SciFi Empowers Women: Get ‘Em While They’re Young

Developing women’s interest from a young age in science fiction can eventually equal the gender disparity in high level science and engineering fields. Read my argument and suggestions for lesson plans.

Do Women Care About SciFi?

Science Fiction as a genre, has always been branded as a ‘boys’ interest’. In fact a common stereotype of the male science fiction fan is a man who is inept at establishing relationships with women, altogether*. In other words, women are not only discouraged from being interested in science fiction, but they are even discouraged from forming relationships with those who are interested in it. In an article in the New York Times, Bonnie Hammer, the President of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment who oversees the Sci Fi channel talks about expanded programming: “‘There were a lot of misperceptions that Sci Fi was for men, that it was for young men and that it was for geeky young men …. We had to broaden the channel to change the misconceptions of the genre.” (Arango, 2008). The changes included addition of supernatural and romantically based programming, themes that are traditionally considered to be attractive to women, (Arango, 2008). However, there is significant evidence that women are already staunch consumers of science fiction, albeit extremely under publicized. As stated in a summary on the National Science Board website, concerning readers of science fiction: “there does not seem to be a gender gap: nearly equal percentages of men (31 percent) and women (28 percent) report that they read science fiction books or magazines.” (NSF, 2002). The same summary points out that 45% of the Sci Fi Channel’s viewers are women, (NSF, 2002). Perhaps women aren’t in the majority of the genre’s consumers, but they certainly represent a larger and more significant portion of science fiction’s fan base than is widely publicized. In fact io9’s, (a popular science fiction blog), editor Annalee Newitz puts it succinctly: “… people on our very own planet keep telling us that women aren’t supposed to like science fiction. It’s a self-confirming prophesy, because the more that scifi creators are told this, the more they imagine that their audience is all boys. So they write rich, believable male characters and boring, cookie-cutter lady characters.”, (Newitz, 2008). The more that women are encouraged to participate in the genre, the more women will consume related media and consequently they will be more likely to talk about, criticize and contribute to it.

[*An excellent example of this commonly employed but under discussed trope is the character of Mr. Universe in the science fiction movie Serenity, (Whedon, 2005). He is the most technologically knowledgable character shown in the film and treated as a socially stigmatized science fiction fan in a science fiction world. He chooses to live by himself in a remote spaceship and out of loneliness decides to design and build a female robot, as opposed to leaving his seclusion and developing a relationship with a flesh and blood woman.]

 

Why Should Women Care About SciFi?

Many may criticize science fiction as a completely frivolous and escapist pursuit. However, Stephen Hawking disagrees, (as quoted in the National Science Foundation summary of Interest in Science Fiction): “science fiction is useful both for stimulating the imagination and for diffusing fear of the future.”, (NSF, 2002). Often times, science fiction imagines, organizes and fleshes out possible future inventions, the ramifications of those inventions and alternate ways of living with technologies. The invention of the dashboard television in cars was predicted by Phillip K. Dick in his novel
The Chromium Fence in 1955, (Technovelgy.com). The invention of the ebook reader was predicted in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in 1979, as the title book represented within the story is read using an electronic device, (Adams, 1980). Martin Cooper, chief engineer of Motorola and inventor of the cell phone, even cites Star Trek communicators as his inspiration, (Handel, 2005). Science fiction is a vital to the development of science, and thus it is vital for women to have an active voice in it.

The previously mentioned NSF summary also posits that a passion for science fiction stimulates interest of working in science as a career, (NSF, 2002). In the 2011 NSF study, the number of men holding doctorate degrees working in a science or engineering related field, 616,000, far outstrip women in the same category, 267,000, (NSF, 2011). One is left to ruminate on the possibilities of equalizing those statistics, if women were encouraged from a young age not only to consume more science fiction media, but also to identify with the heroines presented in the genre. What follows is an analysis and discussion of the heroines in five children’s books, whether they represent the best role model for young women and how to incorporate them into educational curricula.

SciFi Books That Feature Strong Heroines:

Earth to Stella! by Simon Puttock
One could easily argue that heroines are scarce in science fiction novels, however that would seem a gross overstatement for the science fiction picture book cannon. An excellent example, however, is Earth to Stella! by Simon Puttock. The first page depicts Stella examining plants through a microscope at her desk. Her room is space themed, and when her father asks her which bedtime story she’d like to hear she responds: “‘A space story, please,’” (Puttock, 2005). This reflects the parent’s open encouragement and cultivation of Stella’s scientific fascination. The book goes on to describe in detail the planets and alien creatures that Stella fantasizes about, while on each page her father communicates to her as if he were NASA mission control, hence the title. The story ends with the father further legitimizing Stella’s interest by taking part in the fantasy with her, depicted as the two of them flying in her imaginary, chicken-shaped space ship.

Vivid extraterrestrial landscapes and creatures are illustrated in bright and beautiful hues with androgynous appeal. The alien creatures she meets are bugs, which  also have a traditionally androgynous attraction. Stella, herself is not particularly gendered, depicted with short hair and yellow pajamas. These elements are integral to emphasizing the legitimacy of women in a traditionally male dominated genre, as the absence of excessive gender polarity makes Stella more identifiable as a role model to both girls and boys. In a Georgetown University study examining young adult perceptions of Xena, a popular female television heroine, it was found that in the episodes in which she displayed an integrated array of female and male heroic attributes, the highest percent of participants of both genders identified with her as a role model, (Calvert, 2001). Because of its multi-gendered appeal, this book is a prime example of effective scientifically oriented female encouragement.

This is also a perfect book for story times in groups, as the dialogue takes a call and response form. On each page, the father asks Stella a question to which she always responds ‘Check!’, (Puttock, 2005). To incorporate this literary device further into the lesson, the educator can phrase all of the questions to the class in this way, prompting the children to respond in NASA vernacular. The educator can then ask the class to imagine that they are Stella and they are blasting off in their chicken-shaped space ship to a different planet than those depicted in the book. The children should be asked to draw a sketch of the planet and come up with an imaginary fact sheet on it. In this way children will be asked to explore scientific classifications such as, the climate, terrain, indigenous creatures, etc. through the filter of a female’s perspective. This subtly reinforces the legitimacy of feminine scientific interest in the young.

Tria and the Great Star Rescue by Rebecca Kraft Rector
Invention is another skill rarely attributed to women in science fiction, but is embodied beautifully by Tria, the main character of Rector’s Tria and the Great Star Rescue. This resourceful young girl is confronted with the necessity of rescuing her mother and her best friend, a hologram named Star, from a character that could be classified as a terrorist in adult fiction. Tria, an intrepid mechanic/technician, rises to the challenge when she is forced to over come her severe germaphobia, leave her house, (or ‘pod’), for the first time and is relocated to a school that bans technology, her best used and fondest tool. She overcomes many obstacles, (including her fear of germs), to gain the parts she needs so that she can build a robotic horse and reassemble a memory disc projector in order to achieve her goals. This is an excellent book for young readers embarking into the realm of chapter books, as it is easily worded and action oriented.

Tria is represented as a resourceful and intelligent critical thinker, and she is often shown catching criminals in their lies. She displays a maverick distrust of authority figures and outwits them repeatedly, a trait generally attributed to male characters. (The term was largely popularized by Tom Cruise’s character Maverick in the 1986 movie Top Gun, further gendering the term in the minds of the American public, (Dictionary.com, 2011)). Tria also keeps the identifiable male/female balance throughout the story by continually expressing her feelings of loss over both her mother and Star, making her character more realistic and relatable. However, she never lets her feelings get in the way of proactively going about the business of rescue. In short, these attributes provide an excellent balance of appeal to young readers of all genders.

As a companion project to this book, an educator can implement a long term project using simple machines. Breaking the class up into groups, each group would  design a set of simple machines to get a ball around a set of obstacles into a cup at the end of a course. The educator should prescribe the set of obstacles as a constant for all groups, relating the story to each obstacle. The ball is Tria and each obstacle relates to an obstacle in the story: breaking into the warehouse where Tria finds her supplies, overcoming a wall to escape the school, navigating faulty ground that gives way, and finally climbing an incline to represent the mountain she climbs to retrieve a far flung Star on memory disc. This exercise is not only an excellent way to teach children simple machines, but also to do it through the lens of a female character. It subtly relates females with the ability to be resourceful and problem solve, qualities traditionally associated with men.

So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane
Duane’s first book in the Young Wizard series, So You Want to Be a Wizard, establishes an interesting balance between masculine and feminine. Nita discovers a wizarding manual in the library one afternoon and eventually decides to begin practicing wizardry. Along the way, she meets Kit, a fellow new wizarding inductee. Together, as they increase their knowledge of wizardry, they become involved in ‘an ordeal’ which they have to pass in order to become full practicing wizards. Although Kit is by no means an insignificant part in accomplishing this ‘ordeal’, it is Nita who perpetrates the cornerstone tasks in solving the larger trial. Nita steals ‘the Dark Book’, which houses the spells embodying chaos and destruction, she then uses it to find ‘the Book of Night with Moon’, or the book of order and harmony, which she and Kit read from to restore harmonic balance to the universe. It is important to note that although both she and Kit read from the book together, she changes the words of the spell slightly to alter the fundamental evil of the power behind ‘the Dark Book’. Every step of the way, Kit and the intelligent, ambiguously male white hole named Fred are never considered insignificant, yet their contributions enable Nita to further the plot at every turn, and in the end it is her creativity that saves the day.

Nita is a strong character who overcomes several obstacles relating to bullying, (an androgynous problem), through confronting the problem openly and backing up threats using her new found magical skills, (an aggressively proactive approach traditionally cultivated in males, (Rezvani, 2010)). However, her character balances the male traits with the female, as her magical specialty is with living things and is often portrayed as coaxing or nurturing, (a trait that most young adults expressed identified them more closely with Xena both emotionally and as a role model, (Calvert, 2001)). Gender balance is also upheld in the depiction of magic. It is shown as a mathematically based language, (combining algebraic equations with a foreign lexicon), with which you can speak to matter/energy and convince it to manifest the desired result. Language has traditionally been associated with women, whereas mathematics has always been branded as male. The combination of the two, not only serves to interest a range of readers straddling the genders, but also to entice female readers to cultivate an interest in mathematics.

Computer language is similar to this depiction of wizardry. English computer languages designed to be read and manipulated by humans are based in some form of English language, yet the relationships between commands and command segments are mathematically based. As this book is aimed toward competent readers and tweens, it would be possible to plan a small introductory lesson in computer programming using a language called Microsoft Visual Basic, which is an iteration of one of the first and most simplistic computer languages developed, (Wikipedia, 2011). In this language it should be relatively easy to code a program similar to a “Magic 8 Ball”, in which the programmer links a random number generator code to three or four ambiguous answers for the program to produce when asked a question. Although this language is antiquated, it is simplistic enough to be accessible and enable children to learn the principles of computer coding. This project would also serve to illustrate that a balance of disciplines, and indeed a balance of gender extremes plays into all technological endeavors.

A Wind in the Door by Madeline L’engle
The second book in L’engle’s Time Quartet and sequel to A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door revisits Meg Murray, younger brother Charles Wallace, and love interest Calvin O’Keefe. On this adventure, Charles Wallace falls ill and it is up to Meg, Calvin, Charles’ ornery principal Mr. Jenkins, and Proginoskes, the cherubim, to enlist Sporos, a microorganism within Charles Wallace, to come of age and thus inspire his cohorts to take root and heal Charles.

The character of Meg is an interesting one as she embodies a balance of masculine and feminine traits, yet not always shown in a complimentary light. She is depicted as negatively, (albeit earnestly), confrontational, stubborn, impatient and violent, (as in her fight mentioned in the beginning of A Wrinkle in Time), as well as mathematically and scientifically advanced. In her more feminine moments, she shows weakness, turning to Calvin, Proginoskes, the ambiguously male cherubim, and Blajeny, their male teacher, for comfort and clarity. However, when tested, Meg’s better constitution always wins out as she selflessly sacrifices her essence in an effort to save Charles Wallace. Indeed, Meg’s less attractive qualities serve to better sympathize the reader with her character, rather than to put one off, as most children navigating the emotional and hormonal roller coaster of tween and early teen years experience similar outbursts of unbridled passion mitigated with more sensitive moments. Her character not only stands as a beacon of feminist scientific empowerment, but also as a reminder to both genders that such emotional duality exists naturally in all.

To further illustrate this duality to young readers, a companion exercise examining these emotional extremes in famous scientists of both genders would prove effective. The children should choose a scientist and examine the facts of their life. After so doing, they can write a short fictionalized biography elaborating 2 or 3 moments in which they feel this person had extreme aggressive passion, and 2 or 3 moments in which they could have felt extreme weakness. Not only does this exercise teach children about the scientist in question, and show that everyone experiences both spectrums of emotion, but it also teaches children to empathize and imagine themselves in another person’s position, clarifying emotional subtext to described events. This is a skill generally attributed to females, but should be cultivated in everyone.

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
The City of Ember is a post apocalyptic society that has taken refuge and grown for 241 years underground. Slowly, things are beginning to break down, supplies are running short, and the society has long grown accustomed to reusing spare parts to fix or create items they need to survive. This is the setting where Lina Mayfleet has grown to the age in which she is considered an adult and is assigned the job she would be required to do for the rest of her life, working in the pipes. When her friend Doon Harrow is assigned her coveted position of ‘Messenger’, she switches assignments with him on her own initiative, exhibiting control over her destiny, (one of the favorable features young adults classified as a heroic aspect in Xena, (Calvert, 2001)). In fact, this is one of many instances where Lina exhibits authoritative behavior. As messenger, she is bread winner for her family, consisting of an elderly grandmother and infant sister. With their help, she finds an old box that has been time locked, passed its date and has been opened by her baby sister, who has taken to shredding the paper contents. Lina puts the pieces back together and discovers that Ember was never meant to be a permanent home for its residents and that the shredded pages are exodus instructions. Due to her youth, she has trouble convincing others to believe her, but some follow when she and Doon plot the escape route and ascend to the surface.

Although this book doesn’t dwell on scientific explanations, and Lina doesn’t participate in any of the mechanical tasks required for their escape, this is still a wonderful book describing a woman in a position of command. She assumes leadership for not only her family, but the escape party as well. It is through her ingenuity, imagination and perseverance that they make it out alive to tell those that didn’t follow how to ascend. As in Nita and Kit’s relationship, Doon is still a rounded and compelling character, but duPrau leaves the reader in no doubt who the leader is. In both books, the relationship fosters camaraderie between the sexes and encourages children to assess and utilize their most competent skill sets, as well as those of others around them.

When teaching this book, the class can focus on sustainability as well as group management in making something new and functional out of something old. The class should be broken up into groups of three or four students and everyone can evaluate  and list the skills at which they excel. The educator should prepare a number of options for projects from which the children can pick. Suggestions can include: a journal made from scrap paper and garbage bags or spare fabric as the cover, dolls from old socks or spare yarn, decorated planters from old cans, a checker board from cardboard and plastic bottle caps, etc. Each project should have relevance to the book: the journal for Lina’s sketches, the doll for Poppy, the planters for Ember’s greenhouse, the checkers for Doon and his friends. Every group will receive instructions for the project with some of the pieces missing. Together the children have to figure out what they say and make the project accordingly. Groups should choose their project based on the listed skills of its members. Upon receiving their instructions, the members should divvy up the project into individual tasks, allotting each task based on the listed skill of each member. This project not only asks children to think creatively about reusing garbage, but it also asks them to asses their best skills and think about how to apply them in group problem solving.

Conclusion:
It may seem to some that feminists have already accomplished their mission: women can vote, own property and pursue any career they choose. However, many fail to realize that women are combating millennia of being reared for compliance. In many cases, women sabotage themselves from higher achievement by not being assertive enough, advertising their accomplishments, or even directly asking for what they want, (Rezvani, 2010). Prejudices against female interest in science and mathematics harbored by both men and women since the beginning of recorded history are extremely hard to dispel. Cultivating women’s interest in science fiction, and especially in pieces with proactive female heroines, can go a long way in correcting this disparity.

Bibliography:

Books:
– L’engle, Madeline. A Wind in the Door. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. New York, 1973

– DuPrau, Jeanne. The City of Ember (Books of Ember). New York. Yearling, 2008
– Puttock, Simon. Earth to Stella!. Clarion Books. New York. 2006

– Rector, Rebecca Kraft. Tria and the Great Star Rescue. Delacorte Press. New York. 2002

– Rezvani, Selena. The Next Generation of Women Leaders: What You Need to Lead but Won’t Learn in Business School. Praeger. Santa Barbra, CA. 2010

– Adams, Douglas. Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. Harmony Books. New York. 1980

Articles:
– Calvert, Sandra L. Kondla, Tracy A. Ertel, Karen A. Meisel, Douglas S. Young Adults’ Perceptions and Memories of a Televised Woman Hero. Sex Roles, (vol. 45, iss. 1). Springer Netherlands. July 2001

– Moss, Anita. Feminist Criticism and Science Fiction for Children. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, (vol. 7, #4). Winter 1982.

– Sharp, Patrick B. Starbuck as ‘American Amazon’ Captivity Narrative and the Colonial Imagination in Battlestar Galactica. Science Fiction Film and Television, (vol. 3, iss. 1). Spring 2010, pp. 57-78. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/sff/summary/v003/3.1.sharp.html

– Arango, Tim. At Sci Fi Channel, the Universe Is Expanding and the Future Is Now. New York Times. May 19, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/19/business/media/19scifi.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&oref=slogin&adxnnlx=1211227819-1SEEBxni5wfZTed64i+3tQ

– Newitz, Annalee. What Chicks Don’t Like About Science Fiction. io9. May 19, 2008. http://io9.com/#!391860/what-chicks-dont-like-about-science-fiction

– “Table 9-5”. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. National Science Foundation. Arlington, VA. February 2011. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/tables.cfm

– “Science Fiction and Pseudoscience”. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding. Science and Engineering Indicators 2002. National Science Foundation. Arlington, VA. April 2002. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind02/c7/c7s5.htm

– “maverick.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 03 May. 2011. Dictionary.com. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/maverick

– “BASIC”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BASIC#Typical_BASIC_keywords

– “Dashboard TV”. Technovelgy.com. Technovelgy LLC. http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/content.asp?Bnum=1625

Film:
– Handel, Alan. Jones, Julian. Shatner, William. Walter, Chip. How William Shatner Changed the World. Discovery Channel. Canada. 2005

– Whedon, Joss. Serenity. Universal Pictures. USA. 2005

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