Gender and Genre: Female Sci-Fi Authors are NOT an Alien Species

Okay. Rant time.

Remember when Blue Karma won some indie publishing awards late last year? One of the granting organizations just published interviews with the winning authors. Awesome, right? Except for one thing:

“[We] recently caught up with author J.K. Ullrich, whose book Blue Karma won the science fiction category. You can click the link below to visit [our] website and read more about his winning book and his writing process.”

Really? Just because I wrote a science fiction novel, they assume I’m a man? The actual interview refers to me correctly as “she”, so someone else must’ve written the intro. Clearly that person didn’t bother to glance at my website, else the photo would’ve answered any question of my gender. My initials, J.K., reveal nothing. So based on no information other than my authorship of a science fiction novel, someone assumed I was male. This irritates the hell out of me for three reasons:

  1. Assuming such basic facts is just sloppy journalism.
  2. I’ve spent almost 30 years fighting chronic misspelling and misreading of my given name that often leads careless people who haven’t actually met me to assume I’m male (every time I get an email addressed to “Mr. Ullrich”, I want to write a snotty response informing the sender that the only Mr. Ullrich is my father). Using my initials as an author was supposed to prevent this nonsense.
  3. It’s 2016, people; time to accept that science fiction is no longer dominated by male authors and fans.

Female authors are historically underrepresented in sci-fi, even though a woman instantiated the genre (the literary community generally acknowledges Mary Shelley’s 1818 book Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus as the first science fiction novel. Thanks to luminary ladies like Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, and Ursula LeGuin blazing bookshelf trails in the late 20th centure, a new generation of women like myself are using fiction to explore new worlds. Anyone who keeps up with publishing trends should never assume gender based on genre. I’d bet that if “J.K. Ullrich” were emblazoned on the cover of a bodice-ripping romance novel, no one would be attributing male pronouns to the author.

In an age when pronouns and gender identity are increasingly a matter of personal definition, such assumptions are even more offensive. Earlier this month, the American Dialect Society voted the word “they” as 2015’s word of the year because of its growing popularity as a gender-neutral pronoun option for individuals who choose not to identify with the traditional male/female binary. It’s ironic that while people are enjoying greater freedom in pronouns that occlude their gender (a linguistic evolution I support, despite the slightly problematic grammar) a heterosexual woman has to fight for a boring old female pronoun.

In this case, I don’t believe there was any deliberate sexism involved. Someone probably just fell victim to subconscious gender associations. For example, reference a “doctor” and most people will probably picture a man, while the title “nurse” comes with a female face attached to the title. “Author” seems generic enough, but tack on the “science fiction” prefix and the ingrained image changes chromosomes. These pernicious mental habits are hard to weed out–I’ve caught myself in them, too–but it’s important to be mindful of how our thought processes work, because that defines how we interact with the world. True gender equality won’t come from legislation, but from a collective shift in thinking.

Many years from now, when I’m an old lady basking amid a stack of bestsellers and royalty checks (hey, a girl needs ambitions), I hope to look back on my writing career and feel satisfied that my work helped chip away at the gender barriers in science fiction. In the meantime, how do I combat the present state of the genre? Replace my book jacket photo with a snapshot of my genitals? Change the “J” in my initials to Jessica or Jennifer or a name that lazy minds can easily identify as female? I know what I will not do: stop writing what I like. I’m proud to be a female sci-fi author, even if some people still consider me an alien species.

Update 22 Jan 2015: Shortly before writing the above post, I contacted the award-granting organization and asked them to correct the pronouns. They were extremely responsive and apologized for the error. I appreciated their prompt attention to the matter, and I’m pleased to share the updated interview with my readers. I enjoyed participating in the interview and realize that mistakes happen. This one proved more productive than most, providing an opportunity to further the ongoing cultural discourse on women in the science fiction genre.

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