Women in Horror

Well, it’s February — Women in Horror month — and I thought I’d lay down some thoughts about being a woman horror writer .  Now, I am only speaking of my own personal thoughts and experiences, and do not presume to speak for all women writers.  However, I think my experiences are fairly common and I hope this post sheds some light on what I believe women writers ultimately want to accomplish in this field.

I’ve been in this business now for almost fifteen years.  People often ask if I’ve ever been a victim of or seen in action the “boys’ club” mentality.  Well, I can recall hearing terrible stories of misogyny and harassment suffered by women writers in generations who came before me, stories of unacceptably poor treatment in the business from the 70’s on.  I myself have been propositioned for publishing, I have been hit on during business meetings, and I’ve had people accuse me of only getting published because of having traded sex or sex acts with the editor.  I have been put on countless sex and horror panels under some unspoken assumption that because I’m a woman and I write horror, I must be knowledgeable about erotic horror or paranormal romance.  I have heard people say I am not capable of writing anything truly meaningful or scary because I’m a woman.  I’ve heard of a number of women passed over for anthology invites because women’s work isn’t as widely recognized or not as “sellable,” leading to TOCs that are all or mostly male.  And I would venture that a number of women, both new and established, writing in the spec fic genres today, have suffered many similar indignities.   

However, much more often I have been delighted to discover so many supportive fellow writers, editors, publishers, and agents, both male and female, who don’t see the sex of the writer as having anything to do with the writer’s talent or business acumen.  They find sexist and misogynistic behavior intolerable and will speak out against it.  They judge horror literature and other horror media for the quality of the work and not the sex, gender, color, race, or orientation of the creator.  And in my observation, this trend of equality thinking is, at least in the horror publishing field, picking up momentum (I can’t speak to film/comics/video games, as I am not a regular creator in any of those fields.). 

I enjoy being a woman.  I enjoy being a “girly” type of woman, wearing makeup and heels and pretty dresses and lacy underthings.  I like to look pretty for my partner.  And I enjoy it when others tell me I’m attractive.  I don’t find this offensive in the least, so long as we’re not doing business.  I think it’s flattering when people think I’m good-looking; it makes me feel good, as I think it makes most people of either sex feel good to hear nice things.   To me, it’s not sexist to compliment someone, so long as you are respecting their personal and professional boundaries.  I also like when people compliment the quality of my writing.  I love when people enjoy my books.  I love hearing that one of my stories made someone want to turn a light on before bed.  But these things are, to me, separate aspects of my being.  I don’t use my sexuality to try and get published, so I don’t see any reason why I would have to play up OR play down my sexuality in my life; sexiness and talent are not mutually exclusive, nor are assertiveness and professionalism.  I don’t, after all, type with my sex organs, nor create stories there.  My work comes from my heart and my mind, attributes I’d be glad to possess, regardless of my body.  To assume that one compromises the other is unfair to the woman (or man) in question.

Now, I would probably agree that generally speaking, women tend to factor emotional components into decision-making more often than men.  We have women’s intuition, a kind of gut instinct part intellectual, part emotional and hell, sometimes part psychic, that we have come to feel confident relying on.  I think our thought processes have more difficulty divorcing obvious emotional factors and their impact from the overall picture.  If anything, I think that makes us particularly suited to write in a genre whose existence is based on that which has been defined as one of the oldest and strongest emotions of mankind.  Also, women do have potentially different life experiences than men, and different training in processing and responding to them.  Women may sometimes have a unique perspective on fear, given centuries of hyperawareness of and particular adaptations to true bodily terror. 

As a horror writer who also happens to be a woman, I don’t think the presence of rape, say, in a story makes it misogynistic.  I’ve used rape or allusions to rape in my work before, because it is a horrific and terrifying act and the story called for that particular reference.  I like to believe I handled those occasions with dignity and decency.  I believe that just because one is a woman shouldn’t automatically make using rape okay; that one tries to handle the subject matter with sensitivity to those who may have experienced it and acknowledgment that it is a brutal act and not a fetish to be giggled over in a prurient and puerile fashion is what should make the difference.  That should hold true whether the writer be a man or a woman.  If we write horror, it is usually inevitable that a bad thing will happen to a good person.  That’s not just horror, and it’s not misogyny; that’s life. However, our intent, our focus in creating, makes all the difference.  We strive to write stories with emotional impact, stories to terrify, horrify, or sometimes even to repulse.  If we treat horrors against women (or children or minority groups or men, for that matter) with the respect and understanding we should give any aspect of our work, it makes for a better story anyway, and one that is justly written.  To just put horrific acts like rape off limits as if they don’t exist is to deny a work its possible profoundness of impact.  I also feel it denies the acknowledgment of the strength and resilience of victims and the stance of intolerance of the horrific acts being performed.  I have always believed that acknowledgment of these two things — human strength and dignity as well as the exemplified abhorrence of hateful violence — are important in quality and lasting horror fiction.

As writers, we create characters we hope will ring true with readers; this means we have a whole host of personalities to choose from when writing men or women, and as long as each character is believably realistic and suitable for the tale to be told, I think we can transcend the use of stereotypes of either sex/gender without sacrificing what those types of characters might bring to a story.  

I think sometimes considering the full spectrum of human beings and their capacity for both good and evil, weakness and strength, is something women, who are often full-spectrum thinkers themselves, bring to horror fiction. 

However, I am not saying women are better (or worse) equipped to write horror.  It may be different, but women’s horror work can be equally as powerful, profound, skillful, and terrifying as men’s.  And that’s what we want.  Equality thinking from colleagues and readers alike.  That we have a month in order to raise awareness of our presence, educate others, and validate our abilities to those who may not understand or believe in them — that’s great.  We appreciate the support.  But it would be nice if every month accomplished these same goals, and the fact that we are women didn’t have to come before the fact that we are writers.

Which brings me to my thoughts on feminism, and what, as a writer, I look to achieve in my field.  True feminists, in my opinion, aren’t looking to beat down opposing ideas with vicious hate or manically rabid force.  They aren’t looking to tear down others based on every little individual quirk or idiosyncracy that could be construed (or misconstrued) as sexist.  They aren’t looking for special privilege.  Rather, with firm assertion of grace, class, and talent, they strive to produce and keep producing quality work that cannot help but be considered the equal of their male counterparts.  They look to build an atmosphere of mutual respect.  They assertively and respectfully point out unjust, threatening, and unacceptable behavior, to make others aware of insensitivities to another’s situation or condition.  They look to set the example of the climates we’d all like to live and work in, and to be the kind of person they want others to recognize with respect and maybe even admiration.  

I appreciate the support I have received over the years both personally and professionally, and I hope that my experiences may inform my fiction in such a way that it is emotionally and intellectually meaningful, scary, and moving.

I am a woman, and I am a horror writer.  Thank you to all of you who recognize I can be both successfully, without having to be one or the other.

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About Mary SanGiovanni

Author of the Hollower trilogy, Thrall, Chaos, For Emmy, Possessing Amy, The Fading Place, and more.
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8 Responses to Women in Horror

  1. simondewar says:

    A fantastic post.

    As a writer and editor, I find it quite disheartening and upsetting that you’ve experienced some of those terrible things you outlined at the start of the post.

    I’m glad that the anthology that I have forthcoming was lucky enough to have at least 1/3 authors that were female. At one point I thought there would be more with that, but I did my best to objectively choose the best stories to suit each other and the overall theme, and that’s how it turned out.

    Because I live in Australia, we’re very spoiled for choice with fantastic speculative fiction writers, the best of which are probably all women. This is particularly true of horror, with the likes of: Kaaron Warren, Margo Lanagan, Angela Slatter, Lisa Hannett, Felicity Dowker, etc. Certainly, almost all my mentors since I began writing horror have all been women. I just dont see how that kind of sexism/misogyny/degrading behaviour/general stupidity can fly anymore.. I’m glad at least that you feel the tide is turning. I hope it continues to do so and stays that way.

    Thanks again,

    Simon

    Like

    • Thanks, Simon! 🙂 Your comments give me further hope. I’m particularly pleased to hear your mentors are women; I find that’s pretty rare, even for women writers, although I think new generations of writers will have a growing list of women writers to be able to count among mentors and inspirations.

      And this: “I did my best to objectively choose the best stories to suit each other and the overall theme,” is absolutely, in my mind, the mark of a good editor. You’re choosing stories based on quality of the work and not the sex of the creator — we couldn’t want better editorial measures than that. 🙂

      Like

  2. simondewar says:

    Reblogged this on SIMON DEWAR and commented:
    What a fantastic and timely post.

    Like

  3. You nailed a lot of points I agree with. Thank you for putting out these thoughts so clearly and from your heart.

    Like

  4. Pingback: Women in Horror (part two) — F**k the Naysayers and Make Good Art | Amanda J Spedding

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