Women in Sci-Fi

Posted by on May 31, 2013 in Progress Report

The Original Elite Packaging… subliminal message – it’s a boy’s game?

Progress update. Still good. Finished Chapter 8 this week – which is actually halfway, closing of the first part of the book. 53,210 words. Those will be off to my editor shortly. Also – both contracts (one for Frontier Developments and one for my Publisher) are signed, sealed and posted.

So, onto today’s update. A particularly interesting, and perhaps, controversial topic this week.

A poll was recently run on the official Elite forums as to who was a boy and who was a girl. It wasn’t very subtly worded and the results unsurprising. The subsequent discussion was disappointingly immature.

Perhaps this is to be expected. Elite Dangerous is effectively a reboot of an 80s space game where you fight, kill, rob, blast and generally ‘missile and laser’ your way through the unknown. These are fairly hackneyed male stereotypes. Sophisticated it isn’t.

I read this blog, by Lisanna, indicating why she doesn’t play ‘Eve Online’ (another space game in a similar genre.) Her analysis is interesting. The specific things I picked out were the lack of people (in favour of spaceships), the lack of ‘nurturing’ options, lack of in-game community and so on. Game advertising failed to highlight strong female leads… hmmm.

I’m not here to discuss whether women should be more equally represented in games. I’m not qualified. I’m not a woman or (much of) a gamer. I’m a writer, so let’s have a look at something I can talk about. Lisanna’s given me the hook. Strong female leads.

Joss Whedon, of Buffy, Firefly and Dollhouse fame, came back with an awesome quote once when asked why he featured so many strong female leads in his writing. His answer was:

“Because you’re still asking me that question.”

YoSaffBridg – Probably one of the best and most enigmatic female characters in any show, sci-fi or otherwise. We never even learnt her real name.

I agree with this 100%. In my experience women are naturally strong characters, far more so than men. I’ve had the privilege of meeting a lot of women in my life; mother, sister, classmates, girlfriends, wife, friends, work colleagues. I can’t recall any I would regard as ‘weak’. Sure they’ve often behaved in unfathomable ways, making strange decisions and odd choices, but weak? Not often.

I’ve seen many women succumb to depression, brought on by not being able to reconcile their gifts with a place in what is unarguably a male dominated world. I’ve seen them crushed by others, hurt, bullied and frowned upon, passed over for promotions, ridiculed and pushed around. I’ve seen them down, but never out. Weak? Not in my experience. A woman scorned? You’d better believe it.

Just calm down, dear…

Sci-fi has generally portrayed women poorly. From the B-movie serials of the 40s through to Doctor Who, the screaming hysterical woman (often conspicuously well endowed) is a constant trope. She’s the glamorous eye-candy sidekick to the tough male protagonist, emphasising his masculinity.

Other clichΓ©d examples include the mean old bird whose fought her way to the top despite all the men and is now more manly than they are.

 

If the woman is cast as a baddie, she is ‘converted’ by the hero’s dashing charm and personality before the end of the story.

You’ve also got the feisty woman, who’s as good as any man and proves it, but, of course, she’s only really yearning for the right man and usually falls for him before the end of the tale.

Yawn.

This should come as no surprise!

I hate this stuff. It’s lousy writing as far as I’m concerned, but more – it’s not realistic. Women do not act this way. I think it’s actually male writers’ insecurity coming out, making ‘their’ female characters conform to a fantasy of their making. What does that tell you about them?

To me, women are just people. Odd, fun, attractive, scary people; but people. I’ll let you into a secret I use when writing.

My characters and their mannerisms are written up long before I apply gender, race, creed and description to them. They all start as generic people. I write what they do, how the story works and figure out their motivations and where they end up and only then apply ‘flavour’, i.e. are they male or female, rich or poor, caucasian or asian. It’s simply not important up until that point. That way (I hope) I eliminate any predetermined natural bias in my stories. You should be able to flip the gender of any of my characters (minus obvious descriptive differences) and not really affect the story at all. I sometimes do that as a thought experiment to see if it works. If it doesn’t, guess what – rewrite time.

When you read Elite:Reclamation you’ll not find much in the way of description of what the characters look like. There’ll be no bust or waist measurements. I do like to give you the hair and eye colour to differentiate, but I’ll focus on their stance, attitude, bearing and posture. If you know your body language, this will already be telling you something about the character. Use your imagination.

Yes women act differently and I have to reflect that. My observations show me that women are generally (and if I drop into clichΓ©s here do scold me) far better at scheming and strategy, particularly long term. They will generally react more emotionally to a situation; sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes it’s not. This is a great hook for writing a follow on scene – what are the consequences?

So are there some good examples of women in sci-fi? Yes there are. These are the ones that have particularly influenced me…

Still not sure about that hairdo though…

For a mainstream film, Star Wars portrayed Princess Leia reasonably well. She faced down Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin without flinching. She was a Senator, a high political office and commanded respect from all of those around her in the Rebel Alliance. She could lead and expected others to follow her – I would. Although she did fall for the the rugged charms of Harrison Ford in the end – though as many women have told me – who wouldn’t? πŸ˜‰

In the written word, Lessa, in Anne McCaffrey’s dragon series is a superb character; brutal, scheming, compassionate, bitter and troubled. Anne had a huge influence on me – I’m a fan of her ability to bring her characters to life so effectively. Lessa is a leader, a killer and a lover, a woman to be feared, admired and desired all in one. Strong, yet diminutive; fierce yet with an ultimate softness to her. An amazing character.

You didn't want to mess with this young woman...

You didn’t want to mess with this girl…

Another you probably haven’t heard of is ‘Tsu’. She’s a character from a children’s series called ‘Starstormers’. For the most part this was the ‘Famous Five’ in space and, critically, not very good. Tsu was the highlight though. Unlike the squeaky clean Famous Five, she betrayed her friends and handed them over to the antagonist. Why? She was being blackmailed and her parents’ lives threatened. She could hack computers and knew how to fight. A slightly brutal, twisted and hurting character, she jumped out of the text where the others were just ordinary kids.

These are believable women, women who have desire and wants that make sense. They’ll fight for who they care about, they’ll push people out of the way if needs be. They’ll manipulate the men around them should they need to without simply resorting to sex. They are nuanced, they are enigmatic and unpredictable.

So back to my book.

It’s reassuring to see that I have a 33% / 66% split of ladies to gents according to Elite:Reclamation’s facebook page – that’s pretty good for a sci-fi novel – but I’d prefer it to be more equal. My generic writer’s page (mostly about my romance/drama novel Torn) actually has more female fans than male.

What I aim for overall is believable characters. Strong characters who you can love, hate, admire or despise whether they are women or not. My books are about people, regardless.

This Lady's identity will be revealed, but not until March 2014...

My leading lady is quite a character. Flawed, unhappy and much maligned… but believable.

I hope women will love the story of Elite : Reclamation. Yes it’s based in a sci-fi universe in the distant future, but that’s only the scenery. The story is about loss, betrayal, revenge, unfairness, struggle, manipulation, finding your place in a hostile world and finally… well, you’ll have to read it won’t you?

These are all things to which we all relate. I see women constantly striving with these issues in their day to day lives and hope to have reflected that in this story.

My experiences of how women deal with unfairness, being passed over for promotion, being hurt by the callous actions of others – this is the grist of Elite:Reclamation. The ships and lasers are minor details.

I think you’ll enjoy it.

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    18 Comments

  1. Hear hear! I do worry about the level of female fans for Elite, and in particular the ‘boys club banter’ that comes to the fore whenever the subject is raised. Hopefully Frontier can manage this well – they do at least have a recent history of appeasing more than just traditional male gamers.

    My own story for the Anthology features a female lead and female antagonist. There wasn’t much real thought about this, that was just how I automatically imagined them when thinking up the story. Perhaps it’s partly because of how sci-fi traditionally features males in all the important roles. Everything about male sci-fi characters has become a trope, and it’s hard to write something that feels original.

    I’m looking forward to seeing your leading lady in action – she sounds badass πŸ™‚

    • Looking forward to all these characters. I’m going to have to reserve the whole of 2014 for reading!

  2. Another great post Drew. Expertly handled!

    I love your view of gender adding ‘flavour’ to a character, not defining them. This is a really well drawn observation.

    One of our favourite female leads is Philip Pullman’s Lyra. Strong, cynical, intelligent and refuses to take any nonsense from anybody, regardless of rank, attitude or whether or not they are a huge, grumpy battle polar bear.

    Big fan of Anne McCaffrey’s dragon series too. She weaves a remarkable world.

    Looking forward to the next chunk or E:R (cue glowing green from those reading this comment who don’t happen to also be your publisher…)

    Write on Commander!

    Dan πŸ™‚

    • I’ll get Chapters 7 and 8 across as soon as I can, Dan! πŸ™‚ (says Drew, whistling the theme tune to ‘subtle hints are here again…’) πŸ˜‰

  3. Well said!

  4. Great stuff Drew. Inspirational as usual.

    I’m also writing with a female lead (though the story may take a long, long time to be completed). I don’t know why I chose a female protagonist, it just felt right. At this stage in the process a lot may change, and some details already have, even though I was ‘certain’ about them. I hope that’ll make it feel real, with the details evolving naturally.

    Men and women can act differently, have different motivations, different needs, and be perceived differently, but we are all human, and should be judged by what we do, not who we are. Hope that makes sense.

    Keep up the good work.

    • It’s the same argument over race, class, creed as it is over gender. Not central to the character. Good point.

  5. Hi Drew, Great topic!
    I have loved and followed Sci-Fi in its various forms for over 30 years, from Comic’s, TV, books and films. As a female I have always found the surprised reaction of males odd when I say I am a Trekkie, read various Sci-Fi books etc Then again equally female reactions from friends and family. My 13yr old daughter thinks I am a nerd for liking Sci-Fi.
    Over the years I have followed TV series 1999, Star Trek – Original, NG, Voyager(Female Captain!), Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica (old & New), Andromeda, Stargate, Farscape etc. I have read all 21 Star Trek New Frontier books by Peter David. Really enjoyed Status Quo by Drew Wagar. Going to purchase a Kindle for the rest!
    Unfortunately I have not met many females over the years that share my passion for Sci-Fi. It is great to see a strong female character in a Sci-Fi, the more modern characters use there femininity as a strength to get what they want. Becoming more and more beautiful and stunning in there close fitted outfits. I think women will always be depicted as a sexual object as much as the male leads. It is swings and round about’s. As a female I do enjoy it when a strong female character who can give the men a run for there money and be equal in love and war. Girls can kick butt too!

    • Be proud Mel πŸ˜‰ Anyway, us geeks are sexy nowadays… am I allowed to say that?

  6. Good points, Drew.

    Unfortunately a lot of sic if still fails the Bechdel Test. Having strong females is great, but it often doesn’t go far enough. It seems that many writers find it hard to not write a woman who does thing for the sake of a man/true love/deep down maternal urges.

    Many females in sci fi still end up in the “helpless woman needs to be rescued” trope , and while men fight their way out of situations women often resort to bashing attackers on the head with a flowerpot or some such nonsense.

    While not such an issue in books (except for cover art), women in film and TV are often shown as highly sexualised (revealing a lot of skin, perfect hair and make up) even, or especially, in situations where it is more realistic to have them in overalls or covered in mud/sweat with make up everywhere (or even none at all). You might like to look at http://www.jimchines.com/2012/01/striking-a-pose/ and http://thehawkeyeinitiative.com/.

    It’s the sort of thing that is accepted as “normal” and is difficult to challenge without being accused of looking to be offended. It is so pervasive that many people just don’t see it any more – even I have been surprised by Bechdel Test results.

    What would I like to see? I’d like to see strong women who don’t go weak at the sight of a man, who sweat and get muddy, who make choices for themselves, who are sometimes mean and cruel to get what they need, who aren’t taught humility by a man/true love/a baby, whose value lies in her strength and ability to achieve great things rather than as a sex object or walking uterus.

    • *sci fi, not “sic if”… stupid autocorrect!

      • Everyone should take a look at Emma’s links. A genuine LOL! πŸ™‚ Funny, but a very serious point being made. You do get acclimatised to these images – only when they’re turned around do you realise how ridiculous they are. Thanks, Emma! πŸ™‚

  7. Spot on as always, Drew. Since I’m in this Elite writing lark as a RPG player as well, it’s fair to say that roleplaying suffers from the same demographic split. The issue there is similar – how to attract more female players without alienating the male ones. The best thing about attracting the ladies to RPGs is that every female I’ve roleplayed with has been absolutely awesome at it.

    In fact, the first piece of custom artwork I’ve commissioned for the RPG is centred around a woman in a position of power. Now after the last two statements if there are any men reading this with a smirk on their faces I would just point out that you’re exactly the sort of people that don’t help these situations. πŸ˜‰

    The setting shouldn’t matter – as you say, it’s just window dressing. It’s the characters and their journey that are most important and that needs to be believable. A story about love, loss and revenge is just as valid and relevant in space or in a medieval world as it is on the streets of London or the tropical island of Vanuatu.

  8. You’ve touched on some very emotive topics here, Drew. I applaud you for being brave enough to put your head above the parapet.

    I read the post to my wife and interestingly her first response was, ‘But men and women are inherently different.’ Who am I to argue? πŸ˜‰

  9. Two words: Ellen Ripley!

  10. Sorry I am a bit behind here. Dipping my toes in this writing malarkey.

    I was going to make a point about how many female protagonists start off so promisingly then deteriorate into trope. Princess Leia being an excellent example.
    Emma makes the point much better than I could though.

    Ellen Ripley is indeed probably the best female character in Sci-Fi and probably my favourite overall.
    It is very interesting to note that in the original draft the character was called Martin Roby but written in a way as to be neutral, just as Drew is describing.

    In fact, to quote the draft:

    “The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women”

  11. A nicely balanced and clear portrayal of women in not only sci-fi but in books and film too there Drew. πŸ˜‰ I am really looking forward to reading Elite:Reclamation. Oh and just for the record, the only thing “pink” about me when I will be playing ED, will perhaps be the colour of my lasers. πŸ˜›

    Thanks go to Andrew Sayers for pointing me to your above article. πŸ˜‰

    http://forums.frontier.co.uk/showpost.php?p=192104&postcount=19

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