“…The story of an astronaut as she struggles to adjust to life on Earth!” the radio ad promised. My car’s dashboard briefly transformed into the glowing cockpit of a space shuttle. Space, psychology, and a female protagonist? That sounded like a movie I’d see (or a book I’d write). But when I looked up which local theaters were playing Lucy in the Sky, disappointing facts emerged. The film is based on the true story of astronaut Lisa Novak, who had an affair with a fellow astronaut and, after they broke up, attempted to kidnap her romantic rival. Early reviews confirmed that despite the galactic glaze, Lucy is an Earth-bound melodrama.
I closed my browser in disgust. Women’s contributions to space exploration include so many episodes worthy of the big screen, and yet Hollywood condescends to give us something from TV Tropes: “the jealous scorned woman story…IN SPACE!” (Only it’s not even in space, it’s in Florida, which just adds insult to injury.) The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. In the rare instances where sci-fi stories feature a female lead, they all too frequently shape her around the gendered axes of relationships and reproduction.
Reducing women to their reproductive systems has a long, frustrating history in the U.S. space program. In the 1950s, the doctor evaluating candidates for the U.S. space program suspected women might surpass men as astronauts, so he subjected female pilots to the same physiological tests as their male counterparts. Thirteen of 19 women passed, compared to 18 of 32 men (68% vs. 56% success rates, respectively). And yet the project’s sole report, released in 1964, highlights “the potential for the menstrual cycle to alter performance during space flight” and the “intricacies of matching a temperamental psychophysiologic human and the complicated machine.” Beneath the faux-scientific jargon lurks simple, unsubstantiated bias: women are slaves to PMS and can’t be trusted on a shuttle.
NASA finally accepted female astronauts in 1978, but the alarming attitudes persisted. When Sally Ride made her historic trip five years later, NASA engineers asked her if 100 tampons was enough for a one-week spaceflight. (I’ll pause while my female readers laugh hysterically—and yes, I use the adverb “hysterically” with a touch of Latin irony.) Ride’s shuttle commander introduced her at a press event as “undoubtedly the prettiest member of the crew,” and a reporter asked if she would react to a problem on the shuttle by crying. Another member of Ride’s astronaut class, Shannon Lucid, was repeatedly asked how her children were coping with her decision to go into space. Proving themselves the equals of male colleagues wasn’t enough to shatter the myopic lens through which the public saw these people.
One place women should be able to transcend these biases is the science fiction, a genre that breaks the orbit of history to imagine a different tomorrow…right? Alas, racking my brain and my bookshelf didn’t produce many contrary examples. Although girls star in popular semi-sci-fi series like The Hunger Games and Divergent, romantic angst usually eclipses the heroine’s other motivations by the end. Cinema darlings Gravity and Arrival both centered on women coping with the loss of a child. Dedicated gender dystopias such as The Handmaid’s Tale try to explore these themes in an overt manner, but in so doing, inadvertently reinforce the trend. Even science fiction novels I otherwise admire, such as Octavia Butler’s Dawn and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, flirt with biological determinism.
These themes are certainly part of some women’s experiences, and the stories deserve to be told. But they shouldn’t be the only roles we are allowed to inhabit. Our personalities are not rooted in our vaginas. Where are the heroines with motives beyond their lovers and children? Where are the female counterparts of Ender Wiggin, Paul Atreides, Rick Deckard, or even Arthur Dent? The diversity of women’s natures is as vast as the universe itself, and yet social gravity confines us to the binary star of love and maternity. Science fiction, of all genres, should be charting a better course.
I embrace this belief fiercely in my own books, creating female protagonists with distinctly non-uterine drivers. Amaya fights to keep herself and her sister alive another day in a harsh, water-deprived environment; Skye risks everything to liberate her community from self-imposed exile; Petra investigates homicides linked to her own traumatic combat service. While all three eventually develop a love interest (because I’m a sucker for a good ship, like everyone else), it remains firmly in subplot status. These heroines are more than their hormones. Just as significantly, their male allies don’t patronize them. Sound more like fantasy? Maybe. But if we can’t imagine a more equitable future in fiction, we cannot hope to achieve one in reality.
So do we really need another narrative that flogs tired gender tropes? I don’t. Maybe I’ll watch Lucy in the Sky when it comes to Netflix, but this weekend I’ll skip the theater and spend my time writing instead. Someone has to challenge the hidebound portrayals of women IN SPACE. If the high-visibility creators won’t do it, this plucky undiscovered indie author will.
Can you can introduce me to some cliche-shattering science fiction heroines? Leave your recommendations in the comments.