Women In Fantasy and Science Fiction – Why are women treated so differently than men?
Updated April 2018—Over the last couple of weeks, I read several articles about gender disparity in SF/F. It all started with the article “I Hate Strong Female Characters” by Sophia McDougall published in The Statesmen.
Pretty soon, I had also come across articles like “Sleeps With Monsters: Reading, Writing, Radicalisation” a two part article from blogger Liz Burke over at Tor.com and then “Gender Bias in SF/F Round Table” a two part article from blogger Matt Gilliard at 52Reviews.com
All three of these bloggers had a lot to say about gender disparity in science fiction and fantasy. The general gist of these articles is that there is a significant disparity in how men and women are portrayed in speculative fiction. Women tend to be pigeonholed into one of two categories. They are portrayed as either a superhuman, scantily clad “bad ass female” or the ubiquitous “damsel in distress” who drags the hero down at every turn or worse – the “damsel in distress” is someone the hero or villain callously beds then discards or unceremoniously kills. What can I say? Being a female in traditional fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction in general is a tough, thankless gig.
As a general rule, all too often, this is true. I did a Google search for “damsel in distress” in 2013 and it returned roughly 2.6 million search results. I decided to update this post since some of my examples—and evidently the numbers—are dated. Interestingly, when I did this same search in 2018, the Google search only returned 456K results for damsel in distress. What happened to 2 million entries for damsel in distress? Bing currently returns 4.2 millions search results for damsel in distress. This discrepancy is surprising and I’m not sure what is happening with this dramatic decline in Google search results or the differences between Google and Bing search results.
By the way, is there even a male equivalent of the damsel in distress?
The search for “bad ass women” returned about 34 million search results 2013 (Google) but in 2018? Google returned 2.5 million results while Bing returned 19.6 million results.
For “dudes in distress” Google returned 2.3 million searches and Bing returned 20.4 million searches. I guess there is a male version of the damsel in distress though I, personally, haven’t seen it or read it. For “Bad ass male? Googe returned 1.9 million results while Bing returned 44 million results. Um… Did Google lose a couple of servers or something?
As I’m writing this, I’m wondering about male stereotypes in speculative fiction. Are there as many stereotypes for men in fantasy as there are for women in fantasy and science fiction? and if men find these stereotypes offensive. Sounds like fodder for another blog post.
Not Just Women in Fantasy and Science Fiction
To be completely honest, I don’t watch much television. But one thing I’ve noticed in the programming or movies that I have watched is that there’s been quite a number of females either killed off or exiled to somewhere off-screen and this pisses me off. I don’t know why NCIS sent Ziva David back to Israel and then killed her off but I’m not happy about it.
Then, the now canceled show, Person of Interest, kills off the character of Detective Joss Carter. Why? Why was this necessary? I read the interview with Jonah Nolan and I still want to know, why kill off this character? There was any number of male characters the writers could have killed off. But who do they kill? The brilliant Taraji P. Henson’s character, Joss Carter. At least after seasons of being the pseudo damsel in distress slash competent cop who is frequently rescued by John Caviezel’s character John Reese, they let her have a few scenes as a bad ass—before killing her off. The gender stereotypes of women in fantasy and science fiction, even of women across all media forms and genres—is something that needs to change.
Which brings us back full circle to the articles I mentioned above. Check them out, the articles are definitely worth the read.
I’ve made a promise to myself to look at the authors on my bookshelves, both real and virtual, to see how many are male and female. I think I will see a discrepancy of considerably more men than women. But, before you start to think I’ve gone all radical feminist on you, I think this discrepancy is genre dependent. After all, if I was reading romance or cozy mystery, the authorship would be skewed the other direction. And, because I don’t know, I’m going to have to do some research. See that image over hereon the left? This will be me over the next several weeks and I look into women authors in Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror as well as female characters in genre fiction. Surely there are more female speculative fiction authors than Margaret Atwood, Ursual LeGuin, and J. K. Rowling.
While I’m obviously not done with this topic of women in fantasy and science fiction, I do want to say that writing a good female character in speculative fiction doesn’t mean she has to be a damsel in distress, one of the boys, or the biggest, most scantily clad bad ass on the planet. A female character just has to be real and honestly, that’s not so hard to do.