Science-fiction has traditionally been a male-dominated genre—mostly being written by men for men. One can hardly fault the genre for that. Throughout history many, probably most, things have been by men, for men. As sci-fi has matured over the years, its female fanbase has grown and come out of the shadows.
In the 1950s, sci-fi fan magazines New Worlds and Astounding Science Fiction reported female readership at between just five and fifteen percent. By the 1970s, a number of surveys placed the woman sci-fi segment in the 25-35% range. More recent studies show that female readers and movie fans now nearly equal their male counterparts. So, with all these women loving sci-fi, where are the sci-fi leading ladies?
Looking at the top 200 grossing science-fiction movies of all time, only 19, or just under 10%, have women in leading roles. Of the, 14 that debuted before 1990, just one (Aliens) starred a woman (Sigourney Weaver). One might ask, “what about Alien?” Shockingly, this iconic film sits at #208 overall! Twenty-eight of the top films dropped in the 1990s, but only two (Contact and Pokemon—yes, Pokemon) had a woman in the leading role.
In the 2000s, science fiction grew dramatically in popularity, driven in no small part by the rise of super-hero films. During the first decade of the new century, women began breaking through some glass ceilings. We had our first female presidential candidate (then Secretary of State) in Hillary Clinton, Katie Couric became the first woman network news anchor, Angela Merkel became the first woman Chancellor of Germany, and in 2009, the Lily Ledbetter Act was signed, making it the law to afford equal pay. Yet, of the 57 from the top 200 releases during this time frame, just one had a woman in the starring role. The sci-fi epic Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, number 134 on the list and starring (the voice of) Anna Faris, grossed $243 million worldwide.
It has only been in the twenty-teens that starring roles for women in science fiction have begun grow in numbers. Including blockbusters like Wonder Woman, Star Wars the Last Jedi, and multiple Hunger Games movies, three quarters (15 of 20) of the top grossing woman-leading sci-fi films have hit theaters in the last eight years. You might think things are picking up—until you realize that more than half (101 of 200) of the top sci-fi films were released during this time as well, yielding a still-lacking 15% showing for women stars.
With a flourishing female fan base and issues facing women more in the news than ever, why are women still so underrepresented in science fiction? One possible answer is that, while diversity and equal rights have made positive strides in recent years, sexism and other forms of discrimination have drawn battle lines in certain corners of society, and are pushing back in others.
As a sci-fi writer and consumer, I had always known some level of gender bias existed within the genre, but in reality, my head was in the sand—probably because I’m a white male. Since I wasn’t directly affected, I ignorantly failed to notice the extent to which women had been marginalized in the realms of science fiction. It wasn’t until I released my debut novel, the sci-fi thriller, Casimir Bridge, that I finally began to take notice. The book, and series as a whole, features an African American woman protagonist, a character I designed not to make a political statement, but rather because she was someone I wanted to write about and thought readers would relate to. While receiving generally positive reviews, some comments I received on Amazon and articles I wrote on the subject were telling.
“Yeah, let’s have left-PC browbeating invade SF too.” (For the record, I’m politically an independent).
“The author seems to think he can intimidate potential fans into spending their hard earned money to buy his crappy books, if only he does enough politically correct, noisy virtue signaling.”
“These days it seems that all stories must have an African-American person in the story to be political [sic] correct.”
My question is, why do people care? There is still plenty of white-male-dominated sci-fi out there. With more works in the genre than ever, it’s not like new books and movies that don’t fall into the same mold are taking anything away from those that do. If more diverse works don’t suit critics’ fancy, they can read/watch something that is—there is plenty of it. Yet for some reason, they can’t let it sit.
In one well-publicized example, this segment of sci-fi society had become so fed up with the political direction the genre is taking—in other words, more representation from LGBTQ, women, and people of color—that they stacked the ballots of the Hugo Awards to try and ensure only their brand of fiction won certain categories. And, reminiscent of Gamergate, there were verbal attacks to go along with the literary ones. Better to corrupt the system than to let those “others” in.
Along a similar vein, is the backlash against Daisy Ridley (as her leading Star Wars Jedi character, Rey), and indeed the inclusion of more women in the Star Wars franchise as a whole. In one particularly misogynistic example, a fan edited Star Wars: The Last Jedi to cut out nearly all scenes that contained women. Now, there are plenty of reasons to fault the film—casino sequence anyone?—but over-inclusion of women is not one of them. In fact, of the 30 named characters in the film, a third are women, which is roughly on par with films like Avatar (4 out of 14), Aliens (5 out of 17), and Guardians of the Galaxy (also 5 out of 17). So, why the hate? Because there’s no crying in baseball, and no women in the Jedi Order (at least in a leading role). But then along comes Rey.
Misogyny, along with other forms of discrimination, is rooted in fear and ignorance. Fear of losing dominion over something, whether it be a pay scale or fictitious order of monastic warriors. Ignorance of those you fear will take it away. The same thing playing out in the realms of science fiction is playing out before our eyes in the country as a whole. Ignorance breeds fear, fear breeds anger, and with fear and anger, logic ebbs—though to those suffering those emotions, their positions seem wholly logical. Which must be the case, because certainly there is logic in the notion that it’s okay to have a three-foot green muppet as a Jedi, but God forbid a woman take up the saber.
Darren Beyer is a contributing writer at Grit Daily. Beyer is the author of the SciFi novels Pathogen Protocol and Casimir Bridge. He worked NASA at Kennedy Space Center as a space shuttle experiment engineer for nearly ten years. While there, he worked on the Hubble launch, as well as numerous Spacelab and other scientific missions. He conducted astronaut training, performed installations onboard the shuttle just prior to launch, and was part of the recovery crew following landing. Beyer has had the honor of working onboard every space shuttle orbiter except Challenger. In late 1998, Darren left NASA to become an entrepreneur, and, after nearly twenty years, an author. He is a student of science and technology, an expert in mobile technology and payments, and is an instrument-rated private pilot. Darren now lives in California near San Francisco with his wife, dogs, cats and fish.