Home > Avatar: The Last Airbender, Babylon 5, Clement's Game, Gender Roles, Lois McMaster Bujold, Star Trek > SciFi Round Fifteen: Gender Roles in SciFi & Fantasy

SciFi Round Fifteen: Gender Roles in SciFi & Fantasy


I’m a bit uncertain about writing this post, in part because I am not particularly qualified to discuss the material and in part because there is already a considerable literature on it.  Much of what I’ll talk about here has been described already elsewhere, and I’m only giving a few examples of a very complicated problem that connects to a lot of overt and subtle social phenomena.  But here we go: some thoughts on gender roles in scifi and fantasy works.

A brief review of terminology: humans are a species with significant sexual dimorphism, but neither biological sex nor gender identity are binary qualities.  That is, most but not all humans can be conveniently called women or men.  But most human societies also have non-equal gender roles: people are assigned to a gender and stereotyped into a particular set of behaviors on that basis.  A lot of merchandise and even words are gender-coded as well.  The details of how gender roles are assigned differ greatly from one culture to another.

The problem I’m considering here is how such stereotypes and gender-coding are reflected in sci-fi and fantasy works.  This matters because gender roles as portrayed in media affect how we understand gender roles in real life.  And gender stereotyping is a serious social problem.  We’ve touched on this before, but the basic point is that restrictions on people’s perceived abilities solely based on gender are wrong and put artificial limits on what we can do.

Right now, a lot of gender role codification centers on artificially limiting what women are allowed to do – sometimes in the form of obvious sexism and sometimes more subtly.  This set of patriarchal patterns causes a lot of problems for women in everyday life, and also for men and for people of all other genders or no gender at all.  And while there have been some efforts to counter this in various media, patriarchal patterns are far too common in fiction.

Examples of the Problem

Consider Star Wars.  George Lucas wrote the plot deliberately based on Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces” – which outlines a very old and wide-spread plot, a coming-of-age story almost always featuring a man as the hero.  And that’s reflected in the Star Wars setting and story: Leia has to be rescued (twice, but the second was part of a rather silly plan); most of the Jedi and all of those who are major characters are men; the Imperial military is all men; and so on.  While this is pretty bad, there is something to note: works often reflect the gender roles of the real-life society in which they were written, sometimes deliberately but also out of inertia or simply unthinking assumption.  Lucas wrote the plot of Star Wars in the mid-1970’s USA, when women weren’t allowed in many regular military units (although integration was starting to happen).  In some sense, Star Wars is a product of its time.  And generally speaking, the further back we go the worse the mismatch between a positive egalitarian ideal and what is portrayed in works from the time will be.  But there are some exceptions to that pattern.

The bridge of a Venator-class Imperial Star Destroyer.  Why has the Empire artificially decreased its pool of potential personnel by 50%?

The bridge of a Venator-class Imperial Star Destroyer. Why has the Empire artificially decreased its pool of potential personnel by 50%?  (It’s actually worse than that, since the Empire is profoundly racist too.)

Gene Roddenberry wanted the society of the Federation in Star Trek to reflect a future nearly-utopian ideal, and made the crew of the Enterprise multicultural and also included women as characters in serious heroic roles.  The original second-in-command of the Enterprise was a woman, “Number One”, an intelligent and capable commander who takes charge of the ship while Captain Christopher Pike is not on board.  But the character was rejected by NBC executives, who felt that a show with a woman as a senior officer would be rejected by 1960s American TV audiences (Edit: That Majel Barrett was Roddenberry’s girlfriend when she was cast as Number One is a problem, but not the one we’re considering here).  Roddenberry did still include Uhura on the main cast, so the egalitarian message was not entirely killed, but there are still many gender-role problems with Star Trek.  The uniform uniforms from the pilot were changed to be impractically gender-coded; James Kirk goes around seducing/being seduced by anyone of any species as long as they are attractive and identify as a woman; and many episodes are loaded with Unfortunate Implications.  The later series are somewhat better, but even during Voyager the Federation’s society is not actually entirely egalitarian.  So while Star Trek included attempts at defying gender stereotyping, that was limited and significantly stymied.

Majel Barret as Number One, executive officer of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek pilot.

Majel Barret as Number One, executive officer of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek pilot.

Let me make the causality clear here.  It’s not that writers of fiction or their editors, agents, and employers seek to advocate gender stereotyping of people and gender coding of behavior, at least not much of the time.  Sometimes, a writer may want to illustrate the importance an egalitarian society – by either positive egalitarian examples or negative gender-stereotyped ones – and is forced to edit their work for better marketing (see the Star Trek examples).  And often the writers are simply writing something without thinking about the assumptions they are putting into their character design and world-building.  But not intending to enforce harmful stereotypes doesn’t magically erase the problem of their existence.   We need to be aware of the problem and correct for the resulting biases.

Works That Do Address Gender Roles

Some works do tackle the problem of gender stereotyping, and try to set positive egalitarian examples.

When Ridley Scott wrote Alien in the late 1970s, he specifically scripted it such that every character’s part could be done by any actor, regardless of gender.  In doing so, and in direct contrast to the then-recent Star Wars: A New Hope, there was at least the implication of an egalitarian society – although the cast was still dominated by men, the character of Ripley was a very effective disproof of the idea that a movie hero had to be a man.  Somewhat later on, Sarah Connor took many levels in badass during the Terminator movies.  And Joss Whedon deliberately wrote Buffy The Vampire Slayer to have the stereotypical horror-movie victim character be the hero.  But there is a danger with all of these cases, although they may have been well-intentioned: the characters end up being stereotyped as Action Girls rather than simply being compelling heroic characters who happen to be women.  Rachel’s talked about one of the unfortunate consequences of that stereotype.  There are works that avert that as well: consider Chell, from Portal.  That she is a woman is incidental to the plot, and she wears a practical jumpsuit and boots at all times.

15578__04aliens_l

This is Ellen Ripley. Aliens will now die.

Those are examples at the level of individual characters.  At the level of fictional societies, there are also some encouraging examples: the new Battlestar Galactica had an egalitarian military.  For children’s shows and cartoons, there has also been an effort to portray more egalitarian societies.  In Avatar: The Last Airbender, half of the incarnations of the Avatar are women and half are men, and many of the more powerful benders are women – although not 50%, which suggests that there may still be some tokenism.

All of those examples are from film and television.  Let’s talk about one good book example: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.  Bujold likes to play with gender roles in her different fictional societies: Athos has demonized women to the point that none exist on the planet; Cetaganda has rigidly-codified gender roles for much of the population; Beta Colony is egalitarian and very strict about being so; and the main setting of Barrayar goes through a transition from strict patriarchy to a significantly more egalitarian model over the course of the series.  On the more cynical side, Jackson’s Whole is patriarchal because that apparently is good for business.  One other bit about the Vorkosigan Saga: Bujold includes, in a by-the-way fashion, a breakdown of the stereotype of the gender binary – the character of Bel Thorne presents as a woman, a man, or neither or both depending on the situation.  That’s relatively rare in main-stream fiction – although we perhaps should not excuse Bujold for having her non-gender-binary character be a genetically-engineered hermaphrodite.

A Partial Excuse: Bizarre Alien Biology

There is a partial excuse for some works not discussing gender roles: an alien species that doesn’t have gender or has gender in a way that is very different from how it is viewed in most current human societies.  For the Moties in The Mote In God’s Eye, it is more important that they die if they do not get pregnant at regular intervals than that individual moties oscillate in gender identity and biological sex.  In Babylon 5, the pak’ma’ra reproduce by parthenogenesis and so have neither gender nor sex.

But this excuse is only partial, and doesn’t work all the time.  J.R.R. Tolkien only wrote dwarf characters who were men (with one exception), and had dwarf women be only one-third of the population and be indistinguishable from dwarf men in their actions, speech, and appearance.  This doesn’t make that much sense.  It allows for an egalitarian society, but only by suppressing any expression of gender identity.  Terry Pratchett addressed that in Discworld, where much of dwarf courtship consists of delicately inquiring as to your romantic interest’s gender and a sexual revolution is triggered by increased contact with Discworld human society – which is still patriarchal, but does allow expression of gender identity.

And A Meta-Example

You will have noticed that most of the writers I’ve mentioned here are men.  That writers often deliberately or unthinkingly perpetuate harmful stereotypes of male-dominated cultures when most writers are men is perhaps unsurprising.  But that does not excuse the writers who do so.

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  1. 2013/03/15 at 5:19 am

    On another note, the Empire in Star Wars drops its workforce by way more than half. After all, where are all the aliens? Supposedly this is explained by racism…

    Though, realistically, this was probably more a budget issue.

    • michaelbusch
      2013/03/15 at 5:26 am

      I note both racism and speciesism in Star Wars, in addition to sexism. The speciesism is explainable by a lack of budget in the original movie; the racism is far less forgivable.

  1. 2013/04/03 at 4:46 am
  2. 2013/05/08 at 1:27 am

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