I’ve just been a cultural connoseiur lately (well, when I’m not giggling over rickrolling)– over Thanksgiving, I not only visited the Vancouver Art Gallery with Crowfoot, but also the Seattle Science Fiction Museum with a friend from college. I really had no idea what a Science Fiction Museum was, exactly– a place for sci fi geeks to gather and geek out?
As it turns out, yes!
Now, I had a fantastic time as a geek, combing through everything for my favorite books and fandoms, but once I put on my Gender Goggles (TM), things get a little more…mixed.
On the one hand, sci fi, especially the older sci fi that was the focus of many of the exhibits, can be pretty darn sexist. On the other hand, the curators seemed to try to fight it as much as they could.
One of the little exhibits was about the phenomenon of Brass Bra Babes and Bug-Eyed Monsters. It displayed a huge collection of magazine covers showing, well, brass bra babes in the clutches of bug-eyed monsters. The tone of the informational cards was matter-of-fact, not approving but not quite calling out the covers on their egregious sexism. They phrased it more like “the sci fi community at this time was not very open to female writers, and these sorts of covers have been particularly criticized for sexism.” Especially given that without the informational cards as a counter, the covers are just a wall of gratuitous sexism, I would have been a lot more blunt about the misogynistic undercurrents of the covers, stories, and sci fi community in general which tended to marginalize women in sci fi (they couldn’t keep women from reading, or even from writing, but they could discount their contributions.)
It was disappointing, but it wasn’t too bad, given that it WAS in the middle of the mainstream sci fi community, which still struggles with sexism just as much as the rest of the world. I decided my standards were too high, and walked on to the next exhibit…which was about feminist sci fi!
Later, thinking about the Vancouver Art Gallery, I was able to figure out why I was SO overjoyed to see a big collection of books and covers and authors’ portraits, all part of an exhibit about how important and groundbreaking feminist science fiction is. It’s because, well, it was about how IMPORTANT it was– not some fringe movement, not a bunch of feminazis ruining everything, but a legitimate and important literary movement that influenced the world of science fiction in valuable and interesting ways. The little exhibit talked about how feminist authors like Ursula K. LeGuin were the first to consider sci fi universes that focused on the social sciences rather than natural sciences, and it gave a lot of space to explaining the premises of a number of groundbreaking works, like the Left Hand of Darkness. It had a lot of books I didn’t recognize, too, and I probably would have written down every title for future reference if I’d had any paper. (In retrospect, I should’ve taken pictures of the covers.)
But then I kept walking, to the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. The list:
Brian W. Aldiss
Edgar Rice Burroughs
John W. Campbell, Jr.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke
Samuel R. Delany
Philip K. Dick
Gordon R. Dickson
Frank Kelly Freas
Robert A. Heinlein
Ursula K. Le Guin
Richard M. Powers
Eric Frank Russell
Mary W. Shelley
E. E. Smith
A. E. van Vogt
H. G. Wells
Donald Allen Wollheim
That’s FIFTY-THREE names, of which only SEVEN are female. That’s 13%. Women do not make up a mere 13% of the population. Do they make up 13% of noteworthy contributors to science fiction? Maybe, but if so, that’s a problem.
Of course, to make it into the Hall of Fame, you have to be active in sci fi for a good, long time– so it can’t be representative of current representation, only the past. And I don’t think there’s much argument that it was tough for female sci fi writers in the 1950s, when most of these women got started. So am I infuriated by this Hall of Fame? Not really, I guess.
Like I said, it was complicated. I don’t want to be complacent, like, “Oh, sci fi’s sexist, nothing can be done.” But I also don’t feel it’s entirely fair to apply my usual standards to a historical exhibit that focuses on publicly popular, published works, of which there were fewer with female creators. The curators seemed to have a basic understanding that sci fi has had gender problems, and attempted to acknowledge them with the “BBBs and BEMs” display, and move beyond them with the “Feminist Science Fiction” display, but ultimately the museum operates within the same paradigm as everything else.
As a geek, I had a FANTASTIC time. And as a feminist, they did a pretty good job. If you’re ever in Seattle, check it out.