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Women in SF

Entry updated 31 August 2018. Tagged: Theme.


In "The Image of Women in Science Fiction" (November 1970 Red Clay Reader) Joanna Russ wrote, "There are plenty of images of women in science fiction. There are hardly any women." This apprehension of the state of affairs has changed in the subsequent decades, chiefly due to the impact of Feminism and to the increasing numbers of women writing sf in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the new century, though also to an increased awareness of the large number of Utopias and Dystopias written by and featuring women in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century America; but a relative absence of realistic female characters remains a glaring fault of the genre.

Since Genre SF developed in a patriarchal culture as something written chiefly by men for men (or boys), the lack of female protagonists is unsurprising. When women do appear they are usually defined by their relationship to the male characters, as objects to be desired or feared, rescued or destroyed; often, especially in recent, more sexually explicit times, women characters exist only to validate the male protagonist as acceptably masculine – that is, heterosexual. Before the 1970s even Women SF Writers tended to reflect the prevailing view about women's place by writing about men's adventures in future worlds where women stayed home to work the control panels in automated kitchens. The main alternative to men's adventure stories was ladies' magazine fiction, in which the domestic virtues of the sweet, intuitive housewife-heroine somehow saved the day.

It would be hard for even the most ardent fan to list a dozen Genre SF novels written before 1970 which feature female protagonists: Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), Robert A Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars (1963), Samuel R Delany's Babel-17 (1966), Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage (July 1963 If as "Down to the Worlds of Men"; exp 1968), Joanna Russ's Picnic on Paradise (1968) and Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang (coll of linked stories 1969) are probably the best known, and all date from the transitional period of the 1960s. Betty King provides a detailed and apparently exhaustive list from 1818 on in Women of the Future: The Female Main Character in Science Fiction (1984). Moreover, as Suzy McKee Charnas pointed out in an essay on how and why she came to write – "No-Road" (in Women of Vision, anth 1988, ed Denise Du Pont) – it is easy to write a thoroughly sexist story around a female protagonist, and the real test of whether or not female characters are being written about as human beings is whether the protagonist is connected in any important way to other complex female characters, or if she is significantly connected only to males. This requirement is now commonly known as the Bechdel Test, first promulgated by the feminist cartoonist Alison Bechdel (1960-    ) in 1985, which is passed in a film or other fictional work if it contains at least two women, who talk to each other about something besides a man. Bechdel in fact credits the idea to a friend, Liz Wallace, and to the influence of Virginia Woolf, whose Orlando: a Biography (1928) features, in a sense (see also Transgender SF), a female protagonist.

Not allowed the variety or complexity of real people, women in sf have been represented most frequently by a very few stereotypes: the Timorous Virgin (good for being rescued, and for having things explained to her), the Amazon Queen (sexually desirable and terrifying at the same time, usually set up to be "tamed" by the super-masculine hero), the Frustrated Spinster Scientist (an object lesson to girl readers that career success equals feminine failure), the Good Wife (keeps quietly in the background, loving her man and never making trouble) and the Tomboy Kid Sister (who has a semblance of autonomy only until male appreciation of her burgeoning sexuality transforms her into Virgin or Wife). But of course the vast majority of male characters in sf are stereotypes too. David Ketterer in New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction and American Literature (1974), among others, has argued that the "weaknesses" of poor characterization and lack of human interest in much sf can be seen as a strength, at least in "cosmic" fictions in which individual concerns – including gender – are unimportant.

Some find the lack of any female characters in much sf more disturbing than the use of stereotypes, but Gwyneth Jones has argued in "Writing Science Fiction for the Teenage Reader" (in Where No Man has Gone Before, anth 1990, ed Lucy Arnitt) that "Accepting a male protagonist on the printed page does not mean accepting one's own absence. Indeed the almost total absence of female characters makes simpler the imaginative sleight of hand whereby the teenage girl substitutes herself for the male initiate in these stories." Jones went on to argue that the "feminization" of teenage sf, through the presentation of more realistic female protagonists, "does not necessarily mean a better deal for girls", because such stories reinforce the status quo of a subordinate role for women. Although Jones was writing about teenage sf, her point may be more widely applied. Susan Wood, in her essay "Women and Science Fiction" (in Algol, Winter 1978/79), expressed the desire that women should reclaim rather than reject the archetypes which lie behind the usually disparaged stereotyped characters that populate sf. Many women have done so, as well as creating new possibilities for the expression of female humanity.

From the 1960s, sf was increasingly seen to have the potential to explore serious human issues, while at the same time many writers (especially those identified as members of the New Wave) were rejecting the old Pulp-magazine conventions in favour of experimentation and more artistic values. As more women were attracted by the changing image of sf (and here the influence of Star Trek should not be underestimated), as sf became more than a minority taste and began to sell in numbers previously unimaginable, and as more women moved into editorial positions, the role of female characters in sf became more important not only for aesthetic, personal or political reasons but also for commercial ones: surveys have shown that more women than men buy books, so a would-be bestseller cannot afford to alienate the female audience.

The old stereotypes are still around, although women writers more often give them a subversive twist: the Good Wife is married to a lesbian star-pilot, the Spinster Scientist has a rich and fulfilling sex life, the Amazon Queen triumphantly refuses to be tamed. If women writers feel able to play around with archetypes and stereotypes, male writers are more likely to avoid them for fear of being misunderstood and alienating much of their likely audience. Sometimes their efforts to include female characters are mere tokenism: a few female spear-carriers, soldiers or scientists appear, but questions of who's minding the kids and how does this apparently egalitarian society really work are never even posed. A few of the newer male writers – among them Greg Bear, Colin Greenland, Paul J McAuley, Ian McDonald and Bruce Sterling – have written novels about strong and interesting self-motivated women, although female protagonists – particularly ones who are more than a fantasy figure with an all-male supporting cast – are still more likely to be found in books by women writers.

Unfortunately, these positive changes in the literature have been countered by a retrogressive movement in popular sf films, where women's roles are limited and male-determined: if involved in the action they are victims, Robots or prostitutes (sometimes all three at once), otherwise they are waiting patiently for the hero in kitchen or bedroom. The role played by Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979) stands out as a notable exception: a female Hero. She is just as human as the rest of the mixed-sex crew, and is menaced by the alien to the same degree and in the same way. She is no weaker because she is a woman, and no more special. But in the sequel, Aliens (1986), the human/alien battle has become a heavily symbolic fight between two females. Weaver's character is lumbered with a stray child to make the final battle acceptable to even the most fearful of immature male viewers: this isn't a woman fighting a Monster, but two mothers doing what comes naturally, battling to protect their children. [LT]

further reading

see also: Clichés.

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