October 24, 2001
Feminism in Sci-Fi, part I

1. Do the goals/ideals of feminism mesh well with the genre of science fiction? Why/why not? Does science fiction offer any special opportunities for feminist writers? Or, does it present any special difficulties?

The first part of the question assumes that there is a coherent set of goals/ideals associated with the term "feminism" -- an assumption that I think is dubious. The term is generally considered to describe "the doctrine advocating social and political rights for women equal to those of men." (This is the definition found in the Random House College Dictionary) I favor this definition.

However, Gloria Steinem and Camille Paglia, among many others, show just how divisive the moniker "feminism" can be. There are several major schools of thought pertaining to the advocacy of social/political equality for women, and they are often bitterly opposed. The legality of abortion, for example, is both fought and defended by camps claiming to defend feminist ideals. Some feminist camps deride the choice that some women make to become mothers or housewives, while other camps maintain that women do not have to pursue careers to the exclusion of family in order to become "equal".

Since (unlike my friend in grad school) I am not a student of feminist theory and am therefore not certain which aspect of feminism is being favored as the "true" school of thought, I'll simply refer to feminism as defined by Random House, above.

There is also the problem of defining science fiction. There is a very long and hard fought disagreement among those who discuss this field as to whether a story must rely exclusively upon scientific principles in order to count as sci-fi. For example, since several of Ray Bradbury's stories in The Martian Chronicles do not *have* to occur on Mars in order to still be coherent, do they count as sci-fi? Again, I'm going to defer to the definition I find in my dictionary, rather than go into this argument here. Random House defines science fiction as "a form of fiction that draws imaginatively on scientific knowledge and speculation." I read this to include the works of Ray Bradbury and Ursula LeGuinn, even though others may disagree.

The ideals of social and political equality for women clearly mesh well with the genre of science fiction. The genre encourages authors and readers to consider not only what life and human nature is like now, but what life *could* be like, given any number of opportunities, environments, or histories. It allows us to speculate on the good and bad results of living in a world where equality is supported or denied. It affords us the chance to consider "What if...?" As we imagine these different possibilities, it also allows us to imagine that they are possible, and that we might well pursue and attain them.

In general, stories in the genre tend to favor the ideal of a society in which women and men are socially and politically equal.

That said, while the genre meshes well with the ideals of feminism, it does not always conform to the ideals of feminism. Because this is a literature of speculation and free-thinking, it also includes stories that endorse or advocate views opposed to those of feminism. Given the definition that feminism is an advocacy for equality among the sexes, the fact that science fiction includes some works that do not share that point of view reveals that the goals of this genre *can* mesh well with those of feminism, but that doesn't mean they always do.

Science fiction does, however, offer many special opportunities for feminist writers. Like other genres of literature, it enables authors to tell stories that embody or challenge ideals of human relationships -- political, social, and otherwise. But, what is unique to this genre is the ability to extrapolate behaviors from settings; to distill ideals to their purist forms and tell stories that evoke much more vividly the concepts that are being presented.

While there are historical fiction stories that may display the grit and resourcefulness of a female protagonist, or mainstream novels in which equality is shown to be preferable for all concerned than inequality, science fiction can challenge our assumptions on a more basic level. For example, Ursula K. Leguinn's classic The Left Hand of Darkness takes us to a society were members are inherently equal with regard to gender because they do not express/embody gender except during mating season, and even then, they may change from one gender to another as they move from one mating season to the next. In a society where gender is not a given, we look look to other cues to explain characters' behavior.

When I'd begun writing this essay, it seemed to me that science fiction presents a particular difficulty to the feminist author, however, that other genres do not. There has long been a general precept in science fiction that something has to happen -- that action must take place -- in order for the story to move forward. This is not a requirement imposed by other genres, where it may suffice for a story or novel to simply describe a setting or a society without much activity on center stage.

Milan Kundera's literary novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores the social and sexual roles of men and women (and has a very strong female protagonist) against a backdrop of invasion and war... but, the characters never do much of anything. They talk a lot, and it is through these conversations that their gender roles are explored. But action? Forget it. I even learned recently that in the movie version, the director had to substantially cut back on the battle footage montage because it stole attention away from the non-action of the rest of the film. There could never be a science fiction equivalent to Kundera's work.

Science fiction, conventional wisdom states, requires action. This is not to say that lizards need to eat their way out of our favorite characters' bodies, or that kickboxing robots are necessary to blow up large buildings. Nonetheless, characters need to be going places and doing things.

The more I've considered this idea, however, the more I realize that it is not entirely accurate. There are counter-examples. Flowers for Algernon, one of the genre's best examples of an intensely personal exploration of the meaning of identity, is hardly action-packed. The conflict is ultimately, as it is in Unbearable Lightness, internal to the characters.

That said, I suspect it is nonetheless harder for a writer to present the "people talking" style of story within science fiction than in the more mainstream genres. Is this a "special difficulty"? Perhaps not. This tendency toward action within sci-fi has not discouraged writers from "talking" at length in their stories about the points they are trying to make (Robert A. Heinlein and Ayn Rand leap to mind).


Sheesh. I sure can leap into that stuffy old academic tone of voice when I want to, no?

Tune in tomorrow, when we address the second question in the series. :)

Posted by on October 24, 2001 12:44 AM in the following Department(s): Essays , Writing


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