Woman’s Hour on SF – A Train Wreck

Well, that was dreadful: a self-fulfilling prophecy full of misinformation.

I suspect that today’s Woman’s Hour feature on science fiction was doomed from the start, because the initial assumption of the piece appears to have been that SF is only for boys and therefore it is necessary to get a man into the studio to explain to women how they are portrayed in SF.

Dean Conrad is an academic specializing in movies. He may well be very good at what he does, but as far as this feature is concerned he had a major drawback: he presents science fiction as something that only happens in the movies. As I feared when I first heard about the feature, his thesis can be summed up as “there was Ripley, and now there’s Prometheus“. So science fiction only happens in the movies of Ridley Scott.

Conrad explains this by saying that SF movies are now ferociously expensive to produce, so Hollywood studios have decided to protect their investment by ensuring that their films only appeal to 50% of their intended audience. Well, he didn’t actually say that, but a little judicious rewording explains just how ludicrous the idea is. Which, of course, is not a barrier to Hollywood executives believing it.

In search of “balance” Woman’s Hour brought on Dr Christine Cornea of from the University of East Anglia. She widened the discussion to the extent that now we were asked to believe that science fiction is something that only happens in movies and TV. Dr Cornea wanted to talk about Starbuck. Woman’s Hour, understandably, wanted to talk about Doctor Who, a show in which the role of women as merely sidekicks has been integral to the very structure from the start.

I’m going to take a brief detour here for the benefit of my friends at The Women’s Room. When the BBC wants an “expert” on science fiction they often get someone who only knows about film and TV. This is because it has been very difficult in the UK to get an academic job looking at SF unless you work in film, TV, video games or some other such medium. Science fiction in books is deemed unworthy by British universities. There are some very good SF academics — Andrew Butler, Mark Bould, Roger Luckhurst, for example — who could write about books, but have to work in film to get jobs. Others, such as Adam Roberts and Farah Mendlesohn, have wormed their way through academic back doors. My knowledge of this is a bit out of date as I haven’t been to a Foundation conference in years. Hopefully Farah can correct me if things are changing.

Anyway, Dr. Cornea tried bravely to fly the flag for women, but didn’t do very well. She struggled a lot trying to articulate the idea that a “strong woman” does not mean a leather-clad, boobalicious bimbo who acts like a man. And of course she was stuck in a film and TV mindset, so she ended up explaining how all science fiction was written by men, for men.

Of course this is nonsense. There are plenty of great women writers (and readers) of science fiction out there. But they tend to be confined to books. Once you get to film and TV, women get excluded. You can see the divide very clearly if you compare the fiction and drama categories of this year’s Hugos.

It makes me very sad and angry to hear a supposed women’s program on national radio claim that there are no prominent women in science fiction, and to back up their claim by deliberately excluding those women who are doing wonderful work in the field. It is especially annoying in the week in which Kameron Hurley’s wonderful God’s War finally achieves UK publication. Nyx is not just the toughest female character I’ve ever encountered in SF; she’s tougher than almost all of the male characters I’ve encountered.

Ah well, at least I have my own radio show, where I can showcase fine women science fiction writers. Here, go and have a listen to this.

Update: I forgot to note that there are lots of fine male writers who do good female characters in books, but with a few honorable exceptions (hi Neil!) they tend not to end up doing TV and films either.

Update 2: Farah has reminded me that the study of science fiction has always been an interdisciplinary affair. It is good that people who got their start in areas other than Literature get involved. Persuading the BBC to call on people who are not literature or film studies experts will be harder, but as I expected the field is changing. Farah tells me she thinks she’s the first UK academic who specializes in SF literature to be made a full professor, and in her department 6 of the staff have SF research experience. (Note to Americans, “professor” has a specific meaning in the UK, not all university lecturers can call themselves professors.) The upshot of all this is that these days there’s no excuse for having “experts” on science fiction who can’t see beyond film and TV.

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6 Responses to Woman’s Hour on SF – A Train Wreck

  1. Anne Gray says:

    Professor has a very specific meaning in the U.S. too, from the standpoint of the lecturer and their salary and station at an institution. It is the students who are generally fuzzy on the distinction.

    I had a CS instructor at Grinnell who was also a linguist and was very clear when he introduced himself to his classes that he was not to be addressed as “professor”, as he was only a lecturer, nor was anyone to call him “Dr. Stone,” as he did not have a doctorate. Mr. Stone was one of the best instructors I ever had.

    • Farah Mendlesohn says:

      Hi Anne,

      We don’t have associate or assistant prof here. The ranks go: Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader (for a researcher) or Principal Lecturer (for an administrator) and only then Professor. There are often roles you can’t apply for until you are a Prof.

      The key decision for many is Reader v Principal Lecturer as it’s often a career choice, although some of us do both (I managed to get promotion to both in the same week as they were different committees), and some go from PL to Prof.

      One or two universities (Warwick I think) are switching to the US ranking system.

      • Cathy Butler says:

        I think it’s definitely becoming more common here. My university switched recently (hence I’m an Associate Professor, not a Reader).

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