I’m in the process of reading a science fiction yarn from 19621. Like many mid-century works, the sexual politics of the story can most charitably be described as “dated”. Although the only female astronaut, Gail Loring, is a biologist who has passed all of the requirements for the trip to Mars, she becomes nothing but a prize to be won by the men.
What are her thoughts on the role the book locks her into? She picks the narrator and tells him:
“In those bygone days I thought a trip to Mars was a career. I’m a woman, Bill Drake. That’s my real career.”
My purpose isn’t to single out the author or even this book. Anyone who’s seen or read older sci-fi is all too familiar with this outcome. The genre allowed women to hold doctorates in one hand, so long as they served coffee with the other.
At this, it was a significant step up from the heroic fiction women popular in magazines, comics, and serials from the previous generation. Women were either wild creatures to be tamed or feisty yet frequently in peril. Even iconic characters like Dejah Thoris or Wilma Deering, celebrated for being women of skill and bravery, spent a great deal of time waiting for their men to save them.
As with so many social issues, the representation of women in genre fiction has been improving slowly. A sub-industry of comics and TV shows played with the contradiction between conventional femininity and heroism (perhaps the most famous of which here in the US were “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Xena, Warrior Princess”). These were followed by movies about women in fetish leather who were little more than comely killing machines. (I’m looking at you, “Underworld”.)
Let’s not speak of the women in comics. Most heroines seem to outfit themselves at Lover’s Lane. To be fair, there have very recently been improvements in some of the titles at Marvel and DC, and I would be utterly remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Bandette. A creator owned title from Monkeybrain, its good-natured action and humor made it my favorite new comic this year.
Still, there’s a long way to go.
I bring this up because I consider myself a feminist (other things, too, but that’s enough for now). I thought it was enough for me, as a creator, to make my female characters with an effort to avoid sexist clichés. I wrote the Billy and Gravely comics with a deliberate undermining of the roles of women in B movies of the 1950s and ’60s. My story “The Heart of the Warrior” was explicitly about the aspects of rape culture that permeated so much early adventure fiction.
It’s not enough.
See, all my main characters have been men. All but one: Betty Marie, from “Dope Fiends of the Zombie Cafe!” — and I turned that into the first part of the Billy and Gravely series. I looked at all my planned projects, and they were all about men, too. I thought about changing them, but that felt wrong. You can’t just swap out characters; the whole story changes. Gender is only a part of the character, but every part is important. It seemed to me that it would be short-changing a new character by shoe-horning her into another project.
So I came up with a whole new story, for a female character I want to write about. I’d gladly read about her if someone else wrote her, which is my first criterion for any character. Who do I want to read about?
I want to read about a strong woman who has a personality — and eerie but thrilling adventures! She’ll also serve coffee, but only to her friends, only in her apartment and only if there’s some already made.
1. The Red Planet, by Russ Winterbotham. Monarch Books.