Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Sci-Fi Sexism

I just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano. It was his first published novel with a printing date of 1952. The premise of the book revolves around the mechanization of labor with a future that is primarily run by machines and has engineers and managers at the peak of societal influence and importance.

The book itself was an interesting read, not necessarily the best book I'd ever read, but compelling enough for me to finish it.

That being said, sometimes the sexism in early science fiction is so glaring that it makes it hard for me to enjoy it. It's intriguing to notice that men who attempted to envision the future with insights about scientific advancements, and the political consequences, were usually quite dull-witted as far as imagining a future in which women had anything essential to contribute to the world.

The women in Player Piano are merely props for the men of the story. They are flat characters.

Anita, the wife of Paul Proteus, the protagonist of the story, doesn't work and spends all of her time nagging Paul. Paul values her only because she is a "sexual genius".

Paul's secretary, Katharine, does nothing more than mope over her relationship with another engineer. She does nothing productive and only answers the phone.

My bone of contention isn't that Vonnegut doesn't have more female characters, it's that the female characters he has drawn are so stereo-typically caricatured that they might as well not exist. It isn't even that they are stereo-typically feminine as much as they are a particular 50's-style stereotype...of the woman in the apron making pot roast and planning dinner parties, and laying out her husband's clothes for the next day after she's brought him a cocktail.

After just a couple of chapters of this nonsense I recalled reading The Voyage of the Space Beagle, an early space opera written at about the same time as Player Piano. The story followed a spaceship exploring the galaxy as it encountered various alien species which usually were malevolent. The crew fights off each species in different ways, led by Dr. Elliot Grosvenor. At one point in the story, the author explains that there are no women on board because it is a scientific expedition and women would just be a sexual distraction.

Because everybody knows that women couldn't be scientists, or spaceship engineers, or explorers. Women are really only good for one thing--to be sexual partners for men.

Huxley's, Brave New World, has female characters which are a bit more fleshed out, but even the male characters, while discussing one of the female characters, go on about how sexually pneumatic she is.

It occurred to me that Tolstoy was more respectful of women in Anna Karenina, written between 1873-1877, than these men in the twentieth century were. While most of Tolstoy's female characters inhabited the typically feminine spheres of home and children, they were never trivialized. Their thoughts and feelings were as valid and truthful as the the thoughts and feelings of their male counterparts. He respected women as people, capable as any man of true emotion, understanding, and sentiment.

Perhaps the type of men that wrote early sci-fi were the type of men who were so interested in machines and science, that they had little time to ponder the complexity of human relationships and women. Maybe they were the early predecessors of the nerdy sci-fi geeks who spend all their time researching the Klingon language and attending Comic-Con.

Whatever the reason for their lack of insight into social advances, it's always a disappointment to read such unvarnished drivel in a genre I enjoy.


DH said...

Ah, so creating flat, lifeless caricatures of "nerdy sci-fi geeks" is okay, but creating them of women isn't? ;o)

terri said...

of course! ;-)

Just be grateful that I rescued you from a life of meaningless Comic-Con conventions and taught you the full complexity of a woman's personality!


Assistant Village Idiot said...

DH's point is well-taken. Heh. It is true, however, that science crowds, sci-fact and sci-fi were even more male dominated then than now. More Aspergerish guys, also. To describe men they had at least some data; women, not so much. It is significant perhaps that no one especially noticed sci-fi sexism until much later than in other genre literatures. Probable explanation: no critical mass of female readers. Even now, turn the corner suddenly and snap a picture at the bookstore of who is in the sci-fi section, and what do you think you will find?

In at least one 20thC instance, however, creating sympathetic, poignant, and complex female characters seems unrelated to actually understanding any live females. Sir James Barrie had strained and distant relationships with the women in his life. Yet in "Peter Pan," Wendy is a fuller, more developed character, for all the stereotypicality of her being the mother and being rescued. People don't read Barrie's other plays now (they should), but the female characters in The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, Quality Street, Dear Brutus, What Every Woman Knows, and The Twelve-Pound Look, are more complex than other female characters of the time.

Compare his illustrious male friends - AA Milne, GK Chesterton, PG Wodehouse, HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw, all of whom had warmer relationships with women but did not depict them especially well.

Favorite soapbox of mine. Barrie is neglected today.

Retriever said...

I think AVI's point about the Asperger-ish guys is a good one. Both those who wrote and those who read sci-fi back then were often highly intelligent and (at least initially) socially awkward. Not quite as bad as John Nash in the movie "A Beautiful Mind" (a high functioning schizophrenic often acts remarkably like an Aspie). But being intelligent usually isolates one in a typical American high school (think hunky football playing gods and cheerleading handmaidens who rule the social scene).

Also, I think much of the flat writing about or absence of speculation about women reflects not just sexism but may also be the general absence of a theory of mind. Even the male characters are seen in terms of machines, theories, actions, as set piece characters.

There is more to it than meets the eye, tho, and I base this on observing my own Asperger's kid's evolving interest in the opposite sex. Extreme prudery and chivalry plus shyness and awareness of being different and awkward, a measure of romantic hopelessness because our community is filled with the progeny of gorgeous trophy brides and super salesmen and it's hard to compete. But the interest is there, and when he is analyzing some behavior of a relative or talking at dinner about an argument someone else in the family has had, he is quick to figure out the motives, accuse Mama of sexism or lecture another family member on stereotyping. The point is, a person may appear initially sexist, or not to see women as people, but it is often shyness or social insecurity.

Of course, my kid is better at writing than science, and living in a family of poets, writers and public speakers, he has grown up hearing plots and characterization analyzed and shredded all day, every day. In his stories (which are fantasy adventure, heroes on quests, demons, swords, etc.) his female characters tend to be pneumatic but are actually far more complicated and interesting than the typical rugged silent noble warrior heroes. He has a female demon wife who snarks at her spouse with hilarious jabs who is so evil one is enchanted by her. I say suspiciously "You aren't modelling this on Dad and I are you??"

I should say that I don't like "old" sci-fi and my geekish spouse loved it growing up and still analyzes elements from it ripped off/reworked by modern sci fi movies.

Our family mostly enjoys watching modern sci fi. I like Vala (name?) on the StarGate series, and the female AirForce officer, and I love that foulmouthed feisty young female soldier on Battlestar Galactica, and Ivanova on Babylon 5. There are others, but it's interesting how nowadays the cool female heroines are usually presented as sexy and smart but complicated ie: their romantic lives never working out. Timing is wrong. Or they threaten the guy. Or they carry a torch for some impossible old flame or whatever. But they are usually funny and resourceful.

Frank Herbert got VERY strange int he later DUne books, but I still adore the female characters in the first Dune. They are FAR more interesting than the male ones...well, maybe not...Sting as Feyd Ratha is amazing.

Sorry to ramble on, but a fave topic in our geeky house...

terri said...


I have never read any Barrie or Wodehouse...another area of literature that I'll have to get to!

I wonder if there is a sort of paradox about people who really understand the inner workings of other people....such that the ones who are most intuitive are also the ones who are most socially awkward or distant.


He has a female demon wife who snarks at her spouse with hilarious jabs who is so evil one is enchanted by her. I say suspiciously "You aren't modelling this on Dad and I are you??"

That's hilarious! You must publish this story on your blog!

Does your son blog or want to attempt to share his stories with others?

Vala(Claudia Black) is great. Before she was on Stargate she had a prominent role in Farscape....a sci-fi sereies that was shown on the Sci-Fi channel for 3 or 4 seasons. Farscape was great although sometimes a little over the top and iiblatantly sexual...stlll Claudia Black did a great job in that role also.

And Starbuck was also awesome in Battlesatr Galactica. I hated to see that one come to end...such intriguing story lines.

Modern Sci-fi has done a much better job at having strong females.

I think it's interesting though that there is this fetish with female warrior types that can be found in Sci-Fi/Comics/Fantasy/Video Games.....the hot chick who can kick serious a$$ all in a tight bodysuit and high heels!

I've wondered many times about what that represents psychologically in these mostly male writers' minds.

DH said...

All this talk of strong female sci-fi characters, I can't believe no one mentioned 7 of 9 and Dr. Janeway. :o)

Skeptical said...

"Anita, the wife of Paul Proteus, the protagonist of the story, doesn't work and spends all of her time nagging Paul. Paul values her only because she is a "sexual genius".

Paul's secretary, Katharine, does nothing more than mope over her relationship with another engineer. She does nothing productive and only answers the phone. "

Do you think she doesn't work because Vonnegut is sexist or because in the society he created for the novel few women worked, and of the wealthy-born women Anita was one of the only ones to not have a college degree? I side with the later.

Also, is it wrong for a married man to enjoy his wife's sexual prowess? Would it be sexist if an unhappy woman said she valued her husband only because he was a sexual genius?
If that's one of the only things Paul, who was clearly discontented with his life and marriage at the point when this was mentioned, found to be enjoyable, I feel as though you have to call it how you see it.

It seems to me that Vonnegut was simply being consistent. Women in the novel are characterized how a man (the novel narrated with Paul's bias), in that society would characterize them.

Of course Katherine only answers the phone. That's one of the common jobs in that society for women.

I've heard it said many times that this novel is ripe with misogyny. I think people are reading a little too into it. If it was sexist, than would Shepard and Kroner also be portrayed as sheep? It seems to me that the dichotomy is not between genders, but rather between those who question and those who follow. Of course, then, would both the women and men who are followers be portrayed as dull and hollow.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the reflexive sexism in both of these novels was an active response (conscious or not on part of the authors) to women who suddenly were an increased part of the work force during World War II. Vonnegut writes at a time when women were asked to return to the home, even if they had had a taste of something different. Knowingly or not he reinforces the cultural message that they will be happy if they withdraw from "men's" work.