Gender depiction in sci-fi

Opinion: gender depiction in sci fi ahead of Teknowomen film season

'Sex and sexual politics have often played a significant part in its mainstream manifestations'

With the upcoming Teknowomen film season exploring the depiction of women in science fiction, Hannah McGill ponders gender roles and sexual politics in the genre

Those of us who grew up in the 80s or 90s might reasonably have expected social friction about gender roles to be a matter for the history books by the unimaginably futuristic 21st century. Surely all that was going to be sorted out, along with world peace and freely available jetpacks? As it turns out, however, things don't always progress in a linear fashion. Just as little girls have lately been forcefully beckoned away from trains, dungarees and Meccano towards the old-school femininity of pink frills and princess fantasies, so the right of women to participate in, influence and comment on various areas of social and artistic endeavour has turned into a problem for a whole new generation of chauvinists. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the internet, and most specifically in the world of gaming, where critiquing the inarguable tendency for female characters to be sidelined / objectified / brutally slain while also being a woman yourself is liable to earn you an onslaught of vividly sexualised death threats from inadequate troglodytes who still blame all women for that time when a cheerleader turned them down for a prom date.

So the most socially transformative scientific innovation of a generation, if not several – the internet – is fostering a whole new breed of violent misogyny; and that same generation's definitive new creative and entertainment form, gaming, finds its most committed users and creators divided over gender issues. Interesting times, then, to look at how future and technology-focused films have historically portrayed female characters, and addressed female viewers. Is sci-fi a basically masculine domain, as we imply when we speak casually of a sci-fi blockbuster as a 'boys' film'? Have sci-fi films proffered progressive portrayals of women, or did some of them help to foster the extreme gender-paranoia currently found among the male 'geeks' of the online world? And is the male sci-fi geek such a powerful stereotype simply because it's accurate, or because female sci-fi fandom is underestimated or overlooked? Come to that, is it alarming that we still refer to gender in binary terms, when most of us recognise that it's never been that simple?

It's not just current confused and confusing messages about gender, fandom, technology and progress that make the upcoming Teknowomen film season so interesting. Science fiction has from its very inception been much concerned with relationships between males and females. Reproduction and sex being the socially fraught matters that they are, visions of possible futures often imagine different attitudes to them. It has historically suited sci-fi, as a populist commercial genre, both to indirectly address contemporary controversies, and to play up scandalous and titillating elements – so sex and sexual politics have often played a significant part in its mainstream manifestations. Think of all those underdressed alien abductees and stacked spacewomen from 1950s and 60s B-movies, or the various bikini-clad lifeforms who had their strange new worlds explored by Captain James T Kirk. But the serious side of sci-fi – or 'speculative fiction', as some prefer to call it – has also dealt significantly with sexuality, gender identity, gender relationships and parenthood; and some of its most important creators have been female, arguably starting with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1818. Ursula Le Guin's 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) are among the most famous and groundbreaking examples of 'feminist' science fiction – works that used future worlds as the basis for exploration of how gender roles, sex and reproduction interact with power. Male icons of sci-fi literature, meanwhile, such as Brian Aldiss, Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick, worked through sexual fantasies and sexual fears alike in their fiction.

Similar patterns can be found in the canon of science fiction films, where sex kittens, future matriarchs and post-gender warriors co-exist. The Teknowomen season emphasises the centrality of women to the genre by kicking off with Fritz Lang's Women in the Moon (1929), arguably the first sci-fi feature – and one with a very empowered heroine indeed. Then there's Alien (1979), the frontwoman of which, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, is either a feminist icon or an emblem of problematic and provocative feminine qualities, depending on your position; what's sure is that she's one of the genre's most enduring and memorable heroines. More explicitly feminist is Lizzie Borden's dystopian sex and race allegory, Born in Flames (1983). Lynn Hershman Leeson's Teknolust (2002), starring Tilda Swinton, explores sex and reproduction in an age when both can be technologically manipulated … and the fun documentary Wonder Woman! The Untold Story of American Superheroines explores the concept of heroic females in TV and film. Each film will be followed by a discussion; I'll be part of the Alien one, along with the novelist Kirsty Logan and academic Karen Boyle. Opinions from all reaches of the solar system will be welcome, though death threats are discouraged.

Teknowomen, Glasgow Film Theatre and Glasgow Women's Library, Sun 23 Nov–Sat 6 Dec 2014. Hannah McGill, Karen Boyle and Kirsty Logan will lead a post-screening discussion following Alien on Sat 6 Dec 2014.


  • 5 stars
  • 1979
  • US
  • 1h 56min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Ridley Scott
  • Cast: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Agatha Christie in outer space as a freighter lands on a mysterious planet and is ingeniously invaded by a ravenous intruder which proceeds to chomp its way through the cast list. Edge-of-the-seat suspense thriller with a strong cast and ghastly special effects.

Woman in the Moon

  • 1929
  • Germany
  • 2h 36min
  • U
  • Directed by: Fritz Lang
  • Cast: Klaus Pohl, Willy Fritsch, Gustav von Wangenheim

Considered one of the first 'serious' science fiction films, it tells the story of a determined scientist travelling to the moon as he believes there are treasures to be found there.

Born in Flames

  • 1983
  • US
  • 1h 20min
  • Directed by: Lizzie Borden
  • Cast: Honey, Adele Burtei, Kathryn Bigelow

Dystopian mock-documentary set in a socialist democratic New York after a peaceful revolution. Two feminist groups seek to challenge and overcome the still latent sexism and racism through the medium of pirate radio and direct action.


  • 2002
  • US / Germany / UK
  • 1h 25min
  • Directed by: Lynn Hershman-Leeson
  • Cast: Tilda Swinton, Jeremy Davies, James Urbaniak

A bio-geneticist uses her own DNA to breed three self-replicating automatons in this exploration of gender, consumerism and state surveillance.

Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines

  • 3 stars
  • 2012
  • US
  • 1h 19min
  • Directed by: Kristy Guevara-Flanagan
  • Cast: Lynda Carter, Jane Espenson, Kathleen Hanna

Documentary asking the question: why are there so few female action heroes? What we find is that the history of female superheroes is inextricably linked to the history of women’s rights and the feminist movement. A little dry in places and some conclusions we have heard many times before, but are still worth reiterating.