Transparency: the other side of exposure

A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit about writing for exposure, i.e. writing for free. That’s an issue every writer will have to deal with at some point, and the answer won’t be the same for everyone. This post is about a related issue: transparency.


What does that mean? If you’re a writer selling your work to magazines or other markets, even if you get paid, you probably also chose the market because of the audience you’ll presumably reach.

Too often, though, writers have very little information about the circulation or influence of any particular market. Which is funny, because advertisers demand that sort of information. And if you’re selling stories—guess what?—each thing you write is an advert for your work.

A well-known professional magazine may list circulation numbers…somewhere. But most online “magazines” (let’s face it, they’re really just websites) do not disclose this in a transparent way. Let’s look at a few speculative fiction magazines, shall we?

That source of Unquestionably Correct Info, Wikipedia, tells me that Analog Science Fiction & Fact had a circulation of just over 25,000 in 2011 (the most recent year listed there). The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction had a monthly circulation of 14,500 in 2011. But go to the actual websites, and you’ll learn nothing. Smaller markets (Strange Horizons, for example) list no information about readership, either. By the way, I’m only citing these titles at random. Virtually all the magazines follow similar rules of not-telling.

You might look at proxy measurements like Twitter follows, FB likes, or ad prices to guess how visible a market is. You could ask the editors or the advertising rep, too, if you’re curious. But in an ideal world, these figures would be available without having to dig. I’d like to see this type of information listed on Duotrope and similar services. Maybe it’s in the massive Writers’ Markets books? I don’t know…it’s been years since I wanted to leaf through those tomes.

In general, I encourage writers to think about this issue because even if you get paid a professional rate (which can be as little as 5 or 6 cents/word), you are still very likely going to be making less than minimum wage for the time it takes to write a story. Therefore, looking for additional benefits like exposure is smart business practice.

Questions writers should ask before selling a story:

1 How many people will read this?

  • What’s the official circulation of the magazine/market?
  • How many hits does the median blog post on a website get?
  • How many unique visitors does a website or online magazine get?
  • How many copies of an ebook or issue of a magazine are downloaded?

2 How will the magazine promote my work?

  • Will they tweet links? How often?
  • Email subscribers? (If so, how many recipients open the email?)
  • Post on Reddit or similar site?

3 How will citing the market support future work?

  • Will you be proud to list this publishing credit on your CV/resume/bio?
  • Will the name be recognized by others?
  • Will a publishing credit here open doors elsewhere?

None of these questions are simple. But with ever fewer opportunities to make anything resembling a real payday for a story, the smart writer needs to consider all the potential benefits that a publication can offer. Writers create the supply that these markets are selling. As writers, we deserver to know exactly what that means in terms of numbers. Yes, we’re all artists and blah blah blah. But art is only effective if it’s seen.

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.





Favorite Podcasts for Writers

The last post from me covered favorite writing tools. But I forgot one tool: podcasts! So here is the extra special bonus podcast post.

Since I’m mostly alone–all day, every day–I like to listen to other voices. But TV is pure distraction for me. I can’t have it on in the background, and I’ve never been able to think well when looking at multiple screens.

Podcasts are different. The best ones are like listening in on the conversations of smart, helpful people. The fact that they’re all strangers doesn’t matter. I have several must-listen podcasts (Welcome to Nightvale! Roderick on the Line!). But here I’ll just mention three that apply most to writers.


The Rocking Self Publishing Podcast: This is the most relevant one on the list (since I’m a writer who self-publishes). Simon Whistler finds guests who represent a variety of perspectives to discuss many aspects of writing: working creatively, managing output, publishing, marketing, etc. Some names you might recognize: Hugh Howey, Johanna Penn, Russell Blake, and others. Each show addresses one specific topic–but even those that might not seem to apply to everyone (non-fiction writing, for example, which I don’t do) still offer great advice that’s broadly applicable to writing and publishing. Simon does his homework, asks great questions, and stays on point. For added value, he’s British, which makes the show exactly 28% smarter just because of the accent. (That’s how that works, right?)

Why not start by listening to this one about not looking to outliers (with Hugh Howey)?


Back to Work: This is not a podcast on writing or publishing, but it is loosely geared toward the idea of working. If that sounds vague to you, you are so right. Though the show is nominally about productivity, the two hosts, Dan and Merlin, get derailed by any number of important topics: comic books, music, parenting, germ theory, or the sociological experiment that is Florida. But it’s funny as hell, and Merlin usually manages to pull himself together by the end to deliver a practical mediation on some topic germane to the concept of work. Often it’s about office work, dealing with management, or deciding what work you want to do with your life. But some episodes also cover more esoteric issues like agency or creativity. Merlin excels at taking all those nebulous ideas about work that we’ve all had, and then nailing down the core of them so they can’t wiggle off the examining table and back into the dark recesses of our minds before we’ve at least identified the problem. Dan will then diffidently explain how the Buddha approached the same issue. And did I mention the comic books? They talk about comic books. A LOT.

Why not start by listening to this one about the Vocational Wheel?


Homework: Another show on the trusty 5by5 network, Homework is what Back to Work might be if Dan and Merlin actually stayed on topic (except for the mandatory 5by5 comic book aside, which is here too). Not just a clever name, Homework is literally a podcast about working from home, and therefore is useful for anyone who does any sort of freelancing or creative solo work. Most of the episodes take on a very specific topic. Workspace! Sleeping habits! Scheduling! Billing! Accounting! For writers, not all topics will be relevant. But if you self-publish, you are a small business owner, so most of it is stuff you’ve worried about. Aaron and Dave are delightful nerds who want to help.

Why not start by listening to this one about working for exposure?

If you’re a writer like me–or if you enjoy comic books–check out a few episodes of these podcasts. Do you have any other podcasts you find useful as a writer or worker? Share it in the comments…

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

Favorite Writing Tools

Today, I want to share some real nuts and bolts writing stuff. Below, I’m going to talk about my top five writing tools. Not all of these will work for everyone, but if nothing else, I hope it make you think about your own writing process and how you can improve it (and we can always improve, no matter how good we are).


Byword: I love Byword. It’s a distraction-free writing app, and it really is just that—tons of white space, and very little in the way of features (it only works on iThings, but there are similar programs for PCs). It’s the app I open in the early stages of a project. Byword is designed to keep you in the present moment. Lines of text fade from black to pale grey just as soon as you complete them. It encourages you to just keep writing—not to reread or critique what you’ve just done. I find that writing thousands of words is almost effortless with Byword. After I have that first chunk of the story down, I’ll transfer it to Pages or another more complex writing app (Scrivener, Ulysses, etc) to deal with the text there. Byword is unwieldy for detailed editing of large pieces. But for pure “get ‘er done” free writing, it’s fantastic.

Duotrope: I am not particularly good at record keeping on my own (read: I suck at it), so Duotrope is a perfect tool for me. With it, I can track my story submissions in a tidy, efficient way. As a bonus, the Duotrope database of market listings is extremely handy (though definitely not comprehensive). Since starting with Duotrope, I have a much better handle on my submissions process. I’m able to strategize which markets to aim for by type (pro, semi-pro, etc, for example), and to know which markets are open for submissions and when. I’m way smarter about timeliness too—when I get a rejection, I simply log it and submit the story to the next market on my list. In a way, Duotrope makes me more professional and less…um, emotional about my submissions. And that’s well worth it. Duotrope is usable for free, but much more of its functionality kicks in when you subscribe. (Caveat: Duotrope is geared to toward writers who will be submitting pieces to other markets. If you’re only writing novels, say, or if you’re self-publishing everything you do, Duotrope probably isn’t for you.)

RescueTime: I started using this app earlier this year. I was hesitant to install it, because I’m wary of “metrics”. So often crunchy data look impressive but tell you absolutely nothing useful. But RescueTime has improved my awareness of my work habits in a real way. It tracks everything you do on your computer and simply records it (with the paid version, you can set RescueTime to block the internet and other distractions for a set amount of time as well). It’s best to install RescueTime and then forget you installed it for a week or so. Don’t change your habits—just let RescueTime watch you work (Hal-like) and get some data collected. Then you can start looking at all the pretty charts RT generates. It’s eye-opening. You’ll see exactly how many minutes you spend in your writing applications, as well as email and individual websites. I was surprised to discover that I didn’t spend nearly as much time of Facebook as I thought (it only feels like forever). However, I spent way more time reading news articles of dubious import (click bait, anyone?). On the bright side, RT posts encouraging notes when you hit positive goals.

Timer: as in, an actual timer. Sometimes it helps to have that outside reminder that the clock is literally ticking. I don’t use a timer every day. But when I’m having a terrible time focusing, I’ll set the timer for fifteen minutes and say “I’m just going to write for fifteen minutes. DEAD PEOPLE can write for fifteen minutes.” That short, targeted goal often helps to break me out of my focus funk. And when the timer dings, I just crank it again…or keep on writing, if my practice has kicked in. Personally, I like those old-fashioned timers that simply go ding at the end. However, any timer app can work just fine. The point is letting yourself be ruled by the timer long enough to get you in the flow.

Tea: Yeah, I’m getting real high tech here. A near constant supply of tea is invaluable for my writing, and not just for the caffeine. The warm mug is so useful for de-chilling fingers that just typed 1000 words! The comforting aroma of Barry’s, or Yorkshire Gold, or PG Tips (all bagged—I’m no aristocrat, people) definitely helps put me in a proper mindset to write. Also, it does have that nice caffeine…[Jocelyn heads off to make another cup of tea]

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

Is It Ever Smart to Write for Exposure?

In an ideal world, all artists would be paid for all their work.

We do not live in an ideal world.


Any writer can tell you how hard it is to get fairly compensated for the work you do. Even a short story can take a long time to do well: maybe a week or two, maybe several months. Once you calculate the hours it takes to get a short story ready to sell (for up to $200-300—if you’re lucky!), that mimimim wage job starts to look pretty solid.

So, many writers contemplate whether to write for exposure, i.e. write for free (like this very blog post…ooh, meta!). Many folks have a zero-tolerance policy on writing for exposure, and that’s fine. But I’d like to advance the theory that writing for exposure may in some cases be the right design. The key is knowing when to say yes or no.

When is writing for exposure bad?

When it’s exploitative. This is what most people are talking about when they discuss the evils of writing for exposure. “People die of exposure! You can’t pay the rent with exposure!” Both are technically true. There are plenty of folks out there who will always try to get something for nothing. They prey on writers’ desire for recognition, for that sense of validation. This is what you have to watch out for. Be very careful when you’re asked to work for free, especially if the end product is still something people pay for, or if others involved are getting compensated. Do your research and make an informed decision. If you don’t see a good reason to say yes, say no.

When it gets in the way of paid work. This scenario is simpler. If you have a choice to do work for free or do work for pay, pick the paying gig! Easy, right? This method of prioritizing works well in general, actually. For example, in my own writing, I tend to work hard on my romances and get them ready to ship ASAP, because the romances sell. I work on my spec fiction and other projects after I hit my daily romance goals, because even if/when I sell those stories, it will likely be for less money per hour of work. Remember, art is still a business.

When is writing for exposure good?

When there is mutual benefit. Exploitation is like a bad parasite in your gut, but symbiotic relationships are good. A free gig might help you hone your craft, say with a piece of flash fiction that won’t take very long to write. It might help you explore a new genre without stressing too hard. Maybe you’ll get to work with a stellar editor, or an artist whose work complements your own. Maybe the project is for a charity (if you’re passionate about that cause, let your craft be your donation to it). You’ll have to decide if you can get something out of any particular gig, and the benefits will obviously differ depending on the writer.

When it results in “real intangibles”. What’s a real intangible? A publishing credit. A contact. A reference. None of these things are cash money, yet all of them have a real value. The path to paying gigs is paved with experience, and it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll be compensated for everything you do (especially when you’re starting out). Think of real intangibles as investments. They start small but can grow over time. And yes, there is a risk that some won’t ever pay out. (But if you think writing is ever a risk-free business, you’re in for some sad times, pal.)

Be smart about building up these intangibles, and you can leverage them later on. Maybe one of your contacts is going to put together an anthology and pay the contributors. Maybe an agent will read your published story and contact you about representation. Maybe a few readers will like your stuff and follow you on social media…and they may buy your book when it’s published.

Bottom line: If it doesn’t feel like the right decision, then don’t do it. Never let yourself get pressured into something.

If you choose to take an exposure gig, do treat it as a professional job. Even with no money involved, get a contract or an agreement in writing that preserves your rights to the work. For example, if you write a piece of flash for a webzine, they may have exclusive rights to publish it on their site for 6 months, after which they have only non-exclusive rights to archive it. That way you can use the story elsewhere (such as for a reprint or an anthology). Don’t just hand off your stuff without a plan. As a writer, your writing is a business asset. Treat it like one!

Like everything else in the universe, the concept of “writing for exposure” is neither pure evil nor pure unicorn rainbows. Decide what you value, what outcomes you want, and what you can live with.

Bonus: How NOT to write for exposure

Here’s a quick tip. If someone asks you to work for free and you don’t want to, here’s a professional-sounding way to frame your refusal. Simply say “I’m flattered by your respect for my insights/previous work/awesomeness, but at this time, I have to focus on paying projects. I wish you luck in finding another contributor who can work for free, and I hope your publication/market/business/website will soon reach the level of success where you can afford to compensate your contributors.”

Take that and tweak it however you like.

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

What Rappers Can Teach Writers

Recently, I watched Something from Nothing: the Art of Rap, Ice-T’s first documentary. It’s on—you guessed it—the art of rap, and it brings in some of the biggest and most respected names in the business to talk about how they craft and refine their art. (It’s on Netflix and Amazon and everywhere else, so see it. It’s pretty amazing.)

As I watched, it occurred to me that so many of the insights these artists offer up are things that writers should listen to. Now you are probably smarter than me, so you probably immediately thought “Duh, of course writers could learn from rappers. Rappers ARE writers.” Well, yes. But I was so used to thinking of rappers as musicians and collaborators that I never considered that a lot of their work still takes place inside their heads, or alone in a room. Just like writers.

So, I pass on to you just a few pieces of knowledge this film captured:

Skip the setup. “Once you grab the mic, in the first bar of your rhyme, you have to swing the crowd to you.” KRS-One tells amateur rappers to hit the ground running. Don’t tell people what you’re going to do, just do it. Writers hear about this concept a lot (hook readers in the first page, the first line) but it’s important not to forget it. No one is going to give you a gold star just for showing up; you have to show what you’ve got. Bring your best and the audience will follow you. But you can’t drag them there. They have to want to go along. Speaking of…

Learn how to listen. “If you don’t know how to listen to it, it doesn’t make sense.” DJ Premier is talking about understanding hip hop versus jazz and blues…but the same thing is true for writers. If you’re going to write in a genre, learn the genre. “You have to know the language” says DJ Premier. For writer, that means reading the classics of the genre, learning what the tropes are, seeing how things have evolved. Don’t assume you can fake it, because the readers who love the genre will definitely spot your ignorance…and they’ll tear you apart. Which brings us to the next lesson…

You’re gonna get booed. Eminem tells his story of getting booed during his first attempt to rap in public, an event that got recreated in the movie 8 Mile. He’s up front about it being traumatic. He initially felt like he was done after that…and who would blame him? (At least beginning writers can read their rejections in private.) But obviously, he didn’t give up. He says “couple days later, week later, hour later” he realized he had to get up and do it again. And eventually it worked out. Are you guaranteed to achieve Eminem-like levels of fame if you keep at it? Of course not. But you sure as hell won’t achieve more if you quit now. Which brings us to…

Know how to work. Immortal Technique discusses his…well, technique for how to write. He often works out or boxes, saying “I come back with my blood up…but instead of physically fighting, I focus on fighting mentally.” Everyone has a way to get into the flow of writing. Maybe you need silence. Maybe you need loud. Maybe you need to eat. Maybe you need to not eat. Figure out what gets you ready to write and then stick to it. One warning about this idea: don’t let your habit become an excuse. Just because you don’t have your special yellow legal pad and #2 pencil with you doesn’t mean you can’t write. The pen is just an instrument. So is the computer. The writing comes from you. If you find yourself making excuses, maybe you need to…

Make sure this thing is for you. Dr Dre says once you decide on your path, “you have to give it the passion that’s necessary.” Why listen to Dre? Out of a 27 year career, he took two weeks off. Two weeks. That’s dedication. If you’re a writer, you need to give the same dedication to your craft. You don’t have to write every single day, but you have to be consistent, and you have to care. And, finally…

Be yourself. Speak with an original voice, make it your voice, and make the best thing you possibly can. That’s how you get to be the best. In the words of Snoop, who closes the film: “Find yourself, find your art, find your heart.” Aw, Snoop. You said it.

There’s a lot more where that came from (seriously, just watch the movie…you’ll be smarter at the end). As writers, we should constantly look for ways to write better and improve our craft, and that means learning from every source, even ones that don’t seem obvious at first. Got it? Now go write!

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

Finding the Right Market

The words submission and acceptance are emotionally charged in the context of gender relations. They are also emotionally charged in the context of professional writing. I have a story to tell about that.

Quite a while ago, I wrote a science fiction story called Message in a Bottle with a female main character. I liked the story a lot. I spent a loooong time tweaking it. When I finally committed to the notion of getting published, it was the first longer piece that I tried to sell to any market.

It got rejected. I aimed high, and was quickly rejected by several established markets. Most were form rejections. A couple were personalized. One offered inexplicable advice for rewrites (“Why not talk more about the computer system?” Um, because boring.). Overall, just standard responses.

But it was rejected enough that I started worrying. None of the rejections suggested that the reasons had anything to do with gender. But then, why would they say it outright? I am pretty obviously a woman: I write under my full first name, not initials or a pseudonym, and my little 3rd person bio uses “she” and “her”. My story featured a woman. What if either (or both) of those things influenced editors’ decisions? Before you ask, let me say that none of the markets I submitted to anonymized submissions.

Message in a Bottle was not specifically about my character being a woman. I deliberately gave my character a sort of gender-ambiguous name, Dorian. Her movement throughout the story was defined by her professional role rather than her gender. The big idea involved first contact, not any interpersonal dynamics, or (heaven forfend!) a romance. The story had a bit of math in it, but I would never characterize it as “hard SF”. So. I was left with a soft SF story featuring a woman.

I didn’t doubt my writing, but I did begin to doubt the fairness of the system. Was I making a mistake in trying to publish science fiction? Should I stick to fairy tales, which I also love writing? Should I shelve this story and go onto something else, until I got a few more publishing credits?

Or…should I gender-flip my protagonist and see if that changes the outcome? Hell, I wouldn’t even have to change the name! Search and replace a few pronouns, and I’d be golden.

I thought that might be an interesting experiment. Maybe, I thought, I could submit the story with Boy Dorian, and if it got accepted, I could request to have the Girl Dorian version published. (Because what’s more attractive than an unknown author with demands? Amirite?)

So I went ahead and made a gender-flipped version of the story. Simple pronoun swapage. It was easy. And I didn’t like the result AT ALL. Boy Dorian was acting all wrong. He seemed overly sensitive, emotional. Certain words that worked fine for Girl Dorian suddenly sounded jarring. Girl Dorian nestled in a shelter. Boy Dorian huddled. Girl Dorian had intuition. Boy Dorian had a hunch.

WTF had I written? I could have sworn that my original story was admirably gender-neutral. Girl Dorian was the job. She analyzed evidence and crunched numbers and then endured a bad situation like a pro. Yet when I gender-flipped the character, I realized that my Dorian simply wouldn’t behave the same way as a man would (at least not in my created world).

I was so uncomfortable with the Boy Dorian version that I resolved to try once more with my original story before committing to a gender-flip strategy. I found a market that looked promising. It was a magazine actively committed to promoting both authors and characters who are women, people of color, queer, disabled and/or otherwise underrepresented groups. They might not like my story, of course, but I was confident that if it got rejected, it wouldn’t be because of gender discrimination.

Then a weird thing happened. My story was accepted.


There were some readers who liked my writing and didn’t have any concerns about girliness. You can read it here, in the April issue of Crossed Genres.

So in the end I never got to try out my gender-flipped version of the story. I’ll never know if the same markets that rejected Girl Dorian might have accepted her twin brother. I’m really happy not knowing that.

I’m also happy to be a published author. Crossed Genres offered me my first professional sale. It was a huge boost for me as a writer, but I might not have ever submitted my story there if I hadn’t seen their statement of welcome for new writers, and writers of non-quite-the-norm. Markets like CG are vitally important to the fiction world because of their two-pronged strategy of publishing good fiction and fiction by underrepresented peeps. Those two goals are not separate.

It’s sometimes not enough to state that all are equal. Today, that’s a low bar. CG and some other markets have taken that extra step to be open, to invite submissions by minorities, by women, by all kinds of Others. That’s a different message than just saying “The door’s not locked.” CG said “Hey, the door’s open. We were hoping you’d come by.”

To those people in the publishing/writing/reading world who are interested in fostering new writers, writers outside the conventional pool, writers who might not have lived life on “easy mode”… well, that doesn’t just happen on its own. People need to make it happen.

Which brings me to my final point. Crossed Genres pays professional rates and it is trying to become an SFWA-qualifying market. But running a magazine isn’t free, and without enough support, CG will close at the end of 2013. If you support the idea of a rich, diverse field of writers, you should support CG. Buy a subscription (I did.). Buy a gift subscription. Donate.

Talking about encouraging new writers is great. Paying writers (and the editors who work with them) real money is also great. You’re not saving anything. You’re supporting a producer who shares your values. Easy, right?

And in the end, you are what you defend.

Jocelyn Koehler is one-fourth of the Star-Dusted Sirens. 

Fast Furious Feminism

As a woman and a writer, I think a lot about how to represent women in stories. I want them to be compelling characters on their own, fit into the larger world (whether “real” or subcreated), and free of any anti-feminist tropes. It’s very easy to roll on a topcoat of feminism over any character, usually by making her “tough” (but not tougher than the main male characters!).

But having your lady character stick a gun in someone’s face doesn’t automatically confer agency. A tough shell may give the appearance that the woman is an equal in the story, but it means little if her character is surrounded by a sausage fest, forced into a gender-normative secondary role, or damselled for the convenience of the plot. (See more on Damselling as a verb here.)

These types of pitfalls are often more obvious in film than in novels, so I’m going to use the Fast & Furious franchise to show both good and bad representations of women. This isn’t a critique or review of the movies. I’m just talking about how they portray female characters.

First, though, I’d like to offer sincere praise to the franchise for truly incorporating POC characters. Compared to many, many other Hollywood productions, this franchise is refreshingly inclusive. Major characters are black, Hispanic, and/or Asian. They hail from Brazil, Mexico, Israel, Japan, Korea, etc. I think this trend is great. It feels organic, and it’s heartening to see a nicely-browned cast in movies not explicitly about a particular race or culture. Yay!

Now, let’s talk feminism, shall we? (SPOILER warning from here on out, for those who might care!) Who are the Fast & Furious ladies? I’m going to focus on five, most of whom appear in multiple installments.


Mia — She initially appears as the sister of anti-hero Dom, and is also the love interest of slacker-hero Brian. Later, she becomes the mother of Brian’s child. We first see her making a sandwich for the protagonist Brian (albeit as a server, not a wife). Please. She sometimes drives with the guys, but usually is shown as a support/watcher/sideline character. In the fifth movie, the Big Bad threatens to have her raped and killed. In the sixth movie, she actually gets kidnapped and held as a prize for the men to retrieve (solely for her prize value, not due to any intrinsic value/knowledge/capital of her own). Mia is the favorite character to damsel in this whole franchise. Is she a feminist character? Nope. Not at all.


Letty — Outwardly very tough and on par with the boys, Letty is the obvious argument for actual feminism in the series. EXCEPT….she also gets damselled, big time. First, she is killed by an antagonist in the fourth movie, which is the fuel for revenge-y butt kicking on the part of the males (led by Letty’s boyfriend Dom). And then, when she is revealed to be still alive in another installment, she is again/still damselled by another antagonist. He puts a psychological cage around Letty by exploiting her amnesiac state. She can’t rescue herself, so Dom has to basically force her to “see the light” (as defined by him), and sort of steals her back.

True, Letty is tough in a practical sense. She is portrayed as a great driver, she shoots straight except when aiming at Dom, and defeats Gina Carano’s character in a very satisfying fistfight. But yeah, no gold star here. Letty’s toughness is a band-aid for her stunted self-determination. (Also, why the retconning about how Letty met Dom as a hottie teen rather than growing up on the same block? More troublingly, WHY do I know about the retconning in these movies? What am I doing with my life?).

Anyway, on to…


Gisele — Described as cool and competent, the ex-Mossad Gisele initially seems like pretty feminist character. She doesn’t take crap, and appears to be treated as an equal…after she shuts down one male character’s cheesy pick-up line by sticking a gun in his face. She could be played by a man…oops, only until the scene where she has to wear a bikini and act vapid to get close to the antagonist to get a handprint, a mission which she begins with the airy statement “Never send a man to do a woman’s job”. Ugh. (Spoiler: the handprint is lifted off her bikini bottom).

Oh, and bigger spoiler, she dies to save the life of her lover. Now that decision isn’t anti-feminist in itself, but she was the only character to die in that installment, implying a very unequal sense of sacrifice. No man had an “absolute certain death” option and took it. Most annoyingly, the grieving for her seemed really limited, outside of the doomed Han (Spoiler only if you haven’t seen the out-of-sequence Tokyo Drift.) So, is she feminist? Eh.


Elena — Here’s another female character who is presented as honest, loyal, competent, and tenacious. She’s pretty great, actually. After the apparent death of Letty, sort-of widowed Dom takes up with the really-widowed Elena. OMG, a mature relationship? Well, kinda. When Letty is later revealed to be alive, Elena shows an insane level of magnanimity when she tells Dom to forget about her and go retrieve his original beloved from her metaphorical Damsel Tower of the Mind. Would that all breakups went so smoothly.

Elena also saves the day at the end of the same movie by hiding Mia’s baby from the kidnappers (so only Mia gets ‘napped). And then she’s super nice to Letty in what should be an awkward meeting/catfight! Elena, awesomely, then just goes to work for Hobbs (Platonically, which is great. She’s committed to fighting crime; she not merely chasing a relationship). In fact, pretty much everything Elena does is super nice and great…particularly for the other characters. Would a male character be written as so incredibly selfless? I doubt it. Is she feminist? Maybe, if she got to be in a different franchise.


Riley (Gina Carano) — I’m not sure how much energy I have for this. Okay, Riley. Introduced as uber smart and committed new partner to Hobbs, she is treated more-or-less as an equal by everyone. Great, right? Turns out she’s a traitor. Of course. She was in the confidence (and, it is implied, the sack) of the antagonist the whole time. The traitor bit was annoying, mostly because her reasons for betrayal weren’t very clear. Just because she was the secret girlfriend of the antagonist, I guess? And money? Anyway, she dies, so that’s that. Traitors don’t get resurrected. But is she feminist? Well…actually, yeah. She’s never shown as weak. She’s treated as being in charge (or co-in-charge) right up until her betrayal is revealed. So yeah. She is feminist. That in no way changes the fact that her character is a bad person.

And maybe that’s the most feminist thing of all: Carano shouldn’t have to hold up her character as a “good example” for all women. She’s the character that best fits the plot. Bad women are people too. So…yay? Now, those are most of the major female characters. We can see that most of them aren’t really feminist, and they are certainly not working in a feminist world (or being created by feminist screenwriters, etc.).

But feminism is not a trait applicable only to women. Men, of course, can be feminist. Are any of the men in the FF franchise feminist? Well, the fact that the line “smack that ass” recurs throughout the series might give you a clue. Or the fact that when two of our protagonists roll into a milieu of scantily-clad, barely-legal ladies at a street race, the conclusion is “home sweet home.” Ew. The majority of the male cast members are straight-up dudebros, who see women as either potential sexual partners, or possessions to be protected/retrieved/secured, albeit because they are “loved.”

Are any of the male characters feminist? Maybe. Hobbs (The Rock’s uber-cop) is shown as working with several female characters because they’re good at whatever job they do. He never hits on them, nor does he assign them tasks where they have to use their sexuality to get something done. So, yay. That’s one. Only eleventy more to go. (Han might get partial credit, too.)

So what’s my point? It’s not that the franchise is evil, or anti-woman. It’s rather that even with the gloss of feminism (look at these tough, pretty girls who can drive and shoot guns!), the old tropes of the damselled female and the femme fatale are still driving forces (sorry, sorry) behind the franchise’s use of women. These movies display a careless attitude toward feminism that is frustrating only because it could have been easily tweaked at many points to minimize the tired plot devices and change some lines show a tad more respect.

Of course, the franchise doesn’t particularly respect physics, temporal continuity, or logic, so maybe this is asking a bit much.


But I’m going to ask anyway. See you at the movies.

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.