Why must mainstream SF & fantasy replicate old gender forms?

Science Fiction MuseumImage by Ricardo.martins on Flickr shared via a Creative Commons License.

Over the past couple of days I have been watching all 6 of the Star Wars films. I started at Episode IV, because, well, starting with Episode I makes me disinclined to continue. I’ve never seen all 6 in such close succession before, and I was seriously struck by how little had changed, and indeed how regressive in places the representation of women was in the modern trilogy. Sure Padmé and Leia are strong, and they fight well, but why are there no prominent female jedi? Why is the most lingering image of the entire series in pop culture Leia her dressed in a slave girl outfit?

Final Fantasy X-2 is another case in point – the idea was phenomenally exciting – taking the strong summoner of FFX and building a game around her and an all-female team of fighters. What did we get? Instead of the (admittedly opaque) Sphere Grid route to levelling up your characters –  you had ‘dresspheres’ and a ‘garment grid’. Yes, you changed fucking clothes to garner different abilities. 40% of all gamers are female, and this is what they think of us.

Likewise as strong fantasy and scifi characters are translated to the Silver Screen we find much of the same. Hermione pretty much saves everyone’s lives several times over in the Harry Potter series, she is strong, intelligent, and has emotional struggles on a par with her male counterparts – in the films she is over-emotional, passive, or emotionally motivated in her power. In the books Ginny is also strong, powerful, and an accomplished sportswoman – in the films she ties Harry’s shoelaces and feeds him mince pies.

Even the few things billed as pro-feminist – Firefly for example – let us down. Sure it contains strong, realistic female characters – but what do we really have? An upper class whore, a techy-girl, a crazy person, and a warrior woman, plus the odd head of tribe is female. This characterisation is only on a par with our CURRENT REAL WORLD. And when we saw them moved to the Silver Screen, we got a couple dress size thinner (compare Serenity Kaylee to her Firefly counterpart), more compliant female characters.

There are of course some notable mainstream exceptions – Halo Jones, most things written by Ursula Le GuinPortal, quite a lot of Miyazaki – you could (to a degree) include the Alien films, but remember that Ripley was originally written as a male character, and when they changed the gender, they didn’t change the lines.

Part of this lack of strong female characterisation is to do with the appalling lack of women writing, directing and programming (or given money and the expectation that they will be able to do so) and part of this is to do with how fiction is billed and marketed – an awful lot of excellent fiction is dismissed as not of mainstream interest because it comes in ‘female’ format (romantic comedy is a case in point). Fiction with female protagonists or female-orientated central concerns are largely considered to be of interest only to women – whereas fiction with male protagonists (an overwhelming majority) are expected to have universal appeal. Female writers’ names are put on the front of books in gender neutralised initials so that men might pick them up, and the majority of sci fi and fantasy comic books and video games are populated replications of of contemporary gender relations, seen through predominantly male eyes. Likewise the argument is made than women just aren’t interested in scifi/fantasy/games/comic books. Ever consider that may have something to do with whose story they always tell?

People are exploring race, identity and white guilt through mainstream scifi – the alien, we are told, is the analogue for the Other. But I’m bored of looking at the Other from the eyes of the every-white-man. How about we consider than in a thousand years or so – gender, race, and disability relations may have changed. Yes we are writing/filming/programming for contemporary audiences, but the great power of other worlds is that we can use them to highlight and explore the assumptions of this one.

Further reading:

When Will White People Stop Making Films Like Avatar

Awesome Women in Comics Holiday Gift List

A list of pro-feminist scifi writing compiled by Cynthia Ward

Standard Troll Rebuttal Page #1: “Who cares? It’s just a game”

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4 Responses to “Why must mainstream SF & fantasy replicate old gender forms?”

  1. Aliki December 28, 2009 at 5:29 pm #

    This is something that’s been bothering me for years, it’s good to find it so well put. As a teenaged reader of Golden Age SF I found it particularly galling; these guys could imagine Martian colonies, but in them, guys went to work andf their wives ironed their spacesuits.You would have expected more to have changed. Part of the reason it hasn’t, I think, is that writers draw too much on the trpes of the genre, rather than allowing their imaginations broader range.

    I’ll add to your print exceptions the fabulous Gwynneth Jones ( her recent space opera Spirit is a gpood example) and Elizabeth Bear. Lois McMasters Bujold is a more overtly feminist (her heroines struggle within repressive cultures) example, and Sheri S. Tepper.

    I saw a cinematic exception recently, though for reasons I won’t go into in case they are spoilers, it might not count: Nine (no, not that one). It’s a post-apolcalyptic animation; flawed, but quite delightful, and the sexual politics made me want to stand up and cheer.

  2. Hannah Nicklin December 28, 2009 at 11:44 pm #

    Thanks for commenting Aliki, and I shall check out your additional notable exceptions :)

    I know this isn’t a particularly new discussion, indeed the feminist literary criticism of SF and Fantasy has been going on for a long time, but I think it’s as well to keep bringing it up.

  3. Huw January 2, 2010 at 8:55 pm #

    I thought Helena Cain was a promising character in BSG (admittedly, her competition wasn’t great), but the writers didn’t seem to know what to do with a strong woman without just making her a total Thatcher clone bitch.

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