Subtle Strength: Female Characterization by Women in Literature of the Future
Ursula K. Le Guin describes science fiction as thus, “Science fiction is not prescriptive; it is descriptive.” With this definition in mind, it is interesting then to look at the depictions of women in science and speculative fiction, and how those depictions defer between male and female authors. Much of the early science fiction was a proverbial “boy’s club”, and to a certain extent it has remained that way, but around the 1970’s women started their own club. Writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Margaret Atwood paved the way for women like Deborah Harkness, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and Naomi Alderman. These women have broken, and continue to break stereotypes through their stories by portraying issues of gender and sexuality as they pertain to women, not merely of women. However, when we take Le Guin’s definition into account, that science fiction is descriptive not prescriptive, does that then paint these depictions in a different light? Are female characters written by women more relatable and empowering than those written by men, and is that because of a deeper understanding? Is that empowerment making a socio-political statement, or simply a response to the lack of strong women in science fiction? In my essay I will explore the idea that in speculative fiction, women written by women are much more empowering to a female audience than those written by men.
In most of my readings I’ve found that female authors don’t envision their heroines as paragons of virtue, or perfect warriors, instead they write naturally strong women and put them in scenarios that allow that to flourish. This is especially true of Octavia Butler and her lead character, Lauren, in Parable of the Sower. In the dystopian world of Parable we follow Lauren’s evolution from girl to woman, which is brought about by the violent attack on her home, and her subsequent rise to leader of a group of survivors, whom she leads to the site of their future utopian home. The novel is written in the form of Lauren’s diary, which provides the reader with insight into her personal thoughts and feelings. She shows an admirable level of self assurance, even in her relationship with the much older Bankole. When he asks her to come with him to his land and questions his role in her Earthseed plans Lauren responds by telling him, “I need you to take me the way I am or go off to your land by yourself” (Butler 276). While we may not identify with her situation, or obsession over her Earthseed religion, it’s easy to identify with the emotions and doubt with which Butler infuses the character, which is what makes her so compelling and relatable.
This isn’t the only story of Butler’s to give its audience a relatable, strong female protagonist, in fact it is something of a hallmark in her work. In Speech Sounds the main character Rye lives in a world where a mysterious disease has virtually eradicated speech and reading. Some still have one of these, Rye being one, but they hide it from the rest of the world and instead communicate using a rudimentary sign language. Butler writes Rye as a survivor, but also as a woman who is sensible and certain of her sexuality. Despite being attracted to Obsidian, and not having been touched in three years, Rye is able to separate her own desire from pragmatic thinking about the world she lives in. She knows it is a foolish decision to risk becoming pregnant and having a child in the dystopian world she lives, as she says, “What were a few moments of pleasure measured against a lifetime of consequences?” (Butler 101). This is a powerful image to give to a reader, and one that is not likely to be seen in a work by a male author, who tend towards the “babes swoon and die” (Syllabus, 2017) attitude towards their heroes. Rye doesn’t consent to have sex with Obsidian until he produces a method of birth control, which makes a seemingly small moment in the story become a woman exerting her own will and sexuality.
Reclaiming and asserting their own sexuality and bodies is a common theme in science fiction written by women, and provides an opportunity to contrast the male and female author perspective. The character of June in Stone Lives by Paul Di Filippo is a fairly one dimensional and forgettable character. Her purpose in the story is to provide Stone with a guide and lover for his induction into the world outside the Bungle. When he learns of her death he says, “All the lilies wither when winter draws near” (Di Filippo 201). This metaphor comparing June, or his relationship with June, to a flower implies that even if she hadn’t killed herself, he viewed their time together as having an expiration date. After all, flowers are delicate and don’t last forever. Contrast this portrayal of disposable female sexuality with that of June in A Handmaid’s Tale. The 2017 Hulu tv series based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, depicts a dystopian world where women are used as reproductive slaves to have children for those in charge, with no rights to their own bodies or children. The “ceremony” of conception is horrific, and is basically a ceremonialized rape, with the handmaid laid between the high ranking official and their wife. In this world where women’s sexuality and autonomy is taken from them, June finds a way to reclaim hers by seducing Nick, the driver of the family she “belongs” to. This subtle rebellion of refusing to break, and wanting to feel something that belongs to her is what makes Atwood’s June such a strong and sympathetic character.
Rebellion against oppression and reclaiming power previously subdued is another consistent theme used by female authors in establishing an emotional connection with the reader through their characters. Naomi Alderman’s The Power is a allegorical tour de force about the power of women. In the novel, girls start manifesting an ability to generate and control electric currents, and are able to “awaken” the ability in older women. While at first the women of the world try and hide their power, those who display it openly are suppressed and shamed, they soon realize if they embrace the power and band together they will be unstoppable; which is a powerfully empowering thing to read. The women in Saudi Arabia rise up in a riot against male oppression that has gone on for centuries by first exploding cars. Noor, the character we meet there says, “They do not let us drive a car here, but watch what we can do.” (Alderman 64). Alderman also uses biblical style language such as, “She sendeth her lightning even unto the ends of the earth” (Alderman 27), particularly when a character first uses their power, to instill a feeling of the sublime, and hints at a creation/apocalypse narrative of the future. Written by a woman, these scenes are empowering and inspirational, particularly as the majority of the women only want to celebrate their own power, not hurt others. This is seen during the riot when the group of women rescue another being abused by a man but, “They did not even bother to hurt him” (Alderman 65). Had a similar story been written by a male author, I feel the uprising would have been a lot more bloody, with a lot of collateral damage, as seen at the end of Stone Lives. Instead Alderman wrote women who celebrated their power, and not at the expense of others, which perhaps serves as an allegory for the untapped influential power of women in society.
While The Power is a fantastic novel of female revolution and power, female writers usually tend take a much more subtle approach to strength than male writers. In Drapes and Folds, a short story by Audrey Ferber, the world is much changed from what we know it, and the character Pearl struggles to adapt to changing times. Various things such as the “Chicken Years”, “Bracies”, and “NewOnes” are mentioned by Pearl, of which the reader has no idea, but one thing used by Ferber creates a strong emotional attachment to this character and her struggles; the “Woman’s Epidemic” (Ferber 126). This was an epidemic that caused most women to lose at least one breast to cancer. In response, the survivors developed a gesture of solidarity to make to one another, “Women developed the shoulder hike greeting during the Epidemic to emphasize our chests and our unity” (Ferber 126). By including something terrible and recognizable like breast cancer, Ferber immediately lends her character an air of strength and relateability that makes her later distress over having to give up her precious cloth all the more affecting. This woman is a survivor, and that is something I believe would be difficult for a male writer to convey on the emotional level needed.
Female written characters like Pearl, Rye, Lauren, and Noor are memorable because they touch something in the reader that makes them connect to the character. In the futuristic worlds and scenarios, the authors find relatable qualities in their science fiction heroines that makes the story seem much more grounded. It is this common ground that makes them so empowering. In her article, The Persistence of Hope in Dystopian Science Fiction, Raffaella Baccolini writes that “Women’s science fiction novels have contributed to the exploration and subsequent breakdown of certainties and universalist assumptions - those damaging stereotypes - about gendered identities by addressing, in a dialectical engagement with tradition, themes such as the representation of women and their bodies, reproduction and sexuality, and language and its relation to identity.” (Baccolini 2004). The characters, however futuristic or unrecognizable their world, inspire an emotional connection of unity with the reader without being sentimental. They speak to the underlying feelings of the now, and the desires and hopes we harbor for the future. In that way I would have to disagree with the great Ursula Le Guin’s definition, as I find these female characters both descriptive AND prescriptive. Hopefully we don’t all start shooting lightning from our fingers though.
Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. Grand Central Publishing, 2000.
White, Craig. Comment on “Literature of the Future Course Syllabus Page”, 2017.
Butler, Octavia. “Speech Sounds.” Virtually Now, edited by Jeanne Schinto, Persea Books, 1996, pp. 91-108.
Di Filippo, Paul. Stone Lives. Handout.
Moss, Elisabeth, performer. The Handmaid’s Tale. MGM Television and Hulu Originals, 2017-present.
Alderman, Naomi. The Power. Little, Brown and Co., 2016
Ferber, Audrey. “Drapes and Folds.” Virtually Now, edited by Jeanne Schinto, Persea Books, 1996, pp. 126-139.
Baccolini, Raffaella. “The Persistence of Hope in Dystopian Science Fiction.” PMLA, vol. 119, no. 3, 2004, pp. 518-521. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25486067.