Gendered Fantasies and Fears in Science Fiction by Emerald Elizabeth

GuestBloggerThe divide between different male fantasies seems vast, but they all seem to stem from a similar desire. Power. In spy novels, the main character is attractive, mysterious and irresistible to women. In gothic romance, he is dangerous, but charismatic. In super-hero literature, he is strong, fast and has the capacity to sweep you off your feet. Science-fiction is an exception to this. The main characters themselves do not house the fantasy, the situation itself does.

Consider something as accessible as Red Dwarf, a television programme which began airing in 1988. The four male characters are a constant throughout the series, with no female character being featured without the explanation of being viewed as mentally-incapable (Hilly/Holly), psychotic/deranged (Simulant) or sexually attractive (Kochanski). This gives the impression that the involvement of women requires some sort of justification. Of the top one hundred scientists rated by, only three are female, so it is not surprising that women are not heavily featured in the majority of science-fiction. Red Dwarf features a number of male fantasies; a life-form that mutates into the physical form you find most attractive, a series of games that simulate reality in every way, and, of course, being in control of flying a space-craft. Similar to the male obsession with cars, the idea of being in control of a space-ship features heavily in expansive science-fiction (for example; Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien).

Dystopias feature regularly in science-fiction novels and productions. This could be due to the idea of the human race requiring a hero, someone to save them from the miserable existence that they lead. This is also a fantasy, the concept of someone relying on you, you being the chosen one who is strong/clever/brave enough to defeat whatever evil you (and the rest of the human race) are set against. The Matrix is one example of a dystopian world, but cleverly set in our own in order to cause the audience confusion upon watching the film, wondering if they really are all lying in a vat of fluid and only dreaming that they are living. This plays on the underlying fear that human beings are not really the master-race, and that we have already been outwitted by superior life-forms.

Image from

Image from

Another dystopian world is in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said; a novel by Philip. K. Dick. The main character is a television presenter who, after spurning a former lover, has his body invaded by a parasite. The result of this is that he is erased from his reality, no records of him exist. One could argue that this feeds into the human desire to be anonymous, but also the human fear that we will die alone and uncared for.

The dystopia that this novel is set in revolves around the concept that the United States of America had a second civil war and the country then taken over by the National Guard (“nats”) and US police force (“pols”), who have established a dictatorship. The age of consent has been reduced to twelve, and recreational drug-use is rife and accepted. Drug-use and child-pornography are genuine fears for a large percentage of Americans, and Dick has written them into his novel as though it would be the natural progression for these changes to occur. This would reflect that human-nature would not improve over time, something that some indivuals would say is already an issue. Many complain that gang-warfare disrupts their neighbourhoods, and that street-crime is worse. Although it has become more acceptable to talk about, issues such as rape, underage sex and sexual-assault are still common-place, especially in America and the United Kingdom. This could be due to a lack of sexual-education, particularly in America, where some schools adopt an “Abstinence Only” policy. A Wikipedia page on the topic reads that in a study by Kaiser “34% of high-school principals said their school’s main message was abstinence-only” (across the entire USA). A study conducted by Durex in 2005 indicated that in both the UK and the USA, young people are not given sex-education until they are twelve and a half years old. The study also shows that the percentage of people having unprotected sex is over half (52% in the UK, 51% in the USA), leading to 8% of girls in the UK and 10% in the USA having an unplanned pregnancy by the age of nineteen. The easiest way (although not the best way) for the government to reduce under-age pregnancy would be by lowering the age of consent, and in Dick’s novel, that is exactly what they have done. In today’s society, sex with a twelve year old is considered statutory rape, whereas in the dystopian future created, it is an acceptable occurrence.


Photo from Helen Armfield

One of man’s greatest dreams is to make time-travel a reality. Several films, television series and novels have addressed this dream, but the honour of the most popular would probably be awarded to Doctor Who or Back to the Future. Doctor Who is different from the majority of science-fiction as it features an alien species as the main character. The writers have always maintained a humanoid body for the Doctor, with the exception of his having two hearts and being able to “regenerate” (change his body). This makes it difficult for him to die; another fantasy of human beings. The secret to eternal life has been sought after for hundreds of years, and is an oft used plotline in works of literature and film. Doctor Who avoids becoming another cliché by using the regeneration plot as a side-line, only generally occurring once a series. Sadly, it is barely any less sexist than any of the other pieces studied in this essay. For the most parts, the Doctor’s companions have been young women, generally with some sort of sexual appeal to them. Although men are involved in the program as well, women are more prevalent, and often play more central roles in regard the plot. The Doctor has yet to have regenerated as female (begging comparisons to James Bond).

From the angle of expansive science-fiction, a series that has gained a cult-following is Star Wars. Again, the majority of the main characters are either male or completely useless. Effectively, the only female characters in these films with a significant amount of screen-time are Padme (who dies in childbirth after suffering from a broken-heart), and Leia, a character whose personality is overwhelmed by the amount of sass written into her lines to disguise the underwhelming personality that was written for her. Although George Lucas was a pioneer with the concept of “used space” (not every space-ship/piece of equipment being shiny and chrome) he was not a man who was willing to break the boundaries of gender stereotypes, regardless of how many guns he writes in for his female characters. The complete objectification of Princess Leia over-rides any positive impact she may have had on aspiring young women, as it is obvious that the audience are only meant to either lust after her or find her bland and irritating. Most science-fiction seems to have a common theme of either complete disinterest, or purely sexual interest in the female characters featured. It could be argued that this is representative of our society; no matter how advanced science is, some individuals still cannot grasp the concept that woman are human beings.

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Image from

Even in the most recent Star Trek film, it is painfully obvious that for the most part, women do not hold a powerful seat in the world of science-fiction. The majority of men will have only noticed three women in the film, one being a mother, and the other two standing in as objects of sexual desire. One is not even human; this emphasises the point that the majority of heterosexual men will allow themselves to be attracted to anything remote feminine shaped, regardless of species. The medicine featured in Star Trek is phenomenal and far beyond the reach of present-day physicians. In this respect, it is a message of hope for the future; indicating that science-fiction does not only bring messages of dystopias and hideous gender inequality.

Science-fiction is not a genre to be easily dismissed, the fears and fantasies involved in plot-lines reflect those of the time the novels/films/series were created. It serves almost like a mirror to our society, showing the reader what the concerns of the generation were whilst the work was written. Although there is definitely room for improvement in regard to female characters and roles, it would be an error of judgement to conclude that science-fiction is irrelevant to the society that we live in.


Emerald is a creative-writing student living in East London with an interest in equal-rights and octopodes. She reads and writes a heap of poetry, but is also partial to science-fiction and fantasy. Follow her on Twitter @thatlimeykidd or on Tumblr .



  • May 29, 2013 - 19:38 | Permalink

    I agree but dont disagrre. This stuff only becomes a issue when a woman wants to rebel and be noticed. I am not sexist, look at the founder of planned parenthood

  • Alex House
    May 29, 2013 - 21:32 | Permalink

    Cracking article and you make a damn valid point. Look forward to more of your work!

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