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The Default She: Power Inversion in Feminist Science Fiction


This is a public talk I gave at Litteraturhuset in Trondheim in connection with the Starmus Festival, on the 20th of June.

Science fiction, to some extent, is about the future and the far away, but the future and how we think about the future and the far away is generally informed by the here and now. And how we think about the future and the far away can also impact how we are able to think about the here and now. That is the basic premise of this talk.

In 1905, in what would later become Bangladesh, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein, often called Begum Rokeya, wrote “Sultana’s Dream”, where the narrator is transported to a land where humanity controls the elements. Water is gathered directly from the sky, so there are no floods or storms, but plenty of water should you want it. The sun’s heat is stored and used for all your energy needs, so there is no smoke or pollution. All travel is done by walking through streets filled with flowers rather than paving stones, or by riding in flying cars which fly by having large hydrogen balls attached to either end of it.

Oh, and all the men have been locked up in men-only spaces inside each house – while women rule the land.

The narrator, much like Begum Rokeya herself, has grown up in the seclusion of the women’s space, the zenana, which means that she does not leave the house uncovered or unchaperoned. Because of this she is shy when she is transported into the streets of Ladyland uncovered; and the inhabitants of Ladyland, which is the name of the place, laugh at her because she is so mannish – meaning shy and timid like a man.

When Begum Rokeya creates a world where women live and work in public while men are secluded at home, she repeats and maintains the power structures of her own society, but she reverses the positions. The genders are still separate, with one locked away, the other out in public; but men and women switch places. And the basis for this reversal is an extension of the logic used to justify the existing inequality:
'But dear Sultana, how unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men.'
'Why? It is not safe for us to come out of the zenana, as we are naturally weak.'
'Yes, it is not safe so long as there are men about the streets, nor is it so when a wild animal enters a marketplace.'
...'Suppose, some lunatics escape from the asylum and begin to do all sorts of mischief to men, horses and other creatures; in that case what will your countrymen do?'
'They will try to capture them and put them back into their asylum.'
'Thank you! And you do not think it wise to keep sane people inside an asylum and let loose the insane?'
'Of course not!' said I laughing lightly.
'As a matter of fact, in your country this very thing is done! Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana!'
The familiar logic which states that women must keep themselves safe and separate for their own sakes – and let us not pretend this is restricted to early 20th century Bangladesh: you find plenty of people willing to claim that women should not go alone, should not drink, should not do all the things men do, because they are then inviting danger – this logic which states that women are weak and men are wicked creatures who cannot control themselves, is not explicitly questioned. In fact, it is restated again and again. But, says the wise companion of the narrator, the logical conclusion, then isn’t to lock up the women.

I won’t go into the details of how the situation is arrived at or its many implications (read the story), but crime drops, flowers bloom, and everyone lives happily ever after. Including most men, who adapt to their situation, much as women have.

It is not a terribly subtle story, but it is effective: In a society which considers it natural to accord men full human status and range of activities, placing them in the position of the other, the restricted world of women, highlights these restrictions and makes what had seemed natural appear unnatural. Begum Rokeya is not the first and certainly not the last to use science fiction to imagine how things might be different. The “what if”, that is at the heart of science fiction, has powerful political potential.

There is a tendency to think of science fiction as a male, white, straight genre, probably in part because our culture associates science and rationality and adventure with men, and that is the core you might say of what most think of as science fiction, but women have written science fiction from the beginning.

Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, wrote The Blazing World in 1666, one of many candidates for the first science fiction story. She wrote it to accompany a treatise on natural philosophy (or science), and it contains microscopes and a submarine among other wonders. But it also portrays women who are capable (shockingly) of rational thought, in response to the debate at the time about whether education could have any effect on the female mind. Another plausible candidate for first science fiction story is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), of course, whose monster is sometimes read as a commentary on women’s position in society – a sort of defective man, inferior and not fully human, denied education and equal company, but fully capable of full feeling and intellect if given a chance. There is also Mary E. Bradley Lane, the author of Mizora (1881), who we know next to nothing about except what might possibly be her name, as she apparently did not want her husband to find out she was dreaming up a utopian society where all men have been eliminated, people talk on videophones and use washing machines, make rain whenever they want, and consider a narrow waist a deformity. And of course, there is Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose Herland (1915) also describes a utopian society where men have been removed altogether. This tendency to just get rid of the men is quite interesting, because it suggests a difficulty in imagining a world where men exist and women can still have access to the full human range of activity: Women can only be doctors if all the men are dead.

These are not just women who wrote early science fiction, but women who used the genre in part to think about being a woman in a particular time and place. And with these women as a base, and as the genre comes into its own, later writers can get properly to grips with how to think about gender and power. And that is what I want to spend the rest of this time talking about.

In The Female Man (1975), Joanna Russ presents four women with the same genotype (the same biological starting point) who have grown up in very different worlds. Joanna, a radical feminist, much like the author, has grown up in ours; Jeanette has grown up in a world like ours where the depression never ended and gender roles are still very restrictive; Jael comes from a world where the war of the sexes has escalated to deadly force; and Janet comes from Whileaway, a female-only utopia in the old style, though with a somewhat more explicit enthusiasm for lesbian sex than what you find in Gilman.

In an extended parenthesis, Joanna inspired by Janet says that
Man, one assumes, is the proper study of Mankind. Years ago we were all cave Men. Then there is Java Man and the future of Man and the values of western Man and existential Man and economic Man and Freudian Man and the Man in the moon and modern Man and eighteenth-century Man and too many Mans to count or look at or believe. There is Mankind. ... If we are all Mankind, it follows to my interested and righteous and right now very bright and beady little eyes, that I too am a Man and not a Woman, for honestly now, whoever heard of Java Woman and existential Woman and the values of Western Woman and scientific Woman and alienated nineteenth-century Woman and all the rest of that dingy and antiquated rag-bag? All the rags in it are White, anyway. I think I am a Man; I think you had better call me a Man; I think you will write about me as Man from now on and speak of me as a Man and employ me as a Man and recognize child-rearing as a Man’s business; you will think of me as a Man and treat me as a Man until it enters your muddled, terrified, preposterous, nine-tenths-fake, loveless, papier-mâché-bull-moose head that I am a man.... Listen to the female man.
A female man, here, is a human being, a full human being, who happens to be female. I called this talk “the default she”, in part because so much of feminist science fiction is an attempt to get to grips with how Western culture thinks in the male default.

I remember coming across books when I studied comparative religion years ago, where the author said they would not get into political discussions, but look at the pure religion alone, and then you would read on about Hinduism, and slowly you would realise they were discussing religion as it was practiced by a man, and usually a man of a certain class. Though you might get a chapter at the end called “women in Hinduism”, which would deal with weddings and childbirth. It is what Joanna Russ is reacting against in her use of the term “female man”.

Which brings us to the subject of pronouns. It may not sound very sexy, I know, but it can be. When Ursula Le Guin tried to create a gender-neutral world in Left Hand of Darkness (1969), she created a species of humans who are ambisexual, but who take on sexual characteristics once a month. In these periods, they can become male or female, depending on a host of factors, like who they are with and what their circumstances are. While all these people run around without sexual characteristics and appear androgynous, however, Le Guin consistently uses the masculine pronoun as the neutral to refer to them, and the feminine only as the special exception for those who are reproductively active and marked female. This leads to very interesting phrases, like “The king was pregnant”, which makes you stop and question some of your assumptions, but it also has the unfortunate side-effect that it reinforces the default that human is the male, while the female becomes tied to the specifics of sexuality and reproduction.

In the later essay "Is Gender Necessary - Redux” (1988) Le Guin wrote that “If I had realized how the pronouns I used shaped, directed, controlled my own thinking, I might have been 'cleverer'”. And pronouns have been one of the cleverer tools of a particular type of feminist and/or queer science fiction.

Samuel R. Delany, the one man in today’s collection, in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) creates a world where the female pronoun is the default, everyone is described as “she”, and the male is only used for people you are sexually attracted to. By changing the rules for how pronouns work, Delany manages to destabilise the default without erasing the gay relationship at the heart of the story. Specifically the male homosexual relationship. In fact, all relationships have the appearance of being between two men because that is the pronoun used when discussing sex. And in addition you get phrases like “The dawn of space travel is the dawn of woman” – where woman refers to all sentient beings. A reversal of the situation Joanna Russ objected to.

A similar technique is used in Ann Leckie’s more recent Imperial Radch series, the first book of which is Ancillary Justice (2013). The dominant culture of the galaxy in this series does not distinguish people by gender. “She” and “her”, but also nouns like “mother”, “sister” and “daughter” are used consistently as the default for all characters. Again, you get the appearance of gender neutral relationships, but the use of female descriptors for everyone means that all relationships have the appearance of being between women. Because it is set in a military hierarchy, you also get regular jolts as male-associated titles are confronted with female pronouns. A scene will describe a conversation between a Captain and a Lieutenant or a Governor, who will all be described as female. The impression this creates is one much like what Gilman and Begum Rokeya did in getting rid of the men. All positions are normalised as female.

By leaving the present and the familiar behind, science fiction allows us to interrogate the things we consider natural, that we accept unquestioning, or which we, if we are going to question them, have to reduce to patterns, abstractions. Which are much harder to point to, especially if you are going to convince someone of their validity.

A final example before I stop talking. Naomi Alderman’s The Power (2016) is the first science fiction book to win the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. She asks “what if” men were afraid of women the way women are afraid of men. And so teenage girls wake up one day able to electrocute people with their hands. The ability spreads to most women, and a very few men. Boys are soon segregated into their own schools, for their own protection. Lone men start crossing the street when they see groups of young women, not because any given woman is necessarily a threat, but because they have the power to harm should they choose to, and you cannot tell who might do that until they do.

This in itself is rather interesting, but my favourite part is how the main story of the book is wrapped by an e-mail conversation between a man and a woman thousands of years in the future, after the effects of this (and I apologise for the pun) female empowerment has had time to affect society, where the male author of the novel submits the book for feedback from a woman. The conversational traits are all coded in the opposite gender. The male author writes things like
“Anyway, sorry, I’ll shut up now. I don’t want to influence you, just read it and tell me what you think. I hope your own book’s going well. I can’t wait to read it, when it’s ready to be seen. Thank you so much for this. I am so grateful you could spare the time.”
While the woman writes
“I see you have included some scenes with male soldiers, male police officers and ‘boy crime gangs’, just like you said you would, you saucy boy! I don’t have to tell you how much I enjoy that sort of thing. ...
I think I’d rather enjoy this ‘world run by men’ you’ve been talking about. Surely a kinder, more caring and – dare I say it? – more sexy world than the one we live in!”
This woman also presents the evolutionary psychology thesis that women have evolved to become more aggressive than men because they had babies to protect from harm, before suggesting that possibly he should consider publishing under a female name because people are not likely to take it seriously as anything but “men’s fiction” if he publishes under his own.

Power inversion is not about inverting the power.

The point of these stories, both the ones that portray women-only worlds and those which use the female pronoun as default, and Alderman, too, is not to set women up in power and get rid of all men, but to jolt us out of our automatised ways of thinking about power in the world around us. Because that affects what kind of futures we can imagine and who gets to imagine them.