Gender is just a mask
In my last post, What Women Want, I discussed the long running trend of literary science fiction offering more egalitarian novels, giving equal billing to female characters alongside male characters. These are deliberate attempts to break the mould of stereotypes by featuring female adventurers, female soldiers, kick-ass heroines, etc. I've recently noticed discussions on the need to attract more women readers and writers to science fiction, though the subject may be older than I think. But the implication, I think, is that older, 'Golden Age' sci-fi was still too male dominated and misogynist, and that feministic principles were needed to remove that taint from the genre.
I can remember back in the late Eighties (I think it was 1988) when Interzone ran a special feminist edition, claiming that, while mainstream feminism led the main assault on male dominance in society, Interzone's featured stories for that edition would act like 'guerilla warfare', sneaking around the 'trenchlines' to strike deep behind enemy lines. Or something.
I remember also at the time, as a committed feminist deep into New Woman (now defunct) and Spare Rib (also defunct), thinking that Interzone was a bit late coming to the party (Sigourney Weaver's star turn in Aliens was already two years old), and that the stories were a bit lame - more cod-feminism than anything. But at least the thought was there. Many of the authors submitting stories then would later go on to become the superstars of science fiction in the nineties. I'm sure I remember Kim Stanley Robinson being one of the contributors to that edition.
So has making the genre more 'female friendly', by giving women and girls more positive role-models that they can identify with, attracted a whole slew of female readers and writers? Well, no, not really. If the recent discussions are anything to go by, there appears to be a lot more work needed for that to happen.
But I wonder now whether the strategy, as described, was not, in fact, mistaken. I mean, if all women want is role-models of women doing exactly what men appear to do, then surely women's soccer would be watched purely by women, while only men watch male soccer. The two sports would then have 50-50 attendances.
Clearly, it's not that simple. Women don't want to just watch themselves doing any old stuff. They're a little more specific in their tastes. The majority of women also don't seem to be that interested in doing what feminists tell them to do.
Women in revolt
Twilight, released in 2005, followed on the heels of Harry Potter's success, doing for teen fiction (or Young Adult fiction as it's now known) what HP did for children's books. People were astonished by Potter's success. Twilight's even faster success generated a slightly different reaction. While some critics noted the changing role of vampires in fiction (from horror staples to romance icons), others were more scathing. Not about the vampires, but about Bella, the lead character.
Guardian columnists lined up to lambast Bella's passivity. She wasn't kick-ass. She wasn't out to challenge the patriarchy or overturn gender stereotypes. She just wanted to be loved by a cute boy vampire.
The horror! Here was a development that surely threatened a step backwards for the egalitarian movement.
This. Was. A bad thing.
Teenage girls (my daughter included) begged to differ and bought the books in their droves. And there was the danger that moved the impassioned Guardianistas, you see. These were young minds at an impressionable age about to step out into the adult world. How on earth could they play their part in remaking the world if all they wanted to do was simper over some immortal pretty boy?
I don't actually think there were any commentators who saw Twilight as some subversive patriarchal ploy to lure girls back into traditional female roles, but I wouldn't be surprised if some did think that.
Still, hot on the heels of Twilight, there arrived another teen novel that would set things right. This was, of course, The Hunger Games, and, to the Concerned Columnists, a welcome step in the right direction. The heroine was a strong, independent-minded young woman. She was determined. And she could fight.
The Hunger Games got made into a movie that looked to be as successful as the Twilight ones. Twilight was, in the comments pages, being frequently mocked, and people appeared to be getting sick of love-lorn vampires.
Twilight looked like being a blip on the ever ascending progressive chart.
Then came 50 Shades of Grey.
Wow, did that set the cat among the pigeons. Here we have a heroine who is not only not the feisty feminist type, but she lets a man tie her up and... do things to her. For, like, the entire book. Or thereabouts.
If some people thought that Twilight had all the hallmarks of an abusive relationship, they were probably going to go ballistic over 50 Shades. And they did. Very soon it was put about that 50 Shades was 'really bad writing'.
Did the readers care? Did they hell. They snapped it up and made it the biggest selling novel in Britain, ever. And they haven't even made a movie out of this one yet! It is breaking records, and will undoubtedly set more. And what's more, sales are not being driven by impressionable young girls who can be forgiven for being so weak minded and easily led that they need to be protected by self-appointed moral guardians. No, this time it's grown women, who should, apparently, know better.
It's quite astonishing really. I mean, 50 Shades is being bought and read by people who simply have never bothered reading a novel before. Everyone I know has either read it, or knows someone who's read it.
So what does all this mean? Well, to me it means that all the talk about finding suitable female role-models to educate women was just a load of patronising twaddle. It's long been fashionable, it seems, to portray women as weak minded and in need of guidance and protection, and the new brand of authoritarian feminism appears to do exactly the same. Women, however, know what they like, and they don't need people to socially engineer their fiction. They certainly don't need the oft-called-for token gesture of the ass kicking heroine who, quite frankly, is just a bloke with tits. Or, in science fiction, a nerdy autistic bloke with tits.
Besides romance novels, another genre that is hugely popular with women is murder mystery. More often than not, the detective is a man, but it doesn't matter. When thousands of women read Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse novels, for instance, they probably like the genteel pace, the considered style of Morse's train of thought, the picturesque Oxford settings. It's a cerebral experience, and it matters not one whit that Morse is a man. If the stories were moved to downtown Mogadishu, and Morse was given an AK 47, a jeep and thirty six hours to save the ambassador from the terrorist stronghold, I don't think many of his female readers would be as keen to follow him. Changing him into a woman at that point wouldn't draw them back either.
The gender of the protagonist makes no difference to a novel's appeal.
Ah, but surely it's not about such a crude thing as marketing appeal? Since science fiction is about the future, and since men and women in society are becoming more 'equal', then surely the future (provided we don't take our eye off the ball) will have more equality? Meaning, basically, that men and women will be virtually the same, with their roles freely interchangeable. Gender differences are an invention of the past. Science fiction's egalitarian vision is, therefore, just a realistic look at how the future will be.
Perhaps. But this all assumes that gender really is down to society, not genes. It also assumes that men and women want to be exactly the same.
Consider the evidence, look around and ask yourself; just how true is that? Because after spending years lapping up the propaganda, I myself am not so sure.
I was motivated to write this post after reading way too many forum discussions and blog posts on this subject. Consider my surprise then when I put this question to a writer's forum, and discovered that, actually there is a section of science fiction that, it would appear, caters specifically to women. Not all women. But maybe the ones who just aren't taken with SF as it is.
Ever heard of Science Fiction Romance? I hadn't. And in all the discussions about women in science fiction, I've never once seen this sub-genre referred to once.
Which probably isn't surprising. Mention in a feminism-heavy discussion that women might be attracted to romance, and you're likely to get a literary slap and a how-dare-you warning for insinuating that women only like romance, rather than more 'serious' subjects.
And yet, if you click on the links in the forum I've highlighted, you'll see that these novels are not fly-by-nights. Basically, a body of women has taken to writing what they like. In a practical manner. Rather than just wibble on about inequality and wait for someone else to solve the problem. They have taken the genre, and re-defined it according to their taste.
And there, ultimately, may be the answer to the whole question about women in science fiction. If you don't want just a few women (like, say, CJ Cherryh or Ursula Le Guin) in science fiction, if you wanted to attract a lot more women away from the mainstream, or even away from fantasy, then perhaps we need to have a lot more romance. Perhaps we need to change the whole of science fiction and its orientation towards technical gadgetry, wars in space and nerdy questions about the effect of low gravity and cosmic radiation on socio-biological issues and their attendant permutations on the philosophy of whatnot, wibble and who-gives-a-shit.
What we need in science-fiction is more luuuuuurve. And a bit of tender S&M.
Mmmm. I can see that one going down like a lead balloon among the egg-heads.
Never mind. Just whip out the man-boobs, hide the nutsack and hope nobody notices the difference.