Writing about women in SF: Le Guin, Finkbeiner, Bechdel…

Doing some preparation for a post about Ursula K. Le Guin, I began to get worried. I am part of the problem. In wanting to say that I think we have something to learn from Ursula K. Le Guin, and in suggesting that she is different from main-line SF, I implicitly, accidentally set up a dichotomy. It is all-too-easy then to retrofit this onto a framework of gender, and then we just have another piece of text which has been sucked into the same old sexist vortex of male SF authors are from Mars, and female SF authors are from etc. Even looking up a copy of Worlds of Exile and Illusion online, I read that here we find that ‘three classic novels are offered in one volume by SF’s greatest living female writer.’ Greatest living female writer. Right. Even to get rid of the problematic italicized word there, it would still be read as ‘greatest living female writer.’

To deal with this to my own satisfaction, I am going to borrow from male gay David M. Halperin’s wonderful book, How to be Gay. In a chapter detailing the development of his book from a seminar he offered at the University of Michigan, he delineates his own attempts at developing a theoretical framework for his project. Gay studies, scholars of homosexuality, and queer theorists do not often speak the same conceptual language. Where once queer theory was a part of the extra-academic discourse around homosexuality (that is beyond academia, among the activist community, and then to the statistically average LGBT person in the street) now it has much of guild-speech about it. This has made it less useful to those who most need it, those requiring a theory of who they are and why they are:

“But as queer theory has become institutionalized, the understandable reluctance to accept essentialist assumptions about lesbians and gay men has hardened into an automatic self-justifying dogmatism, a visceral impulse to preempt the merest acknowledgement of any cultural patterns or practices that might be distinctive to homosexuals.” [p. 63]

Halperin begins then to develop the notion that we can point towards commonalities which need not be regarded as coercive. That we can indicate similarities, without these being an opportunity for those with power to oppress those without it.

So I have a framework at least now for how to approach my problem, but having worked for a time in the world of research and quantification, I would like to have some framework of approaching this matter. Thankfully, there are analogues. For instance, in writing about women in science, the woman science writer Ann Finkbeiner detailed her approach to a magazine assignment she was given, and this was codified by female Christie Aschwanden as ‘The Finkbeiner Test’. To pass the test, an article about a female scientist cannot mention:

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to…”

This became a hot topic recently with the New York Times’s obituary for the rocket scientist, Yvonne Brill, with the obit failing the Finkbeiner Test miserably (as this article on iO9 helpfully details ‘The New York Times fails miserably in its obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill’). Aschwanden’s post also pointed me in the direction of the ‘Bechdel Test‘, used to identify gender bias in fiction. Alison Bechdel, a lesbian woman cartoonist, introduces it in her strip, ‘The Rule’.

Here the movie worth watching is described as worth watching if:

  • it has to have at least two women in it,
  • who talk to each other,
  • about something besides a man.

(NPR has an item on this here, exploring the possibilities of extending it to representations of African Americans, and Latin Americans).

One argument against these (vaguely tongue-in-cheek) attempts at quantification of exclusion is that they are reactionary, simply going in the other direction. The suggestion is that we should not draw attention to matters, and get on with it. The problem with effacing any sort of difference is that ‘just getting on with it’ will always favour the status quo, will always favour things staying just the same, will always favour the same hegemonic representations of this masculine, heterosexual, western world. By drawing attention via these humorous metrics (with serious intent) to how our most prevalent and pervasive cultural representations of our world habitually exclude half + of this world, we show that our forms of speech and art and writing are never  neutral in ethics, nor exhaustive in description. 


Just after finishing this, I came across the wonderful ‘”We Have Always Fought”: Challenging the “Women, Cattle and Slaves” Narrative’ by Kameron Hurley. Read it.


11 thoughts on “Writing about women in SF: Le Guin, Finkbeiner, Bechdel…

  1. I don’t think there’s much to worry about — scholars, readers, etc generally consider her one of the best science fiction writers period — regardless of gender….

  2. Agreed, but my post will be discussing what makes her different from most of the most celebrated (and male) writers of SF. I don’t want it to seem like I am suggesting there is an essentially female form of SF. I’m being neurotic about it, perhaps, but I’d rather be too careful than clumsy and insensitive.

  3. “essentially female form of SF” — well, if you want to do that then you are reinforcing all that Le Guin seeks to combat, the idea that gender is much more amorphous — a la, The Left Hand of Darkness. So, I disagree utterly with such essentialism….

  4. Started with that years back, and still think it’s her strongest work. The Dispossessed is of course excellent too, but stuff like The Lathe of Heaven and The Word for World is Forest left me a little cold. I have to say I find the three earlier Hainish novels collected in Worlds of Exile and Illusion are almost on a level with The Dispossessed. They need a wider audience! Never got involved with the Earthsea stuff though.

    • yah, I haven’t read The Word for World is Forest of Illusion. But, have read the Earthsea stuff — actually that’s what I read first, and disliked it… As a result took me forever to get around to reading her sci-fi. I do enjoy her Hainish novels but I think they are definitely not as powerful or thought provoking as The Left Hand of Darkness

  5. Some people would say that we need a ground from which to act. We need a shared collective ground for collective action. I think we need to pursue the moments of degrounding, when we’re standing in two different places at once; or we don’t know exactly where we’re standing; or when we’ve produced an aesthetic practice that shakes the ground. That’s where resistance to recuperation happens. It’s like a breaking through to a new set of paradigms.
    Butler, Judith, Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal (Interviewers). “Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler.” in: Radical Philosophy. 1994.

  6. Pingback: What Ursula K. Le Guin has taught SF | Wetwiring

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s