Tropes: Sexism and Subtlety

[Content Note: Sexual Harassment, Homophobia]

I'm a sucker for film novelizations.

It came as a surprise to me, too. I started with the Aliens franchise; I love the movies so much that I picked up the novelizations in order that I might have more information to roll around in. Character thoughts, backgrounds, motivations; I lapped it all up like a hungry kitten. And then after discovering that I had more than a taste for film novelizations as a concept, I started buying them up by the basket-full.

As a general rule, film novelizations tend to be a bit of a mixed bag. (Not unlike the movies themselves, I suppose.) It doesn't help that movies, by the nature of the medium, tend to trade in stock stereotypes. Every minute you're not fleshing out a character is a minute that you can devote to the over-arching plot, after all.

In the hands of a good novelizationist, of course, the written word is a place to correct all that, to expand on one-dimensional characters into something more. But in the hands of a merely decent novelizationist -- or a novelizationist who has been hamstrung by the corporate demands of the people who own the film franchise, as the case may very well be -- the result is less of a three-dimensional character and more of a character whose short stereotypical backstory becomes ... a lengthy stereotypical backstory. Hooray.

Lately I've been reading the novelizations for the Resident Evil films, because if there was some kind of law that I had to give up all movies forever except one series, I swear to you I would pick that one to keep. I cannot explain to you why I like these shlocky B- action movies so much, but gods help me I do. Maybe it's because the series consistently features casts of multiple female protagonists, most of whom kick serious butt, but with the occasional weaker-but-no-less-brave little girl / normal teenager / career woman to flesh out the cast.

Maybe it's because the female protagonists don't need to be repeatedly saved by The Menz at key plot points to reassure the men in the audience whom the filmmakers imagine are in dire need of ego-stroking. Maybe it's because the series has a serious female gaze (there is a lot of man-hunk in these movies), or that all of them pass the Bechdel test (as far as I can judge), or maybe it's just because I like Milla Jovovich just that much. Maybe it's because there was that one Christmas break when I was paralyzed in bed for three days and the only thing in the DVD player was Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and so I watched that about 83 times until I'd reached some kind of movie-watched singularity and everything was suddenly so very deep and meaningful.

Maybe it's just because I really like silly action movies based on video games I haven't played.

The novelizations, however, I'm not sure how much I love them so far. There's a lot here to like on the surface: there's the extra backstory and character motivation that I otherwise wouldn't have because (a) I don't play the video games and (b) I understand the movies parted ways with the games long ago anyway. Alice's character is fleshed out more thoroughly, along with an explanation of why she was leaving all the espionage up to That One Blond Girl Who Died rather than, say, Alice herself. There's a lot of fun world-building around the Hive, and the Red Queen, and the lives of the employees, and I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't enjoyable for a fan like me to roll around in. I'm like a puppy with a pile of wet leaves when it comes to that stuff.

But there's a little nagging voice in the back of my head that I can't shut up.

In a book that features a delightful array of female protagonists and female POV characters (out of 28 chapters, 15 of them are from a female POV unless you also count the Red Queen in which case you have 16) for a series that has always managed to be about female characters in leadership and ass-kicking roles, the people in charge of the franchise handed the novelization off to -- surprise! -- a male author.

Of course.

At least, I'm assuming Keith DeCandido is a male. I make a habit of avoiding author biographies because then they become Real People in my head and I feel bad for criticizing their life's work when they're doing the best they can, surely, and who am I to judge, and WHY MUST EVERYONE BE SO DOWN ON POOR KEITH? So let this be a quick disclaimer: I don't know for a fact that Keith DeCandido identifies as male, and I am not trying to be all down on hir.

But. I do think Keith's writing sounds very male indeed. I think that because each of the three major female POV characters so far -- Alice, Lisa, and Rain -- have all sounded just a little bit ... off to me. Like a musical instrument playing slightly out of key, or like that subtle-but-annoying little hum that florescent lights frequently emit.

One thing I've noticed very quickly about the novelization of Resident Evil: Genesis is that Alice, Lisa, and Rain have all suffered serious career damage from sexism and sexual harassment. They've rebounded in their own strong ways, but in all three of these cases, the sexual harassment they have experienced has led to them being in the places that they are in at the start of the novel. Alice should have been promoted to the U.S. Secret Service, but sexism held her back despite her qualifications and she transferred to the Umbrella Company. Rain, similarly, should have been in the LAPD S.W.A.T. team, but was barred entry; she, too, transferred. And Lisa has been systematically discriminated against by the head programmer at Umbrella -- first when he was a professor at her college, and later now at Umbrella corporation itself -- to the point where Umbrella chose to take Lisa's job out of the head programmer's purview, reclassify it as a security position, and put Lisa into daily contact with Alice, where the two of them bond over a shared desire to expose Umbrella's illegal practices.

On the one hand, I SHOULD LIKE THIS. Right? Having an author show that systemic sexism exists in male-dominated fields and that it hurts women is a good thing, no? And if it's going to be in there, it might as well be a plot point, I guess. I mean, otherwise we're not reading an action story anymore and we might as well go read something meandering and flowery, possibly written by Proust. (I like Proust; that was a joke.) And all the better to have it show up in a novelization for an action movie, and possibly The Menz reading along at home will sit up and go, Great Scott, does sexism still exist in this country? I SHOULD DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS! That seems like a very good thing that should happen, yes.

But! On the other hand. (There's always an other hand, isn't there?) I'm just not sure how I feel about Keith's depiction of these sexual harassment episodes. They're so ... obvious. Clear-cut. In your face. Lisa's sexual harassment episodes are clearly at the hands of a professor who gets off on being abusive to his students, and a job interviewer who is so obviously straining to see down her blouse that his eyes have left his face and are scuttling, crab-like, across the desk towards her. Rain was flat-out told that she had to "have a dick to be in S.W.A.T.", was told that the only way she could get in would be "if the whole unit gets taken over by queers", and that as an "attractive Latina chick" she'd be a sexual distraction to the men on the squad.

Alice's sexual harassment story is so bizarre I worry that I won't be able to explain it properly. She relates how she was shut out of the Secret Service for being an attractive female, but that the unattractive women -- the words "woof, woof" are supplied by her male conversational counterpart -- were promoted just fine. (Is it possible that Keith is not aware that unattractive women face sexism too?) But she relates all this to a strange man who has been assigned to live with her in an isolated house for three months, pretending to be husband-and-wife, while this total stranger has already made three very pointed comments assessing her body and how fuckable he deems her to be. Alice's reaction to this is a teasing oh-you kind of response (complete with fake glare) and then to fall into bed with him a few days (or possibly weeks) later. I feel like I'm getting mixed signals here, is what I am saying.

And I want to be very clear here: obvious sexual harassment happens. I'm reading Jean Kilbourne's "Can't Buy My Love" right now, which includes a mini-biography at the beginning of how she became interested in advertising, and it's so heart-breaking to see how at job after job she was told flat-out that she had to sleep with the men in charge in order to be hired.

   People encouraged me to model. One day I went to New York and modeled for a world-famous fashion designer. I’d never been on a runway before and I barely knew how to move. After the show, the designer invited me back to his home, where he told me that I could have a very successful and lucrative career as a model. All I had to do was sleep with him. I went back to Boston and to my eighty-dollar-a-week job as a waitress. My depression deepened.

   Through a newspaper ad, I got a job doing some ghostwriting for Al Capp. He was a very smart and funny man, but bitter. He liked my writing very much. He also wanted sex in exchange for a job. His manager called me and said, “Go to bed with him, honey—it won’t kill you.” I thought it might, but I was quite desperate. I loved the intellectual challenge of the work I was doing with Capp and was bored with every other job I had ever had. I was also broke. One hot August day I flew to New York with the intention of sleeping with Capp. I went to his apartment on Park Avenue. I may have even started to undress. But I couldn’t do it. I left and caught a cab to the Village.

   This was one of the lowest points of my life. I could rationalize that the fashion designer wouldn’t hire me unless I slept with him. After all, modeling is a form of selling one’s body anyway. But Capp thought I was brilliant. He thought I was a wonderful writer. But that wasn’t enough. I was still going to have to put my body on the line. I was desperate. Finally I heeded the advice of a close friend and began therapy.

Isn't that saddening and maddening and fury-making? Yes, it so very much is. This stuff happened and it still happens and it's REALLY MESSED UP is what it is. The Alice-Rain-Lisa stuff is not nearly so bad as that, because at least they still had jobs, they just weren't able to advance as far as their skills would allow because of the institutionalized sexism that surrounded them. So yay Keith for pointing that shit out. Seriously.

But. Here's the thing. And it's the Problem of Bjurman all over again. We live in a world that doesn't just trade in the obvious; there's also the subtle as well. And the more we train people to see only the obvious, the more we desensitize them to the subtle, and to the detriment of everyone involved in our messed-up culture. Obvious sexual harassment exists and should be called out, but not to the point where subtle sexual harassment is never spoken of or acknowledged as existing. Human behavior is not binary -- either all good or all evil -- but we tend to think that it is.

Sexual harassment isn't just telling a woman she won't advance because she doesn't have a penis or because she won't let the right person into her vagina. Sexual harassment and systemic sexism is so much broader than that.

Sexism is calling female employees "emotional" when they fail to be emotionless robots without attachment to their jobs, careers, or projects; yet calling male employees "intense" when they scream profanities mid-meeting while their face rapidly shades to the color of cherry Jello.

Sexism is spreading career-damaging and reputation-damaging rumors about female employees and then dismissing complaints from female employees by saying they shouldn't take "gossip" seriously and suggesting they should spend less time talking and more time working.

Sexism is calling female employees with firm opinions "hard to work with" and "inflexible", but calling male employees who are the same "principled" and "assertive". Employees who are willing to compromise, on the other hand, are "push-overs" if female and "collaborators" if male.

Sexism is pressuring female employees to continue to engage with constant, low-level micro-aggression on a day-to-day basis without complaint in order to prove that they are "the better person" and can work with people who are "hard to work with".

Sexism is saying with a straight face that certain people are "hard to work with" when the reality is that the certain person in question is only "hard to work with" if you are a member of a marginalized minority group. Sexism is pretending that the difference between those two things is minor.

Sexism is pressuring female employees to admit wrong-doing when they come forward about sexual harassment, under the theory that "everyone bears some blame here", and punishing the female employees for being unwilling to shoulder responsibility for their own harassment.

Sexism is pretending that non-compliments which suggest a female employee is incompetent are genuine compliments (and not disguised insults) and should be treated as such:


Sexism is maintaining an entire job title that literally means "man" for a position that is meant to encapsulate the best-of-the-best at a company, because the job title is traditional and it's not like our language affects our thinking patterns in any way:


Sexism is forcing female employees who come forward about sexism to abandon the discussion about attitudes and behaviors in order to focus the discussion on specific incidents, in a derail that will ensure that the entire conversation becomes How She Misunderstood That One Time.

All this is sexism. And more. Sexism is a thousand little micro-aggressions over careers that are years if not decades long. Sexism is being subtly spoken over in meetings, having your (denied) suggestions picked up by men who get then get credit for 'their' (resubmitted) suggestion, having groups where women comprise less than 10% of the headcount, going an entire career without a female boss, dealing with the knowledge day-in-and-day-out that you're struggling uphill not against a constant tide of hatred so much as a wall of hostile indifference and persistent disrespect not because of anything you can change, but because of your gender.

I'm glad that authors like Keith DeCandido and the owners of the Resident Evil franchise explore systematic sexism in male-dominated careers, I really am. I don't want to seem ungrateful, or like I'm wishing for a proverbial pony. I think it's generally a good thing to show that THIS IS A THING and that it happens and that it's wrong. I'm a fan of deliberate awareness-raising in literature. (Not that I'm saying that ALL THE PLOTS need to be able misogyny, sexism, rape, etc. This is in itself another problematic trope. Some women, like some men, have backstories that are largely free of these things, and it would be nice to see them in fiction as well. But that's a whole 'nother post.)

But I would like to see more subtle elements of sexism and rape culture called out in novels. In a book where three of three major female POV characters have sexism and harassment in their backstories, it seems like there's room for showing some shades of variance. Especially when two of the three stories -- Alice and Rain -- are almost identical versions of the same. That seems unnecessarily redundant, like an opportunity was missed there -- either to create a female character who doesn't have a backstory steeped in misogyny or to create one whose misogynistically-plagued backstory explores the subtler side of sexism. I'd be happy with either, I think.

I have been working almost non-stop since the day I turned 16. I would run out of fingers and toes before I counted all the co-workers and friends who have experienced harassment in the workplace. Harassment for their gender, for their race, for their sexual orientation, you name it. I could count on no hands how many times they felt safe and secure carrying the harassment very far up the chain of command because ultimately, after the avenues of "known bosses" was exhausted and the only alternative was "faceless bureaucrats", they all feared that the harassment was just too subtle for them to be taken seriously. Too hidden for it to be provable. Too normalized for anyone to see that it was really and truly Wrong, and not just a character quirk from someone who was a "little old-school" or "grew up in a different time" or was "very conservative".

Harassment is very good at making excuses for itself. It would be nice, I think, if authors showed that in their literature a little more often.


Yamikuronue said...

There's one other woman on my team at work; those of us who are younger than her have a hard time approaching her about new ideas because she tends to come across as intimidating. She's well respected, is in a senior position, and is a really nice person, but she has a way of putting up a stone wall where you have no idea what's going on in her head until it comes out in a well-polished, damning critique.

I think it's thanks to her that I'm as respected as I am. She's been here a long time, and I suspect she's that steely because she had to be in order to be taken seriously as a woman at the workplace. Now that people are used to the idea of a woman challenging their ideas, they don't blink when I do the same. I can only imagine the beginning of her career here must have seriously been difficult.

As for me personally, it's hard to tell what dislike stems from my being pushy and bold and what stems from my being female. Actually, I think it helps that I'm pushy and bold -- I've seen one coworker tease our project manager about being female, then look at me and go "no offense" :D Generally, though, I'm pleased at the progressive attitudes of my coworkers in that respect. (I'm not pleased that they feel they can make openly homophobic statements around me or assume that I vote Republican and thus make cracks about Obama to my face, but that's another post entirely.)

SherryH said...

Brava, Ana. Well put, and oh, so frustrating. Especially frustrating in that I was nodding along with each point you made, and at the same time wondering, "Why don't they SEE? When will they see?"

It's frightening, really, that this stuff can exist and be so obvious to the people whose careers and lives it affects, and so nebulous to those it doesn't. I can't think of anything better than to keep pointing it out - maybe if it's said and shown often enough, then that will make a difference.

EllieMurasaki said...

I've got DeCandido friended on LJ and I've never seen any indication that he's not a cis man.

Research, people, you must do it.

Heqit said...

YES. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ana. There's no doubt that the big bad bold stuff happens, but most of my experience and my friends' experience (and we ALL have some experience of this) with workplace prejudice falls into the microaggression territory. Sometimes it's so subtle it's like gaslighting: there's no PROOF, but somehow things always just seem to work out That Way, for ostensibly unrelated and logical reasons. There's nothing obvious enough to point out, but taken as a whole there's a clear pattern. That's no one's fault, of course.

Silver Adept said...

Since I don't have the benefit of having read the item myself, I have to ask: Is the sexism there presented in the more systematic way or as "what a jerk boss" kind of way?

From the description given, I can easily see myself (reader with male privilege) going, "those guys were jerks" and completely missing the point that there's more than just individual guys being jerks.

Seeing through different eyes is hard, especially when the shadow play on the wall is so much more familiar...

Will Wildman said...

This was a really satisfying post; every time I thought of something I wanted to say, you then went on to say it in the next section. I was especially thinking: really, you've already got the prime scenario for showing diversity in women (i.e., lots of them get focus, so no one has to stand in for All Women) and there's still not enough room for the 'stealth' sexism to be relevant?

and so I watched that about 83 times until I'd reached some kind of movie-watched singularity and everything was suddenly so very deep and meaningful.


TW: homophobia

Rain was flat-out told that she had to "have a dick to be in S.W.A.T.", was told that the only way she could get in would be "if the whole unit gets taken over by queers"

Foolish bigots, failing to realise that having a whole unit of queers is the ultimate line of defence. Torchwood wouldn't have let a zombie apocalypse run rampant like this.

Isator Levi said...

Actually, it's funny to give Rain that backstory, since it's essentially identical to the situation of Michelle Rodriguez' character in the movie "SWAT" (albeit not quite so overt), except there she had Samuel L. motherfucking Jackson to advocate for her.

Ana Mardoll said...

I think it's a little of both. Alice's sexism episode is definitely institution-based; there's no single person focused on. Rain and Lisa both have individual people in their stories, but the reader doesn't have to look very hard to see the invisible support. But, it's a good point that it could be easy to view this as a Few Bad Eggs.

Silver Adept said...

@Ana - Regrettably so, considering I can also see, if the sexism were complained about, it getting glossed over because the boss person was far too valuable to be actually disciplined for it, and the women essentially being sent away for complaining would sole the problem with the least amount of fuss. "Let the T-Virus have them..."

@Will- Very true. Torchwood would have definitely been able to contain it. Although the Weevils are kind of like zombies, if you squint just right...

depizan said...

Too normalized for anyone to see that it was really and truly Wrong, and not just a character quirk from someone who was a "little old-school" or "grew up in a different time" or was "very conservative".

Ha. Lawsuit worthy shit at my job got dismissed that way when I complained about it. Lawsuit worthy shit that was in writing. Granted the guy sending the emails of slime (to everyone) retired shortly thereafter, but I was pissed. And still am.

When someone is sending jokes that are flat out misogynistic to everyone on staff, while working in the freaking HR department, you - as a business or organization - should be thanking your lucky stars that what you got from your workforce was an email of WTF!? This is not okay! Patting the sender on the head (metaphorically) and telling them that you're sure that Jackass Dude would never do anything bad to a woman in real life is all kinds of fail.

But my job spends a disturbing amount of time being a discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen. Sadly.

Mime_Paradox said...

I got one of those Resident Evil novelizations when a Suncoast employee just threw it in with my purchase in order to get rid of it; I never took the time to read it, but it sounds like I should.

I'm struggling to say anything other than an emphatic "I *like* this post!", but if I do, I'll definitively write it down.

Karen said...

Great post, Ana--as someone who has experienced both obvious and subtle sexual harrassment and witnessed others suffer the same, you really captured the problem in this post. The most surreal experience I've had along these lines was when another female employee touched me inappropriately several times and made sexual comments. One of these instances happened in front of a witness. When I documented and reported it, HR told me that "she was just a touchy-feely kind of person" and "was I sure she meant it sexually?" and "your witness asked someone out for a date one time, so she's not a reliable witness" and well, I could go on and on. And this was the HR dept of a therapeautic organization with very progressive politics. I think the reason they didn't take it seriously is because I was a lowly office worker and the harasser was a therapist--a therapist who was supposed to be engaged in helping others healing from emotional trauma, not harrassing her co-workers! This kind of thing is everywhere, and victim-blaming, subtle and not-so-subtle, runs rampant.

Dav said...

Ugh. I could tell all kinds of tales about therapists, but let's just leave it at: just because you work in healing (doctor, nurse, surgeon, therapist, shaman, priest) does not mean that you act in healthy ways or don't need healing yourself.

Asha said...

The sexism in my old church comes to mind. I was the first female usher that I knew of my church ever having, and I got the position because I fought for it. The boy youths had gotten to pass the plate around, why couldn't I? The pastor and the head of the deacons didn't want to tell me no, so they passed me around between them until they finally let me. Then there were jokes about the church falling down on us because of it. Then they just kept on (refusing) forgetting to add me to the rotation. This is also the church that forgot to tell me they had a scholarship so they could give it to their more favored son even if I was more involved in church programs than they.

Then they were surprised when I stopped going. Go figure.

Karen said...

Couldn't agree more--the title of "Doctor" or "Therapist" or "Minister", etc, can cloak all kinds of wrongs.

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