Ever wondered why we review a lot of sci-fi on this site, when our main topic is gender representation? Did you assume it was just because we like it? Well, that’s true, but it’s not the only reason.
Imagine this. You’re watching a WWII movie that follows soldiers through battles. It features no named women characters at all. But you’re not surprised – combat back then only included men. (ETA: Reader V points out “that WWII had women in combat, notably in the Soviet forces. There were also plenty of nurses, female resistance fighters etc. kicking around, sometimes caught in battles. While there are plenty of WWII films that wouldn’t realistically have women, there are also plenty where they could be fitted in just fine – and where is the movie about the Night Witches?” Thanks for the info, V – very good point about how history, fictional and otherwise, often neglects marginalized groups who were in fact there.)
Then you watch a movie set in the future in another galaxy, where absolutely anything the writer could imagine (and find a way to put on screen) could exist. It features no female characters. What, wait? What?
Or this one: you’re watching a great show about the Old American West, say Young Riders, and despite Lou, Emma and Rachel being such awesome women, you’re a little miffed to see the series include a very traditional wedding, like every other damn show on TV always has to do. But, eh, that’s history. That’s how it was. You could hardly have expected a gay wedding or something from the show, could you?
Then you watch Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and experience a new record high blood pressure number, bloody hell, there’s another modern Western hetero wedding on the screen, and the limit of Lucas’ imagination was to swap which side the groom and bride stand on.
Stories set on modern day earth or earlier are coming from a legacy of sexism, so it’s no surprise when sexism – or the struggle against it – shows up in either the actual story or the meta. It used to be we could brag about Criminal Minds containing probably more female agents than the actual Behavioral Sciences Unit in Quantico. The original Law & Order stuck to two-man partner teams until long after I quit watching it, but early on they gave us an African-American woman for a lieutenant (S. Epatha Merkerson as Anita Van Buren). The rest of the franchise gave us nearly a 1:1 ratio of female/male detectives, which I seriously doubt is realistic. But we have a right to be pleased when these shows include women to a perhaps “unrealistic” degree (when they’re written well, anyway), because they’re showing the sexists in the audience: hey, look, it’s not that weird seeing women in these professions. It can work.
But then when sci-fi, which is not beholden to anyone’s legacy and can do whatever it likes, goes forth and shows us the following types of stuff:
- Even among alien species, females like to stay home and fix dinner for their males.
- Even among aliens, males are in charge and females are sex objects who think about romantic relationships all the freakin’ time and desperately want someone to marry them.
- Even among aliens, there’s a history of sexism and they’re just now figuring out, like us, that females can do stuff.
- All species have two genders, and they all want to get married in a heteronormative fashion.
- All species are made up entirely of heterosexuals.
- Even when alien species intermarry, the females are automatically relegated to the “helpmate” position.
- Goodness me, all species throughout the entire universe have apparently developed wedding ceremonies very much like the ones we typically have in the U.S. right now. (Gah! Not even all earthlings have that ceremony! How ignorant can people be? Or if they know better, what are they trying to prove?)
…they’re pummeling us (probably unintentionally) with the message that these traits are a hard-coded part of being female or male or alive by any definition; that gender bias is a literally universal constant, so we might as well stop complaining. When a modern day cop show is sexist, the message is merely that gender bias exists here on earth, and we already knew that. Bad sci-fi feels like it’s trying to convince us: no matter where we travel in time or space, we’ll be defined by our gender and gender roles just like we are here. What a depressing thought.