How to fail gracefully.

Alternate title: “Serious Feminist Thoughts, Apropros of Sexism in SF/F This Week.”


I’ve been thinking about all the events in genre conversation in which some dude says something totally sexist, gets called on it, doubles down, mansplains how it’s not sexist, reveals even more sexism in his reactions, and basically tries to outdo himself with each response being more and more sexist. (Feel free to substitute “white person” and “racist,” “straight person” and “homophobic,” et cetera throughout this post.) Events such as the one from this week have happened like hundreds of times.

John O’Neill recently summed up a paradigm that many folks have been explaining to deaf ears for a long time — that exhibiting sexism isn’t generally in today’s society a sign of being a misogynist who thinks teh wimminz should get back in the kitchen, just like making an unintentionally racist remark isn’t evidence of that one dresses in white and burns churches on the weekends. Rather, it’s reflective of the absorption of pervasive messages within our culture. Sexism, in the way it usually manifests today, is systemic and unconscious. So much so that women, even those who declared themselves feminists decades ago such as yours truly, internalize it and often do sexist things themselves, such as slut-shame other women.

There’s a continuum.

Lots of words, huh? And that’s fewer than I initially used. O’Neill paraphrases the concept thusly:

Sexism is not a binary condition. The world is not divided into those who are sexist, and those who are not. We all exhibit sexist behaviors, and becoming aware of them and being constantly vigilant against them is the best defense.

Dude, yeah. This.


Prejudice is so pervasive that it’s even encoded into our lexicon. This week in SF/F, calling a man a “pussy” to insult him was the star of the show. A more subtle example regarding race is the description of darkness as bad and scary and lightness as good and safe as a defense against racism in fantasy texts; I’ve blogged before* about how stupid and non-universal that argument is. Nicola Griffith wrote an essay about how the use of the word “lame” as a pejorative is cruel to people with certain kinds of disabilities — a fact that escaped me even though I have one of those disabilities. (Mildly, anyway.) My hip is dysplastic, so I sometimes walk with a limp, yet I had been using that word in the problematic context for years.

That’s how easy it is to fail.


I hope at this point the reader knows that despite the best intentions, failure is inevitable. That the mere existence of sexist or otherwise problematic terms within our lexicon, ones that shouldn’t be socially acceptable but at least partially are, means that at the very least, stumbling upon one in your linguistic availability heuristic and automatically using it is bound to happen at least occasionally — and that’s aside from any prejudiced notions you may have unconsciously absorbed from our culture (which we all have, to some degree).

You will fail. You may be called out on it. And if that happens, there are two paths you may choose to take upon having your failure pointed out to you.

You can double down, insist that you are somehow above the culture in which you live, that the person you are communicating with is full of ALL THE WRONG, hence implicitly declaring that you, a man, know more about sexism than the woman speaking, illustrating that you’re even more sexist than the conversation’s other participants initially thought, perhaps even in ways that are not just clueless but malicious, and thus transform a failure into an EPIC PHAIL+++.

And the audience will receive the message that you are an unpardonable douche.

Or you could say some variant of: “It sure is easy to be boneheaded when writing from privilege. My bad. I’ll try not to do that again.”

Then the audience receives a different message entirely: “I realize I am a fallible mortal.” “I don’t take myself so seriously that I can’t acknowledge a screw-up.” “I care about how my actions affect other people.”

It’s your choice. But if you care about the feelings of others, the path to take should be obvious.


*Note how my first four words in the linked post — “Many, many moons ago” — are annoyingly problematic at best and racist at worst. (I apologize for that.) I was tempted to edit the first sentence upon this realization, but I am leaving the post unaltered to illustrate the point — that while deconstructing a fanboy argument used to justify racism in fantasy texts, I unintentionally wrote something maybe racist and probably at least offensive and stupid. Easy to fail, indeed.

This entry was posted in feminism, Geekdom, LGBT, Race and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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