Welcome back to A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction constructs its social and political futures. For our last column of 2018, our topic is Aminder Dhaliwal’s webcomic Woman World, recently collected in a printed volume. We’re going to do something a little different this time, though, and use our topic as a jumping-off point for a broader discussion of how gender, gender roles, and gender identity, are handled in different works of science fiction, and how the genre has struggled to incorporate changes in gender roles into its worldbuilding.
There’s a tendency to treat feminism and other gender-based political movements as something distinct from politics as a whole. Even those of us who aren’t frothing about “idpol” can end up falling into this trap—and at the outer edges, there can be some justification for it, as in the cries one sometimes hears heralding female politicians and executives as feminists even when the policies they espouse are anti-woman and anti-progressive. But if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that gender roles are inextricably woven into the political vision of many of our dominant parties, and that we ignore this at our own peril.
We see this most prominently in the alt-right and its various precursor movements like GamerGate and the Rabid Puppies, which are rooted in a vehement (and sometimes violent) rejection of the equal participation of women in society. But even the so-called centrist media can end up reinforcing a gender-based narrative—see, for example, the way that Hillary Clinton powering through pneumonia to attend a 9/11 memorial ceremony and feeling faint as a result was treated as evidence of her frailty, whereas Donald Trump producing a laughably fake testimonial of his physical fitness from a disreputable doctor was accepted with scarcely any demurral. Gender roles and norms are a fundamental component of any human society, and one could argue that no work of worldbuilding can be called complete unless it has considered how these have changed—or why they haven’t.
Perhaps more than any other topic, gender challenges writers of science fiction to expand their viewpoint and imagine different ways of ordering society. The adage that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism applies even more strongly to prevailing gender norms. Many early science fiction writers found themselves, either intentionally or thoughtlessly, replicating the gender roles of their moment even as they invented technologies that would overhaul their societies. Asimov’s robot stories, for example, are steeped in 1950s middle class gender roles that even he must have known were not a universal constant. This despite the fact that most of the robots introduced to these settings are intended for household labor (and, for some reason, coded male).
I have a vivid memory, as a young teen, of reading Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and being brought up short by a scene in which the male protagonist muses that some women shouldn’t be allowed in space, because the undulations of their breasts in zero gravity are too distracting for their male colleagues. Apparently, Clarke could imagine space travel, and the alien foreignness of the Raman artifact, but not any future developments in the science of sports bras. (For that matter, let me not get into the enormous lacunae that is SFnal invention in the field of pregnancy and childbirth, which has given us such nonsense as a highly technological, space-faring society in which a woman near the end of her pregnancy might not be aware that she is carrying twins.)
Even writers who set out to create gender-blind futures often find themselves tripped up by their own prejudices and blindspots. Characters on Star Trek may have insisted that they lived in an egalitarian future, but it’s still glaring that two out of three female castmembers on The Next Generation were caretakers and nurturers (and that’s not even to mention the near-total absence of queer characters and relationships in the franchise). Iain Banks clearly imagined the Culture as completely free of gendered prejudice and expectations, but he couldn’t avoid some of his own blind spots when it came to the lived experience of women, such as the frequent use of rape (always directed against women) as a way of distinguishing bad guys, or a subplot in Excession (1996) in which a character chooses to remain full-term pregnant for four decades.
(You’ll probably have noticed that I’m using “changing gender norms in SF” interchangeably with “changing norms for women”. This is partly my own bias, but it also reflects the prevailing approach of the genre. Men are still the unmarked category, and there are few if any SF works that deal with the changing face of masculinity or the male experience. This, however, is not to say that masculinity in SF hasn’t undergone changes, merely that these have gone unremarked. As Erin Horáková noted in her monumental essay “Kirk Drift”, it’s startling to observe how, over the course of decades that have seen queer identity and relationships gain some mainstream acceptance, pop culture has undergone a stealth backlash that has narrowed the limits of what masculine behavior can be, especially for heroes. The heroes of only a few decades ago possessed soft skills like diplomacy and the ability to manage others, but modern heroes are often lauded for being meatheaded, belligerent assholes.)
In the 90s, SF—particularly in film and TV—tried to imagine changing gender roles by focusing more on heroines, leading to the era of the Strong Female Character. There’s a lot to be written about this period, which ranges roughly from Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) to the new Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009), but for the purposes of our discussion it’s interesting to note how much these characters reflected the struggles and anxieties of writers trying to imagine women in dominant, traditionally masculine roles. It’s not that I don’t love these characters—you will pry Buffy Summers, Dana Scully, Kira Nerys, and Aeryn Sun from my cold dead fingers. But looking back on them as an adult it’s glaring how much their humanity was boxed-in by what their writers perceived as an inherent contradiction between being a woman on the one hand, and possessing strength and authority on the other.
Very few of these characters were allowed to experience or express soft emotions. Romance was often seen as weakening them, and their inability to navigate it often played for laughs. And while many of them were praised for wielding violence, only a few were allowed to process it as an actual human being might, as a corrosive force that causes trauma and can erode the soul. It was actually Star Trek, that alleged juggernaut of utopianism, that stumbled most egregiously in its attempts to create a female lead character, resulting in Voyager‘s Kathryn Janeway, the franchise’s most inconsistently-written lead, whose writers were clearly baffled and embarrassed by her femaleness.
Of course, part of the problem with these depictions is that they focus on unique individuals. Even if Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica tell us that their worlds are fully gender-integrated, the emphasis on specific heroines—especially when presented to an audience in a world where real-life counterparts for those heroines are still so rare—can’t help but reinforce the opposite message. Works like Naomi Alderman’s The Power (2016) try to imagine a world in which all women suddenly become more powerful than all men. As I wrote in my review of the book at Strange Horizons, Alderman’s project has less to do with gender than with the question of how deeply the potential for violence is embedded in our social structure—and what happens when the direction of that violent potential is suddenly reversed. But the early parts of the novel are a fascinating portrait of how even in a supposedly egalitarian, modern society, women are hemmed in by gendered expectations, and how the sudden discovery that they are strong can free them in the most terrible, irreversible way.
Many SF writers try to imagine settings where gender has been defused of all cultural associations. To go back to Banks, in several of his books he contrasts the Culture with societies in which gender prejudice still exists (The Players of Games, 1988; Inversions, 1998), in order to highlight the foreignness of such a prejudice to his Culture citizen characters, as well as its ultimate destructiveness. Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch books (Ancillary Justice, 2013; Ancillary Sword, 2014; Ancillary Mercy, 2015) go further with their erasure of gender roles. Most emphasis in discussions of the books has been on their use of pronouns—within the Radch, all people are referred to with feminine pronouns, regardless of their biological or preferred gender. But the innovation this suggests runs deeper: the society described in the books has removed gender from the public discourse, reducing it purely to a matter of genitalia which is relevant only to the few people who get to see them. In your public life, your gender plays no role in how you participate in society.
Ada Palmer, in her Terra Ignota sequence (Too Like the Lightning, 2016; Seven Surrenders, 2017; The Will to Battle, 2017; Perhaps the Stars, forthcoming) offers a less optimist response to such a setting. Palmer imagines a world where gender has, similarly to the Radch books, been removed from public discourse. The generic pronoun is “they” and referring to someone by a gendered pronoun without their permission (and in a non-intimate setting) is considered extremely rude. The result has been to taboo-ize gender, and turn it into an illicit fetish, leading to the rise of underground clubs where people perform regressive, toxic stereotypes of gendered behavior.
Discussions of gender roles lead inevitably to discussions of the definition of gender, and thus to gender transition. Some (though not many) SF authors imagine futures in which it is possible to switch genders on a whim. Banks’s characters treat gender the way most of us treat hairstyles—some people stay with what they started with, some people find a style that works for them, and some people switch around all the time. But the absence of any serious treatment of queerness in his books undercuts the capacity of this device to engage with present-day issues of gender and transness. Yoon Ha Lee, in many ways Banks’s successor, is more direct in his Hexarchate books, in which sex change exists, and it is considered accepted for “manform” and “womanform” people to identify otherwise, but there are still social tensions around these issues.
Several recent works have imagined worlds in which children are treated as agender until they choose to express one themselves (or not) in adulthood. In Ann Leckie’s Provenance (2017), the heroine’s world, which neighbors the Radch, recognizes male, female, and null genders, and it is one of the milestones of adulthood for a child to declare themselves as one (what relation, if any, declared gender has to physical genitalia isn’t mentioned). In JY Yang’s Tensorate novellas (The Black Tides of Heaven, 2017; The Red Threads of Fortune, 2017; The Descent of Monsters, 2018), magic is used to keep children agender until they choose one, at which point they become that gender biologically.
A very small number of works try to imagine that the meaning of gender might change on a fundamental, biological level. Gwyneth Jones’s Life (2004) is about a scientist who discovers—even as she struggles with the challenges of being a woman in science—that the Y chromosome is dying out, and that while men will continue to exist, what that means genetically is about to change. It’s a genuine masterpiece (I haven’t mentioned it yet in this series, but Jones is one of most unjustly unheralded geniuses of the genre; her 2010 novel Spirit, for example, is the precursor for a lot of the female-driven, empire-questioning space opera of the last few years), in no small part because of how it engages with the ugly reality of being a woman in a traditionally male profession, even as it imagines that the meaning of “male” and “female” is about to change.
It’s more common for SF to filter anxieties about gender and gender identity through artificial beings, many of whom are assigned a gender that is obviously not rooted in biology, genetics, or reproductive capacity. Whether intentionally or not, this allows these works to reflect prejudices about gender and gendered behavior. In Her (2013), for example, the title character is a bodyless AI, who is assigned a female gender because the film’s male protagonist clearly wants a woman to take care of him. In Ex Machina (2014), an AI goes crazy when forced to embody not just femininity, but the particularly regressive ideas about female behavior instilled in her by two toxic men. Though the film was generally received as a feminist work, to me it seemed more like a parable about the dangers of trying to force someone into a gender they couldn’t identify with.
Another common trope in SF discussions of gender is gendercide. Societies in which one gender has been lost or killed are viewed as diseased, incapable of social growth as an analogue to their inability to propagate (even when that ability has been achieved through technological means). In Aliya Whiteley’s magnificently disturbing novella The Beauty (2014), a society of men live sad lives after an unspecified plague kills all the woman. When a group of women appears in their settlement, the men are so overjoyed that they welcome them in despite obvious signs that all is not right, and even when horrific changes in their own bodies indicate that what they’ve signed up for is not the old social order. In James Tiptree Jr.’s story “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1976), male astronauts lost in time arrive on a future Earth ruled by an all-female society. Though they assume that their unique status will result in their being treated like gods, it quickly becomes clear that men are beside the point in this new humanity, and they are killed off.
A more hopeful handling of this trope can be found in Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male (2017), which discusses the Chinese gender imbalance caused by the One Child Policy and its resulting decades of femicide. King is not the only SF writer to imagine the consequences of this issue, but her version is remarkable for shying away from dystopia, and even imagining that the new social order imposed by the lack of eligible women could lead to happier, more stable family units. In the world of her novel, the Chinese government encourages polyandry, and her story focuses on a single family where this arrangement offers unexpected freedom and support to all members. (In reality, the consequences of the Chinese gender imbalance have been far less salutary for women, with reports of kidnappings and mail-order brides.)
All of which brings us to Woman World, which started its life as a webcomic on Dhaliwal’s Instagram page, and has now been published as a book. The comic takes place in a post-apocalyptic, post-industrial world in which men have died out, and focuses on a single village in the slowly-rebuilding post-men world. The collected edition includes a prologue which discusses the reasons for the absence of men and the social collapse that followed (Dhaliwal is careful to note that one didn’t directly cause the other), but the strips themselves are concerned mainly with day-to-day life in the village, and often don’t have anything to say about men at all.
Woman World is not the first time that comics have dealt with the death of all men. It was preceded by one of the most successful independent comics in recent memory, Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man (2002-2008). Though I’ve enjoyed Vaughan’s subsequent series, Saga (2012-) and Paper Girls (2015-), I never got more than a single volume into Y, mainly because the choice to concentrate on a male protagonist in a story where all the other characters are women, not to mention the rather hysterical tone of the reaction to the men’s absence, turned me right off. Dhaliwal is no doubt aware of Y, and it’s notable how many of her choices with Woman World seem designed to address some of these obvious problems with its premise. Though the women in the village of Beyoncé’s Thighs often wonder what men were like, and construct elaborate (and often humorously inaccurate) fantasies about life in a world where they dominated, most of their lives and stories have, naturally enough, nothing to do with men.
Some of the stories in Woman World revolve around the struggles of post-apocalyptic survival in ways that have nothing to do with gender, except that it’s only women who are facing them (though, seeing as this is a humor comic, none of these struggles are terribly serious or irresolvable; this includes procreation, which in the strip’s world is complicated but very achievable). Others involve the characters exploring the ruins of industrial civilization and puzzling over a way of life that they can only dimly understand. Other storylines aren’t about post-apocalypse at all, such as a running throughline about one character’s unrequited love for another woman who is in a tempestuous relationship, and her slow realization that she has the potential for romance elsewhere.
A running theme in the book is how the characters process the irrationalities of a world ruled by gender bias, which they are often unable to comprehend. One of the village children finds an old DVD case of Paul Blart: Mall Cop and decides that she has discovered the key to understanding the lost male gender; another child despairs of profiting from her scavenging, because all the razors she found were for men, which means there must be something about them that makes them unsuitable to women. Dhaliwal mines some obvious gags out of her setting—it’s amazing she waits as long as she does for a strip about a woman experiencing her period and being coddled and spoiled like a queen—but underlying them all is the fundamentally SFnal recognition that the prejudices of a particular moment can be all but incomprehensible to people outside of it. And conversely, that if you remove a society’s core prejudices, what remains might be completely unrecognizable.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Woman World is how deliberately undramatic it is. These are just stories about women living their lives, and what the absence of men achieves more than anything else is to allow them to do that without restrictions on who or what they can be. The prevailing sense one gets from the comic is one of freedom and ease—from the very expectations that have made so much SF storytelling about changing gender roles such a heavy lift.
And that’s a wrap on APHotF for 2018. Thank you for reading along and commenting. I have some plans for the column next year, including new and recent books by Kim Stanley Robinson, Richard Morgan, Dave Hutchinson, and others. But if you have any suggestions for future discussions, please feel free to mention them in the comments.