Feminist Science Fiction

the handmaids tale

Feminist science fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction which tends to deal with women’s roles in society. Feminist science fiction poses questions about social issues such as how society constructs gender roles, the role reproduction plays in defining gender and the unequal political and personal power of men and women.

Some of the most notable feminist science fiction works have illustrated these themes using utopias to explore a society in which gender differences or gender power imbalances do not exist, or dystopias to explore worlds in which gender inequalities are intensified, thus asserting a need for feminist work to continue. According to professor Elyce Rae Helford: ‘Science fiction and fantasy serve as important vehicles for feminist thought, particularly as bridges between theory and practice. No other genres so actively invite representations of the ultimate goals of feminism: worlds free of sexism, worlds in which women’s contributions (to science) are recognized and valued, worlds in which the diversity of women’s desire and sexuality, and worlds that move beyond gender.’

Women writers have played key roles in science fiction and fantasy literature, often addressing themes of gender. One of the first writers of science fiction was Mary Shelley, whose novel ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) dealt with the asexual creation of new life, a re-telling of the Adam and Eve story. Women writers in the utopian literature movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at the time of first wave feminism, often addressed sexism. ‘The Sultana’s Dream’ (1905) by Bengali Muslim feminist, Roquia Sakhawat Hussain, points this out through depicting a gender-reversed purdah (the practice of concealing women from men) in an alternate and technologically futuristic world. Charlotte Perkins Gilman did so by creating a single-sex world in ‘Herland’ (1915). During the 1920s writers such as Clare Winger Harris and Gertrude Barrows Bennett published science fiction stories written from female perspectives and occasionally dealt with gender and sexuality based topics. Meanwhile, much pulp science fiction published during 1920s and 1930s carried an exaggerated view of masculinity along with sexist portrayals of women, a view subtly satirized by Stella Gibbons in ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ (1932).

By the 1960s science fiction was combining sensationalism with political and technological critiques of society. With the advent of second wave feminism, women’s roles were questioned in this ‘subversive, mind expanding genre.’ Three notable texts of this period are Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ (1969), Marge Piercy’s ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’ (1976), and Joanna Russ’ ‘The Female Man’ (1970). Each highlights the socially constructed aspects of gender roles by creating worlds with genderless societies. Both authors were pioneers in feminist criticism of science fiction during the 1960s and 70s through essays collected in ‘The Language of the Night ‘(Le Guin, 1979) and ‘How To Suppress Women’s Writing’ (Russ, 1983).

Margaret Atwood’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ (1985) tells a dystopic tale of a society in which women have been systematically stripped of all liberty, and was motivated by fear of potential retrogressive effects on women’s rights stemming from the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980s. Octavia Butler poses complicated questions about the nature of race and gender in ‘Kindred’ (1979). By the 1970s the science fiction community was confronting questions of feminism and sexism within science fiction culture itself. Multiple Hugo-winning fan writer and professor of literature Susan Wood and others organized the ‘feminist panel’ at the 1976 ‘World Science Fiction Convention’ against considerable resistance. Reactions to the appearance of feminists among fannish ranks led indirectly to the creation of conferences devoted especially to them such as ‘A Women’s APA’ and ‘WisCon.’

Feminist science fiction is evidenced in the globally popular mediums of comic books, manga, and graphic novels. In the early 1960s, Marvel Comics already contained some strong female characters, although they often suffered from stereotypical female weakness such as fainting after intense exertion. By the 1970s and 1980s, true female heroes started to emerge on the pages of comics. This was helped by the emergence of self-identified feminist writers including Ann Nocenti, Linda Fite, and Barbara Kesel. As female visibility in comics increased, the ‘fainting heroine’ type began to fade into the past. However, some female comic book writers, such as Gail Simone, believe that female characters are still relegated to plot devices. One of the first appearances of a strong female character was that of ‘Wonder Woman’ co-created by husband and wife team William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway Marston. In 1941, Wonder Woman came to life on the pages of ‘All Star Comics’ volume eight. The character later spawned a television series starring Lynda Carter and a film adaptation is currently underway.

Feminism has driven the creation of a considerable body of action-oriented science fiction with female protagonists: ‘Wonder Woman’ (actually originally created in 1941) and ‘The Bionic Woman’ during the time of the organized women’s movement in the 1970s; ‘Terminator 2’ and the ‘Alien’ tetralogy in the 1980s; and ‘Xena, Warrior Princess,’ comic book character ‘Red Sonja’ and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ 2001 science fiction TV series ‘Dark Angel’ featured a powerful female protagonist, with gender roles between her and the main male character generally reversed.

However, feminists have also created science fiction that directly engages with feminism beyond the creation of female action heroes. Television and film have offered opportunities for expressing new ideas about social structures and the ways feminists influence science. Feminist science fiction provides a means to challenge the norms of society and suggest new standards for how societies view gender. The genre also deals with male/female categories, showing how female roles can differ from feminine roles. Hence feminism influences the film industry by creating new ways of exploring and looking at masculinity/femininity and male/female roles.

‘Femspec’ is a feminist academic journal specializing in speculative fiction, including science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, mythic explorations in poetry and post-modern fiction, and horror. There is a conscious multicultural focus of the journal, both in content and in the diverse makeup of its editorial group. The first issue came out in 1999 under the editorial direction of founder Batya Weinbaum. Having lost their academic home in May 2003, they increasingly cross genres and print write-ups of all books and media received, as well as of events that feature creative works that imaginatively challenge gender such as intentional communities, performance events, and film festivals.

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