Women in Science Fiction: Only Okay When You Pretend to be a Man
I was born the year Return of the Jedi came out, so I didn’t grow up with the original Star Wars trilogy. Instead, I watched the series of films when they were aired on television – you know, before home movie collections and Netflix were A Thing – and I shared this wonderful experience with my father. I marveled at the space dogfights, which of course were much less spectacular than the revamped CGI version of today’s Star Wars BluRay discs. For days, I would run around the house, making pew-pew noises as I fake-fired laser rifles from my fingertips and used the center of a paper towel roll as a lightsaber. My dad was absolutely thrilled that I enjoyed it as much as I did, and to this day, we talk about how innovative and fun the movies were.
Like so many people in my generation, Star Wars was my introduction into the world of sci-fi and fantasy, a genre that would come to inspire me to become a writer as a young adult. I was initially thrilled when I saw that women, such as fantasy writers Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler, were just as successful as men, like J.R.R. Tolkien and Terry Brooks. What disheartened me was seeing how many men dominated the sci-fi arena, particularly hard sci-fi. I still find it difficult to recall any well-known female sci-fi writers, but that’s only part of my problem. I can’t really recall many well-known female sci-fi or fantasy characters, at least ones that would be well-known to the public at large. Women have fared somewhat better in the movies, with characters like Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise and Princess Leia from Star Wars – both of whom were actually supposed to be male characters at the beginning - but I believe that’s more of the aesthetic appeal of onscreen beauties than a real desire for equality.
Granted, all of this is in retrospect. It didn’t really occur to me, as a child, to examine gender, particularly since gender roles weren’t really something that I thought much about at that age. My parents made it a point to foster any interest that I had, be it paleontology or My Little Pony, and not once did they tell me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. In fact, the only time my sex would come up was when I was two and had no hair, which therefore made my mom defensively say, “She’s a girl!” any time that someone would remark that I was a cute little boy. Of course, I don’t remember that, so it obviously didn’t really have that much of an effect on me. The mostly genderless upbringing filtered into my own experiences when reading and watching fiction. I didn’t look at Luke and Han in Star Wars and think, “Well, I can’t identify with them since they don’t have hoo-hoos.” I also wasn’t wondering why Leia was the only prominently featured woman in the whole trilogy. (Plus, she was the baddest bitch on the block: tortured by a floating needle-droid, forced to watch her home planet be destroyed, robbed of the chance to mourn for said loss, took over her own rescue, etc.) Now, however, I do pay attention to things like this, although I sometimes long for the simplistic view of my childhood that people are just people, regardless of their genitalia, without any idea that anyone thought differently.
When I decided I wanted to write speculative fiction, like I said above, I was encouraged by the women who paved the road for me: Mary Shelley, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, etc. They created wonderful worlds that were so incredibly rich, detailed, populated with characters that drew me in, and I just knew that I could do the same. My imagination had served me well for my now two decades of life, so I set out to do some research. And by research, I mean read all of the science fiction and fantasy that I could get my hands on and rent nearly all of the movies in those genres from my local Blockbuster. After nearly a year of doing this on my own time, I came to a realization: while women were able to break into fantasy and “softer” forms of sci-fi, men dominated hard sci-fi, or the type of science fiction that deals with scientific accuracy and technical detail. Upon further research, many supposedly male authors, like James Tiptree, Jr. and Rob Thurman, are actually women (Alice Bradley Sheldon and Robyn Thurman, respectively), choosing to write under a male pseudonym since their particular genres tended to be male-dominated.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Anne Sowards, an editor at Penguin, stated that many new female authors, mainly ones that are trying to start a career writing genres “with a strong appeal to men, like military science fiction,” are told that in order to “avoid anything that might cause a reader to put a book down and decide, ‘not for me,’” they need to try to appeal to the audience that will most likely purchase the book, which, of course, is sound marketing advice. That includes what the book’s cover looks like, the type of font that’s used, and, in many cases, the author’s name. While this does make the assumption that 1) no women enjoy books like military science fiction – I certainly do – and 2) men refuse to read “men’s” books written by women, Ms. Sowards does have a point. The insinuation here is that, if you play politically correct and try to be inclusive of all types of fans, you run the risk of alienating the already established ones, which kind of torpedoes your attempt at success. You can just look at other arenas that are male-dominated, like comic books and video games – which is a whole other article altogether – and see that women trying to break into those face a ridiculous amount of discrimination. That’s just to enjoy consuming that type of entertainment.
Since beginning my quest to write, I haven’t yet had to face anything like the writers Anne Sowards has signed, although I did consider using my initials in front of my last name instead of my full pseudonym. It was only a brief flirtation with the idea, since I plan on appearing at conventions, but seeing so many women writers choosing to pose as men in order to “make it,” it does give me pause. Should I have gone with using initials and then, just like Tiptree, eventually reveal myself as a woman, when and if my writing ever receives wide exposure? Am I limiting myself as a writer by revealing my gender? (Also, why is the default gender automatically considered male?) Will I be taken seriously in my chosen genre despite the fact that I’m a woman? I suppose only time will tell at this point, but all I can really do is hope that things change, if not for me, then for future women authors. This is not to say that I face the same prejudices that women like Tiptree and the Bronte sisters, who wrote under the guise of being men until late into their careers, but I know that I am setting myself up for a greater degree of scrutiny. Whether or not it’s fair doesn’t really matter, but I can say that some day, instead of wanting to be the next George Lucas or J.R.R. Tolkien or R.A. Salvatore, writers of all genders will say, “I want to be the next Jennifer Trela.”
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