English novelist Mary Shelley was born exactly 216 years ago. One hundred and ninety five years ago, she wrote "Frankenstein," one of the world’s most famous science fiction novels of all time. Although women’s rights have changed dramatically since Shelley’s time, the genre of science fiction still struggles to empower women. The most anticipated sci-fi films are still largely led by men, and when anyone claims Angelina Jolie is the most influential woman in sci-fi, it’s clear that something’s not right. However, women have made strides in the field, both on screen and off it. Here’s a look at how sci-fi is slowly becoming less of a boys’ club.
The Guardian's Damien Walter recently discusses the problem in his column. He points out that of the 29 people who have won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's lifetime achievement award, only four have been women. However, it's important to note is that three of the female winners received the award in the past decade. The number of female sci-fi writers has more than tripled since 1948, and a number of Goodreads’ 2012 best sci-fi novels were penned by women.
Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" series shows how successful science fiction novels written by women can also elevate women in film; the series was not only written by a woman, but features a strong female lead. While we all know it’s important to recognize the role of female writers, it’s equally important for there to be significant and well-written female characters in science fiction books, films, and television shows. Collins' Katniss Everdeen made it apparent that powerful female protagonists in science fiction can be a commercial hit, thus encouraging the promotion of female characters in the future. A good example of this is Veronica Roth’s "Divergent," a dystopian science-fiction novel set in futuristic Chicago that was quickly picked up by Summit Entertainment (the series’ first book was published only two years ago). The series' protagonist is a young woman named Tris. Personality-wise, Roth's lead is much more stereotypically feminine than Collins' Katniss, but she still takes an influential position in her world.
Female science fiction characters aren't just gaining momentum and mainstream acceptance. They've also become more varied, and are less often reduced to the role of eye candy. Although Jolie’s Lara Croft was influential (just ask the nearly 50% of women who play video games) and popularized strong female action leads, it's problematic to consider Jolie the most influential woman in sci-fi, because she so often serves as a form of eye candy. As a woman with a lifelong interest in sci-fi, I find actresses like Rachel Nichols to be more inspiring. In the Canadian-made series Continuum, Nichols plays Kiera Cameron, a lead character that isn't reduced to her physical assets. Women in the genre — especially in video games — are often provocatively dressed, one-dimensional, and only intended to augment the role of the male lead. In contrast, Continuum's Cameron is a stand-alone character who leads the series, and does so dressed from head-to-toe in practical, though not unattractive, gear. She’s intelligent and a little stoic, and very much a woman (she even has a child). While Cameron's is only one example of a positive female role in sci-fi, the fact that this show is well reviewed, well made, and smart demonstrates how much potential there is for future female roles.
It’s true that women need more representation in science fiction, but it’s not quantity we’re after. What we all want, and should strive for, is better quality in the way women are included. Shelley’s contribution to the genre has been immense, but women are still, most certainly, changing things in sci-fi. As appreciators and consumers of science fiction, it’s up to us to affirm our need and desire for a less male-dominated pool of talent.