Ana has a special topic for us this month:
Spaceships. Aliens. Androids, alternative timelines, and answers to problems no one has solved yet.
Speculative fiction offers authors a playground to try any number of scenarios impossible in the world as we currently know it. At the same time, this unfamiliar landscape allows freedom to make political statements that might not be permitted in realistic contemporary fiction.
Why is it, then, that so much of speculative fiction presents the same dominant power structures of our current society, only dressed up as exciting and new?
In past QSF discussions, I’ve asked what responsibility we feel as authors and readers to combat sexism, racism, classism, and other forms of marginalization. We accept, by our participation in this group, that speculative fiction offers possibilities not available in other forms of storytelling. What are we doing to harness this power?
Today, I’d like to present a personal favorite that is shared by many of us: Star Trek. More specifically, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Because Star Trek is beloved to many but removed from our current society, it offers a meeting ground for us to discuss issues that can become contentious or difficult to see in our own daily lives.
My question today is, “With so many imaginative resources at our disposal, why does so much of speculative fiction reinforce current power imbalances? Specifically, why is a genre capable of starships and androids largely unable to center women’s lives as an integral, valid experience for storytelling?” As the recent Hugo Awards controversy demonstrates, science fiction (and its sibling sub-genres) is a battleground for ideological conflict. Simply put, some believe that “the good old days” are being threatened by newer stories that discuss sociopolitical issues.
By “discuss sociopolitical issues,” I don’t mean within the safe, comfortable framework of stories told by, for, and about white men. What’s surprising and dismaying to many is the implication that traditional speculative fiction may not be as ground-breaking as it hoped to be.
Is this bad?
Should it be dismissed?
Can we still love our old, traditional stories?
Can we adore our traditional favorites while still being open to changes in our society and storytelling?
I sure hope so.
Back to Star Trek, or TNG. I came to TNG later in life. I gave the shows a bypass in childhood, and as a young adult I found the hokey special effects and space exploration off-putting. I liked the episode where Data learns to dance, and I was intrigued by a machine that could function as a human.
It wasn’t until recently, though, that I understood the fuss. A Trekkie friend persuaded me to watch a few episodes with him, and he lent me the seven seasons on DVD. I binge-watched all seven seasons, silly special effects notwithstanding, and fell in love.
One thing stuck in my craw, though. Remember “Angel One,” the first-season episode in which our favorite spaceship crew encounters a strange new planet where—gasp!—women were in charge? Riker, Troi, Yar, and Data beam down to the planet, only to find—gasp!—that Riker’s supremacy as top-ranking official is greeted by scorn from the Mistress Beata, the planet’s leader.
At surface level, the story is revolutionary. Dig a bit deeper down, and the story was reportedly a commentary on apartheid in South Africa. By the end, Riker lectures the chastened Mistress Beata to accept “evolution,” that is outgrowing the planet’s backward policy of accepting women’s supremacy.
As much as I love TNG, I’m the first to admit that the storylines were often heavy-handed. What seemed shocking a few decades ago can come across as quaint in retrospect. The episode has been roundly criticized for everything from hypersexuality to a less-than-stellar subplot. Still, it is the one episode in the entire seven seasons of TNG that suggested women might be in charge of a society.
Contrast “Angel One” with “Suddenly Human,” a fourth-season episode in which a fourteen-year-old boy, Jono, is rescued with four crewmates. He only respects Picard and refuses to accept women in command. Instead of a woman lecturing this boy to accept evolution and respect women, Crusher and Troi deflect responsibility to Picard. This situation, they say, requires a man. In the end, it is indeed Picard who reaches Jono and makes a connection. At no point does anyone suggest that the Talarians should evolve into gender equality. Instead, respect for their patriarchal society extends to a boy who has not yet reached adulthood.
While Mistress Beata (in itself an interesting choice of titles, when “Mistress” in common terms can refer to a woman sexualized for fetishization and objectification) is a fully developed adult and in command of an entire society, Jono is an adolescent still learning to grow up.
Why is the patriarchy of Talaria presented without irony (albeit with a few nods to the assumption that the Federation has now progressed to gender equality), while Angel One’s self-governing society must be reprimanded?
Granted, there are external differences in the storylines that detract from this main question. But putting those aside, even the beginning voice-over narration of Angel One struggles to complete a sentence without disbelief and irony. “How sad and backward,” the narrator intones with inflection if not words. “How could anyone believe women were superior to men?”
At the time of production and first reception, “Angel One” was panned for its storyline quality. Yet the paternalistic reinforcement of a woman needing to be put in her place was not.
TNG is an old story from an old time, you might say. But is it? Are the stories we read and watch now any different? We may have superficial differences, but Black Widow’s character is still referred to as a “slut” by two male actors. The issues in TNG are easier to see precisely because it is an older story from an older time.
What about our stories now?
How are we using our power as readers and writers of speculative fiction? Are we imagining a tomorrow in which women’s stories can be honored in their own right?
How can we show women’s stories as central and important within this exciting genre of life beyond ordinary limits?