Devourer or Maiden? Women in Sci-Fi

When you hear the words science fiction, movies like Star Wars and Star Trek (anything with “Star” written in front of it) come to mind. You think of futuristic and far away worlds, you may even think of Marty McFly and a time traveling car. I had always—until perhaps last Christmas—avoided anything and everything science fiction. Why? I guess I just thought it was a waste of time. Who wanted to sit and watch/read a movie or book about how two worlds fought in far off space and women played, what sci-fi author Joanna Russ calls, “Victims/Maidens” or “Devourer/Bitch” roles. A women in science fiction is either a damsel in distress (i.e., Princess Leia in Star Wars and River Song in Doctor Who) or a bitch (i.e., Ellen Ripley in Aliens and Furiosa in Mad Max:Fury Road). Sure, the female characters above can be said to sway in both directions, but the fact is that females are misrepresented in the science fiction genre, whether it be film or literature. Is it because there is a lack of female science fiction writers or is it because this “Victims/Maidens” or “Devourer/Bitch” stereotype is easier to create on screen and on paper?

Science fiction as it is known now is typically said to have originated with Hugo Gernsback when he created the magazine Amazing Stories. From the moment that science fiction became a “thing” there has been constant debate and disagreement about what the definition of the genre should be. Darko Suvin describes it in his book Metamorphoses of Science Fiction as a genre that depends upon a balanced use of estrangement and cognition—a balance between the strange and the unfamiliar, and the recognizable and relatable. Like writer Carl Freedman says, if the balance is too heavy on estrangement it will become fantasy, and if it is too heavy on cognition it will become realistic fiction. So, science fiction is all about balance.

What do all these definitions and history have in common? They were defined by men. Not only are the definitions written by men, but so are many of the science fiction films and books we come across today. Think of your favorite science fiction movies, television shows, and books—Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Doctor Who, Firefly, 1984, Brave New World, and so on. They were all written by men.

It can be difficult to create a well-rounded character—especially of the opposite sex. But all the more reason to spend time researching and giving it shape. Women are complicated. We do not represent one characteristic. Unfortunately, women are portrayed as one-sided in science fiction films and literature, instead of showing the true nature of our complex personalities. Now, this is a generalization because not all science fiction characterizes women this way. The bad news is that there needs to be more female science fiction writers and more dominant and independent female roles in film and literature. The good news is that it looks like the latter is beginning to happen.

In second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, women took to writing to address the social inequality issues that influenced their lives. Let’s take Joanna Russ’s novel The Two of Them (1978) as an example. Irene, a young girl who lived in 1950s America, runs away from her sexist reality into a seemingly equal and more inclusive life as a part of the Trans-Temporal Authority. Years later, along with her partner/lover, Ernst, they are assigned to a mission on Ka’abah. There, Irene meets Zubedyeh, a young girl and aspiring poet who is oppressed by the male-dominant society she lives in and who’s talent is passed off as madness. It is only when Irene saves Zubedeyeh that she realizes that she too has fallen victim to the gender biases of her reality. By portraying this futuristic and estranged world, Russ comments on the sexist and oppressive reality of women, and also promotes social values.

The science fiction genre lends itself to the issue of gender inequality in society so flawlessly because it places the characters (and the reader) in an unfamiliar environment, which in turn allows the writer to talk about popular matters without driving people away. It takes a refreshing approach to already present issues. Russ does this effortlessly by placing her characters in a futuristic society and remembering to make reference to relatable gender issues.

Science fiction is typically a male-written genre, and because of this it stars strong male characters and (almost always) weak female characters. However, the presence of female science fiction writers is beginning to change the conversation about how females are represented in literature and film. Feminist science fiction is didactic; it attempts to change the way female characters are interpreted and constructed and wishes to break out of the customary male-dominant narratives while exploring female struggles.

Illustration by Taylor Roberts