Monday, December 3, 2012

Discussion: Feminism in Spec Fic

This discussion is adapted and expanded from a Tumblr conversation (on Tumblr, each indentation indicates a new comment by a different person) in which Incidental Villainess said she wanted to write,"post-apocalyptic feminist zombie lit" and Mahaanus replied with...well, a lot of 'splaining dictating what a post-apocalyptic society must look like and what feminist must be defined as. But Mahaanus' comment that particularly caught my attention was, "Fantasy/Sci-fi isn’t looked at as a big place for feminism to take place [...] Fictional worlds lose creditability on the basis that everything in them happens on the author’s whim." Aha. Y'all knew that was going to touch a nerve in my geek feminist heart.

Okay, first off: everything in every piece of fiction happens because that's the way the author wanted it, whether the setting is fantasy/sci-fi or historical/contemporary. This isn't a claim that is limited to speculative fiction (the umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy, and horror; what I call a "what if" book). If you thought Mission Impossible or The Help were documentaries, I have some bad news for you. In fact, even the credentials of documentaries should be considered carefully, because everyone makes mistakes and everyone has their own prejudices.

Claiming that spec fic can't be taken seriously is just wrong. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is commonly referenced in current politics and college science classesStar Wars is used to illustrate the structure of Joseph Campbell's mythology theories. The Matrix is now the go-to philosophy metaphor that replaced Plato's "The Allegory of the Cave". The Harry Potter books' treatment of Muggle-borns and house elves is used to explain racism and oppression. Spec fic is a part of culture. People take their culture seriously.

And the sentence: “Fantasy/Sci-fi isn’t looked at as a big place for feminism to take place” demonstrates a profound lack of familiarity with fantasy and science fiction. It is, to be blunt, complete and utter bullshit.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Octavia Butler
  • James Tiptree Jr.
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Joanna Russ
  • Andre Norton
  • Anne McCaffrey
Were all writing feminist science fiction in the New Wave of science fiction in the 1960's and 1970’s. They are all still regarded as foremothers who had profound influence on modern science fiction.

Shit, the science fiction genre was founded by Mary Shelley (daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, one of the books that inspired feminism as a political movement) in her novel Frankenstein - you may have heard of it? - that was all about what goes wrong when men try to cut women out of childbearing.

Let me repeat: science fiction was created by a feminist writing feminist science fiction.

And I'm not saying I agree with all of these women or that they represent what feminism should be now. Some of these stories need to be understood in a historical context. If someone were to tell me that I was important for my childbearing ability (as in Frankenstein), I would see that as sexist because it reduces my human value down to the function of my uterus. I am more than a life support system for other people to use, and a lot of women don't have functioning uteri (or any uteri) but are still women and still worthwhile as human beings. But Mary Shelley lived in a different time, when asserting the value and necessity of motherhood did advance women. 

Some of these stories advanced certain aspects of feminist causes while harming other aspects. In Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight and Dragonquest, multiple protagonists hit and rape women despite being portrayed as loving partners and husbands. But the fact that Ms. McCaffrey showed domestic violence as normal or even desirable doesn't change the fact that she showed Lessa overcoming some of the restrictions of her sexist society and opening the door for other women to overcome more of those restrictions. Brit Mandello, writing for Tor's Queering SFF series, has this to say about Joanna Russ' The Female Man:

I’ll also say that there was one part of the narrative which made me uncomfortable in the not-good way: the “changed” and “half-changed” of the man’s world in Jael’s time. Yes, it’s a scathing critique of patriarchy and what men see in/use women for, what they hide in themselves. The young men are forced to take the operations, after all; it has nothing to do with choice. However—wow, can I see where that treads very, very close to transphobic territory. It doesn’t help that the attitude of second wave feminism toward transwomen was negative at best, violently hostile at worst—it doesn’t make me terribly inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

And sometimes feminists just plain disagree with each other - we aren't a hive mind, after all. So this should not be taken as my unconditional endorsement of the content of all these authors. But the fact remains: they wrote science fiction, they wrote fiction with strong feminist themes, and their writings are still celebrated as some of the best science fiction has to offer.

Furthermore, speculative fiction is uniquely suited to feminist and other anti-*ist movements because its genre conventions are all about questioning the status quo and asking “What if things were different? Do things have to be the way they are?” And it's not just pulled out of thin air: spec fic worlds can be built in rational and anthropologically feasible ways. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga has multiple worlds with multiple sub-cultures, all of them with explained foundations for their cultural idiosyncrasies, and she did it again in The Sharing Knife. If a post-apocalyptic world has been flooded by magic, then why couldn't women use it to ensure their survival? If this is the kill-or-be-killed sort of post-apocalyptic world, then why couldn't women learn to kill? It's possible for individual stories to answer these in sensible ways, but an argument that it's impossible or improbable for women to ever hold equality is founded on the implicit premise that women are inherently weaker and more submissive. I reject that premise on both moral and scientific grounds.

Mahaanus said,"if we take away modern commodities we’d be back in the situation that caused the patriarchal society we lived in during the early-late 1800." First, obviously, technology doesn't cure sexism - different societies have had different levels and forms of sexism over time. In fact, the Industrial Revolution actually created many of our modern, Western, sexist structures by creating and strengthening the gendered boundaries of labor. Instead of men and women both working in the field and both working in the house as needed, men now worked in the factories and women now worked in the home, and the emphasis on wages eventually led to paid work being seen as worthwhile and domestic labor being seen as "free".

But secondly, spec fic can show you worlds in which the absence of modern commodities did not lead to increased misogynistic oppression, in a rational and anthropologically feasible way - because history bears that out. And when I say "history" I am not just referring to medieval Europe. Look at Asia and Africa and the Americas, and all the different nations and cultures and all the different time periods. Cherokee women voted before the pioneers came. Pre-colonial Ghana families were matrilineal and matrifocal (which is to say, ancestry is tracked through the mother and the mother is the head of the household). In Southeast Asia, women's roles were valued and could not be filled by men. So when a spec-fic story shows you a world with some of these elements, that is historically accurate and scientifically feasible.

Spec fic pushes boundaries. It makes a difference. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told Nichelle Nichols that she should stay on as Lt. Uhura in Star Trek because she was showing that Black women could be part of the future. Multiple female, minority, and female minority astronauts have cited her as their inspiration for becoming astronauts. Tamora Pierce's Alanna the Lioness series has shown people it isn't shameful to go through puberty and inspired them to work towards gender equality. Sometimes we have to show people the way we want the future to be before we can work towards making it a reality.

So yeah. Anyone who wants to claim spec fic isn't taken seriously either needs to reconsider their definition of "seriously" or reconsider their definition of "everyone", because one way or another that sentence does not reflect reality. Anyone wants to claim spec fic isn't big on feminism or isn't a good place for feminism is just showing their ass. We have our problems, just like everyone else, but we also have a long tradition of exploring and supporting feminist themes. 

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