Thursday, February 16, 2012

Benevolent Sexism and Science Fiction Romance

Many years ago, in my 20s, I visited New York City with some friends. While perusing a row of street vendor tables* in Times Square, I somehow got into a debate with one of the vendors about hand-to-hand combat.

You see, this man was of the opinion that a woman could never beat a man in a fight. As in never, under any circumstance. At the time, I wasn’t fully aware of the sexism dynamic in an academic sense, but I remember that his arrogant attitude and harmful black-and-white thinking making me feel extremely angry and also crushingly devalued as a woman. I remember thinking something to the effect of, “If only I had a black belt in karate, I could prove this asshat completely wrong.”

Fast forward to the present. I still don’t have a black belt in karate, but via a thread at Dear Author, I came across an article at Scientific recently on the subject of benevolent sexism. I found this article very enlightening. In 1996, a report on a study done by Peter Glick and Susan Fiske stated that

We define benevolent sexism as a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure) (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p. 491).

[Benevolent sexism is] a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men (Glick et al., 2000, p. 763).

When I found the article, I was in the middle of reading UNLEASHED (Carina Press) by C.J. Barry. During the course of the story I realized that some of the subtext involved confronting benevolent sexism.

In short, UNLEASHED is about Zain, a humanoid alien stellar cartographer, who teleports Lacey, a human woman computer programmer, to a distant planet in order to help him solve a mystery.

Here’s an example of the benevolent sexism subtext and how it’s confronted:

The planet Zain and Lacey are on has giant, hostile life forms. One of the creatures attacks Zain’s ship. Naturally, being the hero, Zain has combat experience and so he grabs a gun to go fight them off. He tells Lacey to stay in the ship--so she'll be safe, of course.

Lacey, however, refuses to be left out. She takes a gun (we later learn she has some experience with them) and joins Zain in the fight. Afterward, Zain thinks, “Maybe she wasn’t as vulnerable as he thought.”

There are quite a few instances where Lacey defies Zain’s expectations. Here are two examples of Zain beginning to question his assumptions about her:

* Lacey “surprised him at every turn. So much for fragile.”
* After having been teleported, Lacy oriented to her new surroundings “better than he’d expected.”

Reading both the article and UNLEASHED sharpened my understanding that many romances, not just SFR, offer the fantasy of being with a man who is willing to question his own assumptions about women and, by extension, his benevolent sexism. And that’s a good thing.

But UNLEASHED also prompted me to wonder how often I want that fantasy, as opposed to one where benevolent sexism isn’t an issue to begin with. In other words, if Zain had turned to Lacey and said, “I have an extra gun if you want to join me in the fight,” the subtext would instead be that Zain is a man who already believes a woman is capable of defending herself and others. Then it would have been Lacey’s responsibility to indicate whether or not she possesses that skill set.

Let’s examine this from another angle: If Lacey had been a man (whether in an SFR or non-romantic SF story), the odds are high that Zain would have offered his male companion a gun rather than ask the man to stay in the ship.

And hmm, what if the story featured two heroines?

Having told you all of the above, I’m wondering if my earlier experience with the sexist vendor in NYC shaped some of my expectations for science fiction romance. Given that the subgenre often features extraordinary heroines with a variety of skill sets, I’m thinking I’m keen(er) on stories wherein the hero, if it’s a heterosexual romance, assumes the heroine is capable from the start or at least takes the time to inquire about her skill sets before making any assumptions. This would be especially so in stories featuring technologically advanced societies in a futuristic setting.

Have you ever noticed benevolent sexism being explored in a sci-fi romance? What do you think about publishers/authors releasing more stories where it’s not even an issue?

Joyfully yours,


*The best souvenir I found on that NYC trip? A dubbed, bootleg copy of WORLD OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER (1982). Check out part one on Youtube! If you’re a kung fu fan, you won’t regret it!