Monday, 20 July 2015

Women in Science Fiction: Authors, Characters and Stereotypes

by Mary Jeddore Blakney

This article first appeared in the quarterly magazine SFP Indie.

When SFP Indie editor M. Joseph Murphy asked me to write about what it’s like to be a female science fiction writer, my first thought was, “I’m not really qualified. I don’t write science fiction as a female; I just write it.”

Of course, that’s exactly the point. Writing is like marriage. It is done by people, and those people usually (but not always) are either male or female, and their gender may or may not have anything to do with it. Yet our culture still tends to assume that gender is one of the most important factors in the whole operation.

In high school, I was taught that Mary Ann Evans put a stop to this kind of thinking back in the 1800s with her book Silas Marner. Evans went by the pen name George Eliot. And she wrote her male characters with the kind of deep personal insight that (it seemed obvious to readers of her day) only another male could possess.

An indispensable skill for any fiction writer is the ability to climb into our characters’ heads and understand what they think and feel. Obviously, not all our characters will possess all the same specifics as we do. Some will have different genders. Some will have different ancestries. Some will have bigger feet or longer hair. More to the point, they will have different life experiences, tastes, preferences and motivations. These are the challenging differences, and compared to that, writing a character with a different gender is easy.

But Mary Ann Evans didn’t write science fiction. So maybe that’s the difference. Like restoring old muscle cars, science fiction is just one of those hobbies that don’t draw a lot of women. It has been pretty much a male thing, ever since it got its start from the pen of Mary Shelley in 1818.

Wait, Mary Shelley? That’s right. The creator of Frankenstein, commonly credited with starting the genre, was a woman.

So if science fiction has never been the realm of male writers, what, exactly, is so predominantly male about it? For one thing, there are the characters. I find it interesting that even in Frankenstein, all the really important characters are males.

And I think I know why. When I started writing science fiction, all my alien characters were male. Once I realized that, I knew it was a problem I needed to fix, but it wasn’t easy. At one point, I even caught myself feeling that adding females would hurt the stories. Female softness would take the edge off the tough impression the alien soldiers made, and female attention to shallow subjects would make the plot meander. I knew right away that this kind of thinking was ludicrous, because I myself am not soft or shallow in urgent situations. But reading science fiction, military fiction, and other ‘hard’ fiction had conditioned me so thoroughly to expect all tough characters to be male, that I didn’t even think about what an unrealistic assumption it was. If this was true of me in the 21st century, I can only imagine the conditioning Mary Shelley must have had.

But choosing to think past the conditioning and make some of my strong characters female has improved my writing. It felt particularly good to see one of the reader comments on my Star Trek serial Cracking Cardassian. It said, “I hope we see Karadel again.” Karadel is one of those alien soldiers I found so difficult to make female. But getting past the gender stereotype forced me to make her a person instead of a caricature, and that has given the whole story greater depth and realism. The same positive side effects have happened in most of the rest of my science fiction, as well.
But being female and being feminine are not the same thing, and once I started paying attention to gender, I realized that I had to stop assuming that our own culture’s traditional gender styles would necessarily be the found in people from another planet. So in writing the primary alien culture of my Fletcher Variable stories, I decided to remove the artificial link between masculine/feminine and male/female. As a result, femininity is now a cultural trait normally found in sea-dwelling Chuzekks, and masculinity in Chuzekks who live on land.

I suppose that most of today’s writers and readers would say there’s no harm in linking our aliens’ genders with their masculinity or femininity. And in a sense, I would agree - just as there’s no harm in making our strong characters male. Our culture’s conditioning against strong females didn’t come from the presence of strong male characters in fiction; it came from the absence of female ones, and it probably wasn’t done on purpose. So while I’m working to correct that problem, I don’t want to accidentally add another one by influencing future generations to think that feminine characters can’t be male - and much more importantly, that they have the right to mistreat their real-world neighbors for not conforming to gender stereotypes.

And that, really, is the whole reason gender matters in our writing. Having trouble imagining a strong
female character in fiction is relatively harmless. What’s not harmless is how that kind of thinking crosses over into real life. Minds conditioned to think that females in fiction are soft and shallow will think the same of real women and girls. And that’s just one of a whole package of assumptions that fiction teaches us to make about the people around us. I don’t blame Mary Ann Evans, Mary Shelley or anyone else for depriving us of of heroes and villains that were anything other than male, masculine and straight. They themselves were conditioned by earlier influences, and were probably never made aware of it.

But I am aware of it, which means I have the responsibility to help fix the problem - not because I’m a female writer, but because I’m a writer.