Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Women’s Bodies, Women’s Powers

Note: this is a variant of the talk I delivered as the opening of the Readercon panel of the same title in July. The other participants were Alex Dally MacFarlane, Kate Nepveu, Vandana Singh and Sabrina Vourvoulias.

The issues contained in the title of this panel are many and complex; we’ll only scratch the surface today but I hope they may lead to further thinking. One large context is the perceived need to categorize everything, including gender signs/signals, and assign relative value to the resulting categories, which in SFF can be posited as “objective reality” (see Scott Bakker’s work for a textbook example). Another large context is that SFF still follows the long-outmoded concept that genes/chromosomes/specific body functions completely dictate higher order behavior. The third major issue is to whom non-male bodies belong. Anyone following global politics (or even Texan ones… or Twitter, for that matter) will know the answer remains surprisingly non-obvious.

Biologically, we are a feedback loop between our brains/bodies and the external world. There are real limitations dictated, for example, by the fact that we’re mammals with everything the term implies, from metabolism to reproductive investment at the biological level. At the same time, human brains are plastic and remarkably capable of bypassing default settings, biological as well as cultural.

To some extent, much of what I want to discuss today is contained in The Scorpion King, a pulp fantasy movie that adheres to traditional binary gender assumptions while slyly subverting them. In it, Mathayus (the protagonist) learns that Memnon, his adversary, enjoys the services of a powerful sorcerer. Mathayus duly sets out to assassinate the sorcerer, only to discover that the sorcerer is a woman, Cassandra, whose magical powers will reportedly evaporate if her hymen is ruptured –- specifically by a man; not, say, by a woman or from riding horses. Memnon plans to deflower Cassandra once he’s in power, lest she turn against him. Instead, she chooses Mathayus as a lover, then returns to distract Memnon while Mathayus gathers the rebel groups. Memnon tells Cassandra, “I sense a change in you. You seem, somehow, (significant pause) diminished.” She replies, “I assure you, I am myself.” – and proceeds to prove it by her subsequent actions (it is also indicative of the movie’s subversive streak that the visions of this Cassandra, unlike those of her Homeric namesake, compel instant belief).

So: women’s bodies and their powers. We have two paths here, in the real world as well as in SFF. One is the “separate but equal” route which has been taken too easily and too often; the other argues that human bodies and powers cover all the letters of the magical alphabet (not just the alpha and the omega, with the usual culprits assuming the alpha position), and that most magic need not depend on functions traditionally assigned to gender.

What is often overlooked is how similar humans are across scales. We are, however, mammals; that means that there are a few functions that are specific to biological women: namely, ovulation/menstruation, pregnancy and lactation. Interestingly, until the development of pastoralism and agriculture beyond the subsistence level, which eventually led women to accumulate body fat past a critical threshold, periods and pregnancies were infrequent events that occupied a very small portion of women’s lives – although lengthy lactation was used as a fertility regulator.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the taboos surrounding these functions have placed major restrictions on women’s status as full humans, while simultaneously often being their sole path to any semblance of social power. They have also given rise to the concept that these functions define what a woman is while simultaneously deeming such a construct intrinsically inferior – from the concept of menstrual blood as a potent pollutant to the idea that estrogen and progesterone fluctuations make people unstable to the penalties levied to women who are inconveniently in/fertile or produce daughters. Of course, this is ironic given several facts: spermatogonia are as fragile as ova, biological gender is defined by the paternal chromosomal contribution and the number of hormones and their targets vastly exceeds the two glorified in pop sci and pulp lit.

In other eras, these views and their resulting binary splits were enforced by religious dictates: laws that equated cross-dressing with abomination (that’s how Jeanne d’ Arc ended at the stake); menstruation huts and iron beds; after-birth churching and mikvehs; forbidding women to touch weapons or enter the sanctum sanctorums of various faiths; nowadays, we can count on evolutionary psychology, that hasn’t encountered a parochial separate-and-unequal assumption it didn’t like and wouldn’t like to turn into a primary and universal human attribute. Here the irony is that each culture has had very different concepts of what is “properly” male and female; the overriding commonality is that whatever is defined as non-male along any axis is automatically of lesser value.

This outlook has migrated pretty much wholesale into speculative literature. It’s still standard fare in fantasy to postulate male and female magic, with men usually having the fun or heroic bits while women are given the equivalent of housecleaning (that is, preservation). It’s equally standard for women to lose (or be thought to lose) any extranormal powers they possess when they have penetrative sex, menstruate or become pregnant – from André Norton’s Witch World adepts to the shapeshifter Zamia in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Men in fantasy, whether in heterosexual or homosexual sex, whether casual or committed, never lose any powers they have, though celibacy is considered a good way not to waste one’s “juice” in several religions and fantasy cycles – including the male wizards in Le Guin’s Earthsea, who undergo formal training denied to women. There are of course the rare inevitable exceptions: Samson, whose power resides in his hair; Angel reverting to full bore vampire when Buffy finally beds him; the Celtic sacred kings, who had to be intact to rule (hence Llew Llaw Gyffes’ golden arm).

Magic is also gendered in SF: empaths are almost always women, again in line with the essentialist binary split, whereas telepathy as forcible mental penetration is employed often, even by those quintessences of probity, Spock of Star Trek and Professor Xavier of X-Men. The other perennial surprise is how prevalent traditional pregnancy is in SF, even when advanced technology is clearly present otherwise – almost like a filter for the moral fiber of female characters, from Padmé Amidala to Cordelia Vorkosigan (née Naismith). Of course, the question of what might happen to women if artificial wombs became common and reliable is a major question in itself.

Now, mind you, if separate were truly equal, we should have stories in which some of these parlous female functions give rise to a whirlwind or firestorm of power. I mean, if a spike of estrogen supposedly can drive a woman insane it could equally well pack a psychic wallop as powerful as the shattering rages of Achilles or CúChulainn. I can think of a sole case where this happens: in The Dark Crystal, when Kira unfurls a pair of wings Jen complains, “I don’t have wings!” To which Kira replies, “Of course not. You’re a boy.”

I could provide many more genre examples, but we all have our long lists. What real life and speculative literature need to come in terms with and incorporate is that humans occupy several continuous spectrums and that the traditional attributes of binary gender are a very small part of what defines a person — and that women are far more than their menstrual cycles. In fact, if the grandomother theory proves correct, it’s post-menopausal women (who in wicca are said to possess “wise blood” stored within) who made humans who we are.

Related entries:

Equalizer or Terminator?
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle
Grandmothers Raise Civilizations


Images: Cassandra (Kelly Hu) and Mathayus (Dwayne Johnson) in The Scorpion King; covers for André Norton’s Witch World novels, some good (Dan Dos Santos, left) some less so (Jeff Jones, right) [click on the image to see larger version]

12 Responses to “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Powers”

  1. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Excellent essay, Athena, thanks for sharing!! I always miss new posts between updates here, ha ha… 🙂

    The concept of genes/chromosomes completely dictating higher order behavior is far too popular with SF writers- one of Cordwainer Smith’s stories lost me when he postulated people programmed on the genetic level to carry out and excel in only one task in the (artificial) womb. Joe Haldeman was clearly drinking from the same cup when he postulated “sanitary engineer genes” in a paper for a certain multigenerational spaceship conference.

    And, it is only a small step with this thinking to say that men and women are biologically programmed to have separate roles from the start,

    On the empathic vs. telepathic abilities – personally I would probably value empathic abilities more than the standard intrusive telepathic ones. Being able to sense the emotions of others would make navigating human relationships easier, which violent telepathic intrusions would not.

    If, for example, we were to send a small group of ambassadors to negotiate with an alien civilization, would you want to send a person with psionic empathic capacities, or someone with the telepathic capacity to penetrate and rummage through other minds? Quite possibly any telepathic intrusion would be greeted as an attack or an attempt at espionage, not the most auspicious way to begin a negotiation- while an empath could at least gauge how well our greetings were received.

    The split between the empathic powers and telepathy may be a bit silly, though, since emotions and thought are tangled together in real humans… the split between mind and emotion is another overblown SF cliché. And empathic psionic powers may not be so cuddly and harmless, either. The ability to manipulate and amplify negative emotions could be used to throw an entire army into chaos.

    Writers of SF/F need to stop following the binary gender split; the also need to stop deeming anything that is considered feminine powerless… or assuming that only the male wizards get the fun powers.

  2. Zarpaulus says:

    I’ve noticed that psychic powers seem more common in women than men, in some works they’re the only ones who can use them. Probably so the men can do more physical stuff.

    Still, most of the examples of Mind Rape seem to be perpetrated by male characters, even if the gender ratio of victims seem more even.

  3. Caliban says:

    One illustration, though in science rather than science fiction, is Sharon Traweek’s book “Beamtimes and Lifetimes,” an anthropological look at the high-energy physics community. In particular she compares and contrasts the culture of Japanese physicists with that of American physicists (and, to a lesser extent, European physicists). She demonstrates both cultures hold that the “best” traits for a physicists just happen to coincide with traditionally male attributes…even though those “male/best physicists” characteristics are nearly diametrically opposed for America and Japan. A really terrific expose’ of how nuture gets designated as intrinsic nature.

  4. Athena says:

    Christopher, I agree with you on both counts: telepathy and empathy nor emotion and thought can be disentangled. In that respect as in several others, SF is way behind even its own concepts, let alone science.

    I seem to vaguely recall the Haldeman essay you mention, or a variant thereof, in connection with one of the Starship symposia. It would be funny if it weren’t irritating and depressing.

  5. Athena says:

    Well, the general idea seems to be that penetration makes someone intrinsically “bottom” (powerless, inferior) regardless of the gender combinations of the partners. Which leaves heterosexual women in a real bind vis-à-vis garden-variety sexual congress.

  6. Athena says:

    Very much so. This includes mathematical abilities in contexts that value them less (for example, where they’re deemed “merchant” or “house-management” attributes rather than understanding-the-universe ones).

  7. delagar says:

    The notion that being penetrated makes you inferior is very Roman — probably goes further back than that, but it was a dominating cultural trope for their classical period, which was how it got into Christian culture, and (hence) into Western European Culture.

    Romans didn’t have the idea of gay/straight or anything like it. Their entire sexual (and social) order was based entirely around the concept of who penetrated whom. If you did the penetrating, you dominated — you were the Dominus, the winner, the Good one.

    If you *got* penetrated, on the other hand, you were a loser, and therefore filth.

    And yes, this essentially defined all women as filth by nature (in the Roman worldview, which is the one that has come straight down to us, pardon the pun).

    Catullus’s poetry is having a lot of (very bitter) fun interrogating this trope.

  8. delagar says:

    And…you probably knew all that. Sorry!

  9. Athena says:

    Indeed. Both classical Greeks and Romans had this view; so, apparently, do several Latin American cultures. If thruster, macho man who can direct stream of his fluids. If thrustee, woman(ly) toilet.

  10. Athena says:

    I always enjoy your visits, never apologize!

  11. intrigued_scribe says:

    Great essay; thanks for sharing this! One of the only examples I’ve come across where powers seem less divided by gender than usual is Joan D. Vinge’s Psion trilogy. And even there, the role of one of the more prominent female characters with psychic abilities at times leaned more toward passive than active.

  12. Athena says:

    I’ve read the first of the three, Psion. I don’t remember it well, but I recall I liked it less than other Vinge works (her Amber stories, for one) — possibly because it was so much by-the-numbers a boy’s coming of age story. The point you made, that its female characters tend to be passive, may well have contributed to my reaction even if I didn’t articulate it at the time.