female: the work has got to hold its own in its field: we can discuss whether that field is a level one or not, but when you're judging a work, you're obliged to deal with what you've got, and to me, that means regardless of any ideological criteria.

Isaac Asimov once said that the difference between the two genres is that science fiction is rooted in science and therefore possible, while fantasy is not. Walters, however, wonders in the problem isn't that the works of female authors aren't just being tossed aside as less serious "fantasy works." He writes: 

Encoded in to the this strange divide between fantasy and science fiction is what Joanna Russ, author of The Female Man, called The Double Standard of Content. "How To Suppress Women's Writing," Russ's satirical text on sexism in art, is 30 years old this year but its lessons are still largely unlearned. Women's writing is dismissed as fantasy, while the fantasies of men are granted some higher status as science fiction.

All women SF writers have to do, they are repeatedly told, is conform to this double standard to be accepted.

Instead, Walter notes, female speculative fiction writers are embracing fantasy because they know they won't be respected in the science fiction community. "Many women writers are, quite rightly, looking at the encoded sexism of the SF genre and taking their creativity elsewhere," Walter notes.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.