Feminism in Science Fiction
posted 9/2/2011 by Stella Atrium
A personal polemic about approaches to writing action adventure stories with women protagonists:
As a young person, I struggled with the label of feminism. I could not identify with leaders of the movement among wealthy married liberal (white) women who expressed outrage at being excluded from high-paying jobs. I also didn't embrace the liberal causes that allocated my limited resources for new citizens or to the less fortunate.
What really burned me (then and now) is that liberal women claim to speak for all women. I know advances for health care and job opportunities have been gained due to their work, but the organizations actively REJECT views from women with different political agendas.
I could not call myself a conservative, though, since I embraced independence for women in areas of finances, pay rates, travel, property ownership, and reproductive rights. I spent time as a young person arguing for nuanced definitions about the differences between liberated and liberal.
Additionally, since I live in Chicago, many groups for women were populated by women of color who brought with them old rhetoric from the civil rights movement, like they are locked in a time warp or something. I felt unwelcome, more than pushed out, since I was viewed as automatic competition for the few empowerment jobs the movement could carve out on a local level.
Just the same, in my stories I was actively solving problems for female characters and how they perceive/ define/ object to/ and address the world outside of family circles. I wanted to spout the party line for empowerment; I just didn't agree with it.
The few principles I had identified and wanted to implement in my stories included:
- Women make decisions in groups so the reader needs to meet the sister, auntie, daughters, cousins and friends of the heroine
- Stories about women take place over decades and are often resolved by a grown son who finally addresses a long-simmering outrage
- Women must solve problems using limited resources and with no voice in the public square
- Women are often undercut by other women
- With all these obstacles, women draw culture through hard times (while the men are killing each other) and make-do with the remnants of holocaust
One example is the Bechdel test that demands more scenes in movies where the female characters interact with each other.
Another discussion asks why sci-fi stories that take place on new worlds ignore where babies come from and why that's important.
Time was... the outrage I felt when reading a novel or viewing a movie in my favorite genre was not reinforced by friends. The classic example is Princess Leia in Star Wars who, as it turns out, was a twin to Luke Skywalker. In the first movie, Darth Vadar, later identified as their father, held Leia hostage on the unfinished death star and ordered her torture. Vadar didn't feel movement within the force while in her presence even though he was aware of Luke from two solar systems away. Go figure.
My recent exploration of the expanding world of book bloggers has been a delight. While I am glad to find I am not isolated due to my ideas about how female protagonists see/feel/address the world, I began to suspect I had found a cache of women among sci-fi feminists who as a group are isolated.
Part of the reason I cannot call myself a feminist is because I fear the adults will send us to another room to complain while they go about the business of managing the world. Until you have been disregarded in a business setting as not ready to sit at the table where decisions are made, or automatically called a trouble-maker, this sense of righteous indignation may escape you. I make no apology.
Professor Kay Vandergrift from Rutgers University supplied a few answers that settled my suspicions, especially about women and literary criticism.
|"In the past several decades both literary criticism and the theory that supports that criticism have shifted from a base in the literary community of readers and writers to the scholarly community of professors and university students. In the process, literary theory has become more fragmented and, many would say, more isolated, both from the literary works themselves and from the readers and writers connected to those works in the non-academic world."|
Vandergrift offers a few parameters [bullet points added] for developing literary criticism, talking most closely about stories for young people.
- "Theories are judged by their applicability and their usefulness.
- As new phenomena are created or discovered or existing ones perceived in new ways, theory is revised to assimilate this new information...
- Each theory opens our eyes to new perceptions and new perspectives, but
- [each theory] conceals as well as reveals certain aspects of the literary work and the literary experience.
- Each offers a system of useful, but incomplete, organizing constructs which continually lead to new solutions, new problems, and new theories."
These standards articulate the measures by which I want to critique stories about women, and the standards offer good direction for how I want to develop action adventure stories with female protagonists.
For example, a few stories find an audience because they are about the silence of women. The first that comes to mind is The Piano.
SYNOPSIS: A mute woman along with her young daughter, and her prized piano, are sent to 1850s New Zealand for an arranged marriage to a wealthy landowner, and she's soon lusted after by a local worker on the plantation. (source: internet movie database)
A good friend claimed the story was about a woman who was raped, so he didn't have to care since the movie belonged in the category of women's issues. One sequence in the movie does show a sexual assault by the husband before he cuts off one of the mute wife's fingers so she can no longer play the piano.
In truth the story is about how Ada McGrath (the Holly Hunter character) overcame oppression. She overcame sleepwalking. She gained security for her daughter. She gained the lover she wanted. She gained a better living situation where she could indulge her musical talent. The rape was an act of control from the husband and only symptomatic to the larger oppression.
So stream of incidents don't classify The Piano as a rape movie similar to The Accused where Jodie Foster's character is gang-raped in a bar.
Can you describe movies that meet a similar standard for changing attitudes toward women? Let's discuss...