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[Guest Post] The 50/50 Movement: Why We Need To Get Practical For Equality In SFF

2012 February 23

Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) has long been a battlefield of the sexes, with countless essays, blogposts and events on topics such as ‘Mary Sues’, ‘the state of women in SFF’ and ‘why are cosplayers at conventions naked if female and storm troopers if male?’1

Image modified from a photo by Flickr user dalcrose. A black board with 50/50 painted on it. Used under Creative Commons licensing. Last week, Paul Cornell (comics, TV and novel writer) stated that, in a bid to get more equal gender representation on Science Fiction and Fantasy convention panels, he was going to stand down from any panel that wasn’t 50/50 or near as and invite a woman to take his place.

Cue an awesome shitstorm of vitriol and support. The main thrust of some feminists’ arguments I’ve heard against this, and in some cases against Paul personally, is that this was ego boosting, man-on-a-white-horse, mansplaining wank and we don’t need it.

Sorry, sisters, but we do. Let’s take a look at the arguments.

1. ‘This looks like it’s a man to the rescue of women, showing us in a submissive and passive light, needing us to be thrust into the spotlight by a man with agency.’

Um, yes. You know why? Because sexism has been so ingrained in SFF over the years, back when it was a male-dominated genre, this is actually our starting point. Editors get fewer submissions from women regarding horror, fantasy and hard SF, the subgenres that are often most applauded by critics (also mostly male). Publishers put fewer women forward for convention guest spots, and female authors themselves look at the gender make-up of panels and step back. I think women haven’t stood up en masse to rectify this because it became the norm. We told ourselves ‘SFF is sexist, so they don’t notice women’ and forgot that arguably – especially when you take account of urban fantasy and paranormal romance – there are more of us in the genre, and hey, we sell more copies. We have as much right to be at those cons, doing those signings, making our voices heard, as the feted men do. SFF convention organisers have shoved women on all-women panels, told us to talk about ‘women in SFF’ and then told us that’s the debate and equality will shake out of that. It won’t. I think, somewhere along the way, we forgot to band together and tell SFF and con organisers to go shove their sexism. Maybe this will help.

2. ‘We don’t need no man sorting this out for us.’

See above. We do. It sucks. That’s the frikkin’ point. SFF wasn’t listening when we were raising our voices. I wish, I fervently wish, that when a woman makes a point about gender inequality, it wasn’t explained away as being a ‘women’s issue’ and therefore marginal and easy to ignore. It shouldn’t be. This is about equality – which affects you, regardless of gender. Yes, it sucks that the world takes notice when a man does something. No, it shouldn’t be this way. But it is. And maybe, just maybe, if we join hands and do this thing together without drawing gender lines ourselves, in a few years, it won’t be this way anymore.

3. ‘This casts the woman who is invited to speak as an also-ran, putting her immediately as a runner-up to the man stepping down for her.’

Image copyright held by Bad Reputation staff. Shop display showing His and Hers bookmarks. The so-called male ones are black and figure shaped while the female ones are pink and have skirts. They say HIS BOOKMARK and HER BOOKMARK on their packaging.Yes, it does. And I think this does mean that Paul may have to change his approach, perhaps so that he and other people (male or female, it’s 50/50 for all) ask the con organisers to disclose the gender balance of the panels they are being invited on, and then, if it’s out of whack, suggest another male (or female) author to readdress the balance. This way, your fans still get to see you on a balanced panel elsewhere at the convention, and there doesn’t have to be any theatre or drawing of attention to an act of substitution.

But, and I want to be really clear about this, just because Paul suggested something that isn’t 100% ideal for women, doesn’t mean we have to throw out the entire idea. The theory is good; we just have to look at the best way of putting it into practice. We don’t need to get into an uproar because the first suggestion wasn’t the best approach – it’s not carved in stone.

My point is: this is a starting point. We’re gonna have to be big girls and suck up some of the stuff we don’t like to help make a change that we desperately want. We have to be pragmatic and proactive, because the status quo wasn’t changing with us doing nothing or shouting about it in forums and on blogs. We shouldn’t be jumping on this suggestion and saying it’s all tosh because it can be seen as patronising – can we please get past that and look at how the entire situation that this is trying to fight against is worse?

Paul’s proposal may not be perfect. But out of it is growing a 50/50 movement that a lot of women and men are getting behind. We’re asking people to talk to cons to check out their gender balance before they say yes. We’re asking women to promote themselves more. We’re asking readers to look at their shelves and see if they read mostly female or male authors, and to try adding a different gender to the shopping cart next time they buy books. I’m hoping that feminists can look at the big picture here and see that we are struggling to bring visible equality to SFF – and that along the way, we’re going to need equal input from all genders to do it.

  • Lizzie is the publicity officer for the British Fantasy Society but considers herself ‘rogue’ when it comes to the 50/50 campaign, so content is her own and not the BFS’s. She prefers fantasy books and science fiction TV, and believes that books are a viable form of currency.
  1. I made that one up, but it’s a valid question. Why? []
4 Responses leave one →
  1. Jenni permalink
    February 23, 2012

    “‘We don’t need no man sorting this out for us.’ See above. We do. It sucks. That’s the frikkin’ point.”

    I’d say we don’t (NEED it), but when a guy wants to do something creative and constructive like this and actually help, why not let him?

  2. February 23, 2012

    By making it this public, Paul is actually (hopefully) going to change behaviour by con organisers beforehand.

    After all, if I were running a panel at a con now, and I really, really want Paul on that panel, it’s on me to be able to answer his ‘is there a 50/50 split?’ question with a ‘yes’.

    I would hope that he never has to actually invoke this.

  3. K. A. Laity permalink
    February 24, 2012

    I applaud anyone who makes a public commitment. I hadn’t heard any women speak against it, but I’ve not really been looking. I for one am sick to death of being stuck on “Women in X” panels as if the only expertise I had was my gender. Cornell’s gesture is a recognition that this isn’t just an issue for women. The lack of those voices affects everyone.

  4. esmerael permalink
    February 24, 2012

    As feminists go, most friends consider me pretty hardcore, but I simply don’t understand the extremity of opposition to this.

    Paul Cornell seems to be being attacked for doing something NICE. Quotas are never a perfect solution, but he is, of his own volition, doing what he ABLE to do to tackle gender imbalance. And we can’t dismiss it as “patronising” just because he is a man. We NEED more male feminists in the world.

    Of course female SF creators shouldn’t have to be in this position, but burying our heads in the sand and waiting for the convention organisers to all spontaneously come to this conclusion themselves is not going to change things. And even if it did, guess what? A lot of the convention organisers are men too.

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