“The Female Man”: Issues Of Gender And Feminism In SF

Hey Man, The Future Is Female…

“After reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s work, I began to think about how women could explore alternate biologies and societies for their benefit. That’s the sign of good science fiction” – Marge Piercy.  

“The enormous appeal of science fiction is the ability to change just one or two small variables and see what could happen,” says writer Marge Piercy, whose 1976 novel: Woman On The Edge Of Time has become a feminist SF classic. “Up until [The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969)] most science fiction had assumed binary gender throughout the universe. She writes of a world where gender is irrelevant and sexuality completely fluid…” 

Aeons ago, when Brad was… oh, about that high, there was an easy peasy way to tell the difference between boys and girls: 

boys loved sci-fi –girls did not = it was that simple.

Nowadays, of course, such a statement sounds so trite and patronising… not to mention simple-minded. Encouragingly, more than ever before, there is active female participation in science fiction, whether it be reading novels or comics, or – better still – producing a new wave of critically-and-commercially-acclaimed material. 

As this Post will show, not only has the number of female SF writers grown, but the genre has always had a healthy history of influential female involvement.

Recalling those longlost schooldays, it would now appear that those attempts by girls to run off with our Star Wars figures signified concerted efforts to break barriers and expectations and try to infiltrate this exotic-looking Boy’s Club. Back then, of course, the very notion of ACTUALLY TALKING TO GIRLS about comics, spaceships, transdimensional engineering and the inner workings of

Mennotor 430 Neural Inhibitors seemed so… far out – as unlikely as…

as BBC’s Doctor Who ever changing into a woman…

“I wish my successor, whoever he or she might be, the best of luck… I think it might be quite nice to have a woman…” – Tom Baker.

Having established that the Doctors could transmogrify into another aspect of this particular character, then there was no real limit to the number of Doctors or the sex of the Doctors,” remarked Patrick Troughton, the second actor to play this particular character (between 1966-69).

In July, the biggest SF news happened to be the announcement of the next regen(d)eration of Gallifrey’s most famous Time Lord; this year’s Christmas special will mark the debut of Jodie Whittaker – the first woman to portray the Doctor since the series began in 1963. There came a point during the most recent season in which the current Doctor (played by lifelong-Whovian Peter Capaldi) explains – to his gobsmacked companion – how his race long ago transcended the whole gender-thing, and you think – aha! – better prepare for something pretty unprecedented here… 

When avidly watching the series back in the early ’80s, this boy – who constructed his own sonic screwdriver, used his own wardrobe as his TARDIS, and brought Teddy Edwards along as his own companion (aah bless!) – would have baulked at the prospect of having an actress in the titular role; now, of course, that prospect is in keeping with the fresh and innovative nature of the show and should be warmly welcomed.     

But Jodie will need a truly exceptional writer to make her tenure work…

On the threshold of making SF TV history, Whittaker said she felt “beyond excited to begin” reinvigorating the BBC’s longest-running SF series. Certainly, Verity Lambert – the producer responsible for bringing Doctor Who to television screens in 1963, would have been absolutely delighted with this news…

“[The Female Man is] a wonderfully inventive novel – this interplanetary exploration of feminist inner space, this sophisticated, playful fantasy book is, of course, all about reality” – Phyllis Chester.   

“You simply can’t underplay how ground-breaking it was,” remarked Yasmin Khan – advisor to the “Into the Unknown: A Journey Thro Science Fiction,” a major exhibition held in London this past summer – referring to Sultana’s Dream, written as early as 1905, in Bengal, by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (then aged just 25). “Raised in an upper-class Muslim family, she was denied a social education, like many women at that time.” 

Appalled by the social injustice inflicted on women, she created “Ladyland”: a technologically advanced matriarchy where women monopolize all freedoms, while men are secluded in the “madana,” a play on the Urdu word zenana (women’s quarters).

Imagined futures, and speculative concepts – the very styff on which science fiction has always thrived – should be enhanced and enriched by adding female perspectives.

The Female Man by Joanna Russ is a principal go-to game-changer in feminist SF, conducting a powerful and uncompromising critique, both of society and the patriarchal framework of sci-fi itself. Her writing offers “strong, witty female protagonists whose understanding supersedes the status games and repressive obsessions that occupy the other characters, often representatives of far-future societies that parody our own.”

Apart from confronting issues of genger and sexuality, as far as publishers were concerned, the matter of the author’s sex – and her sexual orientation – were considered a hindrance at that time. Nevertheless, the novel helped to begin tear down boundaries not just in SF, but in women’s literature in general. 

Its status as an all-time masterpiece has been recognised by Gollancz who fortunately included in their SF Masterworks series. Thus, unlike the other titles mentioned here, The Female Man CAN be found in my local library… 

“Traditionally, people turn to science fiction in times of political crisis.”

Cue The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) by Margaret Atwood, a dystopian noveland now Emmy-award-winning TV serialso timely and monumental, it deserves its own blog post…

“I’m a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist, a Black… an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive” – Octavia Butler.

“Considered one of the most creative, unique, and innovative science fiction writers of her generation,” is how feminist scholar Professor Rebecca Hankins describes Octavia Butler (1947-2006) – one of a scant number of African-American writers working in this genre. “Never one to sugar coat our existence, Butler’s writing always centres on women as independent, fierce, and unapologetic heroines.”

Her work also helped eradicate the genre’s entrenched science fiction image as “male, pale and stale.” She created a shape-shifting, gender-fluid creature in Wild Seed; a post-apocalyptic mute in Dawn; and the determined daughter in the Patternist series.

Therefore (one abhors having to admit this), because she does not fit the white male norm expected in the genre, this explains precisely why this SF “aficionado” has been deprived of all knowledge pertaining to this marvellous talent for so long. Moreover, it is a crying shame that her gender and ethnicity have proved a hindrance to her seemingly-deserved exalted status among the SF hierarchy. 

As for actually getting round to reading her masterworks? 

Well, not yet… 

It comes as no shock to learn that her books are unavailable in the half-dozen public libraries near me…

You want Arthur C. Clarke? 

He’s right here. 

Itching for Philip K. Dick? 

He’s over there. 

Do they have Isaac Asimov?

Are you kidding me? A whole shelf is devoted to his sizeable back catalogue…

Dread to ask the librarians if they stock ANY Octavia Butler:

“Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t have him…”

“Her works are an ongoing inspiration,” Professor Hankins continued: “…not only to black women writers, but to all of us to push the boundaries and imagine new fairer worlds.”

“Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen” – Margaret Atwood.

And while we’re on the subject of gender, you may be delighted to learn that – in the spirit of these enlightened fluid and flexible times – Brad will be changing gender as well. Henceforth, address all e-mails/Comments to Angelina.

Seriously though, an increasing number of media work is geared towards women writing exclusively for an all-female readership. Look at the subjects requested: history, psychology, sociologynothing gender normative about them. Nonetheless, in order to get more work in the online 21st century environment, this is the measure one must take to ensure a steady supply of cake in one’s larder…


Finally, let’s finish on an amusing – and thoroughly English – note.

That legend of prime-time evening entertainment: Kenny Everett provided the very first time this bunny saw any man in drag. They must have had a marvellous time making these shows – the production crew couldn’t help but laugh.

There are no SF-related vids here, but there may never come a more appropriate opportunity to show this classic sketch.

While compiling this Post, it was heartening to learn that Billy Connolly is due to receive a knighthood. 

Well, huzzah! Arise, Sir Billy!

Or should that be Dame…?


30 thoughts on ““The Female Man”: Issues Of Gender And Feminism In SF

    • Thanks, Danica
      It’s amazing how there is a rich history of women’s SF that has been denied me for so long.
      I want to read novels by Ursula Le Guin and CJ Cherryh, but they r so difficult to track down – if there was a demand for female SF authors they wld not b so obscure
      Thanks for reading

  1. What a great post Brad!

    I have to confess I’ve only read one of Octavia Butler’s books, Lilith’s Brood, but our library system owns all of her books. Although I was a comic book geek growing up, I wasn’t a huge science fiction fan until Star Wars came out. After that I started reading a little more, but I probably wouldn’t include it among my favorite genres, except for the sub-genre of dystopian fiction. I am a Dr. Who fanatic though and I’m so excited for the first female Dr.!☺️

  2. Very thoughtful post – great work! As a female sci-fi fan, it’s exciting to see the industry recognize that science fiction and superheroes are awesome for both men and women! It’s funny because sometimes people will visit our house and see all the Star Wars and Marvel memorabilia and think it’s my husband’s…then I will proudly pipe up, “Oh, that’s mine!” 😉 It’s also exciting to see more acceptance of geek culture in general.

    • V thoughtful, but my most unpopular post for some time, so thanks for popping by, Ash!
      Honestly, at school, girls just did NOT want to have ANYTHING to do with comics or SF novels!
      Attitudes may have changed, but it is still so difficult to find even th most well-known female SF authors these days
      Looking forward to watching th new Doctor?

      • Thanks again, Ash!
        Better late than never for a female Doctor, but it ALL hinges on th writing (and th lighting!) I could barely SEE what was going on, let alone try and understand any of it!
        Jodie has already put in critically-acclaimed performances in other TV dramas, so she cannot fail

  3. Another exceptional post Brad! This is one of my favorites, actually. Not only have you given me a pretty fantastic reading list to begin over my next decent break from school, you’ve convinced me that the time as come for me to FINALLY start watching ‘Dr. Who.’ It’s a huge area of pop culture I’ve never dabbled in but you’ve made me realize the time has come. Thanks on all counts my friend!

    • Thank u, Michael! Good to see u again!
      Alas, this Post is exceptional for being my most unpopular for some time.
      Good luck w finding any of th books cited – because most people don’t expect women to write SF, so there is no demand, thus no supply.
      Hopefully, th new Doctor will b worth following (personally, I can’t recommend th last 3 regenerations) – hope u enjoy this very British institution!
      And thank u for 100 Comments!! ALL v much appreciated
      (Any excuse to order MORE CAKE)

      • Hahaha, WOW. That’s so much banter! And also delicious cake. So all around it’s some good things. I think I’ll try the library first, just to see what they have or what they can order. Than I’ll compare with the selection at Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million. Lastly I can check out some of our little indy and used bookstores. Seeing who stocks what in regard to female sci-fi writers is an interesting endeavor. And then I have the reading to look forward to on the other side!

      • And such amazing banter it is too, sir!
        Good luck w your book search; it’ll make quite an intriguing post in itself – an interesting endeavour indeed.
        Looking forward to checking out your latest posts.
        Head’s up! Another Bradscribe Bronze Age Bonanza is imminent

      • I know! Innit great? After doing this occasional series for just a year, only NOW do I come up w a groovy title? I amaze even myself at times 😉
        An’ a WOO HOO to u too!

      • I’d probably be able to get most of them from the library. I have loads of books on reserve all the time. 🙂 I did borrow A Wizard Of Earthsea not too long ago but didn’t get around to reading that one…

      • Yes, Wizard is more Fantasy – been trying to look for Le Guin’s Left Hand Of Darkness.
        Actually, I have a whole list worth waiting to go on reserve!

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