Context, context, context?

October 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

Too often, we dismiss the sexist depiction of women in many groundbreaking, popular science fiction stories as a “side effect” of the context in which it was written. Such stories are hallmarks of the canon of science fiction due to their revolutionary explorations, depictions, and, at times, introductions of themes such as time travel, relativity, and grandfather paradoxes that have become characteristic elements of the genre. Thus, to criticize these stories on the basis of a sexist depiction of a female character is often regarded as nitpicky–trivial considerations that should be ignored given the other fantastic contributions the authors of these stories have made to the genre.

This argument has some element of truth in it–the works of Heinlein and company carry great literary and scientific value. They should not be dismissed as important works of fiction because of the sexist depiction of women they so oft contain.

But they should be criticized for it.

Loudly, frequently, we should point our fingers at those skewed gender dynamics and say–nay, shout– “this is wrong.”

It’s precisely because it’s a result of the context that we should criticize these stereotypes. Science fiction is an element of popular culture–and thus, is a part of the context that perpetuates these stereotypes, that leads to them being echoed in not only other works of science fiction but other forms of media as well. We need to actively combat that context.

The depiction of women is not wrong because the characters are flat (we’ve acknowledged that this a common feature in science fiction), it is wrong because a common feature of the stereotypes these authors are relying on to write about women is inferiority–subservience, obedience, blind loyalty. Meanwhile, the stereotypical male lead is intelligent, strong, and capable–characteristics that lend to powerful male protagonists. In contrast, the common threads of “womanly” stereotypes banish them to sideline roles, suspended in the land of supporting characters. Male stereotypes are empowering to young boys. The female stereotypes we’ve encountered are suffocating to young girls.

And that is why it is so important that we do not stop pointing to these sexist depictions, no matter the era, and saying “this is wrong.” It is so important that we demand that current writers of science fictions do not repeat the crimes of their predecessors. Science fiction is too interesting, too complex, too intelligent of a field to continue portraying women as inferior. Depict us as flat, science fiction writers–I’m fine with that. I’m okay with you focusing on the plot instead of the characters. But, for the sake of my little sister’s self esteem and the confidence of smart girls everywhere, please depict us as flat and powerful, not flat and weak. You’re too smart for that.

Celeste Graves


§ One Response to Context, context, context?

  • sarahmjamison says:

    I will admit that I chuckled reading your last comment, which in turn inspired me to comment. Which should not be taken lightly. I think it is fantastic when there is something, witty, humorous, or entertaining because it can often spark a deeper conversation because the reader is engaged and active.

    Now on to substance. I have to admit that I often smooth over the wrinkled created in my mind that arise from the sexist elements in a lot of science fiction literature. I often write off these often not so subtle sexist depictions because of the context within which the story was written. I often think along the general idea that a story written in the more conservative decades of the 20th century are going to naturally have more sexist depictions simply because of the social fabric at the time.

    But, how far will we really progress if we don’t look back on older fiction and say “this is wrong.” I guess what I am starting to believe is that I can understand why the sexist depictions are included due to the context, but that doesn’t mean it should be excused. Rather, maybe we should first say to ourselves, “this is why the story is what it is.” Or,” this is why the female character is depicted the way she is.” But from those thoughts go further and say, “what was ‘acceptable’ then is not acceptable now.” So, understand but not excuse. Kind of like the ‘forgive but not forget’ attitude after a fight. You can understand but not excuse.

    – S. Jamison


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