Space, the final frontier for gender stereotypes

Space heroines are few and far between in movies and on TV. While occasionally you get your Ellen Ripleys (Alien) and Princess Leia (Star Wars) the truth is women rarely make it to fictional space in any kind of leadership capacity. It’s like they’re spackle: We need a Not Man Character so let’s put her … here. That’s how you end up with interesting, but not entirely inspirational, characters like Uhura (Star Trek reboot) and Kaylee and Zoe (Firefly). They may care for the craft or the captain, but they’re not piloting it or making executive decisions. And before you shout Star Trek Voyager, remember that the franchise sent its sole female TV captain into such deep space it would take 75 years to get home. Chew on that metaphor for a moment. Even Leia, with her royal rank, wasn’t exactly running the rebel force.

What’s behind all this? There’s an obvious “answer”: Space stories tend toward hard science fiction, and hard science fiction lends itself to male readers/viewers who – as we all “know” – would rather be infested with an alien than watch women run things. Hopefully, that’s not true. But to try and get to the bottom of at least some of this, I sat down with author Lisa Janice Cohen, whose space opera Derelict sold astonishingly well (over 8,000 copies in 2014) for a self-published book. It also happens to feature a YA heroine who ends up in charge of a crew of stowaways on a ship she never expected to be piloting. Plus, the sequel, Ithaka Rising, is due out June 27.

Turns out, space stereotyping is a two-way street.

Why feature a woman as your space heroine?
Lisa Janice Cohen:
I like to play with stereotypes. It’s easy to come up with a computer hacker who’s male, and that’s default and cliché. I’m trying to take what could be stock characters and shift them, and I think it made a much more interesting, powerful choice.

And she’s not the only female character around, either, right?
I describe what I write as space opera rather than hard sci-fi. That focuses on character, first; hard sci-fi tends to be about science concept and ideas and characters are often secondary. I was very careful with my secondary characters – there are many women in positions of power so even the commander of the space station is a woman; her second-in-command is also a woman. There are no gendered job roles in my world. What matters in this universe is your skill set, not your gender.


What’s the deal with most of the science-fiction female characters out there in movies and TV?
Take Uhura [in the Star Trek reboot movies]. They created her as a love interest for Spock. That was her primary role in the movie. And once you define a woman’s role in relation to a man – romantic or politics – you’ve cut the legs out from under this woman. But Ripley is an amazingly strong character. She has it all going on. And the cynical part of me says that maybe the only way to get a fully-realized female character is to write them male, then cast them female. But if that’s so, there’s something wrong in that picture.

Do you think this belief that men don’t want to read or watch women, or see other men be vulnerable or emotional is accurate? Why isn’t it changing?
I’m surrounded by men in my real life – I have two sons and my husband. Maybe it’s a biased sample but I look at them and my son’s male friends and they have a full, rich, relational life. But that life is not reflected in media for the most part. We talk about women being stereotyped, but men are as well – to the detriment of both.

So how do we fix this?
Cohen: I want characters that wrestle with their demons on all sides of the gender divide. I’m a huge Marvel fan girl; I am an embarrassment to my teenage children. But I look at Captain America and one reason he appeals to me so much as a character is he struggles with emotional attachment. He’s a much more compelling character than Iron Man. The character who can show me his vulnerability, that’s a character I want. They have to have something they can stand to lose. If you don’t have something you’re desperate to have, and don’t have something you’re afraid to lose, you’re just a cardboard cutout in a space suit.


What book should get made into a movie next, so we can see more examples of female characters done right?
Try Lois McMaster Bujold’s Brothers in Arms, the Miles Vorkosigan adventures. It’s like Mission: Impossible in space. It’s chock-a-block with great female characters; she’s very subversive with all of these strong female characters who populate her stories.

Are we heading in the right direction, at least, for space heroines?
Cohen: In a future society we might be able to get past all of these clichés and society-imposed gender roles. What would that look like? That, to me, is one of the really interesting, overriding questions I’ve had.

You can find Lisa Janice Cohen at

This post originally appeared at Curiosity Quills.