Lieutenant Girl, Report to the Bridge. We’re Out of Coffee.
Science fiction has come a long way. It exploded as a genre after World War II and reflected the changing world as women went into more professional roles. Stories began to have female scientists and professionals fighting monsters and alien hordes. Of course, the division of labor wasn’t exactly fifty/fifty. Even woman scientists still had to serve the coffee.
While women’s roles in science fiction have improved dramatically, they are still often relegated to secondary characters. Even with a female lead role, the differences between the way men and women are treated in dialog and action sequences can be eye-roll worthy, if not downright bizarre. Case in point is the film Prometheus. The heroine, Elizabeth Shaw, has to have an alien entity removed from her body. Luckily, nearby is a medical surgical pod. Oh darn, it’s one that’s only for men. Say what? Yes, apparently scientists can send a spaceship hurtling across the galaxy, but scratch their heads at designing a medical facility to care for male and female crew members at the same time. Curse those lady parts. They’re just so complicated. Can you imagine a man in a science fiction film ever facing a similar dilemma? You’d never see a bunch of female doctors standing around shaking their heads. “So sorry, we can’t help you. It’s the testicles, you see. We can’t figure them out.”
In most science fiction the heroine’s journey parallels a hero’s. She must go from girl on a quest to woman warrior. At the climax, she confronts the enemy. Often, fighting is not one of the options offered for victory, it’s the only one. Except for her gender, she’s pretty much a clone of the males. Nothing is wrong with creating a woman warrior. These characters are often lots of fun, but why does this seem to be a requirement rather than an alternative in science fiction? Why do female and male characters have to be so similar? Why can’t a girl show a softer side without being thought of as weak? Such characters can be done well. Meg in A Wrinkle in Time is both smart and brave and doesn’t need a bazooka to rescue her father. All the women in Andy Weir’s The Martian are intelligent, strong, and interesting individuals. I suspect not one of them ever picked a bar fight.
Keep the women warriors, but let’s add more clever girls to the mix. They fight when they have to, but can also think their way out of a dangerous situation. Let’s put those in charge for a change and have them lead the other girls (and boys, too) on adventures. Above all, never exile them to boring, generic, secondary character status for being a girl.