The femnist Eye of Sauron has turned its gaze onto science fiction. And it doesn't like what it sees:
What I hated, and dreaded the most as I continued to read through the list, was the continued and pervasive sexism – even in seemingly progressive books for their time. I devoured science fiction and fantasy when I was younger – the idea that I was also devouring patriarchal and sexist ideas made me deeply uncomfortable. The fact that these were all supposed to be the best of the genre, was even more shocking.
The "list" in question is a list of the 100 best science-fiction and fantasy books compiled by NPR back in 2011. It includes such classics as The Lord of the Rings, 1984, I, Robot, and George R.R. Martin's five Game of Thrones novels to date. New Statesman contributor Liz Lutgendorf just got around to reading the books–and, well, it seems that Tolkien, Orwell, Isaac Asimov, and the rest of them ought to be on a blacklist, not a "100 best" list, as far as she's concerned.
In anger, after I read the first 10 books or so, I made my version of the Bechdel test, adapted for books. I thought I could ask for a bit more than films because there is more time for exposition and exploring complex ideas.
The test had three simple questions:
1: Does it have at least two female characters?
2: Is one of them a main character?
3: Do they have an interesting profession/level of skill like male characters?
The "Bechdel test," by the way was invented by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Her theory was that unless a movie features two women talking about something other than a man, it's sexist and misogynist. Since Bechdel's now-defunct comic strip was titled Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel never had any trouble passing her own test.
But hoo boy, how about that science fiction! Lutgendorf writes:
It was staggering how many didn’t pass. Some failed on point 1, like Sword of Shannara. In a vaguely Lord of the Rings-inspired universe, a young man goes on a quest to save the world, all the while being chased by various evil orcs and minions. After mentions of three dead mothers (of the male lead characters), there’s finally a woman about three quarters in: a seemingly intelligent and educated woman named Shirl. However, after the man she rescues (after he rescues her) awakes, he says to her: "Don't ask questions now, just do what I say."…
What a pig! And there's more:
C S Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet was one of the oldest books on the list, aside from Jules Verne. It’s an early attempt at explaining space flight and encountering an alien race. Most of the plot revolves around the main character, Ransom, trying to understand the aliens before managing to escape back to earth.The most entertaining aspect of the book is the ludicrous physics. There is one woman in the story, who Ransom exchanges about three sentences with before she wanders off….
Finally, most would fail on the third part of the test because the women characters were all mothers, nurses or love interests. They were passive characters with little agency or character development, like the women in A Canticle for Leibowitz and Magician. They were scenery, adding a tiny bit of texture to mainly male dominated world….
Of course, as Lutgendorf points out, A Canticle for Leibowitz was set in a monastery, so it would have been hard to work a woman into the plot.
After reading so many of these books, you can readily see that there is a problem with science fiction and fantasy novels when it comes to representation of women and minorities. What those people defending the lack of women or minorities are doing is advocating for a genre to remain stagnant. They are defending nostalgia. They’re trying to ingrain a conservative strain in a genre that was radical when it started. They’re arguing on the side of repetition, terrible storytelling and awful characterisation.
I like the way Lutgendorf assumes that "mother" and "nurse" aren't "interesting" professions.
My thoughts: Science fiction may be "patriarchal"–but at least it's not hectoring and didactic like Lutgendorf's essay.