Literature Review

Damsels Out of Distress: Finding Empowered Portrayals of Women in Science Fiction Mediums

Review of the Literature

While American science fiction was previously considered a genre for men, its growing popularity with women and girls in the past decade is hard to ignore. Some recent movies, television, video games, and book series seem to be directed almost exclusively toward young women, or at least acknowledge the fact that their audience is composed of women as well as men. Modern movie remakes of classic science fiction literature are also adapting to this mixed audience of men and women. One of the few women characters, Dejah Thoris in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 novel A Princess of Mars, is used only as a plot device, a helpless princess who the protagonist John Carter needs to save; however, in the 2012 film adaptation, Dejah Thoris is still a princess, but also a scientist who is the first to discover a way to save her planet.

The recent push against sexism in video games is what really spurred my interested in the topic of gender in science fiction. In particular, a video webseries called Feminist Frequency “explores the representations of women in pop culture narratives” (About Feminist Frequency). According to the Entertainment Software Association, women make of 48% of players and “women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing  population (36%) than boys age 18 or younger (17%)” (Essential Facts 3). Although this includes games of all genres, not just science fiction, it it important to realize that video games, like most science fiction works, are usually catered to an audience of men and boys. Feminist Frequency points out many instances of women being used as background decoration, the lack of playable women characters, as well as numerous tropes found in so many games such as the “damsel in distress.” And while the the series doesn’t focus entirely on science fiction, it does use many sci-fi video games as examples.

While there are so many aspects about gender in science fiction I could explore, I chose to explore the evolution of the representation of feminine identities while focusing on the empowerment or objectification of significant characters. Through all of my research and experience reading, watching, and playing within the genre of science fiction, there is one question I kept asking myself: What determines whether a character is objectified or empowered? There are many examples of characters who were explicitly feminine; they talk, walk, dress in a feminine manner, but is this femininity used to empower them, or is this done for the benefit of the men to whom the genre appears to target?

A History of Women in Science Fiction

    According to Marshall B. Tymn, although science fiction had early beginnings, it wasn’t “until the  beginning of the Industrial  Revolution in the 18th century, with its vision of a future altered by technology, that science fiction could exist as a viable literary form” (Tymn 42). While the popularity of science fiction continued to grow, it remained a male dominated genre, at least up until the 1960’s and 1970’s when women writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ started entering the field more than they had before. Brian Attebery explains that:

Until the 1960s, gender was one of those elements most often transcribed unthinkingly into FS’s hypothetical worlds. Even if an author was interested in revising the gender code, the conservatism of a primarily male audience – and the editors, publishers, and distributors who were trying to outguess the audience – kept gender exploration to a minimum. (Attebery as qtd in Calvin)

Up until the 1960s, science fiction was given little opportunity to explore gender issues and writers who wanted their work published were limited.

    Calvin’s article “Feminist Science Fiction” explores the history and various movements of science fiction that can be considered feminist starting with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is often acknowledged as the first science fiction novel. Calvin argues that although Frankenstein offers a critique of “the male usurpation of (pro)creative power and silencing of women” it has very few female characters and therefore may not be entirely a feminist text (Calvin 6). The article discusses many works written by women who “specifically used the novum in the social order to highlight the existing social order (and to advocate for) social change” (7). Many of these works did that by rejecting the gender roles of men and women either by reversal or roles, or exclusion of a gender or all genders. Examples include Mary E Bradley Lane’s 1881 novel Mizora, which was about an all female utopia and was published anonymously.

Calvin asserts that women writers were published frequently, however, in 1930’s “the focus shifted toward ‘men’s adventure fiction’” (8). Camille Bacon-Smith states:

To understand the place of women in the science fiction community, however, we must first internalize the obvious: science fiction began as a subset of and reinforcement for the mainstream patriarchal culture of technological heroism during the 1930’s when the Great Depression had taken from most men their primary source of patriarchal power: the ability to create wealth. The men and women drawn to science fiction in the late 20’s and early 30’s found in the fiction a hope for a brighter future through technology. (Bacon-Smith 96)

So even though both men and women were drawn to science fiction, it still reinforced patriarchal values, keeping it a men’s genre even though “women did not suddenly appear with the rise of ‘70’s feminism” and many women who within the science fiction community “resent the way they have been written out of women’s history of science fiction” (Bacon-Smith 96). Women returned to writing science fiction after WWII and many of these works focus on the women in the science fiction works. Judith Merril’s story “That Only a Mother” is “told entirely from the mother’s perspective and from within the confines of the home” (8). Similarly Ann Warren Griffith tells her story “Captive Audience” from the perspective of the wife/mother and “from (almost entirely) within the home, the protagonist stays at home and mandes the household and children,” shifting the focus from “men’s adventure fiction” onto the housewife and motherhood giving women a more substantial role within science fiction. This movement, is described as “Galactic Suburbia,” a term originally offered by Joanna Russ (8).

Calvin describes the next movement in feminist science fiction which he calls “The Boom.” This movement from the 1960’s-1970’s  is marked by texts that “tended to be grounded in a liberal, humanist perspective of the self and in a conception of society found in first and second wave feminism” (9). These texts often critiqued social conditions and challenged gender roles. After this boom in feminist science fiction, Calvin explains that “since the boom of feminist science fiction in the 1970’s, the field has grown dramatically, both in terms of the number of feminist science fiction writers, but more importantly in terms of their ideological foundations, assumptions, and approaches to feminist science fiction” (11). This change is marked by the fluidity of of the categories of identity including gender, sexuality and race and it is this change.

While Calvin discusses the large amount of women science fiction writers, these writers are often overshadowed by the men writing science fiction at the same time. Authors like Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick, and Robert Heinlein are often the most celebrated and discussed American science fiction writers. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these writers objectify women in their works because they are men. In fact, some of these writers and other widely known science fiction writers include women who are strong and can be considered “empowered.” But it is important to acknowledge that a lot of these writers do exclude women from their works, or use women only as plot devices, while many of the women who wrote science fiction, especially science fiction that critiqued or offered alternatives to gender roles or social conditions, seem to be forgotten. And while Calvin’s article focus almost exclusively on women writers, my focus is on the identities of the characters and the objectification and empowerment of the characters regardless of the gender of the writer.

What is sexual objectification? What is empowerment?

    The concepts of  “empowerment” and “sexual objectification” are used frequently to critique representations of women. However, while doing research, I realized that the terms “empowerment” and “sexual objectification” were not definitive, and it is assumed that the readers know what the concepts mean in the given context. When talking about works of fiction, it appears that the concept of empowerment attempts to give women power over themselves both physically and mentally. Anju Malhotra examines women’s empowerment stating that “the meanings and terminologies associated with this concept vary” (Malhotra 2). Malhotra’s article states:

In the literature there is considerable diversity in the emphases, agendas, and terminology used to discuss women’s empowerment. For example, it is not always clear whether authors who are using terms such as “women’s empowerment,” “gender equality,” “female autonomy,” or “women’s status” are referring to similar or different concepts. Despite the similar  concepts underlying many of these terms, the concept of women’s empowerment can be distinguished from others by two essential elements. The first is that of process (Kabeer, 2001; Oxaal and Baden, 1997; Rowlands, 1995). None of the other concepts explicitly encompasses a progression from one state (gender inequality) to another (gender equality). The second element is agency—in other words, women themselves must be significant actors in the process of change that is being described or measured. (2)

But how would this translate to a work of fiction such as literature, movies, or video games where the situations and characters are artificial and their actions are dictated by a writer? In most of these works, we don’t see a change from inequality to equality, and in science fiction in particular, the societal rules in the fictional world may be much different than our own which is described by Ritch Calvin:

The very foundation of science fiction narrative renders itself amenable to examining and  imagining other worlds, other societies, other beings, in which the inequalities and prejudices of our own histories are gone (or altered) – or, at the very least, differently structured. Science fiction as a form allows the possibility to imagine worlds in which women are full participants. (Calvin 4)

Because of the very nature of science fiction, it is difficult to apply concepts of empowerment or objectification. Malhotra’s description of empowerment focused on how empowerment is a variable for international development rather than fiction, but it can still be useful in deciding whether or not a work of fiction is empowering to women. While the world within the work of fiction may be unchanging, the world of the author in which it was written is not. If a work of fiction is attempting to change from a state of inequality to equality of women within the genre of science fiction, then it can fit the first criteria of Malhotra’s concept of empowerment.

If empowerment is giving women power over themselves, sexual objectification is taking that power away from them, instead stripping a woman of choice. The objectification of women, uses them as an object of (mostly heterosexual male) desire. In her video “Women as Background Decoration (Part 1)” Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the webseries Feminist Frequency, defines sexual objectification as: “the practice of treating or representing a human being as a thing or mere instrument to be used  or another’s sexual purposes. Sexually objectified women are valued primarily for their bodies, or body parts, which are presented as existing for the pleasure and gratification of others” (Sarkeesian). In fiction these women are often used as plot devices to advance a male’s storyline, or used to appeal  directly to the viewer or readers’ sexual desire.

In an article discussing the movie Charlie’s Angels, Jenn Smith describes that while the movie is empowering to women in some ways, it still portrays women as “objects of male desire and fantasy” by including “two scenes of women pitted against each other, infantilization of the Angels in the company of their ‘father figure’ Charlie, physical violence against women, and exotisicism of women of color” (Smith). She describes, however, ways in which the film was empowering: “Three beautiful, smart women were introduced as being able to do what ‘no man can’ and they proved throughout the movie that they were able to physically defend themselves, use teamwork and intelligence and their sexuality to fool the boys and beat the bad guys” (Smith). So even though the movie objectifies the women, it also empowers them. It seems as though a work of fiction can be both empowering or objectifying, not just one or the other. While the Angels were portrayed mainly as objects of male desire by being infantilized and were “clearly valued more for their good looks and bodacious bods,” they also “combined their femininity with some vicious and powerful fighting. They contradicted stereotypes because they were attractive, ultra-feminine, and at the same time took care of each other and took down the bad guys without interference of men” (Smith).

Angie Manzano also wrote about the movies Charlie’s Angels. Like Smith, Manzano critiques the film for trying to show empowered women, but instead offers a warped view of feminism where women adopt “some of the worst aspects of masculinity, like selfishness and hostility” (Manzano). She argues that this representation of empowered women “flatters, rather than challenges, authority” (Manzano). This representation of “empowerment” is actually objectification, because it appeals to male desire. So are the Angels empowered or objectified? Is the femininity and sexuality of the characters made to cater to male desire, or defy stereotypes? There seems to be no definitive answer, and perhaps it’s important to consider the target audience of the film. Manzano explains that the movie is an action-adventure film that tries to appeal to women. But the fact that the creators of the film goes out of their way to make it appeal to women, suggests that the genre is one that usually appeals to and caters to men, like science fiction. So even if they were trying to appeal to women, it’s expected that there would be a lot of male viewers; it’s hard to determine whether the Angels were still used to cater to male desire. Because science fiction seems to be a genre that targets mostly men, this distinction may be hard to make with a lot of works; however, there appears to be a growing amount of science fiction that is targeted toward women and teenage girls just as much, or more than, they are targeted at men and teenage boys.

Rejections of Traditional Gender Roles

    When talking about women in science fiction, it is also important to talk about those who do not conform to traditional gender roles. If science fiction did begin as a reinforcement to the patriarchal cultural like Camille Bacon-Smith suggests, then works that empowered characters who rejected traditional gender roles can be seen as rejecting and challenging the patriarchal culture, and these characters may be objectified or empowered, like women. While there was women involved in science fiction, Lefanu argues that “early twentieth- and mid-twentieth-century science fiction does lack women-identified women as writers and readers: women’s participation necessitated becoming one of the boys, joining in on their terms, becoming a Female Man” (Lefanu 2). Sarah Lefanu discusses the work of Joanna Russ who asserts “that there are no women in science fiction, only images of women” (14). Russ was discussing science fiction in the late 1960’s, which had many images of women, but they were images of how men viewed women, not women “that a woman can read about and say ‘Yes that’s me’ or ‘Yes, that could be me’” (14). She asks for a realistic representation of women: “how can gender roles, or the representation of gender roles, be challenged of recognisable female characters are simply not present?” (Lefanu 14). “Galactic Suburbia” works in the 1940’s-1950’s did offer this more realistic of view of women in science fiction; the works were often from the perspective of women, that showed “family erotic or personal life,” however they were few of these works (Lefanu 15-16).

One way in which science fiction writers attempted to challenge traditional gender roles was through utopias and dystopias. Ritch Calvin discusses some of these writers who argued “for a society in which subjects occupy a place within society, and they either illustrate the ways in which women have been excluded, or the reverse the old hierarchies” (9). Many writers of science fiction were using the genre to challenge societal norms, particularly gender roles. Because science fiction allows writers to create entirely new worlds and new societies, it offers a way to critique and examine the society they are writing in. It is possible for writers to create an entirely new world where women occupy positions of power in the society, or where gender can be altered. And since “one of the gender roles that has long shaped women’s lives and experiences has been that of childbirth and motherhood,” writers such as Ursala K. LeGuin create worlds where “gender roles are subverted” (Calvin 10).

The creation of matriarchies in science fiction is important in understanding the role women played in the genre and how they were viewed. Lefanu argues that role reversal stories allow “only one of two options: that one group retains or regains power over the other; or that some kind of balance is achieved” (45). But she explains that “the majority of matriarchies portrayed in science fiction, as Susan Wood pointed out in ‘Women in Science Fiction’ are vicious, static, crumbling from within, or a mixture of all three” (43). The writers seem to be suggesting that neither a matriarchal or patriarchal society is ideal, either will result in oppression of the other gender. Lefanu discusses Jayge Carr’s Leviathan’s Deep where:

The female characters are women, but women with attributes of men, that is, women with power and the capacity to abuse it. They must, finally, be shown to be at fault. Yet the fault seems as much to lie in their womanness (otherwise why invent them as women?) as in their position of power. Powerful women are seen as biological monsters. Biology is muddled up with social structures. (48)

What could be a potentially empowering story for women, in which women identify with their womanness, fails to challenge patriarchal cultural because they are at fault, even though they have attributes of men. Their womanhood overshadows the masculine characteristics and uses their feminine characteristics and their identities as women as faults rather than as strengths.

Like the creation of utopias and dystopias, the use of androgyny in science fiction has been a way for authors to challenge traditional gender roles. Pamela J. Annas states that:

The very inclusiveness of the concept of androgyny suggests that the center of the utopian concern of feminist writers is in modifying sex roles to allow for full human development of each individual person. Such an inclusive definition of androgyny points to a conceptual emphasis or, if you will, to an ordering of priorities. (Annas)

The use of androgyny is meant to allow human development, which implies that one cannot be fully themselves when bound by societal gender roles. Kim Edwards explores this idea by looking at the use of androgyny in The Matrix, stating that the movie uses androgyny “as identifiable sign of humanity” where the ‘good guys’ are “characterized by the erotic, the exotic and an aesthetic of androgyny, while the ‘bad guys’ are literally defined by their rigid codes of masculinity/machinery” (Edwards 120). The implication is that “unbending gender boundaries are the product of limited mechanical dictatorial minds” (121). This rejection of gender roles is more human than adherence to them. The male protagonist, Neo, “is relentlessly feminized and infantilized,” while Trinity, is “is characterized by a square jaw, ‘nude’ makeup and cropped, slicked-back hair. However these facial features are then juxtaposed with her feminized and sexually charged body” (118). Being androgynous or rejecting gender roles seems to be an enlightened state, where those who are androgynous, win in the end, defeating the unbending “mechanical dictatorial minds.” This seemingly leaves little room for women (and men) from being objectified. Even though Trinity is wearing a tight cat suit and is extremely sexualized, she also has masculine facial feature and personality traits, while Neo is consistently feminized as a way to show his humanity and his vulnerability, something that is usually associated with women. But it is also showing that femininity does not equate to weakness. Neo’s femininity is more a strength; it is a way to prove his humanity, and ultimately, even with his feminine characteristics, he wins. Rather than having opposing matriarchies and patriarchies, androgyny is used to empower the ‘good guys’ rather than just one gender. Instead of a fight for one gender to have power over the other, the fight is against gender roles altogether, removing its importance.

The Bechdel Test and Mako Mori Test

    The struggle against the objectification of women isn’t limited to just science fiction or video games. Movies, novel, video games, and comic books of all genres have been criticised for their portrayals of women as sexual objects. The Bechdel Test is a way to test the female presence of movies and the rules are simple: the movie “has to have at least two [named] women in it, who talk to each other about something besides a man” (Bechdel Movie Test List). The test is named for Alison Bechdel who used the test in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For. While the test seems simple, a surprising amount of movies fail it. In her blog, Alison Bechdel says the test is about “the representation of women who are subjects and not objects” (Bechdel).

Although the Bechdel test is a good start, it’s not a sure way to determine whether women are objectified or empowered in a movie. The website TV Tropes examines these limitations:

Now, by limiting yourself to shows/movies that pass the test, you’d be cutting out a lot of otherwise-worthy entertainment; indeed, a fair number of top-notch works have legitimate reasons for including no women (e.g. ones set in a men’s prison, or on a WWII military submarine, or back when only men served on juries ), or with no conversations at all, or having only one or two characters; hell, if its a romantic comedy, then it’s natural that the female characters would talk about men and romance the male characters will likely only talk about women too. You may even be cutting out a lot of works that have feminist themes. (The Bechdel Test)

The restrictive rules mean that even movies with strong female lead could fail the test and movies with women who are stereotyped or objectified could still pass. As a response to this issue, an alternative test has been presented: the Mako Mori test. Mako Mori was a female character in the movie Pacific Rim, and while the movie failed the Bechdel test, fans believed it had feminists undertones and still provided a very strong female lead. For a movie to pass the Mako Mori test it must have at “least one female character, who gets her own narrative that is not about supporting a man’s story” (Bechdel Test Movie List). Movies that fail the Bechdel Test may still have positive representations of women and Mako Mori test offers another view to examine them.

But both of these tests have limitations. These tests were not designed for science fiction specifically because science fiction often creates new worlds and societies that critique our own; the same rules may not apply. While The Matrix seemingly barely passes the Bechdel Test (Trinity and Switch talk about removing a bug from Neo’s belly, yet Neo is a man, so is the conversation about him or the bug?) it offers a critique of gender roles and reverses certain roles, using androgyny to signify humanity. And The Matrix wouldn’t pass the Mako Mori test either, since the female doesn’t get her own narrative. However, in the movie Neo, although male, is feminized to show his humanity, therefore empowering him and the rest of the ‘good guys’ in the movie.

These test also only apply to movies, not all forms of entertainments such as video games, or books. An article by Helen Lewis explores the possibility of having a similar test for video games, but like the Bechdel test and Mako Mori test, it would be very limited and would only give a vague understanding of how women are portrayed in video games. Elsa Bartley proposed a version of the Bechdel test that would require “a female character with whom you can interact, who doesn’t need rescuing, and isn’t a prostitute” (Bartley). While some believe that one criteria should be having a female playable character, Bartley argues that “this is too simple and doesn’t reflect a strength of the Bechdel Test where it is actually surprising to realise what fails the test, thus encouraging you to examine more films you know.” Instead, Bartley’s test examines how the player can interact with women in the games. Lewis however argues for a test that “would go some way towards capturing the spirit of the original by being about relationships between women” (Lewis).

But even with the proposal of a test for video games, there is no test for books, short stories, or comic books. But does there need to be one? With the limitations of the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests, the creation of these tests are used only to ignite discussion about the works, which can ultimately lead to discussions of empowerment or objectification of women, but do we need these tests to do that? There is no test that could possibly take all factors into consideration when looking at an issue as dynamic and complicated as this.

Works Cited

Annas, Pamela J. “New Worlds, New Words: Androgyny in Feminist Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 15.5 (1978): n.pag. Web. 1 Oct. 2014.


Bacon-Smith, Camille. Science Fiction Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Print.


Bartley, Elsa. “Updating the Bechdel Test for Video Games.” Elsa Bartley, 11 Oct. 2011. Web. 1 Oct.


Bechdel, Alison. “Testy.” Dykes To Watch Out For. Alison Bechdel, 8 Nov. 2013. Web. 1 Oct. 2014.


Bechdel Test Movie List. n.p. n.d.Web. 3 Oct. 2014.


Calvin, Ritch. “Feminist Science Fiction.” A Virtual Introduction to Science Fiction. Ed. Lars Schmeink. Web. 2012. 1-14.


“Damsel in Distress.” TV Tropes. TV Tropes Foundation, LLC, n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.


Edwards, Kim. “Deifying Androgyny and Bending Gender: The Matrix.” Screen Education Winter 2008: 117. Print.


“Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.” Entertainment Software . Association. ESA Entertainment Software Association, 2014. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.


Feminist Frequency. Feminist Frequency, 2012. Web. 1 Oct. 2014.


Lefanu, Sarah. Feminism and Science Fiction. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1989. Print.


Lewis, Helen. “Do Video Games Need Their Own Version of the Bechdel Test?” New Statesman. New Statesman, 7 Jan. 2014. Web. 2 Oct. 2014.


Malhotra, Anju. “Conceptualizing and Measuring Women’s Empowerment as a Variable in International Development.” Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives. World Bank, Washington DC. 4-5 Feb. 2003.


Manzano, Angie. “Charlie’s Angels: Free-Market Feminism.” Off Our Backs: The Feminist Newsjournal 30.11 (2000). Web. 20 Sep. 2015.


“Save the Princess.” TV Tropes. TV Tropes Foundation, LLC, n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.


Smith, Jenn. “Embracing Hypocrisy: Why I Liked Charlie’s Angels.” Off Our Backs: The Feminist Newsjournal 30.11 (2000). Web. 20 Sep. 2015.


“The Bechdel Test.” TV Tropes. TV Tropes Foundation, LLC, n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.


Tymn, Marshall B. “Science Fiction: A Brief History and Review of Criticism.” American Studies International 23.1 (1985): 41-66. Web. 21 Sep. 2015.


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