It sucks extra when sci-fi reinforces stereotypes

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    Well, I don’t even care most of the times they do it in “historical” shows. Unless it’s a documentary, they’re expanding from reality anyway. But I agree that fantasy and science fiction are even worse (I mean, there’s no reason Tolkien couldn’t have written Middle Earth as egalitarian).

    I just read “Inside Out” by Barry Eisler, and while it features what I think is a great back female character, there are not many women in this book. Then again, it purports to deal with the Bush administration and torture tapes; just how many women are in the shady inner circle? Is this realism, or a point of criticism? It’s tough to decide – but in sci-fi? Reminds me of when I complained about Zoe Saldana as Uhura still wearing a skirt as part of her uniform and nobody seeing a problem with that (or for that matter with Uhura still being the only woman on the bridge).

    I would disagree, though, with this bit:
    they’re pummeling us 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.

    I’m sure there are authors who do this on purpose. But I’m afraid most of these authors probably aren’t even aware of their bias. It’s worse when they think they’re liberals (as at least a goodly portion of sci-fi authors do) and still aren’t aware of or interested in getting over their privilege. Which, to me, is even worse, because if even people supposed to be on your side can’t do this right, if even people writing fiction that traditionally tries to present a vision of the future and still does this – that’s extremely disappointing. Fantasy is traditionally conservative (though it doesn’t need to be), but sci-fi?

    I’ve recently started re-reading some classic German science fiction from the early sixties, “Perry Rhodan”, and it’s depressing how few women get to do things, and how they’re portrayed. I can surely excuse some of it as simply a sign of their times, but it’s hard. Reading this made me realize that there *has* been a change – but also that some things haven’t changed as much as I’d like.

    • says

      I’m sure there are authors who do this on purpose. But I’m afraid most of these authors probably aren’t even aware of their bias.

      I didn’t mean to imply they are intentionally pummeling us with those messages. I don’t know if this is a language thing or a regional quirk of mine, but I don’t think of active verbs as necessarily implying intent. I.E., “She’s stepping on ants” could refer to someone who doesn’t even realize ants are near her, yet is stepping on them. :)

      In any case, ITA that it’s unconscious in most, if not all, cases – more a lack of creativity (failure to recognize how many things we take for granted could be very different in another galaxy/world). I can’t imagine a serious misogynist thinking of this as a great way to teach women their place. More likely, studios and networks are shooting down creative ideas with the argument “The audience won’t accept that – it’s too far out.”

      And ITA about Uhura’s short skirt. The original Trek pilot featured women who wore pants just like the guys. And this WAS an alternate reality, for goodness’ sake.

      • says

        Oh, okay; I got the intent from “we might as well stop complaining”, as if it was intended to shoot feminists down.

        I’m currently rewatching Angel because I offered to do a few guest reviews, and I have to say it bothers me more when texts from people like Joss Whedon screw up because supposedly, they know better. I also can’t fathom how in today’s society, shows can still feature mostly white male casts.

        I know this might be a little off-topic, but do you think Hollywood writers think they can’t write women or minority characters well? A few years back, there were a lot of period shows coming out, and I partly attributed that to the fact that in those shows, you could continue telling the same stories: in Mad Men, sexism is part of the world you’re describing, so you don’t even need to feel bad. On the other hand, to take Angel as an example again, the writers never knew what to do with Gunn, and I sometimes think that’s because they thought he would have to have a specifically “black” character arc, and they had no idea how to do that.

        Of course, your own example shows that people willing or able to write about more than white men are often booted out of the system early on, which I don’t get. I look at “The Wire”, for example, which deals with specific US-American problems and has an extremely diverse cast, and I still get drawn in. And that’s a contemporary show, not even science fiction.

        Then again, a lot of science fiction today is what I’d call space opera or military science fiction, with visionary or even scientific fiction much more rare – at least from me trying to find some of that kind of sci-fi it seemed much more rare, so much so that I had to go back to Asimov.

        And let me just make an extreme example of what you’re talking about: Wall-E. I love that film, but it has robot protagonists and even those robots must have a heterosexual love story – what’s more, it’s even an example of the shlub getting the girl who’s clearly too good for him… That’s science fiction, animated, and robots we’re talking about, and still.

        I’m really sad about this at the moment, having to close my eyes to gender and race representation in most films that interest me – and I preselect heavily. See for example: Inception.

        • says

          Oh, okay; I got the intent from “we might as well stop complaining”, as if it was intended to shoot feminists down.

          Oh, I see, you’re right. I’ve added “(probably unintentionally)” into the sentence because I can’t rephrase what you quoted without losing the sense *I* have of being lectured at, even though I know it’s not intended as such. :) Hopefully, that’s clearer now.

          I know this might be a little off-topic, but do you think Hollywood writers think they can’t write women or minority characters well?

          I’ve heard many writers, HW and otherwise, describe this fear. I myself am fearful of writing characters of color, for example. You look at something like RaceFail09, and how could you not be? But I think we need to try, because making sincere efforts proves that men ARE interested in women’s stories, that whites ARE interested in people of color, that we aren’t just completely all self-absorbed and uninterested in diverse people.

          • Brand Robins says

            As a writer, I have no patience for cowardice in writing.

            If you are afraid to write characters of color, or female characters, or characters who aren’t more or less like you… well then tough boogers.

            Certainly when you start you’re going to blow it, at least in some way, at least at some time. And you’ll get criticized for it. Most of it fair, some of it not.

            So you bleeding learn, you freaking grow, and then you damn well write better.

            Cause you know what happens if you don’t?

            You still suck because you aren’t even trying, and you’ll get criticized for that, will be contributing to the problem, and won’t have learned a damn thing.

            ….

            Sorry, that was probably a little too ranty for this fine blog. But I -cannot stand- white male writer fear as a reason for not stepping up. Possibly because I’ve been guilty of it myself a time or two. (Or ten.)

        • Charles RB says

          Gunn’s at his most interesting for me in S1 thru early S2 and in S5, where has specific, distinct roles that the others don’t. Between then, he’s just the Strong Guy who’s kinda there. His big hook early on is that he’s a leader and tactician leading crews in defence of the LA underclass – but once he’s close to Angel Investigations, that all falls away because they want him to be a main character & he can’t easily be doing that if he’s off somewhere else most of the time. So… in order to use the interesting character, they cut away his main point of interest.

          Whoops.

  2. Kit Kendrick says

    One of my favorite moments of the Star Trek:DS9 franchise had an alien scientist showing a human scientist some technology around the station. (She was a member of the race that built it, and he was one of the humans now living there.) The whole time she was rather condescending and he finally called her out on her “anti-human bias.” She replies she has no trouble with humans it’s just that, well, in her experience, males just aren’t any good with technology. (At that point I realized that, yes, in fact, most of the scientists from that culture we’ve met were women.) It was a very nicely done reversal.

    • Ray says

      I was overall very impressed women and gender relations on DS9 — but I got so sick of the Ferengi. I got that they were a parody and a comment on our own contemporary US society, but they fit this category

      “Even among aliens, there’s a history of sexism and they’re just now figuring out, like us, that females can do stuff.”

      perfectly. And I would have so much rather seen a new story. Maybe one about sexism, but expressed differently? More subtly?

      • jennygadget says

        “I got that they were a parody and a comment on our own contemporary US society…”

        Really? I always saw them as commentary on all those evil non-western cultures that aren’t as advanced as we enlightened peoples here in the West. I think if I’d had the impression they were supposed to be commentary on the US I would have found them slightly less annoying.

        I stress the lightly, however, for the same reasons you point out.

        • avirr says

          @jennygadget, excellent point.

          I agree that the intention was to critique all those evil non-western cultures that aren’t as advanced as we enlightened peoples here in the West — but they ended up revealing a whole lot about the culture doing the critiquing…

          • Ray says

            Point taken.

            I guess I was paying too much attention to the insistence of the writers’ that the “Ferengi are us.” When you look at them in the context of the future-humans (operating from US-headquartered Starfleet) the Ferengi as less-advanced Other definitely comes through.

  3. Shaun says

    You know, this came up in a discussion with a friend recently. In nature, most animal species sexual dimorphism are /female/-dominated. Excepting mammals, the only purpose of the male in most animal groups is to provide genetic diversity (and sometimes even nourishment), and they’re usually on a fraction of the size of the female. There are many animal species where the male is completely a reproductive adjunct of the female, nevermind even in species where this is not the case, sometimes the male is still subservient to the female.

    The point of this isn’t that these things would be ideal or things I’d want to project myself into personally (I can hardly think of a character I’d less want to identify with than a tiny creature whose sole purpose is to be reproductively attached to a female his whole lifespan, or consumed by her after mating, or whatever). Sci-fis, to me, should not be about presenting utopia anyway. It’s just that, you’d think in representing a wide variety of alien species you’d at least acknowledge the reality that this is how sex(ual dimorphism) works in many species. Sci-fi doesn’t shy away from showing green space babes or other male-dominated cultures, but not only is this a limited perspective, it’s pretty much the opposite of what nature intuits encounters with beings from other worlds would be like.

    Maybe I’m being too technical about this, and I know truly alien aliens are more likely to show up in books than on TV, but I don’t really feel like presenting us with yet more patriarchal cultures really shows a different perspective. If you have a species with extreme sex dimorphism, then the only real characters are female–so? I’ve get the opposite impression watching some sci-fis–hell, even some shows about humans–without any of that in play. Or hey, here’s a culture where the males and females are comparable yet the females are still somehow on top–here’s an opportunity to demonstrate as strange and unusual the things we take for granted in our culture, and to identify with a different set of experiences both relevant and strange to males and females.

    • Ace says

      I keep waiting for more people to pay attention to the Spotted Hyena. They’re fascinating creatures, and live in very stable, tight-knit female-dominated pack structures. They’re also formidable hunters despite their reputation for “stealing” and “scavanging” from lions, when actually it’s more often the lions that steal from them!

      Poor Spotted Hyenas, they don’t get any respect.

      • Ravyn says

        Ace: If you haven’t read Digger, go do so. The concentrated spotted hyena awesomeness should more than tide you over until someone else figures out they’re worth writing.

      • Shaun says

        Or something like the anglerfish, where males literally become physically attached reproductive organs for the female. I believe tapeworms are similar. Bottom line is it’s not like the natural world tells us that male-dominated societies are some kind of universal biological truth.

        Hyena-like creatures in sci-fi might be a little… genderbendery for broadcasters. Not that having a pseudopenis is equivalent to being trans, but I can’t really imagine that on mainstream TV in 2010.

        • Ace says

          Eh, their urogenital system isn’t really even the most fascinating part of Spotted Hyena society. They’re just quite different all the way around from what people’s expectations are of gender relationships. They also go against what one would expect from the females being highly dominant and virilized – they are some of the most doting and protective mothers among mammals. Which kind of knocks the notion that the “aggressive dominant” sex (e.g. males in human terms) are inherently cruddy or inattentive parents, which is not true among humans or hyenas.

          It’s a unique species, for certain, and I think they deserve more respect than their undeserved reputation as “cowardly scavengers” garners.

    • Jayn says

      I feel a need to plug Julie E. Czerneda here. She’s a great author, not only for her strong female characters but for her very unique alien races. For example, in one the males are basically brainless sex organs–all the intelligent members of the species are actually female (although they are referred to as male after having picked mates, that they then carry with them). The cultures are no less rich.

  4. Anemone says

    The early John Wyndham novels tended to have strong female characters, but then in Chocky we got a hysterical mother. (Rolls eyes.)

    I was really disappointed that the Star Trek reboot didn’t include Yeoman Rand, when you consider that she was the original female lead, before she got fired for not appreciating sexual harassment. They could have really done something, there. But I guess it wasn’t a priority.

    And I read a book about US women’s intelligence work in WWII, including one woman who parachuted behind enemy lines in France twice, IIRC. Where’s the film about that????

    In general the people in charge just don’t seem to see women’s stories as being much of a priority. Very sad. I’m glad there are enough female authors in print to balance things a wee bit.

  5. lilacsigil says

    Yes, I find it very distressing in SF when all these nasty sexist tropes are trotted out as “natural”; and just as much in historically-based fantasy when women’s actual historical contributions are erased. Even in some of the worst historical periods for women (and some of the worst places right now), there were and are women owning businesses, working trades, farming, and being part of society on every level. Women were (or are) considered subhuman and/or property only some of the time; and by only some strata of most cultures.

  6. M.C. says

    This is why Doctor Who is still my favourite scifi show. It is essential for DW to have female characters whose main goal is not to get married but to see the universe.

    And let’s not forget The Sarah Jane Adventures: the whole show was created around a woman in her 50s, who decided she wouldn’t get married to someone just for the sake of it, but rather lead a life of awesome adventures.
    And to make TSJA even greater the supporting cast features Rani, an Indian girl, and Clyde, a black kid. The only straight white male in the show is Luke, Sarah Jane’s adoptive son, who was created by aliens btw.

    The most sexist and racist scifi show right now is Stargate Universe. Females only exist to be someone’s love interest (Chloe), be pregnant (TJ) and stand around useless (Camille). And the only black guy is the Angry Street Urchin…
    Thanks alot, franchise. You started off so well with Sam Carter.

    And to make my post even longer: The pilot for Star Trek TNG featured human males wearing mini skirts – so they at least tried to show equality.
    Star Wars on the other hand… Well, Princess Leia was cool, but Lucas dropped the ball with Padmé in EpIII. Then they killed off Mara Jade in the novels. And Ahsoka in the Clone Wars is pretty awesome, but there’s a 99% chance they’ll kill her off at the end just to make Anakin feel bad…

    • says

      ITA about DW and SJA. And Sam Carter – she didn’t even make it through the entire run of SG-1 intact, so I didn’t bother watching the other shows. It was clear to me what to expect.

      Mini-skirts, really? Gotta check that out sometime. (Never got around to TNG.)

      The problem with SW even when Leia was being cool is that in three movies, with a total running time of about 6.5 hours, you have maybe 5 minutes of screen time with Aunt Beru, who’s then toasted, maybe 2 minutes with Mon Mothma, and whatever time you get with Leia, AND THAT’S IT FOR NAMED WOMEN IN THAT GALAXY. Lucas is one of the most egregious sci-fi offenders on both gender and race.

      • Ray says

        I also felt like the SW movies started out “strong” and got progressively worse — the original didn’t pass the Bechdel test, and had essentially one woman, but Leia was pretty kickass, had some great one liners, got her own gun, etc. A pretty low bar to pass, but as we’e so many times discussed, that’s part of the whole problem. She’s featured on the poster. Then we get Empire and she’s still got a lot to do, a lot of it now involving a love story, but we see her giving orders to the troops, etc, and the love story doesn’t control everything she does. She still has some snark. And then we get to Jedi and she shows promise for the first five minutes, but only in the context of a “palace” full of slave girls, then she ends up chained and in a bikini, and though she has a couple cool scenes later on, she just doesn’t seem to be so important to the movie anymore.

        And then, 15 years later, we get Padme, who never did much for me, and dies of a broken heart when she could have had her own story line involving getting her children to safety.

        And MC, you’ve pretty much covered the book situation. At least the Zahn books pretty consistently passed the Bechdel test (others may have but I don’t remember). We could also mention other women who get introduced but are soon killed/depowered/made into a joke. I stopped reading a ways back, but not before they killed Gaeriel, took away Callista’s Jedi powers and made her whine about it, and took Admiral Daala from an intriguing villain (at least, so I had hoped that she would be) into someone who slept her way to the top and made stupid decisions once she got there.

        What makes me sadder, in some ways, is that I remember being 13 or so and being SO EXCITED to see Leia, because, you know, there was a woman. In sci-fi! Doing something herself! Not wearing a skimpy– *sigh*

        • Robin says

          I haven’t read any of the NJO or prequel stuff, but I can definitely recommend Kevin J. Anderson’s X-Wing series. It has a number of female characters — not quite an equal number to males, but a much better ratio than the movies. There are both pilots and support staff, human and alien, who talk about lots of non-boy things like tactics, engineering, and weapons.

          And Leia’s pretty awesome in the follow-up novels. Yes, she marries Han and has babies, but she’s also elected president of the whole freakin’ galaxy and does a little Jedi training with her brother when she has the time. She talks to Mon Mothma a lot about governing and policy, and many other female characters show up as senators, diplomats, service personnel, traitors, mercenaries, etc.

        • says

          Padme was such a waste. They could have had her give birth to the twins and go on the run from her psychotic husband, only to have Vader catch up to her eventually and dispose of her. But not before she was able to secret the children away to Alderan and Tatooine! This also would have jived with Leia’s talking about remembering her mother as “very sad” in Jedi. A grimly determined woman, fierce in her devotion to protecting her kids and firmly on the good side of the Force, yet sad at the loss of Anakin and what could have been: now THAT sounds like an interesting character!

          So, by Padme “losing the will to live” (I mean ,really, WTF?!?!) they not only borked her character, they wrecked some previously established continuity!

      • M.C. says

        Heh, I even found some pics on the net :-)

        http://i717.photobucket.com/albums/ww176/Raiinya/Man_in_a_skirt.jpg

        http://i717.photobucket.com/albums/ww176/Raiinya/F979CC5E-7CC4-4312-A436-6E0ED7C96CC.png

        I just started watching TNG a few months ago in reruns and at least the first series tried very much to show equality. They had men in mini-skirts (or rather mini-dresses); three main female characters with one of them – Tasha Yar – being head of security; the ship even visited a planet with a matriarchy society (in the ep Angel One).

    • says

      I never got into Doctor Who, but I was disappointed when the new doctor turned out to be another white dude accompanied by another white female companion. As I said, I can’t say how it plays out on the show, but from the outside, that turned me off.

      • M.C. says

        I’ll admit that the latest series of DW started off a bit… unimpressive. But then they brought back the character of River Song. And it’s just so freaking awesome that the Doctor is played by a 20-something guy and his love interest is played by a 40-something woman.

    • Shaun says

      We can console ourselves with the fact SGU is pretty much terrible and hopefully will have a very, very short life. I couldn’t even get through the Pilot.

  7. Patrick McGraw says

    Exosquad was an American animated series from the early nineties that was, in comparison, quite good on this front. It was a war series – basically, if Mobile Suit Gundam was WWII’s Pacific front with giant robots, the Exosquad was the European front with slightly-less-giant robots.

    The show focuses on a squad of E-frame (mecha) pilots. Of the eight characters, three are white men, one Asian man, two white women, and one Hispanic woman. (The last member is a male Neosapien – genetically engineered humans with blue skin.)

    Note that women are serving in front-line combat units and nothing is ever made of this. The ground-pounding Jump Troops introduced in the second season are presented as very tough and gung-ho, looking down on the “soft” E-frame, pilots, and they include women as well. What we see of Earth’s government includes plenty of women. (Unfortunately, the high ranks of Earth’s military seem to consist entirely of white men.)

    It’s an excellent series, and the entire series is viewable on Hulu.

  8. says

    What pisses me off even more is that when a writer puts a toe outside that paradigm, they’re immediately hailed as “a feminist”. So joss Wheedon and Terry Pratchett recognise that there’s this hole other half to the human race? Big whoop. Let’s not bake the cookies just yet, people.

  9. Charles RB says

    The sexist aliens have NOTHING on the alien/fantasy race where women are in charge and the matriachs are ludicrously misandrist. There were two 1960s Doctor Who scripts that never got produced, by different writers, that would have alternate Earths run by women and both were dictatorships.

    On the flipside, broadcast Who got in a female (and Eastern European) President of Earth in the 26th century, an off-screen female PM (albeit an adlib by Nicholas Courtney), a female super-scientist in Liz Shaw, and Brigadier Bambera. Part of the reason is, and I quote Ben Aaronovitch (Bambera’s creator) from memory: “If you want to show it’s the future and you don’t trust the BBC Props Department, you show an authority figure who *mock gasp* is a woman or a minority that we wouldn’t expect to see there”. He wrote that story in 1989 and said that quote in 2007, and it still applies.

    “where is the movie about the Night Witches?”

    The first Battlefields comic story by Garth Ennis was about and called The Night Witches, with a current sequel (Motherland) running. In an old interview for it, he recounted finding out about the Witches in an old UK war strip Johnny Red when he was a lad: (paraphrasing) “No WAY did they send GIRLS out to fight!”, he says he thought at the time. In one interview, he cited them as acts of awesome courage that needed stories before all the real people involved were dead and lost to us forever.

    • Charles RB says

      Though thinking about it, Red Dwarf handily pissed on that trope by having its female oriented universe be exactly like the male one. Rimmer and Lister then respond with bemusement with periods of disgust and shock at these strange, unthinking beings (especially when Lister finds out men get pregnant in this reality and Female!Lister assumed that when they’d had drunken sex, he’d taken care of contraceptions because “it’s the man’s responsibility”).

      • Ace says

        Ahaha, I loved that episode. Rimmer and Lister get to see exact copies of themselves (albeit female) and mostly fail to learn just why such behavior is so unpalatable in themselves (but then they are both certified idiots).

    • Shaun says

      Presenting a matriarchy as something inherently utopian or dystopic is equally stupid. Any society which denigrates 1/2 or 1/3 or 1/10 it’s citizens is equally horrific to the people who are affected by it.

      Have you read the Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge? It’s a sci-fi retelling of the original legend (that predates Hans Christian Anderson). Arienrhod, the Snow Queen, was presented as corrupt and even willing to commit and act of genocide–yet I still identified with her because of what she was /trying/ to accomplish. The protagonist is also a woman, as are most of the awesome characters. I would say most of the societies presented were patriarchal, to different degrees, but it’s not like Tiamat’s matriarchal society was handled disingenuously by contrast.

    • says

      (trigger warning)

      Ennis’s Night Witches almost turned me off comics for good. It contains the most awful, horrible, hideous rape scene in any comic book ever; not because it’s very graphically presented (though it is), but because after the mass rape of this young woman, she is left lying naked and bruised on the floor in this barn, and her head is not in frame.

      He just wrote a major plot device around the violent abuse of this poor young woman, and the artist won’t even humanise her by showing her face. The action shifts immediately to the male character and how bad he feels about it. We’re supposed to feel sympathetic towards him as the protagonist for feeling guilty about it when it’s not shown that he’s done anything to help her even after the fact – given her a coat, some water, something.

      It just brought home to me with such force how murderously oblivious even well meaning liberal guys can be. And it made me super stingy with the feminist cookies.

        • says

          Gosh, no, it’s totally not just Garth Ennis! I’ve been staying away from Alan Moore and Brian Azarello for quite some time, and have developed a habit of flicking through graphic novels for scenes of gratuitous rape before buying them.

          What made this example so eggregious though was that Ennis was not sexualising the rape, he was trying to show it as something terrible; but his and the artist’s natural tendency to concentrate on how it is terrible for the men resulted in the dehumanisation of the victim. And somehow knowing that they just did that because they didn’t think it through made it worse than outright misogyny…

          • Patrick McGraw says

            Alan Moore is a brilliant writer, but there will be rape. Whether it is gratuitous or not is obviously subjective, but with Moore I find it less likely to be gratuitous than, say, any comic put out by one of the Big Two American publishers.

            Seriously, Marvel, DC? Rape is not “edgy.” It does not make your comics more “mature.” It just makes them repulsive.

      • Charles RB says

        We did see her face when the male character’s forced closer to her, but you’re right, initially that’s covered and that’s pretty oblivious to the implications (I know I didn’t think of that until you pointed out).

  10. Alara Rogers says

    Oh my god so much yes.

    And I don’t even understand how it happens (well, I do, but I can’t accept it), because if you look at animals, practically every animal around does shit differently than we do. Very, very few seem to practice anything resembling human patriarchy. If you based your aliens on the closest thing to an alien we have to look at — another species here on this planet — you wouldn’t have cultures that look at *all* like human patriarchies do.

    I mean, if cats were sentient, you’d have matriarchies run by bad-ass women who inherit their territories from their mothers, who sleep with any man who comes around if he tickles their fancy, while men get kicked out of Mom’s territory when young, be itinerants, see the world, have a lot of sex, and then settle down in old age and maybe be advisors to the little boys practicing to go out on their own. If bonobos were sentient, you’d have matriarchal societies where women make alliances and manage diplomacy by having sex, with *everyone*. (And seriously, if you had “the aliens whose culture is like bonobos” played by Hollywood actresses, why isn’t TV all over that? You can’t tell me TV execs wouldn’t drool at the thought of “our heroes visit a planet where the matriarchs make alliances by having sex!”) If penguins were sentient, you could do a story about asteroid miners in hostile environments where the dad stays at home with the baby while the mother goes mining to provide for the family, and then when she returns with the money, she takes over with the baby and the dad gets to go out on his run… and if she never comes back, the dad has to watch the baby starve to death, because if *he* leaves, the baby dies.

    But even when aliens are totally alien, SF still glues human-centric tropes onto them, particularly about gender. One short story (technically Star Trek fanfic, but it was professionally published by the authorized tie-in publisher, so it counts) irritated the hell out of me by doing an episode expansion to an episode that was already problematic in that it had shown us immortal, shapeshifting, non-corporeal energy beings who had never before engaged in sexual reproduction acting like a wild-oats-sowing, cad of a man and a jealous, shrewish wife, until they decide to invent reproduction for their species… but at least in the episode, they reproduced by what looked like touching fingers and their baby looked like a 2 year old hours later. In the *story*, the “wife” character was pregnant, and went into labor, with much screaming and cursing at the “husband” character… really? noncorporeal aliens who reproduce by touching fingertips get PREGNANT? Hello, here on earth only mammals get pregnant, and most do *not* suffer the particular hellish complications that human women, with narrow pelvises and big-brained babies, do, and I’m pretty sure that if *humans* could teleport and go noncorporeal and change our shapes at will, labor would be a non-issue. (In fact the story was based on a Star Trek series where we had once seen a human woman give birth via transporter, so why are the supposedly supremely advanced aliens suffering labor pains?)

    But humans are so uninterested in actually looking at the gender dynamics of the alien species that live here on Earth with us that they make children’s cartoons featuring male cows, who give milk. Or beehives where there are male worker bees and romance between bees. So god forbid they actually think about aliens acting *not* exactly identical to humans (and for that matter, humans from a very narrow range of cultures; I have not yet seen one alien species in SF media having a visually distinct “third sex” the way humans such as Indians (from India) and many Native American cultures had, not a biological sex but a culturally constructed one where men who dressed as women were referred to as women but culturally understood to be a third gender entirely).

    • Ace says

      I think I know the episode you are talking about (I haven’t watched Voyager since I was about 12 so it’s fuzzy) but I do remember them really screwing up the Q continuum with that crap, and all that junky “Q civil war” garbage.

      It was really sad because in TNG, they weren’t portrayed anything like that at all. In fact, a lot of the interplay between Q and Capt. Picard turned certain gender/sexual norms on their head.

    • M.C. says

      Actually, almost every human society up until early 17th century new more than 2 sexes. If anyone is interested in that topic I recommend reading “Transgender Warriors” by Leslie Feinberg. The book is quite eye-opening.

    • Genevieve says

      On the topic of sentient cats–try Diane Duane’s The Book of Night With Moon and To Visit the Queen. It’s been a while since I read them, so I can’t remember how matriarchal the world of the wizard cats was, but there was an interesting female cat protagonist and a few other important female characters.

  11. Elee says

    Apparently my subconscious was still worrying over the lack of female characters in WWII-films that Jennifer spoke of in the beginning, because I am lucky to have seen a couple of films produced in the then-UdSSR about WWII and know, that though underrepresented, female roles there were not limited to nurses (I am talking about 50-70es) and had been presented as heroic as male charas. So while zapping yesterday restlessy I suddenly found a french film “Les femmes de l’Ombre”. A group of 5-6 women is recruited for a rescue mission (of course, there is a man in charge of the group *eyeroll*) of a geologist, who was determining the best place for landing troups in Normandie. These women are as strong and as ruthless as you would expect it from a spy of James Bonds caliber. They complete the mission and instead of going home as heroes like they would have lauded if they were men, they have another mission foisted upon them which probably gets them killed (I had to be up early so couldn’t watch it to the end). Essentially, they are trapped between a rock and a hard place. It was really… refreshing. I constantly tried to replace the female agents with male and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference, except maybe for a bit of a plot. They were not “women in a war”, they were soldiers and trying to survive. The only time I was reminded of the fact that they were women was when a butt-kicking badass Sophie Marceau says bitterly “You wouldn’t have done it if we were men!” (when she learns about a new mission and a reason why one of the women was recruited). Ironically, this is also one of the few films about WWII that doesn’t paint one side with a hero brush and another as raging beasts instead showing that a war leaves no side unaffected and clean, a practice I’ve come to expect from boys-only films in genre. I guess, what I have wanted to say is: just because a film is set in a historical setting and we expect a sexist attitude, doesn’t mean it can’t have strong females.

  12. Aconite says

    Oh! This is something that’s always bothered me about the game Mass Effect. Here we are in a society centuries into the future where ostensibly race* and gender are not dividing/limiting factors any more, and we STILL haven’t gotten over all the heteronormativity?

    * (Here I mean inter-human races. The game has a large focus on tensions and relations between the different alien species which can be seen as a commentary on human race relations.)

    This was one of the more jarring aspects for me of an otherwise amazing game. Considering how we’re already progressing towards attaining higher visions of equality and social justice (yeah, it’s slow and sometimes thankless but I’m still proud of us for all our efforts :)), it’s *mind boggling* that hundreds of years from now LGBTQ relationships AREN’T simply a normal part of everyday life for humans.

    They didn’t even have to be explicit about it if they were “scared of repercussions” or whatever. Even if Shepard her/himself wasn’t the focus of same-sex relationships (I will begrudgingly accept the fact that having six to nine potential love interests whose stories will all eventually intertwine might have been a strain on the developer’s resources) there are no gay couples among the NPCs? No transsexual ship operatives? No lesbian human couples talking about their kids in the background? Not even among the aliens? **

    Seems too far fetched. This was not as much of a problem in Dragon Age.

    ** (Okay, I was going to get into the whole Asari thing too, but I think this wall of text has gotten high enough. So I will desist for now. I don’t want to be blathering on if no one else has any interest or idea what I’m talking about, or you’re finally going to give voice to what you’re no doubt thinking: “Shut up already, crazy Bioware freak girl!” :D)

    • says

      And don’t forget the idea of transhumanism? I mean, as soon as that’s viable, people *will* change their bodies with technology, and they *will* do so with regards to sex and gender. So you can get extremely crazy there if you want to.

    • Shaun says

      I haven’t played Mass Effect, though my best friend has. Apparently it’s possible to have heterosexual or lesbian relationships, but not gay ones. 9.9

      Thoughts on transsexual characters–at any point where we have developed viable space travel, especially to the point where other star systems can be reached easily enough to allow commerce (again, having never played the ME games, I don’t know their tech), body modifications should be so easy as to become routine. What the hell does sex matter when I can change my sex to go to a party or graduation? And change it back by the next morning? Would I even retain a gender identity?

      I’m not saying everyone would do this, but once these things become available they would absolutely have an affect on human culture (assuming the technologies were available for all classes), and it’s definitely something worth exploring.

      • Anemone says

        Bite the Sun, by Tanith Lee, though the story is more about perpetual adolescence.

        Actually, I think the two are related: at some point you’d want to settle down with a stable adult identity so you can get on with things, and then the only reason for a modification might be to have a child, or perhaps a shift in identity at menopause/andropause (or during a major economic shift?).

        • Shaun says

          Right. I’m sure plenty of people would only want to look one way as adults (in fact I think there would be more people making their appearance eternal than changing it every Tuesday), but these kinds of questions are rarely explored because people (especially the non-creative types who greenlight games) take their concepts of race, gender, heteronormativity and the like for granted. Race is a social concept anyway–imagine how that changes when I can make my skin any color I want. Or texture. Or if I body-modify myself to live on some aquatic world and now I have *actual* physiological differences.

      • Aconite says

        @Patrick and Shaun: As far as I know, body appearance mods aren’t available in the game universe so I hadn’t thought about it before. But those are some very interesting implications.

        Although it does strike me that there could still be some traits which are seen as being *more desirable* for whatever reason, and consequently made harder to attain by the Industry In Charge, so people would still be clamouring for some unattainable goal and we’d simply end up with a highly intensified form of our current societal trends, where body modifications involve even more extreme changes than they do now.

        About the so-called lesbian relationship, the developers had a cop out with that because the species you can have it with, the blue skinned Asari, is supposed to be “monogendered”. (“How can they be lesbian if they only have one gender? We’ve got our asses covered!”) They also can mate with all genders of all species in the galaxy to add diversity to their gene pool. You would assume that would make them androgynous, right?

        But no. They look and sound unmistakably female (breasts, curves, everything), they are refered to as “she”, their life stages are Maiden, Matron and Matriarch. What ISN’T female about them?

        They are respected as the wisest and oldest culture in the galaxy and their warriors are regarded as especially powerful. But walk into any sleazy bar in the galaxy and you’ll find them dancing in the most stripper-esque ways for the customers. (This is supposed to be part of a normal and much desired “wild child” stage of most Asari’s youth.) Almost like they HAD to be defanged and made sexually non-threatening or THEFANBOYSWON’TBUYOURGAMEOMGOHNOES!!! ~_~

        It’s even more exasperating because Bioware has included same-sex relationships in some of their other games without issues. (‘Jade Empire’ and ‘Dragon Age’ are two that I’ve played.)

        I would like to believe that the romance option was added more in the name of inclusiveness than (straight white male) fan service. But I doubt it.

        • Shaun says

          Yeah I know in Dragon Age you have both a heterosexual and a homosexual option regardless of whether you’re playing a male or female, because your party consists of a heterosexual male, a heterosexual female, and *gasp* a bisexual male and female. I find this option much more appealing and much less (straight male) fanservicey than “they’re women who will literally have sex with ANYTHING!”

          There are all-female species that reproduce by parthenogenesis, so I guess you could call that “lesbian” if you really wanted to, but they don’t generally have an in-plot reason to HAVE SEX WITH AS MANY SPECIES AS POSSIBLE OMG.

          I didn’t know about them being the oldest race OR the stripper bars. This only makes it that much worse.

          • Aconite says

            <3 Dragon Age! <3 :D It had its iffy bits but DAMN was it a step in the right direction. Now they just need to keep progressing along those lines and getting better, instead of stepping backwards into the fresh, steaming cowpat that is this typical drooling fanboy service.

  13. says

    Ace:
    I keep waiting for more people to pay attention to the Spotted Hyena. They’re fascinating creatures, and live in very stable, tight-knit female-dominated pack structures. They’re also formidable hunters despite their reputation for “stealing” and “scavanging” from lions, when actually it’s more often the lions that steal from them!

    Poor Spotted Hyenas, they don’t get any respect.

    In the Kate Daniels books by Ilona Andrews, hyenas are one of the shapeshifter clans. The women tend to be very aggressive, the men tend to be spoiled and pampered, and all of them enjoy casual, kinky sex on a regular basis. They’re ruled by a matriarch, Aunt B, who is sweet and grandmotherly and terrifies the protagonist.

    It is not an ideal society. One of the hyena women talks about being bullied as a child, to the point of torture. (Which makes sense, in the wild young cubs will fight to the death.) The gay man is considered competition for the males and thus expected to behave like the dominant women. But I think it’s a good look at how human/hyena hybrids might behave.

    The author’s planning a spin off with one of the hyena women as the main character. The main series starts with Magic Bites but the hyena is the narrator in the short story “Magic Mourns” in Must Love Hellhounds.

  14. Cloudtigress says

    If you haven’t read them yet, you might enjoy C. J. Cherryh’s Chanuar novels. The Hani race (which our main characters, Pyanfar Chanuar in the first five books and Hilfy Chanuar in the sixth, belong to) are based on lions, but the females are the ones running things. The males either live in what are essensily preserves from late adolences on perfecting their fighting skills, or running estates with their many wives and (sometimes) other female relatives. In fact, males are considered so unable to control their fighting urges around other males that they’re not allowed off-planet at all. When Pyanfar allows her (technically former) husband Khym to join her crew instead of leaving him to live a hardscrabble life in the wilds (where he’d have to go after being chased off his estate by a challenger), she has to deal with a government official who’s determined to take custody of Khym and forcibly return him to the Hani homeworld before he “inevitably” looses control of himself and seriously hurt someone.

    Added bonus: Hani females look exactly like the males (manes and flat muscled chests), except the males are larger than the females. And the Cute Fuzzy Alien that can barely speak with the crew because the language is difficult for his mouth to shape the sounds correctly……is a human male. (I want to say blond white guy, but it’s been long enough since I’ve read the books that my memory can’t be trusted on that point.)

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