As a follow up to the Doubleclick’s powerful “Nothing to Prove”, I wanted to talk a bit about the sign I submitted (1:40).
Firstly, I like both this song and video not because they are “anti-“ or “against” this fake geek girl nonsense, but because the whole song and vibe of the video are more of a Oh, c’mon. Give your head a shake. You’re being so silly. It’s not a push back, or an attack, or a scream so much as it’s a palm to the forehead and raised eyebrow and a “Did that really just come out of your mouth? Really? ‘Fake Geek Girls’? Do you maybe wanna… think about what you just said?”
Secondly, my sign:
“I have to use a gender-neutral pen name to be respected.”
So here’s the story: I’m a science fiction and fantasy author. Most people automatically assume that as a Caucasian female (cis-female, identifying/presenting female, bisexual) writer, that means I write Middle Grade or Young Adult fiction. When they learn that I generally write for the Adult market they assume Romance or Erotica. When I write genre books, then the next assumption is Urban Fantasy, Dystopian, or Magical Fantasy – fairies, princesses, dragons, like that.
When I explain that no, I write Science Fiction mostly, the next reaction is usually “Oh, but that fluff stuff, right, no real science?”
What, I can’t science because I’m a girl?
Leaving aside the fact that no, actually, I don’t write a lot of hard science fiction because I find the science-telling often gets in the way of the story-telling. (That’s not to say that what science I do include in my books isn’t rigorously researched. I have a military advisor, a historical architecture advisor, two historians, an ex-military dude, a NASA physicist, a biologist, and a poisons expert in my roster.) But the implication is there:
I’m a girl and therefore I can’t science.
(People often conveniently forget writers like Julie Czerneda, a bonefide biologist, or Erin Bow who worked at CERN.)
The implication of these conversations is that I’m a girl and therefore I have to write books for kids about princesses getting rescued, and unicorns, and fairies with rainbow wings that vomit bubbles. Or ‘trashy’ romance books. (Which… I hate that stereotype. Romance books are never trashy or worthless.)
Now, there are lots of lovely MG, YA, NA, Romance, Erotica, Urban Fantasy, Dystopian, Magical Fantasy writers out there of all genders and sexual inclinations –I’m not harping on those writers. They write what they enjoy, I write what I enjoy, and it’s okay! I prefer to write Social Science Fiction. What I’m harping on is the assumption that I can’t write “real” science fiction because I have ladyparts. (Instead of getting into the false assumption that “Accurate” = “hard” = “good” science fiction writing, I’ll just link you to my article on such.)
And that assumption also ends up playing out in such a way that female science fiction writers just don’t get the respect from the readers that male ones do. I haven’t been neglected by the critical press (thanks PW, Lambda, and CBC!), but it’s incredible to be at a convention and what male shopper’s eyes gloss entirely over my books simply because I, a girl, am sitting behind the table. When I take a break from my merch table and ask a male friend to watch my stuff, my sales inevitably go up.
Shortly after Triptych was published, I got an email inviting “Jim Frey” to do an interview with a media outlet I won’t name. I often get called “Jim” in emails, because it looks a lot like “J.M.” with a quick glance. I replied, saying I would be delighted, and sent along my media-kit PDF, where the interviewer could find a bio, my bibliography and filmography, etc. Including my photo. Generally I find interviewers like to have a foundation of research, so I put that page together to make it easy for them. I signed it “J.M.”
When I arrived at said outlet to do the interview, I was shown in, my hand shaken by the interviewer, and he said: “So, you’re Jim’s assistant then? Is he on his way?”
I stopped, stunned, and said. “Jim? Who’s Jim?” (Having forgotten that I’d been addressed as such in the email)
“Jim Frey?” the interviewer said.
“J.M. Frey,” I corrected. “Jessica Marie. That’s me.”
The interviewer was stunned. “You’re a girl?”
I couldn’t help the scowl. “I’m a woman, and yes. I did send you my media package.”
He made some noises when I assumed meant he couldn’t be bothered to read it. As you can guess, it wasn’t a very good interview. He had no idea what to ask me, and in fact had no clue about my work or my history as an academic. I didn’t enjoy myself, he was clearly unhappy I wasn’t who he thought I was, and I have never actually seen anything come of it.
And would he have asked me to the interview if he had realized I was female? Probably not. As bummed as I am that it was a missed marketing opportunity, I’m more peeved because I realized that this interviewer was glossing over what was probably hundreds of fantastic writers just because they’re female.
Needless to say I mentioned James Tiptree Jr and George Sand as often as I could.
Rewinding a bit:
A few days before I had to turn in my decision on what name was going to be on the cover of Triptych, I was browsing the aisles of a big-chain book store, trying to get a sense of what sorts of ways people were titling themselves. I had done a few things (publications and film credits) as J.M. Frey because I felt “Jessica” was just a little too Sweet Valley High to really fit the brand I was trying to build with my work. But for my debut novel, did I want my full name on the cover?
I eavesdropped on a pair of guys, completely in my target demographic, as they browsed the aisle a few feet away from me. My choice to remain “J.M. Frey” was made when I overheard one of the guys say, “Oh, this looks interesting. Read this back cover. Nice blurb from… oh. It was written by a chick. Never mind.”
My photo is also not on the novel for the same reason.
I have it on my website, because I figure by the time a reader is invested enough to search me on the internet, they won’t care about my gender, just about my writing. But for the people just browsing the book shelves, it matters.
And the thing is?
It shouldn’t. What’s between the covers should matter to a reader, not what’s between my legs.
This crap right here. The assumptions that women only do things that will appeal to women. The assumptions that boys and men will be uninterested by a product created by a woman.
I’m an artist, and as such, my art is consumed much faster than a writer’s prose. The information is all out there, grasped at a glance, enough to entice a viewer to come in an look at it some more. There will be less of a reaction for my product to be dismissed because the first info gathered is my art, then if they do the research, they can see my name and find out my gender. But female writers are often not even given a chance from the get-go, just because of their name.
Still, if my art’s not the first contact for me, meaning that when people meet me before they see my work, I invariably get these types of questions:
It’s the assumption that as a woman, my art would automatically be geared towards little kids. And when I say that I do animation storyboards and that I’d love to work on things like TMNT or Spider-Man or Young Justice or shows of that type instead of the usual preschool/elementary school fare that is the local animation market, there’s that hint of “but that doesn’t make sense” in some people’s expressions that just make me shake my head.
"Wow, she draws Iron Man pretty cool, for a girl!" — heard when I was drawing my arm off at Free Comic Book Day.
"That Thor is awesome, doesn’t look like it was drawn by a girl, was it?" — heard after I delivered a commission at a convention.
My XX should not matter. Neither should other people’s XX or XY. Just the art. Just the writing. Just the product. Judge it on its own merits.
(Also as an aside, I’m almost 40. I’m sick of the “for a girl”. At least say “for a woman”. It’s still offensive, but less so.)