|Original cover for Sinclair's book|
Diane Dooley’s excellent piece on motherhood in science fiction earlier this week got me thinking about how we tend to characterize our heroines in SFR. Most of us grew up with kick-ass captains of starships and battlers of marauding aliens like James T. Kirk and Han Solo. It was only reasonable to expect Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley to pick up their weapons and grit their teeth in the face of the alien threat in much the same way our heroes had.
Sarah and Ellen are terrific characters, iconic and multidimensional. As both Diane and Laurie (in her comments) pointed out, they even display fiercely maternal instincts, certainly a feminine characteristic. But too often, those uniquely feminine elements of their characters are overlooked, and only the “kick-ass” elements—the physical courage, the strength, the independence, the resourcefulness—are replicated in the women who populate many SFR (and urban fantasy and YA) novels.
Now, before you draw breath to howl in protest that I am advocating a retreat to some Paleolithic era where women “knew their place” and acted in more demure fashion, let me assure you I have no such intention. I simply think it is possible to display physical courage, strength, independence and resourcefulness without cutting oneself off from human contact, refusing to accept help from others, carrying an impossible load of angst, lashing out in anger and so on. This has always been the emotional profile of the “wounded hero”, the “loner” who goes through life with shields up, unwilling to form emotional bonds with anyone until the heroine somehow reaches him.
Today very often the roles are reversed, and it’s the heroine who has relationship issues. I’m guilty of it myself. In my second book, Trouble in Mind, FBI agent Lana Matheson is just that sort of person—emotionally isolated, pathologically independent, dedicated to her job, in many ways just like a man (sic). The challenge in writing her kick-ass character was to allow her to think like a woman.
Take hierarchy, for example. Forgive the broad generalization, but guys love a good, solid hierarchy. They want to know their place in it—who’s first, second, third. They’ll size each other up when meeting for the first time, and when meeting again after a long separation. Has he lost a step? Have I? Every acquisition, every promotion, every loss is added into the equation. (As a woman, I would see this constant evaluation process as nerve-wracking, but my observation is that most guys are hardly aware of it. It just is.)
Women, on the other hand, tend to operate in groups, or circles of relationships. The groups work more cooperatively (though they may have their own kinds of hierarchies) and they may overlap. Generally, with women, the question is whether you’re in or you’re out of a particular circle. Within the circle, quite a lot is tolerated. Outside it, well, not so much. And if a woman is in need of emotional support, she can rely on the friends and family members that make up these circles.
My character, Lana, works in a male-oriented world, full of hierarchy (the Bureau, the law enforcement agencies she deals with) and full of men who are constantly assessing their place in that hierarchy and with each other. But, as a woman, she is not inclined to play the game. She stands outside it as an observer. I’ve got several scenes where that happens, not overtly, but subtly. If she thought and acted like a man, Lana’s reaction to the bluster at the scene of the crime between the agent who is her ex-boyfriend and the private tracker who’s been hired by the family on her kidnapping case would be quite different. As it is, she sees the confrontation as the circling of two wolves—and it’s pretty clear who is the alpha male!
Women’s leadership styles are quite different, too. According to studies, effective women executives are much more likely than their male counterparts to seek out different opinions from their subordinates before they act, and to seek consensus on difficult decisions. I’ve always thought Captain James T. Kirk had a particularly feminine style of leadership, in that he always asked his senior officers what they thought before he gave his orders. No one could accuse Jim Kirk of being indecisive or weak. He was just in touch with his yin side.
In the best of SFR, we find complex heroines like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax or the women carrying the story in Linnea Sinclair’s or Susan Grant’s many novels. These are women operating out of a web of relationships, both of family and friendship. They are strong and self-reliant, but they think and act differently than your typical action hero. In some cases, they may begin by denying their femininity (like Grant’s Coalition starship admiral Brit Bandar in Moonstruck), but they always reclaim it by book’s end.
They fight like girls, which in this case is a good thing.