Superladies in Waiting: How the Female Hero Almost Emerges in Science Fiction
(Note: this essay originally appeared in Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, No. 58 (Summer 1993), 42-62.)
For those who care to look, modern science fiction offers more than enough examples of works past and present whose treatment of women is condescending, sexist, or stereotypical, and critics who address this issue are typically abject in their apologies for the genre: for example, Eric S. Rabkin says, "There is no denying that woman has been exploited as a sex object by science fiction publishers and cover illustrators…. Authors, both male and female, have trivialized women characters" ("Science Fiction Women before Liberation" 9), and Peter Nicholls agrees that "One of the more shameful facets of genre [science fiction] is the stereotyped and patronizing roles which are usually though not invariably assigned to women" ("Women" 661).
These apologies for science fiction, however, strike me as excessive.
In the first place, science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s came to be generally presented as a form of pulp fiction aimed at juvenile males; it was thus an unenlightened form of literature in an unenlightened age. I suspect that contemporary detective fiction, pirate stories, and jungle adventures were every bit as stereotypical and condescending in their female characters. The poor treatment of women in this era's science fiction is more noticeable for two reasons: unlike the ephemeral works in other genres, science fiction stories of the 1930s and 1940s are still being reprinted in anthologies, so they are easier to find and condemn; and as many have noted, the patterns set in these stories, long abandoned in written science fiction, have unaccountably endured in the science fiction of other media such as film, television, cartoons, and comic books, further highlighting the excesses of the genre's early days.1
In the second place, before the dominance of the juvenile-adventure mode, science fiction was originally presented by Hugo Gernsback on a more elevated and intellectual plane. His first science fiction publication, Amazing Stories, was not a pulp magazine; he openly appealed for both male and female readers—six months after beginning Amazing Stories, Gernsback declared, "A totally unforeseen result… strange to say, was that a great many women are already reading the magazine" ("Editorially Speaking" 483), and he later expressed the hope that "every man, woman, boy and girl" would "read science fiction" ("Science Fiction Week" 1061); and his early magazines regularly featured letters from woman readers and stories by woman authors. For marketing purposes at least, then, there was an initial impulse towards egalitarianism in science fiction.
There are also theoretical reasons one might expect to find a more enlightened attitude in early science fiction: the genre has often emphasized the process of extrapolative thinking in creating imaginary futures— as John W. Campbell, Jr., once said, "Science-Fiction, being largely an attempt to forecast the future, on the basis of the present, represents a type of extrapolation" ("The Perfect Machine" 5)—and to anyone growing up in the first decades of the twentieth century, one obvious trend in society was the apparent growth in women's power and prestige, evidenced by such things as the successful suffrage movement, the new image of the "flapper girl," and the sporadic appearance of women as political leaders. A logical prediction, then, would be a future society where women approach, achieve, or even surpass the status of men. In addition, science fiction has typically been celebrated for the novelty of its stories—Hugo Gernsback said that "There is a standing rule in our editorial offices that unless the story is amazing, it should not be published in the magazine" ("Editorially Speaking" 483)—and a picture of feminine equality would certainly make a story in the 1920s or 1930s seem rather "amazing."
One story that seems to confirm such expectations is "Into the 28th Century," by Lillith Lorraine [Mary Maude Wright], published in the Winter, 1930 issue of Gernsback's Science Wonder Quarterly. In this version of Earth's future, after a period of turmoil, "the World-State elected a woman, known as the World President, as its Chief Executive" (257), and this set a pattern of female control of government:
Today in our new-found immortality with the burden of child-bearing practically lifted…. Woman has found her compensation for motherhood as the mother of the World-State. She is supreme in the realm of government…. Concerned now with education, with the patronage of art, science, and literature, with the beautification and spiritualization of all life; it finds woman its ideal director (257).
Needless to say, this is not an ideal feminist vision, with woman promoted to positions of authority as a symbolic outlet for their mothering instincts, and with government more or less reduced to traditional feminine activities; it is also incongruous that the narrator later meets a city mayor who is a man. Nevertheless, for its time, the story must be commended for an attitude toward women that clearly rises above "stereotyped and patronizing roles"; it might also be noted that the story was subsequently praised highly in several letters to Science Wonder Quarterly.2
Still, even as Lorraine's story was appearing, its placid, utopian atmosphere was being replaced by an emphasis on what Gernsback acknowledged was "thrilling adventure" ("Science Fiction Week" 1061) usually involving a male hero battling against villains and aliens, and usually involving women only in a peripheral or stereotypical fashion. Even in such stories, though, traces of a more enlightened attitude can be detected.
To be specific, there are some texts of this type which strive to create and validate a true female hero, not only equal to but actually superior to the male; and while such works rarely if ever follow the theme to its logical conclusion—the displacement of the male hero by the female—the repeated occurrence of this pattern in various science fiction media should be recognized and analyzed.
To be sure, the manner in which these female heroes were presented and developed was distinctly equivocal. The typical pattern is this: a woman who at the beginning seems to serve as the typical heroine—the essentially passive object of the malevolent designs and heroic rescues of evil and good men—is gradually transformed into a female hero. The process usually involves the male hero—who may or may not have a romantic attachment to the woman—first providing her with a lengthy education, with an emphasis on scientific knowledge; next comes a climactic crisis of transformation, which may involve the symbolic or actual death and rebirth of the woman; and finally the women emerges as a hero with powers and abilities superior to the male hero, an event marked by a spectacular triumph or act of heroism. However, if the story proceeds beyond this point—which often occurs, given the genre's predilection for sequels and series—the female hero does not go on to replace the male hero, but instead fades in power and retreats into a more typical position of passivity and secondary status.
A partial enactment of this pattern can first be seen in Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660. In many ways, it must be admitted, Gernsback's Alice appears to be the typical helpless heroine: arriving in New York to visit the famous scientist Ralph, she is forever chaperoned by her doting father, who asks Ralph to protect her from the machinations of two suspicious suitors. Alice is imperiled three times in the story, and each time Ralph rushes to her rescue. And some of her remarks reflect a woman's stereotypical ignorance of worldly affairs: "I know very little of economics," she admits (110).
Yet Alice is no dummy. When she is left alone in a remote Swiss cottage in the first chapter and an accident occurs, she fends for herself quite nicely: "Both the Power mast and the Communico mast were blown down the same day, and I was left without any means of communication whatever. However, I managed to put the light magnesium power mast into a temporary position again…." (29-30). And when Ralph must arrange a long-distance energy beam to melt the avalanche that soon threatens to kill her, he requires her active—and knowledgeable—assistance:
"Your wave length?"Alice is further described as a very good athlete and manages to defeat Ralph in a tennis match—though it is defensively noted that Ralph, smitten with Alice's beauty, did not really have his mind on the game. And when she is captured by the villainous Fernand, she does not submit without a fight:
Her answer was to fly at him with such passion that he involuntarily took a step backwards. In a flash she had run by him, was down the stairs and tugging at the fastening of the door that led outward. Fernand bounded after her calling to Lylette as he ran, and in a moment they were both struggling with the girl, who had indeed become a veritable wildcat…. She was a strong athletic girl, and at the moment her desperation gave her added vigor. But the combined strength, and by no means gentle handling of Fernand and Lylette, who herself was a large and powerfully built woman, forced Alice to relinquish her hold, and she was dragged, struggling, back to her room, and left there, with the door double-locked (172-173).Moreover, her characteristic activity during the novel—listening while Ralph explains some scientific invention to her—is significant. Ralph does not want a wife who is indifferent to scientific knowledge—he wants her to understand, to participate in his excitement over new scientific marvels. And Alice is actively interested in his explanations and often figures out what is going on rather quickly:
"What is the peculiar tingling in the soles of my feet, I feel as we walk along? You are using some electrical vibrations, I suppose."Thus, while she is already his physical equal, the action of the novel is the effort to make her his mental equal.3
In the final scenes of the novel, Alice is actually transformed into a being superior to Ralph. When her second kidnapper, the Martian Llysanorh', kills her in a fit of passion, Ralph frantically employs his experimental method of reviving dead bodies and finally succeeds in bringing her back to life. The importance of this change is foreshadowed early in the novel, when Ralph first tests the technique on a dead dog. Afterwards, an observing scientist exclaims,
"Ralph, this is one of the greatest gifts that science has brought to humanity. For what you have done with a dog, you can do with a human being. I only regret for myself that you had not lived and conducted this experiment when I was a young man, that I might have, from time to time, lived in suspended animation from century to century, and from generation to generation as it will now be possible for human beings to do" (65).
The significance of the process, then, is that it will enable people to extend their lives, see more of the future, and gain further knowledge as a result. And the first person to successfully undergo the change—the first representative of this new superior race—is the woman, Alice. And, since it is by no means clear that Ralph will also be able to undergo the same transformation—the scientist's remarks implies it will work only on the very young, and Ralph's age is uncertain—Alice now has the potential to become a better and brighter person than Ralph. Unfortunately, Gernsback fails to invest the moment with any true power, and the only sign of Alice's new powers is trivial: she finally realizes what readers have known since the first page—that Ralph's last name means "ONE TO FORESEE FOR ONE" (207).
Even though the works are only marginal examples of science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan novels at one point put Jane through a similar process. In the seventh book in the series, Tarzan the Untamed, Jane is apparently killed, and Tarzan is left to grieve. However, the next book, Tarzan the Terrible, reveals that Jane actually survived; and now, left in the jungle and separated from Tarzan, she is obliged to become a lord of the jungle herself, successfully fighting her way to safety and establishing herself as a competent adventurer in that realm. However, the prospect of a Jane who could battle alongside of Tarzan may have unsettled Burroughs, for in subsequent novels, Jane retreated into the background, generally figuring as little more than the domestic guardian of Tarzan's African estate who waves goodbye as he goes off on another adventure. And this defines exactly how far science fiction is willing to go in establishing and validating its created female heroes—they can come to the point where they are ready to replace the male heroes, and they might even supplant them for a while, but they are ultimately not allowed to achieve or maintain that position and are instead obliged to return to their old secondary role.
A science fiction story that goes further than Ralph in establishing and celebrating its female hero is Philip Francis Nowlan's Armageddon 2419 A.D., originally published in two parts in Gernsback's Amazing Stories in 1928. When Anthony (not yet Buck) Rogers awakens from suspended animation, he finds a band of American guerrillas desperately struggling to dislodge the Asian invaders who have dominated the country for centuries. Their ragged society is surprisingly based on equality between the sexes—men and women serving together as soldiers—and the scientific knowledge of both men and women far surpasses that of Rogers. His contribution becomes to teach them time-honored fighting techniques, familiar to him as a veteran of twentieth-century wars but not to these warriors of the future. And, because of his superiority in this area, he is soon made the commander of a battalion in their army.
However, Wilma Deering, the woman who originally tutored him in the ways of the future, becomes his wife—and second-in-command of his battalion. When Rogers is later captured and taken to an Asian stronghold, it is Wilma who stages and carries out a successful rescue mission. Here, the transformation is completed: Wilma Deering, originally in a subordinate position to the male hero, now literally takes his place, and even takes on the role of rescuer to save the now-helpless male hero from imprisonment. Furthermore, in the final battle with the Hans, WIlma battles with startling ferocity: "I saw Wilma bury her bayonet in her opponent, screaming in ecstatic joy…. Wilma… screaming in an utter abandon of merciless fury. . . threw herself recklessly, exultantly into the thick of that wild, relentless slaughter" (185, 188).
As was the case with the Tarzan books, however, the saga of Rogers and Wilma Deering had to continue, first in the form of a popular comic strip; and in the panels of Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century, one observes Wilma Deering retreating to a more traditional status. The overt sexual equality of Nowlan's novel was one of the first features to fade away in the comic strip, and while Wilma continued to accompany Rogers on their various missions on Earth and soon in space, she was now a distinctly subordinate figure—the lady in distress—and Buck Rogers was always the person who rescues her; as Basil Davenport noted, "Buck Rogers' relations to women [in the comic strip] were of the true, austere Western Western [sic] pattern, in which women were of little use except as hostages, and possibly as rewards for the hero in a future that would always be postponed until after the end of the story" (Inquiry into Science Fiction 24). Wilma Deering performed a similar function in the subsequent movie serial; and even in the more enlightened times of the late 1970s, the television series made Wilma Deering rather weak and submissive, even though she was now described as the commander of Earth's defense force. As C. J. Cherryh complained, "They took one of the only good female characters and made her more backward… than she would be even in this age. [Wilma Deering] was supposed to be a military officer, and yet… the producers kept telling [actress Erin Gray] not to be 'authoritarian.' That went beyond silliness. It was insulting" (cited in Javna 79).
E. E. Smith's Lensman series, after establishing and celebrating an exclusively male team of super-powered Lensmen, does finally, in Second Stage Lensman, introduce a female counterpart to hero Kimball Kinnison: Clarrissa MacDougall, the "Red Lensman." However, her subsequent assignment—to infiltrate a matriarchal alien society—seems specifically tailored to a woman; and her major function, it turns out, is simply to marry Kinnison and produce "Children of the Lens," who turn the tide in the final battle against the Eddorians in the book of that name, and by that time, Clarrissa has retreated into the background.
Robert A. Heinlein, in many ways an unrepentant sexist, also enacts this pattern in some of his works.4 One tale of a woman who is trained to achieve, and achieves, the status of a male is "Delilah and the Space Rigger." Here, a woman engineer joins a crew of men building Space Station One: in the beginning, the men actively resist her presence, but after she demonstrates she can work effectively in space, she is accepted as an equal.
In the 1950s, Heinlein worked in Hollywood for a while, and the story of the problematic female hero in science fiction also shifts to different media. At this time, science fiction for the first time acquired a substantial number of female writers—most often published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction—and there were also male writers like Theodore Sturgeon and Philip José Farmer who were groping towards visions of sexual equality—trends which became more obvious in the 1960s. As if suspended in a time warp, however, older patterns of science fiction persisted in films, television, and comic books.
One early example, the film Project Moonbase (1953), also involves Heinlein, who co-authored its script. Here is a vision of the future where women seem dominant: a woman, Lieutenant Brighteis, was the first human to go into space, and she is also assigned to command the first mission to orbit the Moon. The President of the United States is also a woman—though this fact is not revealed until the final scene. While Brighteis retains some stereotypical female features, the movie also emphasizes that she is thoroughly professional and capable of doing her job; she is literally the commander of the male astronaut whose bickering with her conceals his actual love for her, and in this way, the male hero in the film seems to take on the traditional role of the spunky but passive heroine.
Although this female hero seems to be in full force, she also is ultimately obliged to retreat. In the film's later moments, the expedition is forced to land on the Moon, and only a rocket from Earth filled with supplies enables them to remain alive on the lunar surface. At this point, a potential scandal develops, in that an unmarried man and woman are visibly living together on the Moon. The male astronaut is pressured to propose to Brighteis; they are married by television; and, as a wedding present, the man is promoted, so that he can now be the commanding officer of the newly-christened moonbase. The motive for this final transformation was again the projected extension of the story: the film was originally shot as the pilot for a television series, and was presented as a film in limited release only after the pilot was rejected. So while a single science fiction story might suggest—or even depict—the emergence of a female hero to replace and dominate the male hero, a series of stories cannot be allowed to maintain that picture; the woman must be forced back into a subordinate position.
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