So there's this guy I know. I've known him most of my life: I'll call him Alfie, for now, though that's not his name. He's a nice bloke: good company, smart, funny, kind and reliable. For a while, we worked at the same place, and he was good at his job and, by and large, a nice colleague. I was at school with him, and we ended up at the same university -- you know how that goes. We didn't always end up in the same social circles, and we have some different interests, but he's one of those people, I guess: one of those people you just know and have always known.
I like Alfie: like I said, he's good company. I've never shared a house with him, but our mutual friend Bimla did, and she tells me he washed up after himself and sometimes remembered to do the vacuuming, just like her. He was a pretty good housemate (and he's a very good cook). He's married now, with two daughters who he adores and encourages to play soccer and study science. To use the old terms of the 80s, he's a new man: he helps around the house, has been known to change nappies and he treats his female work colleague Chantal well. Alfie's one of the good guys.
Except when he isn't. Because, you see, here's the thing about Alfie: he's a comfortable misogynist.
About this point, I can see the frowns starting. What's misogynist about what I've described, exactly? Alfie cooks and cleans and is nice to Chantal at work. He's a good dad (though his wife Daisy does sometimes wish this extended more to picking up toys and getting up when one of the girls is ill, and less to the fun stuff, like playing sport and going for ice cream). He's a good guy, I said so. He's a friend. He's not a sex pest or a male rights' activist. He thinks women should be allowed to work and he is outraged at female genital mutilation and all the news coverage of historic sex abuse cases. When it comes to big issues, Alfie's a feminist.
He feels good about that. And that's where the problem starts, because while he's great at the big picture, he is rubbish at seeing what's right under his nose. To this day, he doesn't understand why Daisy was so upset when he went on that month-long training course two weeks after their 2nd child was born. It was a great opportunity -- and while he could have gone on the next repeat of it, six months later, well, he didn't really want to go then because of his cricket side, and anyway three years on he got that great promotion. And Daisy managed. He thinks Chantal bears unnecessary grudges, because she's still sore that Edward got a pay rise when she didn't, even though they do the same job and her appraisal was better. But Edward's older than she is and he has a son at private school: he needs the extra money. Chantal's single. She'll get her turn. And it's not like the company's sexist: look at Frances at head office! She's practically a partner. Okay, there was that fuss about how she didn't get promoted that time, and Chantal and the other girls -- Grace who does admin, and whatserface, that old bat from human resources -- were up in arms about it and kept trying to get him to say something to Harry, the senior partner. But they didn't seem to get that Frances is, well, kind of abrasive and she can be really pushy, and anyway Alfie has to think of how it would look, him recommending her to Harry. He doesn't want to damage his own career. And it worked out all right, didn't it? Harry headhunted Ian from the competition and Frances got that great sideways move and a new company car.
And then there was that time Jim made a pass at that girl -- what was her name, Bimla's friend? Karly? She totally over-reacted: went on like he'd raped her or something, when it was just a few kisses and a friendly squeeze or two out in the car park. And Karly was being pretty naive, going off alone with Jim when everyone knows what a joker he is. And he was drunk: Jim's a decent bloke, everyone knows that. Yes, he makes some off-colour remarks, and yes, he can be a bit, well, *handy* when he's drunk, but it's just a bit of fun. Jim wouldn't really rape anyone. Alfie's sure of that. He wouldn't be friends with a man like that. (And anyway sometimes women exaggerate. He knows it's a bit edgy to say that, but he read this article in the paper the other day, and they interviewed a lawyer, and he'd know, right?) But Bimla and Daisy flew off the handle about that, and Daisy won't let him invite Jim round any more.
The thing is, Alfie thinks, is that women are just a bit... well, they expect miracles, right? It can take years to get where Ian and Harry are: Frances should know that. Her turn will come, if she's patient and doesn't make trouble. (Yes, Ian's a few years younger that her, but she took those two years out when she had her baby, so it evens out.) It's a hard word for everyone and these girls, well, they're being naive. There's laws and everything now about equality: people aren't allowed to discriminate any more. There's a level playing field. But some of these women insist on seeing sexism everywhere where it's not. If it was there, he'd know, and he'd be right there fighting for justice for them, just like in the old days when he used to go on those Reclaim the Night marches with Daisy and Bimla. He supports women's rights. That's one of the reasons he didn't go to Harry about Frances or Chantal: it would have been sexist, like they couldn't speak for themselves. And he was really busy that week anyway, and, well, this stuff is really hard work and he just doesn't have the energy for all that, some days.
Alfie means well. He understands the big issues and, despite how he looks from the above, he's a solid ally on those things: he really is a good dad and he doesn't expect rewards for doing housework. But sometimes, he doesn't get the insidious things. He doesn't mean to be hurtful, but he simply does not see the pattern of, say, Jim's behaviour, that makes Daisy and Bimla and Karly so uncomfortable. He doesn't connect it with the wider social problems of sexual harassment and rape culture. He really does think that Frances' abrasiveness is the main thing holding her back. (And he hasn't noticed that Ian is far ruder and far pushier, because, well, Ian is assertive and confident, isn't he?) They look to him like little, isolated problems, not part of a toxic cultural institution. And because to him, they're small, they're not worth getting wound up about (as he sometimes says to Daisy).
Alfie is fictional, of course. I invented him as a place-marker. He's a composite of hundreds and hundreds of men I've known over the years, mostly good blokes, people I like, people who are good people. I don't know anyone who so consistently trips over his male privilege as Alfie. But the thing is, we are an institutionally misogynist society, even with the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act and so on and so forth. We are rooted in a culture soaked in thousands of years of discrimination and sexism and assumptions about gender roles. We see where that operates on the large scale, but not always on the small -- and the less affected we are by it, the less we see. I could say the same about racism and homophobia and gender-essentialism and transphobia. The Alfies of the SFF world buy stories from women writers, and sometimes read books by them. They listen to the women they know. They are genuinely delighted when a new woman writer does well. They host guest posts from women on their webpages and link to things they write. They see and act on the big stuff. And sometimes, when historic inequities are pointed out, they help signal boost this.
And yet, and yet... If you talk to many women in sff, and particularly women who have been around a while, they'll often express a feeling of fatigue. We have been fighting so long to be seen and heard and yet our voices are barely any louder, and when new voices appear -- which is great -- older ones are dropped or forgotten to make space. I've said this before, over and over, but it is still predominantly older or established women who are expected to give way for the newcomers. A new book by William Gibson is An Event. A new book by multiple-award winning, genre-shaping C. J. Cherryh passes with barely a notice. And when this is mentioned out, men (and some women and non-binary people, yes, because #notallmen
) point to the current clump of hot women writers and say 'But look at them!'
We have a culture that found it right and proper that after the death of Iain M Banks, no new GoH was announced for worldcon, but a debate started as to whether the female guest should be replaced with a different, younger woman, because the older woman 'wasn't relevant to younger readers' (which was itself wrong, as she is very popular with teenagers). We have a canon that repeats the same handful of women as members -- LeGuin, Russ, Butler, Moore, Tiptree -- without apparently seeing the problem that these women are used to stand for hundreds of others who are forgotten or dismissed (and *I* for one have not forgotten the male critic who told me that he didn't read 'the sort of mediaevalist stuff you write'. Fine, if that's a question of personal taste, but the fact is I don't write mediaevalist fantasy. But I'm a woman who writes fantasy, so he Knew, without troubling to check). I've not forgotten the fan who was incredibly vocal condemning an all-male awards' shortlist drawn up by a panel which was 50% female, but when he found himself in a similar position on a different panel, justified the absence of women by naming a couple of female writers and adding 'We don't want that kind of romantic slush on an awards' list, do we?' I've not forgotten the man who, after I was on a panel about sexual harassment in fandom, backed me into a corner to lecture me on what I was doing wrong in how I tried to protect myself (complete with 'how to dress' notes). The latter reminded me of the first iteration of Alfie I ever met, a boyfriend of a college friend, who used to censor her wardrobe on how 'feminist' it was. He forbade her to wear skirts, even if she wanted to, because it was unfeminist. And then there are all the men who say 'I need to step back; this is so tiring! I don't know how you women cope!'
We cope because we have no choice. We can't step out, not without harming ourselves. We can't endorse, say, panel parity for just a year, because these are our lives. The same is true, of course, for those engaged in anti-racist action, and that is often far harder, because the barriers are greater.
It doesn't help when the Alfies tell us not to get so wound up, or when they say 'Oh, but it's not my fight', or when they recycle the same list of women-who-matter, or Know what we write without looking it up. It doesn't help when they put up their 'Best of' lists, with only 2 women (both usually the current hot women writers). It doesn't help when they fence-sit, or fail to confront misinformation because they can't be bothered or don't want to 'dominate' (guys, you can speak up without taking over). It doesn't help when they say 'Oh, but that's so trivial'. It doesn't help when they say, 'SF by women doesn't sell' without thinking about the social and cultural reasons why that may be so (men get more reviews; their books are more likely to be promoted; men are more likely to recommend books by other men -- and to take recommendations from other men; bookshop buyers respond to numbers without looking at how they privilege male authors and order fewer books by women and so on and on). It doesn't help when men leave the women out when they talk about their influences. It doesn't help when women who self-promote are labelled pushy and aggressive while the men who do the same are seen as cool and clever.
I'm not saying most men do this on purpose. They don't. We are, as I said, an institutionally sexist culture. Women are embedded in this, too. I have had to have brisk conversations with myself more than once as to *why* I find self-promotional posts by women more worrying that those by men, for instance. We are all complicit in this comfortable misogyny, because we were all raised that way. And the same is true about other damaging, harmful social institutions, particularly racism.
Speak up. Take risks. Women have to, every single day. People of colour have to. This uneven division of labour we have, where women and people of colour and transpeople and queer people have to do the bulk of the heavy lifting is itself part of the problem. Yes, the voices and ideas and needs of those who are Othered must be front and centre. But those who sit silent, or act like Alfie are, in the end, part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Skirt of the day: blue parachute.