As more and more men in the SFF community have been exposed as abusive harassers over the past few days, I have been thinking again about “The Women Men Don’t See.” This 1973 science fiction story, written by James Tiptree Jr., is about unseeing and reseeing, about the unsettling nature of assumptions, and the way an entire world and community can exist out of the sight of the privileged. It reads uncomfortably to me in its treatment of race. It feels outdated and also stunningly relevant.
The story opens with the narrator, Don Fenton, unseeing two women. He walks by them, “registering nothing. Zero. I never would have looked at them or thought of them again.” They offer him nothing and therefore essentially are nothing.
The two women, Ruth and Althea Parsons, go on to unsettle Fenton’s understanding of the world. He consistently thinks of them in terms of their attractiveness to him, going so far as to imagine sexually assaulting Ruth once he actually begins to notice her. But there are hints of something else going on. Something he cannot understand except by recasting it into terms he knows. But he is wrong. He still does not understand.
In the climactic moment of the story, Ruth says to Fenton, “What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.” He cannot understand this point of view either. He tries to vaguely say something about women’s lib and increased freedom. But he doesn’t mean it; he doesn’t see. Ruth rejects the platitudes as well.
What does it mean for people to go unseen? It means a lost world of creative talent which is suppressed, which is pushed out, which is devalued. It means a lost world of criticism, which looks at works with a different understanding. It means that no matter how many times people stake a claim to a genre, or a community, or a way of being, men don’t see it. They don’t want to see it.
The act of unseeing means that people share times they were deeply hurt, or times when they weren’t deeply hurt because the awful thing that happened to them was so banal: the small expected thing that still accumulates into pain. The fact that it is expected. The fact that it is considered the price of admittance, but only for some people. The fact that certain men consider it their right and are allowed to go on as if nothing happened.
The compulsion to unsee means this act of painful self-revelation is dismissed. Or the men involved reuse an apology they wrote the last time they had to talk about this. And yet they are praised for how sensitive they are and how willing to grow and learn. Their fans harass the people who speak out. Sometimes they keep their book deals and their agents and nothing touches them because they do not have to see.
Perhaps we don’t live by ones and twos any longer. Perhaps we live by threes and fours. It is still not enough. Backchannels and whisper networks are not enough. We should not need them. There is an amazing world out there of beautiful, sarcastic, funny, angry, messed-up people that lives on in small and unseen spaces. And it is still not enough. Sometimes I think it’s like a galaxy, little clusters of stars connected by an imagined bond, separated by space. We live by ones and twos because that is the space allowed, because the world-machine disconnects and isolates, keeps us from each other, hurls us into space.
I would like to be hopeful. I would like to live in Le Guin’s night country, “where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is.” But I keep going back to Ruth Parsons, who in the end leaves. Who says, of the system she observes, “It’ll never change unless you change the whole world.”
I am not content with the world-machine, neither do I want to live in it. I want the other world. I want new ways of being and new ways of imagining.
It’s time. Learn how to see or step aside. Change the whole world and start again.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “A Left-handed Commencement Address.” May 1983. https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ursulakleguinlefthandedcommencementspeech.htm
Tiptree Jr., James. “The Women Men Don’t See.” December 1973.
Thanks to Jenny, Anna K., and Claire for their feedback on this piece!