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Review of Feminist SF (Part 1 of 2)

Tank Girl, written by Tedi Sarafian from the comic book by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewitt, directed by Rachel Talalay, 1995, 100 min.

Out of what is perhaps sheer perversity, I have decided to open my column on feminist science fiction with a review of the movie Tank Girl. I feel that this movie, or at least a thoughtful look at the movie, can address many important and controversial issues: sex, power structures, the boundaries of feminism, how quality is judged in a work of art, and so on. Why then call its inclusion perverse? Simply that Tank Girl is hardly a movie that I would recommend to anyone. Also because I am raising more questions than anyone could possibly supply with answers.

The less said about the plot of Tank Girl the better: every nonsensical post-apocalyptic cliché is here. Water is the scarce commodity, and the mutants have the hearts of gold. Only villainous people are in power, and liberty happens when the ultimate villain is killed. Cheap sets, cheaper costumes. Tank Girl uses good girls versus bad guys, the only variation on the standard post-apocalyptic plot.

I'll briefly mention the high points of the movie. I liked the animated interludes. The overflow of bad attitude in the soundtrack (as coordinated by Courtney Love) fitted together perfectly with the tone of the movie. And I liked the relationship between Jet Girl and Tank Girl, and how Jet Girl learned to deal with Tank Girl's condescension.

Sex. Almost all of Tank Girl's wisecracks have to do with sex. She directs the gun barrel of her tank into the window of a truck cab, and yells at the drivers, "Feeling inadequate?" When the evil villain asks her how she likes a strait jacket, she replies, "It makes it awfully hard to play with myself." And so on. This might be a refreshing change from the typical one liner in an action movie, but it's only different at the surface level. Is Tank Girl liberated? Maybe so, but the question of sexiness becomes important. What is sexiness? Who decides? And why? Tank Girl wants to be sexy and kick some male stereotypes out the window. And I say, more power to her. I loved the song and dance routine in the bordello; Tank Girl leads the chorus line: "Let's do it, let's fall in love." Nasty satire, but a number of the women in the film would have the right to feel exploited, like the naked servers in the bordello scene. And perhaps not least Tank Girl herself. Yes, the movie makes fun of the objectification of the erotic in several hilarious scenes -- one where Tank Girl and Jet Girl infiltrate a factory by getting pictures of scummy male workers for a fictional calendar, and also the scene where Tank Girl tries on various "sexy" clothing in order to sneak into the bordello (sped up and set to music in a funny homage to the orgy scene in A Clockwork Orange). But Tank Girl often operates on the same dynamic itself throughout, or at least, loses sight of the fine line between celebration and exploitation.

Critical reviews have been almost unanimous in dismissing the film. Tank Girl only made back about a fifth of its modest budget at the box office, so Hollywood considers it a total flop. For myself, I have my own doubts about the film. But who decides the criteria of quality? Hollywood is only worried about money, and believes that money is somehow related to quality. Tank Girl is notably easy to dismiss out of hand, making it a quick target for critics to hit (as with my paragraph about the movie's plot). So who is qualified to make the judgment? Perhaps the consensus on Tank Girl is correct, and it is in fact an inferior movie because it has a derivative plot and didn't earn much money. Perhaps so, and I will return to this in a minute.

Is Tank Girl a feminist movie? If such a thing existed, would it look like this? Tank Girl herself can be considered as an empowered individual, a kind of primal feminist, killing and fucking whoever she pleases. Or at the opposite end of the spectrum, simply the product of male fantasies of the femme fatale or some stereotype (the original comic book was written by two men). The label of feminism does not seem to be useful, and might even be used, in the case of Tank Girl, as a way of dismissing the movie. Allow me to put this assertion into context: of the top 100 directors in Hollywood in 1999 (the criteria being money earned at the box office), only 5 are women. The ratio for screen-writers is similarly depressing. What does this situation mean? The field of written science fiction has no such imbalance. I'm not contending that balanced numbers would make Hollywood magically better or smarter, nor am I implying that those 95 male directors are all insensitive anti-feminists. But the numbers mean something, and I think that there's a kind of vicious circle going on. Tank Girl bombs, for whatever reason (lack of support, studio interference, and so on), and Rachel Talalay doesn't get more work.

This is an old story, but Tank Girl was edited and re-cut by the movie studio against the wishes of the director. However, this might be a different case than the typical version of this story (like ego battles between a star and a director, or cuts to make a certain rating). Rachel Talalay has talked about which scenes got cut. Among them: Tank Girl no longer has a dildo collection. Tank Girl no longer has a graphic sex scene with Booga (who is a kind of mutant warrior, and not very bright). Tank Girl would use wacky tactics in battle: instead of just shooting at the men on the semi truck, she would put a condom on a banana and then throw it at them. What do these changes mean? Not much on an individual basis, really. But they also help us to examine some provocative issues about power structures, money, control, and so forth. If the people with money (most often men in the Hollywood power structure) decide these kinds of things, then some of my earlier questions are answered quite easily. Who decides what is sexy? Well, those with money and vested interests in making profit from "entertainment" and the means (money to advertise) to reinforce the same ideas. The commodification of the erotic makes sense easily enough in this context. That a movie like Tank Girl would face opposition and exhibit internal contradictions is not very surprising. That it flopped at the box office is explained by its rawness, its un-product-ness.

These answers are, of course, far too simplistic, and in a way, substitute one orthodoxy or paranoia for another. So many things are wrong with the way our world works, and it's easy to fall into pat answers. At the beginning of this review I stated that I would end up with more questions than answers, and that's partly because I'm not satisfied with the conclusions from the previous paragraph. Such all-encompassing solutions have a way of falling apart under scrutiny. Nor are questions of quality as easily resolved as the critics of Tank Girl or the movie studio executives who cut the film would have us believe. Because the question of excellence always implies a whole network of assumptions behind it, and once we look around that widely, the difficulties multiply. As only they should.

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Signet, 1992, 146 pp. (originally published in 1915)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), a controversial and famous writer in her time, was ignored for most of our century and only rediscovered, so to speak, in the 1970's. Gilman is a good example of the feminist project of re-valuing female writers of the past, an ongoing project that has brought to light many worthwhile and interesting writers. However, as with other works like Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Women," Herland does not quite fit the kind of orthodox feminism that has rediscovered it -- as is only understandable, considering the vastly different moment in history in which it was written. In the case of Herland, Gilman aims at familiar targets like the role of women, violence, and the institution of marriage, but her conclusions feel dated and sometimes silly to the modern reader. To her own audiences, she was rightly considered radical, even dangerous.

The narrator of Herland is a man, Vandyck Jennings. Jennings is exploring strange lands with his two friends, Terry O. Nicholson, the one with the funds, and Jeff Margrave, the doctor. They hear a rumour about a remote area populated by women, and fly in the next spring with Terry's new airplane. True enough, Herland is a land of women, and the three men stay there for a year. After a bit of conflict, they become prisoners in all but name until they can become more "civilized." This involves learning the language, trying to explain the barbaric way in which women are treated back home, and getting to know three particular girls, Celis, Alima, and Ellador. As it turns out, these three women were volunteered to become intimate with the three men, in order to revive the possibility of male offspring in Herland and to facilitate contact with the outside world. Unfortunately, the relationship between Terry and Alima deteriorates rapidly, and after Terry attempts a violent rape, the three men are exiled.

Gilman doesn't deal with the full complexity of male-female relations in society -- Herland is a kind of thought experiment or test tube society. This serves to clarify certain issues, like education and child-rearing, but it also makes the book somewhat unreal, even irrelevant. Herland's society is a clear fabrication, with little in the way of depth, the depth that something like Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness possesses in abundance. Worse, Gilman makes the crucial mistake of essentializing Woman (in much the same way that Tepper would almost 75 years later in The Gate to Woman's Country), and to a degree beyond anything I've read. The women of Herland are all clones, parthenogenetic offspring of one mother hundreds of years ago. They all get along, they all work in unison, they all think alike. Total homogeneity is not the case in our civilization, and so the book has virtually nothing to say to our state of affairs, best characterized as chaotic heterogeneity (and frankly, I like it that way). The inferiority complex that the three men develop in the face of Herland's achievements is fully justified, but Gilman supplies no help for recreating those achievements in a society where people think differently and work at cross purposes. Herland probably functions best as a goad to examine the inconsistencies and cruelties of our culture, some not related in gender inequality at all. Take this example about dogs:

Little by little they wrung from us the fact that the friend of man, in the city, was a prisoner; was taken out for his meager exercise on a leash; was liable not only to many diseases but the one destroying horror of rabies; and, in many cases, for the safety of the citizens, had to go muzzled. Jeff maliciously added many vivid instances he had known or read of injury and death from mad dogs. (54)

A small, maybe insignificant thing to notice, but Gilman's gaze is acute and thorough, and she helps you to see the small details in the same way that she does.

Herland might not be the greatest work of literature; often the only irony in this didactic novel is Sir Thomas More's original use of the Greek word for nowhere to christen his novel Utopia. But Herland is a short read, and it's essential to an understanding of the roots of the genre. You can draw a direct line from the likes of Jonathan Swift to Gilman's Herland, and then from Herland on to modern works of science fiction like The Left Hand of Darkness (also Le Guin's The Dispossessed and Brin's Glory Season). Herland might have a few flaws, but its rediscovery only adds to the richness of science fiction.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ace, 1977, 304 pp. (originally published in 1969)

Some novels stand so huge in the field and yet become so familiar, so much a part of the language of the genre, that it's hard to remember the achievement they were in their own time. The Left Hand of Darkness is one such book, and whatever critical praise it has received, it deserves more. Le Guin demonstrates that science fiction can have intelligence, immersiveness, sophisticated prose, and all in perfect balance. I consider the book's greatest achievement to be the detail with which Le Guin constructs the Gethenian culture, all the while keeping the reader's interest. The people of Gethen have their own ways of thinking, and even the planet itself has a distinct sense of place -- religion, history, differing nations, it's all here. Yes, Gethen is a "winter planet," but it transcends the standard method of describing a whole planet by one climate, more so than Herbert's Arrakis. I so admire Le Guin's technique in vividly showing the diverging strands of Gethenian culture that I sometimes undervalue the controversial content of that culture, androgyny. Le Guin's deft examination of gender caused a huge splash at the time of its publication and remains as fresh and compelling to this day. Combined with the immersiveness of the book, the experience is quite overwhelming.

The Ekumen, a group of worlds connected by instantaneous communication, contacts new planets by sending down a solitary Envoy to make contact in a non-threatening way. Genly Ai is the Envoy for Gethen, the winter planet. When the book opens, he has been in Karhide for some time, with few results, apart from an ambiguous friendship with a Gethenian named Estraven. Genly travels, then moves to the neighbouring nation of Orgoreyn. Estraven is there too, now a disgraced spy. Genly gets thrown into a work camp, Estraven rescues him, and they make a dangerous journey across the polar regions back to Karhide. On their return, Genly sends word to his shipmates that Gethen is ready for full contact.

Very little about the plot can convey the depth of The Left Hand of Darkness. The chapters of the book alternate between Genly's account and other material; this material sometimes consists of Gethenian tales or history, sometimes of Estraven's perspective. Genly himself is a fascinating individual, and we get to know him in the context of a rich, ancient culture which he is stumbling through on a vital mission of peace. Not the typical page-turner of a plot, but in Le Guin's hands it is more than enough to bring readers back over and over again. I particularly like Genly's encounter with the Foretellers. "'I'm exceedingly ignorant--'" (56) Genly says, which might be true, but it also a huge boast in terms of the Foretellers' contempt for knowledge. The origin of the Yomesh cult is also fascinating: a group of Foretellers was asked the meaning of life... and discovered the answer at great cost. Le Guin also maintains the book's interest while Genly and Estraven travel across the frozen wastelands, a trek that is gruelling and nearly fatal.

Does The Left Hand of Darkness count as feminist science fiction? I find that it doesn't rest gracefully in that category; Le Guin has numerous interrelated concerns, and many of them are a long way off from the typical feminist agenda. The anthropological project of creating a culture with depth and history. The more general aim of commenting on human nature. Le Guin also deals with the attributes of narrative itself, and how story-telling fits together with culture and human nature. Genly Ai's opening sentence is all anyone needs to say on the matter: "I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination" (1). The reader gets to know Gethenian culture profoundly through Le Guin's narrative techniques, making the words ring true.

Gethenians are completely androgynous, except for once a month, approximately, when they go into kemmer. Two Gethenians in kemmer can mate, because one becomes male and the other female -- most Gethenians have both fathered and mothered children. Genly Ai is considered a pervert by the Gethenians, as he is always male. Genly tries desperately to understand these alien people, but his imagination can hardly stretch enough to encompass the truth of their existence. Gender means something to Genly, and it's highly significant that Genly perceives certain Gethenians as male, and others as female. Right down to linguistic confusion: "man I must say, having said he and his" (5). Many people have complained that Le Guin did not create a gender neutral pronoun for Gethenians; such complaints entirely miss the point of the book, Genly's growth in imagination. By the end of the book, Genly sees his shipmates as alien and disturbing: "But they all looked strange to me, men and women, well as I knew them. Their voices sounded strange: too deep, too shrill. They were like a troupe of great, strange animals, of two different species; great apes with intelligent eyes, all of them in rut, in kemmer..." (296). Would a female Envoy have written the report differently than Genly? Of course. Le Guin seems to be saying that sexuality is only part of a cultural construct, but also that there's nothing wrong with that. That's simply how culture functions, and it's a matter of educating your imagination (that is, your sense of truth) in order to understand others. In this way, The Left Hand of Darkness tells a genuine story of contact, of reconciliation, of hope for conversation across barriers.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ, Beacon, 1986, 214 pp. (originally published in 1975)

Russ has neatly forestalled all criticism of her angry masterpiece, The Female Man, with a cleverly written passage about half-way through the book. Russ wants to demonstrate in the non-fictional arena of The Female Man's critical reception the same points she makes in the fictional narrative. Here is a small sample: "another shrill polemic which the... a mere male like myself can hardly... a brilliant but basically confused study of feminine hysteria which... feminine lack of objectivity... this pretence at a novel... trying to shock... the tired tricks of the anti-novelists... how often must a poor critic have to..." (141). The beautiful irony is that Russ the "anti-novelist" has constructed this passage as a preemptive strike -- the book is filled with such sharply-written moments, and this instance is as good a way to introduce it as any.

The ever-present anger of The Female Man has offended people (and I know of several real-life and extremely vehement examples), but for myself, I find the humour in the book to be even more vivid. It took me a few minutes to figure out the exact nature of the Whileawayan communication device, which is apparently very dangerous: "'What it does to your body... is nothing compared to what it does to your mind... It will explode in your brains and drive you crazy. You will never be the same again'" (148). The Great Happiness Contest is another example of Russ' biting and sarcastic wit. I also liked the two pseudo-fables: the girl raised by bears, and the philosopher who turned out to be dead.

What is this book about? Four women, each from a differing alternate universe. The four J's: the timid Jeannine (from a reality where Hitler died in 1936 and there was no WWII to kickstart the world economy out of the Great Depression), the forthright Janet (from Whileaway, a feminist utopia that is highly reminiscent of Herland), Jael the assassin (from a reality where women and men are at war), and Joanna the narrator. Janet shows up in Jeannine's reality and then Joanna's, causing havoc with her outrageous hijinks. The three women, their backstories, and the present doings make up the majority of the novel. Jael, whose role loomed large in my memory from my first reading of the novel, only shows up in last quarter. The other three women accompany Jael on a mission of assassination, and then the four say goodbye to this book as it goes out into the world.

What does it all mean? Russ is first and foremost claiming a space for women in what began as male-dominated genre. Interestingly, this particular edition is not packaged as science fiction, but my comment would likely apply to the mainstream context that Beacon seems to be targeting. In terms of science fiction, the call to write has been taken up by many, many women, to the point where equality in the written field only highlights the massive inequality in film-making, for example. The writers of today aren't necessarily going to agree with Russ' viewpoints and tactics, and that diversity can only add to the strength of the genre.

The Female Man also seems to be motivated by the sheer linguistic joy of it all; what has been called New Wave, but married to a purpose. Russ has some deadly serious points to make, and she puts an enjoyable, razor-sharp edge of sarcasm and wit on them. I know that some people have put aside the book because of its didacticism, but the writing in this book is too priceless to be missed.

Most of all, I think Russ is engaged in a gleeful smashing of stereotypes. How many times have female characters been slotted into the virgin/whore dichotomy? Viewed only as sex objects and put into passive roles? In one sense, the four women from alternate realities, including the fictional Joanna character, are only alter egos of the real Joanna Russ, as if to insist that any particular woman cannot be bound to any particular stereotype. Each of the four women have sexuality as part of their characters, but certainly not as their all-defining attribute as is the case in most stereotypes of femininity. In this way the structure of The Female Man itself parallels the overt sniping against cliché and such that Russ engages in with her linguistic fireworks. The intense, cumulative effect of this combination makes me wonder how stereotyping of female roles can continue at all. That a book should be able to change society is a curious idea, but society progresses through incremental modifications and a book like The Female Man makes its own changes (cascade effect, backlash, and so on), however small. Or by another metaphor: Russ' book is another salvo in the culture wars, between progress and the status quo, or between rebellion and tradition. I prefer to view The Female Man as a demonstration that wit and outrage can eclipse stereotypes and bad writing any day.

The Gate to Women's Country, Sheri S. Tepper, Bantam Spectra, 1989, 315 pp.

The world of this book is hell. Tepper even says so, despite all of the posturing otherwise. The question then becomes: is this a necessary hell? And Tepper's answer is quite clearly in the affirmative.

Another controversial novel seemed like a good way to close out my column. The Gate to Women's Country has generated reams of debate over Tepper's sociological assumptions, the most basic assumption being: men are mostly evil and women are clear-headed enough to see that it is their responsibility to breed violence out of men. Of course, Tepper uses her fictional setting to stack the deck, because it was those villainous men who nearly destroyed all of human life with a nuclear war three hundred years before the book's narrative begins. The absolute nature of nuclear war suits Tepper's purposes, as it is the biggest binary of them all -- it's hard to argue against the fact of mindless, planet-wide destruction as bad. And it becomes clear that Tepper is only interested in binary oppositions. For example, she casually relates how Women's Country has eliminated homosexuality, as it was "caused by aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy" (76). Whether this is true or not is irrelevant: women are on one side of the wall, men on the other, and Tepper makes no call for any kind of ambiguity. Gender is an absolute, a strict binary, a monstrous divide. A contrast with Russ' jihad against the idea of anatomy as destiny in The Female Man shows why feminist science fiction is no monolithic entity.

Tepper attempts to cover over a multitude of sins by calling the manipulative women's council the Damned Few. But the ironic knife cuts both ways; what if they are indeed damned and what they are doing is wrong? Or at very least, basing their actions on mistaken sociological assumptions? Tepper seems to throw off rational discussion when it would be most convincing, as with the foundational premise of the book. I think that intelligent readers can deal with uncertainty, and even something like irony. I realize that Tepper is deliberately fashioning a sledge-hammer, but I prefer an honest debate over being crushed to smithereens. Similarly, I cheer at the amount of scorn she pours on her target of militarism, but I think that her context and her solution are too simplistic. For example, The Gate to Women's Country uses the device of a play within the narrative, a play called Iphigenia at Ilium, dealing with the Trojan War. When considered as coldly as Tepper does, the events of the Trojan War are simply horrifying: the sacrifice of Iphigenia for good sailing weather, the sacrifice of Polyxena at Achilles' tomb, the murder of Hector's son, and so on. Western culture has many overwhelming problems, and Tepper has an easy job of tracing a few of them back to the patriarchal and bloodthirsty epics. However, the mystery of why such horrible things happen is not as easily resolved -- Tepper's answers simply don't hold up to the persistence of aggression and abuse of power in our civilization. And if violence contained in literature is part of the problem, why the cause-and-effect biological explanations? I am not convinced by such reductivist views of human behaviour.

The confluence of sex and violence drives the narrative of the story as much as the underlying perspective. Stavia is the main character of The Gate to Women's Country, a solid, dependable citizen of Women's Country, and a member of the Damned Few, the secretive inner Council. The story begins with a confrontation between Stavia and her fifteen year old son, David, when he chooses to renounce forever Women's Country (and the chance to become a civilized and educated "servitor") and become a warrior. About two-thirds of the book is made up of Stavia's reminiscences of her life at the time of David's conception. As a teen, Stavia fell in love with a warrior named Chernon, and instead of meeting and fulfilling their passion at the appropriate Carnival time, they run off together. This turns out to be a horrible idea, and Stavia has some appalling encounters in Holyland (where patriarchy has run amok). Rescued, she returns and raises the resulting child, only to have him repudiate her at his fifteenth birthday. For the following reason, which Tepper presents as cause and effect: David has true warrior genes from his father Chernon, whereas the Carnival is only a big trick where the servitors do the actual impregnating in the place of the warriors. By breeding women with "suitable" men, the Women's Council is orchestrating a giant scheme to eliminate violence. Tepper makes reference to Laplanders breeding docile reindeer, but humans have a more complex social apparatus than reindeer. The Women's Council also uses a certain amount of social control, but why then send out the boys to barracks at the impressionable period of five to fifteen? Without convincing sociological assumptions, the book fails at its apparent task of deconstructing violence and its link with sex/gender.

I must confess that I'm no longer a Tepper fan. That's as may be, but I still admire The Gate to Women's Country for its frank look at certain undeniable problems. That look may or may not be completely wrong-headed, but the debate itself is also important.

Please see the Challenging Destiny web site for a review of Halfway Human by Carolyn Ives Gilman, which is perhaps my favourite book of the last few years. I could have included many other works of science fiction in this column, from the Connie Willis short story, "Even the Queen," to novels by Suzy McKee Charnas, Joan Slonczewski, Octavia E. Butler, and so on. No shortage of controversial and intriguing real life stories too; for example, a look at the life of Alice Sheldon (also known as James Tiptree Jr.) would merit a separate column. The wealth of this kind of material in the genre would make a despairing utopian like Charlotte Perkins Gilman regain her faith.

Part 2 of this column will be called Feminist SF: Mainstream Invaders, where I will look at how "mainstream" writers like Atwood, Lessing, Acker, and Piercy have used the genre for their own purposes.

James Schellenberg lives in southern Ontario. He doesn't personally know any assassins (female or otherwise), tank operators, androgynes, parthenogenetically reproducing women, or men who could be held responsible for nuclear war.

Last modified: August 14, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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