On girls and sci-fi

The New York Times book review posted an interesting essay on the influence of A Wrinkle in Time on girls, science fiction, and the acceptability of girls reading science fiction.

I think the thing that interested me most, though, was not the discussion of how influential the book – and Meg – were on science fiction, or on female writers. The interesting part, instead, was some of the commentary made throughout about how girls and women simply don’t read sci-fi. They cited statistics to “prove” that women don’t read sci-fi, and said that the current apocalyptic-book and dystopia trend, and even paranormal romance, are dumbed-down, fluffy, chick-appropriate versions of science fiction.

What is it then that makes girls averse to science fiction? Could it be the pronounced boyness of the covers — the same signal that deters girls from switching to Superman after their Betty and Veronica days have passed? Science-fiction books, whether technologically elaborate, intergalactic stories by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Hal Clement or the so-called “soft” science fiction of Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, often wear dark washes of black and navy blue with 3-D fonts and brutal images of fire and destruction.

Hmmm. Could it, perhaps, be that we’re still asking this question? That we’re coding books as “masculine” or “feminine” and therefore somehow inappropriate for the other gender to be reading? What makes a navy blue book “male,” anyway? I’m wearing navy today – does that mean I’m actually male?

Asking “Why don’t girls read sci-fi?” seems, to me, to be telling girls that there’s something weird about reading sci-fi, and that it’s not quite appropriate for them. Still. To this day.

I’m not a fan of this idea.

Isn’t there another way to talk about it? Another way to look at the situation? Can we say, instead, “Perhaps it’s because girls don’t see themselves in the stories as much” – because so many sci-fi protagonists – so many fantasy protagonists, for that matter – are male? Girls are there to be the helpmeet or the mother, not to be the hero. That is a huge reason I loved A Wrinkle in Time – Meg had agency. She was there, and present, and active, and badass. I think that’s a large reason why paranormal romance and all these YA romantic dystopias and whatnot have become popular – they put the girl front and center, even if she’s still largely characterized and/or identified by her relationships with men.

You know, this is why I love Broken, and Fly Into Fire, and Pilgrim of the Sky, and Matchbox Girls, Erekos, Hickey of the Beast…so many of our books show women being women. Being themselves. Being spunky and badass and loving and hesitant and fearless and trepidated, all at the same time. They’re there, and they’re human, and you can relate to them whether you’re male or female, a sci-fi fan or a fantasy buff.

We need more of this. And I’m proud to be able to help bring more of it to the world.

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  • Brigid Ashwood

    I just don’t think the premise is valid to begin with. I’m a girl, I almost exclusively read sci-fi. I don’t care for fantasy books. Additionally almost every girlfriend I have reads sci-fi. So, what’s with these “statistics”?

  • Patti

    Agreed with Brigid. I’m a woman, I read almost exclusively speculative fiction, be it science fiction, fantasy, or horror. Most of my friends who are women do the same. Pamela Paul and her statistician friends need to get out more.

    That said, I think it is beyond awesome that all of C&G’s books have strong women in leading roles. It’s a breath of fresh air.

  • http://www.candlemarkandgleam.com Candlemark & Gleam

    Clearly, you are a statistical outlier, and in that meagre 12% that “proves” girls don’t read sci-fi!

    Or are you actually reading “sci-fi” that isn’t all space-guns and militaristic testosterone-fests, and therefore not REALLY sci-fi at all…?

    /sarcasm

  • http://www.candlemarkandgleam.com Candlemark & Gleam

    Interestingly, the one book of ours I can think of off the top of my head that doesn’t have a female protagonist has some very, very strong female supporting characters, and the bonus stories that go with it are all about the girls…

  • Cybele Baker

    Do not forget Anne McCaffery and her Pern series and huge number of amazing strong women who were STILL women not male characters in a dress!

  • Patti

    Okay, I haven’t read that one yet. Good to know! Another author whose leading characters are strong, interesting women is Adrian Phoenix. Urban fantasy.

  • http://baffledbooks.tumblr.com Lisa @ BaffledBooks

    I’m a woman and I’m currently writing my thesis on philosophical themes within Science Fiction. Which I chose because I read sci-fi, fantasy, basically anything under the realm of speculative fiction. And we are hosting a spec fic reading challenge that has 97% women participating… where did they get these statistics?

  • http://www.candlemarkandgleam.com Candlemark & Gleam

    That’s a really good question; apparently, they’re coming from various book sales aggregators. Although, honestly, I still really question the “only 12% of girls and women read sci-fi.” I truly want to know HOW they are defining sci-fi.

    Also, I want to read your thesis now.

  • http://smarriveurr.dreamwidth.org/ Smarriveurr

    See, I don’t find “navy blue” or “fire” to be gendercoded, much less (seriously?) “3-D fonts.” I do find chainmail bikinis and such to be coded, and their ubiquitous nature in the past/present deterrent… but I really don’t think that fire and destruction are going to somehow scare off potential readers of the books in question. Of course, that gets us into the whole social programming kettle of fish where we have to admit that maybe the problem is that we try to force young women to believe that boys get fire and destruction and they get water and sparkles. Not that there’s anything wrong with water and sparkles – we’ve just all got an equal right to either, all, or none.

  • http://www.candlemarkandgleam.com Candlemark & Gleam

    I really do want to see HOW the statistics cited in the article were generated, and what’s been defined as “sci-fi” – because I would call those postapocalyptic dystopias sci-fi, after all, and they’re supposedly coded as water and sparkles.