Patrick Rothfuss just completed an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit in the r/fantasy subreddit. It was a huge event, with over 1500 comments, and something like 25,000 unique visitors. During the event, the following conversation took place:
My response was most closely approximated to shock. I put it on Twitter. It was retweeted. Some female fans decried it. Otherwise, silence. I should not be surprised. Successful people with gobs of social power are often left to their own devices. I cannot in good conscience let this one go.
See, people who are immensely successful, with a massive following and the kind of social power that political candidates would salivate over, are in essence providing a model of behavior for their fans, admirers, and imitators. It’s a responsibility whether they want it or not, something former NBA player Charles Barkley parodied in this ad,
I hate to break it to you, Chuck. But you were a role model then and you’re still one today. And so is Pat Rothfuss.
By not objecting to the comment on Reddit, Rothfuss functionally condoned the behavior. By responding to it, and participating in the masturbatory exchange that followed, Rothfuss demonstrated a camaraderie with the concept that his female characters exist solely for the benefit of the male gaze. He is normalizing a culture in which men feel entitled to have access to “attractive” women, judge women’s worth on their “attractiveness”, and not consider women as anything other than objects for view/consumption. I think what bothers me most of all is that the science fiction and fantasy community has done nothing but rail against this kind of mentality for the past several years and yet one of its most successful is perfectly fine participating in it.
Worst of all, perhaps, is that Reddit as a community has an underlying reputation for misogyny. It is widely populated by young men in the 18-35 demographic. What, from a marketing perspective, you might call “the holy grail”. Jim Hines, an author heavily committed to gender equality, decided not to participate in a Reddit AMA for exactly this reason. He believed, that by participating on the site he was condoning their behavior. I think Hines took things a little far, but the sentiment is right on. If we want change we must participate in helping it occur. By engaging in this behavior on Reddit, Rothfuss is telling them their past, and future, behavior is fine. I’m of the opinion that allowing this to skate does irreparable damage the message we’re trying to send.
If the Reddit question was the first example of Rothfuss doing something questionable as it relates to women, I would keep my mouth shut. But, for the past several years he has published a pin-up calendar for his Worldbuilders charity that depicts female characters from genre novels in alluring poses. He’s even got some high profile women authors to contribute their characters to the project. Why is the calendar problematic? Because the man is framed as the viewer, and the woman as the viewed. The calendar is celebrating science fiction and fantasy, and thus framing the woman as a passive recipient in the art excludes them from an active role in the making, creating, and consuming of the genres themselves. Of course, none of that is nearly as egregious at the comment that opened this post, but it points to a pattern of behavior. A pattern which none of the big dogs have deemed appropriate to call out.
I’m aware that many of women involved in the project have argued that the calendar is not inherently sexist. There have been others who disagree, generally people with no power. Natalie Luhrs, editor of Masque Books and blogger at Radish Reviews, recently wrote about the subject. It was met with deafening silence. Katie Baker wrote about the subject for Jezebel in 2011. Baker also highlighted some other odd interactions from Rothfuss. Yet, in all this, we’ve yet to see any major figure from within the science fiction and fantasy community say anything that would correct what is, at least occasionally, sexist behavior. But, this really doesn’t have to do with Patrick Rothfuss. As often as he’s wrong, he’s been right a lot more. He is overall a force for good. The larger issue though is the implied free pass that someone gets when their profile is such that they become untouchable.
Most of the individuals with real power to provide a mallet of loving correction are people just like Rothfuss. Authors with major platforms who don’t mind carving out a social position. The term, mallet of loving correction, is probably familiar. It’s a John Scalzi-ism, one of the internet’s self proclaimed police force for the good and righteous. Except, when it comes to the successful. When it comes to people who fall under the “don’t shit where you eat” axiom, the internet is eerily silent.
The Reddit comment was buried in a place such internet raconteurs may not frequent. It’s quite possible despite my Tweeting (I am, after all, not a big deal) none of them saw it. It’s also quite possible that they spoke to Rothfuss about it in private. It’s also entirely possible that every one is a little nervous about the social power of the immensely successful and it’s best not to poke the hive of rather energetic fan bases. I don’t know. But, we seem perfectly happy to speak out both sides of our mouth when it comes to people with power. And as far as I’m concerned that is bold faced hypocrisy. Our internet police force cannot only choose to engage when it can’t harm their own professional standing. At least it can’t if their genuinely interested in change.
Or, maybe they’re just pandering by engaging when it’s convenient. Tell me I’m wrong. Oh, and donate to Worldbuilders. It’s a really great cause.