Thoughts on Gender, Sexuality, and Sexism

When The Ranting Dragon hosted the Cover Battle of 2012 in December, I vowed to myself that I would be an impartial host. Like anyone else, of course I had my own favorites, but I wasn’t going to tell anyone who to vote for. I gave every cover equal attention, both in the articles I wrote and in my promotional tweets and Facebook messages.

Discount Armageddon
Discount Armageddon

My biased words
Except—without even realizing it—I didn’t stay impartial at all. The cover of Seanan McGuire’s Discount Armageddon led to some of the most passionate responses of the cover battle. Many people commented on the battles or messaged me personally to tell me how undeserving they believed the book was of winning. Conversely, others were just as vocal in defending the book. My own response to all that was to introduce the book with the following text:

I don’t know whether it’s because of the hordes of fans of McGuire voting for the book, or because of our male readership massively voting for the sexy cheerleader chick, but fact is that Discount Armageddon made it through the first phases with plenty of votes and, against all expectations, came out as a favorite.

Regardless of my feelings on the cover, writing that was wrong for the very simple fact that I didn’t remain impartial. I was biased against Discount Armageddon’s cover, and I showed it publicly. I only realized this halfway through the competition, when Chuck Wendig—Seanan McGuire’s nemesis, the cover of his Blackbirds beating Discount Armageddon in the final—pointed out that the cover was in the race “because it’s a darn fine cover, period. Not because of some male gaze nonsense.” When I saw that post, I quickly edited the article to quote Chuck, instead. Because not only was my introduction of Aly Fell’s cover of Discount Armageddon biased, it was incredibly demeaning. Here was a cover that a lot of people liked enough to make it the runner-up in a competition designed to find the year’s best cover, and I talked down on it. Not cool.

Since that moment, I’ve been thinking about my reasons to write what I did about the cover of Discount Armageddon. Seanan McGuire herself recently wrote a great article about the topic. She actually hits on a lot of things that I agree with, and she talks about our cover competition. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a very pleasant experience for her, and for that, I to apologize to Seanan and Aly.

Her article is also a great reason to put my thoughts to paper my screen and explain the things I’ve been considering for a while now.

So, what made me write what I wrote?

Sexism in speculative fiction
Part of it is my stance in the ongoing discussion on sexism in speculative fiction, specifically on cover art. It is very true that our genre has a serious problem. I believe this is where many of the negative comments on Discount Armageddon came from. I previously expressed my opinion on this subject in my review of Adam Christopher’s Seven Wonders. In it, I said:

We’re settling into a place where the general concept of comic book is no longer tied inextricably to teenage boy, and where serious, mature adults can read Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter without getting funny looks. It would seem that this new place should have no room for scantily clad superwomen. Perhaps the true new age of comics will arrive when, like their film adaptions, comics comply with this egalitarian mindset of our generation?

For decades, our genre has been dominated by a male readership, and speculative fiction has become a culture in which women are seemingly inferior. Female sexuality is used as a selling point; male authors are often more popular, while female authors are forced to use pseudonyms; and there is a significant shortage of strong and realistic female characters (though this is a trend well on its way to disappearing). Fortunately, many have recognized this problem and rallied to bring change. Authors like Jim C. Hines and John Scalzi are trying to point out the problems of many genre covers, while bloggers like Justin Landon and Aidan Moher are writing about the topic or challenging themselves. And don’t forget the awesome Hawkeye Initiative, a blog with images of Hawkeye posing as female comic characters do.

The problem with covers
I very much enjoy seeing posts like those, and I believe they go a long way toward creating gender equality, or at least creating awareness of the problem that I don’t believe anyone can deny we face. I had read all the criticism against the cover; and all I saw when I looked at Discount Armageddon‘s cover confirmed this. What I saw wasn’t the strong female character I was meant to see, nor was it the truly stunning artwork by Aly Fell. Instead, I saw a scantily clad woman in a pose that I’m pretty sure an average human wouldn’t be able to imitate without falling off of that roof and breaking his or her neck. I saw a very low neckline, an exposed stomach, and a skirt that revealed far more of the lady’s behind than I was comfortable seeing. That’s why I wrote what I did. It was my way of addressing the concerns raised by others, as well as my own concerns, while trying to stay professional. Up until the moment Chuck Wendig posted his comment, I had judged the cover of Discount Armageddon based on only this.

Has my opinion about the cover changed? No, it hasn’t. Based on my moral viewpoint, I believe the cover of Discount Armageddon is indecent and shows too much of the main character’s flesh. Does that give me the right to comment negatively on it and actually write my opinion as a fact—even calling Verity, the main character, a “sexy cheerleader chick,” while she isn’t a cheerleader at all, nor is she posing as one? Definitely not. I regret writing what I wrote not only because sharing my bias was actually entirely unprofessional, but even more because of what it truly meant for me to post that. My intent was to be chivalrous by taking a stance against the sexism myself and others noticed in the cover of Discount Armageddon, and against the fact that, in my eyes, so many men seemed to vote for it.

What we can and cannot say
You see, I, and I believe many men with me, have the tendency to generalize situations and believe that women need men to save them. I commented on the cover of Discount Armageddon without ever considering or researching where it came from.

When I spoke about strong female characters earlier, I meant women who can stand up for themselves, have a clear personality with realistic strengths, weaknesses, morals, and ambitions. I’m talking about the type of character who doesn’t just serve to aid a male protagonist but serves her own purpose. She doesn’t necessarily need to be physically strong or mentally strong. In reality, everyone, regardless of their personality, has their own strengths and weaknesses. What I want to see in fantasy novels are female characters who exhibit that sense of realism. Not only does Discount Armageddon have a protagonist who does exactly that, according to those who’ve read the book, its author is a strong woman as well. I mean, just take a look around at her blog. She is outspoken and she is aware of all the issues listed above, and responds to them in her own well-substantiated way.

My intent was to be chivalrous. I believe that a large part of the reason we men are very vocal against covers like Discount Armageddon‘s is that we are often misled with the belief that women somehow need to be protected from sexism by men. Believing women need a knight in shining armor is in and of itself really sexist. By disrespecting the cover of Discount Armageddon in the way I did, I generalized it and neglected to research the cover and the character it depicts. I didn’t just miss out on noticing a beautiful piece of art, I was acting pretty sexist myself. The cover of Discount Armageddon is the direct product of Seanan’s opinions and accurately reflects the character she has written. Who am I, then, to speak negatively about it?

Am I allowed to believe that the cover of Discount Armageddon is indecent? I think I am. Am I allowed to say that, because I deem it indecent, it is sexist—or even slutty like so many people said it was? No, I don’t think so. Throughout our culture, people have the tendency to take emancipation too far and become a part of the problem, instead of the solution. This is what I did—though I really wasn’t all that outspoken about it up until now—and this is what many others do.

Homosexuality in Randland
This might seem like a bit of a tangent, but about two weeks ago, I came across a great example of this problem that confirmed me in my opinion. I was reading A Memory of Light, the final book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. The Wheel of Time isn’t known for its realistic gender images or well-written female characters; yet, it was something else entirely that led me to somewhat of an epiphany. A friend of mine posted the following message on his Facebook page about the book:


I had just read that page, and I hadn’t noticed anything special. I reread it. And reread it again. Finally, I asked him what had gotten him so excited. The part he was referencing was the following:

Many had assumed that the Queen would marry Baldhere. That, of course, was foolish; Ethenielle looked at him as she would a brother. Besides, anyone who paid attention would know that Baldhere clearly preferred men to women.

This isn’t a very out-of-place statement to find in modern fantasy. In fact, it is so normal to me that I managed to miss it completely, three times in a row. For The Wheel of Time, though, it turned out to be a landmark occasion; it marked the very first male homosexual character in the entire series.

That got me thinking. If there is anything The Wheel of Time does right, it is world building. Robert Jordan has built an absolutely marvelous world filled with different cultures, which he described with an artist’s eye for detail. The complete absence of homosexual characters in thirteen previous installments in the series should tell a reader one of two things:

  1. Homosexuality is so normal in this world that no one even thought to mention it before.
  2. Homosexuality is so rare in this world that this is the very first time we ever encounter it.

The first is pretty unlikely, what with the series having so many characters whose love interests are discussed in so much detail. Besides, if it was never mentioned before, why would it be mentioned now? The second option is much more likely… But if homosexuality is so rare, why would it possibly be mentioned so casually? Why would it be mentioned as though it’s the most normal information in the world, and everyone is apparently aware and accepting of this fact? In truth, the mention of male homosexuality was included as a fan service; but in context, it made no sense at all.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for everyone who had noticed and complained about the absence of gay characters, and I’m glad my favorite series didn’t end without a single gay character. Yet, the way it was done makes it pretty clear that this character’s sexual orientation was simply added for the sake of pleasing the fans of The Wheel of Time by including male homosexuality in the series. It is unrealistic and lacks commitment, and that’s something I have a problem with. Because of that, these words in A Memory of Light are hollow and lack true meaning or value. So, too, misplaced chivalry that actually demeans the rights of women to come to their own decisions without being judged by men becomes hollow and meaningless.

I want realism!
As Seanan McGuire so aptly states in her essay on sexism and cover art, every book should have an accurate cover. And on top of that, I would like every statement on gender roles, sexuality, and sexism to be meaningful. I don’t want to see homosexuality included in an incongruent way, just for the act of including it, and I shouldn’t speak up against a scantily clad character on a cover again without researching the character or the author. What I would like to see is a realistic and morally acceptable depiction of genders and sexuality, without simply using it as a selling point or a way to please fans. When the latter happens, I will be the first to speak up. I wholeheartedly approve of initiatives like Jim Hines’s cover poses. Let’s just not take our fight for equality so far that it becomes devoid of all meaning, instead becoming offensive in its own right.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. There is. There is a serious problem with sexuality being used as a selling point for book and comic covers. (Jim C. Hines recently wrote a very strong essay about this.) There is a serious problem when a fantasy series as big as The Wheel of Time, which focuses so strongly on relationships and sexism, goes thirteen (huge) books without a single male homosexual character. There is a serious problem when female authors need a pseudonym to sell books. However, I want us all to focus on those problems instead of generalizing everyone and everything—and subsequently contributing to the problem instead of the solution.

Fortunately, the people I mentioned earlier in this article do just that, and I am truly proud of the fact that our geek culture has men like Jim Hines, Justin Landon, and John Scalzi to speak up against sexism.

About Stephan van Velzen

Stephan van Velzen
A 29 year-old Communications student, Stephan loves publicity and design, particularly web design. When he’s not designing websites, he’s busy being a total geek for fantasy. In The Ranting Dragon, he has found a way to combine these passions and discover a new love for writing too. Most of all, though, Stephan is just a crazy Dutch guy who enjoys doing things that people don’t expect.

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  1. I am so glad that this has been the topic of conversation lately around the webisphere that I frequent. I think that this does need to be discussed and I am glad you have.

  2. I would like to say…something that is un pc here. As a red blood male, I like the body of a women. It’s wonderful. Those covers, I admit to buying them. My opinion on women hasn’t changed because it. I believe in treating women as equals with equal pay and as human beings. In my fantasy, I want to see Catwoman in tight leather. That is my fantasy, my fantasy does not dictate my views on people in real life. Male superheros are already oversexed and not based on reality. If Hollister can put with a shirtless guy model on it’s bag to sell clothing, comic books can exploit fictional female characters to pose in scandalous poses to sell books. You can’t have it one way and not have the other. I hate political correctness and self censorship.

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