Saving Science Fiction from Strong Female Characters – Part 1
Anyone reading reviews or discussions of science fiction has no doubt has come across the oddity that most discussions of female characters in science fiction center around whether the female character is strong or not.
As far as recollection serves, not a single discussion touches on whether the female character is feminine or not.
These discussions have an ulterior motive. Either by the deliberate intent of the reviewer, or by the deliberate intention of the mentors, trendsetters, gurus, and thought-police to whom the unwitting reviewer has innocently entrusted the formation of his opinions, the reviewer who discusses the strength of female characters is fighting his solitary duel or small sortie in the limited battlefield of science fiction literature in the large and longstanding campaign of the Culture Wars.
He is on the side, by the way, fighting against culture.
Hence, he fights in favor of barbarism, hence against beauty in art and progress in science, and, hence the intersection of these two topics, which means, against science fiction.
Different reviewers no doubt mean slightly different things when they speak of strength of a female character: but the general meaning is that the strong female character is masculine.
Masculine in general means direct in speech, confident in action, coolheaded in combat, lethal in war, honorable in tourney or melee, cunning in wit, unerring in deduction, glib in speech, and confident and bold in all things.
Hence, a strong masculine character in a story is one who can pilot a jetplane in a thunderstorm while wrestling a Soviet-trained python in the cockpit. He can appease a mob, lead a rebellion, give orders, follow orders, seduce a countess, fight with a longsword, build a campfire, repair a car engine, write a constitution, comfort the grieving (usually with a brisk slap in the face and a curt command to snap out of it), receive confession, sway a jury, suture a wound, and escape from a sinking submarine with a knife clutched in his teeth. In a science fiction story, a strong masculine character can also pilot a starship; in a fantasy story, he can resurrect the dead. See the cover of any lurid Men’s magazine to see a concise summary of the essential characteristics.
Of the classical virtues, fortitude and justice are essential to masculinity, as is magnanimity: a real man neither complains nor says ‘I told you so.’
Much more rarely do reviewers speak of strong female characters as having the virtues particular to women.
Feminine in general means being more delicate in speech, either when delivering a coy insult or when buoying up drooping spirits. Femininity requires not the sudden and angry bravery of war and combat, but the slow and loving and patient bravery of rearing children and dealing with childish menfolk: female fortitude is a tenacity that does not yield even after repeated disappointments and defeats. And, believe you me, dear reader, a woman in love has a very clear-eyed view of the faults and flaws of her man, and if her love is true, she does not yield to despair or give up on him. The female spirit is wise rather than cunning, deep in understanding rather than adroit in deductive logic, gentle and supportive rather than boastful and self-aggrandizing. The strong feminine character is solid in faith in all things.
Hence, a strong feminine character in a story is one who can overcome the prejudice against her family’s humble origins to win the heart of the proud Mr Darcy. She can appease an angry mother-in-law, reconcile a feud, arrange cooperation without seeming to take or give orders and without anyone feeling left out or overruled, lure a Lothario to his destruction, unman a Benedict with her wit, build a family, repair a broken heart, restore loyalty, comfort the grieving (usually with a sympathetic ear and a soft promise of better days ahead), receive confession, sway a jury, suture a wound, and escape from an arranged marriage to find true love. In a science fiction story, a strong feminine character can also halt a planetary war; in a fantasy story, she can resurrect the dead, and then marry him. See the cover of any Woman’s trashy romance novel to see a concise summary of the essential characteristics.
Note that men in fantasy stories tend to revive the dead by going to the underworld like Orpheus or Aragorn, and wrestling Cerberus like Hercules. They get revived like Gandalf the White, by being sent back by angelic higher powers. Women tend to pull Tam Lin off his horse as he is being led to hell. They get revived by love’s first kiss, which is more powerful than angels.
Of classical virtues, temperance and prudence are essential to femininity, especially that temperance of the sexual appetite called chastity, and that prudence not to excite the sexual appetite outside courtship nor to invite flattery, which is called modesty. A real heroine does not manipulate good men by their affections, nor copulate out of wedlock.
This leads us to two immediate and controversial questions. First, is there a difference between masculine and feminine strengths and virtues? Second, should there be a difference?
To speak of masculine and feminine is not the normal way of speaking of things. Modern political correctness requires one to speak incessantly and indefinitely of whatever is the topic without ever naming the topic, because certain words and ideas are taboo, the source of black magic. The theory of black magic is that if a word has a connotation the social engineers do not like, by avoiding the word, thought and psychology can be sculpted or habituated to a more perfect form. It is the theory that calling black skinned men not born in Africa and who may or may not be Americans by the term ‘African American’ rather than by the term ‘Black’ will somehow abolish race hatred. It is the theory that linguistic mannerisms and queer verbal tics can save mankind from our sinful nature, rather than, say, the Enlightenment of Buddha or the Blood of Christ.
Likewise, to speak of the sexes is thoughtcrime. We are to speak only of ‘gender’ which is a word that properly only refers to parts of speech, or, among anthropologists, social roles rather than spiritual and biological realities. Hence there is no word in the vocabulary of Political Correctness to speak of masculine or feminine things. The theory here is that by eliminating verbal reference to reality the offensive reality will softly and suddenly vanish away like a Boojam.
Hence, the Politically Correct theory is, first, that there are no differences between masculine and feminine strengths and virtues, and, second, that even if there were, it would not be pleasing to the amateur social engineers to acknowledge that fact; and indeed, it may be an offense against women to do so, and unwitting treason to the cause of radical egalitarianism.
The theory is borrowed without change from Marxism, except that instead of capitalist Jews being the evil and sadistic oppressors, the husbands and fathers and sons are the evil; and the women are the saintly and utterly innocent victims instead of the proletarians. The theory here is that that every pretense of any difference, however slight or obvious, between the sexes will be used by the ruthless oppressors as a ruthless excuse to exploit the weak and helpless women. Hence the theory of women as weak is built into the very bones of feminism.
By this theory, anyone admiring femininity in women or masculinity in men can be presumed to be motivated by savage and unforgivable yet unadmitted racism, but as if the female sex were another race, not the opposite and complementary sex of the same race. This type of make-believe racism is called ‘sexism’, than which few stupider words exist in the modern lexicon. (One would think ‘sexism’ would be rule by copulation, an inventive form of government yet to be tried.)
As a rule of thumb, it is safe to assume that Political Correctness is not merely false but is as lunatic as a man who hops energetically on his cracking skull, both legs kicking wildly aloft, screaming that his hat is a pogo-stick. The Political Correctoids seem to regard it as all the more admirable the more defiantly their words defy reality. Like the White Queen in Alice, they seem to admire not merely believing lies but believing impossibly false and utterly outrageous lies.
But in this case, we should hasten to admit that the Politically Correct lies, like most good lies, contains a grain of truth to it. Masculine nature tends to be adversarial and domineering where the feminine tends to be yielding and conciliatory. Left to ourselves in a Hobbesian state of fallen nature, sexual alliances between men and women tends to situations of mutual exploitation where the women get the worst of it; without the institution of marriage, the mating dance becomes a sexual melee, and the more callous masculine nature of the sex who cannot get pregnant and hence is less dependent on his mate, has freer latitude to use and abuse the other sex, not to mention being more violent in the passions and more prone to violence considerably.
The institution of polygamy is an attempt devised by men to check the excesses of this free for all by enforcing standards of chastity, but this institution is blatantly unfair to women, rendering them little more than slave chattel.
Monogamous matrimony as practiced in the West, that is, in Christendom, is an attempt devised by heaven to check the excesses of polygamy, by rendering the bride and bridegroom equal in chastity and voluntary in vow. Even so, women were not afforded the equal rights to vote and own property until quite recently, even in the West. Hence, we must admit that there is a real problem of feminine inequality that Political Correctness attempts to solve. We can merely reject with jovial contempt their means of solving it: one does not rectify deeply rooted historic injustices by means of euphemisms and nonsense-words.
Let us therefore at the outset acknowledge that the majority of strengths and virtues are the same in both sexes. It is not more admirable or less to lie or steal or cheat in a man than in a woman. We here are concerned those few areas where the strengths and virtues differ, which are the areas that Political Correctness pretends do not exist.
I propose that women can commit the same vices as men, but they do not commit them in the same way; and likewise practice the same virtues, but not in the same way.
For example, when men in a locker room, or on a battlefield, use the name of the Lord in vain, and no one hears them but their team mates or brothers in arms, the vulgarity may have the positive effect of stirring up emotions ranging from team spirit to desperate anger which aids the will to win. It is the same vice as if a woman swears, but the rough nature of the masculine task mitigates some of the roughness of their tongue. A man who is crude can also inspire fear because he fears neither God nor men.
Contrariwise, when women in the kitchen or the nursery use the name of the Lord in vain, and the children they are nursing and teaching hear them, the vulgarity has the negative effect of deadening the emotions of the youngsters and making them vulgar and indifferent to vulgarity. Youngsters indifferent to vulgarity with very few exceptions cannot have a reverent or respectful attitude toward man or God. This absence of respect infiltrates to every compartment of their lives; they are mean to the poor, callous to women, negligent of duties, contemptuous of authority, and so on. The point of vulgarity is to desecrate the image of man in the eyes of man: filthy language is meant to make us seem like filthy yahoos to each other. It is the same vice as if a man swears, but the delicate nature of maternal and educational tasks, not to mention the greater need for consensus-building in the circle of women, gives this vice a darker and longer-lasting stain when a woman indulges in it.
Also a woman who is crude inspires contempt, because she has contempt for God and man. The difference is that a woman who loses her native delicacy and modesty does not become an object of fear and respect, but an object of contempt and loathing, because the aura of sanctity women naturally inspire in men is tossed away.
For another example, when men complain to their team mates about some petty irksomeness in their job, it shames them by making them look weak-minded and whiny. Women, it must be noted, complain more than men. There is nothing sinister in this: if women did not complain, the thing of which they complain would not be corrected. The feminine way to correct the problem is to get someone else in the group to volunteer out of kindness. It is not duty oriented. The masculine way to correct the problem is to endure it, fix it yourself on your own time, or command an underling to correct it if and only if that falls within the scope of his duty, or demean yourself by asking a superior out of noblesse oblige to fix it for you, whereupon you will owe him. It is not kindness oriented.
Now, it must also be clear that men have free will, and can train themselves either to fulfill their nature or oppose their nature. Merely because we have a natural inclination toward something tells us nothing about whether we ought to heed or avoid that impulse. I have an impulse to be kind to children with big eyes, which I think I should indulge, and I have an impulse to stab my rivals through eye and into the brain pan with my sword cane, which is an impulse I think I should suppress, not the least because my blade is dull and I am past the age when one can face the gallows with dignity. So in looking at the formal causes of masculinity and femininity, I make no remark as yet recommending whether we ought to train our young men and women to adhere to these roles or to oppose them. We can go against nature if there is a greater good to be served. Likewise, we can all learn to walk on our hands rather than learn to walk on our feet. The question there is whether the good outweighs the cost.
The quickest way to examine the good of male and female roles in romance (hence in romances of adventure) is to look at their origins, that is, at the causes which encourage those roles.
Biologically, females can bear children and nurse them. While it is a very popular idea these days that nature only creates physical and biological reality, but leaves psychological, mental and spiritual reality to the arbitrary and absolute power of the individual willpower, this is a popular error. Mind and body are two aspects of the same reality.
It would be wasteful and absurd for nature to give women the sexual organs needed to bear children without giving women the sexual nature of women needed to use those organs properly or raise those children properly. That women would be more concerned with the tasks related to childrearing than men is neither absurd nor unfair, but reasonable and natural.
Like it or not, nature has oriented female thinking to make them generally better at teaching a child how to volunteer to do a task, so that he will naturally and willingly do his tasks once he is grown; whereas men are generally better at commanding and punishing, so that the task gets done whether the child is willing or unwilling.
The female concentrates on the doer; the male on the deed.
Whether or not nature is being cruel and arbitrary with this specialization of roles is a debate for another day.
But the purpose of the specialization is also difficult to deny: children need both a father-figure to mete out justice and fight for the family against the world, winning bread and slaying foes, and need a mother-figure to quench the thirst for mercy and nurture the family within the home. The mindset needed for these tasks is different, hence the approach is different. Men fight and women nurse the wounded, and then tongue-lash any malingering men into going back into the fight. Their role is support rather than front line duty.
This has a second ramification, also difficult to deny: the qualities that attract women to men are influenced by the specialized roles nature intends, and likewise the qualities that attract men to women. Since the roles differ, the qualities differ. Women generally must govern a consensus between family members within the home and between homes in the neighborhood, and arrange the harmony of all the souls involved. By the nature of her task, a bride must be more concerned with the soul and psychology of her bridegroom than he is with hers. Being friendly and kindly is not what she primarily seeks in him, but instead confidence and leadership. His role will require him to protect her during the vulnerable seasons in the marriage, and this requires that mysterious quality called good character.
Men generally must accomplish missions in a team or warband, either to kill the enemy in wartime, or in peacetime to overcome and outperform the competition in the marketplace, which ironically calls for many parallel considerations of diligence, stoicism, courage and discipline. These tasks require a sense of honor and a certain unfortunate touchiness of pride, a sense of teamwork and orientation toward the goal. We men do not care how you feel about your job, just so long as it gets done on time and under budget, and we don’t want to hear any complaint. We don’t want to hear complaint because that betrays a weakness of emotion, a lack of honor, which harms the team spirit and morale. Spiritual and psychological reality is a secondary concern. By the nature of his task, the bridegroom must be more concerned with the bride’s ability to perform the goals of marriage than with her emotional nature or mood. A central goal is child-rearing: this requires a fit physique and a willingness to submit to masculine sexual desire. Another goal is friendship. Hence, a man’s attraction tends to be rather shallow. Nature inclines him to emphasize that she is physically fit, healthy and young, and willing to undergo the travail of childbirth, chaste and friendly and amiable.
Hence during courtship, nature places a paradoxical burden on the maiden. She has to discover, not how her suitor acts during the fun and sunny days of courtship, but how he deals with adversity. Character is that trait which a man displays under distress, during wintery days when things are going wrong.
Character is a hidden trait. Many a young man undertakes foolish risks and stupid dares, leaping from rooftops or riding bikes on railroad trestles, not from any self-destructive impulse, but because of a burning need to discover what his own character is. Is he a coward or not? He cannot know this unless he sees himself under stress, in an emergency. Hence some young men concoct artificial emergencies by taking up dares or doing daring stunts or doing deeds of derring-do.
During courtship, nature inclines the woman to seek out the character of the man. If she were to act in the direct and masculine fashion of satisfying the physical sexual urge with the first potential mate who was no more than physically attractive, that is to say, if she were to dive bomb the target of her lust like a man, she would have no opportunity to test his character. He, in return, winning cheaply what he craves would not and could not prize it, and he will ignore or betray her as soon as his physical appetite is sated, for experience will have told him he can lift another skirt as effortlessly.
But if she lures her candidate in by her amorous coy flirtation, teasing, blowing hot and cold, pretending indifference then surprising him with sudden signs of affection, if, in other words, she torments him with her allure, then she can see whether he has the fortitude and depth of passion needed to continue the rite of passage to the end. Courtship is trial by ordeal.
Naturally, if she can see him doing brave deeds like wrestling that Soviet-trained python in the cockpit of a smoldering jetplane in a thunderstorm aforementioned, this will satisfy her as to his bravery. But it will not tell her if he is true and faithful to her, rather than attracted on a shallow level to her looks, or her wealth or position. She needs to know if he will be true in better or worse, rich or poor, sickness and health, because she does not want to be abandoned if she falls sick and loses her hair or her eyesight or her fortune. The only way to test that hidden trait is to see how he overcomes obstacles interfering in the courtship, including obstacles she herself puts in the way. The reason why girls do not phone up boys for dates is that if the guy is not interested enough in you to pick up the phone, he is not in love enough to wrestle that damned Soviet-trained python for you.
The paradox here is that even if the woman were a mind-reader, even if she were totally honest with her courting candidate, she cannot discover from him what she wants and needs to know, because he does not know it himself. He himself does not know how much in love he is with her, because infatuation camouflages itself as true love every time. He does not know the steadfastness of his own character until it is put to the test.
This is also why the mating dance cannot be reduced to a merely logical contract between two persons negotiating at arm’s length. They are not negotiating for the exchange of goods and services. Indeed, treating sex like a service is the mere opposite of true love, and hence is rejected with disgust wherever it appears by honest men, as gold-digging if not as harlotry, and honest women hate cads and Lotharios. The lovers are not negotiating a contract, which is an exchange of goods, but proposing a covenant, which is the exchange of souls and lives. Each lover gives his whole self, body and soul, to the beloved, and marriage is the sacrament to seal that surrender of self.
A certain degree of ritualized formality has been painstakingly developed over the years to channel and cushion and guide the mating dance and matrimony and so on.
On the man’s side, the courtship does not entail a paradox. His mission is to pursue the girl to whom he is attracted, overcoming her indifference, and perhaps her angry family if she is a Montague or a Shark and he a Capulet or a Jet, and winning her heart with courtesy, sincerity, wit, savoir-faire, and physical or mental muscle or both.
His mission is not to give into despair, and, when she walks out on him, to walk after her.
His mission is not to let his own pride spoil the relationship. Of course, heartbreak is certain here, because the formula requires you men to continue to nosedive at the target even after her ack-ack guns have shot you down. The other part of the masculine formula is to abandon her as a candidate if she is unchaste. If she cannot be trusted with sexual self control before the marriage, there is no reason to suspect that she can be trusted after, when the temptation is all the greater.
Now, if that is the essence of the male-female mating dance, as you can see, nature places a much greater burden on the woman. All he needs to do is be brave and persistent. She needs to be wise and insightful, and make an accurate judgment about his character. She needs to understand his real emotions and motives and moods.
At this point we can return to the main question above and consider how this influences fiction, including science fiction.
A poet portraying the mating dance in fiction by the nature of the art must portray only the essential elements. This is why Romeo and Juliet do not have a long courtship: we have one balcony scene and a secret wedding soon thereafter.
If the essential element of the female side of courtship is discovering the man’s true character, then a book like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, which is concerned with the misjudgment and the correction of misjudgment about a suitor’s character is the central theme, is the quintessential feminine book. Women, if they are feminine women, will be fascinated by a book such as this, as it will allow them in their imagination to play through the steps they themselves, if they are not to live as nuns, will go through, or which they went through as maidens.
Even if they were not at first more interested in love stories and the play of romance than little boys, a little girl should be encouraged by the cold logic of the circumstance in which she finds herself to pay close attention to that one life-decision upon which so much of her happiness and success depends.
Girls who do not like love stories are well advised to learn to like them, because such stories deal with the essential and paramount realities on which much or most of that girl’s happiness in life will hinge.
Likewise, if the basic nature of the male side of courtship is overcoming obstacles between the suitor and the bride, then a book like A PRINCESS OF MARS is the quintessential masculine book. John Carter is so deeply in love with Dejah Thoris that even death cannot hinder him, nor the wide uncrossed interrupt of interplanetary space, and he fights his way past men and monsters and Martians, red and green and yellow and black, all the way from the South Pole to the North Pole in search of her, even though she is promised to another man.
These elements might strike a modern reader as offensive to the equality of women, particularly if the modern reader has been unwary enough to absorb modern ideas without examining them. This objection has always struck me as slightly comical. It is not the equality of the sexes that is at question in a story like A PRINCESS OF MARS. If memory serves, nearly every heroine of the several Barsoom books of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his many imitators is a princess. In other words, in such simple adventure stories the woman usually outranks the man. She is royalty and he is a nobody, a stranger, or an earthman. He is in love not with an equal but with a superior, hence winning her heart is a more difficult victory, hence more satisfying a drama.
Likewise, on the distaff side of the equation, I note that the particular example I selected of an exemplary woman’s romance, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, it is Elizabeth Bennet who is lower in status than the proud and handsome Mr Darcy. Equality is not a part of the mating dance: the drama of such girlish tales comes from the humble girl, the Cinderella, winning the high and aloof prince, and likewise the drama of boyish tale comes from the humble boy winning the heart of the princess.
In that most famous homage to sciffy serial adventure, namely STAR WARS, please notice that it was a princess who needed rescuing. While the space farmboy Luke is low class enough to be a proper suitor when he becomes imbued with magic powers as a psionic Warlock-Samurai, he is no longer low enough in rank to be a satisfying suitor, and the lovable space rogue Solo the Smuggler is selected instead. And Luke is not the brother of the space princess until the third movie, a plot twist needed to eliminate any possible romantic interest.
But perhaps it is not the inequality of rank between space princess and space rogue that concerns us here. The objection is that the space hero does the rescuing, his is the initiative and the action, and he gets to fly the spaceship through the palace wall, whereas the space princess is given no role but to languish in prison, perhaps wearing chains or perhaps wearing a silky harem outfit, and await rescue. The inequality is between the active versus the passive role.
I submit that this is not inequality, no more than Fred leading and Ginger following during a stirring waltz is inequality. It is complementary. Those who object that men should not lead in the dance, whatever they say, are not friends of women; they just want to stop the joy of the dance.
Please consider the nature of the art present even in the humblest pulp story. Stories by their nature are meant to be a culmination and sublimation and example of some idea, preferably a true idea, coming from the human condition.
The human condition for better or worse puts men in the position that the natural strategy for a suitor to pursue to find true love and win the girl is as outlined above: it is analogous to defying a world, sword in hand, and fighting an entire globe for her. It certainly feels that way.
There are no real alternatives to the strategy of persistent defiance of obstacles. The strategy of picking up an attractive stranger of loose morals, or hiring her for a fee for sexual favors, is so repugnant to prudence if not to human nature itself as to induce vomiting. This is what is portrayed as the norm these days, but that fact by itself betrays that we live in abnormally sick days these days.
The strategy of alluring a sexually aggressive woman by coy and amorous teasing and batting the eyelashes, so that she throws the man over her shoulder like a female Tarzan and carries him off to a floral bower for dangerously passionate ravishment makes the man weak and comical, a joke akin to Bugs Bunny wearing a dress.
There is a reason why Superman rescuing Lois Lane remains a charming and beloved center of their myth even after more than half a century, whereas no one remembers or cares to remember any scenes of Wonder Woman rescuing Steve Trevor. The stark fact is that a healthy woman admires and should admire strength in her man, including when such strength sweeps her up in his arms. She should be delighted even if she is offended when Tarzan throws her over his shoulder, or her bridegroom carries her across the threshold. A man should not admire physical strength in women, because this is not a characteristic that differentiates the sexes for him.
The sexes are opposite, and culture should exaggerate the complementary opposition by artifice in order to increase our joy in them, including artifices of dress and speech: when women dress and speak and act like men, some joy is erased from both sexes.
The best image and analogy of this male strategy of courtship in action is pursuit and combat and rescue. The simplest way in a story to have pursuit and combat and rescue is if the girl has been abducted, so that her abductor must be slain and she liberated. The man then is both her servant and her savior: this combination of service and salvation exactly pictures the heart of the lover.
It is extraordinarily rare that a man in real life has chased the abductor of a fair maiden, slain him with a sword, and untied her from the railroad tracks or sawmill log, to win her grateful kiss and hand in marriage. I doubt if it has ever happened in the history of the world that a young damsel met the man she later married when he rescued her from a shipwreck or a housefire. But this image, corny and hackneyed as it is, of rescuing a damsel in distress is the central image of the male strategy of courtship, the central sexual image in all male dreams.
In real life we might outperform a rival for the affections of our true love, but it would be more satisfying to stab him to death with a sword, for the victory in love feels like the victory in a duel. Rarely if ever has the object of our affection been tied to a tree in a clinging white dress to be sacrificed to a dragon, but every bridegroom rescues his bride from the dragon called loneliness. It feels like a rescue. The purpose of a story is to capture such feelings in a concrete image.
This kind of adventure story scenario also allows the story to display the other elements which give the particularly masculine virtues a chance to shine, including airplane crashes, tornadoes, and escapes from dungeons, or, in the case of a fantasy story, grasping with your teeth the vulture who stooped to peck out your eyes while you were being crucified, and breaking its neck with your incisors. Perhaps there are young girls these days who daydream about doing such a feat a strangling a vulture with your teeth, but it would seem unusual.
A woman perhaps will be offended at being portrayed as a prize; but none should be offended at being prized.
A main objection to the damsel in distress scenario is that by the logic of the plot, she does not have much to do, aside from perhaps knifing a too-familiar dungeon guard. If Andromeda by herself slips the chains and strangles the sea monster, there is nothing for Perseus to do, nor has he done anything for which she might reward him with her hand in marriage, for his character has not been put to the test.
I should also hasten to mention that while many people complain about the portrayal of weak heroines in boy’s adventure stories, the complaints are narrower than it might first seem.
Four examples will suffice: Notice that while Dale Arden of FLASH GORDON has nothing to do aside from being captured and forced into a slinky harem outfit and menaced by the lust of Ming the Merciless, Wilma Deering of BUCK ROGERS is a soldier fighting in endless and hopeless resistance against the Air Warlords of the invading Han. While Dorothy Vaneman has nothing to do in SKYLARK OF SPACE aside from being space-napped by that most magnificent of space opera villains, Marc C ‘Blackie’ DuQuesne, the Red Lensman Clarissa MacDougall in GALACTIC PATROL is an officer in the medical corps, fearless in war and in the operating theater (where she must perform a quadruple amputation on her wounded beloved without flinching) and has at least one scene blasting Boskonian space-pirates, crashing a spaceship through the palace walls to rescue a damsel in distress of her own, ironically enough, an Amazon. In other words, weak and fainting female characters do indeed crop up, but they are not as prevalent even in the boy’s adventure fiction as the complaints would lead one to believe.
Another point to be made here is that annoying girly characters who do nothing but scream and need rescuing do exist in science fiction, but that they were more prevalent in the 1960’s, the era of the Playboy Bunny, than in the 1940’s, the era of Rosie the Riveter.
The modern women’s liberation movement got started in the same era when the sexual revolution was imposing on women a demeaning role from which she needed to be liberated, the dumb blonde sex bombshell role of the postwar years. During the 1940’s, the Serial Queen from the Cliffhangers were action heroines, Daughters of Zorro or Jungle Girls more often seen with dirk or sixgun in hand, and sometimes whip, than than she was seen clinging to cliffs, menaced by killer apes or being lowered slowly into the fiery abyss (albeit, of course, she was seen there as well).
A plethora of pictures will help make this point.
My theory is that in the postwar years, the returning servicemen, having survived the hell of war and emerged from the purgatory of the Great Depression, yearned for and created the most pleasant environment imaginable to the human race: the well tended suburb, complete with elm trees, white picket fence, automobiles with tailfins, televisions with rabbit ears, schoolhouses (and shoes) for their children, washing machines, and, in yearning for domestic bliss, asked for an exaggerated form of domestic femininity from their women, complete with high heels, aprons and pearl necklaces. They had certainly earned it; and the women graciously granted their wish, and behaved in a more feminine fashion than their mothers.
The dark side of that grant was that the relaxation and celebration of the fat years of peacetime also encouraged the red light districts of American life to begin to sneak into main-street. It was the era of Marylin Monroe and of Playboy Clubs, where femininity first began to be treated as a soulless commodity.
In those days the feminists, instead of reacting with Puritanical horror against the dehumanizing sexualization of their sisters, saw the pornographers and sex peddlers as allies against domestic life, which the feminists, inexplicably, saw as the greater threat.
The cigarette companies encouraged women to smoke as a sign of liberation with the slogan you’ve come a long way, baby. And the femininsts made a common cause with the Madison Avenue types who thought it was cute to call them babies. Figure that one out.
However, in my own admittedly unscientific review of science fiction, I noticed that the useless female characters whose only role is to look pretty and scream at danger, the Playboy Bunny style girls, date from the 1960’s, in works by Keith Laumer or Robert Heinlein. Female characters who act more like Roman Matrons or Pioneer Wives, dames with dignity but tough as nails, ready to pick up sword or raygun, or stab a salacious dungeon guard with a dirk, mostly date from during and before the war, as in works by Edgar Rice Burroughs, A. Merrit, Jack Williamson or C. L. Moore.
Admittedly there are some, more than a few, heroines in boy’s adventure stories given little or nothing to do. My argument is first that the complaints are exaggerated, and second that introducing masculine traits to female characters does not make them strong, merely unrealistic to the point of dishonesty.
It is wise to be wary of book reviews discussing strength in female characters. The unspoken idea being foisted across on the unsuspecting reader, who might have thought he was reading a book review rather than a political tract, is that to be feminine means to be weak and despicable, hence the only way to be strong and admirable is to be masculine. These reviewers, almost without exception, take for granted that it is an offense to female readers, and perhaps an offense to the grand and glorious revolutionary social cause of feminism, to present to the audience a female character who does not inspire admiration and emulation. They also take for granted that the only people women readers can admire or would emulate is a woman who acts with manly virtue, masculine power, male strength.
In other words, when reviewers urge writers to put strong female characters into their works, they are asking the writers, in effect, to add Amazons, women with stereotypically masculine behavior patterns, values and attitudes. The only difficulty with the idea is that Amazons are as mythical as gynosphinxes.
I return once again to my example of Miss Bennet from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. I defy anyone to dismiss as weak a character who, in the climactic scene where Lady Catherine de Bourgh commands her not to marry Mr Darcy, and Miss Bennett, unmoved and unimpressed despite the high rank and vast influence of the earl’s widow, flatly refuses. If I may quote: “I am resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.”
Is this a weak character? I think not. She handles the confrontation in a fashion exemplary of feminine courage, particularly since, after the marriage, Elizabeth’s firmness of character allows harmony to be restored within the group, and the conflict reconciled, once Lady Catherine is one of her in-laws.
Strong men do not want reconciliation but victory. An action hero in that situation would have simply stabbed the fussy matron with a snickersnee, eloped with his fiancee, and fled to the coast to sign on with privateers, with her disguised as the cabin boy. Then he would have wrestled a sea-serpent.
Femininity is not weakness. In many ways, perhaps in most ways, female strength is greater than male strength, since our strength is based on a fragile sort of selfish pride that comes from triumphs, whereas feminine strength is based on selfless faith, in her beloved man or her beloved God, which the defeats and the adversity of the world merely strengthens all the more. Male strength is like a fire among Autumn leaves, which burns brightly but quickly, then is gone. Female strength is like a sacred fire among coals, which comes again to life when it seems to be out.
Is there a danger that the repeated urging to introduce female characters that manifest masculine rather than feminine virtues will damage science fiction? Ah, but that is a question for my next essay. Space does not permit I answer here.