Saturday, September 18, 2010

Poor Asimov, he should've used capital letters

Scifi and fantasty fans will probably be quite familiar with Asimov's famous quote: "Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today - but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all." For those of you who have followed Stargate SG-1, you'll probably remember when the awesome parody character Grell expanded on this, saying "Science fiction is an existential metaphor, which allows us to tell stories about the human condition."

I definitely agree with this statement, more so when it comes to books of both science fiction and fantasy (there is a BIG difference between the two genres, and I will probably do a post about that soon). TV shows and movies are arguably more constrained by expectations of profit, and the rigidly conventional gender standards of those 'in the industry' who perpetuate the notion that Sex Sells and More Explosions Make A Better Trailer.

Science fiction and fantasy both work off the premise of creating a different world, with different rules, customs, cultures and laws. So why do the fundamental aspects of those cultures so closely reflect our own, when it comes to gender roles and expectations?

The reason I ask this, is that 'the impossible' is the core of the plot, the story and the civilisation of these books. You have people who can fly (Sarah Douglass), people who can live for thousands of years (David Eddings), sentient robots (Isaac Asimov), animals who talk and plot and come up with political slogans (George Orwell). So, when creating these fabulous and imaginitive worlds, why do we have the same damaging social tropes that plague our own society here on earth? Why, if people are shooting lasers, putting chips into their brains and casting spells to speak all languages, do Boys Not Cry and Women Belong In the Kitchen?

I have seen inspiring examples of authors who choose to step outside the gender bounds and let their characters be characters, who turn society as we know it on its head in new and fascinating ways. I have seen examples of authors who create a new and beautiful society... and then have all the men go off to war, without even giving a thought to the fact that they are not writing about humans, they may have given medieval technology to their races, but that doesn't mean that they have to have medieval-level understanding and expectations of gender, either.

An example of the former (an author who rearranged gender priorities) which is a personal favourite of mine, and thus not necessarily THE best example, would be David Eddings, in his series The Belgariad. In these books (and the follow-up series The Mallorean, and the prequels Belgarath the Sorcerer, Polgara the Sorceress), not only does Eddings create a matriarchal society (which is ironically destroyed by another society's desire for gold), but he has the women in his story actively push and mutate gender boundaries at will. One of the most powerful sorcerers in the series is a woman. During rough political times, the queens and other female characters step up and firmly tell the male ones that they will be part of the decision-making process even if it makes the men choke on their beer. Here, instead of forcing a wildly different society down our throats, Eddings uses the characters to point out the fallacies in our unbalanced thinking.

An example of the latter - an author who wrote a wonderful world, with a good plot, and then without explanation very blatantly reverted to traditional earthy gender roles: Christian Tamblyn, in his first novel, The Dragon of the Second Moon. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. As a first published work, it is of a fantastic standard. And yet, we have men turning away their faces because crying isn't manly. We have it pointed out that only one woman is going to war. Yes, there is a queen in the series, but she really doesn't do a lot. One of the main female characters is so busy being the Understanding Love Interest that she doesn't have time to do anything else (except get pregnant. Not that I am saying motherhood isn't a worthwhile pursuit. If my mother hadn't decided to have children I wouldn't be here).

I get that gender expectations are so ingrained into some people, that they don't think to question it. I sometimes feel that I am hyper-aware of the inequalities, because they bother me so much and other people just seem to unquestioningly accept it, even when it's damaging them. It also bothers me that people fall back on "oh, it's just biology", when science is, at its core, theoretical. It is also a huge possibility that our belief in the 'scientific fact' of something which causes behaviour may lead us to socially and psychologically reinforce behaviours which aren't biologically pre-determined. If that sentance was confusing to you, let me give an example:
1) We are told that, scientifically, men are less capable of verbally expressing their emotions, because of thinner connections between their logical and emotional halves/parts of the brain (very basic explanation).
2) The media, our family and friends all tell us that "guys can't express their emotions well".
3) Men and boys are raised without being encouraged to express their emotions verbally because "it's not what guys do".
4) Consequently, men are raised with a much more shallow understanding of how to explain their feelings. This may, in fact, be mostly biology, but it's reinforced by societal expectations, and practise. Thus a scientific belief, which may in fact be false, or at least much less significant than we think, is compounded by outside factors.
5) This seemingly widespread epidemic of men who just don't know how to explain why, or even that they are upset, reinforces the scientific myth.

That is just one very general, un-researched example of what I call a 'gender myth' - or a possible one, anyway. There are research papers, academics, scientistic and intellectuals who have done far more research and used far bigger words than I, and I will not attempt to compete with them. My point is that science fiction and fantasy authors bend the laws of science, physics and reality. They do this extremely well, and we enjoy reading it, for escapism, if nothing else. Why do so many authors fall into the trap of perpetuating society's flaws, if they're writing so far outside the world that we know, anyway? I have only seen/read a handful of examples that play with or openly defy gender and sexual expectations. Some of them do this, sadly, to the eventual detriment of the series, especially in the case of TV series. I have read one book series which attempted to create a martiarchal society, which had some of the same issues of abuse of power for personal gain. The series ended up being not only confusing, because of a really unclear chronology which eventuated in plot holes, but I was unable to even concentrate on this (until my boyfriend pointed it out) because of the horriffic amount of physical, emotional and sexual abuse that went on in the society. Women used their political power to sexually abuse men, who in turn took their frustrations out on women and even children of lower class. What I hoped would be a brave, thought-provoking look at a society where the power was in the hands of the women, and an attempt to portray how power was changed by a more feminine-driven value system, ended up being a confusing story filled with rather graphic sexual exploitation of children!

The only TV series and movies I have seen which toys with gender roles in a perceptible way would have to be the works of Joss Whedon. I will make a quick breakdown of them, and apologise if it's confusing to those of you unfamiliar with these series:
1) Buffy the Vampire Slayer gave immense physical power to the female lead character (Buffy). The two main male characters were put in nurturing, emotionally supporting roles. One of the main male characters, Xander, accomplishes great things, turning the plot in big ways, through his emotional contribution to the lives of the other characters. His physical prowess is negligible, and his personality is not domineering in a 'traditional' masculine sense at all, but he is still a valuable and complex character whose humanity is prized by other characters. It is his ability to engage with his emotions that actually brings back Willow from the brink of destroying the world with her immensely powerful magic abilities, which she abused in a state of raw grief (that was a beautiful episode, by the way).

2) Firefly showcased two female characters in usually masculine pursuits - one career army, a strong and sometimes cold fighter, the other a talented and hard-working engineer. Zoe, the ex-military woman, was married to a joking, and laid-back pilot. He was comfortable with her 'commanding' personality, and did not object to her protecting him and the rest of the crew physically because that was where her skills were, and his frankly weren't. (A running joke in the series is that his contribution to the war was to do shadow puppets). The engineer, Kaylee, spends a good deal of time romantically pursuing a young doctor, who has given up both career and fortune to rescue his talented sister from a sadistic government program - a clearly nurturing and emotional response he doggedly pursues throughout the series. Simon and Wash were two characters who were very family-focused, which anchored them and made them much more rounded characters than the hard-nosed, wandering Mal and Jayne.

3) Dollhouse's contributions to this trend were sadly overshadowed by the complicated and very 'grey area' sexual politics it explored. In brief, it features women posessing political and physical power (Adelle), in addition to men actually having romantic emotions, being (for the most part) asexual (Topher; until the end of season 2), and putting personal power aside for matters of social and legal justice. An awful lot of male characters are made into villains for choosing to do 'anything' to gain personal or political power; this series balanced that out by having three male characters (Topher, Paul and Boyd)) jeapordise their own prospects because they saw a wrong and did all they could to correct it. Meanwhile, one of the female leads (Adelle) is  betraying everyone at every turn to keep her position as CEO!

Science fiction and fantasy have the option of creating their worlds from scratch. The sky is no longer the limit. Yet, no matter what technology authors invent, no matter how amazing and innovative special effects makeup and CG are at creating new aliens... we seem stuck in this rut of perpetuating the narrow gender expectations of the so-called liberated, equal-opportunity Western world. It baffles and saddens me. I want more male empaths, I want more female warriors (who can be sexual without being a Xena-esque manifestation of male heterosexual fantasy), I want more societies that break these nonsensical gender boundaries that we have to deal with every single day. I want more fantastic in my fantasy.

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't claim to have an overview of the science fiction genre in general, but I think that there is a fair bit of societal-norm-bending fiction out there. It does take more looking for; and when science fiction is sexist it can be horribly horribly so ... but I think it is getting there.

    Annoyingly, I can't think of many good examples right off. I could ask around friends for you?

    There was a book I read that I thought had interesting matriarchal society ... aha, 'Glory Season' by David Brin. I don't think it was necessarily the best book ever but it has an interesting matriarchal society with 'houses' of female clones (there's cloning reproduction which requires men to get it started, and sexual reproduction which is as it is in reality). It was very class-bound, by no means utopian, but I thought the societal structure was really interesting.


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