Feminist science fiction
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Feminist science fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction which tends to deal with women's roles in society. Feminist science fiction poses questions about social issues such as how society constructs gender, the role reproduction plays in defining gender and the unequal political and personal power of men and women. Some of the most notable feminist science fiction works have illustrated these themes using utopias to explore a society in which gender differences or gender power imbalances do not exist, or dystopias to explore worlds in which gender inequalities are intensified, thus asserting a need for feminist work to continue.
Science fiction and fantasy serve as important vehicles for feminist thought, particularly as bridges between theory and practice. No other genres so actively invite representations of the ultimate goals of feminism: worlds free of sexism, worlds in which women's contributions (to science) are recognized and valued, worlds that explore the diversity of women's desire and sexuality, and worlds that move beyond gender.
— Elyce Rae Helford
Women writers in the utopian literature movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at the time of first wave feminism, often addressed sexism. The Sultana's Dream (1905) by Bengali Muslim feminist, Roquia Sakhawat Hussain, points this out through depicting a gender-reversed purdah in an alternate and technologically futuristic world. Charlotte Perkins Gilman did so by creating a single-sex world in Herland (1915). During the 1920s writers such as Clare Winger Harris and Gertrude Barrows Bennett published science fiction stories written from female perspectives and occasionally dealt with gender and sexuality based topics. Meanwhile, much pulp science fiction published during the 1920s and 1930s carried an exaggerated view of masculinity along with sexist portrayals of women, a view subtly satirized by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm (1932).
By the 1960s science fiction was combining sensationalism with political and technological critiques of society. With the advent of second wave feminism, women’s roles were questioned in this "subversive, mind expanding genre." Three notable texts of this period are Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Joanna Russ' The Female Man (1970). Each highlights the socially constructed aspects of gender roles by creating worlds with genderless societies. Both authors were pioneers in feminist criticism of science fiction during the 1960s and 70s through essays collected in The Language of the Night (Le Guin, 1979) and How To Suppress Women's Writing (Russ, 1983).
Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale (1985) tells a dystopic tale of a society in which women have been systematically stripped of all liberty, and was motivated by fear of potential retrogressive effects on women's rights stemming from the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980s. Octavia Butler poses complicated questions about the nature of race and gender in Kindred (1979).
Comic books and graphic novels
Feminist science fiction is evidenced in the globally popular mediums of comic books, manga, and graphic novels. In the early 1960s, Marvel Comics already contained some strong female characters, although they often suffered from stereotypical female weakness such as fainting after intense exertion. By the 1970s and 1980s, true female heroes started to emerge on the pages of comics. This was helped by the emergence of self-identified feminist writers including Ann Nocenti, Linda Fite, and Barbara Kesel. As female visibility in comics increased, the "fainting heroine" type began to fade into the past. However, some female comic book writers, such as Gail Simone, believe that female characters are still relegated to plot devices (see Women in Refrigerators).
One of the first appearances of a strong female character was that of Wonder Woman co-created by husband and wife team William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway Marston. In December 1941, Wonder Woman came to life on the pages of All Star Comics volume eight. The character later spawned a television series starring Lynda Carter and a film adaptation is currently underway.
Film and television
Feminism has driven the creation of a considerable body of action-oriented science fiction with female protagonists: Wonder Woman (actually originally created in 1941) and The Bionic Woman during the time of the organized women's movement in the 1970s; Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the Alien tetralogy in the 1980s; and Xena, Warrior Princess, comic book character Red Sonja and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 2001 science fiction TV series Dark Angel featured a powerful female protagonist, with gender roles between her and the main male character generally reversed.
However, feminists have also created science fiction that directly engages with feminism beyond the creation of female action heroes. Television and film have offered opportunities for expressing new ideas about social structures and the ways feminists influence science. Feminist science fiction provides a means to challenge the norms of society and suggest new standards for how societies view gender. The genre also deals with male/female categories, showing how female roles can differ from feminine roles. Hence feminism influences the film industry by creating new ways of exploring and looking at masculinity/femininity and male/female roles. A contemporary example of feminist sci-fi television can be found Orphan Black, which deals with issues of reproductive justice, science, gender, and sexuality.
By the 1970s the science fiction community was confronting questions of feminism and sexism within science fiction culture itself. Multiple Hugo-winning fan writer and professor of literature Susan Wood and others organized the "feminist panel" at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention against considerable resistance. Reactions to the appearance of feminists among fannish ranks led indirectly to the creation of A Women's APA and WisCon.
Femspec is a feminist academic journal specializing in speculative fiction, including science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, mythic explorations in poetry and post-modern fiction, and horror. There is a conscious multicultural focus of the journal, both in content and in the diverse makeup of its editorial group. The first issue came out in 1999 under the editorial direction of founder Batya Weinbaum, who is still the Editor-in-Chief. Femspec is still publishing as of the winter of 2014 and has brought over 500 authors, critics and artists into print. Having lost their academic home in May 2003, they increasingly cross genres and print write-ups of all books and media received, as well as of events that feature creative works that imaginatively challenge gender such as intentional communities, performance events, and film festivals. The journal has, to date (2013–14) published thirteen volumes, two issues per volume. Special issues come out regularly, such as the 12.2 one on motherhood in sf. The journal offers virtual internships, apprenticeships, and associate positions, as well as weekly rap-and-write classes by SKYPE taught by editorial board members. Aqueduct Press, in 2013, published Feminist Voices, with the winners of the Best of Femspec's first ten years of creative writing. The journal has maintained a regular presence at WisCon, Pop Culture, and NWSA meetings, and is open to new blog writers, board members, writers, critics and participants.A Femspec Books and Production line has brought out four books, and accepts full-length manuscripts, creative and non-fiction.
- Elyce Rae Helford, in Westfahl, Gary. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Greenwood Press, 2005: 289-290
- Helford, p.291.
- Brian Aldiss has argued that Frankenstein should be considered the first true science fiction story, because unlike in previous stories with fantastical elements resembling those of later science fiction, the central character "makes a deliberate decision" and "turns to modern experiments in the laboratory" to achieve fantastic results. See The Detached Retina: Aspects of SF and Fantasy by Brian Aldiss (1995), page 78.
- Lisa Tuttle in Clute and Nicholls 1995, p. 1344.
- Lisa Tuttle in Clute and Nicholls 1995, p. 424.
- Helford, p.290.
- Sturgis, Susanna. Octavia E. Butler: June 22, 1947–February 24, 2006: The Women's Review of Books, 23(3): 19 May 2006.
- Wright, Bradford (2003). Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 219.
- Wright, p.221.
- "Genders OnLine Journal – Japan's Feminist Fabulation: Reading Marginal with unisex reproduction as a keyconcept". Genders.org. Retrieved 2009-12-13.
- The original creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, a psychologist explicitly stated that he wanted a female hero worthy of being a role model for young women. "Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman." Marston, in The American Scholar (1943).
- Kuhn, Annette [editor], Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema 1990 ISBN 0860912787
- Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, has frequently self-identified as a feminist, and established that his motives for creating the character of Buffy were feminist.
- Jowett, Lorna. "To the Max: Embodying Intersections in Dark Angel". Reconstruction: Studies in contemporary culture.. http://reconstruction.eserver.org/054/jowett.shtml, 2005.
- Miniscule, Caroline. "Stand by for Mars! Review of Women Scientists in Fifties Science Fiction Movies". The ThunderChild.com : Science Fiction and Fantasy Web Magazine and Source-books. Retrieved 2009-12-13.
- Westfahl, Gary. "Feminism". The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: themes, works and wonders. Westport, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data, 2005. 289-291
- Hollinger, Veronica. "Feminist Theory and Science Fiction". The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003. 125-134.
- Jeanne Gomoll, "WisCon" entry, Chapter 28, pp.290-301 ( in Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 1: Overviews. See p.291).
- Quilter, Laura. "A Brief History of Feminist SF/F and Women in SF/F,"
- McClenahan, Catherine. "Wiscon, Then and Now," Wiscon 20 Souvenir Book, Madison: SF3 (1996): pp. 46-48.
- Lips, Hilary M. "Using Science Fiction to Teach the Psychology of Sex and Gender" Teaching of Psychology 1990, Vol. 17, No 3, pp 197-198
- Clute, John and Peter Nicholls. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1993 (2nd edition 1995). ISBN 0-312-13486-X.
- Helford, Elyce Rae, in Gary Westfahl, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Greenwood Press, 2005: 289-291.
- Wright, Bradford (2003). Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Feminist Science Fiction
- Feminist science fiction themed issue of speculative magazine The Future Fire