Saturday, September 09, 2006

Even more Tiptree

This is another cross posting from the FEM-SF discussion list. It's long because I have a lot to say.

I have now finished the Tiptree biography, which is an amazing book; and Tiptree's life is amazing.

It's also a very painful book, because it describes someone struggling with a lifelong depression and finally giving in and dying.

It's hard for me to disentangle Alli's problems as a woman from her problems as an individual and from her depression. (Do I need to disentangle? Maybe not. But I'm still trying to figure out what Tiptree's life means to me as a woman sf writer more or less in Tiptree's generation of writers.)

A couple of things sounded familiar to me... One was the problem of writing as a woman and about women. My first novel had a male protagonist, because men were the default protagonists in sf. (The two other important characters in the novel are a three foot long pubescent female dragon and a teenage girl who passes as a boy. So I was part way to having female protagonists, but only part way. And it's interesting that the characters become more male as they age. The youngest one -- the dragon Nargri -- is fully female. The next in age is a girl passing as a boy. The oldest character, the one who is fully adult, is male.)

I had to consciously work to make my characters female. About the time I wrote my first novel, I also wrote a (short) epic poem set in the world of Spenser's Faerie Queene. I kept a list of characters: good and bad, male and female. Each time I introduced a new character into the poem, I checked the list. If the list was showing too few good female characters and the new character was good, then she became female. My goal was an equal distribution: half the good characters should be female, and half the bad characters should be female.

I am not kidding. I had to use a list, because otherwise the characters were all too likely to turn out male.

This was not an isolated problem. Leigh Brackett's heroes are male. LeGuin always wrote as a woman, with a name that is clearly female, but it took her years to write about women directly.

Two things are going on, or maybe three. One is the simple fact that the default sex in sf was male; and we are all vulnerable to conventions. We don't write what we know, so much as we write what we have read. The second is a sense that women can't be heroes, not the way men are. Fiction by and about women has a long and honorable history, but was not taken seriously by (mostly male) scholars and critics until recently. Real fiction was by and about men. Women can't play male heroic roles; and women's roles are not important enough to be a subject for serious fiction; and science fiction is supposed to be about manly men taking on the universe.

It's weird to write the above. It all sounds so untrue and silly now. But the women writers of the late 60s and early 70s had to work hard to change the conventions of the field. They had to fight.

There are other reasons why women writers may use male protagonists: a desire to distance oneself from certain topics, a personal discomfort with being female, a belief that it will be easier to sell fiction that has a male hero. (It's a truism in YA that girls will read about boys, but boys won't read about girls, so you increase your audience if you write about a boy. J. K. Rowling writes under a unisex name and about a boy, and she has certainly sold a lot of books.)

Tiptree was openly uncomfortable with being a woman, and wrote that she didn't like women much, though she found them very attractive. (This may have been part of her internalization of a male identity. Many men don't like women much, but find them very attractive.)

I don't think I share Tiptree's discomfort. She grew up in the shadow of remarkable mother, who was in many ways a traditional, male-identified woman, a member in good standing of Chicago society -- though she was also an author and world traveler and lecturer on her writing and travels. The biography portrays Mary Bradley as a very feminine woman, even while carrying an elephant gun. It's hard for me to figure out what one would learn from such an example.

I grew up in a family full of women who were conscious feminists and who liked and admired women. I had the example of my female relatives and my mother's women friends.

Having said that, I knew as a kid that what I wanted to do with my life could not be done by a woman. I should have known better. I had role models all around me. But I had internalized the society's myths. In order to do what I wanted, I ignored or evaded the fact that I was female.

Obviously I know I am a woman, and I am woman-identified, and I am a feminist. But my sense of who I am is not labeled female or male. It simply says, Eleanor. A person.

I guess you could say I evaded certain important female roles. I never married, since marriage carries the weight of centuries of oppression -- to me, at least. And I didn't have kids. I don't have a single reason for the latter, and I don't believe you should need a reason for not having children. The world is full of people, after all; and plenty of those people are willing to be parents. The job is done. We don't need any more volunteers.

Do we need more writers? An interesting question. But I figure we have a greater shortage of artists than of parents.

The final thing that seems familiar to me, while reading the biography, is Tiptree's dread of growing old. This is not a good society for old people, and being an old woman is especially difficult. Le Guin has written about this. What does one do, if one has been trained to be attractive and charming, and one lives in a culture that does not find old women attractive or charming? We don't have an alternative role, since our society does not have elders.

I think one invents the role of elder, as Meridel LeSueur did -- a splendid writer and human being. Her parents took her to the founding conference of the Industrial Workers of the World when she was a small child. She never lost her commitment to the revolution. When I met her, she was an old woman in a wheelchair, draped in Navaho turquoise jewelry. I don't remember that her voice boomed, but her personality did.


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