Monday, October 25th, 2010

The Fantasy of Girl World: Lady Nerds and Utopias

Here's a story for you. It's an old story, and it goes like this: There's a place where we're in charge. You've never seen it. You can't visit. It doesn't exist—it's in the future, or it's in the past, or it's just sideways, outside our borders, somewhere no one has been. But us, the girls, we run everything there. There aren't any men. Or: There were men, but we kicked them out. Or even: There are men, but they answer to us. This place is always threatened. This place is always on the verge of being invaded. This place is always just about to change. By the end of the story, the world of men will have reached us, and things will be different. But right now, here, at the beginning, there's just us.

It's not news that sci-fi and fantasy are about wish fulfillment. Nerd-dom—which we'll define, generously but maybe not widely enough, as the ability to escape into one's own obsessive interests, to claim realms of expertise and map them with care and detail and a certain degree of detachment from the reality that no one else cares as much as you do and everyone would like you to care a little bit less—has long been one of the culture's most valuable escape hatches for the brainy, the young and the frustrated. Speculative fiction is aimed at nerds, and nerds want to find a place they belong. On the Enterprise, no one cares that you're into space travel. It's also not revolutionary to note that speculative fiction is basically sociology's dream journal; when people tell stories about places and societies that might be, they tell us what they think societies are. What changes, what doesn't and what should. But when girls get involved, stuff gets weird.

When we see the word “nerd,” we don't think of women. We almost can't. All of that geeky energy, that willingness to dive totally into your own anti-social obsessions, is diametrically opposed to our idea of what girls are for. There's science involved, for one thing. And for another, girls aren't sorted into cool or uncool; they're sorted into likable and unlikable. The idea that a girl might follow the lonesome path of the nerd—not trying to fit in, not trying to be accepted, not trying to do anything but fight on the Internet about which "Doctor Who" was better—just contradicts what we all know, which is that for men, life is a sales job, and for women, it's customer service. And yet! The girl nerds, they exist! And they tell their own stories. Stories about escape, about what changes, what doesn't, and what should. And when it comes to lady nerds, those voluntary or involuntary gender rebels, those girls whose brains just don't fit the template, they tell stories about the specific discomforts and desires of that situation. One of the oldest stories is the one where dudes don't run things. Or, you know, exist.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman put the idea forth as early as 1915, in Herland, a novel about three dudely explorers who enter the not-at-all-subtly named Land Without Hims. Their first discovery consists of the fact that the women have short hair. Also, they wear pants. They soon find that not all of the women are hot, or young, which disturbs them greatly. By this point, the reader has made a discovery of her own, which is that these men are not very bright.

They do, however, demonstrate admirable patience when it comes to letting the women of Herland endlessly explain their society. If the revelation that women can put pants on is a shock, just imagine how startling it is to learn that, in Herland, boners are obsolete. Women reproduce parthogenetically—which is to say, with no need for a visit from Mr. Sperm. Here, a sample from the conversation:

"It would be so wonderful — would it not? To compare the history of two thousand years, to see what the differences are — between us, who are only mothers, and you, who are mothers and fathers, too. Of course we see, with our birds, that the father is as useful as the mother, almost. But among insects we find him of less importance, sometimes very little. Is it not so with you?"

"Oh, yes, birds and bugs," Terry said, "but not among animals — have you no animals?"

"We have cats," she said.

Yes. That is actually in there. They never have sex—their lack of sex drive is a major plot point – and they all love cats. WELCOME TO THE FEMINIST UTOPIA.

Goofy as this seems, Gilman was ahead of her time. Andrea Dworkin, notoriously, suggested that what women needed was “land and guns.” (Or non-violent resistance, but that gets less press.) Mary Daly wrote, in Gyn/Ecology, that “many feminists are actively interested in exploring the possibilities of parthenogenesis.” (They were?) Both pointed out the obvious fact that they didn't need to stop having sex in order to stop having sex with men. The desire for a world where women were in charge was so powerful that some weren't content to leave it for fiction, or even for the future; they projected it backward, into the past.

Consider Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. Published in 1982, it's faithfully feminist, and stunningly weird. Influenced by Marija Gimbutas-y mythology (once, there was a peaceful agrarian society of Goddess worshippers; then, monotheism wiped it out, co-opted its iconography and invented sexism), separatism (let's all go to an island and get in touch with our girl power), and apparently Dune (psychic, politically ambitious nuns engaged in selective breeding to bring forth a male Messiah), it hangs them all on the legend of King Arthur, explaining that he was a male Messiah brought forth by psychic, politically ambitious Goddess worshippers who lived on Girl Power Island, AKA Avalon, that he and his sister Morgaine (as in “le Fay”) were mystically duped into having sex for selective breeding purposes, that they both reacted poorly, and that he subsequently went all Paul Atreides and rejected the Goddess worshippers, thus ensuring that Christianity and sexism would reign until the women's spirituality movement emerged and ladies started writing books like The Mists of Avalon. Morgaine, an Avalon supporter, is the protagonist. She is not pleased.

The book says that the problem with Christianity is that it won't tolerate other religions. It implies, however, that the problem with Christianity is that it's a stupid jerk religion for assholes. The ladies in Avalon get psychic powers and meaningful jobs and top-notch liberal arts educations, whereas we manage to make it about three whole chapters into the book before a Christian dude beats his wife and things get all “be silent, you accursed scold” this and “have you put some spell upon my manhood, you accursed bitch” that and “you see what comes of your willfulness, my lady” the other. To argue that the book ultimately teaches religious tolerance is like arguing that old movie serials ultimately taught the importance of cooperation between virtuous maidens and dudes with capes and handlebar moustaches who enjoyed tying maidens to train tracks. Of course, medieval Christianity was deeply misogynist and intolerant, and so was medieval Britain. The crucial addition is a magic island full of twentieth-century Women's Studies majors who can tell everyone else what they're doing wrong and allow readers to feel superior in between the many sex scenes.

The fantasy of Girl World often feels like the feminist imagination taken to its most self-indulgent, hypocritical extremes. We stand for tolerance and egalitarianism, whereas the people who disagree with us are IGNORANT WIFE-BEATING MONSTERS. Women, if left on their own, would eliminate war, poverty, heartbreak and pets that are not cats. But, here's a question for you: Why shouldn't it look like this? What's wrong with a wish-fulfillment fantasy that tells women they could do well with power and without oppression? What's wrong with girls geeking out over the idea that they're special?

Of course, stories can be dangerous; one of the most popular science fiction novels of the twentieth century is by a woman, after all, and it would be a completely harmless tale about a dystopian future and a death ray and a team of heroic scientists, except that it's Atlas Shrugged. Taking writers' work at face value can be dangerous too; Marion Zimmer Bradley spent the end of her life in court, accused of knowingly covering for her ex-husband's pedophilia, which should serve to point out that no side of any debate has a monopoly on hypocrisy. And it's easy to point out the flaws of the books themselves, political or otherwise.

But then, men have always told stories about female worlds too, from Hercules and Hippolyte to Queen of Outer Space to that one "Futurama" episode with Femputer, and these stories have usually ended with the women either voluntarily dismantling their society for boyfriends or being killed. The women who read these books want a break from reality like everybody else, and it's no surprise that their fantasies look just as unfair and silly as men's. Unfair, silly fantasies are one of the ways we're all equal, it turns out. Speculative fiction is sociology's dream journal; nerds want a place to belong; on the Enterprise, nobody cares if you're into space travel. All women want from these stories is a place where nobody cares if they're girls.

* * *

"The Smartest Thing She Ever Said" is a Tumblr based digital storytelling art project featuring four teams of two-one artist and one story editor-between now and the end of the year. For three weeks each, the teams were asked to interpret the phrase, "The Smartest Thing She's Ever Said." The current team features photographer Amanda Merton and writer Alice Gregory with support from project curator Alexis Hyde. and its artists are entirely supported by Ann Taylor in collaboration with Flavorpill.

Sady Doyle is the proprietor of Tiger Beatdown. This is part one in a series of three.

Photo from Flickr by Dirk Loop.

34 Comments / Post A Comment

Moff (#28)

Can I get the post boiled down to a thesis statement? Truly, I mean.

Also: "It's not news that sci-fi and fantasy are about wish fulfillment." Often? Sure, especially in their most mainstream manifestations. But certainly not always.

BadUncle (#153)

Well, I, for one, really wish for a distopian future filled with zombies.28 Days Later can not happen soon enough.

Multiphasic (#411)

Spec-fic feminist utopias are similar, yet different.

Moff (#28)

@Multi: Can't argue with that!

finn (#940)

"In conclusion, Girl Power Island is a land of contrasts."

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Bad example, BU: the zombie apocalypse is total wish fulfillment. It's an egalitarian paradise for consumers, libertarians, and those with hero fantasies. You're under no obligation to be productive, encouraged to defy entrenched power structures, and asked for no more than a hyperactive trigger finger and a willingness to scavenge.

BadUncle (#153)

Unless your liver is being gnawed off. And if there's any lesson to be learned from the World Famous Original Ray's Night of the Living Dead, it's that entrenched power structures and cooperative democracy are the solution, rather than the problem. Also: know where the key to the gas tank is.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

That's the wonder of wish fulfillment: if someone's liver gets gnawed off, that's somebody else. (See also: Ayn Rand.)

And while there are departures even in the canon, I would argue that The Military Are Always The Bad Guys is a pretty entrenched zombie trope. In the rare cases when they didn't start the plague themselves, they're damn sure to try to use it to set up a fascist state with them in charge.

elegantfaker (#1,646)

Girl Power Island. Right next to Knife Crime Island! Convenient!

metoometoo (#230)

One of the things I love most about my boyfriend is that when I recommended Herland, he read it immediately, enjoyed it, and said that it was good and made some good points. Swoon!

6h057 (#1,914)

One thing I love about your boyfriend is I see him every time I squeeze a roll of Brawny.

NinetyNine (#98)

"They like Kari Byron generally."

KarenUhOh (#19)

I thought Derek Flint thwarted this years ago.

Multiphasic (#411)

For what it\'s worth, Star Trek\'s Federation was supposed to be an ultimate utopia, i.e. a feminist one as well as every other kind. And if it\'s a feminist utopia in which an awful lot of the ladies are doctors, social workers, and/or eaten by tar beasts, well, it was their determination to be eaten by tar beasts.

Moff (#28)

Hey, eventually they were allowed to be starship captains, too.

And then of course they immediately got lost in the Delta Quadrant! Women drivers! Yeesh!

SeanP (#4,058)

But still, it was pretty advanced for 1963 – they had a black woman officer, even. That was pretty radical stuff for the time.

barnhouse (#1,326)

There's always been girl nerds and they are spoiled for choice among the nerd boys, since there's so few girl ones. The few of us despite not being so very good looking were made to feel (a) very precious, valuable, queenly and (b) very very welcome, more than welcome to participate as an equal in all the boy things. Does that still persist? I think it might, and even into adulthood. That Nash bio A Beautiful Mind–written by a chick, awesome book, lousy movie–is really great on this point (re: Nash's wife.)

I was at a friend's thesis defense some weeks ago, a computer engineer, and there aren't many girl ones but the ones there are–it really seems gender-blind, it's like they have to show the same chops and a lot of them can, and from what I can tell there is so much more equality because there is a consistent scale by which all are judged, so it's naturally more fair(?)

Islandia is the best Girl Power Island, maybe (written by a guy, Austen Tappan Wright I think he was called.) Highly recommended for speculative-fiction-lovers. Or maybe an Octavia Butler one (so sad she is gone.)

barnhouse (#1,326)

Oh shoot I forgot to agree with Multiphasic. I thought Lt. Uhura was the most wonderful person ever to exist, I loved her so much when I was little.

Moff (#28)

For us younger folk, it's pretty weird to squint back and imagine James T. Kirk's Enterprise as any sort of bastion of enlightenment, but there you go! Not to self-promote too much (HEY IT'S TOPICAL), but Trek novelist and author of many other good things Vonda McIntyre offers some examples of Just How Bad Things Were for Women only thirty years ago in this interview.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

Not disagreeing with Multiphasic, but I've been wondering lately if the Abrams reboot will retain that particular quality. I think I'm stealing this observation from Roger Ebert, but it seems like the dedication to those utopian ideals is somewhat… lesser in the noisier new version. (Which I enjoyed! But still.)

barnhouse (#1,326)

@MichelleDean you are very right, I reckon. Gene Roddenberry was super autocratic about the Utopia thing but those who came after him, not so much.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Lest we forget: the first interracial kiss on television was between Uhura and Kirk. And in response to Moff being hilarious, I will point out that I watched Next Generation as a little kid and my favorites were Geordi and Dr. Crusher — the shows had high points for their egalitarian ideals as well as low ones.
Oh, and Michelle, you (and Ebert) have a great point. It\'s always possible that the utopia was sidelined by the need to reintroduce everything, though. I was just so happy that it was fun and watchable that I didn\'t worry too much about the particulars.

dokuchan (#540)

Oh yes and there is a beautiful story about MLK Jr (Trekkie!) begging Nichelle Nichols to stay on the show here:

Also want to give a shout out to Sherri Tepper for her ladies ruling novels, and echo the Octavia Butler (RIP).

6h057 (#1,914)

You know what The Hairpin could use? Links.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

"we like being able to establish a server connection, generally"

Elle (#7,022)

If I ran Girl Power Island, there would be dudes allowed. They'd just have to make out with other dudes at my command.

…slash fanfiction counts as speculative fiction, right? That would explain a lot.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Yes, totally!

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)


Matt (#26)

"…there is a bomb in Gilead."

finn (#940)

Slightly disappointed my favorite spec-fic feminist utopia story "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" didn't get a mention (you can read it in slightly mangled form here). Further complicated by being written by a woman under a pseudonym who everyone assumed was a man. Maybe in part two or three of this series?

Moff (#28)

Here is what's interesting:

Traditional lady utopia: pretty much all ladies!

Traditional fella utopia: pretty much all ladies!

Mark Plus (#8,304)

This post makes an interesting contrast to the looking-glass world of evolutionary psychologists and pickup artists. They argue that women in developed societies have gotten much of the utopia they really want: The freedom to seek out alpha male cads to inseminate them, while using the welfare state and beta male cuckolds & chumps to support their bastard children. The genetic evidence supports this utopia model, because over the long run our ancestry runs 40 percent male and 80 percent female. That leaves a lot of sexually rejected guys out there.

MizMcewing (#8,314)

Can we talk about The Left Hand of Darkness? Is it more or less extreme in your gender politics to do away with gender as opposed to making a single-gender utopia? I tell ya, in \"Coming of Age in Karhide\", it gets pretty steamy, but nobody\'s gettin all \"You\'ve put a curse on my manhood\" at any point.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

There are a couple of other female semi-utopias that are missed here, by Joanna Russ and Marge Piercy, which might also be put in the blender if one wanted to come up with, like, theories and stuff.

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