Recently, a discussion came up about Marvel’s choice to do a gender swap with one of their main heroes. I’m sure all geeks by now know that Thor is losing his ability to wield Mjölnir and that a woman will be replacing him. It isn’t a relaunch or a reboot, and it isn’t temporary. Thor is now a woman.
This rant isn’t about Marvel’s decision to try and appeal to a wider demographic. This rant is about the bad rap that the science-fiction and fantasy genre still receives when it comes to women and their portrayal.
You see, what has sent some people into a tizzy over Thor is the la femme Thor’s concept art, how it shows her as busty and wearing a breast plate that conforms to her torso. Once again, Marvel was sexually objectifying women and pandering to a male audience with this move, so the complaints go. Readers of Thor may notice that Donald Blake (Thor’s alter ego) is losing his purity, is no longer acting like a good guy, but all everyone’s focusing on is the new Thor’s cleavage. I’ll let those people argue over the storyline and how it’s coming about; at least they have a better understanding of why Thor is changing and the other implications of what can follow.
The statements about the sexually objectifying and pandering are both correct and incorrect – Marvel’s artists have always drawn women who look like supermodels more often than not. However, many of the women are not as scantily clad as the complaints make them out to be. Last year, I bought a Characters of Marvel encyclopedia. I can peruse through this any time I wish. Most of the women are more than decently covered. Scantily clad seems to be the exception, not the rule.
It was in thinking about how Marvel has drawn women and the bad rap the science-fiction and fantasy genre receives in general (most comic books are part of the science-fiction genre) that I began to notice something of a fallacy with the statements. Women aren’t nearly depicted as sexual objects as often as many would like to believe.
Now, this isn’t to say that it hasn’t happened. I have not read all there is in terms of science-fiction and fantasy. I haven’t watched all sci-fi shows or bought all comic books so I know something is out there that has done exactly this and caused this kind of derision towards the genre. However, I can look back at almost fifty years with the major science-fiction and fantasy influences and note more often than not where women weren’t sexual objects for men. (The flip side to this? It’s okay for the character to be sexy and beautiful as long as the writer is being true to the character. But always, at first glance, it’s an automatic pandering to men and sexually objectifying women.)
For the first example, let’s start Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Yes, the women wore short skirts, but that was also the fashion of the time. Many women took to wearing mini skirts (and pants) because they were sick of societal norms that dictated they must wear long skirts.
This show broke barriers of all kinds. To start, Nichelle Nichols was not only African-American (to be politically correct here) but a woman. She held an important job on the bridge as the communications officer. She wasn’t serving anyone coffee. Uhura was a woman of rank, a lieutenant. There was also Nurse Christine Chapel. Her role as a woman may have been typical, but she was hardly meek, if I recall. (I’d have to ask my uncle to loan me some copies of Star Trek to be sure.) This was a show where two women played characters at a time when most women who served in the military were nurses but never ranking officers.
Second example: George Lucas’s Star Wars released in 1977. Princess Leia was not only covered completely, but she wasn’t a pushover, either. Yes, she was faced with an impossible choice, but she never sold out her compatriots. She was strong-willed, believed in her cause. The only moment where she’s a sex object is in Return of the Jedi and as a prisoner of Jabba the Hut. Otherwise, she is fully clothed.Her daring and bravado are the reasons why Han loves her, and he’s not out to change her.
Some more examples include the Alien series with Sigourney Weaver, Lois Lane in Superman, and many of the women in the X-Men series.
This just covers movies (and some comic books). This isn’t covering the numerous books I’ve read over the last twenty years, books written as far back as the 1980s. In Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles, sex kitten Kitiara is written as wearing full battle armor. Laurana is always decently covered. The same as Goldmoon and Tika, the latter becoming a swordswoman as much out of necessity as desire. Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, David Farland, and Tad Williams, to name a few, don’t write women as sexual objects, but individuals with flaws and complexities. For as much as I don’t like Jordan’s portrayal of his women (he tried too hard to make them strong), I give him credit for most of them not pandering and sexually objectifying themselves to men in anyway.
These are stories that span back as far as 1966. Other stories have been written that have done otherwise – offhand, I can name the Gor series but only based on conversations with friends; in the Star Ocean and Final Fantasy games, some of the female characters are scantily clad; there’s also Wonder Woman – but I have encountered more stories than not where women aren’t sexual objectified to men. Even the scantily clad characters in some of my video games don’t pander to the men of the stories. They’re strong, confident, beautiful, and they know it.
Now, if I were to go back just thirty years into the Romance genre, to the powerhouses of Harlequin and Silhouette, I would find many stories about intelligent, strong, career women who meet a man and find themselves needing him. The woman is willing to give up anything for him. (But of course, he’s a sweetheart by the end, and she sacrifices nothing.) The idea is that every woman needs a man and every man needs a woman, or so that has been my interpretation of the romance novels I’ve read. These are stories written for women, about women, by women, and they are pandering to a generality, have for over thirty years.
This is an eye-opener here, because there are many out there who have read more romance novels than I have, and who can say to me, “But that’s not true! Just read this author right here, and you’ll see that she’s different”.
You know what? I believe you, romance readers. I really do, and I don’t need to read the author you’re pointing out as an example.
Because you do know your genre. You do know the stories that are out there far better than I do. My exposure is admittedly quite limited. My best friend, whenever we discuss these things, tells me I need to read some Jude Deveraux because of how different she is. Others can give me more examples.
Just like I can give examples where my genre hasn’t been as exploitative of women as the complaints make them out to be.
The point is this: Don’t judge a genre by the poor examples out there. They are now the exceptions, not the rules.
And don’t judge a character by her looks. She may be sexy, but she’s often complex, flawed, and interesting, no matter what genre she’s in.