another sfwa sexist gaffe

After the winter issue's scintillating cover of a woman warrior clad in nothing but a metal bikini that barely held in her breasts, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Bulletin has done it again: Let a man blurt out something stupidly sexist. It's in an otherwise fine, if bland, article about staying power and reinventing oneself for career longevity written by CJ Henderson.

I don't know Mr Henderson, nor have I read his work, though his photo looks familiar so we might have met at some point. I want to be clear: this is not an attack on his character, but on his words. Also, I'm not particularly "feminist" in that it's not an issue I have a ton of passion for. If I'm offended, it indicates that the statements have pretty wide reaching capability to annoy and offend.

Here's the quote I find offensive (bolded are particularly offensive):
The reason for Barbie's unbelievable staying power, when every contemporary and wanna-be has fallen by the way-side is, she's a nice girl. Let the Bratz girls dress like tramps and whores. Barbie never had any of that. Sure, there was a quick buck to be made going that route but it wasn't for her. Barbie got her college degree, but she never acted as if it was something owed to her, or that Ken ever tried to deny her.

She has always been a role model for young girls, and has remained popular with millions of them throughout their entire lives, because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should. 

Um, some points, Mr Henderson.

First, Barbie is horrible example for what you're trying to say.

Barbie has dressed like a tramp and a whore plenty, if by which you maybe mean clothing that some people think make rape okay.   Take a gander at this little collection, which was on the first page I googled and contains few professional career items. Not to mention that her measurements are not remotely possible in a real human. (Not that it matters much to SFF writers with active imaginations, but it might to our readers.)

This is the example you use for staying power and reinventing oneself? Barbie is the toy I'm supposed to give to my elementary aged girl to play with to make that example? What's the real message in the toy, taking her and all her stuff and clothes and houses and car and steady boyfriend into account? Here's my takeaway.  A college degree is not enough for a woman to be successful. She needs to dress sexy, never act like anything is owed her, pretend Ken doesn't get paid more for the same job, and maintain her quiet dignity the way a woman should. Quit bitching and sit in a corner, Barbie, but don't forget your corset and red stripper shoes!

Most girls my age (in the 70s way-back machine) played with Barbie because there were few other toys designed for girls at that time. Toys for girls have changed very little in the intervening years.

A look in my daughter's closet will confirm it anecdotally. There are bobble headed animals, plush animals, and not much else pink or purple; she's discarded it all for the legos and magnets and fishing and dirt and skateboards and other toys marketed to boys. She even dresses boyish because she has perceived, in her 11 year old wisdom, that no one takes you seriously if you're "cute" and boys get all the cool stuff and gigs. How did she come to that conclusion? Maybe she's realized boys get called on more in class than girls. Doubtless she'll soon learn that despite earning more degrees, women earn less than men coming out of college.

But that's okay. Women have Barbie for our entire lives!!

...the way a woman should... Sigh. I expect the battle is lost if those words are used in the first place. But I'll try.

Props for using a female toy as an example, but it was clumsily done at best. The real reason Barbie has maintained her staying power is a well-laid foundation of being the only toy designed for girls, millions of dollars in marketing, and a distinct continuing lack of competition. And really, if Barbie is the best example of a woman, or anyone, with staying power, then the world is in a heap of trouble. Actually, the choice to use her is indicative of the real problem: many men have difficulty thinking of examples of successful females. Why? Because Ken actually IS in our way, and we have sat quiet too long. Well, that, but it's also a damaging misconception that there aren't any good examples. There are myriad choices for a female example right in our own genre. I know many of these women personally, and the last way I'd describe them is "quietly dignified."  Most of the women writers I know are noisily, joyfully enthusiastic! Quietly dignified gets ignored in our genre, and in the world at large.

Science fiction and fantasy claims to be the leading edge in social issues and equality.  But the key words in that sentence are fiction and fantasy.


Q said...


You nailed it once again.


Becky Branch said...

After the word Barbie I couldn't take anything he said seriously.

C.C. Finlay said...

Word. Thank you.

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Sarah Laurenson said...

My friends got Barbies. I played with the styrofoam from the box and made a restaurant with water feature and dance floor.

Be a lady in the living room, a chef in the kitchen, a house cleaner and nanny throughout the house and a slut in the bedroom and everything's hunky dory.

Roger @Master_pastry said...

After saying "...because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should." ...someone should have slapped him! Not necessarily to be mean, but to wake him up and clue him in on just how terribly offensive that is without him knowing. I like to believe that this guy had good intentions and a terrible follow through, but I cannot imagine a scenario where this is said to a woman that doesn't piss her off. He gets an "F" for Effort.

Commander of All said...

The reason for Kermit the Frog's staying power is, he's a nice boy. Let the Triumph and Cartman have their potty mouths; Kermit never had any of that. Kermit entertained the masses, but he never took his audience for granted, or acted as if he deserved his fame.

Kermit, Mister Rogers, and other men with quiet dignity are wonderful role models for young boys, and have remained popular with millions of them throughout their entire lives, because they act the way a man should.


Boys don't generally find characters with quiet dignity to be a role model.

Stephsco said...

The American Girl dolls were designed as an alternative to Barbie--and they are great. But a pricey catlog-order doll can't really beat $7.99 at every Walmart everywhere. Barbie is one of Mattel's flagship toys and that machine is dying out any time soon.

The comment may have been salvaged if it ended with the word dignity; maybe Barbie has a quiet dignity (sure, why not?) but it's that last qualifier that has us all Head:desking.

Anonymous said...

when I was 8 Santa bought me the three story Barbie Townhouse, the one with the elevator.

Barbie ended up headless in the backyard somewhere and the Townhouse became the Enterprise (bridge on top, medical bay in the middle, engineering on the floor) and that turbo lift got SO much workout.

No one ever bought me another Barbie. I became a SF writer.

CJ Henderson can take a long walk out a short airlock.

Stephsco said...

"CJ Henderson can take a long walk out a short airlock."

Thank you for a good laugh!

A. Nuran said...

Thank you for an excellent, and whether you own the term or not classic feminist, critique of this balderdash.

realinterrobang said...

Barbie also has slightly sordid origins in postwar Germany. Jus' sayin'.

Katrina Woznicki said...

Barbies were given to us by a relative and quickly donated. My daughter showed no interest in them and prefers Legos whether they are pink or blue. Sounds like Mr. Henderson is pretty out of touch with the rest of the industrialized world. Barbie doesn't have the leverage he thinks it does.

Elizabeth Twist said...

I'm new to your blog, via the link from the Guardian article. This is just an excellent rebuttal of a thoughtless comment. Much respect to you.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Thanks, all!

Joan Defers said...

There are whole groups of fetishists on the internet that sound an awful lot like Mr. Henderson. I doubt he'll see this, but if *I* were him, I wouldn't want to sound just like the head of the "Dollification/Bimboification" League of Creepers.

Faylyn Jean Hillier said...

I love this!

I will admit to loving Barbie, but never once thinking she was some great role model for girls. It honestly makes me sick, the quotes you've assembled here. I know I could make a half witty, half snippy joke about how most of the men in fantasy and science fiction hating women because they've been laughed at by pretty girls their entire lives and have never gotten laid. Unfortunately that kind of joke would not only be giving in to stereotypes, it would also spark a realization that its not a joke for some and could quite possibly be why women are dehumanized and objectified in the genre.

T. M. Crone said...

This is fantastic. A a woman who holds a PhD in a science and is now currently trying hard to break into the old mens school of SciFi writing, it is tough. Breaks are few and far between. I honestly think the worse thing a woman could do it to get married and settle.

Anonymous said...

Is this the same C.J. Henderson whose book on SF/F movie I brought? If so, my book being messed up isn't a loss, then (although I'll always agree with his positive review of the 1998 Lost In Space movie in said book.) Then again, the nasty review of The Handmaid's Tale in the book should have been a clue.

If anybody wants an alternative to Barbie that isn't as expensive as the American Girl doll, this doll might (one's mileage may vary) fill a need for a positive role model:

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