Like all good stories, this also begins with “Once upon a time….”
Once upon a time, quite recently, two middle-aged men went shopping for some little girls’ knickers. They failed in their quest. They returned to the home of one of them to report their shame – to a highly-scornful wife of the resident middle-agee, who had sent them out to get them out from underfoot while she got supper ready, because otherwise they just sat around and talked crap. About Jethro Tull, consumer electronics, viruses and science fiction.
And there’s the problem, you see: if I’d said ‘househusband” for my mate, which he is, as well as being a self-employed graphic artist, and “gourmet-class cook [IMHO] and astrophysicist” for the wife, which she is, all might have been different.
But I get ahead of myself.
After wallowing in shame a while, the two men discussed just why they had been unsuccessful. Given that they were both (a) highly imaginative, (b) science fiction fans, (c) quite well educated in modern science, they came up with a disarmingly simple notion. Oh, and did I mention the discussion was fueled by good Australian red?
The notion – which has nothing to do with the reality of the situation, which is that while my good friend does shop frequently for everything else, he does not often buy girls’ knickers – was that women access parallel universes while shopping; that they do this without even thinking about it, and have been doing so ever since grubs, roots and berries are what kept humanity alive, while men were out failing to kill edible animals.
A simple notion, and quite complimentary to women, one might think? And pretty denigratory of men? One did think so – which is why I found myself writing a story on my iPad, somewhere out over the Indian Ocean, as I winged my way home to Cape Town with a broken entertainment console in front of me. Pretty much knocked it off in a single sitting, then polished it a little, and sent it to Henry Gee of Nature: I thought he might like it, given that he seems to have much the same sense of humour as I do, and had published one of my stories previously.
To my pleasant surprise, he asked if I would like it in “Futures”, there at the back of Nature: I said “Yes!”, and so it was done.
Backtracking slightly: Futures is the science fiction section – I repeat, SCIENCE FICTION section – of Nature. They publish SCIENCE FICTION, which in recent months has dealt with, in the words of one their editors, “…petty thieves, terrorists, pedophiles, mass murderers, religious maniacs, lesbian robots, quantum-jumping time travelers and genocidal aliens”. So I was in good company – I thought.
And there it sat for a good couple of months, given that it was published on 28th September, garnering the odd mainly complimentary comments from people who know me.
Seldom, in the history of science fiction publishing, can so much have been written, in such a short time, about so little.
Really: the piece is only 973 words long; just this one blog and its associated comments must be triple that!
I was utterly dumbfounded: to read those highly charged comments and frequently vicious personal attacks on me, was to see a reflection of a person I certainly don’t know looking back at me – and one that is also utterly unrecognizable to anyone who knows me. Worse, a few of them found it necessary to pity my wife, who was misguided enough to comment on the Nature site, for being married to a prat like me.
My son then alerted me to #womanspace on Twitter – and was horrified by what he found there, because that wasn’t the father HE knew.
Then they started attacking me where I work…now, I did NOT give any affiliation whatsoever in this piece, nor in my other Futures contribution – yet people started writing to my Head of Department, telling him to discipline me!
I especially liked this one:
“I admit I don’t know much about your institution, but I am dismayed to find that you will keep on staff such blatant sexists as Prof. Rybicki. It may be that he produces exceptional work or is an excellent funding recruiter, but views such as his are an impediment to science by discouraging would-be scientists to enter technical fields. …
I know his piece in Nature was intended as satire, but this is the same kind of humor that’s found in jokes that begin “I’m not racist, but…” It perpetuates the bias that makes it so hard for people like me to do my job. It perpetuates known myths that gender plays a role in our abilities or predispositions.
I urge you to have an earnest chat with Prof. Rybicki. Perhaps you feel that his other work speaks for itself, but I would point out that I’d never heard of Prof. Rybicki before now, and that my only knowledge of your institution is in the framework of his piece in Nature. He may think his piece was published in fun, or in an attempt to raise an eyebrow or two, but certainly this type of work is only damaging the reputation of your institution.” [my emphasis]
Let me get this straight: pointing out IN A WORK OF FICTION that women have superhuman abilities, and that most men are bozos, perpetuates a bias that makes it hard for this person to do their job?? While I sympathise with her situation, harassing me at work for something FICTIONAL I wrote in my personal capacity comes perilously close to bullying and abuse – not to mention cyberstalking.
For many of the other responders, who condemned me out of hand for daring to put a woman in the kitchen, and inept men in a supermarket – I will point you to the second paragraph of this blog. I have also made an analogy of which I am quite proud, to a respondent to this blog.
Imagine that the phrase “There I was, sitting on a stool, enjoying a beer…” is savaged by critics, for being chairist (why wasn’t he/she using a chair??) or winist (what’s he/she got against wine??). What sorts of implicit assumptions are on display here – those of the author, or those of the critic?
I will make no other comment on the blogosphere storm – other than to quote a few positive comments to the original story:
“Duncan Wright said: While concerns about the exclusion or marginalisation of women, or indeed any other demographic, are legitimate and should not be trivialised, those concerns have no place here. I fully defend both Ed’s writing of, and Henry’s selection of this story for publication. It is readily apparent that the Futures section is one of fiction, distinct from the peer-reviewed research articles published elsewhere in Nature. To anyone unable to make this distinction, full professor or not, I would suggest they have more pressing problems than imagined sexism. Futures publishes fiction from a wide demographic, on myriad themes from diverse viewpoints. I myself am unable to relate to the main character as he muses on speaking to his absent significant female other, as I am also unable to relate to absorbing the memories of others, being blacklisted for being human, or being a Malay country singer, all aspects of stories recently published in Futures. When we demand that works of fiction are inoffensive to all, we find ourselves on very dangerous ground.” [my emphases]
“Yasu Min said: Obviously, there are many people who take life far too seriously. I, for one, am a university student, a woman, and am in no means any good with the domestic parts of life. I found this to be hilarious and a nice spot of fun. The author has clearly stated he wasn’t being sexist, so I don’t understand why you have to accuse him of such things. It’s not like analysing a piece of work from a hundred years back, by an author that is deceased, and being unable to find out what was truly meant by it. He’s alive and well and it was written for a bit of fun. My mum has always been able to find things that I, or the rest of my family, could not. She’s a professor at university, holds a Ph.D, has published loads of things in her field and she finds this to be most entertaining. So she’s both a domestic queen and is also well educated in scientific matters. So, my opinion is to get off your high horses and stop taking such things to heart. It’s just a bit of fun and I enjoyed it very much, made my morning just a bit better.” [my emphasis]
“Ceci Bee said: Goodness. I just created an account for the sole purpose of giving a modicum of positive feedback; I have to admit it, but I feel sorry for the author (and not just because I’m a woman!). I read this because a friend linked to it with a decidedly negative comment. We are both females with backgrounds in science (life sciences, in particular), but I found it funny. While I respect the arguments that question this story’s placement in a scholarly journal, I believe this is part of a general push to include more light content in even the most serious publications to appeal to a wider range of readers, as well as a cultural “loosening-up,” if you will, regarding strict adherence to seriousness in certain scholarly and scientific settings. Whether these are beneficial is debatable, but that is not the current debate.
If the author was unintentionally reinforcing negative stereotypes about women, he was reinforcing a similar number of equally negative ones about men. Are they clueless when it comes to shopping for clothing, particularly for the opposite gender (which apparently is a market women have cornered)? Should I conclude that men do not pay attention at all while shopping, since they are selfishly considering their next electronic purchase or their supremely important business venture while their virtuous and self-sacrificing wives knowingly consider the needs of the entire family? Do men have such problems locating items that it takes a woman to fix their hopeless wandering and set them on the right track? I should say not; we are all simply humans with our own strengths and weaknesses. While a reader could draw those before-mentioned ridiculous conclusions, I doubt maligning any particular gender was on his agenda. [exactly!!] Not all stereotypes are so emotionally charged that they cannot be used to generate humor, but every joke will find a detractor. If you want to accuse him of insensitivity, call it naivete. I will grudgingly admit that some of the offenses against women in science were recent enough that it is not entirely preposterous to not assume that people will automatically recognize that the notion of a male intending to publicly and seriously insult females’ capabilities in the name of science is unlikely in a scholarly forum.” [my emphases]
“Peter Welch said: I would look forward to an article on Humorlessspace, in which ostensibly educated people project their personal issues inward and they mysteriously show up as righteous rambling on websites.”
Amen to that – oops, just insulted devout people! Ah, be damned to that, I’m an atheist meself…. Thank you all for seeing that I did not set out to offend, and for not being offended!
WOMANSPACE. IS. JUST. A. STORY.
For which I got paid, incidentally, which puts me one up on nearly all other Nature authors.
It does NOT reflect my personal views of women and gender.
It has NOTHING WHATEVER to do with my professional life.
PS: And thanks to Peter Welch, who phrases it much better than I ever could.