What my science fiction heroines taught me about being a feminist
The catalyst for some obsessions is easy to pinpoint. Mine, for instance, began with week nights on the couch with my parents, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. I latched on to the adventure inherent in science fiction, the mysteries to be solved, the phenomenons waiting to be discovered. And in the world of sci-fi, I came to quickly understand, women often had greater opportunities and richer lives than they did in the real world. In science fiction, they could be doctors and scientists, or they could be superheroes tasked with saving humanity; there were no limitations based upon gender. The evidence is overwhelming: Beverly Crusher (in Star Trek) is the chief medical officer on board the Enterprise; Ellen Ripley (in Alien) blow torches aliens without taking on the arm candy or sidekick role; Sarah Connor (of Terminator fame) thinks being a mother just means taking care of a child, but in her case it means protecting the entire planet.
If these fictional characters weren’t restricted because of their gender, I wanted the same for myself. I wanted all my contradictions to make sense. I wanted to be boy-crazy, and geeky, and fashionable, and a bookworm all at once. My sci-fi heroines told me that was possible, that they’re part of the complexity of human life, a complexity that women have just as much right to as men.
In the realm of sci-fi, “strong” could highlight your ability to beat up some guy, but it could also point to your emotional resilience, the ability to work hard, make sacrifices, or live your life the way you choose. Take Dana Scully, one (equal) part of the FBI’s X-Files team. In a high-pressure situation, she’s chasing down bad guys with her gun drawn, but she’s also trying to balance her passion for her work with her desire to have a family. Her dedication to solving weird crimes was inspiring; she doesn’t kickass at her job to impress Mulder, she kicks at her job because she loves what she does. What she cares about matters just because she cares about it. And as for all that sexual tension between her and Mulder? Yes, the attraction is clear. No, their potential romance doesn’t have to define her character.
I didn’t want a life where the parameters of my personality were based solely on the men in my life. And yet in almost all the other movies and shows I watched, girls revolved around the male protagonists like moons, never taking up too much space on screen, unless it was to quench the male gaze or to supplement the male lead’s story lines. It should go without saying that these female characters lacked any inner life that didn’t involve their male co-stars. I longed for the freedom Buffy (the vampire slayer) had to express herself. From her, I learned that being physically strong doesn’t exclude identifying as feminine. There’s still space to be tough and vulnerable. I didn’t have to choose.
Sci-fi has a reputation for being escapist fantasy, and it is. In many ways, women have to escape real life to imagine spaces where we are welcome to express the full of range of our selves — sci-fi allows for that. Still, I had to find a way to apply what I learned from my sci-fi heroines to my daily life. Really, it’s a simple formula: At the FBI, Dana Scully is a skeptical thinker, who uses logic and reason to challenge fraud and conspiracies; I challenge norms that try to box me into being one type of woman. While on the run from a murderous android, Sarah Connor must also protect her child; I now think of motherhood as the beginning of new adventure in my life, not the end of my career or my relevance in society. I learned from these women.
The kind of woman who I want to be takes cues from women who exhibit bravery, determination, a passion for their jobs and commitment to empowering and advocating for other women. Drawing from the fictional sci-fi cannon only means that I can see the spaces that women have yet to occupy, their full potential — which we have always known we have but are so rarely given the opportunity to express — at work in worlds that may seem outlandish or fantastic on the surface, but at their core reflect the bare truth of our experiences. Scully works hard to be the best in her field, Buffy wants to feel normal for once, and Ripley is just trying to survive.
My obsession with sci-fi is rooted in the desire to see something of myself reflected in art. I want to know that my experiences, with work and relationships and love and family, aren’t getting sidelined in favor of more easily digestible stereotypes. In sci-fi, I find recognition, a slight nod in my direction that denotes understanding. An acknowledgement that says, “We see you. You are worthy of an audience. You are not alone.”