As part of my postgraduate studies this year, I'm doing a paper called Literature and Technology, which features such awesome writers as Pat Cadigan, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Neil Gaiman, Jean Baudrillard, Philip K. Dick and Italo Calvino. I recently received an email from the lecturer who will be in charge of this geektastic experience and was not surprised to see that, out of the eight people taking the course, only two of us are female. Not that it bothers me. Nevertheless, it did make me think.
We no longer live in a world where boys play with all the cool toys while the girls have to make do with stupid Barbies and miniature tea sets. (If you must know — I never owned a Barbie but I did have an eccentric obsession with my sister's tea set. I found out later it was because I like small things, and tea. The set itself was purely a convenient vehicle for my developing tendencies). I know many women who write SF, and who do it very well. Though it seems that, when it comes to readers of the genre, males are still more prevalent than their female counterparts. Furthermore, I have noticed that women who do read SF tend to have read less of the so-called classics of the genre — books like Neuromancer, Fahrenheit 451, The Time Machine, 20 000 Leagues Under The Sea, A Clockwork Orange, The Difference Engine or The War of the Worlds.
There is something these novels all have in common: their status as defining genre works have elevated them to a status where they have made regular appearances on the set text lists of universities, whether the subject be the study of SF itself or what they say about the evolution of mankind.
That got me thinking: could this be part of the reason they do not appeal to a female audience? Because they are exalted within the halls of academia, further distancing them from mainstream approval.
SF can be a problematic genre, particularly when studied as opposed to reading for pleasure. Much of it is written from a male perspective — perhaps partly explaining the gender difference in readership. It's frustrating because while SF can sometimes lag behind in terms of representation, it can also leap ahead in its attack on fundamentalist morality. That is why I am surprised to find the study of SF in an academic context still a predominantly male-orientated field. Intrinsically, a female perspective is different, and isn't it exactly our differences that should bring us together? You know, because that way we broaden our minds?
I have an ugly feeling about all this.
SF and fantasy author Lisa Tuttle
That feeling is that, when it comes to SF, some women are put off by the idea of engaging with the story because of its maleness; that certain schools of feminist rhetoric have taken away from them the ability to engage in a text because of the text—not because of who wrote it. SF and fantasy author Lisa Tuttle has defined feminist literary critique as "asking new questions from old texts". Where will the new questions in SF come from if women are not engaging with the genre from an academic point of view? What's even more troublesome is the idea that women don't want to read about technology and science; that it bores them and is so removed from the scope of their everyday lives they dismiss it out of hand. I'm talking about the general female demographic — straight and queer; in terms of the former, I know few who have ever read any SF (unless they're rabid fans of course). As for the latter, the numbers there are more uplifting, but a generous amount are still reading what generally amounts to romances set in space.
What I really want to know is this: what is the likelihood that the reason many women don't read SF — particularly classic canon works — is because it's one of those instances where they still believe it to be a boy's world? Man-toys for man-brains and therefore outside the scope of female enjoyment. I find it strange that female empowerment have gained so much in other areas of our lives — corporate and sports for instance — but that there appears to linger a division when it comes to a literary genre.
And remember, anything you think can be held against you.