I do have a pertinent question about character and gender. And it comes from the fact that I, a (male, 60-year-old) math professor and aspiring sci fi writer, have somehow become the local expert on H. P. Lovecraft, and that I’m teaching a course where my students are reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, and simultaneously rereading The Lord of the Rings, while being the biggest Harry Potter fan on Depot Street. And then there was Laissez Faire writing about depictions of women on screen.
It seemed like a good moment to take a survey and draw lessons… yes, professor.
Students eventually notice that Lovecraft’s main characters are rarely women. Lovecraft is also often accused of racism, and I wind up saying this bit of whitesplaining: he was definitely racist in his youth, but not so much in his mature writing. Okay, maybe. We’re all contradictions, and I like to say that characters like Dyer and Wilmarth and the surveyor in “Colour out of Space” are “colorless whites and genderless males.” I mean that Wilmarth, of “The Whisperer in Darkness,” obviously might be black, and even though Wilmarth’s first name is given as Albert (once, maybe twice), it’s easy to imagine him as a her.
But it’s definitely the case that Lovecraft only makes a character female if he feels like he has to: Asenath Waite is the daughter of an old wizard who wishes he’d had a son, Nabby Gardener is Nahum’s wife, Eliza Tillinghast is Joseph Curwen’s wife, Lavinny has to be a girl for Wizard Whately to prostitute her to Yog-Sothoth and produce offspring. (Asenath is an interesting case, and if it were nearer the point, I could argue that her character reveals at least some sympathy for the position of women and a respect for their strength and intelligence; the same is true of Eliza, who deserves to be a more central character than she is.)
But in the end, I have no excuse for old Lovecraft. His myopia about gender is perhaps his least forgivable trait. And in any case, this leads me to a sort of alternate face of the Bechdel Test:
The Better than HP Test: Do the female characters in the story have to be female by virtue of their place in the story (as someone’s mother, wife, sister, daughter etc.) or are they female because they happened to be born that way?
This is a little tricky, obviously. Unlike the Bechdel Test (are there at least two female characters, who at some point have a dialog by themselves, in which they talk about something other than men?) it requires the reader to look into the writer’s intentions a little. But in the case of Lovecraft, it’s hard to think of any female character who doesn’t have to be female to occupy her role in the story—as someone’s mom (Eliza and Lavinny), daughter (Eliza, Lavinny and Asenath) or wife (Eliza, Asenath, Nabby and Mrs. Suydam from “The Horror at Red Hook”).
Let’s bring Isaac Asimov in here. The archetypal member of the generation of great expansion in science fiction that followed the generation of Lovecraft (and Tolkien), Asimov was a World War Two veteran with a PhD. in biochemistry and, eventually, a bibliography that ran to over two hundred titles, as many in non-fiction as in fiction. His seminal work was, in my mind, the Foundation trilogy, published at almost the exact same time as The Lord of the Rings.
The trilogy consists of Foundation, which my students are reading, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. Roughly, Foundation charts the first couple of centuries of the expansion of the republic that will eventually replace the dying Empire. Foundation and Empire consists of two parts, one in which the old Empire’s last great general almost defeats the Foundation and is turned back by the tide of History, and one in which a mutant called the Mule appears and ruins the predictions of the Foundation’s long-dead founder. The third book, Second Foundation, is also in two parts, the first of which concerns the Mule’s search for the legendary, possibly mythical Second Foundation.
Foundation, the first book, celebrates the cigar-chomping, rule-bending, wise-cracking merchant magnate, invariably male. There are, if I am not mistaken, zero female characters in this novel. It fails the Bechdel Test, the BTHP Test, and basically any other test you could apply concerning gender representation. Women do only slightly better as the series goes on, until the second half of Second Foundation, published in 1953 (three years before I was born). Its main character, Arkady Darrell, is a teenage girl who embarks on her own personal search for the Second Foundation, and finds it without realizing what she’s found.
Arkady is a female character who doesn’t have to be female for any reason whatever. Her sexuality doesn’t exist (sex is not why one reads Asimov); she’s no one’s mother or sister; she’s just some kid, and as far as I can tell, she could just as easily have been written as a boy. I am not saying that Arkady is indistinguishable from a male character, the way I would say some Lovecraft males (Wilmarth) could just as easily be female. While hardly a stereotyped girl, she’s distinctly not male. Somehow it occurred to Asimov in the year that Dwight Eisenhower became President to make the protagonist of his detective story a teenage girl.
I’m not here to say: Hurrah! We win! Asimov has ONE female character in all of the Foundation Trilogy. I am here to point out that this is the definition of passing the BTHP test. (Not so sure Second Foundation passes the Bechdel test, however.) Comparing to Tolkien, you can see more examples of female characters who don’t have to be female—Galadriel is an obvious one; sure, she’s Celeborn’s wife, but she’s the important one and he’s just arm decoration, and it’s not the case that Galadriel has to be female for some reason of plot, as is the case with Asenath Waite or Eliza Tillinghast.
The unfortunate thing is that while modern fantasy and sci fi have generally kept up the progress, the sheer number of male main characters is still overwhelming, and in the visual media, characters are often female for another reason: because females can be dressed up, or undressed as the case may be. Consider Star Trek, with the old idea of a black woman on the bridge just being a member of the crew—but in a skirt so short they probably had to watch those camera angles.
A step forward, but watch how you cross your legs
Obviously one could go on and on about how female characters are clothed in visual media. Even Princess Leia, who almost makes it through the first three Star Wars films with her dignity intact, ends up in a bikini in Return of the Jedi. At least the print media don’t put women in the position of having to choose their outfits according to their Nielsen ratings.
And do not even get me started on graphic novels and superhero comics.
But read a modern sci fi, fantasy or dystopian novel and consider the genders of the characters, and why the characters had to be those genders. The Harry Potters pass muster, as does The Hunger Games; not so much for the Shatter Me novels, for instance, written by a female author in the twenty-first century, with one female character in the first book, swimming in males who desire her.
So that’s what we’re called on to do as writers of science fiction and fantasy. We can tell all sorts of stories. Why tell a story in which there are two kinds of people, as Simone de Beauvoir put it: people and women? Why tell a story in which men can be anything but you’re only a girl if you have to be for some reason? Why shouldn’t we tell a story about a strong female character, accompanied by other strong female characters, who presumably have a sexuality but who aren’t bound to it?
And if I may now engage in self-promotion, here’s my humble offering (at a very humble price):
Thank you… thoughts?