UBC F-Word Conference 2011: Women & Science Fiction

Last weekend I presented at my first Academic Conference. I was nervous, but the day went very well, and I’m glad to say that I’m proud of the presentation I gave.

The conference was the second annual F-Word Undergraduate Conference at UBC, put on by the UBC Women & Gender Studies Association. It ran all day on Saturday April 30th, and was a great experience.

The F Word Conference - April 30, 2011 @ UBC

The panel I was a part of was centered around the topic of Feminism and Pop Culture, the presentation topics ranged from gender in The Hunger Games, to women and Horror Films, to Harry Potter Slash Fanfiction, to my presentation on Women and Science Fiction.

We had a full room for our panel, with people even sitting on the floor and standing at the back of the room! And after our presentations we had some excellent questions, though it would have been nice to have more time, I think we had some great discussion from the room.

I thought it would be great to put (a condensed version of) my presentation up on the blog so those of you who would like to read it have the opportunity to do so.

Women and Science Fiction, by Pippa Adams
April 30th, 2011 

I love science fiction. Aliens. Spaceships. Technology that transforms society. All of it. I read the books, I watch the films, I powerdisc through entire television series during my holidays. I even go to conventions.

I also see that the commercials during my favourite sci-fi shows aren’t aimed at me. That my t-shirt buying options are limited to shapeless guys’ tees. That when I walk into a new comic shop for the first time the man behind the counter has trouble looking me in the eye. That the majority of people at the comic conventions are guys.

Science Fiction is often perceived as a part of popular culture that is reserved for men. A boy’s club of sorts. But I choose to disagree, as do many of the friends I share this interest with. Science fiction is a form of storytelling that allows us to go past these stereotypical ways of thinking about gender, and explore our hopes and fears about society in a different way. Science fiction has a lot to offer us, from compelling female characters, to commentary on the way society views and treats women today.

Science fiction as a genre, has a unique ability to explore themes, topics, and problems of today’s society in a way that allows viewers to see issues from a different perspective. By watching a show set in space, or on a different world, it allows us to separate our own assumptions and opinions from the present context, and presents situations in a way that causes people to think more critically that they perhaps normally would about tv.

Scholars such as Sherrie Inness*, Dominique Mainon, and James Ursini** have written on the ways that science fiction can illuminate a lot about our society, specifically when it comes to gender. They point out that a fair amount of contemporary science fiction has become a space for women to be presented outside of traditional gender roles, often taking on the role of a warrior.

It has not always a progressive place though, and is often inescapably indicative of the time it was written in. A product of the culture that produces it.

We can look at Robert Heinlein’s 1961 book, Stranger in a Strange Land which is supposedly one of the most iconic science fiction novels. I was unimpressed at the treatment of his female characters. They were all lower-level employees and hardly distinguishable from the each other, with almost no character development of their own. Despite the presence of dramatically more advanced technology, Heinlein wrote female characters very grounded in a 1950s perception of appropriate behavior for women. (As well as including some dubious exchanges about sex and rape in character dialogue.)

As time progresses though, one can see how the medium progresses, and people began to realize what can be done with it. How you can use it to explore how society can be different, not just technologically, but in other ways as well.

Star Trek: The Original Series famously included Lieutenant Uhura, a black woman, as one of the principal members of the bridge crew. Present in almost every episode between 1966 and 1969 and, she was an integral member of the cast. Looking back, we can see how her roll was limited to somewhat of a space secretary, but in comparison with Heinlein’s female characters, she is a drastic improvement.

Recently Paramount released the original document, written by Gene Roddenberry, pitching the series. In this document we can see that originally Roddenberry had included a Female First Officer, who would be Second in Command to the Captain. This was changed before production, and the character of Mr. Spock was put in her place. Roddenberrry was able to keep a woman on the bridge of the Enterprise in the character of Uhura, though she was still a product of the time in which her character was written, but she went where no woman had gone before, and for that she is extremely important.

While there were many female characters in the subsequent Star Trek television shows and movies, it will be particularly interesting to see where the 2009 reboot of the franchise will take this character. Will today’s Uhura be able to go further than the Uhura of the 1960s? Or will the constraints of a big blockbuster movie format restrict the character to translator and love interest? This question is definitely one I will be looking to see the writers, Bob Orci & Alex Kurtzman answer when the latest film is released in the summer of 2012.

Another sci-fi television show recently rebooted is Battlestar Galactica. Running over four seasons, it’s writers had the opportunity to develop well-rounded characters and explore our fears and hopes about the future in a context much different from one we recognize.

The original Battlestar Galactica was a television series that ran briefly from 1978 to 1979. It was re-imagined with the 2003 miniseries by Ronald Moore, and many of the situations, themes, and plotlines were shaped as a response to the events of September 11. At the beginning of the miniseries, the world is basically destroyed, and what’s left of the human race – 50 000 people scattered throughout a fleet of ships – is left to run from their attackers, and search for a new home. The series says a lot about identity through the next 4 seasons, though to some degree it laid aside questions of gender in order to focus on questions of race.

Moore’s Battlestar Galactica includes many female characters who manage to bend stereotypes and remain strong in their own ways. We are presented with Laura Roslin, who becomes the civilian president, and often clashes with the military leadership. She doesn’t back down, and remains a strong voice for the people throughout the show.

We also have a range of women who are part of the military structure, Kara Thrace, call sign Starbuck, who we first see as a fighter pilot and top gun, later becomes CAG, and is consistently involved in advising the Admiral and other military brass on strategic issues. Starbuck, a hot-headed fighter, is interesting as well because of her character’s history. In the 1978 series, the character of Starbuck was male, but Moore decided to cast a female in the role. This is practically the only thing about her character that changes. She is just as brash, just as boozy, and just as confident as the male Starbuck was in the 1970s.

There are many more examples, Athena who balances motherhood with military prowess, all the while fighting social stigma for being one of the enemy who switched sides during the war; and Number Six who manipulates and outsmarts many of those around her; and many more.

Women throughout the series were generally accepted as an integral and equal part of the society. No one questioned the ability of Starbuck, Boomer, or any of the other women in the military’s ability to fight, they were questioned for other reasons, such as race, or inexperience. Laura Roslin was more criticized for being a teacher than a woman, and her inexperience, not her gender, raised questions as to whether she was fit to lead society or not

Moore raises many questions, but doesn’t provide any clear answers, like most good science fiction, it is up to the audience to decide what they will take away from what is presented to them.

Any time I talk about women and TV, especially science fiction, I have to bring up Joss Whedon. Most people know him from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, another show with a wonderful range of female characters, as well as the short-lived Firefly. He is often discussed as a feminist writer, who  jokes that he writes strong female characters because people still feel that asking him why he does it is a valid question.*** The show I want to talk about today is Dollhouse. Running from 2009 to 2010, Dollhouse was set in modern day LA, but with a twist. A corporation has developed the ability to modify memory to the point of being able to place new personalities into whatever body they want. People, known as Actives, sign a contract for the corporation to have control over their bodies for a period of five years, during which they can be hired out to anyone with enough money. The Actives live in a blank, childlike “doll” state when they are not hired out, never leaving the “Dollhouse”

On the surface, it does not seem like a very feminist-friendly show. Much of the assignments that the Actives are sent out on are what you would assume; expensive and technologically advanced prostitution. But what this show does, and would have had more opportunity to do had it remained on the air longer, is to expose the utter ridiculousness of many parts of our society. The widening gap between those with money and those without, expansive power of corporations, the way women are treated as objects, the dangers of technology without ethical guidelines, what constitutes property, and the power inequalities in our world.

Shows like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Dollhouse force audiences to examine contemporary issues in a context that is different from where we are used to seeing these problems – allowing a wide range of critical thought to occur – all while watching television. Science fiction is a lens through which we can view our anxieties and take a look at our own choices on a daily basis, especially when it comes to issues such as gender, race, and technology – all issues that people have strong feelings about, and see them in a different context.

Science fiction can be political, and powerfully so.

Overall it was a great experience, and I’m glad that my friend (and Mentor) Janni Aragon brought it to my attention. Hopefully I will be attending and presenting at many more academic conferences to come!

Thanks again to the UBC WAGS Undergraduate Association, the organizers, those who attended and Janni Aragon & Kelsey Wrightson for including me in their presentation group!

I’ve written more about women and science fiction on this blog, take a look in the feminism tag, or the political science fiction tag for more posts.

_________

* S. Inness, Tough women in outer space (pp.102-105) in Tough Girls, Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture (1999) UPenn Press.

**D. Mainon and J. Ursini, Where No Man Has Gone Before, in The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women On-Screen (2006) Limelight Editions.

*** See my post from International Women’s Day

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5 Responses to UBC F-Word Conference 2011: Women & Science Fiction

  1. Pippa: You did a fabulous job! Thanks for sharing this, too.

    • Pippa says:

      My blog tried to send your comment to spam! Silly WordPress…

      Thanks again Janni! I’m glad it turned out so well, and that you let me know about the conference!

  2. Janice says:

    This was a great paper – wish I’d been at the conference to hear you present in person. You’ve got some great perspectives and interesting analysis. As a historian and a big Battlestar Galactica fan, I was pleased to read your treatment of the women in that show. I’ll be happy to follow what you do next in your career!

    • Pippa says:

      Thanks for your feedback Janice! I’m glad you liked it. Always good to hear from a fellow Battlestar fan!

  3. Theresa says:

    Wow, I would have loved to have been at this conference. Great presentation and fantastic observations on BSG. I am currently re-watching the series and making my husband watch it with me. Love it, will be sad when it is over again.

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