Review of Gender and Environment in Science Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Gender and Environment in Science Fiction

Patrick Sharp

Christy Tidwell and Bridgitte Barclay, eds. Gender and Environment in Science Fiction. Lexington Books, 2019. Ecocritical Theory and Practice. Paperback. 238 pp. $39.99. ISBN 9781498580595.

This anthology from Christy Tidwell and Bridgitte Barclay is a part of Lexington Books’ series on Ecocritical Theory and Practice. As Tidwell and Barclay explain in their introduction, the purpose of the volume is to engage the ways in which science fiction narratives take up, challenge, and transform the “often flawed scientific narratives” of scientists and “popular science writing” that are centrally important for examining “environmental and gender issues” (xii-xiii). The essays in the volume focus primarily on science fiction film and literature, with one essay on mid-century comics. Like most anthologies of this kind, there is not a tight coherence connecting all of the essays to one another, but this is not a flaw. The purpose of the volume also seems to be to open a broad-based conversation between branches of feminist science studies and the scholarly science fiction community on increasingly urgent environmental issues. As a result, each essay weaves together a new provocation from different disciplinary threads and theoretical approaches. While the overall book might seem eclectic to some, I enjoyed the variety of the essays and think that it provides a welcome and timely addition to the growing body of SF scholarship grappling with climate change and environmental themes.

The first section of three essays focuses on “Performing Humanity, Animality, and Gender,” and begins with Barclay’s essay on Mesa of Lost Women (1953) and Wasp Woman (1959). Both of these mid-century B movies focus on monstrous, hyper-sexualized “wom-animals” designed clearly to titillate (3). However, as Barclay argues, the films’ blurring of boundaries between “nature and science, humans and animals, masculine and feminine,” work to “destabilize both gender and human/nonhuman constructs” and open up rich possibilities for camp readings (3). As drag shows expose the artificial nature of gendered performances, such low-budget B movies expose the artificial nature of filmmaking (through clunky effects and non-sensical stories that destroy the suspension of disbelief). Barclay shows how they also expose master narratives and mid-century hierarchies of power, and proffers a camp reading through “ecocritical and feminist frames” that queer such narratives and hierarchies (5). Through her camp readings of these films, Barclay shows how their “sf warnings about” violating boundaries become “a pleasure” in violating those boundaries (6). In Mesa of Lost Women, a scene of mad science where “arachnid women […] with super intelligence and beauty” work feverishly in a laboratory becomes a vision of the traditional objects of the male scientific gaze—women and animals—becoming “empowered” by actively “undoing […] traditional gendered and anthropocentric boundaries” (10). In Wasp Woman, a businesswoman overcomes the condescension of men by “becoming the experiment and the experimenter,” reaching into the animal kingdom to give herself the power of a queen wasp (10). Barclay demonstrates how this appeal to alternative gendered arrangements in the animal kingdom shows the artificiality and mutability of the “sex/gender constructs of human culture” (13).

The second essay in the first section is by Tidwell, who takes up gendered performance in two recent films—Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2015)—and argues that they are narratives of escape and “freedom for […] female characters, who are not punished for their flight and who do successfully escape” (30). Tidwell rejects the readings of the films that try to limit them to standard exercises in male fantasy projected onto technology. What is more problematic, she argues, is the way in which the films “privilege the machine at the expense of the garden” and “take for granted human control of nonhuman nature” (36). By glorifying liberation for female characters at the expense of nonhuman nature, Tidwell shows how the films highlight “the need for stronger connections between feminist and environmental concerns” in science fiction (38). In the third essay of the section, Amelia Z. Greene addresses the embodied quality of knowledge in Octavia Butler’s novel Wild Seed (1980), focusing on the abilities of main character Anyanwu to read bodies and transform herself into any body—regardless of sex or species–that she could read. Greene shows how Butler rejects the masculinist eugenics associated with the novel’s villain Doro, opting instead for a kind of utopian queer ecology through the ways in which Anyanwu gathers and adjusts bodies and develops “alternative models of familial care” as a site “of ethical world-building” (47). As such, Greene argues that Wild Seed provides one possible alternative to the heteronormative, “future-oriented environmentalist thinking” that focuses on protecting nature for the benefit of future human generations (58). Anyanwu’s building of families as a father and mother, and also as a dolphin, queers the “category of the human […] as one piece of a much larger planetary organism or arrangement” (59). Though limited by Butler’s adherence to “reproductive futurism,” Greene shows how Butler “calls on readers to emulate Anyanwu” and “deviate from the scripts we have been given” (61).

The second section has two essays on “Gendering the Natural World.” The first is an examination of speciesism in the films Womaneater (1958) and The Gardener (1974) by Fernando Gabriel Pagnoni Berns and Juan Juvé. More specifically, they look at how the “vegetal monsters” are coded as “passive and feminine” objects of “imperialism and capitalism,” while also being coded as violently masculine threats to the social order (70). Using ecocritical theory that highlights the “interwoven nature of speciesism” with “misogyny” and other “forms of oppression,” Berns and Juvé show how the woman-eating Amazonian tree of Womaneater is an active phallic monster, while at the same time it serves as a passive and feminized extension of the colonial British explorer who captured it (71). Where Womaneater shows a critique of speciesism similar to the nascent counterculture movements of the 1950s, Berns and Juvé argue that The Gardener is an example of such critique during the full flowering of the consciously ecological “nature-run-amok” films of the 1970s (79).

The second essay, by Steve Asselin, looks at the gendering of nature in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826). Using a “queer ecocritical” approach, Asselin notes how male characters think of the novel’s global plague in terms of feminine roles such as mother, lover, and female tyrant (91). Asselin makes clear that nature is “a nonhuman entity forced into a human and gendered persona,” and dismantles the “heterosexist assumptions” that Shelley’s characters use when they confront nature and the plague (92). Asselin also celebrates Shelley’s rejection of “reproductive futurism,” or the belief that people should think about “subsequent generations” as a motivating force for doing good (94). The novel makes clear that there will be no future generations, and Asselin makes clear that it also deconstructs “masculine cultural practices” that will vanish along with humanity (99).

The third section has two essays on “Contemporary Queering.” The first is by Tyler Harper, whose examination of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (2012) emphasizes the importance of “alternate ways of thinking about nature” that help “combat […] forms of environmental and bodily violence and subjugation” (116). Harper argues that Robinson’s cyborg main character—and the novel’s critique of terraforming—lead to a “post-naturalism that would not presuppose to transcend nature” (124). Harper concludes that the strength of Robinson’s novel comes through its insistence on an awareness of making as an activity that exists within nature, and that must also contend with the limitations of the boundaries we create with our knowledge. For Harper, this means avoiding putting “the world […] under the thumb of techno-scientific mastery” and also avoiding the rejection of knowledge as radically contingent (127).

Stina Attebery provides the second essay in this section, “Ecologies of Sound,” in which she explores the sound elements of Upstream Color that further “feminist biopolitics” and lead to “queer forms of human and non-human reproduction” in the film (132). A story of cross-species parasitism that leads to heightened sensory awareness, Upstream Color (2013) uses sound to foreground the main character’s journey from trauma to understanding, particularly in her linkages in a “queer community of species” akin to Stacy Alaimo’s formulation of “trans-corporeality” (134). Attebery shows how the intimate sensual connection between the main characters and two pigs—created through “mediated listening” in a complex series of medical interventions and gestations—offers a “new political framework” for understanding “forms of reproductive futurity” that “are explicitly queer” (137).

The fourth and final section, entitled “’We Don’t Need Another Hero,” has three essays that critique the gendering of hero figures in comics and film. The first, by Jill E. Anderson, focuses on “Ecoqueer Hybrid Heroes in Atomic Age Comics” put out by branches of the U.S. government to teach ecological lessons. Analyzing such characters as Smokey the Bear and Nature Boy, Anderson shows how their campy stories and connections to nature make them particularly transgressive figures in the ultra-conservative era of the Comics Code Authority. Anderson convincingly reads Smokey as a ruggedly masculine “gay bear” who shows the folly of human treatment of nature while redefining “masculinity as forgiving, undemanding, and inclusive” (155-156). Anderson reads Nature Boy as a hilariously campy master of nature who rides phallic lightning bolts, uses his powers to fight “humankind’s violence, greed, and corruption,” and approaches conflict with “empathy and benevolence” (158). Anderson’s discussion of Swamp Thing and Aquaman reinforces the case that such hybrid characters effectively commandeered mid-century masculinity to show the interdependency of humanity and non-human species.

The second essay, by Michelle Yates, breaks down Eden imagery in Soylent Green (1973) and Wall-E (2008), in particular the nostalgic quests of white men in after-Eden stories looking to restore (feminine) nature and (masculine) civilization. As Yates shows, both films rely heavily on eco-memories of pristine nature and romanticize “a past when […] white people were seemingly in a harmonious relationship with extra-human nature” (174). Like much political nostalgia, however, these films romanticize something that never in fact existed, and use it to reinscribe hegemonic patriarchal whiteness at the center of modern eco-discourse in ways that obscure material relations of power and privilege. They also reveal the persistence of such white masculinist fantasies in eco-media.

The final essay in this section (and the anthology) is Carter Soles’s piece on petroleum culture and feminism in the Mad Max franchise. Soles shows that the rise of feminist characters beginning in the third film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), undercuts the “patriarchal constructions of women as passive” and instead recasts them as the builders of ecologically sustainable civilizations (189). The move away from the petroleum culture of the first two films to a nuclear frontier setting in Thunderdome and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Soles argues, allows the films to connect patriarchy with the environmental devastation of capitalism. However, Soles shows that the films remain committed to a globalized capitalist economy supported by an “unsustainable dependence upon fossil fuel” (199).

The essays in this volume provide very different and engaging theoretical and methodological approaches to gender and the environment, and each speaks to the power of SF to provide transgressive and transformative possibilities necessary for building more ethical (and survivable) futures. One particular strength of this collection is this:  the essays in this anthology will bring  those unfamiliar with eco-feminist and eco-queer theory up to speed as they cover large swaths of the field and ground these theories in detailed readings of SF texts. Science fiction scholars should ensure that their library has a copy of this fine collection, and scholars interested in the intersections of gender, sexuality, and the environment in SF should get the paperback for their personal libraries.

Patrick B. Sharp is Professor of Liberal Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. He is the author of Darwinian Feminism and Early Science Fiction (2018) and series co-editor of New Dimensions in Science Fiction with the University of Wales Press.

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SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

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