The pieces that I did on female movie stars and attrition towards better female placement in movies keep coming back to haunt me lately. That attrition is of course too slow, as all removal of prejudices is, but at least it is understandable that the movie studios, however much we disagree with many of their choices, are the “gatekeepers” for their own projects on which they are spending millions of dollars. There is another kind of gatekeeper who works very hard against attrition, however, who has no justification at all for what they do — the self-appointed guardians of the flames of culture. These people mistakenly believe that culture exists to keep people out of it and appoint themselves the wise folk of the culture and volunteer to man the imaginary fortress doors. Of course, this is useless. They aren’t keeping anyone out of anything and they have no authority to their prejudices, but they do get to throw boiling oil and venom down on their targets and sometimes create obstacles for some of them or at least a hostile social climate. Their targets are inevitably people who are not like them.
Obviously, the really big, systemic problems in society, the big battles of attrition in the world, are far more serious and life and death power struggles than cultural battles of arts and entertainment, but the cultural battles reflect those bigger battles, contribute to them, and often require some extra attention, precisely because people often think they aren’t terribly serious. One of the most pervasive in the world of SFFH creative expressions, in all media forms, is the invisible woman. Women — and girls — have been involved in SFFH during its whole existence in human history. They are fans, scholars, organize conventions, create SFFH or help produce and promote it. And yet, despite this, there is a persistent, non-factual belief that the women are not there. Why? For the same reason the movie studios drag their heels on women in film and filmmaking — it means sharing power, credit and money with more people and having less control thereby. Of course, again, the movie studios actually have power and control over something. The culture guardians most of the time do not. (Yes, the same can be said for other groups in SFFH, such as non-whites, but we’re going to concentrate on women here for a particular reason below.)
Attrition nonetheless does its work. The women refuse to leave, and as they have more equality in general society, more openly express themselves and their roles in SFFH, no longer following rules by self-appointed guardians, no longer hiding under male pseudonyms or attributing credit to males, with young women joining them in their turn. This causes the self-appointed guardians (not always male,) to suddenly notice that some of the women are there, where they’ve been all along. These women, however, are declared rare, exceptions, and usually not particularly welcome but grudgingly over time accepted as existing and occasionally interesting. The women continue to assert themselves openly, to carry over to generations, to climb over obstacles put in their way by the self-appointed guardians. Attrition does its work and the guardians have to admit the existence of more women, so they immediately divide them into good girls and bad girls — girls we allow to do things and be with us and girls we still think are not allowed in.
The good girl and the bad girl is one of the oldest, hoariest chestnuts of attempts to control women and reduce them to objects. The madonna and the whore, Eve and Lilith, Mary and Mary Magdalene, the virgin and the femme fatale — the woman who behaves in an approved manner for women and the woman who does not. It’s a way, in culture, to attempt to keep some control and power, to keep the myth of the invisible woman going just a bit longer, to keep women there but not important. Attrition has to chip, chip, chip away at this, but it’s terribly hard to get rid of it completely because the dichotomy is far too attractive.
We were given a spectacularly awful example of this in a column for CNN’s website by Joe Peacock, a self-appointed guardian of the flame, or as John Scalzi termed it, self-appointed Speaker for the Geeks. Peacock is apparently involved with video games, and, despite the fact that women have been involved with video games from the beginning, the gaming world is certainly well behind on the attrition front compared to other SFFH media, and in fact really likes to fling the venom around when it comes to women in a desperate belief that they can keep them out. Mr. Peacock’s piece is chockful of good girl-bad girl ideology. He goes after teenage girls dressing in costume and professional models doing a job and gives them what-for, while praising good girls for recently entering a world in which they’ve actually been all along. He even divides up actresses he doesn’t know into helpful good girl and bad girl categories. Mr. Peacock has finally recognized that the invisible women are there, and unless they follow his orders exactly, he’s desperate to get them out. He even thinks up handy thought processes for them to have to establish that the teenage girls are in fact evil, which instead sort of make you wonder about Peacock’s sex life.
It’s an astonishing bit of open sexism by a guy who quite clearly thinks he’s defending good girls and his beloved supposedly male culture that he will share with only those who are worthy. Many annoyed rebuttals have been made on the Net on bigger blogs than mine that you can check out. I particularly recommend Nick Mamatas’ pointing out that not only have women not been invisible in SFFH, but that the idea that SFFH geekery is an outcast subculture is a ridiculous myth (and his earlier geek pride essay on the damage of self-appointed guardians.) Jezebel‘s response wasn’t bad either, though it does accede a bit to the geekery wasn’t popular before and women weren’t there a lot myths.
I do actually see Peacock’s piece — and most of the responses to it — as a good sign that attrition is working in SFFH when it comes to women. If it wasn’t, Peacock would have seen no need to defend the culture he has no actual say in. He would not have bothered to couch it as a defense of women while he attacked them. But given the venom in it, it is unfortunately also a sign that attrition is going very slowly, too slowly, that backlashes against women on the Net are getting nasty, and that news sources like CNN are now so used to bashing women and their behavior as women that they thought nothing of putting this piece up and getting the controversy hits.
It’s very, very tiring to have to continually tap guys — and unfortunately also some women as well — on the shoulder and say, “we’re here, we’ve always been here and you are not actually in charge of us” over and over. Luckily, that herd of teenage girls in sexy costumes whom Peacock so despises are very good at it. They’re going to run right over the man and right past him. Because the one who is really invisible in SFFH is Peacock. Maybe one day he’ll figure that out.
Below are some related articles on this subject of invisible women (cause I happened to have them saved up):