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When I was 8, I wanted more than anything to be a member of the crew of the starship Enterprise. I wanted so much to share in their adventures, going to new worlds, meeting aliens, having adventures. And that future I watched on tv every week was filled with women. I was 8: I didn't really think about the coding of their costumes or the roles they were sometimes asked to play. I noticed that they were women who spoke and acted and were listened to. They were not Doctor Who girls, running and screaming and waiting for the doctor to tell them what to do. They were planetary councillors, doctors, scientists, ambassadors. They fought, they talked back. Sometimes they rescued people or took key roles in foiling plots. They had their own guns. And, unlike the active girls in books I read at that age, they didn't have to behave or dress like boys to do this. They got to have long hair and dresses. They got to be feminine.
I was a feminine girl. I'm a feminine woman. I was never a tomboy. But in my childhood books, nearly all the active girls, the approved-of girls were. Girls like me were weak, wet, useless. Until Star Trek. I wanted that future, I wanted those lives, because those lives were exciting and adventurous and fun. It was tedious that sometimes these women seemed to have to kiss Captain Kirk in order to get on with what they were doing, but I reckoned I could duck that bit. I wanted most of all to be Lieutenant Uhura, especially in season 1. On the show, she got left behind more than I liked, but in my games she had adventures too, while Kirk was busy, and everyone was happy. The Star Trek future was big and wide and there was plenty of space for girls like me.
I was a bookish child, and having discovered sf on tv, I went looking for it in the library. The books I found -- Andre Norton, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and so on -- were fun, but there wasn't an awful lot of space for me. That was... It felt odd, because Star Trek had told me there was room for adventurous women in the future. But I kept reading, and, at around 15, I found Samuel R Delany's Babel 17. I had wanted to be Uhura, because she got to help Kirk and Spock in their adventures. I *really* wanted to be Rydra Wong. The book was all about her: every character, every situation, every concept revolved around her and her talents and skills and actions. Rydra Wong saved the world because she was who she was. She wasn't in the right place at the right time, she wasn't an assistant or a prop to be rescued. She didn't take time to stop and nurture her crew or sympathise with her man. She was the centre of her own story. Until I met her, I hadn't realised how unusual that was. Women and girls in the books I read were forever interrupted by their gender. They had to be good and do their chores, they had to stop what they were doing to help others, they had to put food on the table and teach children and clean up even in the middle of their adventures. They were never just heroes. They always had to take time out to live up to their social, female role. The only alternative was to behave like a man and expect another woman to look after you, too. The life of a female hero was full of giving up, being good, surrendering, giving way, giving in. Even in their own stories, their lives were already compartmentalised and full of duties that involved always putting others' interests and needs ahead of their own.
Nobody in Narnia expected Peter to take time to check that everyone was fed. When Susan did -- and it was a sensible thing to do -- she was told off for fussing. Boys' books were full of exploration and adventure. Girls' books were all about looking after others, helping and learning your place, unless you were a tomboy,
I never liked those tomboy girls. I thought they were mean and selfish and that, if I met them, they'd probably turn out to be bullies, too. They usually bullied the non-tomboy girls they shared books with.
Uhura was different. So was Rydra. So, when I met them, were Anne McCaffrey's female heroes. Lessa had her own dragon and went her own way -- and was proved right, over and over. Sara saved her love interest, saved herself, and solved an intergalactic mystery, all while dealing with being marooned on an alien planet. Helva was her own space ship, saving lives and solving problems over and over. They were all at the very centre of their own lives and no-one expected them to step aside.
I wanted that future so much and science fiction told me I would have it.

Science fiction lied. As I got older, not only did I see the insidious cracks in the futures I loved (the clothes, the endless kissing of Kirk, the problematic nature of some of McCaffrey's ideas) I also saw how rare these women were. For every Rydra, there were 40 interchangeable space babes, screaming, being patronised, being handed out as prizes. Female space captains, once marooned, needed to have photogenic lesbian sex with their colleagues for the enjoyment of the male gaze -- women need sex and they need it with someone else, they cannot be fulfilled alone. Their male counterparts were above such needs. (Thank you, John Varley.) Female scientists were plains and marginalised and developed inappropriate crushes which made them a hazard to themselves and others (thank you, Asimov). Women's main fulfilment having babies, even if they also enjoyed astrophysics on the side (thank you, Heinlein). Many books did away with women completely, except perhaps as a two-line secretary or left-behind wife.
And women were nearly always young -- men could be any age -- and nearly always pretty. Star Trek had offered me women of varied ages in various roles. Star Wars existed in a galaxy that seemingly held only one woman who could talk or act -- and she was captured and made to wear a leather bikini. No-one made Han Solo dress in a g-string while captive. Society told me, as I went on into my 20s and 30s, that things were better now, that women had equal rights. But the futures I was shown by the genre I loved seemed narrower and narrower. Book after book had no space for me, except as a handmaid, a nursemaid, a servant, a person who remained a perpetual walk-on in their own life. In Dune the Bene Gesserit manipulated worlds, changed lives, and came in all ages and sizes and colours. But all that energy was focused on achieving the perfect male saviour, and once he existed, the women in that world -- in the sequels -- went back to being love-interests, mothers or bad girls who needed controlling. Babylon 5 offered a future rich in philosophies and cultures, with fully-rounded alien characters, and men of all ages and sizes and colours and degrees of attractiveness. But for any woman over about 30, any woman of colour, any plain woman, any woman who was not super-model-thin, any woman who didn't want a life that revolved around a man, that future offered only erasure. The inconvenient women, the women who wanted to be at the centre of their own lives had been written out of existence. There's no room in the future for Rydra Wong. The Battlestar Galactica reboot looked better, was better in some ways. Women could hold power without also being 25 and pretty, drink, swear, sleep around, fly fighter ships, be negative and cruel and manipulative and complicated -- just like the men. But they had to be white, pretty much, they had to fall in love with men (the one lesbian turned out to be Evil). They might have special destinies, but they had to take time-out to endure rape, to find True Love. They couldn't have a story that did not involve them caring for a man.
No woman could have a share in the future unless she placed a man at the centre of her life. No woman could have a future for herself. Over and over, that was what the books, the shows, the films told me. The future is shiny and exciting and male. There is no space for me, except as an adjunct, a prop, a decoration. There is no life4 for me except as someone male's servant. At some point in the 90s, I began, slowly but surely, to drift away from science fiction. I'd been promised a future full of agency. Instead, I'd been told to keep my place, be pretty and focus on men. Oh, there are still books out there that delight me, new Rydra Wongs, but they are few and far between and they are getting rarer. For every Torin Kerr (from Tanya Huff's fine Valor series)< there are 20 Joe P Sciencedudes. Rydra is a fully-rounded person with a life outside her book and her companions. She's not a 'kickass heroine', battling vampires or space slugs to hide the pain of abuse, and only really finding fulfilment when she meets the right man. She's not a photogenic star captain written by a man, having tomboy adventures in a skin-tight suit. She's herself.
And now I live in the future. On all sides, I see women beleaguered: storms over sexism in sfwa, harassment at cons, book shops that privilege the work of men, reviews skewed towards male writers, images that tell me that I must be young, thin, white, pretty, or else I must just not exist at all, just like in Babylon 5. I see gifted women writers ignored, dropped by publishers, trolled and derided. And over and over what I see praised and promoted in my genre are stories about men, futures for men, lives that revolve around men. I see a future that's a vacuum for women.
I don't like it. I don't want to be erased. I want Rydra Wong and Torin Kerr and Uhura with her own command. I want to be allowed to breathe.



( 57 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jun. 16th, 2014 02:53 pm (UTC)
My parents were always a little sceptical of the ST universe, though they did like Uhura, because the women were so often there to fall in love with Kirk. The women in Who were there to scream, particularly Sarah Jane Smith who screamed for England: as a child I found her tedious. I preferred Blake's 7 - Jenna was a bit of a token blonde, but I liked Dayna, the enigmatic Cally and Servalan, even if she was rather a cartoon villainess: Jacqueline Pearce brought something to the role.

I think it is getting narrower rather than wider; we have discussed this before. Does fantasy serve women better? Pratchett's witches are role models for a generation of pagan women. But urban fantasy relies too much on the feisty female, as I've said before, too. Robin McKinley? Yes. Diana Wynne Jones? Definitely.
Jun. 16th, 2014 03:11 pm (UTC)
I liked Blake's 7 better, too, but in a weird way it stuck with me less. I'm not sure quite whey except that I know people for whom it's huge and I don't feel I have as much right to it. Which is weird, but me.
I'm no sure about fantasy: it used to be wider and there are still more books in which are front and centre == but it carries all the social baggage which is wearing in itself. And there are too many damsels.
(no subject) - mevennen - Jun. 16th, 2014 03:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - watervole - Jun. 16th, 2014 03:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
yep - scifiwritir - Jun. 16th, 2014 04:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - trinuviel - Jun. 17th, 2014 04:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sylviamcivers - Jun. 26th, 2014 11:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - anna_wing - Jun. 17th, 2014 03:05 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 16th, 2014 03:20 pm (UTC)
Have you read Elizabeth Moon's 'Remnant Population'?

It features that rare animal, an OLD woman, who has a mind of her own, is bloody-minded and is allowed to be a granny than a love interest and still be the main character.

Old women are so few and far between, and the older I get, the more I am aware of it.

Also Lady Cecilia in another of Moon's books. Older woman, has her own independence and her own opinions, happy to learn new tricks in old age. No need for a love interest.
Jun. 16th, 2014 03:21 pm (UTC)
Have you read Elizabeth Moon's 'Remnant Population'?

It features that rare animal, an OLD woman, who has a mind of her own, is bloody-minded and is allowed to be a granny than a love interest and still be the main character.

Old women are so few and far between, and the older I get, the more I am aware of it.

Also Lady Cecilia in another of Moon's books. Older woman, has her own independence and her own opinions, happy to learn new tricks in old age. No need for a love interest.
Jun. 16th, 2014 03:29 pm (UTC)
At risk of own trumpet, one of the main characters in Ghost Sister (and Precious Dragon) is an elderly lady. I like writing older women.

Particularly since I myself, though pretty aggressive, can not in fact fight like a ninja...
(no subject) - naath - Jun. 16th, 2014 04:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - watervole - Jun. 16th, 2014 05:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 16th, 2014 03:25 pm (UTC)
I want a diversity of things I can read. That means reading characters who aren't white heterosexual males like turtles, all the way down.

Jun. 16th, 2014 04:25 pm (UTC)
great blogpost
Don't let the depression stay too long. The world can overwhelm yu if you lose hope. <3
Jun. 16th, 2014 05:09 pm (UTC)
I think the point about being a woman or a girl is that whatever you are and whatever you do is always wrong .

Rebecca Adlington has tomboy credentials in spades but is still receiving twitter abuse because she is "ugly" .

Or you can be a real life princess as feminine and girly as a Tory MP's dream and still get slated in the tabloids for wearing ordinary clothing while standing near a helicopter.

Since whatever we do is wrong, I reckon we might as well just please ourselves and give the haters something to hate.

Why don't we start a new literary Award -for writers defining themselves as women and writers of science fiction /fantasy - I suggest calling it Hypatia for obvious reasons?

And while we're at it, let's have all women judges and all women voters .
Jun. 16th, 2014 07:24 pm (UTC)
The women-only award seems to be an idea that's gaining traction: jemck has been talking about it for a while. Seems like a good idea to me.
Justina LA Robson
Jun. 16th, 2014 05:20 pm (UTC)
And on top of all of that, there's the wider world too, full of the same.

Like you, when little, I thought I would live to be a person in her own right who wasn't judged by what she did for others or what roles she nicely filled that were left there by people who actually did things of importance. But don't despair. We are a lot further forward than we were a hundred years ago. Each of us might only manage a bit of a forward step individually but we'll get there in the end.

Meanwhile I think you have a story to write about Uhura, or someone like her, with her own command. If it ought to be, then you have to make it be - nobody will see it like you do, so they can't do it. Make that oxygen!

Jun. 16th, 2014 05:46 pm (UTC)
We are massively further forward.

My grandmother was in the first generation of women allowed to qualify as doctors (and she did).

My mother was always bitter because a boy got one of the very limited number of university grants available in her county. Now, there are probably more women than men at university.

We have the vote and no one questions our right to it.

We're reasonably close to equal pay. A generation or two ago it was taken for granted that women got paid less for the identical job.

My money remains my own in spite of my being married.

There are still things to be done, but I would rather be a woman in this generation than any before it.
(no subject) - mevennen - Jun. 16th, 2014 06:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - watervole - Jun. 16th, 2014 05:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 16th, 2014 06:46 pm (UTC)

I thought Anne McCaffrey's Crystal Singer, aka Killashandra Ree was pretty feisty!

Morgaine, from the pen of C J Cherryh. Armour, sword; check. Has not yet, to my knowledge, done the marriage and babies thing.

Xena. However a big tick for 'Fights like a ninja'.

Aeyrn Sun, Chiana, Zhaan and the living ship Moya in 'Farscape'

River Tam [damaged waif fu], Kaylee [Greasy engineer who loves engines and sex], Zoe [stoic gun toting warrior woman], Inara [High caste Companion] from 'Firefly'.

Marvels Adventures of Shield : Skye [hacker extraordinaire], Melinda May [oriental stoic kick ass woman], Jemma Simmons [Science specialist].
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(no subject) - trinuviel - Jun. 17th, 2014 04:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - a_d_medievalist - Jun. 30th, 2014 09:19 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 16th, 2014 07:00 pm (UTC)
there is that line in Terminator, when asked about the women of his time, he responds with "they are good fighters" ..
Jun. 16th, 2014 07:11 pm (UTC)
"On all sides, I see women beleaguered: storms over sexism in sfwa, harassment at cons,"

Crazy as it may sound, I see those as a reason for optimism.

15-20 years ago, those things were happening - but they got swept under the carpet, damn quick. "Nope, not a problem here, we're better than that, let's talk about something else". Gone in five minutes, if it lasted that long.

The fact that it's not staying under the carpet any more is progress. The fact that people are standing up, in numbers, and saying "this is happening, and it's wrong" is progress.

Slow, painful, progress, but...
Jun. 16th, 2014 07:28 pm (UTC)
When I wanted to be part of the space program, back in the early 1960s, I was told I could maybe get a job as a secretary or a receptionist at the space agency. Things are indeed better now, mostly because in the 1970s women fought to change them.

We need to keep fighting. I'm tired of women who have benefitted from the changes simpering about "but I'm not a feminist. I like men." Feminists like real men, too. It's the old boys we can't stand. :-)
Jun. 17th, 2014 03:38 am (UTC)
Yes. Power is taken, not given.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Jul. 4th, 2014 04:39 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 16th, 2014 10:18 pm (UTC)
Well said. well said.
Jun. 17th, 2014 01:30 am (UTC)
I think this is why I wrote/write women like Melanie, Diana, and Sarah in my Netwalk Sequence series.

I do think progress is being made. Slower than I would like, but still...things have improved. Just looking at my last class of middle school students, they're a quantum jump in awareness from even the previous year's students.

Jun. 17th, 2014 03:14 am (UTC)
I've often thought that the focus on sexual liberation in the West was a dangerous distraction that sidetracked a lot of people badly from the vastly more important issues of economic, legal and educational liberation. Once you have control of wealth and good social status either individually or as a group, you can have whatever sex life you like. But the freedom to say 'yes' isn't worth much without the power to say 'no' and make it stick.

Also, if it helps, hundreds of millions of women in many Asian countries are very much better off in every way than their female ancestors, even if it's still not as good as it could be. Reality is far better than science fiction for many, many women.

Edited at 2014-06-17 03:37 am (UTC)
Jun. 17th, 2014 08:44 am (UTC)
There is a big gap between the issues that people actually campaign about at grass roots and the ones which get reported in the media. When I look at the issues to which my friends devote time and money, I see a more rounded picture.

Feminists plus sex are column inches. Feminists without sex are not.

(no subject) - mevennen - Jun. 17th, 2014 11:31 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ms_cataclysm - Jun. 17th, 2014 12:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
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