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Sexism and Feminism in SF, C.J. Cherryh and Hani



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>From: Lesley Grant <lgrant>
>Subject: cherryhlist -- forwarded with author's permission
>Date: Sun, 14 Feb 93 14:38:03 GMT
From: zink@panix.com (David Zink) Subject: Re: The the great ongoing misogyny/misandry discussion

In article <1993Feb5.170620.15147@nastar.uucp> phardie@nastar.uucp (Pete Hardie) writes:
>I see.  Both _Thendara House_ and _The Shattered Chain_ are later than I was
>reading.  I stopped reading the Darkover series about 1983, and even those
>were non-new paperbacks.  Can you remember any examples of lesbian
>relationships in the earlier books?
Some of my mother's Marine Corps buddies are Lesbians of around MZB's generation, and thus I have been exposed to a lot of older, but hard-core feminists (& mom was raised by two women, one of them an engineer).

My impression of that whole generation, especially the writers MZB and LeGuin, is that they were just too sullied by the culture they grew up in to ever see women and men as just fellow human beings, in the sort of impartial way to which I am accustomed. MZB's writing, especially pre-Thendara Darkover, are among the most sexist (and unwittingly misogynist) things I have read. It is actually painful for me to read them, and even more painful when female friends try to present her to me as a feminist writer. The idea that female sorcerors have to do drugs to enjoy sex, while reminding me of one of the more charming and truer bits of Annie Hall, also makes me grit my teeth in embarassment. While I'm sure you can defend it with ``but that's the way her magic works,'' I'll still bet you'd find, could you probe what's left of her mind, that the decision was not made with any thought to the social implications. It just seemed like the way things would work.

Not to criticize too heavily though; despite their failure by modern standards, most of the old SF writers were notorious feminists and anti-racists by the standards of their day. But SF stays in print a long time, and it shows.

I think the least sexist writers around are the newer ones, especially, say, Cherryh, Varley, and Delaney (not new at all, actually). C. and V. are mid-seventies writers, Delaney has been around a long time mostly because he started young. I am trying to remember what his sixties books were like; certainly his mid seventies ones (say, Dhalgren and Triton), which I have read recently, are non-sexist as all get out. Mind you, Triton protrays some of the most sexist societies and people you will find anywhere, but on the other hand they are each sexist in their own fashion, so you just don't have that taint of unexamined sexist assumptions you find with most people who grew up before 1970.

I can't say I read everything (or even anything) with a view to grading it for sexism; these are just my impressions based on which stories just beat me about the head and shoulders with their 'isms, and which ones struck me by managing to catch sexist assumptions I was not aware I was making.

So many of the newer writers seem to have so little inherent sexism, that I think it is becoming a dead issue.

I should point out that Cherry's stuff is sometimes actively feminist. For instance, and this is something I thought obvious, but judging from past traffic it really needs to be pointed out:

Male Hani are not what you think they are. So many times I have heard them described as essentially useless, mating machines. Quite the opposite is true. Male Hani are just as capable as female Hani, however their society trains them to function in certain sorts of roles, in a certain sort of fashion, that makes of them sex objects and little else. This is a quite obvious parallel of certain human societies I can think of, though, of course, with the sexes reversed. The crew of the Chanur are gradually learning that males can remain calm in stressful situations, that males can dream of something besides making a home, and that they deserve a place in the business world. Who knows, perhaps that Hani glass ceiling will be raised; perhaps someday a male will captain his own ship. It won't be Khym, but it might be one of his children.

What I like about Cherryh is the way she slips the knife in so that most of you don't even see it. Look how many of you are terribly sexist about the Hani (as sexist as they are), and yet the only evidence you have is that of female Hani. Terrible the way Cherryh's lack of a priveleged narrator does that to you.

(...)
	-- David Zink


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>From: Jo Jaquinta <jaymin@maths.tcd.ie>
>Subject: CherryhList -- Sexism
>Date: Mon, 15 Feb 93 9:38:47 GMT
> From: zink@panix.com (David Zink)
> Subject: Re: The the great ongoing misogyny/misandry discussion

> MZB's writing, especially pre-Thendara Darkover, are
> among the most sexist (and unwittingly misogynist) things I have read.  
I was never particularly keen on MZB. What irritates me is the definite anti-feminism portrayed in things like Mercedi Lackey's book. What really got me there was when she has these two headstrong, noble, women as the central characters, yet when they stop at a farmhouse (which is dirty because the farmer's wife died years ago) they roll up the sleves and dig into the "woman's work" like any peasant.
Does anyone know if her and Cherryh are associated. Cherryh, Lackey and Lesley Fish seem to make a triad, mentally for me. I don't know why. Lackey and Fish's writing doesn't come close to Cherryh. It just seems like they all used to dungeon together :-).
> Not to criticize too heavily though; despite their failure by modern
> standards, most of the old SF writers were notorious feminists and
> anti-racists by the standards of their day.  But SF stays in print a long
> time, and it shows.
I've gone back and read some stuff I thought was wonderful 10 years ago and wondered what I ever saw in it. Society matures/develops and people mature/develop.
> So many of the newer writers seem to have so little inherent sexism, that I
> think it is becoming a dead issue.
I disagree. Perhaps in many of the newer writers you are reading it is no longer an issue. This may be because you have refined your reading choice to only select non-(likely to be)-sexist books. It would be true for me to say that the majority of SF books I read are non-sexist but I am very selective in what I read (Cherryh, Woman's Press SF, etc). I think the normal dreck being produced is still rife with the sexism prevalent in modern society.
> I should point out that Cherry's stuff is sometimes actively feminist...
> Male Hani are not what you think they are...
Excellent point! I never thought of it that way. Insidiously conciousness raising :-).

(...)
					Jo Grant
					jaymin@salmon.maths.tcd.ie
(...)


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>From: Lesley Grant <lgrant>
>Subject: cherryhlist
>Date: Tue, 16 Feb 93 9:10:44 GMT
> From: zink@panix.com (David Zink)
> 
> Not to criticize too heavily though; despite their failure by modern
> standards, most of the old SF writers were notorious feminists and
> anti-racists by the standards of their day.  But SF stays in print a long
> time, and it shows.
> So many of the newer writers seem to have so little inherent sexism, that I
> think it is becoming a dead issue.
Well, I'd say *some* of the newer writers. Unfortunately, many just unthinkingly use the social paradigms they themselves were brought up in/live in, seemingly in the belief that this is normative. (Lackey is a perfect example). Older writers who are still writing don't seem to have realised how much the western world has changed -- McCaffrey's women still find ultimate fulfillment when they've got a man (preferably a man who'll keep them continually pregnant).
You're certainly right about some older writers being ahead of their time. I think the problem is that many readers still think they are :-) While the portrayal of gender roles in past SF may have been revolutionary, is it still so today? Considering Le Guin's essay on _The Left Hand of Darkness (the essay has a commentary written some years later), how would SF writers 'do over' their work, if they had the chance?
> I should point out that Cherry's stuff is sometimes actively feminist.  For
> instance, and this is something I thought obvious, but judging from past
> traffic it really needs to be pointed out:
> 
> Male Hani are not what you think they are.  (...)
What's interesting is that the fact that it is a parallel is so often ignored. If it's so awful that this invisible social oppression of men takes place in Hani society, you'd think perhaps a few readers might notice something similar around them...
What makes hani society more real, of course, is that it's not a simple role reversal. Hani men have the chance to become much more powerful than a human woman of the first half of this century (trying to find some historical period that might best match the social expectations). Legally, someone like Kohan Chanur or Kyhm Mahn has enormous power and authority. Hani lords may be pampered figureheads who don't do any of the real business, but their consent seems required for business ventures, their signature is presumably needed on documents, they contract alliances through marrying off their sisters. It's strongly implied that a stupid lord can ruin a clan, so they must have control over the assets. In general, just like in Terran societies, the male head of household has authority (the legal right to wield power) while the women have power (but not necessarily the legal right to use it, eg by gainsaying the lord). Granted, most Hani lords may just sit around sipping iced drinks while their sisters indicate where to sign, but socially, they are the ones with authority.
I think it's one of the important points of the series when Pyanfar suddenly realises this isn't 'natural', it's a social construction. (And one of the most telling points of the series, too, is when Hallan Meras thinks back on his childhood -- he was socialised as per our category of 'girl', his sisters as per our category 'boy').

(...)
			Lesley

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