Unpopular Opinion: I’m kinda tired of women being “taken seriously” in Sci-Fi.
Before you tear my head off, hear me out.
Women have struggled for years to be included in and taken seriously as characters and creatives in the world of Science Fiction.
For decades we were lucky to be included at all. At best we were pieces of ditzy eye-candy for the real “heroes” to ogle and make cringey remarks about. At worst, we weren’t even there at all.
Have you ever read women as written by “the great” Isaac Asimov? I’ve tossed a couple of his books at the wall, trying to make my way through the classics of the genre.
I’ve just about abandoned the Sci-Fi Cannon for this reason.
A New Age of Women in Sci-Fi
Today, more and more women are being taken seriously as skilled scientists, science fiction writers, and as characters in science fiction books.
AS WE SHOULD BE!
Make no mistake.
This is great! It’s wonderful. It’s glorious!
Most of my absolute favourite Sci-Fi writers are women. Octavia E. Butler, Margaret Atwood, N.K. Jemisin, Martha Wells, Anne McCaffery, Lois McMaster Bujold, Ursula K. LeGuin, C.J. Cherryh… the list goes on.
Coincidentally, these female Sci-Fi authors tend to write the most well-rounded female Sci-Fi characters, too. These characters are strong and smart, capable leaders, fierce warriors, reluctant saviours, sometimes nurturing and sometimes destructive. Always badass.
They’re characters that young women and girls can look up to and respect, they’re the kind of people anyone could aspire to be like.
But is there such a thing as being taken too seriously?
There is one archetype that we often see in male sci-fi characters, particularly in sci-fi humour, but which we rarely see in female leads.
Character Archetype: The Fool.
There is a serious derth of fun, funny, feisty, f*ck ups in our Sci-Fi femmes.
Why is this?
I think we have been fighting for so long to be taken seriously that we have forgotten that it’s okay to be a screw up.
What Exactly is the Fool Archetype in Story?
Despite the name, Fools are not necessarily foolish. And they aren’t always screw-ups, either.
Often the Fool is a light-hearted character, but their role can be quite disruptive to the status quo. This makes them fascinating to watch and read, as they undermine authority with innocence and humour, and ultimately act as a balance against characters that are too powerful, too serious, and too rigid in their beliefs.
Traits & Characteristics of the Fool or Jester Archetype
- The Fool is a character that, knowingly or not, breaks cultural norms in the name of Truth.
- They are willing to say and do things others are scared to, without regret or embarrassment.
- They are rarely cruel on purpose, but sometimes hurt people who are unable or unwilling to accept the Fool’s unfiltered observations.
- The Fool is unashamed of who they are, and doesn’t care much for what other people think of them.
- They are resilient, they laugh at their mistakes, and will get back up again no matter how many times they are knocked down.
- They live in the moment, usually not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, but focused on enjoying the moment.
- Often the Fool is an innocent, either a fish-out-of-water in a world they don’t understand or someone who is naïve to life’s harsh realities.
- They are Truth Speakers. Their observations often reveal hidden realities that other characters wish would be overlooked.
- They poke holes in over-inflated egos.
- The Fool is a balance against Authority figures, and often acts as a metaphor for cultural conscience.
Pure Fool characters usually don’t make the best protagonists, because their innocence gets in the way of their agency.
However, elements of the Fool are often used to round out characters who are a little too tough to be believable.
Men have always had great Fool characters, especially in comedy.
There are elements of the Fool in many of Sci-Fi’s classic action heroes, because it provides a nice balance to the invincible super-hero archetype.
Marvel knows what’s up.
The most endearing moments of Marvel movies are when these god-like characters get a little goofy. It’s the entire reason that Guardians of the Galaxy is so much fun to watch.
DC capitalized on an Essence of Fool in the beginning of the 2017 Wonder Woman film, too. Diana’s character embraces many traits of the Fool when she is first introduced to life in “the real world.”
But it’s rare for women to be allowed to play the Fool.
Where are the Foolish Women?
Women in Sci-Fi now fall into two major groups these days.
There are the tough as nails warrior types, who are essentially male action heroes with a mammary make-over, maybe with some superficial nods to motherhood or menstrual cramps for authenticity’s sake. These characters can be fun, and are a nice nod to the “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” attitude that female inclusion often takes on in its early stages. It’s a bit of over-compensation, but it’s cool.
Similarly, there are the “expert” types. Hyper-competent at whatever they do, from particle physics to piloting a space craft, these indominable ladies occasionally battle interpersonal conflicts with people who (rightfully) feel inferior to them, or they’re given some past trauma to make them more relatable. Often, these women must learn to “soften” themselves in order to rally their teams around them and take on the world.
But they rarely embody the Fool.
The Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Women’s Fiction Advantage
We all love to see ourselves as heroes, but women need to see themselves as Fools, too.
It can be inspiring to read about successful, competent, fearless people.
But it can be alienating, as well.
Especially in these uncertain times, where no one really knows what’s going on or what the “next right thing” is. Characters who always seem to know what to do are… well, not exactly relatable.
Sometimes escapism is about visiting other worlds as a powerful hero, dominating every challenger to cross our paths.
And sometimes escapism is joining a clumsy, over-looked, under-dog scrabble around for survival (no world-domination in sight).
Women like to read female characters that embody aspects of themselves. And this includes the less-than-glamourous stuff.
I would argue the rise in popularity of Young Adult, Urban Fantasy, and Paranormal Women’s Fiction is due to female authors tapping into this need.
And they’ve been wildly successful with it.
Why Do Adult Women Love Young Adult Novels?
Female SF&F readers have long been drawn to “Coming of Age” themed Fantasy novels because it’s one subgenre that has historically included us in a more than just a superficial way.
The rise in popularity of Young Adult novels is really just a rise in popularity of the Coming of Age theme, probably as the number of young people peaked in the 1980s and the Late Gen X and Early Millennials kids became a massively powerful buying market.
I would argue that one reason women (more so than men) have continued to read Young Adult novels once they reach adulthood is that there is a scarcity of these fun, naïve, care-free Fool type female characters for us to identify with in much of popular culture.
Adult women’s stories have tended to revolve around motherhood, marriage, and careers, with a very short window for care-free characters to enjoy their freedom, and that freedom is often presented as a kind of guilty pleasure. Women who don’t settle down are looked down upon in a way men typically aren’t.
Even today society treats with suspicion any woman who chooses not to get married and have children.
But women are waiting longer to have children (if at all), are choosing not to get married, are redefining male dominated industries, and becoming successful business people in all kinds of non-traditional ways.
And that fish-out-of-water feeling often never goes away.
Women are drawn to awkward, sometimes-bumbling, but well-intentioned screw ups…
Because we’re stumbling our way down a lot of unbeaten paths!
The Urban Fantasy Explosion
If you’ve browsed the Urban Fantasy section of Amazon lately, you’ll find fun, brightly coloured, covers featuring tough and sexy female leads with magic literally exploding from their fingertips.
These books contain stories about sassy, sarcastic women who don’t conform to society’s expectations of them and who often find they really belong in a hidden, secret world where their flaws are actually assets and they are destined to be something important (something more than a good student, a wife, a mother, or a successful career woman).
And usually they suck at mastering their secret skills. Because nothing worth having comes easily, dammit.
These books are fun and funny, usually have a little romance, but ultimately are about underdogs finding a place to belong.
It’s a grown up version of the classic bildungsroman or Coming of Age novel.
It’s grown up because women are still struggling with these real life problems well into their 20s and 30s.
And it’s still there in our 40s, 50s, and beyond, which brings us to…
The Middle-Aged Magic of Paranormal Women’s Fiction
Paranormal Women’s Fiction is a hugely popular subgenre of Urban Fantasy that caters to women over the age of 40.
The characters in these books are still fun, sassy, and sarcastic but they have a different mission from our 20-something Urban Fantasy protagonists.
These women are re-discovering themselves, often after divorce, the death of a partner, children moving away from home, or abandoning an unfulfilling career.
And they, too are bumbling along making a mess of things. Despite everything they have learned, they are in many ways an embodiment of the Fool, as they reveal aspects of themselves that they had buried in order to put others before themselves.
The Curse of Being “Taken Seriously” in Science Fiction
How many female protagonists in Science Fiction fit this Foolish archetype?
Because we’re still fighting to be taken seriously in this male dominated genre.
Being seen as silly, frivolous, emotional, or HEAVEN FORBID “irrational” in Science Fiction is to be written off as NOT REAL SCIENCE FICTION.
Men are allowed to be silly and frivolous in Sci-Fi, but not women. How many of these 19 Funniest Sci-Fi Books are written by women? One. How many are about women? One and a half.
Here’s another list of 25 Best Funny Sci-Fi Books. Six are written by women, of these one is a fantasy novel and four are written about men.
The reason I’m using Humorous Sci-Fi lists as an example is that outside of this sub-genre it’s even harder to find Female Fool characters.
Is There Hope for the Female Fool?
I believe the winds of change are blowing…
Young Adult Sci-Fi is becoming more popular, where it used to favour straight Fantasy and Fairy Tale retellings.
That means adult women are reading more Sci-Fi. Okay, I haven’t done a deep dive on the data but they make up the largest percentage of YA readers, so it’s a reasonable assumption.
And frankly, I think we’re moving beyond trying to impress our male peers with how much we can act like them.
We’re getting a lot more comfortable just being ourselves, as quirky, fun, nerdy, colourful, and sparkly as we like to be.
If that sounds frivolous to you, I’m sorry. I’m sending glitter rainbows of sympathy your way.
Soon, I predict, we’ll see an influx of Urban Fantasy-esque female leads who don’t quite have their proverbial shit together, but who are still struggling to find their place in their Sci-Fi worlds.
At least I hope so, because these are the books I’m trying to write…
Bubbles Marlowe is my take on the kind of character I’d like to see more of in Sci-Fi.
She’s broke, newly sober, sucks at her job, and hates her life.
But when it comes to protecting her friends and the innocent people of HoloCity, she’s the first one to stand up and fight.
She’s just not always all that good at it…
Do you have a favourite female character who embodies some of the traits of The Fool archetype? Bonus points for Sci-Fi characters!