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Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female

Note: this article first appeared as a guest blog post in Scientific American.

Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) in HaywireI reluctantly acquired a Twitter account as a necessary accoutrement to my Scientific American posts.  The people I track there fall mostly into two streams: scientists and SFF writers.  This week, the two intersected, resulting in a minor epiphany.  The tributaries were Upsides of Women in Science? by neuroscientist SciTriGrrl at Tenure, She Wrote; and I Hate Strong Female Characters by author Sophia McDougall in the New Statesman.

For those eager to rejoin Twitter lest they miss a hot link, here’s the kernel: the characteristics that McDougall deplores are requirements for the survival of women in science (actually in all endeavors that aren’t explicitly coded “feminine”).  And the permission – nay, requirement – to be a strong silent kick-ass may be one of the few upsides of being a non(whiteAnglo)male in a STEM field, though it comes with a heavy load of baggage.

McDougall follows in the steps of several forerunners (she mis/names Carina Chocano, but these debates have been going on for a while) and hews to a meaning of the term “strong female character” as narrow as Margaret Atwood’s definition of science fiction.  Within her defined parameters, McDougall argues eloquently that “strong” female characters in books, movies and comics are pernicious because they devalue all non-heroic behavior (which of course depends on one’s definition of heroism) and limit the range of attributes, actions and interactions available to the character herself.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most SFF works contain a single woman bereft of female kin and friends.  To retain her trap-strewn status, such a construct is obliged to be a perfect kick-ass while remaining “womanly” and focused on the men and their needs: not for her the quirks and angst of a Sherlock Holmes or an Edward Rochester; not for her the loyalty and unquestioned support of sworn brothers.  There are the inevitable partial exceptions, the most prominent one being Lara Croft before she got stuffed into normalization corsets.

By consensus of both supporters and detractors, the standard kick-ass heroine is an extreme manifestation of the strong silent type: Shane with breasts – and, furthermore, breasts that please and/or nourish without any demand for a quid pro quo.  I call such characters Iron Madonnas: a ratcheted-up variation of the Iron Maiden that requires women to be maternal while remaining asexual and literally selfless, like the Christian prototype.  To give just a few highly visible SFF examples, Arwen, Cordelia Vorkosigan, Sarah Connor, the reboot Uhura and Padmé Amidala (until she turns into a floor puddle) are obvious Iron Madonnas; so are most of Miyazaki’s heroines, which is why Mononoke Hime is such a landmark work: just the centrality of more than one woman (Mononoke and Eboshi) breaks the mold – to say nothing of their attributes.

SciTriGrrl’s article posits that, customary gloom to the contrary, there ARE some upsides to being a woman in STEM.  However, most of the pluses she and her commenters list are non-specific to either gender or discipline: following a consuming vocation; flexible if long hours; lack of a dress code.   The rest, frankly, are a wishlist.  Worse yet, they arise from tokenism (“As the single woman in X you stand out!” – which means you get to serve and be ignored in tons more committees than a male counterpart, to say nothing of the micro- to mega-aggressions that rain on you as a stand-in for all non-men) or from gender-coded behavior along the lines of “Women have more personal/ized interactions and less horn locking!” (as in: being warm and understanding and reaping benefits therefrom).

To which my retort is, if only.  Contrary to SciTriGrrl’s hopeful assertions, women in STEM, regardless of where they are in their career path, have a narrower permitted response spectrum than men.  Not only is weeping instant career demolition; so is anger, sarcasm, moodiness, flamboyance, charisma.  All, incidentally, are deemed leadership attributes in men and add depth and piquancy to male heroes – and are also reflected on what’s acceptable in corresponding outerwear.  A male mentor is never expected to waste valuable time and gray matter to even hear, let alone tolerate, tales of personal woe.  A male faculty member can show up in sweatpants or with hair combed by touching an electric socket, no problemo; and unless he’s non-white or has “odd vowels” in his name, he’s never chosen for draining service duties with the reasoning “We need ‘diversity’ so we can check off that box in our reports to funding agencies.”  Women are called to lead a department or company only when it’s in deep doodoo: not only are their careers deemed more disposable but “as women” they’re considered magically (or genetically) equipped to clean up messes while the men forge ahead with advantageous exit strategies.

What I just described is the narrowly defined kick-ass heroine excoriated by McDougall et al.  The Iron Madonna has been, and remains, the sole viable behavior mode for women in STEM – in part because we’re still asked to prove non-stop that “We’re as good as boys.”  The stance does not guarantee success or happiness, far from it; it only gives people who do science while non-male the chance to pursue their vocation without handicaps of Harrison Bergeron size.  It’s a persona, an armored exoskeleton that must be worn on a planet where toxic molecules are inhaled with each and every breath.

Which is where the tiny sliver of “advantage” comes in, if it can be called that: women in this configuration can sometimes dodge the automatic expectation of standard “feminine” responses.  They will never achieve a fraction of the fame, success and authority of male counterparts with a fraction of their dedication and talent; but they may be left alone to dream and shape the dark in small, meagerly funded labs without demands to be den mothers, wear floppy bow ties or make soothing noises (though they still get summarily slapped down if they deviate from the spacetime local academic norms).  The real solution, of course, is to make others more multifaceted and human(e) rather than women less so.  But that’s still “a consummation devoutly to be wished” even in first-world academia.

Related articles:

Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears
A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise
The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction
Those Who Never Got to Fly
Bridge Struts in Pink Pantalets
So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?

Image: Gina Carano as Mallory Kane in Haywire (Photo: Associated Press)

8 Responses to “The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female”

  1. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Interesting post, Athena, and thanks for sharing the links! It is both kind of funny and sad that writers and filmmakers try to prove that their female characters are not stereotypically feminine by cramming them into another equally confined and stereotypical role.

    The solution is to simply drop such limiting roles and to allow female characters to have the full range of nuanced personalities and interpersonal relationships that real humans have- which is also the solution in real life, really.

  2. Athena says:

    Your last sentence encapsulates the simple, winning strategy — one that somehow continues to elude most cultures and individual people.

  3. Asakiyume says:

    This essay and the characteristics you describe makes me think of Condi Rice, about whom I’d like to know more. And then, by train of thought, I get to thinking of women in politics, especially women in politics in Asia–in Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Indonesia. There seems to be a special dispensation for such women? I don’t really know at all: I’m wondering. Often they “inherit” the position they assume from a husband or father, but they’re still the one at the helm.

  4. Athena says:

    Several did inherit as dynasty heirs (Gandhi, Bhutto) but others (Meir, Thatcher, ) did not. Even so, all were isolated and had to do the strong silent bit, and show they were the toughest of the tough. Also, don’t forget that sons routinely have inherited such positions, with nobody asking whether they’re fit to run a nation or not.

  5. Kidakor says:

    While we’re at strong female characters, what’s your opinion on this attempt?

    http://escapepod.org/2007/09/06/ep122-transcendence-express/

  6. Athena says:

    Do you know where I can find a transcript? Listening to a podcast in real time is torture. On the basis of the description, it doesn’t sound very promising: the trope of “laptops will solve all problems” has finally been mothballed in fiction (as it should). Now if only the libertarians would catch up.

  7. Athena says:

    Oh dear, quantum microtubules. That killed it for me right there, wizardly female scientist notwithstanding — though she barely registers as a character, the story is a scaffolding for hanging ideas (which might be ok, in turn, if the ideas were original and/or better nuanced). But there’s no doubt she fits the Iron Madonna definition, even onto the soothing noises to both kids and adults.

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