How does a work in sci-fi and fantasy qualify as a feminist or otherwise? Should gender based questions be part of the work and having only strong female character isn't sufficient? Case in point being the plethora of heroines running around in contemporary fantasy books but hardly any work can be qualified as feminist. Is it because the strong undercurrent of romance in the books where beneath all the demeanor of strength they still have their normal womanly desires and crave for submitting to a man? Carey's fantasy books which in some circles are labeled as feminist but I found them to be romance (I read the first three Kushiel books, skimmed the third because of the whole romance aspect).

Without making the question too broad or vague I'm directly asking is there any "specific thing" that differentiates the works? If yes, then what is it? Otherwise you can simply answer as NO or not answer at all which will indicate the opinions I've had may be correct somewhat.

closed as off-topic by Moogle, Shevliaskovic, phantom42, Stan, K-H-W Sep 23 '14 at 12:58

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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about gender equality and feminism and not about sci-fi. – Moogle Sep 23 '14 at 9:17
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    @Moogle: I see your point. But right now this topic is receiving a lot of attention, specifically within the SF/Fantasy community, so there are benefits to leaving the question where it is. – Royal Canadian Bandit Sep 23 '14 at 9:48
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    But this isn't a site on gender equality issues in the media. If the question was about feminism in a particular work, then fair enough. But this is a such a general question that Sci-fi has nothing to do with it. You could take the same question, and replace SFF with any other genre and it would still work. This is evidenced by the answers. They have nothing to do with SFF, they're just using SFF works as examples to support their answer. – Moogle Sep 23 '14 at 10:23
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    This is a valuable question, because if we can't learn how to recognize feminism in a scifi story, we're missing out on a layer of meaning in the story that the author very intentionally put there. SciFi is ripe with social commentary and scifi+feminism as a theme isn't less worthy of attention [1] than say, robot stories having veiled commentary on US slavery or 50's stories about aliens in disguise being a reference to US communists during the McCarthy era. And we've had several questions about libertarianism in scifi without the answers veering off-topic. [1] – Abulafia Sep 23 '14 at 12:02
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    There's a - greatly mistaken - idea out there that any book written by a woman is automatically feminist. – Joe L. Sep 23 '14 at 13:44

A useful criterion is whether the female characters have agency. In other words, do their choices and actions affect the outcome of the story?

Ryan Stone, the main character in the 2013 film Gravity, has agency. The story is about whether she can survive the physical and mental challenges of a dangerous situation.

By contrast Peggy Carter, the female love interest / sidekick in the 2011 Captain America film, doesn't really have much agency, despite being a "strong" character who beats up much larger men. Her purpose in the film is largely ornamental and she could be dropped without much effect on the plot.

However this only scratches the surface of a large and complicated topic. "What is feminist?" is a very big question with a lot of disagreement over the answers, even among people who consider themselves feminists.

  • Choices affecting the major outcome of the story is a necessary but not a sufficient criteria. – Jahanpanah Sep 23 '14 at 12:14
  • A sufficient criteria for ''disqualifying'' as feminist story could be to not pass the Bechdel test [1]. That is: The story should contain two women, who talk with each other, about something other than a man. It's surprising how many movies fail this test. I think most TV episodes of STNG fail for instance. [1] – Abulafia Sep 23 '14 at 12:41
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    @Abulafia Not really. That test is great for judging trends, not great for judging the merits of an individual work. A work with a single female character can very easily be feminist - however we're describing that term - but it won't pass the Bechdel Test. And a Bedchel Test passing work may be highly derogatory to women in its theme and execution. – Shisa Sep 23 '14 at 12:45
  • @Shisa: Ah yes, I was mistaken there – Abulafia Sep 23 '14 at 12:46
  • @Shisa: Yes, exactly. This is one reason why I cited Gravity -- it has only one female character, so it fails Bechdel, but by other criteria it is (arguably) a feminist work. – Royal Canadian Bandit Sep 23 '14 at 13:31

The problem with coming up with a clear answer, is that the "feminist" label does not really refer to the contents of the novel itself, like the label "space opera" does, but to the intentions of the author and how the novel contrasts with other books in the genre.

Take for instance The Farthest Away Mountain which was recently covered on SE. You could label this feminist because the journeying protagonist is a woman, but only because fantasy usually have a male doing the hero's journey. It's "feminist" in a medieval fantasy setting.

In contrast, nobody would label the cartoon "Dora the Explorer" a feminist cartoon, even though every single episode features a young independent girl going on journeys, even dangerous ones. This is because Dora does not stand out compared to our own real-world society. In fact, Dora might be labeled reactionary because she likes to dress up and party with friends, while her male cousin Diego is a Steve Irvin-esque brave adventurer.

Another example of "feminist" from The Farthest Mountain, is that the heroine rescues a prince, finds him a bore and dumps him. Here you've got reversed gender roles and an attack on a social norm. Namely that a woman's ultimate goal in life is to find a man and get married. You really need some exposure to feminist ideas to read the intention of the author here. Otherwise you could misread it as say, a kludge to "reset" the protagonist for a book sequel. Or simply as norm-breaking with respect to fairy tales. Like the "Monster is actually kind" meme, which is in fact represented by a gargoyle in this novel.

In short, identifying a feminist pet peeve in the story (e.g "get married and shut up") is one way to label a work "feminist". Identifying a genre-break with feminist connotations is another. But in the end, you're trying to pick the brain of the author, which is difficult and controversial in all literary analysis.

I think the answer is "no" for several reasons.

The concept of feminist sci-fi/fantasy arises because genre fiction and science fiction in particular provide a way of exploring a lot of different potential worlds giving writers the opportunity to explore varied political situations and their outcomes. This means that a lot of political fiction of various strands could fall into the realm of science fiction including novels such as 1984 and The Handmaids Tale. In this respect political feminism is sometimes explored through a lens of science fiction as it opens doors to different types of critique. Of course, authors taking this more literary or political approach may deny they are writing science fiction at all, which is their right, but it would be hard to judge the content of their stories and agree with that.

There are also many science fiction books that take a more nuanced look at gender in general- from the three genders of The Left Hand Of Darkness through the characters in the Culture who will be both genders at some times in their life to the genderless society of Ancillary Justice, writers have used the opportunities of speculative fiction to explore how societies that take a radically different approach to gender might function. This can have the knock-on effect of making readers and commentators more aware of attitudes that prevail in our own societies.

All boundaries in artistic endeavour are soft and there is very little fiction that sets out to be feminist as a goal. More often the use of gender opens up avenues that allow authors to tell a story which is interesting to them, but it is very seldom the most important thing about a piece of fiction from the author's perspective. For example He She It/Body Of Glass could be regarded as a classic example of feminist science fiction, but it is also a very strong dystopian cyberpunk novel in its own right and does not rely on the philosophy to drive it, that is just one strand in the narrative.

Finally, most science fiction is set in the future and given the path and direction of gender equality in recent history, it is not unreasonable to extrapolate that women will be treated with greater equality in future. In that light, a writer who does not place women in a position of greater equality as part of a future setting will need to justify that more than a writer who does because it breaks pace with our intuitive expectation of current trends.

  • A futuristic society where all genders are treated as equal may not be a feminist work but a work set in the past where a woman overcomes all the challenges to rise may still be. Can we conclude that when the feminist ideas reach its fruition, a work ceases to be a feminist? But again this is like trying to solidify the mellowed boundaries of fiction. – Jahanpanah Sep 23 '14 at 14:01
  • That is a good question, but maybe one for the professors of literature- I think a lot of critical examination looks at works within their own historical context, so I think a classic feminist work would continue to be seen as that, but perhaps also regarded as an artefact of a past struggle. Ten Years A Slave didn't cease to be about the abolition of slavery after slavery was abolished. – glenatron Sep 23 '14 at 14:33

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