Women of Speculative Fiction: Princess Leia

The impact of Star Wars on the landscape of cinema, science fiction and fantasy cannot be underestimated. Suddenly movies set in outer space could be fun instead of ponderous, they could be believable instead of riddled with cheesy, unconvincing special effects, and high mythic fantasy stories could be set in worlds of starships and robots just as convincingly as in the realm of castles and dragons. And among all of George Lucas’s ground-breaking achievements we have the creation of an iconic, unforgettable female character, brilliantly portrayed by Carrie Fisher: Princess Leia Organa.

It would be a stretch to call the original Star Wars a piece of feminist cinema. Certainly not by today’s standards, in any case. Aside from Leia, there are almost no women at all. There’s Aunt Beru, Luke’s mother figure, who has a handful of lines before dying offscreen partway through the story. And you might see a few female faces in the crowd scenes on Tatooine. But it’s perfectly fine to notice a story’s flaws while also being able to enjoy the good things it does offer. So let’s talk about Leia.

From her first mention in the film’s opening crawl, Princess Leia is identified as an active player in the story, as she “races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy.” But her ship is captured, boarded by Imperial agents. Will she become a helpless, passive prisoner, the prototypical damsel in distress who must wait for men to rescue her? Not exactly.

We see her resourcefulness as she hides the plans in a droid before being captured. Oh, and she takes out a few stormtroopers first before they can stun her, so, no, not passive at all. Once she’s taken to Vader, she confronts him with a bold rhetoric that reflects the skills she must have honed as a Senator. To him and later to Tarkin, she offers a few well-worded insults – “holding Vader’s leash” and “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”

But – and this is very important – Leia is allowed to show vulnerability as well. Too often, when writers set out to create a “strong female character” they make someone who’s virtually flawless; tough-talking, never overwhelmed, never cries, never shows any emotion that might be considered feminine. This is really kind of insulting to women and human beings as a whole, because it implies that emotions are dumb and weak. It also makes the character vastly difficult to sympathize with, because no one is flawless or emotionless like that. We catch glimpses of Leia’s fear in her message to Obi-Wan, finishing with a desperate plea of “You’re my only hope,” as well as when she is about to be tortured with a mind probe. She ends up resisting its power, but that victory wouldn’t be as meaningful if there wasn’t a very real possibility it could break her. And we see her fall into utter devastation upon the destruction of her home world of Alderaan.

We learn a lot about Leia from how she responds to her enemies. We learn more when she interacts with her would-be rescuers. Leia, Luke and Han have some very entertaining dynamics when all three of them are together, as each of them represent three very distinct personalities. Luke’s eager “I’m here to rescue you” is echoed sarcastically when Leia points out, “This is some rescue!” as they leave her cell only to be met with a barrage of blaster attacks from stormtroopers. She quickly takes charge and blasts an alternate route through a garbage chute, earning Han’s shock. She smoothly retorts, “Someone has to save our skins. Into the garbage chute, flyboy!”

Sure, her situation was technically that of a damsel in distress, but now that she sees an opportunity, she’s not going to wait for someone else to take charge. (And clearly, she’s far more competent than the dubious heroes trying to help her.) We’ve seen Han deal with bounty hunters, Imperial agents and TIE fighter assaults and remain relatively unfazed, but within minutes of meeting Leia, Han is thoroughly rattled. “Wonderful girl. Either I’m going to kill her, or I’m beginning to like her!” Already the seeds are planted for the tempestuous romance that will play out in the next Star Wars film. But Leia is far, far more than a token love interest.

Throughout the remainder of the movie, her actions and conversations continue to encompass a wide range, from anxiety regarding the very narrow likelihood of escape to elation at their successes; disgust at Han’s mercenary selfishness and warmth in comforting Luke; her insight in knowing the Empire is tracking their ship; determination as they prepare for the assault on the Death Star; slipping into despair as all hope seems lost; giddiness at their triumph; delight to have both her new friends safe and close upon their heroic return; a face of solemn but warm dignity as she awards their bravery.

She is a political leader, a skilled rebel agent, someone who faces danger head-on when it comes to her, who finds unlikely solutions to overwhelming problems, who always has a ready retort and shifts easily from formal eloquence to snappy one-liners. There was never anyone quite like Leia before, and I don’t know that there’s ever really been anyone like her since. I could go on about her role in the rest of the trilogy, but what she did in this movie alone was enough to forever change the perception of the roles that female characters could play in tales of high-flying adventure. The Force is strong with this one.

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Women of Speculative Fiction: Ursula K. Le Guin

As an author, Ursula K. Le Guin is notable not only for writing prolifically within the genres of science fiction and fantasy, but also for the pertinent themes her works examine: feminism as well as race, ecology and social-political concerns. Writing entertaining stories is an important skill that I don’t want to undervalue, and not every book needs to have a super-serious Message – but if you can write entertaining stories that also happen to explore highly thought-provoking questions, that’s something even better.

Born Ursula Kroeber in 1929, she had a very early interest in writing, submitting her first short story to a magazine when she was only 11. (It was rejected, but still). Many of her thematic interests were likely influenced by her anthropologist parents, as well as a vast array of literary inspirations:

“Once I learned to read, I read everything. I read all the famous fantasies…And then my brother and I blundered into science fiction when I was 11 or 12. Early Asimov, things like that. But that didn’t have too much effect on me. It wasn’t until I came back to science fiction and discovered Sturgeon – but particularly Cordwainer Smith. … I read the story “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”, and it just made me go, “Wow! This stuff is so beautiful, and so strange, and I want to do something like that.”

She studied French and Italian literature in college, ultimately acquiring a Master’s degree. Traveling in France in 1953, she met and married Charles le Guin. She began to divide her time between writing and caring for their children – three of them by 1964. Her stories were accepted for publication fairly regularly by the 1960s. Though her first novels were rejected (fairly common, as any aspiring writer knows) she ultimately achieved considerable acclaim for such works as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. In Rocannon’s World, she coined the term ansible, now in common usage in sci-fi, for a communication device capable of instantaneous transmission across the long distances of space. She has gone on to receive multiple awards and honors, and even in her advanced years she has continued to be a prominent voice in the speculative fiction community.

A bit about her work: The Left Hand of Darkness explores our notions of gender identity as the story involves an encounter with an androgynous race. The Lathe of Heaven involves the peculiar case of a man who can dream things into reality. A Wizard of Earthsea, a work of fantasy, is a deceptively simple tale of a novice wizard who must defeat a manifestation of his own inner darkness.

Most of her characters are non-white, an attempt to more accurately reflect the world’s population where white-skinned people are in fact in the minority. They frequently struggle with problems that can’t be solved by brute force or by simply being stronger than their enemy. There is a marvelous outside-the-box ethos to her stories that is highly refreshing in genres that are unfortunately overstuffed with white males writing exclusively about white males (or, occasionally, their beautiful but underdeveloped white female love interests). It’s one feature of a broader truth in her stories: anything is possible.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Bjo Trimble

For any of those self-appointed male gatekeepers of geekdom who have convinced themselves that women can never quite achieve the levels of serious fandom that men attain, allow me to offer a counterpoint: Bjo Trimble, the woman who saved Star Trek.

I’ll briefly qualify that title by acknowledging that Bjo (born Betty JoAnne Conway) wasn’t alone in her work, her most notable ally being her husband John Trimble. However, it’s an indisputable fact that without her efforts, Star Trek would never have become the enormously successful franchise it is today. Her story proves that women are present at every level of sci-fi and fantasy fandoms, as well as showing how a little grass-roots movement can go a long, long way.

According to a 2011 interview, Bjo had a love of speculative fiction from the very beginning – first fairy tales, then whatever fantasy she could find at her local library (not much, but there was some Edgar Rice Burroughs at least). She wasn’t even aware of the existence of science fiction until a neighbor handed her a giant pile of issues of Astounding Science Fiction. As speculative fiction tended to have a reputation of being trashy, she had to scrounge around pretty hard to grow her sci-fi collection. She was immersed enough, however, to catch wind of a convention in Chicago in 1952. In spite of being in the hospital for an ear infection, she sneaked off to spend three days at the convention.

It was there that she fell madly in love with science fiction fandom. Conversing with fellow fans, meeting writers (apparently she was even subjected to a rather aggressive, impromptu marriage proposal by a not-quite-famous Harlan Ellison, which she firmly rejected) and since she was an artist, becoming involved with drawing artwork for fanzines. She ended up meeting John Trimble at a party hosted by Forrest J. Ackerman, a vastly influential sci-fi writer and editor, when they had both crawled under a piano to escape the crowds. The two would become partners in more ways than one.

Her first awareness of Star Trek came before the show aired, when she and her husband were running a sci-fi art convention and were approached by someone wanting to include a few costumes from this new upcoming show. They were tight on available space and initially said no, but eventually conceded. And that was how they met Gene Roddenberry.

Bjo and John frequently visited the Star Trek set while it was filming, and thus became aware that the show was perpetually in danger of cancellation. The first movement to keep it running was during the first season, and it was run largely by writers rather than fans. However, when things looked grim yet again during the second season, the Trimbles decided they needed to do something themselves. Reaching out to their fellow Star Trek fans (and with Roddenberry’s approval) they organized a letter-writing campaign. Keep in mind that this was long before the Internet, so there were quite a few more obstacles to overcome in spreading word to the fans and sending the studio a message as efficiently as possible. According to Bjo, though the project was equally John’s doing as much as hers, the media seized upon the notion of “the little housewife speaking up” and therefore gave him far less credit than he deserved. Interesting that their take not only failed to acknowledge John, but also painted Bjo in a rather patronizing light even while praising her efforts.

Well, one way or another the show was saved, but only for one more season. The ratings just weren’t good enough, and most fans agree there was a sharp decline in quality during the final season (Roddenberry was no longer allowed to be involved, and network interference ruined many a storyline). So we might call Bjo’s influence a minor one, if not for the fact that the Star Trek fandom continued to flourish even without a currently-airing show. With three seasons, the show could continue airing in reruns and thus continue to draw in new viewers and new fans. And fans new and old continued to organize conventions and put out fanzines.

One particularly noteworthy achievement of Bjo’s within the fandom is her Star Trek Concordance. Originally collaborating with another female fan before she lost interest, Bjo collected copious notes about every episode so that each character, location, event or object was documented down to the last detail. It was so comprehensive and thorough that it was reportedly the number one resource for Star Trek canon at Paramount studios. About the Concordance Bjo said, “The fan reaction was about the same as anything that happens Trek-wise today: some fans loved the Concordance, others hated it and nitpicked it to death.” Yes, that sounds like a highly typical experience in the vicissitudes of fandom.

With such an active fandom, it was clear that cancellation hadn’t killed Star Trek after all. So the studio finally decided it might be lucrative to revive the franchise, first with an animated version of the TV show, then deciding to go all out with a film released in theaters. Bjo and John’s efforts in fandom were rewarded with an offer to have a cameo in the movie – John had to decline because of his work schedule, but Bjo, along with a few other fans, got to appear in a crowd scene on the Recreation Deck. Sure, the movie itself is turgid, the storyline uninspired, but it wasn’t enough to stop the momentum spurred on by an ardent fandom. Star Trek II came out, and four more films set in the era of the original series. New TV shows added to the franchise as well, and now, fifty years after the original show aired, the Star Trek universe shows no sign of dying out.

There was also the second letter-writing campaign the Trimbles oversaw, to have the first NASA space shuttle named Enterprise. And the book she wrote, On the Good Ship Enterprise, about her experiences with Star Trek and its fandom (no longer in print, though). And her involvement in the SCA, an equally geeky fandom for medieval history. And the business she and her husband established, Griffin Dyeworks & Fiber Arts.  I would say she fits the definition of Renaissance Woman pretty precisely.

Like any ardent fan, she has plenty of strong opinions about each incarnation of Star Trek. “We enjoyed TNG very much, really liked DS9 – which is still one of our favorite series – watched most of Voyager but didn’t get into it as much, and frankly thought that Enterprise was not even close to being Trek….Of the movies, some have been fairly good, some really horrid…Of course, we are always asked what we think of the J.J. Abrams film. We think he did pretty well, though we’re a tad tired of bald, tattooed villains in long leather coats.”

Whether other fans agree with her specific opinions or not, they should at least take this advice to heart: “Be kind. Be nice to each other. Be welcoming to newbies; they are the future of fandom, whatever you are a fan of. We hope that all of you are inspired to be a part of the future we may never see, inspired by a little TV show conceived by a far-seeing 20th Century writer and humanist. We are pleased to know that we have been a part of making sure it happened. We envy you the future, and wish we could come along on all of your new voyages of creativity and imagination.”

Seeing how she pretty much saved the franchise and its fandom, she probably knows what she’s talking about.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Nichelle Nichols and Uhura

The actress who portrayed Uhura in Star Trek was just as groundbreaking as her character. She has led a remarkable life that serves as a vivd illustration of the evolving perception of race and women during the 20th century. The landscape of gender and race relations in science fiction owes a tremendous debt to her and the communications officer she portrayed.

To understand her impact, it’s necessary to acknowledge how drastically different the portrayal of women and African Americans was even less than a hundred years ago. In the 1960s, the best that a black woman could hope for on television was a servant role. Racism was so deeply entrenched that there was simply no possibility of African American actors playing parts equivalent to white actors. This is important, because from our perspective Uhura’s role might appear rather limited. She sits at a console, repeating what she hears on the transmitter, and rarely has any opportunity to do more than that – basically, a glorified receptionist. (She also wears a ridiculous mini-skirt uniform instead of the far more practical pants the men have).

The thing is, progress is relative. Nowadays Uhura’s role might not seem very satisfying, but for its time it was huge. Not to mention that it paved the way for everything afterward, so if it weren’t for her character, we probably wouldn’t be enjoying the diversity that we do have now, even as we continue to seek still better representation. She was a pioneer in more ways than one.

Nichelle Nichols started her career as a dancer and singer in Chicago, but she was catapulted to fame when cast as Nyota Uhura in Roddenberry’s science fiction series Star Trek. Roddenberry had a vision of the future that was highly idealistic, perhaps altogether implausible in an era of segregation and rampant sexism: people of all types and nationalities, every race – and alien species on top of that – working together to peacefully explore the galaxy. His original pilot episode included a woman played by Majel Barrett serving as the captain’s first officer (and she even got to wear pants) but apparently that was too radical for the network. For the new pilot he reworked the structure of the Enterprise’s crew, with most the women relegated to low-ranked Yeomen and acceptable roles like Nurse Chapel for Majel (also, Roddenberry married her, and she too had a long history in the Star Trek universe that’s worth exploring.)

But somehow the show was able to sneak in a very subversive character – not just an African American, and not just a woman, but both – serving as nothing less than a bridge officer. Lieutenant Uhura was a revelation, and audiences noticed. One of those audience members was Martin Luther King, Jr., who was thrilled to find such a role model for his children and all aspiring young women and blacks. When he met Nichols during the first season to personally thank her, she confided that she was planning on leaving the show to return to singing, her true passion. He immediately told her that she had to stay; the inspiration she provided was just too important. So she stayed through the three-season run of the show, and reprised the role as a voice actor in the animated series and in all the original series films.

She added some thoughtful personal touches to the character. Here we find that Uhura, like the actress who portrayed her, is a talented (and playful) singer and dancer. And in an episode wherein Uhura’s memories are erased, Nichols felt that she should speak Swahili, as that is her native language. It’s also important to note that Uhura and Kirk shared the first interracial kiss on television, though within the story it was forced by telekinetic aliens rather than voluntary. There was still too much of a taboo surrounding interracial couples. This unfortunately means that we cannot attribute Uhura’s lack of romantic plots to a progressive notion of expanding women’s roles beyond that of love interest – no, it was racism, plain and simple.

But the very existence of Uhura was a sign that things could change. And they did. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, directly cited Star Trek as her inspiration for becoming an astronaut. (And she got to play a role in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation!) Nichols’s influence wasn’t just incidental. She participated in a special NASA project specifically designed to recruit women and minorities into the space program. Thanks to that program we had Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut, and Guion Bluford, the first African American, as well as Judith Resnik and Ronald McNair and many others. All with the help of a weird little sci-fi show in the 60s. Thank you, Uhura, for opening those hailing frequencies, and opening so many doors.