With my most recent bout of unemployment, I started posting more over at Geeking Out About. After all, I can’t call myself a writer if I’m not writing, right?
The article I’m most connected to right now is this one which is an overview of the recent troubles with the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) group and their quarterly newsletter. In a nutshell, an entire calendar year’s worth of issues contained material which was demeaning to some of its members. (If you need more detail, go read my article and some of the other articles in this list of links.)
Ever since I posted the article last week, I started to wonder if perhaps I was overreacting to the content in the first two issues. Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg were writing about people whose careers began before I was born; who was I to say how or why their referrals to female professionals like Beatrice Mahaffey as “beauty pageant gorgeous” while discussing their careers was sexist or misogynistic?
So I spoke to my mother-in-law, who is a geek of a different stripe. Her geekery revolves around the viola da gamba, which is an instrument that’s a precursor to the guitar and for which the most music was written in the Renaissance era. She also did her doctorate work on a Renaissance opera called Alcyone by Marin Marais. If she isn’t exactly of Resnick and Malzberg’s generation, she’s pretty darn close to it.
When we first started talking about the usage of the word “lady” as an adjective, she reminded me that back in the day, one didn’t use “female” to describe a person because it was a word that was used only in its clinical sense. You also wouldn’t use “woman” as an adjective either, because that inferred a sexual relationship to the subject, as in “Bess, You is My Woman, Now” from Porgy and Bess by George and Ira Gershwin.
When you described a woman as a “lady” it was an attempt to describe someone you didn’t know personally. In context, then, Resnick and Malzberg’s use of the word “lady” to describe Mahaffey and the other women mentioned in their articles from issues #199 and #200 is improper because they did know the women in both a personal and a professional sense.
I then asked her about how Resnick and Malzberg made it a point to include descriptions of the women as attractive while talking of their literary accomplishments. She told me that it was a practice that was often used back in the day because it was assumed that if you were intelligent, you had to be unattractive. The popular thought of the day—as seen in the vintage ad for Palmolive soap, above—was that if a woman were beautiful, she wouldn’t bother herself with intellectual pursuits because she could easily attract a man to marry. If a intellectual woman happened to also be conventionally beautiful, then it was something worth pointing out because it was so “unusual.”
This means that not only were Resnick and Malzberg’s comments regarding Mahaffey’s conventional beauty offensive because it implied that it was more important to talk about than her professional achievements but that they thought that it was “unusual” for such a beautiful woman to even be interested in the science fiction and fantasy field of literature.
Granted, the opinion of an academic who has studied early music regarding male attitudes in a different field of interest isn’t a definitive source—which is the reason why I’m writing about this in my publisher blog and not my journalistic one. I don’t currently have the time or the resources to devote to further investigation to corroborate her statements. But it’s something that I thought was missing from all of the other editorial and opinion pieces I read out there, and I think it’s an important factor in attempting to suss out Resnick and Malzberg’s motives for choosing to speak of their peers in such a fashion.
In his list of links, Jim Hines has chosen to give the last word to Laura Resnick, the daughter of Mike Resnick, and an author of both fantasy novels and romance novels (under a pseudonym). The final words of her statement on the whole matter are:
Finally, although I was moved to write this due to the current discussion in sf/f, anyone who perceives my comments here as alluding to my father is mistaken. See above: I do not discuss my family. But I’ll make an exception now to say this: On occasions when I’ve complained to my dad about the sexist bullshit I’ve had to deal with in this business, he’s been sympathetic to my frustrations. [emphasis mine]
I find this heartening, because it illustrates that Mike Resnick wasn’t deliberately being a chauvinistic, sexist pig. I hope that it means that through this continued discussion both online and in the members-only fora for the SFWA, he and Barry Malzberg may be open to listening and reading the opinions of people whom he personally doesn’t know, whose experiences are not his own but who are also fellow science fiction and fantasy aficionados and professionals.