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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Feminist report card

Some time ago I came across Frank Miller Test. My immediate initial thought was that my story "Droplet" fails it, as pretty much everyone in "Droplet" who is presented as female is not only a (former) sex worker, but in fact an (emancipated) sex robot.

(Since I'm working -- desultorily, at present -- on a sequel to Droplet, I've been thinking about the story a lot, and have come to the conclusion that the way gender is handled in it is all wrong, for the world of the novel, at least. But anyway...)

In the same context I came across the Dykes To Watch Out For Test, which is both broader and more basic in focus, and more stringent.

So I decided to do an analysis of all the stories I've written according to these criteria. The results of the Frank Miller investigation were not too shocking; other than in Droplet, I don't think I've written about any sex workers at all (one almost wonders if there should be another test designed to address the invisibility of, rather than the obsession with, sex work?)

But the Dykes To Watch Out For test results were, intitially, quite shocking. The pull to have men do the talking, the relating, the acting ... or, if a woman is present, to have her be an exceptional exemplar seen primarily in relation to men... is not only strong but invisibly strong, because in casually wondering about my oeuvre, I figured most of my stories would pass -- but that was because, in the context of that particular train of thought, I was thinking naturally of stories that concerned gender -- the other stories that were "just about stuff", and therefore were almost exclusively full of male characters, just as "naturally" were off my radar.

On the other hand, I realized I have a lot of stories that have very few characters or little dialogue -- some, like the Other Cities, The Orange, On the cliff by the river, and The White City, have effectively no dialogue -- so that the Dykes To Watch Out For Test isn't really all that applicable. It's designed for movies, after all -- very few movies have zero dialogue, or only two characters. To deal with this disparity in a statistically honest fashion, I added two other tests: the "inverse-DTWOF" test (two men talk about something other than a woman) and the "a man and a woman talk to each other (about anything)" test.

This allows me to break the bibilography into four categories: Low Dialogue and Heteromemetic stories, in which either no one talks, or it's just a man and a woman talking to each other; Androcentric stories in which boys talk, and girls are largely peripheral; Gynocentric stories which are the reverse; and Ambicentric stories in which there are communications within and between genders.

Story Passes the Frank Miller Test? Passes the Dykes To Watch Out For Test? Passes inverse-DTWOF A man and a woman talk
Low-Dialogue and "Heteromemetic" Stories
The Duck Yes No No Yes
Fig Yes No No Yes
The Blow Yes No Yes
Red Leather Tassels Yes No No Yes
Night Waking Yes No No Yes
One for the Road Yes No No Yes
Orphans Yes No No Yes
Falling Yes No Yes Yes
Androcentric Stories
The Ant King: A California Fairy Tale Yes ??(Depends on Corpse's gender) Yes Yes
The Book of Jashar Yes No Yes Yes
The Death Trap of Dr. Nefario Yes No Yes Yes
Embracing-the-New Yes No Yes No
Biographical Notes... Yes No Yes Yes
A Siege of Cranes Yes No Yes Yes
The House Beyond Your Sky Yes No (unless you count "Mommy, you can hold my teddy bear.") Yes Yes
The King of the Djinn Yes No Yes No
Gynocentric Stories
Droplet No Yes No Yes
The Valley of Giants Yes Yes No No
Start the Clock YesYes Barely (Max's phone call) Yes
Molly and the Red Hat Yes Yes No Yes
Ambicentric Stories
Stray Yes Yes Yes Yes
Sense and Sensibility Yes Yes Yes Yes
True Names Yes ?? ?? ??

While the initial breakdown of eight androcentric stories compared to seven gyno- and ambicentric stories doesn't look so bad, it's actually somewhat worse than that. There aren't any stories where only female characters appear -- the closest is The Valley of Giants, in which the various male characters are unnamed and get no dialogue -- while there are plenty with essentially no women onstage (Embracing-the-New, The King of the Djinn), or with just one woman present, who is invariably in a romantic relationship with one of the (speaking) male characters (The Duck, The Book of Jahsar, The Death Trap of Dr. Nefario, The Blow, Falling); or else where there are several female characters who, however, are really foils, objects of desire, or antagonists for the men -- but don't talk to each other (Biographical Notes..., Red Leather Tassels, The Ant King unless Corpse is female). "True Names" I have generously classed as ambicentric just because the gender system is so weird, but, in fact, if you ignore the pronouns and consider filters (the more disadvantaged of the two genders to which most of the characters belong) as the "females", you're forced to note that two filters never really have a conversation which does not involve a strategy.

The number of actual conversations between adult human women in my oeuvre is shockingly limited... Shar and Narra, the radical grandmothers in Valley of the Giants, the Dashwoods... and Abby and Suze in Start the Clock, if you're willing to consider them adults.

Of course, longer stories are naturally going to have more chances for interaction among all their characters than shorter ones, a progression which is obvious in the chart.

(Anyone else want to subject your stories to the same analysis? We could make a meme of it... :-) )

Posted by benrosen at April 15, 2008 12:37 AM | Up to blog

Woah, fascinating test(s)! I blithely thought to myself, "am feminist, am woman, will pass" but just a quick glance through my biblio (damn, should update that) with only the DTWOF test in mind, reveals that of my stories (solo, not collabs), only five pass that test, and of those only two aren't directly about relationships. Mostly, it looks like I've written about relationships, most of them hetero. I think. It's late and I don't have time to go through it all properly. I think it's funny, though, that if you look at the stories I wrote as collabs with Tim, those are largely *not* about relationships.

Anyway, it's fascinating. I'll have to go through it all at length sometime.

Posted by: Heather Shaw at April 15, 2008 06:44 AM

Do your categories shift around much if your last test is "a man and a woman talk about something not related to their romantic relationship"? ...or words to that effect, the idea being to make it more comparable to the other two.

Posted by: Dan P at April 15, 2008 07:23 PM

Hi, OP here. [who is still not sure how the whole FMT thing caught on. Stick with DTWOFT, that's the good stuff]. This bit of your post intrigued me:

(one almost wonders if there should be another test designed to address the invisibility of, rather than the obsession with, sex work?)

The 'visibility' of sex workers in SF is an odd topic for two reasons; firstly, because sex work in sci fi is a trope, not based on the real profession, so the 'visibility' of sex work even in FMT failures could be said to be close to zero; anything that doesn't fit with the trope gets ignored. Eg. I don't recall ever seeing a named male sex worker in anything SFnal, or any trans* sex workers at all, yet the real world has many such people; they just don't happen to fit with the trope version of sex work, which is fixated on cissexual women.

There are also many common features of the sex work trope that have no relevance to the real world; look how often you find that that SF pimps/managers of whores are benign if they are female, and evil if they are male, for instance. Or of that original problem I ranted about - that women's inclusion in some SF worlds is dependent on them being sex workers. It's a trope, and its standards have nothing to do with the real sex trade - instead, it's the male writer's fantasies about gender, sex and the female body. (I'm told that there exist books by women that fail FMT, but I've never read one - they seem remarkably rare compared to male-authored fails). So the visibility of sex work is likely compromised by SF that features the sex work trope, not increased.

The other oddness is...well, visibility to whom? The sex work trope isn't about women; it's about men, particularly young men and their sexual wish-fulfilment fantasies. Even the real sex trade is far more visible to male readers than to female readers; to young readers than to older readers; to urban readers than to rural readers. Making a call about how visible or invisible the sex trade is in SF seems like making a judgement about who the SF readership is and what their sexual fantasies are like, and in what ways their lives are likely to bring them into contact with the sex trade. SF doesn't make the real sex trade more visible in any case, but I'd argue that it when the sex work trope is used, it serves to alienate a huge number of readers by making it clear that SF is aimed at someone else (aimed straight through the bodies of female readers, even). This wouldn't much matter if the trope wasn't so damn common.

Which is why DTWOFT - especially #3 - is so important. More women who aren't reduced to our genitalia, please.

Posted by: Thene at April 16, 2008 05:13 AM

Dan, I'm not sure that "a man and a woman talk about something not related to their romantic relationship" is more comparable, since DTWOF requires that the two women talk about something other than a man, not something other than a romantic relationship with a man. As the original comic, with its reference to Alien being a monster, implies, a movie in which two women discuss only the male villain they are trying to get away from, or the male hero they are trying to aid, or whatever, fails the test even if the movie is romance-free... as well it should.

For interest, though, several stories would fail your proposed test which pass the less restrictive one, depending on what you mean by "romantic relationship" -- in The Duck, Fig, Red Leather Tassels, Falling, Dr. Nefario, A Siege of Cranes, the intergender conversations revolve at least partly on a romantic relationship. (Interestingly I assumed the erotica story "One for the Road", would fail this test, but it passes because of the exchange between the protagonist and her bodyguard...)

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 16, 2008 12:39 PM

Thene, thanks for the elaboration.

On further reflection, possibly the sometimes absence of representations of sex work, and the overabundance of faulty representations of sex work in SF have similar causes -- its function as a trope representing something else.

I feel like I've read some male sex workers in SF. Bron in Delany's Triton, the spacers in his "Aye, and Gomorrah"? Also the protagonist of Karin Lowachee's "Cagebird"? Exceptions that prove the rule, of course.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 16, 2008 01:05 PM

Just a note -- Delany's spacers aren't really male, are they? They're *spacers* -- that's their defining characteristic, on the sex work axis. Apparent gender appears to be irrelevant.

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at April 16, 2008 07:49 PM

Yeah, I'm afraid I threw that one together off the top of my head, trying to get at the subtext of part 3 of the DTWOF test. I might be mis-reading it, but I thought that part of the reason why you'd get tired of two women only talking about a man would be because in general the pattern would be that one or both of them is or wants to be romantically involved with that man. Of course, the actual requirement is broader than that and sacrifices a little bit of pointedness in critiquing heteronormative expectations of women in order to critique the broader sexism of stories being all about the men even when they feature women.

So, if the original test checks to see if a story is all about men and your inverse-DTWOF test is checking to see whether a story is all about women, is there a comparable check to be made in the context of a conversation between a woman and a man?

Posted by: Dan P at April 16, 2008 07:59 PM

Dan, my proposed test was less ambitious -- it is just there to distinguish "not much talking at all" stories from "only intergender talking" stories, so it bails on point 3 of DTWOF. Possibly we could make it "a man and a woman talk to each other about something other than a human being" -- but arguably that would be a good deal more restrictive.

Mary Anne, hmm, that's true. I don't have the story to hand, but if I recall correctly they still have gender -- they are neutered pre-puberty, but post-birth, right? So like the characters in "Start the Clock" (which owes much to that story) they have sort of peterpannish gender -- adult, but not sexually adult. It's true that the frelks desire them for their purported genderless neutrality, but I read this as being a kind of myth. At eight, a given spacer was an eight-year-old boy or girl, right? A eight year old has hella plenty gender, and it's hard to imagine how it would vanish -- even if a john might wish it away for the purposes of fantasy.

In any event, "Aye, and Gomorrah..." certainly fits the criteria of sfnal depictions of sex work not "fixated on cissexual women".

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 17, 2008 02:02 PM

Hmm...I'm not sure Delany intended it as myth -- and I'm not sure it's the genderless aspect that's even key. It's the spacer aspect that the frelks desire, I think. I'm not sure what that's supposed to consist of now. Dangit, now I have to go re-read the story.

But yes, certainly not focused on cissexual women. :-)

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at April 17, 2008 03:07 PM

So, say there's a couple of women engineers (Guenivere and Ralph) fixing the starship's flux capacitor, or some crap. They have this conversation:

Guenivere: Pass me the spanner, Ralph.
Ralph: Crap, Meredith has it on his tool-belt.
G: I'll have to make do with chewing gum and duct tape. How is Merry, anyway?

Assuming that Meredith is an asexual alien polymorph, Ralph and Meredith have a committed, open relationship, Meredith has apparently come down with the Space Plague, but the Space Plague is in fact a parasite that has forced Meredith to use the very spanner in question to cause the core nova, what tests does this bit of dialogue pass and/or fail?

For extra credit, what if Guenivere ultimately defeats the Space Plague? By paying Meredith for sex?


Posted by: Matt at April 17, 2008 04:47 PM

It passes BOTH the DTWOF test and the Frank Miller test! Hallelujah!

If, however, the Plague has caused Meredith to grow a penis as a side effect, then it fails DTWOF.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 17, 2008 06:08 PM

Well, being a polymorph, Meredith can have a penis or not, at will. So far, the Space Plague has not changed that fact.


Another question, with not so much rat in it: how much not-male-discussing is required for a story to pass DTWOF? The comic implied that the two women discussing the alien was sufficient, but my recollection is that they also discuss the captain and an implied romantic relationship between him and the blond.


Posted by: Matt at April 17, 2008 09:17 PM

Matt, they just have to have ONE conversation EVER that doesn't involve a man, to pass DTWOF. Just ONE. In the whole movie.

You wouldn't think that was so freakin' hard, would you?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 17, 2008 10:37 PM

Wouldn't have thought so, no. I'll have to examine the thing I've been playing with, at some point. I don't have many scenes without a man in them, although I can think of two, off-hand. In one scene, the women are on their way to visit a man in a hospital, and in another, the women are inside a building, trying to figure out what to do about a confrontation between several armed men outside the building.

Hm. Does a scene where the only characters are a female human, a female dog, and a female non-human sentient entity count? The only one of the three who actually speaks in the scene is the human, but she doesn't talk about a male...

However, there are no male, female, human, or non-human sex workers in it at all, so I don't even enter FMT territory.


Posted by: Matt at April 17, 2008 11:10 PM

No, I would not like to subject my stories to these litmus tests. Or anyone else's. I am thrilled to tell you that the Dykes to Watch Out For test appears to be down at the moment, so I couldn't check out its specifications.

I am sure this was an interesting exercise to you, to help you understand how your mind works. For me? This former Women's Studies major is adding these tests to my list of "reasons [white; the white is always inferred] feminists make me want to puke."

Posted by: Haddayr at April 20, 2008 04:57 PM

Haddayr, I think you're reading a dogmatism into the tests that is not intended... at least not by me, and I don't think by their authors either. They are both originally presented in a relatively tongue-in-cheek fashion (let's just have popcorn at home!) and certainly no one has suggested, you know, a boycott or anything (even the original cartoon character is merely expressing a personal aversion).

They're funny, acerbically funny, precisely because the bar is so low: DTWOF is ONE conversation not about a man ANYWHERE in a film between ANY two women. FTM asks for at least as many non-prostitutes as prostitutes in the oeuvre of a given author. The result of the failing the tests, as shown on the FMT link, is not "bad nonfeminist author who shall be reviled forever". It is "WTF?" It seems to me that "WTF?" is a useful reaction.

I, at any rate, am not suggesting that every story, or every author, should pass these tests even in an ideal world. I don't think "The Old Man and the Sea" or Chabon's "Gentlemen of the Road" or many a grim-jawed 1940s war movie would be strengthened by the inclusion of conversations sufficient to pass DTWOF. And certainly I would be against a roving vigilante squad (real or internalized) which pops up over authors shoulders to cavil "have you included your two women talking about something other than a man?" like a Victorian governess demanding you take your cod liver oil. No one would want, I trust, to saddle Patrick O'Brian, say, with the requirement of passing either test.

Nonetheless, I'm not crazy about living in a world in which the vast majority of the fiction sidelines women. And I learned in software that you get what you measure. It is very easy to go on blithely failing to change, or to address, or to notice things that you have no metric for.

If I had been writing stories set in Nelson's navy or among inquisitive medieval monks or in 1950s boardrooms, stories grappling with what happens to men when they are exluded from the company of women, or even just retro-pulp boys' adventure tales, then those stories failing DTWOF would come as no surprise and would be no cause for concern. If I knew, as a matter of self-knowledge, that I found women alien and mysterious and that I was no great shakes at writing them and thus tended to make characters male whenever possible for my own convenience, there would similarly be no surprise.

What's interesting about the tests is not whether a work passes them, but whether that information is new. The interesting thing is that I, as an explicitly feminist author, setting stories exclusively in contexts where a multiplicity of genders are present, writing often with a feminist agenda, and flattering myself personally that I understand women as well as men, still write a plurality of androcentric stories. What's interesting about this is not that it's somehow damning about my character (because it's not), but that it makes visible the cultural pull.

In software, we make schedules. Now, there are always tiresome engineers who resist ever giving an estimate of how long things will take, and tiresome project managers who, an estimate having been given, act with shock, dismay and moralizing drama if the estimate turns out to have been wrong. But the point, as I always say, of a schedule, is not that you are a bad person if you fail to stick to it, or that it somehow guarantees or even really promises anything to anyone. The point is that it captures your expectations, so that you know when the universe turns out to differ from them. The point is that it promptly makes visible the consequences of a divergence from expectations, and allows you to understand the impact.

The engineers who resist scheduling with both hands and both feet are mistaking (or correctly assuming their project managers mistake) a diagnostic tool for the creation of an enforceable law. I think that (colored by your disenchantment with feminism in our current primary season), you are making a similar mistake.

As far as the whiteness of feminism: sure. Lord knows many feminists run around exercising pukeloads of white privilege. But there's a funny thing about a privileged group that, oppressed even temporarily in some regard, develops or adopts an ideology of liberation, which is that, like the slaveholders of the American colonies in 1776, they change from being mere possessors of power to being hypocrites. And it is precisely that hypocrisy which holds the seeds of redemption.

Freedom is like that. In the process of developing tools to free yourself from what's keeping you down, you inevitably make those tools available to everyone else -- even those who you might prefer would refrain from using them just yet. Thus, I think you can also use these idea of applying rigorous quantitative diagnostics to stories -- just to see where you are -- to other issues than gender. Feminism at its best uses gender issues to develop tools of general liberation, and that, in my view, is actually a useful thing to do with white privilege.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 21, 2008 08:28 AM

Ben: as I pointed out, the quiz was down the day I clicked on it, so I had no way of ascertaining how funny or tongue-in-cheek it was.

And I know this is probably interesting to you, but as we have been IMing all day about feminism, you know that this is just my visceral reaction to feminism in general that's going on, today.

Or, more accurately, that was going on yesterday.

Posted by: Haddayr at April 21, 2008 10:35 PM
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