Women and Sexuality in Spec-Fic

This week I found myself confronted, again, by the battle over how to properly portray women in speculative fiction. A while back I did a post about Women in Gaming, discussing a lot of the unnecessary and terrible treatment that male gamers throw at female gamers. This week's post is on the related topic of sexuality in spec-fic and geek culture (games, movies, novels, etc.)

An Amazon Warrior
Photo By Viki├žizer (Own work)
 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons
What is the best way to portray a sexual yet empowered character?

I've asked myself this question many times over the years since I started writing seriously. How sexual can one make a character without crossing that line between empowered and objectified? There is no easy answer.

I'm going to concentrate on women for this post, not that male characters can't be sexualized or objectified, but because when they are it tends not to evoke the same emotional response—and rightly so. Men, after all, are the current gender of privilege in the world (sorry guys, but when is the last time you got paid less or skipped over because of your gender?) When we encounter a sexualized male character, even a hyper-sexual one, our reaction as a whole usually does not entail thoughts like, "oh he's such a slut" or "what a whore that guy is." Right? And even when it does, there just isn't the same level of nastiness about it. In fact, many hyper-sexual males are celebrated instead of denigrated like their female counterparts. Do we view Hercules and Hank Moody the same way we do women who behave the same way (like the woman in the bathroom at the end of the movie Choke)? It is easier for society to accept a sexualized man as being empowered than it is for the same to be true of a sexualized woman, even though on an objective level, there is no reason for the imbalance.

Photo By Codex (Own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)],
 via Wikimedia Commons
So, as a woman, is simply being sexual empowering in itself?

I've heard women say yes, that taking control of their sexuality is one of the more empowering things they've done, and I've heard women say that no, that it detracts from getting men to focus on more important things like their intelligence and contributions to society.

Tara Babcock (who works for, among others, Zoomin.TV Games) did a post titled "Feel Free to Fap!" on her VLog recently about how she appreciates the focus on her body since she chose a career that was about her looks. She goes on to say "where people go wrong is assuming someone is a certain way by their looks." She goes on to provide examples of compliments that are acceptable, and ones that cross the line, and then (at about the 1:50 mark or so) she starts to talk about how women take body compliments the wrong way. Check out the VLog and see if you agree. Is she being too broad in her statements? If a woman chooses to be sexual, is she choosing to degrade herself or is she choosing to take possession of the power her sexuality can bring? Does context matter?

As it relates to sexual female characters, does the way in which they are portrayed change the light in which we see them? I'd argue that yes, it does. There is a difference between a character who is sexual, and that's all we really see of her, and one that is sexual but we know she's also intelligent, witty, and cunning.

In the original version of Blood Siren I wrote but never published, I had a character who I wanted to portray as being empowered by her sexuality (something I personally find very attractive). I wrote her as being out-loud about it in a "this is who I am and deal with it" kind of way. I also gave her a troubled but heroic past (her birthright had been taken from her and she'd learned to survive and conquer adversity through it), and showed her solving many of the problems around her with her wits and experience. I thought I'd made a well rounded character who women and men could both get behind, then I showed the work to my wife and my sister-in-law.

To my surprise, I got very different reactions. My wife had no problem with the character, but my sister-in-law found her to be very uncomfortable and perhaps unrealistic. My wife knew what I was trying to do with the character, but my sister-in-law hadn't heard anything I'd said about her until she read the piece. Could that account for the difference? Had I failed to do what I set out to or was this a case of individual comfort level?

Of course, people are different and how you view a character is going to be colored by who you are. Sexuality is part of being human, and part of what makes speculative fiction so great is that by placing characters in strange worlds that might be, it highlights what the word "humanity" can really mean. It follows, for me, that sexuality needs to be in that portrayal for that general portrayal (or at least any expansive portrayal like a book series) to be complete. Off the top of my head, I think the series "Saga" by Brian K. Vaughan does this very well, but I'm hard-pressed to be confident about recommending many others.

The challenge, is providing that without lapsing into an unrealistic and offensive world. Can it be done? Of course, the number of positive, empowered, and sexual women in the media is on the rise. The more examples we have the better off we will all be. Personally, I'd like to see more men and women getting together behind these fully-realized, fully-rounded female characters. It can be tough to write them simply because there are so few examples right now in the general cultural mind to follow, but it's well worth the effort. I'd like to think there will be a day where the truly despicable levels this debate reaches becomes a thing of the past, but until this is accomplished, until producers of media and the general public both make it the norm, this problem will continue.


  1. Obviously different readers will read different things into any character portrayal, they can't help but bring their own experiences and perspectives. Do sexuality and power equate? I think fiction tends to equate them, but I don't think one requires the other. It'd be great to get rid of gender equality. Joss Whedon gave a really great speech on equality. Have you seen it? It was a few years ago now, but it was thought-provoking and I changed a few details about some of my characters as a consequence.

    1. Yes I did see it and I totally agreed. I think that we have to talk about it and be sensitive to it is indicative of the problem. It's sad, but we're still not at the day when equality (which includes valuing men and women for the differences as well as their similarities) is the default.

      Also, great point about one not being required for the other. I see the pairing as something that depends on the character/individual and how they choose to take power in their own lives. There are many powerful female characters who are not sexual, or that don't involve their sexuality in their power or sense of self (i.e. Bette Davis in All About Eve comes to mind, and since you brought up Joss Whedon I'm reminded of Buffy as well), and though this is true, I chose to focus on female sexuality and power for this post because it gets so derided and maliciously attacked in modern American culture—and the internet/geek community in particular, and I see that as gravely wrong. I'm really sick of the double-standard.

      This week I came across something that yet again reminded me of this problem in the speculative fiction community and I wanted to say something about it.

      Thank you for reminding me about the video, too. Unless I misunderstood, I believe this one is it:


  2. An interesting topic. You're right about the stereotyping. I read an article a little while ago about porn stars having college degrees, or (only in Italy) porn stars being elected to parliament. This caused me to cast a character in a new WIP as a prostitute. She isn't going to be a victim, but some women will look at her askance because of her job. And having written that, are male and female prostitutes seen in the same light? And is MM prostitution seen as worse than what we call a gigolo?

    I suppose one of the good things is that we, as writers, can throw these issues into the SF mix, and perhaps try to avoid the stereotypes as exemplified by the 1950's pulp fiction covers (brave alpha male saving swooning, scantily clad blonde). Thanks for raising the issue.

    1. Thank you for commenting.

      It's unfortunate that women get shoehorned into specific boxes in society (Housewife, Working woman who put off her family, slut... etc -and those are the nicer things I've heard). It's really sad that we don't live in a society that sees women in a more whole-person light.

      I'd say it's a moral imperative to present a better view of women in fiction. Right now the cultural norm in the US is to shame, control, and objectify women (not just as sex objects, but as damsels in distress, objects of reward, objects of trade, etc.) Until that changes, the more positive, valued-person views of women we as writers can present the better.


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