Earth Goddesses and Cyborgs: Defining Feminist SF

Saturday, 21 January 2012 17:30

After several recent conversations with the science fiction uninitiated, I thought it would be a good idea to delve into my dissertation again and share an edited except – this time, I want to address the question: “what is feminist SF and how is it different from the ‘regular’ SF?” The following discussion has been taken from the "Introduction" to Bleeding Chrome: Technology and the Vulnerable Body in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk SF (2010).

Feminist SF – from the feminist utopias of the 1970s to the feminist dystopias of the 1980s – has a long-established relationship of pushing corporeal-technological relationships beyond “man uses machine” into territories wherein technology is both socially productive and regulating. The body is often a site of critical engagement with established feminist SF writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Marge Piercy, Pat Cadigan, and James Triptree Jr., (as well as in my own research, which focuses on the latest generation of feminist SF writers, such as Larissa Lai, Nalo Hopkinson, Tricia Sullivan, and Laura Mixon).

In their introduction to Reload, Austin and Booth explain that “Women’s science fiction came into its own in the 1960s and 1970s. Science fiction was a form in which women writers could tease out the implications of second-wave feminism, with a particular focus on manipulating cultural structures and hierarchies” (4). Feminist SF became an identifiable subgenre that afforded women writers the space to explore not only ideas of second-wave feminism, but also to imagine new concepts of gendered and racialized identity. Referring to the wave of feminist science fiction (which was often utopian) of the 1970s, Jenny Wolmark contends that:

Despite their ambiguous and sometimes embattled position within a genre that still appears to have a preponderance of white male authors and readers, these narratives have not only been able to make significant inroads into the dominant representations of gender, but they have also stretched the limits and definitions of the genre. (“Postmodern Romances” 231)

Indeed, the contribution of women writers from James Triptree Jr. (who challenged gendered identity in the 1960s and 1970s male-dominated world of SF) through Ursula Le Guin and Monique Wittig (writing the feminist utopias of the 1970s) to Octavia Butler and Marge Piercy (bringing feminist SF into the SF mainstream throughout the 1980s and 1990s) have left an indelible mark on SF for both writers and readers.

In all its evocations, feminist SF opened up a space for those who may have felt previously excluded from the hard SF of the “foundational fathers” such as Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne. Wolmark also points out that feminist SF continued to evolve from its original inception: “A shift in emphasis, however, can be discerned in feminist SF written from the 1980s on, as it confronts the questions of gendered subjectivity more explicitly within the context of the masculinist hegemony of technology” (“Postmodern Romances” 232). By focusing on issues of technology, feminist SF began to pose difficult questions about what it means “to be human” and sketch out the cultural limitations of gendered bodies. For example, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (published in 1976) presents a scathing commentary on the forced medicalization of racialized women without sustained attention to the role of technology. Two decades later, however, her novel, He, She, and It (1991), specifically investigates issues of technologized embodiment and gender through the figure of a cyborg.

In much feminist SF, the primary site of boundary-crossing is gender, with technology being the prime motivator. Wolmark goes on to argue that “feminist science fiction crosses the boundaries of both gender and genre in two ways: firstly, by drawing on the narrative fantasies of popular romance fiction to offer fantasies of female pleasure and power, and secondly by using the ‘hard science’ metaphor of the cyborg to redefine definitions of female subjectivity” (230). While many feminist SF novels do not contain literal cyborgs – the half-machine, half-flesh beings immortalized in the Terminator and RoboCop movies – they do bring to life a reworking of the cliché through other alternative embodiments, such as clones, virtual reality avatars, and proxy-bodies. By introducing new forms of embodiment beyond the female cyborg, feminist SF (and, in particular, feminist post-cyberpunk) addresses the notions of female pleasure and power and the ways in which they diverge, corporeally and psychically, from traditional masculine oriented SF.

Booth and Flanagan underscore the centrality of gender in feminist SF, noting that “feminist science fiction, like feminist theory, pays special attention to the cultural construction of gender, the gendering of the Cartesian divide between mind and body, the maintenance of social and sexual hierarchies under patriarchy, and multiple challenges to notions of unified, stable subjectivity” (3). Feminist SF is not merely a rejection of patriarchal hierarchies, but a deep exploration of how those gendered power constructions have influenced our cultural and personal conceptions of corporeality and identity. Baccolini notes that feminist SF writers over the past forty years have contributed to the questioning of

masculinist discourses of traditional science fiction. Their novels have contributed to the breakdown of certainties and universalist assumptions about gendered identities: Themes such as the representation of women and their bodies, reproduction and sexuality, and language and its relation to identity, have all been tackled, explored, and reappropriated by these writers in dialectical engagement with tradition. (16)

In addition to Baccolini’s observations of feminist SF’s contributions, Wolmark contends that it “explores the possibilities for alternative and non-hierarchal definitions of gender and identity within which the difference of aliens and others can be accommodated rather than repressed” (Aliens and Others 2). Perhaps out of all the various facets of feminist SF, its ability to delve into and articulate the experiences of aliens and human others is paramount in its revisioning of what it means to be gendered and to embody difference.

Speaking of the alien, feminist SF does approach often terrifying others with a critical eye towards our own human constructions of gendered and racial difference. Booth and Flanagan propose that:

Science fiction has long used the figure of the alien to invoke anxieties about cultural differences such as man/woman, white/black, upper class/lower class; however, much science fiction invokes these anxieties precisely to bolster these differences, rather than break them down. Women’s science fiction, in contrast, uses the figure of the alien to expose the ways in which racial and gendered boundaries are constructed and the ways in which those boundaries maintain hierarchies of domination and power (indeed to expose the very anxiety over boundary collapse itself as xenophobic and sexist). (6)

The alien in feminist SF, then, is not simply they-who-are-not-us, but a reflection of what-we-are and what-we-could-be. Octavia Butler is perhaps most well known for her innovative explorations of the alien in her Lilith’s Brood and Seed to Harvest trilogies. In Butler’s narratives, she displaces the human with the alien, allowing neither the privilege of claiming moral or ontological superiority. By incorporating such a postcolonial approach, feminist SF makes scathing cultural commentary on our own unspoken definitions of who gets defined as human. Not to be left out of commenting on any aspect of feminist SF, Wolmark addresses the potential for feminist SF to make acute postcolonial critiques: “There is also a spatial dimension to the indeterminate futures that are imagined in feminist SF, for such futures are at once multiple and collective, global and inescapably postcolonial” (“Time and Identity” 169). Alongside an inherent concern with gendered bodies, the feminist SF of today challenges the reader to consider the current and future fates of racialized others and those whose bodies alternatively marked by class, disability, and sexual otherness.

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