Women of Speculative Fiction: Margaret Cavendish

Here’s a rather obscure one. Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was a female writer from the 17th century who, in opposition to the usual practice of her time, published her works under her own name. She was a poet, philosopher, essayist and playwright. And she wrote “prose romances” – early versions of the adventure novel – including a work that could be one of the first examples of science fiction. Why don’t we try to bring her a little out of obscurity?

Much of what we know of Margaret comes from her own memoir, A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding and Life. She characterized herself as very bashful, preferring to put her thoughts into writing – which was also a somewhat more acceptable outlet than being a verbally outspoken woman. Though her family and later her husband were aristocrats of relatively modest means (partly thanks to the turmoil resulting from their political positions) she was granted the time and leisure for developing her philosophical thoughts and writing skills that women of lower classes would not have been afforded. She also had a dislike for many of the tasks that women of her station were expected to busy themselves with – for example, she described poetry as “mental spinning,” and explained that she was better at writing and therefore preferred it over spinning. For its time, that was a significant critique of gender roles.

So how about that work of science fiction? It’s called The Blazing World, and it falls firmly into the sub-category of utopian fiction. The world mentioned in the title is an entirely separate place from our world, accessed by the North Pole. A women enters this world, becomes Empress over a society of talking animals, and then plans an invasion to defeat the enemies of her homeland. Pretty wild. It was actually published as a companion to her non-fiction work Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, as a sort of illustrative piece to bolster her intellectual discourse. Margaret herself is included as a character in the story, making it autobiographical as well. It kind of has a little bit of everything. Of course back then, genres weren’t the strictly-defined categories that publishers and booksellers use now. And those with the leisure to write tended to write in just about every category, from “natural philosophy” (science) to poetry to plays.

Still, Margaret defied many a convention of her time, and it’s always nice to point out how women have been a part of speculative fiction from its earliest days. However you look at it, she was a pioneer. And since I was rather charmed to read that, among her other ambitions, she had an unapologetic desire for fame, I’ve done my small part to make her just a little more famous.

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Women of Speculative Fiction: Agents of SHIELD

It’s a fascinating, though troubling, phenomenon that our perception of female-to-male ratios is considerably skewed from reality. Present a scene with women making up only 17% of the characters, and people will claim it’s a fairly even split between men and women. Raise the percentage to 30% or more, and then they’ll be sure that women are completely dominating. (This has played out in quite a few studies, but if you want an example, check out the Geena Davis Institute and the research they’ve done in gender parity.)

The reason for this vast mis-perception is easy to guess. If movies and television have been consistently offering a skewed ratio where male characters are always far more prevalent than female, we’re going to start thinking it’s normal. And the slightest bit of shifting the balance toward a more realistic 50/50 will have people raising alarmist cries that women are taking over and driving men out. It’s not any single movie or show that’s done this; it’s a long-standing pattern that we’re so accustomed to, it’s become self-perpetuating. We expect a predominance of males, and so we portray a predominance of males and thus continue to expect a predominance….

We can do better. Particularly in comic book films or shows, which create extravagant universe-bending storylines wherein the implausible becomes fully possible. And yet they still shy away from the shocking notion that women can be fully realized, active characters. Anthropomorphic raccoons and trees, sure. But women? Let’s not be ridiculous. (I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t get me wrong – but if we can swallow such gleeful nonsense, why can’t we wrap our minds around a comic book film led by a woman??)  Aside from a few exceptions, the top-billed actress in a superhero film is going to be playing the hero’s love interest. Other women might play a mother, a side character with maybe one or two significant scenes, or someone who shows the promise of an intriguing power and/or backstory…only to get sidelined by the hero’s far more important journey.

So when they introduced the main team of characters when Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD first premiered, I was inordinately excited to see there were the same number of female characters as male. Inordinately, because this really shouldn’t be such a rarity. Let’s hope it won’t continue to be. True, the show has undergone a few growing pains, and it hasn’t achieved the mainstream success of most of Marvel’s films, but it’s very satisfying to watch three separate women, each with their own personalities and storylines, play principle parts in the show. They’re not even all young or white. Melinda May (Ming-na Wen) is an experienced senior agent, both mentally and physically extraordinary, but reluctant to reenter the field as she hides the emotional scars from a long-ago harrowing mission. And she’s played by the woman who voiced Mulan, so extra awesome points for her.

Gemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) is a brilliant biologist, but her character is more than a collection of broad “nerdy girl” stereotypes (and there’s more than one scientist in the team, helping to at least partly undermine the ridiculous notion that one genius can do ALL THE SCIENCE THINGS). There is one particularly powerful episode in season three in which she carries nearly the entire weight of the storyline by herself.

Skye/Daisy Johnson is biracial, a fact that plays an important role in her origin story. And yes, hers is a superhero origin story, which I never would have guessed when she was first introduced as an admittedly rather annoying hacktivist in the pilot episode. Unlike in a superhero film, which usually tries to cram an origin into the first twenty or thirty minutes so they can hurry along to the  fight-the-villain storyline, the origin of her powers proceeded at an unassuming, leisurely pace until halfway through the second season. Mind you, the reveal wasn’t necessarily a pay-off that made up for every boring bit leading up to it, but it did merit a re-watch to catch the little clues I’d missed before.

Like a lot of tv shows, Agents of SHIELD has an uneven quality – some episodes are spectacular, some are lackluster. But one of the reasons I’ve been willing to stick with it is because it continues to maintain a near 50/50 gender balance in the principle characters, and the stories of the women continue to be some of the most compelling and engaging. And somehow the world has managed not to fall into an estrogen-fueled matriarchal dystopia. Imagine that.