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.