Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Thoughts on women in science fiction

I don’t think it would be controversial to say that science fiction, adventure, and fantasy in popular culture and literature are male-dominated. By male-dominated, I don't mean "more men are interested in this than women." Rather, I mean, that men are disproportionately represented in science-fiction. Simply put, most of the lead characters are men.

Or at least, speaking from my own experience, I felt that disconnect as I was growing up.  Xena and X-Men’s Rogue were 2 of very few sci-fi/fantasy heroines that I could reference at the time. Otherwise, it’s no surprise that I had to pick the Green/White Power Ranger and Captain America – both white male characters – as my favorites because white men were all that pop culture had to give me.

There is an sci-fi/adventure trope that annoyingly persists today: Average Man becomes the “chosen one” after being mentored by a Skilled Woman who has been training for this task her entire life. In a matter of weeks (often conveyed by a cheesy training montage), Average Man becomes even more skilled than Skilled Woman and beats all of the bad guys. Oh, and by the end, Skilled Woman falls in love with Average Man. (see: The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy, both starring Chris Pratt).

Never mind the fact that Skilled Woman could have easily gotten the job done herself. That’s the story I would rather have.

Hence, why the latest Star Wars movie is that much more refreshing. Rey, the quarterstaff-wielding scavenger heroine, has survived the harsh desert of fictional planet Jakku her entire life. She learned how to fight and become an excellent pilot. Several cues in the movie destroy the usual man-saves-damsel-in-distress construct, showing Rey to be more than capable of defending herself (and arguably doing an even better job of that than everyone around her). And despite such hardship, remains hopeful and committed to justice.

The fact that little girls get to grow up watching this kind of story makes me happy.

And yet we still have some pushback.

In recent news, we have seen toy manufacturers scrambling to release more merchandise relating to Rey. Most of the merchandise released, even after the movie had been out for a week, included only the movie’s masked villain, Kylo Ren.[1]  Widespread outcry led to the trending hashtag #wheresrey, prompting toy manufacturers to change up their game.

There is also some internal resistance from the males in the sci-fi/fantasy community. Shortly after the movie was released, fans debated whether or not Rey was a “Mary Sue,” or, simply, too perfect of a character to be believable or interesting. These fans conveniently overlook the fact that many of their male favorites fit such a description (the male equivalent, a “Gary Stu”) more accurately. [1]

And so it’s clear that battles are fought on several fronts; not only must women push to feature as the lead in sci-fi/fantasy stories, but we must also justify why we are there and push to be advertised as much as a male lead would. We must fight to establish that we belong in a place we should never have been excluded from.  

The point of science fiction and fantasy is that you’re supposed to imagine alternate universes beyond the constraints of present reality. It’s where you can have superpowers. Present reality gives me too much of the Average Man - I really don't need to see him everywhere in science fiction. 


[1] Anecdote: I saw more merchandise for masked, unnamed Stormtroopers than I did for the movie's lead character.

[2] Nerd commentary: Rey’s skills in piloting, combat, and engineering make sense because she scavenges for ship parts and has lived on her own for years. People conveniently overlook the fact that Anakin Skywalker a) was born without a father and entirely from The Force and b) accidentally flew a Naboo fighter jet into a Trade Federation command station, destroying it when nobody else could do so. 


Meredith Hankins said...

Not only is the Skilled Woman getting-the-job-done-herself story hard to find in film, it's equally challenging to find in sci-fi and fantasy writing. After reading too many one-dimensional depictions of female characters (and repeats of the Average Man trope), I've taken to reading almost exclusively female authors. I'm a much happier reader, and I hope that by choosing to support female authors, I'm doing my own little part to send a message to publishers that consumers want more stories with badass, self-sufficient female characters.

Unfortunately, finding female-produced, directed, and/or written movies is a much harder task than finding female-authored books :/

Asya Sorokurs said...

You made me reflect on how much i appreciate Joss Whedon for the strong, inspiring, and generally bad-ass female characters he has put into the world. #buffyforever

Ari Asher said...

After reading your post I wandered into the Disney Store while running errands at the Arden Fair mall. The Star Wars display was filled with large-action-figure-sized Kylo Rens, Han Solos, and Finns. But the only Reys on the display were in the tiny action figure multi-packs (where you get one of each character). I couldn’t believe it. Finn was such an insignificant character compared to Rey—why does he get his own shelf? Maybe this movie will change the narrative that Star Wars and sci-fi generally is a boys club (for characters and viewers alike).