Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

hemanSeveral decades ago, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) wrote a story in which aliens eyeing the lush terrestrial real estate introduce something in the water or the air that makes men kill women and girls systematically, rather than in the usual haphazard fashion.  Recent events have made me wonder if a milder version of Tiptree’s Screwfly Solution might be affecting the brains of self-defined “technoprogressive visionaries”… in which case we’re doomed if not to extinction, at minimum to a future that will make Saudi Arabia seem paradisiacal.

Exhibit 1: The upcoming Singularity Summit, exclusively a white boys’ treehouse, about which I wrote more extensively in Girl Cooties Menace the Singularity!

Exhibit 2:  The upcoming Mammoth Book of Mindblowing Science Fiction, modestly subtitled The 21 Finest Stories of Awesome Science Fiction.  I know two of the authors in it personally, and consider one a friend.  Nevertheless, all the stories are (rewind tape) by American or British white men.  When called on this, the editor of the collection explained that stories by women didn’t peg his mindblowing meter, because “women write more about people and their feelings”.  Oooh, these nasty girl cooties again!  Not to mention that if there are no people in a piece of writing, it’s called a manual.

Exhibit 3: The Lifeboat Foundation discussion list which, unfortunately for anthropologists and cartoonists, is not public.  In it, self-identified visionaries agree (in harmonious accord with fundamentalists) that the scarcity and silence of women in most mindblowing places are natural outcomes of such proven attributes as “alpha male rape genes” and women’s “wired for coyness” brains.  These people are not even remotely acquainted with biology, but feel completely entitled to pose as experts because they’ve written clunky science fiction and now collect speakers’ fees as futurists.  I discussed another aspect of this in On Being Bitten to Death by Ducks.

Intrinsically, these occurrences are as worthy of attention as the whining of a mosquito swarm.  However, one reason that Pod People come to mind is that the excuses have been identical in all three cases. The litany goes as follows:

1.    We can’t have population quota representation, because this is all about superior quality/qualifications that non-males and non-whites simply lack.
2.    Would you rather we included token women and minorities?
3.    My wife/girlfriend/mistress/concubine is a feminist and/or non-white and she agrees with me.
4.    Your humorless PC hysteria alienates those who would support you if only you were polite.

flingpoolmaoOf course, parity is not even remotely demanded — a mere one or two representatives often suffice as a sop (to such lows have we fallen). The bleatings about qualifications and tokenism are absurd, given the vast, stellar non-male non-white talent pool.  The excuses sound even lamer (if not malicious) when one scans the predictable, often mediocre, rolodex-friend picks actually made in cases 1 and 2 above… and in more instances than I care to recall at other times.

In the vast majority of cases, non-male non-whites are overqualified for whatever position or role they are chosen to fill.  The tokenism excuse has been obliterated countless times no matter how often the goalposts move, particularly when evaluations are made truly blind.  Whenever musicians audit behind screens, or names are removed from manuscripts and grant or college applications, the number of women and non-whites skyrockets.  As soon as Harvard adopted blind admissions in my junior year, the girl to boy ratio went from 1:7 to 1:3 in one year, just from the incoming class.  This was immediately followed by shrieks of rage by alumni, who whined that more girls would lower Harvard’s standards as well as its reputation.  These, by the way, were mostly legacy admissions that had scraped by on gentlemen’s Cs.

So what we have here are people so embedded in their privilege that pointing it out to them instantly strips away the progressive veneer and elicits poop-flinging that would make a baboon blush.  Women and other Others are still furniture – and though furniture is useful and can be decorative, it’s not supposed to move, dammit!  From there it’s a short jump to the transhumanist vision of a world where, as the Sad Children cartoon says, “being white and rich will be even more awesome” – and where all others will be either properly docile courtesy of happifying pills or outright extinct in favor of infinitely malleable cyborg dolls.

I think that true equality will come when non-white non-males can be as mediocre as white men.  And when that time comes, I guarantee you that the quality of mindblowing anthologies won’t budge.  In the meantime, we’ll have to make do with the overqualified Others that occasionally squeak past the endless hazing gauntlet – if the stuff in the water doesn’t get us first.


Update: Graham Sleight reviewed Ashley’s collection in Strange Horizons… and his mind was decidedly underblown.  A fellow traveler of feminazis?  Objective pundits should investigate!

45 Responses to “Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape”

  1. Carlos says:

    Have you considered starting an all girls’ tree house or would that be simply the opposite of what you’re after?

  2. Athena says:

    I personally have no time nor want to be a prophet or a guru, like several of these luminaries. But even if I did, I don’t think that isolation is a good or permanent solution. Some people argue in favor of all-girls’ schools, because in such institutions they can excel in the sciences, among other things. But that won’t necessarily change mindsets, which is what has to happen if we’re to go forward.

  3. Caliban says:

    I read a lot of “hard” sf and space opera, but for my personal choice I’d say some of the most mind-blowing sf I’ve read would include:

    * Tiptree, especially “The Screwfly Solution” cited;
    * LeGuin’s “Four Ways to Forgiveness”
    * Connie Willis’ “All My Darling Daughters”

    These are extremely challenging and difficult stories, and mindblowing precisely because they deal with very human issues. Much more so than stories with a lot of wafer-thin pseudo-scientific gobbledygook.

  4. Athena says:

    Calvin, I agree with you both about the specific works and the larger point. And in space opera, two mindblowing works (to me, at least) are Cherryh’s Downbelow Station and Friedman’s In Conquest Born.

  5. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    This is going to seem like left field, I’m sure, but I can think of another very good reason why these places of unconscious privilege can be rather dangerous platforms, since we’re talking about SF. Two words and an initial; L. Ron Hubbard.

    Great essay, Athena. Though people may avoid the subject, these things still need to be said. As a few commenters stated on the “Mammoth” thread, being polite and waiting for the inequities to fix themselves has SUCH a great track record for effectiveness.

    Damn women! Why can’t they shut the hell up and be a little more grateful! And where’s my sammich?!

  6. Athena says:

    Kathryn, you have a point. I think that the Singularitarians have crossed the event horizon on that aspect, which is another of the concerns underneath the surface of this essay — in case someone wonders why the apocalyptic vocabulary in a few spots.

    As for the rest, the most common rejoinder (besides the ones I already listed) is: You should be grateful you don’t live in country X/era Y/under religion or regime Z. Another highly effective argument along the lines “America: love it or leave it”. Besides, I did live in country X, under religion/regime Z. I witnessed and experienced overt and covert discrimination since I was born.

  7. Caliban says:

    I find this whole thing ironic. One of the most important things I get out of science fiction, and science, and feminism (and, although I fully realize not everyone will agree and please don’t let this derail the topic, certain subversive threads of religion, namely those calling on protecting the weak and defenseless), is the asking of difficult questions. I don’t think anyone, or very many, are demanding that the author lists reflect in exact numerical proportion external society; on the other hand, if an author list is exclusively white and male, isn’t it very sfnal to ask, What’s up with that?

    In situations like this I recall a question James Blish liked to ask when constructing a story: “Who does this hurt?” I love that question, because it encompasses both hard questions and tender compassion.

  8. Athena says:

    I agree. This goes hand-in-hand with the extremely parochial characteristics of contemporary futurism, from philosophy to fiction. We’ve talked of these before, in many contexts: little curiosity, no travel beyond the US, no language besides English (Chomsky built a whole theory of language while being monolingual), ignorance of history, mythology, philosophy, science. What kind of writing, what kind of future vision does this create? The inevitable answer is the homogenized monochromatic flatness that makes these manifestations so uninviting to those of us who dislike navigating on autopilot.

    I like the layers of Blish’s question. Among other things, it nudges us towards the idea that we shouldn’t perceive of inclusiveness as a pie of constant size. Instead of crouching protectively over our tiny territories, we should entertain the notion that increased understanding enriches us both individually and collectively.

  9. PharaohKatt says:

    Thank you for this! It is informative and wonderful. Currently pointing many people at this.

  10. Athena says:

    Happy you liked it, Katt! Yes, I had the dubious pleasure of witnessing these outbreaks of blinkered self-involvement almost simultaneously. Hence the title of the post.

  11. Walden2 says:

    Athena said:

    “Chomsky built a whole theory of language while being monolingual.”

    Chomsky also declared that the Cambodian “Killing Fields” were a myth and that anyone who said they were real was a right-wing fanatic. Guess there were a lot of right-wing fanatics out there during that time.

    Anywho, perhaps what all this misogyny boils down to with the white male nerd SF community is that many of them had less than wonderful experiences growing up with the opposite sex and this is their form of “revenge”, unconscious or otherwise.

    Some might say I am stereotyping, but being a part of that community I can sadly say it is far more true than not.

    Or perhaps things are changing, at least for the current generation. By this I mean a lot of tech things once considered science fiction are now used by many people, male and female, and having a computer in one’s room and using it on a daily basis is an important part of the culture, not just for nerds in their parents’ basement.

    So perhaps as our technology advances one stigma will go away and such males will have one less reason to get angry at women.

    By the way, I know males of all societal groups can be and are guilty of treating women poorly and worse, but male nerds have had it even tougher, especially in school. Hopefully this is changing a bit.

  12. Athena says:

    Chomsky is definitely overrated and he often sounds incoherent. A common problem with self-involved celebs who operate with weak or no context.

    As for the other topic, Larry, the logical conclusion to “girls didn’t like me in school” is those gunmen who fire on women in universities, schools and gyms because they feel they’re entitled to sexual and domestic services — George Sidoni being the latest representative. Why should they automatically have such a privilege? “Because I am a boy.”

    I recall a poll described by Robin Morgan. Apparently, there was extensive polling of high school students at the time she was writing her book The Demon Lover. They asked girls and boys if they were afraid of the other gender and why. The boys replied “We’re afraid the girls will laugh at us.” The girls replied “We’re afraid the boys will kill us.” A slight difference, no?

  13. Walden2 says:

    Please note I am NOT condoning the actions and attitudes of such men, Sidoni being a very sad example. From what I read, he clearly fit the bill of what I was referring to above.

    He apparently made a YouTube video showing his extremely neat and clean apartment with matching furniture, which he thought would be a big attraction to a woman. He was removed from his church by the pastor for “paying too much attention” to a woman member of the congregation.

    He also isolated himself and it would seem that any family and friends he had either did not know what was going on with him or didn’t care enough to intervene.

    I know this may sound ridiculous, but it is a shame that humans are still subject to the mating rituals of most other animals, where females select a few males to reproduce with and reject the rest. We are not nearly as far above the animals as we like to think we are, if at all.

  14. Athena says:

    Larry, I hope you’re not subscribing to the ridiculous notion that human women (to confine the discussion to just our species) go for “alpha males”. For one, there are no human alpha males in terms of biology — they only developed as a cultural phenomenon when resource hoarding and large-scale coercion became possible. For another, women go for snacho guys if left free to choose; it’s the men who try to restrict the women’s sexual choices. Much of history, folklore and literature center around women’s defiance of often brutal pressures to love the “wrong” man, who treats them well and is therefore likely to be also good to their kids. When women go for “bad boys”, these are rebels, rogues and outsiders — not pillars of the patriarchal establishment.

    You don’t have to take this on trust from my words alone. Read Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s three groundbreaking books on this and related topics.

  15. Walden2 says:

    If Megan Fox’s character could like a guy like Shilo LaBeuf in the Transformer films, then I guess you are right. :^)

    I just recall women in my school days going after a lot of guys who were jerks, but I was pretty clueless anyways, so I will stop talking now.

  16. Athena says:

    Nobody knows what they’re doing when they’re teenagers. They’re trying things out and the hormone surges are driving them daffy anyway (this has only increased with better diet and sedentary living: the onset of puberty is earlier and much more abrupt nowadays).

    And you ended up with a snuggo anyway, clueless or not, right? *smile*

  17. Walden2 says:

    Yes, I got a few things right in life despite my best efforts. :^)

    Speaking of teenagers, my oldest son is now in the early stages of it in junior high. One thing I was suprised about is how aggressive the girls are in his grade. At least twice now in 7th grade he has been directly approached by a female classmate with her friends in tow and told that she wants to go out with him.

    Has it always been like this and I just didn’t get it or what?

  18. Athena says:

    Poor girls. If they say nothing, or say it subtly, they’re cock-teasers. If they’re straightforward, they’re aggressive. I bet tons of girls told you they liked you in high school and college. You just didn’t register it, because they had been socially trained not to hit you over the head with it. I recall sending what I thought were embarassingly obvious signals to guys in my youth — who later said they had no idea or (worse yet) that they preferred to do the picking. By then, I had become so annoyed with the cluelessness that I had moved on to someone else.

  19. Walden2 says:

    I have already freely admitted to being clueless in my younger days, but I think even the direct messages these girls have given my son would have penetrated my thick skull.

    Okay I think I am done with this. :^)

    By the way, if you watch even so-called kid-friendly channels like Disney, the main goal of all the main kid characters, male and female, is to meet and date someone. That is the main message these programs are giving out.

    I know that is a big focus of kids in the Junior-Senior High schools and beyond, but I wish these programs would stop being soap operas and put more emphasis on the kids working towards career goals or at least interacting with the opposite gender in a non-dating way.

    There has to be more to humanity than passing along its DNA.

  20. Athena says:

    I don’t really watch TV these days and I’d definitely not watch the Disney channel — it might trigger a sugar coma! On the other hand, the Pixar films, witty and inventive as they are, miserably fail the Bechdel test. I’m not the only one who noticed this.

    I agree with you about passing along more than DNA. It’s equally crucial to transmit knowledge and enlightened mindsets.

  21. Walden2 says:

    It may make you happy to know that most of the programs on the Disney Channel these days are dominated by young women with actual talent and very promising careers (hey, it’s the entertainment industry, but that’s where the big bucks are so who can blame them).

    There have been a few slipups, but it seems most of them (and their parents) are trying to keep these girls on the straight and narrow, which cannot be an easy thing to do in LA. Hopefully once they are past Disney’s protective cover they will not get dragged down.

  22. Tera says:

    What about these girls characters in the Disney shows? I don’t watch tv anymore, or many movies so I don’t know. But when I was a kid most of the girls on TV just wanted to be a princess…ugh.

  23. Walden2 says:

    Well, let’s see:

    One is a mega rock star, which I guess is kind of the modern day American equivalent of being a princess but without actual royal blood, but she makes a fortune, lives in a mansion on Malibu Beach, and is extremely popular with her fan base of young girls. Oh yeah, her mother is dead, though, but she does appear on occasion in dreams and flashbacks to help out.

    Another is a wizard, budding artist, and rebel. The main problem I have with her character is that she constantly rejects school and education in general, as she thinks she doesn’t need this to be an artist/wizard. Other characters do point out this negative feature to her, but as she is made to be the “cool” character, I worry what the kid audience might think. On the plus side, both parents are alive and well and act like parents with her.

    The final of the three big young female stars on Disney is the star of a series about her being one of the stars of a series. She is not nearly as pampered and spoiled as the other two and one episode when she was failing several school subjects, her mother threatened to take her off the fictional show if her grades did not improve. Her character is generally kind and intelligent, though she likes the male lead of a rival series despite the fact he has an ego the size of Whyoming.

    So that is a summary of the big moneymakers – I mean female stars – Disney has right now. Of course who knows how long they will last and certainly Disney isn’t going to stop looking for their next big stars once these three get older and probably want to move on, but at least for now the girls do seem to be running things on their network.

  24. Walden2 says:

    Hate: no choice. Agent simulations

    Authors: Krzysztof Kulakowski, Malgorzata J. Krawczyk, Przemyslaw Gawronski

    (Submitted on 19 Aug 2009)

    Abstract: We report our recent simulations on the social processes which — in our opinion — lie at the bottom of hate.

    First simulation deals with the so-called Heider balance where initial purely random preferences split the community into two mutually hostile groups.

    Second simulation shows that once these groups are formed, the cooperation between them is going to fail.

    Third simulation provides a numerical illustration of the process of biased learning; the model indicates that lack of objective information is a barrier to new information.

    Fourth simulation shows that in the presence of a strong conflict between communities hate is unavoidable.

    Comments: 17 pages, 5 figures

    Subjects: Physics and Society (physics.soc-ph)

    Cite as: arXiv:0908.2692v1 [physics.soc-ph]

    Submission history

    From: Krzysztof Kulakowski [view email]

    [v1] Wed, 19 Aug 2009 08:10:58 GMT (147kb)

  25. PettyPixarFan says:

    >the Pixar films, witty and inventive as they are, miserably fail the Bechdel test.

    Even “The Incredibles”? We have 4 important female characters, they do talk to each other about something that isn’t men, marriage and kids (And when they do talk about marriage… ), and it’s actually Elastigirl, Violet or Mirage who save the day most of the time, not Mr. Incredible. I never exactly watched it from that perespective, but now, when I think about it, it’s closest thing to gender-bias free movie someone filmed in years, especially given the premise and target audience. Then again, I am male, and I didn’t watch it for years.

  26. Athena says:

    The Incredibles is a partial exception in at least having more than the token single XX person — but not completely. The women do everything in service of their family. They’re contemporary versions of The Angel in the House.

  27. Walden2 says:

    Most Disney films are about the importance of the traditional nuclear family, even if they have bumped off one of the parents before or during the story.

    I was just amazed to see Randian philosophy in a Disney/Pixar film. :^)

    And while we are talking about The Incredibles, there is the very interesting issue of what makes someone considered a superhero being.

    In The Incredibles, it was clearly what superhuman physical ability one possessed. While the character of Syndrome was made out to be the bad guy, and he certainly was not appealing on just about every level, he did make some good points even as a child about how being very intelligent should qualify as a super power and therefore make one a superhero.

    We find out early on that the self-appointed group of superheroes, male and female alike, focus on the physical superiority over intelligence, as several of the superheroes were acknowledged to be not very bright mentally but still considered superior.

    I could never quite figure out if the makers of The Incredibles were supporting or mocking this aspect of the superhero mythos. But I am pretty darn sure they were making a definite statement about only certain people being truly special and therefore worthy of adulation and special treatment.

    I suppose the fact that an alleged children’s film can provoke this much thought has to say something about it.

  28. Thersites says:

    “They asked girls and boys if they were afraid of the other gender and why. The boys replied “We’re afraid the girls will laugh at us.” The girls replied “We’re afraid the boys will kill us.” A slight difference, no?”

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the survey also found that the boys regarded being laughed at as worse than being killed.

  29. Athena says:

    Possibly! But that, too, is culturally imposed, not biologically hard-wired. And laughter doesn’t imprison, mutilate or kill you.

  30. Athena says:

    Update: Graham Sleight reviewed Ashley’s collection in Strange Horizons… and his mind was decidedly underblown. A fellow traveler of feminazis? Objective pundits should investigate!

  31. Walden2 says:

    As many who frequent the Paleofuture Web site have pointed out, no matter how advanced and different the technologies of the many futures conceived of in the days of yore, the gender roles pretty much stay in the Nineteenth Century:

    As just one example, check out the 1958 Disney animated feature The Magic Highway. Despite depicting transportation methods that we can still only dream of, the family car still takes Dad to work while Mom is dropped off at the shopping mall on the way for the day. At least she doesn’t have to walk too much thanks to conveyor belt sidewalks.

  32. Athena says:

    Yes… this shortsightedness is particularly prevalent in so-called “hard” SF, which also happens to be the one most abjectly frightened of girl cooties. See a connection there??

  33. Walden2 says:

    Seeing as most SF is still dominated by white Western males with sad social lives, this isn’t too much of a shock.

    Maybe we need more androgynous authors to bridge the gap. :^)

    You are making definite inroads with your culture-changing perspectives, though, please note Athena. Not that I wasn’t already aware of all this stuff, ya know – cough.

  34. Athena says:

    Heh, heh. Remind me to show you my novel that has a happily polyandrous culture.

  35. Manual trackback: I’ve quoted you at A new blog to read; updates on ongoing discussions
    and added you to my Bloglines. (Here via your comment at Strange Horizons)

  36. Athena says:

    Welcome, Susan. Thank you for the link, and I hope you enjoy reading the Astrogator’s Logs! And there’s more in the Stories section.

  37. delagar says:

    I linked this, too — also via the comment at Strange Horizons. I’ve been following the whole Ashley mess.


  38. Athena says:

    Thanks for linking and letting me know! A mess in itself, indeed — but also sadly emblematic of the larger and persistent problem.

  39. Gary D says:

    Very late but wanted to urge people to decide for themselves about one part of these comments.

    The right is unbalanced about Noam Chomsky as about many things.

    See particularly Cambodia although it needs cleaning up.

  40. Athena says:

    Gary, welcome. Chomsky is not really relevant to the topic of this discussion and I’m not familiar enough with his views vis-à-vis Cambodia to have an opinion. What I can say is that 1) his theories of language are so simplistic that I deem they don’t merit study any longer and 2) the couple of his books I read were indeed incoherent. So my view of him has nothing to do with his politics, especially given that I’m firmly on the left myself — as several of my articles will attest.

  41. Sad Excuse for a Human Being says:

    “[L]aughter doesn’t imprison, mutilate or kill you.” Not quite true: I have 30 odd years later the psychological scars (and I am irreversibly screwed up) from being laughed at from day one at school (nice, psychological bullying); if I hear someone laughing in the street, my first thought is still that they are laughing at me. I much prefer cats to people these days.

  42. Athena says:

    I could reply with the standard Nietzschean quote, “Whatever does not destroy you makes you stronger”, but I recognize it’s insultingly facile. There are things that people never recover from. Psychological bullying at school can be damaging. Even so, it’s not on par with physical torture, sexual abuse, the death of a child, taking part in a savage war. We can at least try to get over being laughed at — and we often succeed. We cannot get over being maimed or killed.

  43. Nick says:

    I know I’m coming to this very late, but I was a bit surprised, as a practising theoretical linguist, to read this:

    “Chomsky … his theories of language are so simplistic that I deem they don’t merit study any longer.”

    Then I hope you’re not on any funding boards. Whether or not you agree with Chomsky’s ideas (and there are a lot so it’s possible to agree with some and disagree with others, of course) I don’t think it’s controversial to say that he provided a largely new way of looking at language which has been the spur to a huge amount of extremely fruitful research. Pretty much all modern theories of syntax, phonology and semantics have some roots in his work, and in syntax, which he has concentrated on since the late 1960s, he is still one of the leading researchers. And then there is his (huge) influence on cognitive psychology, and on modern philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind.

    In the last fifty or sixty years, we (as a scientific community, I mean) have found out a lot of things about language that we were not able to before because we didn’t know what questions to ask. Chomsky was a very large part of the move to ask new questions and has provided a lot of very interesting answers along the way too — some of which have since been superseded, some of which remain state-of-the-art. I just don’t see the point about ‘simplistic’ theories. You might as well say:

    “Galileo … his theories of motion are so simplistic that I deem they don’t merit study any longer.”


    “Einstein … his theories of physics are so simplistic that I deem they don’t merit study any longer.”

    Oh, and the claim that Chomsky denied casualties in Cambodia was and is right-wing zombie trolling and disinformation, refuted many times, but always brought back without mention of the refutations.

    On Chomsky’s linguistics, philosophy and politics, a good place to start if you actually want to find out is Neil Smith’s excellent scholarly monograph “Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals”, published 1999, second edition 2004.

  44. Athena says:

    I already mentioned that I have no opinion on Chomsky’s stance on Cambodia (right-wing propaganda would be par for this course). I’m aware of Chomsky’s great influence across fields. But then, Freud was equally influential — and mostly wrong.

    Thank you for the monograph recommendation, it sounds like a good review!