Category Archives: Feminism

A Steampunk Feminist’s Perspective on Science Week 2017

Warning Science Ahead

 

You can’t have Steampunk without Science … it would be like trying to build a locomotive without cogs! You could do it with great difficulty, but is the result worth the effort? And is it in a recognisable form? Do the wheels fall off when you try to run with it? I have read Science Fiction stories that claim to have no science, but it sneaks in under the door like smoke from a coal fire. After all, you can’t have a coal fire without coal!

Rocket for SCIENCE

This week is World Science Week, celebrating all the various fields of science from the so-called ‘soft sciences’ like Sociology and Anthropology all the way through to the diamond-hard sciences involving Physics. (Personally, I find this sort of description of the fields of science rather judgemental and divisive, and pretty damn useless.) In Brisbane, the majority of the festivities are taking place in and around the Cultural Precinct. You can find a description of the events here: http://www.worldsciencefestival.com.au/

I attended a Science Writing workshop that was one of the events to kick off the celebrations. I wondered if I should attend, since I have considered myself a science writer for over fifteen years, but curiosity and interest got me there in the end. I am endlessly fascinated by how other writers work. It was a well run and very useful workshop, and I always gain insights into my own process as well as garnering some very good tips.

What I did notice was that most of Science Writers mentioned in the course were men, while at the same time, only one man attended the workshop; the rest were women (including me). Several of the women attendees were already working as science writers or scientists (or both). I wonder if this a sign that things are about the change in the field of Science Writing, to reflect the increase of women working in the STEM fields. As well, the workshop didn’t mention too much about blogging, which is a growing arena for science writing. My favourite female science blogger is the SciBabe: http://scibabe.com/

Science!

So, as more women find their feet in the various fields of science, gain respect, and go on to have stellar careers … so should the women science writers … as should the female writers in the Steampunk genre. There is a knock-on effect.

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Filed under Feminism, Science, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Themes, Uncategorized, Women in Science

Diving into a research maze

1880-miss-bernhardt-the-ocean-express-miss-bernhardt-with-person-in-deep-sea-diving-gear-standing-alongside

Miss Sarah Bernhardt, as the Ocean Empress, circa 1880. Image from the Library of Congress

 

This is a story about how a writer can waste an entire day excited by an image, to come up empty handed. I come across the above image, of a pretty woman seated beside a man dressed in a diving suit, about twice a month. This is probably because the photograph conforms to the ‘Steampunk’ genre and aesthetic – contrasting a Victorian beauty with the ‘high tech’ of the diving suit. Then I stumbled across the photograph below, of the same woman wearing a dive suit!

girl-dressed-as-diver

Miss Sarah Bernhardt, as the Ocean Empress, in Diving Gear, circa 1880.              Image from the Library of Congress.

Well, I was excited. Maybe the young woman was an adventurer, like lady aviators, exploring under the horizon instead of above it. The only problem was the image of the young woman had been shared so many times, that I couldn’t follow it back to the original posting. Then I tried searching for ‘Victorian era woman diver’. Alas, I was both lucky and unlucky. It turns out this is the actress, Sarah Bernhardt, dressed as the Ocean Empress. So I discovered the original images in the Library of Congress, but no evidence of a lady diving adventurer.

mrs-mitchell-one-of-englands-first-female-deep-sea-divers-before-beginning-her-workday-inspecting-ships-hulls-at-the-tilbury-docks

Mrs Mitchell, one of England’s first female deep sea divers, before beginning her workday inspecting ships’ hulls at the Tilbury Docks. (From “Ein seltener Frauenberuf,” Die Welt der Frau, no. 47 [1908]: 752.)

As far as I can tell, the earliest mention of female divers was around 1908, just missing the Victorian era. I do think the picture of Mrs Mitchell is more than awesome, however. Look at that confident smile! She had to be physically strong to even walk in that suit! If any of you know of earlier instances, please feel free to correct me.

In my Steampunk Work-in-Progress (yes, I know, you are all waiting for me to actually finish it), my protagonist actually does don a diving suit. The ‘modern’ diving suit was invented in the 1700s.  The British engineer, Augustus Siebe, developed the standard diving dress in the 1830s, the metal and glass helmet fitted to a full length watertight canvas diving suit, with tubes attached. The first commercially successful closed-circuit scuba tank was designed and built by the English diving engineer, Henry Fleuss, in 1878, while working for Siebe Gorman (founded and run by Augustus Gorman). His self-contained breathing apparatus consisted of a rubber mask connected to a breathing bag, with the oxygen supplied from a copper tank and carbon dioxide scrubbed by rope yarn soaked in caustic potash; the system’s functional duration was about three hours. This means that in 1871 – the era of my setting – it would not be too outrageous that she might have used a prototype of the scuba tank.

After all, it’s MY story. *grins* The fact it might not work as planned only adds to the suspense.

 

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Filed under Feminism, Historical Personage, History, Sarah Bernhardt, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, The Writing Life, Uncategorized

Women Authors in Science Fiction

mary-shelley-1

Mary Shelley

That old, tired, perennial concept – that women don’t write or read Science Fiction  – has reared its ugly head again. I could add to this list Kate Wilhelm, Anne McCaffrey, Diana Wynne Jones, Jennifer Fallon, Elizabeth Scarborough, R. A. MacAvoy, Judith Tarr, dear goddess, a host of others, to the list below.

Just one of List of Women Writers of Science Fiction

 

Speaking of lists, I did a quick review of some ‘best of’ lists.

One third (33%) of Buzzfeed’s top 24 science fiction books of 2015 were authored by women.

In the Barnes and Noble list of the Best 24 Science Fiction and Fantasy books for 2015, fourteen women authors were represented on the list. That is 58% of the list.

The Guardian’s list of the Best Science Fiction Books for 2014 listed fourteen books, and six of the authors named were women (42%), with special mention being made of Anne Lecki.

Gizmodo’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy books of 2014 listed 22 books and eight women authors made their list. That is 36% of the list.

Overall, this means over forty percent of the top books of the last two years were authored by women. Women not only represent a large proportion of SF authors, they are also among the best known. We study them at school and university (as I well know), and not in Gender Study classes but in Literature classes. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Just about anything by Ursula Le Guin.

More than half of the readers for Science Fiction and Fantasy are women; mainly because more women read these days than men.

*rolls eyes*

I hope I don’t have to bring this up again!

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Misunderstanding the concept of a Strong Woman Character – Steampunk Feminist Perspective

image-from-etsy-02

When a writer talks about a ‘strong’ character, they don’t actually mean that the character is physically able to lift a horse or beat up ten opponents or swears like a shearer. A strong character is a complex character, three dimensional, not a stereotype. There have been some work put into constructing the character. The character lives and breathes on the page.

Lately, there has been a trend toward ‘strong female characters’ in books, television, and Hollywood movies. However, it appears that the multiple meanings of the word ‘strong’ has confused a lot of people. So, here are some questions you can ask yourself when trying to decide if a ‘strong female character’ is strong in name only.

1/ Are her actions over-the-top to overcompensate for the lack of other female characters or a personality of her own? SFC often display exaggerated ‘tough’ mannerisms that no man would get away with, or take risks that are stupid rather than brave.

karathrace

Think of the characterisation of Starbuck, Kara Thrace, during the first season of the new version of Battlestar Galactica. When we first encounter Kara Thrace, she bears a strong resemblance to the original 1978 Starbuck character: both were portrayed as hot-headed and cocky fighter pilots, with a tendency to challenge authority head-on and get into trouble. Both were avid gamblers and enjoyed drinking, smoking cigars, and casual sex. Except Kara was even more full on than the original Starbuck. She did stupid things that a trained warrior would never do. However…

All kudos to both the writers of the series and actor Katee Sackhoff for being able to give this version of Starbuck to opportunity to grow and change.

2/ Is she ‘every bit as good as a boy’?  In other words, is she simply a male character in every aspect but her gender? Is she a classic Patriarchal male in all her strengths and virtues, and in her flaws, as well as her values – with only her gender ticked as ‘woman’ rather than ‘man’?

sergeant-calhoun

Sergeant Calhoun

Look at Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-it Ralph. Here is her character description from the Disney-Wiki:

Calhoun is hardcore, tough, and incredibly strict. She commands her troops with a firm and domineering hand, and exhibits a fierce tenacity in which failure is never an option. She has no tolerance for shortcomings, and doesn’t hesitate to roughly reprimand her soldiers, and additionally seems to enjoy goading them with taunts to increase their drive. Although Calhoun comes off at first as crass and callous, she is very serious and stoic when not engaged in gameplay. Her tragic backstory has left her heartbroken and untrusting, with a dry sense of humor. It is her backstory and her dedication to her job that she appears to consider herself a soldier first and woman second.

The comment that she is “a soldier first and a woman second”is telling. I’m yet to hear a man described as ‘a soldier first and a man second’, because, of course, the default setting for soldiers are that they are men.

sharon-stone-as-the-lady

I’m also thinking of Sharon Stone’s The Lady in The Quick and the Dead. Clint Eastwood  – in his spaghetti western era – could have played her role. Her backstory was the same backstory for a dozen Western movies.

Tasha Robinson wrote a compelling argument against Strong Female Characters during last year’s summer blockbuster season, lamenting that: “Bringing in a Strong Female Character™ isn’t actually a feminist statement, or an inclusionary statement, or even a basic equality statement, if the character doesn’t have any reason to be in the story except to let filmmakers point at her on the poster and say ‘See? This film totally respects strong women!'” The irony of the celebration of and hunger for Strong Female Characters is that they perpetuate macho notions of strength and capability, which just happen to be communicated by women and girls.

From the article I’m Sick of Strong Female Characters in Film by Clem Bastow

3/ Does the character have agency and a voice of her own? Does she make her own decisions and take responsibility for her own actions? Does she disappear during the action? Is she the rescuer or the rescued? Does she act and her actions impact the plot, or does most of the action take place around her?

Part of this problem is the idea that behind every great man is a great woman.  It means that the woman’s actions are still being defined by a man. Why isn’t the woman just out there doing for herself?

This one can be tricky. Consider Valka from How to Catch Your Dragon 2; she plays no real part in the plot after her build-up as an awesome character. Of course, overcoming this lack of voice and agency makes for a brilliant story, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Female characters lacking in voice and agency tand not to be that memorable. Gee, I wonder why?

4/ Does she end up as the trophy for the male Protagonist? This is a Disney favourite. Think about Jasmine from Aladdin and Meg from Hercules.

aladdin_jasmine

meg

They were sassy. Independent. Actually played a part in the resolution of the story. And still ended up as the trophy brides. This happens so much, I could let you make your own list…

It doesn’t matter how sassy your SFC is, if at the end of the story she is the ‘prize’ won by the hero. The very worst example I can think of is Kate from the movie, Hackers. Kate is the only girl in the hackers group AND she is the ‘prize’ in a bet between her and the protagonist, Dade. I came out of that movie completely enraged.

kate-from-hackers

Kate was played by a very young Angelina Jolie.

5/ Is the SFC complex and three dimensional?  Or is her ‘strength’ her only defining characteristic?  The white-haired witch from the movie, The Forbidden Kingdom, is powerful, and evil, and we have no idea why. Oh, she wants to be immortal … but we are never given any backstory or understanding of her character. She is just strong, physically and magically.

white-haired-witch

As a child, my youngest daughter loved this character because she was so strong, and she wanted to be that strong with magic. I’m not saying that children don’t love complex characters, but when your target audience is older, you need more than strength to define a character.

Gazelle from the movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service, is another of these strong girls with one dimension characterisations. Imagine how much more interesting her character would have been if she had been allowed some dialogue and an insight into her motivations. Was she in it for the money? Did she hate humanity? Was she in love with Valentine or his ideals?

6/ Is she the token female in an all male cast?

avengers-movie-poster-1

age-of-ultron

civil-war

Oh look, a girl on each side…

Need I say more? Others have written reams about how badly the character of the Black Widow is being treated in these movies.

7/ Could all her strengths be defined as masculine strengths, rather than her being strong in her own unique way? In other words, could your SFC be replaced by a male character and no one would notice the difference?

Strength comes in many different forms. If you classify as strength only in terms relating to overt masculinity, you are misunderstanding what strong means. I want to see a strong Female Character who can rejoice in her ‘female’ and girly strengths. She laughs or cries because showing emotion isn’t a weakness. She is strong – not in spite her femininity – but because of it, while at the same time not letting her femininity define her.

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Filed under Characterization, Feminism, Steampunk Feminist, Stereotypes, Uncategorized

Caricature versus Stereotype: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

A Stereotype: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.

A Caricature: a picture, description, or imitation of a person in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect.

From Google Definitions

Caricatures of attendees at an Australian suffragette meeting.

Caricatures of the attendees at an Australian suffragette meeting.

Anti-suffragette cartoons

The stereotype versus the caricature.

own worst enemy

anti-suffragist choir.jpg

Suffragette3USE

The Stereotype of a Suffragette from the viewpoint of those against the suffragette movement.

what I would do with...

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It’s been a mad week.

To make up for it, here are three articles you should read.

 

Women in Science: An Illustrated Who’s Who

 

http://www.vox.com/2016/7/14/12016710/science-challeges-research-funding-peer-review-process

 

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Écriture Féminine Mécanique: The Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Robot woman from Pinterest

manufacturing-a-womans-sentence-virginia-woolfs-criture-fminine-mcanique-11-638

In reality, a mechanism has no gender or sexuality, even if it is painted pink and covered in lace, or gunmetal grey and carrying weaponry. Even the most sophisticated computer -designed to mimic feminine or masculine traits, like Siri – has no innate gender. Our Western society posits ‘normal’ as ‘male’, and so most robots are thought of as male, unless the robot is overtly feminine.

Begging robot

Is this robot ‘gendered’ in your opinion? If so, do you see a masculine or feminine mechanism?

This androcentric designation of gadgets and robots had been used within the Steampunk literary genre as well. Unless you specifically write against this, it is a very easy lazy writing trap to fall into. However, it also doesn’t work if you designate all your robots and gadgets as ‘female’; unless you want your inventors to be characterised as straw feminists.The TV Tropes website has a page dedicated to the phenomenon of androcentric gendering.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MenAreGenericWomenAreSpecial

ruptures and spaces

As the English language has an underlying Patriarchal discourse, language cannot be considered a gender neutral medium. Western culture in the Victorian era was staunchly Patriarchal, but that doesn’t not mean that Steampunk narratives have to mimic that cultural prejudice. In fact, I would argue that the Steampunk literary genre should embrace the concept of Écriture Féminine because of the overwhelming Patriarchal discourse, to give balance and a postmodern resonance to any narratives.

Even if you are writing in an androcentric manner for the purposes of parody and/or satire, you should be writing with the awareness of how your word choices define gender within your prose. Écriture féminine isn’t – and shouldn’t be – limited to women writers. It is just another brush to add to your writer’s toolkit.

a-very-rough-guide-to-feminist-criticism-4-638

 

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