PARIS — As far as science fiction is concerned, it looks as if gender equality is still a work-in-progress.
This recurring controversy was reignited last spring when American novelist Catherine Tobler slammed the door on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), with a breakup letter published on her website that left no doubt about where she stood.
The final straw for Tobler came when two columnists, Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg, used the association’s quarterly bulletin to focus on the physique of female science fiction writers rather than on their literature. “The dialogue seemed to be more centered on what they would look like in a swimsuit,” Tobler recently told Le Monde.
In early June, another science fiction author, Ann Aguirre, also denounced the humiliations and disdain shown by some male writers. “I had a respected SF writer call me 'my dear' and demand that I get him a coffee before the panel we were on TOGETHER,” she wrote on her blog. “When he realized I was not, in fact, his coffee girl, he didn’t apologize. And once we got into the panel, he refused to let me (or anyone else) speak. He interrupted me. He talked over me. He responded to questions that the audience asked me, when they asked me, by name, and he wouldn’t respond to the moderator, who was also female.”
What these women writers demand is pretty simple: recognition as the peer science fiction authors they are. But they still have a long way to go. People are suspicious of them, especially if they dare create female characters who are heroes. Franco-British writer Laurent Whale summed it all up when he said, “I don’t use female heroes in my books. Generally, in the mind of everybody, a hero is supposed to be male.”
“In 2007,” Aguirre recalls, “I sold my first book, Grimspace. It says it’s SF on the spine. I believe it to be SF, though it’s certainly written differently. I write in first person, present tense, and the protagonist is a woman with a woman’s thoughts, feelings and sexual desires. But the book(s) take place in a rich, well-built science fiction world. There’s FTL [faster than light] travel and lots of planets to explore and aliens. Sounds like SF, right? Apparently not. And that’s the dismissive, occasionally scornful attitude I’ve received since 2008.”
It's possible that the science fiction reading public, overwhelmingly masculine, are worried that their conception of the hero might be disturbed. In the nerd world, feminism is costly. Remember, for instance, the case of American feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian who last year was harassed and threatened — an online game offered its players to beat up her likeness — after she launched a campaign to create a new series on the representation of women in video games.
What about The Hunger Games?
This entire controversy is a massive paradox if you understand that science fiction was born in 1818 with Frankenstein, a visionary novel written in just three weeks by 19-year-old Mary Shelley. Or if you consider, two centuries later, the masterpiece that is the worldwide bestseller The Hunger Games. In this trilogy, author Suzanne Collins manages to portray a complex heroine, who is a far cry from the wallflower cliché and is warlike without being a tomboy. Yes, it is possible.
Dean Conrad, professor of film, creative writing and TV production courses at The University of Hull in England, considers science fiction a genre that is particularly suitable for indirectly documenting women’s emancipation.
Other scholars have also studied the issue. Carlen Lavigne published a resounding study in January entitled Cyberpunk Women, Feminism and Science Fiction. In it, she focuses on the cyberpunk sub-genre of the 1980s, analyzing novels by Lyda Morehouse, Raphael Carter, Pat Cadigan, Melissa Scott and Amy Thomson. Lavigne shows that these books are a reflection of 20th-century feminism and its controversies.
Over the past 20 years, female science fiction writers have become more numerous, and slowly but steadily they are managing to shake things up. In the meantime, casual sexism towards them continues, like what French fantasy author Marie Pavlenko describes as follows: “One day, a friend of mine, a woman editor, told a male science fiction author that she found a particular fight scene in his book a bit wobbly. He replied, 'What do you know about fighting?'”