A March of Stereotypes

Last week, Becky Miller discussed the tendency of modern SF to stereotype women as aggressive protagonists who do what men do, only in heels. Her well-made points turned my thoughts to the treatment of women in speculative fiction. The portrayal of women has varied greatly from era to era and from author to author. It even varies from science fiction to fantasy; fantasy – built up from tales crowned with queens, fairies, and witches – possesses deeper traditions of vital female characters. Yet taking a broad view of speculative fiction, and especially of science fiction, one may discern the march of female stereotypes.

The reigning stereotype of early sci-fi was the young lady, invariably attractive, who was the love interest of the young hero, or the daughter of the old professor, or – this was not rare – both. Often, this young woman played Watson to the men’s Sherlock, asking what the audience doesn’t know. Thus the woman provided a method to resolve the eternal writer’s problem of the info-dump, and an infinitely more graceful one than having the hero and the professor tell each other what both already know. More significantly, the young woman is usually the story’s heart – the hero’s inspiration and the center of his emotion. Often enough, she is the damsel in distress, awaiting rescue. In short, early sci-fi stereotypes fit women into classic ideals of femininity, though it must be noted that this did not wholly sideline women from the action. It was not unusual for the hero’s love interest to accompany him into peril, nor unknown for her to use a weapon when the crisis demanded it.

Another, less genteel stereotype is typified by the women of the original Star Trek – the Federation servicewomen in miniskirts and the endless parade of female aliens who probably were not warm under those lights. Unlike the vaguely Victorian women of earlier sci-fi, those women were allowed to enter the story in their own right, not needing a personal relationship with a male character for admission. At the same time, their presentation – sexualized in the very teeth of common sense – objectified them in a way that the idealized women of a more old-fashioned tradition were not. This stereotype was probably most prominent between the fading of the old ideals and the dominance of the new, but it existed before then and is not extinct now.

The stereotype now ascendant is that of the action heroine, whose prowess defies old notions of feminine weakness and, at times, the laws of nature. Princess Leia is the embodiment of the new SF heroine: assertive, authoritative, confident in the use of weapons and in everything else, sarcastic and sharp-tongued to the point of being obnoxious. (If anyone disagrees with this last statement, let me just say: Get this walking carpet out of my way.) We want a heroine who can scrap with the biggest, toughest of men, and due to standards of female beauty strictly enforced in Hollywood, we are accustomed to heroines who do this while weighing just north of 100 pounds.

But despite this and other absurdities, there is nothing inherently wrong with the confident, sarcastic woman who knows how to make use of an arsenal. For that matter, there was nothing wrong with the sweetheart or daughter who is the hero’s heart. (The female military officer in a miniskirt we can do without.) The real error of this march of stereotypes is not that speculative fiction features a certain kind of woman, but that it neglects other kinds.

A Girl and Her Father

Of all biblical stories, Esther is among the best-known and most retold. There is good reason for this. It is a complete and satisfying tale, with peril and victory, with an underdog who wins, a villain who gets his comeuppance, and a brave, beautiful heroine. Its attraction is enormous, but a curious pattern emerges among the re-tellings. Even while staying faithful to the facts of the story, many re-tellings shift the dramatic and emotional center from Esther and Mordecai to Esther and Xerxes. The story of Esther is commonly told as a romance, but in the Bible, the relationship that matters most is the one between Esther and Mordecai.

Esther and Mordecai were cousins, but their relationship is defined by the fact that Mordecai adopted Esther after her parents died, taking her in and raising her. (Somewhat-irrelevant side note: This phenomenon – family members of the same generation but of vast age differences – occurred more frequently in ancient times than in modern, for various reasons.) Mordecai was, in effect, Esther’s father. This relationship drives forward the story: Mordecai’s concern for Esther leads to his vigils at the palace gate, through which he both saves the king’s life and incurs Haman’s animosity; it is Mordecai who explains to Esther (cloistered in the palace) the plot to annihilate the Jews and persuades her to act; Mordecai and Esther together save the Jews and later establish the celebration of Purim.

Esther and Mordecai are also at the heart of the story’s spiritual and emotional power. Esther commands the fasting and prayer in preparation of her bid to save the Jews; Mordecai makes the immortal statement that she became queen “for such a time as this.” It is their lives, their family, and their people brought beneath the shadow of ruthless slaughter. It is their relationship – and emphatically not the relationship between Esther and Xerxes – that is demonstrated to be one of mutual affection: Mordecai walked in a courtyard of the palace every day to find out how Esther was after the king’s officials took her; Esther was “in great distress” at the news of Mordecai’s distress.

Esther’s relationship with Xerxes was, of course, marriage – but marriage to a despot of ancient Persia, and that is a very qualified thing. He practiced, and pretended, no sexual fidelity toward her; consider that he slept with all her rivals for the queenship and then kept them as concubines within his palace. It is evident, too, that Xerxes and Esther didn’t really live together. They only visited at such times when Xerxes wished it – and he could go whole months without wishing it. No detail more sharply illuminates their relationship than the fact that Esther was deathly afraid to go to Xerxes without his summons. In the pivotal moment, Xerxes treated her with regard, but to the end their interactions were those of an absolute sovereign and a favored inferior. Esther was Xerxes’ queen more than she was his wife (though that also, to be fair, had its privileges). It should be noted, too, that Xerxes was an alien to the spiritual concerns of Mordecai and Esther and wholly safe from the death that threatened both of them. Xerxes is an ambivalent figure at best, and a hero on no consideration.

Why, then, do interpretations of the story so often fix on the supposed romance between Esther and Xerxes? The answer is simple, a truth that has long frustrated readers who prefer fantastical stories: People would rather hear about romance. To many people, a romantic relationship – even one as distant and asymmetrical as the marriage of a Persian despot and his queen – is inherently more interesting than a father-daughter relationship, even if it saves a nation from genocide.