Breaking the Glass Slipper: Women in science fiction, fantasy, and horror
I have long been entrenched in the SFF fandom in the UK, consuming as much content as I could get my hands on, talking to everyone who would listen about my passions, and attending as many events as possible. But the further I dug into that world, the more gender inequality issues I spotted. At conventions, women were recipients of grotesque, sexual innuendo or ripped into for not being ‘real fans’. According to some male fans, women only ever ‘pretend’ to be SFF fans in order to ‘hook’ their geeky dreamboat. Wow, I think they caught me out there!
Then came the Hugo awards of last year. Campaigners wanted women and anyone else who dared write equality and diversity-minded SFF tales to be kept out of their precious world of boys and rocket ships. We women were apparently destroying all genre fiction, turning it into another of our crusades. I’m not one to take such accusations lying down. As a woman who writes and reads SFF, I took issue with such immature and outdated views. There are some wonderful female writers out there, as well as great female characters written by both men and women.
Gradually, I have seen more and more people discuss the gender issues in the SFF community – from prejudice against female writers to having female characters as little more than love interests in a novel. But the conversation needs to be brought more into the open. More people need to be talking about it. It was high time we had a podcast discussing women in science fiction, fantasy, and horror – which is where Breaking the Glass Slipper comes in!
If people are starting to talk about gender inequality issues in SFF writing, why do you feel the need to make a podcast about it?
ML: I follow a lot of female genre writers on social media, so I feel that the conversation amongst them is covering these issues more than might be felt in the wider community. My hope in creating Breaking the Glass Slipper was that we might be able to bring the discussion further into the open and embed it in the public consciousness. With groups like the Sad Puppies still managing to get a lot of traction, we need to ensure we give a voice to women in these areas as much as possible.
CB: Personally I found that the issues of female genre writers was generally brought up as a part of a reactionary discussion, such as in response to the Sad Puppies debacle. After that had blown over, it would then be sidelined again until the next crisis. I wanted to be part of something that kept it ticking over; I wanted discussion that would be sensible and thoughtful, rather than the heated comments that are often involved in the aftermath of a controversy.
LH: It’s all about getting people talking and keeping the conversation alive. Like Megan, I spend much of my time preaching to the converted on Twitter, and feel as if I’m not targeting the wider readership where these issues most need to be highlighted and addressed. There’s an informality to podcasts; that element of lively debate can be so much more accessible than blog posts or essays.
What are some of the biggest issues you see facing women writers in genre writing?
ML: I find discoverability is a huge issue. The books I see talked about the most are almost always by men – is this coming from publishers not publicizing their female writers? Or are fans changing the messaging once books are released? Whatever it is, we need to make sure that books by women are as talked about as their male counterparts.
CB: I think genre can be a bit of a “boys” club – not that most of the boys in the club aren’t very welcoming to girls, of course! A lot of genre fans are very welcoming, even chivalrous. It’s just that it’s naturally a boy’s club simply because there’s more men involved in the genre than women. I don’t know whether the bottleneck is in the ratio of books published, the number of manuscripts submitted by men versus women, or whether there’s a marketing bias, but whatever reason, like Megan I think women writers need to be more discoverable.
LH: Discoverability, old prejudices, gender stereotyping by both publishers and readers. No genre book should be aimed exclusively at a certain demographic; that’s continually reinforcing the idea that there should be ‘books for girls’ and ‘books for boys’. Amazingly, there are still men who refuse to read a book authored by a woman – a decision often based on one bad experience, or merely inherited bias.
What problematic characterization tropes do you see recurring when it comes to female characters?
ML: Women as romantic objects. Hate this. Too often a novel will only introduce a female character to add a love interest for a male hero. Give me a barf bucket! I’m not interested. Women are worth so much more than how they are defined by a man in their lives – fictional women should be given the same courtesy that real life women have (or should).
CB: In contrast to Megan, I like a bit of romance! But I don’t think male or female characters should have that as their only purpose, unless it’s a proper romance novel. Personally I take issue with the “chosen one” trope: why can’t women (or men for that matter) just be great as they are? Why do they have to have some secret, hidden power to make them fabulous? I think a lot of female characters, especially YA ones, are characterised in that way. It’s one of the reasons I like George RR Martin’s writing – generally everyone gets by without magical powers and is portrayed as kick-ass just as they are.
LH: Now I like a bit of chosen one heroism, but you don’t often see women in the starring role. I grew up on a diet of epic fantasy and some books had great supporting female characters. Very few, however, took the lead. Another trope that’s grown up more recently is the need to give a female hero the attributes of a male. As in, they use traditionally masculine abilities like physical strength to best their foes. I would like to see more women using their minds and their natural intuition to solve problems in addition to their fists.
What great female writers do you wish everyone had read?
ML: I finally discovered Octavia Butler last year after the bookstore had put a hand-written recommendation card below a copy of Kindred and I now recommend her to absolutely everyone I meet. I’ve become quite intense about it. Though another reason I wanted to champion reading women in genre fiction was because I realized that I have read so few! So as much as I’m out to recommend great books by women, I’m also on the lookout for great recommendations!
CB: Sarah Pinborough is receiving a lot of praise for her recent novels “13 Minutes” and “The Death House”, but I really think her Victorian crime/horror novels “Murder” and “Mayhem” deserve more recognition. They were fabulous. Also Naomi Novik’s “Uprooted” was just astounding, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she produces next. Jen
Williams is a new favourite of mine too, thanks to Lucy Hounsom!
LH: Rebecca Levene is a brilliant writer who does epic fantasy in less than four hundred pages. The Hollow Gods series displays superb characterisation and originality in a genre that sometimes feels as if it’s been milked dry. And the first book only has one notable female character (remedied by book two) – so male readers will have plenty of company!
Hosted by Megan Leigh, Charlotte Bond, and Lucy Hounsom, Breaking the Glass Slipper is a bi-monthly podcast (publishing every other Thursday) available on SoundCloud and many other podcasting platforms.