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Evolution of Sci-Fi Women

Has the evolution of sci-fi women leveled the playing field of a historically male-dominated genre?

In September 1992, Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to launch into orbit upon the Space Shuttle Endeavour. When asked of the role models that helped her achieve this amazing feat, none other than Starfleet’s main lady, Lieutenant Uhura was at the top of the list.

This is just one example of how science fiction has inspired women to be creative, to explore, to dream, and, literally in the case of Astronaut Mae Jemison, reach for the stars.

It’s been more than 20 years since then, and over a century since the first sci-fi cinematic, Le Voyage dans La Lune, so how has science fiction evolved? Maybe a more important question would be: How has science fiction affected generations of women and changed with the times? 

First Sci-Fi Novel

Illustration by Milena Mlynarska

It’s been said Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was the first sci-fi novel written, and it’s certainly shaped the genre since its publication in 1818. Despite the creator of sci-fi being a woman, it’s always been seen as a male-oriented genre. In fact, in 1948, female writers only made up roughly 10 percent on the genre. These days, female writers still make up under 40 percent of published authors in speculative fiction. Considering the highest paid author in the world is a woman, this just rubs salt into the wounds of published and aspiring female writers. 

Gender Gap in Publishing

J. K. Rowling, a name known around the world for Harry Potter, is the head of a $15 billion franchise. Okay, so, Harry Potter isn’t sci-fi, but it’s worth thinking about J. K. Rowling when discussing the gender gap in publishing. This gigantic franchise was rejected nine times—probably from nine very sorry publishers—so what did Rowling do? She became “J. K.” Joanne Rowling knew that writing from the perspective of a teenage boy wouldn’t be taken seriously unless she adopted a pseudonym. Sadly, it’s a common theme for female writers. Shelley originally left her first name off of Frankenstein for the sake of sales, only using her true name on the second edition; Shelley’s Frankenstein just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Nebula Award winner James Tiptree Jr. revealed herself as Alice Bradley Sheldon in 1976, just three years after winning the coveted award for her novel Love Is the Plan the Plan is Death. It illustrates the changing attitude at the time that this didn’t stop her going on to win her second Nebula Award just three years later. In Isaac Asimov’s magazine, Science Fiction, she said of her male pen name, “a male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.”

Sheldon was rewarded for her contribution to Science Fiction in 2012 when she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame under her male pseudonym.

It’d be nice to think we’ve come far from 1948. However, in a world where a proclaimed author is honored under her false main name, it's clear that women are still facing a struggle today.

Women in Sci-Fi Film

Photo via TARINGA!

We live in a culture that is producing more female leads in movies than ever, with a boost in strong female role models for young girls—think Rey or Katniss—but we’re also a society that takes strong female characters from the past and puts them in a sexualized light.

The J. J. Abrams reboots of Star Trek showcase this, especially in Star Trek Into Darkness. Looking at another incredible woman from the original series, Star Trek Into Darkness brings us the reenvisioned edition of Doctor Carol Marcus. Abrams’ version of the intelligent and daring molecular biologist had little storyline in the 2012 film. She was reduced to barely more than brief eye-candy for the most cringeworthy four seconds of the film; This from a movie that had Benedict Cumberbatch portraying Khan Noonien Singh.

To be fair to Abrams, this is far from a new thing. Strong female characters are often given this treatment, from Leia’s golden bikini to Agent Scully and her uterus as a plot device. It’s hard to expect more from a genre where just 43 percent of the top 100 films pass the Bechdel Test. 

The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test is a simple test created in the 90s that inspects three aspects of a film: 

  1. If a piece of work features at least two females.
  2. If these two characters interact.
  3. If they speak about anything other than a man/or men. Or, as we call it in real life, having a conversation.

With the exception of the new Ghostbusters (or, Ghostbust-hers, if you will) and WALL-E, there really aren’t any. WALL-E doesn’t actually pass the Bechdel Test either, but that’s more due to the lack of humans overall. The inherent problem here is that filmgoers are 50 percent women, but Hollywood can’t seem to grasp this idea.

Films such as Ghostbusters and Star Wars: Rogue One show that some progress is being made. Nearly two centuries after Mary Shelley first put pen to paper, we’re seeing an increase in sci-fi movies with a female lead. In 2015 alone we were graced with a high level of female leads in science fiction. Mad Max: Fury Road, Jupiter Ascending, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Predestination, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 2, Insurgent… It’s a longer list than we’ve ever seen before.

What’s more, when talking speculative fiction, women are actually published more than men in the Young Adult genre. Hopefully we can expect to see more Katniss Everdeens or Tris Priors translated to the big screen in the future. Or, dream big, a close in the publishing gender gap.

Gender Bias in Merchandise

Photo via The Daily Beast

Of course, even if Hollywood does catch up, we’re still being let down in other areas. Rey has become a popular costume choice for young girls, up there with Disney Princesses. Hasbro, the official licensed supplier of Disney figurines, came under fire in January for the obvious absence of the female lead in Star Wars: The Force Awakens characters sets. Fans took to Twitter to show their unhappiness with the hashtag #WheresRey. What’s more, this is far from a first.

Natasha Romanoff, The Avengers’ Black Widow, has frequently been absent from character sets as well. Promotional material for The Guardians of the Galaxy also had fans up in arms about the noticeable lack of Gamora, arguably the most interesting character in the whole film.

Social Media Makes a Difference

Basically, while women have always stood up for fairer treatment and equality, the advent of social media has made it easier to make some noise. This online movement has often been referred to as Hashtag Feminism. Before we had Twitter to voice our frustrations, we could only make our voices heard through letter writing or hard-to-organize public displays. Without time and geography restrictions, women can band together to stand up for what they believe in more easily. Even better, it’s giving people more access to information to broaden their understanding of feminism.

Hashtag Feminism has already proven quick and effective in the battle for equality. One of the films most talked about online last year was Mad Max: Fury Road. Mad Max sculpted the dystopian landscape in sci-fi, creating a barren theme that’s been replicated over and over (the Fallout series, for example, or more recently with Overwatch’s Junkrat and Roadhog). 

Progress Made, and Progress to be Made

Photo via Nerdist

Like science fiction as a whole, it’s long been seen and dismissed as a male-targeted film franchise. Mad Max: Fury Road turned that on its head. It had everything media has told us men should want. Fights, scantily clad women, car chases aplenty. But, the scantily clad women weren’t just eye-candy or a plot device.

Imperator Furiosa is a strong woman, leading other strong women, standing up against a patriarchal regime. MRAs (men’s rights activists, yeah… That’s a thing) went mad. They labelled the movie as "feminist propaganda," the "corruption of Hollywood." They even called it pandering. It isn’t pandering when it’s directed at 50 percent of the global population.

They argued that the titular Max Rockatansky was only there as a prop. Like, you know, women usually are in film. Like many women are in everything, come to think of it.

It’s fair to say that we’re coming leaps and bounds ahead of where we were 50 years ago, but women aren’t in the clear just yet. But, it’s nice to know we’re getting there. Characters like Rey and Felicity Jones’ Rogue One character can give us hope that we’ll continue to inspire young women to reach their dreams. Whether it’s traveling in orbit or driving a water-filled truck through the Australian outback, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that science fiction gives them an ideal to strive for, and that it continues to evolve with the times. 

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