"Science fiction and fantasy serve as important vehicles for feminist thought, particularly as bridges between theory and practice. No other genres so actively invite representations of the ultimate goals of feminism: worlds free of sexism, worlds in which women's contributions (to science) are recognized and valued, worlds in which the diversity of women's desire and sexuality, and worlds that move beyond gender.
Women writers have played key roles in science fiction and fantasy literature, often addressing themes of gender. One of the first writers of science fiction was Mary Shelley, whose novel Frankenstein dealt with the asexual creation of new life, a re-telling of the Adam and Eve story.
Women writers in the utopian literature movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at the time of first wave feminism, often addressed sexism. Charlotte Perkins Gilman did so in Herland, for example. The Sultana's Dream (1905) by Bengali Muslim feminist Roquia Sakhawat Hussain depicts a gender-reversed purdah in an alternate and terminologically futuristic world. During the 1920s writers such as Clare Winger Harris and Gertrude Barrows Bennett published science fiction stories written from female perspectives and occasionally dealt with gender and sexuality based topics. Meanwhile, much pulp science fiction published during 1920s and 1930s carried an exaggerated view of masculinity along with sexist portrayals of women. By the 1960s science fiction was combining sensationalism with political and technological critiques of society. With the advent of feminism, women’s roles were questioned in this "subversive, mind expanding genre.
Two notable texts early in second wave feminism are Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and Joanna Russ' The Female Man (1970). Each highlights the socially constructed aspects of gender roles by creating utopias with genderless societies. Both authors were pioneers in feminist criticism of science fiction during the 1960s and 70s through essays collected in The Language of the Night (Le Guin, 1979) and How To Suppress Women's Writing (Russ, 1983). Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale tells a dystopic tale of a society in which women have been systematically stripped of all liberty, and was motivated by fear of potential retrogressive effects on women's rights stemming from the feminist backlash of the 1980s. Octavia Butler poses complicated questions about the nature of race and gender in Kindred (1979).
By the 1970s the science fiction community was confronting questions of feminism and sexism within science fiction culture itself. Multiple Hugo-winning fan writer and professor of literature Susan Wood and others organized the "feminist panel" at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention against considerable resistance. Reactions to the appearance of feminists among fannish ranks led indirectly to the creation of A Women's APA and WisCon.
Feminist science fiction is sometimes taught at the university level to explore the role of social constructs in understanding gender.
One of the first appearances of a strong female character was that of Wonder Woman co-created by husband and wife team William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway Marston. In December 1941, Wonder Woman came to life on the pages of All Star Comics volume eight. The character later spawned a television series starring Lynda Carter, and played a role in animated series such as Super Friends and the Justice League. A film adaptation, Wonder Woman, is currently underway.
Feminism has driven the creation of a considerable body of action-oriented science fiction with female protagonists: Wonder Woman (actually originally created in 1941) and the The Bionic Woman during the time of the organized women's movement in the 1970s; Terminator 2 and the Alien tetralogy in the 1980s; and Xena, Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 2001 science fiction TV series Dark Angel featured a powerful female protagonist, with gender roles between her and the main male character generally reversed.
However, feminists have also created science fiction that directly engages with feminism beyond the creation of female action heroes. Television and film have offered opportunities for expressing new ideas about social structures and the ways feminists influence science. Feminist science fiction provides a means to challenge the norms of society and suggest new standards for how societies view gender. The genre also deals with male/female categories, showing how female roles can differ from feminine roles. Hence feminism influences the film industry by creating new ways of exploring and looking at masculinity/femininity and male/female roles.
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