A perennial complaint among some fantasy and science fiction readers is that women are “destroying” the genre by contaminating it with romance and other girly stuff. Last year the staff of Lightspeed magazine, owned and operated by Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy producer John Joseph Adams, decided to push back, launching Women Destroy Science Fiction , a crowdfunded special issue of the magazine featuring fiction, art, and essays entirely by women. The campaign was so successful that it resulted in the creation of two companion issues, Women Destroy Fantasy, edited by author and editor Cat Rambo, and Women Destroy Horror, edited by renowned short fiction editor Ellen Datlow.
“The idea that women destroyed horror is ironic because they actually started horror, if anyone did,” Datlow says in Episode 123 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
She points out that the modern horror story traces its roots back to a novel written by a woman, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and that the modern ghost story was largely developed by female authors. Such authors are mostly forgotten today, a common fate for notable women throughout history, but Women Destroy Horror attempts to set the record straight. There’s no question though that most horror writers today are men, a fact that Datlow and Rambo attribute partly to the way that the term “horror” has become linked with slasher movies and “torture porn.”
“Some zombie movies and some horrific stuff can actually be kind of fun, in an awful sort of way,” says Rambo. “But when there is a stand-in for you on the screen, and that’s all that seems to be getting hurt, then I think that can be a real turn-off, and make you feel as though there’s not a place for you in the genre.”
Women in the fantasy and horror genres also have to endure hostile behavior both at live events and online. Internet commenters will complain that there are “too many women” in a book or magazine, even if the proportion of female authors is well below 50 percent. And hostility at conventions and conferences can range from sexual assault to more subtle forms of demeaning behavior, such as not allowing women to get a word in edgewise on a panel.
“I would argue that some of those men are doing it because they genuinely, at some level, don’t think women belong up there,” says Rambo.
Still, Rambo is quick to point out that most men she’s met in the field have been very helpful and welcoming, and that women in fantasy and horror have made great strides over the past few decades. Datlow hopes that trend continues, and that Women Destroy Fantasy and Women Destroy Horror can help play a role by raising awareness of the issues women face, and by highlighting the range and quality of work being produced by female authors.
“I did not want women’s issues to be the theme,” she says. “I didn’t want domesticity to be the theme. I wanted to make it clear that women can write all kinds of stories.”
Listen to our complete interview with Ellen Datlow, Cat Rambo, and John Joseph Adams in Episode 123 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast (above), and check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Ellen Datlow on “the green girls from Vassar” :
“It was a few older white men who were complaining about the young women who were getting into the science fiction and fantasy field. The editors—Susan Allison, Beth Meacham, Shawna McCarthy, me, Betsy Mitchell. A lot of women came into science fiction in the editorial departments. Some men resented this, or felt it was hurting the field. … We started out inexperienced, but so did any editor. The thing is, with science fiction, don’t forget a lot of editors were writers—the early editors were writers who became editors. With us, most of us were not writers who became editors. … We came out of a different—they came out of fandom, we came out of, I’m not sure where. I don’t think any of us came out of Vassar, but what do I know? But it was more an older white man feeling that these young women who knew nothing about the field were taking it over.”
Cat Rambo on reviews of women writers:
“I can point to a lot of reviews where I think the review says much more about the writer’s dislike of women than the quality of anything they’re reviewing. … If you look at Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice , which won all kinds of awards—no book has won quite as many in one year as that one—and that’s science fiction. And if you look at the reviews, a lot of the reviewers focus on one small part of it, which is the thing with the pronouns, and the fact that you literally don’t know what gender some of the characters are, because of the way the pronouns are structured. … Because not only is it, ‘Oh my god, here’s a woman in the boys’ science fictional clubhouse,’ but she’s also daring to do something that’s kind of overtly feminist. … Again, some [reviews] are not so much about the book itself.”
John Joseph Adams on assumptions about men and women:
“I married a writer, and occasionally you get people making these snarky comments, seeming to assume that I’m responsible for any of Christie’s success, which couldn’t be further from the truth. As soon as she heard the first whisper of that sort of thing, I wasn’t allowed to look at her stuff anymore, because she doesn’t want to have that perception. And it’s just so ridiculous, because if the genders were reversed, would anyone be saying that? Does anyone say that Robert Jordan only became the huge success he was because his wife edited all his stuff and made it amazing? No one’s ever said that. It’s hard not to see this as an extension of this same sort of unconscious misogyny that a lot of men seem to have. It’s really frustrating, even for me. I can hardly imagine what it’s like for women having to deal with that sort of thing.”
John Joseph Adams on representations of women’s bodies:
“So much horror art focuses on the female form, and maybe in a way that isn’t very conducive to a feminist issue. … For the Gemma Files story, the illustration that came in looked great, and it very accurately illustrated the scene in the story, but it was just showcasing women’s bodies in a way that I felt made it seem like it was for a male gaze or something. And that’s not OK for a feminist issue specifically—probably not OK just in general—and so we really had to get the artist to revise it, and hide some of those breasts and whatnot so it’s not putting them on display. I mean, the characters were naked in the story, so it was a very accurate depiction, it was just one of those lines we had to try to carefully tread, so that we don’t inadvertently do something that’s going to actually offend people, when we’re trying to do this celebration.”