You’ll recall that in my About section, I state the following:
I wish that I could also say, like Twisy [Faster], that this is not a feminist primer. But Twisty has the luxury of dealing with the rest of the academy (and much of the workforce) that marched bravely forward starting in the seventies, entering the new millenium with at least a modest understanding of the fact that women are humans. Sadly for me and for all women, the majority of Science-and-Engineering-Land remains Groundhog Day-ishly rooted in the 1950’s, where Title IX is just a dim dream…I resign myself to occasionally, perhaps often, having to explain the most basic of concepts and principles illustrating that woman is not a separate species but is actually, like man, a human – and therefore deserving of respectful treatment…
This would be one of those times when I have to explain some basic concepts and principles. Today we’ll learn about Stereotypes and Subtexts.
Stereotypes about a group can exist simultaneously in forms that contradict one another. For example, two stereotypes of women engineering students, especially common during the years I was a student, are as follows:
- Women in engineering can’t be taken seriously intellectually. Time invested in them is a waste. They are just there to meet a man; they’ll get married and drop out. Why else would they be in engineering?
- Women in engineering are too brainy/geeky to be attractive. They are man-haters, ball-breakers, unnatural women; probably most of them are lesbians. Why else would they be in engineering?
The stereotypes are opposing but in both cases they support the main underlying idea, which is that normal women aren’t interested in engineering. A woman in engineering is either a real woman, so she’s just there to get a man and isn’t really interested in engineering, or she’s an unnatural woman, which explains why she’s interested in engineering.
With regard to science fiction readers, there are also opposing stereotypes at play. One is that readers of science fiction are geeky/nerdy, socially inept, very bright, and probably oriented towards careers in science and engineering. Another is that they are geeky/nerdy, socially inept, and stupid. In both cases, the stereotypes support the notion that the person interested in science fiction is something of a loser (because nerds are not the popular kids) and in both cases, the stereotypical science fiction fan is assumed to be a male.
How do contradictory stereotypes function? Which one gets invoked at any particular time is situational. The context helps to call forth the “appropriate” stereotype. If you and your buddy are making fun of your female classmates behind their backs in thermodynamics class, then you call them ugly dykes or say that they are so uptight because they can’t get laid. If you are a professor faced with a female student during class who asks for assistance with the engineering graphics problem the class is working on, you may saunter up to her desk and ask in a condescending tone of voice, “now just what’s gotten your pretty little head all in a tizzy?” in a loud voice that makes all her male classmates laugh at the Pretty Girl Who Can’t Do Engineering. If you are the female engineering student, you may simultaneously be the target of the professor’s pretty-girl stereotyping and your classmates’ ugly-dyke-who-can’t-get-laid stereotyping. Your identity is endlessly plastic when you are a woman in engineering; you can blossom as too beautiful to think and shrivel as too ugly to get laid at a moment’s notice, as your stereotyper desires.
“She’s Too Pretty To…”
The trope of “she’s too pretty to (fill in the blank)” is common in a most tiresome manner, and usually whatever she is too pretty to be or do has to do with intelligence or capability, or both. You’re too pretty to be an engineer, to be a mathematician, to play basketball. Blonde AND smart? How can that be? Because blondes are hot, not smart! When we say “geez, she’s hot, and she does x” we invoke the “and who could believe she’s smart!” trope that usually tags along EVEN IF WE DON’T MEAN TO. This is because meaning comes not just from what we say – the text – but also from what we do not say – the subtext.
Text and Subtext:
There is that which people explicitly say or write or do. This is the text. Then there is the second layer of meaning, the subtext. The subtext is not directly stated; it is implied, it lies in what is NOT spoken, it is implicit. The text is produced by the author, but the subtext is produced by the interaction of the author/text with the reader/subject. The subject brings to the text a set of tropes and common, shared understandings that give meaning to the text in light of those understandings. The text is almost always more than just the text.
For example, someone says “I met this hot blond chick, and you wouldn’t believe it but she’s an astrophysicist!”
- I met a hot blond chick.
- She is an astrophysicist.
- Hot blond chicks are stupid.
- But this one isn’t – she’s an astrophysicist.
- So it’s really bizarre, because “hot blond chicks” and “astrophysicists should be an oxymoron. So she is clearly an aberrant case. She does not, however, negate the general rule that hot blond chicks are stupid.
A text does not have to be lengthy and complicated to have a subtext. In fact, it is often the case that short pieces of text have rather lengthy and complicated accompanying subtexts. Subtexts are often helpful, in that they are shared information that does not have to be spelled out in every conversation each time we speak. But some subtexts are pernicious. For example, someone, like Razib, might say
And yet now I’m having a really weird moment, I’m at the local wine bar and a very attractive hostess is recommending books in the science fiction genre to another (far less attractive) hostess. So far I’ve heard Ender’s Game, Hyperion and Snow Crash tossed off as appropriate for a “newbie.” Is this the Twlight Zone??? Am I a freak to think this is freaky?
- I’m in a wine bar.
- I met a hot woman.
- She is speaking of science fiction.
- I think this is freaky.
- I like science fiction.
- I am not dumb.
- Science fiction fans are nerdy, smart men.
- I am a nerdy, smart man.
- Hot woman do not like science fiction.
- Hot women are stupid.
- But this hot woman likes science fiction.
- That would mean she’s also nerdy and smart.
- “Hot woman who likes science fiction” should be an oxymoron. So she is clearly an aberrant case. She does not, however, negate the general rule that hot women do not like science fiction and hot women are stupid.
Thus, while the text of Razib’s post does not say anything about intelligence, the subtext of Razib’s post is all about women and intelligence. It evokes common stereotypes about women, beauty, and intelligence that have been around for eons. You cannot avoid these connotations just by saying “nuh uh, in this particular case I do not intend to mean anything about intelligence”. You don’t get to individually decide what the mass culture understands as a stereotype or a common trope. You can’t change long-held understandings and associations between ideas from moment to moment just by wishing it so. Jesus, if you could do that, half my work would be done. Razib is free to be as surprised as he wants to be by meeting someone he thinks is hot who also likes science fiction. But when he writes something like what he did, then he is participating in the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about women and intelligence. In which case, he can expect to be clearly identified as exhibiting HUA (Head Up Ass) Syndrome.
It takes so long to explain in detail just why something like Razib’s post is offensive, and even with the detailed explanation you can’t be sure that some men, like certain of my commenters, are going to get it. Indeed you can’t even be confident that any of them are still reading at this point. It is rather like trying to explain some nuanced point about evolutionary theory to a Bible-totin’ young earth creationist. Eyes glaze over a minute or two into your impassioned scientific speech and they say “but only God could make something as complex as the eye!” and they smile in smug serenity. Similarly the morons will have quit reading somewhere around paragraph two, congratulating themselves that “she is an ugly bitch” and “if it takes that many words to parse that one little statement of Razib’s you know she’s wrong”, and they will have minced off in blissful ignorance.
But in case you are – here is the take-home message, the summary:
Yes, indeed, you can read so much into so little (it’s the subtext); he didn’t have to explicitly say intelligence (it was in the subtext); and I don’t care if you are aware of a different stereotype about sci-fi readers (contradictory stereotypes exist simultaneously and function together).