Feminist science fiction
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Feminist science fiction is a subgenre 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
In 1900, a Populist, A.O. Grigsby and Mary P. Lowe, the editor of a suffrage newspaper published the novel NEQUA or The Problem of the Ages. It described a hollow earth society where women were equal. Sexist mores are discussed by the heroine, Cassie Van Ness, who spends most of the book masquerading as a man in men's clothing.
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) and by Margaret Atwood in The Blind Assassin (2000).
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 The 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).
Works of feminist science fiction are often similar in the goals they work towards as well as the subjects and plotlines they focus on in order to achieve those goals. Feminist science fiction is science fiction that carries across feminist ideals and the promotion of societal values such as gender equality, and the elimination of patriarchal oppression. Feminist science fiction works often present tropes that are recurrent across science fiction with an emphasis on gender relations and gender roles. Many elements of science fiction, such as cyborgs, implants, and utopias and dystopias are given context in a gendered environment, providing a real contrast with present day gender relations while remaining a work of science fiction.
Utopian and Dystopian Societies
Representations of utopian and dystopian societies in feminist science fiction place an increased emphasis on gender roles while countering the anti-utopian philosophies of the 20th century. Male philosophers such as John Rawls, Isaiah Berlin, and Michael Oakeshott often criticize the idea of utopia, theorizing that it would be impossible to establish a utopia without violence and hegemony. Many male written works of science fiction as well as threads of philosophical utopian thought dismiss utopias as something unattainable, whereas in feminist science fiction, utopian society is often presented as something achievable and something desirable.
Anti-utopian philosophies and feminist science fiction come to odds in the possibility of achieving utopia. In “Rehabilitating Utopia: Feminist Science Fiction and Finding the Ideal”, an article published in Contemporary Justice Review, philosophers against the dream of utopia argue that “First is the expectation that utopia justifies violence, second is the expectation that utopia collapses individual desires into one communal norm, and third is the expectation that utopia mandates a robotic focus on problem-solving.” In feminist science fiction, utopias are often realized through communal want for an ideal society. One such novel is summarized in the aforementioned article, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland, in which “Gilman perfectly captures the utopian impulse that all problems are solvable. She establishes a society where every consideration about a question aims for the rational answer”. Gilman’s utopia is presented as something attainable and achievable, without conflict, while not enabling violence or extinguishing individualism.
In the Parable trilogy by feminist science fiction novelist Octavia Butler, anti-utopian philosophies are criticized via a dystopian setting. In the first novel, Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina, one of the many who live in a dystopian, ungoverned society, seeks to start her own utopian religion entitled ‘Earthseed’ after the destruction of her home and family. Olamina’s created utopian society does not justify the use of violence to achieve utopia, yet is involved in the violence that is caused by the dystopian society. Butler posits that utopian society can never be achieved as an entity that is entirely separate from the outside world, one of the more common beliefs about conditions that are necessary to achieve utopia. Olamina’s, and Butler’s, utopia is envisioned as a community with a shared vision that is not forced on all within it.
One common trend in feminist science fiction utopias is the existence of utopian worlds as single-gendered – most commonly female. In literary works such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, female utopias are portrayed as free of conflict, and intentionally free of men. The single gendered utopias of female science fiction are free of the conflicts that feminism aims to eliminate, such as patriarchal oppression and the gender inequality inherent in patriarchal society. In a statement about these single gendered utopias, author Joanna Russ theorized that male-only societies were not written because in patriarchal society, male oppression is not as pressing as an issue as female oppression.
Utopia as an ideal to strive for is not a concept wholly limited to feminist science fiction, however many non-feminist science fiction works oft dismiss utopia as an unachievable goal, and as such, believe that pursuits for utopia should be considered dangerous and barren. Anti-utopian theory focuses on the ‘how’ in the transition from present to society to a utopian future. In feminist science fiction, the achievement of a utopian future depends on the ability to recognize the need for improvement and the perseverance to overcome the obstacles present in creating a utopian society.
Representation of Women
Perhaps the most obvious attraction of Science Fiction to women writers – feminist or not – is the possibilities it offers for the creation of a female hero. The demands of realism in the contemporary or historical novel set limits which do not bind the universes available to Science Fiction. Although the history of Science Fiction reveals few heroic, realistic, or even original images of women, the genre had a potential recognized by the women writers drawn to it in the 1960s and 1970s. Before this time, the appeal for women writers was not that great. The impact of feminism on the Science Fiction field can be observed not only in Science Fiction texts themselves, but also on the development of feminist approaches to Science Fiction criticism and history, as well as conversations and debates in the Science Fiction community. One of the main debates is about the representation of women in Science Fiction.
Maria DeRose in her article Redefining Women’s Power through Feminist Science Fiction suggests that, “One of the great early socialists said that the status of women in a society is a pretty reliable index of the degree of civilization of that society. If this is true, then the very low status of women in Science Fiction should make us ponder about whether Science Fiction is civilized at all”. The women's movement has made most of us conscious of the fact that Science Fiction has totally ignored women. This “lack of appreciation” is the main reason that women are rebelling and actively fighting to be noticed in the field anyway.
Veronica Wolf relates to this aspect of Feminist Science Fiction in the article Feminist Criticism and Science Fiction for Children. As she discusses the scarcity of women in the field, she states, “During the first period, that of the nineteenth century, apparently only two women wrote Science Fiction, Mary Shelley and Rhonda Broughton,” and continues, “In the early twentieth century, a few women were successful Science Fiction writers”. But, “The times changed. Repression gave way to questioning and outright rebellion, and in the Science Fiction of the 1960's stylistic innovations and new concerns emerged ‘Many of their stories, instead of dealing with the traditional hardware of science fiction, concentrated on the effects that different societies or perceptions would have on individual characters’ ”. Andre Norton, a semi-well known analyst of Science fiction argues along these lines as well. As Norton explored one or more novels she came across, she realized that the creation of characters and how they are shown is a clear connection to the real world situation. From here, she goes in depth of characters in these feminist novels and relates them to the real world. She concludes here article along these lines. She wanted to get the idea out that feminists have a way to get their voice out there. Now, all their works are famous/ popular enough for their ideas to be let out. Virginia Wolf can attest to this fact. She introduced the idea that women were not represented well in the field till the early 1900’s and added to the fact by stating , “ Women are not represented well in Science Fiction”.
Individual characters, as we come to know, have their own perception and observation of their surroundings. Characters in novels such as The Girl Who Was Plugged in by James Tiptree and Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are fully aware of the situation at hand and their role in society. This idea is a continuation of the argument presented by Andre Norton. Wolf argues the same point in her analysis of Le Guin’s writing, who has many contributions to the works of feminist Science Fiction. Wolf argues, “What matters to Le Guin is not what people look like or how they behave but whether or not they have choice and whether or not they receive respect for who they are and what they do rather than on the basis of sex. Feminism is for her not a matter of how many women (or characters in Science Fiction) are housewives but a part of our hope for survival, which she believes lies in the search for balance and integration”. This stirs up many questions about equality (a debate which has been going on for many years) but nobody seems to have an answer. In this continual search for equality, many characters find themselves asking the same question, “Is Gender Necessary” which is, coincidentally, one of Le Guin’s novels and also another problem arising from gender biases. Robin Roberts, an American Literary Historian, addresses the link of these characters and what that means for our society today. Roberts believes that man and women would like to be equal, but are not equal. They should be fighting the same battle when in fact they are fighting each other. She also debates that gender equality has been a problem in every reach of feminism, not just in Feminist Science Fiction. Wolf also tackles this problem, “As she explains in ‘Is Gender Necessary?,’ writing The Left Hand of Darkness convinced her that ‘if men and women were completely and genuinely equal in their social roles, equal legally and economically, equal in freedom, in responsibility, and in self-esteem, . . . our central problem would not be the one it is now: the problem of exploitation—exploitation of the woman, of the weak, of the earth’ (p. 159)”. Science fiction criticism has come a long way from its defensive desire to create a canon. All of these authors demonstrate that science fiction criticism tackles the same questions as other literary criticism: race, gender, and the politics of Feminism itself. Wolf believes that evaluating primarily American texts, written over the past one hundred and twenty years, these critics locate science fiction's merits in its speculative possibilities. At the same time, however, all note that the texts they analyze reflect the issues and concerns of the historical period in which the literature was written. DeRose introduces her article with, in effect, the same argument. She says, “the power of women in Science Fiction has greatly depreciated in the past few years”.
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 fourteen volumes, two issues per volume. Special issues come out regularly, such as the 12.2 one on motherhood in sf, and the most recent volume on Great Age. 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. The staff offers writing retreats in Feminina Sube, a space on Isla Mujeres, MX, in Jan. beginning in 2015. The journal's works are available on EBSCO and other data bases, and Femspec is starting to sell individual articles on smashwords. Analysis of Femspec's data-usage hits and most commonly-cited articles is available on its Facebook page, as well as calls for papers and materials. They currently seek materials on mental illness and abortion in speculative works and welcome interviews with writers, as these are frequently read, and especially aim to increase coverage of international writers of speculative works.
- 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.
- Curtis, Claire (2005). "Rehabilitating Utopia: Feminist Science Fiction and Finding the Ideal". Contemporary Justice Review 8 (2): 147–162. doi:10.1080/10282580500082507. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
- Romaine, Suzanne (1999). Communicating Gender. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 329.
- DeRose, Maria (Spring 2005). "Redefining Women's Power Through Feminist Science Fiction". ProQuest 46 (1): 66–89.
- Norton, Andre (Feb 2007). "Feminist Pied Piper in SF". Project Muse.
- Wolf, Virginia (Winter 1982). "Feminist Criticism and Science Fiction for Children". Project Muse.
- Wolf, Virginia (Winter 1982). "Feminist Criticism and Science Fiction for Children". Project Muse: 4.
- Wolf, Virginia (Winter 1982). "Feminist Criticism and Science Fiction for Children". Project Muse: 3.
- Wolf, Virginia (Winter 1982). "Feminist Criticism and Science Fiction for Children". Project Muse: 1.
- DeRose, Maria (Spring 2005). "Redefining Women's Power Through Feminist Science Fiction". ProQuest: 5.
- 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