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.