Ann Aguirre Speaks Out on Sexism in Science Fiction

Barbara Vey -- June 7th, 2013
Ann Aguirre

Ann Aguirre

USA Today Bestselling Author Ann Aguirre writes science fiction, urban fantasy, YA and romance.  The readers and writers I know wouldn’t think anything of that statement and Ann’s faithful readers are thrilled with it.  But there seems to be a dark side lurking in the sci-fi community that apparently thinks of female authors who write the genre as somewhat sub par.

A couple days ago, Ann Aguirre wrote a stirring blog exposing the ugly beast that resides in the science fiction field.  According to Ann’s blog:

I’ve held my silence when I probably shouldn’t have. But I was in the minority, a woman writing SF, and I was afraid of career backlash. I was afraid of being excluded or losing opportunities if I didn’t play nice.

I don’t care about that anymore. If this means I don’t get into anthos or invited to parties, I don’t give a f**k. I care more about doing the right thing, about speaking out, so maybe other women who have had these experiences will do the same. If enough of us gather the courage to say, “Hey, look, this is NOT ALL RIGHT,” maybe the world will change. And if not, well, at least I stood up. I spoke. I didn’t sit quiet as a victim of sexism and let it happen.

She goes on to tell of her experiences at conferences.

grimspaceIn 2007, I sold my first book, Grimspace. It says it’s SF on the spine. I believe it to be SF, though it’s certainly written differently. I write in first person, present tense, and the protagonist is a woman with a woman’s thoughts, feelings, and sexual desires. But the book(s) take place in a rich, well-built science fiction world. There’s FTL travel and lots of planets to explore and aliens. Sounds like SF, right? Apparently not. And that’s the dismissive, occasionally scornful attitude I’ve received since 2008 when I made my first appearance as a professional in the SFF fandom.

At that con, I watched a respected male SF author get sloppy drunk and make women uncomfortable, fans and writers alike. I was one of them. I watched a respected SF writer break an elderly female fan’s heart by refusing to spend a minute talking with her. He was everything brusque, self-important, and rude. I consoled her afterward. I had a respected SF writer call me “girlie” and demand that I get him a coffee, before the panel we were on TOGETHER. When he realized I was not, in fact, his coffee girl, he didn’t apologize. And once we got into the panel, he refused to let me (or anyone else) speak. He interrupted me. He talked over me. He responded to questions that the audience asked me, when they asked me, by name, and he wouldn’t respond to the moderator, who was also female.

The panel was supposed to be about pseudonyms but he made it about how sad it was that the glory days were over. Point in fact, his wife participated more in the panel, by shouting out suggestions on what old stories he should tell next. If the panel had been called, “WHAT SF WAS LIKE IN 1969″, that would’ve been fine, I suppose, and I wouldn’t have been sitting there, feeling embarrassed, powerless, and ashamed, as I wasn’t born at that time.

I went home from that con feeling very sad and ashamed, because my colleagues had treated me like nothing, even though my book, Grimspace, sold out. There were over fifty copies in stock at BAMM, and I signed every last one of them. In fact, by the time my “formal” signing came along–with Sherrilyn Kenyon–they had none of my books left on the shelf. That was pretty cool. But despite good sales, I still felt bad.

Maybe it was a fluke, I thought. So I was excited when I found out I had been put on a SF panel at Comic-Con. I went, full of excitement and anticipation. But once I got there, I found more of the same. The moderator checked the pronunciation of the names of all male guests. (They were all male except me.) She did not ask me–and she got it wrong. Then in introducing me? She called me “the token female”. None of the male panelists objected; they were fine with it, apparently, and I was too new and scared to stand up for myself in a room full of men who were ex-military, who were actual rocket scientists, or worked for NASA. I wish I had. But I let them diminish me. I let it happen. I had a broken mic during the panel and nobody bothered to replace or fix it. The writer sharing his with me frequently took it away from me, or wouldn’t hand it over when I wished to speak. The male guests were dismissive and scornful of my work and my comments. I have seldom been so belittled or ashamed. By my peers. Why? My only difference is that I’m a woman and I’m writing SF the way I enjoy it. Maybe it wasn’t that bad, I thought. Maybe the audience didn’t notice. I was, frankly, on the verge of tears.

But then, David Brin, who was in the audience, came up to me. He shook my hand and said, “I liked what you had to say.”

The subtext I took from that was this: “Hey, sorry. Not all male SF writers are like this.”

So yeah. The audience noticed. I had slightly better experiences at WorldCon and ArmadilloCon, but I suspect it wasn’t as bad because I was roaming around with Sharon Shinn, who has more power and cachet than I had at that time. But I still encountered more than my share of fans, who dismissed my work. At that point, I was disheartened, and I stopped attending SFF cons entirely. I decided I’d rather spend my travel money otherwise. To quote my wonderful friend, Lauren Dane, “If I want to feel bad about myself, I’ll go swimsuit shopping.” My professional work shouldn’t be impacted by my gender, my appearance, my religion, my sexuality, my skin tone, or any other factor. The fact that it is? Makes me so very sad. I’ve had readers and writers stare at my rack instead of my face while “teaching” me how to suck eggs.

And now her battle has moved to a new phase:

I’ve been fighting this battle for five years now.

And now, here’s the second thing: I’ve been made aware of a post (that I’m not linking to)  from a guy who is swinging at me again. Why? Because I’m getting my girl cooties all over his SF. He implies I’m incapable of grasping sophisticated SF references due to my gender–that I don’t actually write SF because it has women, sex, and feelings in it. I’m so tired and disheartened right now. The one bright spot was my experience at KeyCon in Canada, where I was not only made to feel welcome but valued. Not a single soul at the con questioned my credentials or my quality of fiction, due to what I don’t have in my pants.

But I’m still here. I’m still writing. You cannot shut me up. I will NOT SIT DOWN. I will not stand quietly by anymore. I am a woman. I write SF. And it’s not acceptable to treat me as anything less than an equal. I won’t stand for it. And I won’t get your fucking coffee.

Ann goes on to post some of the hate emails she received from men after posting her blog.  You can read them here along with the hundreds of comments.  They are not nice, to say the least.  I was actually embarrassed for the ignorant writers of the emails.

I’ve since talked to Ann, who’s been traveling.  She said, “I had a lovely time at KeyCon, which was a delightful surprise.
I didn’t post the worst, scariest, or ugliest hate mail I received. I also didn’t post every instance where I felt like gender influenced a male SF reader or writer’s reaction to my work. For example, at WorldCon (when I wasn’t with Sharon Shinn), I had an aspiring male SF writer approach me. He wanted to talk shop. I was patient and polite; I answered all of his questions about publishing. Then when he asked about my books, I told him about them. I had spent a good half an hour addressing all of his queries by this point. He responded to my brief about my work with, “Oh, I only read real science fiction.” And then he left without saying good-bye or thanking me for my time.

At the Comic-Con panel, I was trying to discuss the importance of writing female characters with agency. Too often, women are portrayed in two ways: as prizes to be won by men or as damsels in distress. So I was saying that my heroine, Jax, is a heroine in her own right, and she carries her own gun. One of the male guests interrupted with, “Who doesn’t like girls with guns? My books have those.” Then he carried on talking, so my original point was completely lost.”

I told Ann that I’d like to know about anything she’s taken away from writing it and the enormous, supportive response she’s received including anything positive she can see coming from this.

This has all been so much bigger than I expected… in a completely splendid way. I didn’t expect so much of a response; it’s been incredible and heart-warming. When I got home tonight, I checked the stats on my website. On June 3, I had 165,277 hits on my site and on June 4, it went to 207,103. June 5, there were 63,757. That’s a total of 436,137 in three days! I got a tweet from Neil Gaiman and David Brin commented on my blog (which has almost 400 comments on the sexism in SF post). It’s all rather unbelievable.

At this point, the positive feedback exponentially outweighs the hateful microcosm, and I’m so glad I did this. I’ve gotten an overwhelming number of emails, thanking me for being brave because now this woman has the courage to tell her own story or to stand up for herself and demand better treatment. A number of those emails brought me to tears, and if I helped strengthen the sisterhood and made other women feel better, then it was all worth it. I’m so proud to know so many courageous, creative women. The positive I see coming from this is that we’ve broken through the wall of silence, where it’s better to swallow our shame and outrage. If we’re united in our determination to demand equality and respect, the situation must improve.

I applaud Ann Aguirre for speaking out on this subject.  It never is an easy thing to put yourself out there as a target.  Do you agree with her?  Disagree?  Have you seen this behavior in action?  Done anything about it?

Bottom Line:  “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” ~ Winston Churchill

33 thoughts on “Ann Aguirre Speaks Out on Sexism in Science Fiction

  1. Stephanie Scott

    Ann, I commend you! Thank you for standing up for all of us. I think writers in the romance community, while we support each other, still have that affect of not being taken seriously. Even RWA is fighting back, having hired those consultants to help their image and awards to be recognized alongside “real” industry awards.

    The fact that sexism is so ingrained is the issue. LIke the guy saying “I read real sci fi.” He could have said “I read hard sci fi” which is a thing, which is sci fi that lacks a focus on relationships and is often a more creative take on science fi, blending in other themes like humor, romance, steampunk, whatever. There are women who write hard sci fi, too. Not many but they exist. And their writing is just as real.

    I saw the storm on twitter last friday about the reaction to misogynist articles in the Sci Fi Writers Association bulletin. The good news is a lot of people recognize what’s wrong, including SFWA’s prez John Scalzi. But I was very aware that the issue became viral because a writer blogged about it–a woman–who said enough is enough.

    1. Stephanie Scott

      OOps I meant hard sci fi is NOT as creative a take on sci fi and does not blend other themes and genres. But cross genre reading is huge right now. People like mixing genres, and then sometimes you just want something that’s all science and data and space or whatever, and really it shouldn’t matter whether a woman wrote it, it’s what’s on the page.

  2. James S.

    That’s just awful. I grew up reading Andre Norton, Mercedes Lackey and other women sci-fi and fantasy authors. The fact that you’re a woman means nothing to me. I read to be entertained and, if you do, I like you. I would never be rude to ANYONE. I was raised better than that.

  3. Deborah Smith

    What Ann said: I agree absolutely. While I don’t write SF I have guested on a number of general writing panels at one of the biggest SF and F Cons, and over the years, every single year, without fail, I come away disgusted by the bullying, egomaniacal, self-centered and dismissive attitude of too many male authors. FWIW I’ve experienced that same attitude at general fiction conferences, as well. While there are a lot of great guys in the writing community–men who don’t feel they have to trash others, particularly women writers, to prove they’re special–there is a seriously anti-woman streak in the business.

  4. Mike Cooley

    I’d like to apologize for all the knuckle draggers that are trying to bring you down. As a huge fan of women SF and F writers, and a science fiction writer myself I find it embarrassing and ridiculous that this is still going on. I grew up reading Tiptree and Le Guin and many other awesome female genre writers.

    I highly recommend WisCon, if you haven’t been. It’s a great feminist convention with wonderful energy and an amazing amount of female talent. And I’m pretty sure the other conventions up here (Minnesota) are much more accepting and inclusive than the ones you are talking about.

  5. ScrivK

    Wow. As an author early in her career I have to admit seeing how pervasive this is in the industry is quite disappointing. I work in the STEM industry for my day job, and even in a male dominated industry such as this, I have almost never encountered such open hostility. For a group of people who spend their days creating and exploring worlds and possibilities it is a bit surprising to see how close-minded many of them are.

    I applaud Ann’s willingness to speak out on her experiences. Change will not happen until we begin to admit openly there is a problem.

  6. Pingback: Sci/Fi Writer Calls Colleagues & Readers Out for Sexist Attitudes | people who write

  7. Colin Speirw

    This behaviour is ignorant and demeans not Ms Aguirre, but the pompous, self-opinionated self-abusers who perpetuated it.

    I used to go to cons thinking that there would be acceptance of new people, exchange of ideas and fun. Turned out it was full of cliques, bullying by people who got in-jokes that quite frankly didn’t matter and authors and con-runners who got above themselves.

    Not all. I’ve met plenty of authors, including Mr Brin, who were human, who shared a joke and who sang bad filk while drunk like normal human beings, which is as it should be. Buit one is too many. Sorry you have encountered this, no one should have to. It’s not a matter of “toughening up”, the attitudes and actions are just plain bad manners.

    I’d say they should have been spanked more as children but they probably would enjoy that/

  8. Bal

    I have found that the “old guard” an be very full of themselves. My wife and I are partners, and I married way up – far beyond anything I deserve. I have friends who insist she did well, too, and maybe so. But I know which direction is up. I married up. I cannot imagine wanting to be in a room of people I would consider inferior. I would not want fans who are inferior. The idea that inferiority could attach itself to a group is beyond anything I could ever understand.

    I applaud you standing up to the cowards and the dullards. You deserve better, and I say that as someone who has not (yet) read your work. If you were invited, you should be treated as an honored guest. End of story.

    I would apologize for those of my species who treated you this way, but, really, I don’t see them as of my species. Homo inferiorious has nothing to do with homo sapiens, and especially nothing to do with homo scifiens.

  9. Jeannie Warner

    I loved Grimspace. I bought it for my nephew, and he loved it too. I was Jo Clayton fan in high school, and Skeen was something of a role model for me in how to be brave. Maybe too much of one. But I like your Jax too, and although I get grumpy that you changed names slightly to write under different genres (insert aborted soapbox rant here) I’ll keep buying everything that you publish.

    Because you write well. And that’s what matters. And I’ve seen plenty of the mental masturbation at Cons, filled with people that have the airs of being so very clever. You’re right, they’re dull. I hope one day to have the opportunity to witness something you suffered. Because on that day I’ll be filled with glee to stand up as an audience member, call out the jackasses for what they are, and ask for the woman being ignored to please speak up.

    Women shoot themselves in the foot all the time. I wish more would watch Nora Denzel’s speeches on the topic, especially the writers. I get my own coffee, boys. So can you.

  10. K. A. Laity

    I’ve had similar experiences and have asked not to be put on panels with some of the worst offenders. I do speak up, even when it’s a GoH who thinks a panel with him on it means no one else ought to speak. Women are taught to be nice and not to put themselves forward. To hell with that; it’s possible to be assertive and still be nice. Refuse to be a doormat.

  11. Mary Faith

    Please, sexism is alive and well throughout our entire culture – it’s existence is not limited to the world of SF. Look at advertisements, movies, music and 90% of the TV shows on the air!

  12. Crane Hana

    I remember attending a fantasy literary convention a couple of years ago, and being asked to fill in on a panel. Another last-minute guest was a rather famous new name in the fantasy genre. He was funny and on-topic, but he usurped the mic from the female moderator and pretty much steamrolled over the discussion. The rest of the panel (mostly women) were a little too stunned and starry-eyed to call him on it. Like Ann, I backed down because I didn’t want to get blacklisted by this guy and his powerful editors and fans.

    I stopped attending local conventions when I realized the level of partisanship was as bad as high school. After I realized I wanted to include romance in my fantasy novels, I had a long-time (male) agent tell me it was the kiss of death to any kind of writing career in SFF. I listen to SFF podcasts, and I’m always stunned by the pervasive misogyny that creeps into even the most inclusive programs.

    So I’m glad to see some light being shed on this problem.

  13. Pingback: Chainmail Bikinis and Other Sexism in Science Fiction and Literature | Ploughshares

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