Fair warning: this is a blog post about science, geekiness, and feminism.
Right now, I’m listening to Lori Garver and Mike Massimino talk about the future of NASA. Someone asked the question that I ask myself daily: “Will there be a manned mission to Mars in my lifetime?” Not only did Lori Garver answer yes, but she added (and I’m paraphrasing slightly), “Not just a manned mission, but also some astronauts of the female persuasion.”
Unfortunately, only men walked on the Moon. That made me think: until the last few years, I never had many female role models. To be fair, until the last few years, all my role models tended to be dead white males. Tolkien. Nabokov. Faulkner. Thoreau. (Not that there’s anything wrong with any of the above.) I guess, in a pinch, I could have said Jane Austen, but she’s hardly a paragon of female empowerment for the 21st century.
My sudden acquisition of female role models coincides precisely with my approximately 3-year-old love of science. First it was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and then Carolyn Porco, whose Cassini images helped me survive 2009.
Then the usuals–Rosalind Franklin and Marie Curie. But fictional role models can be just as important as real people. I am of the Disney Princess generation. I always liked Belle, and she read books–but why did people like her? Not because she read books. Because she was pretty. Does she get an amazing library? Yes. Does she then proceed to play dress-up in a castle for most of the movie? Again, yes. And she was by no means the worst of the princesses.
The problem is, those are the role models that are ubiquitous, that are presented to us without having to seek them out. You have to search for positive fictional female role models–I just happened to find all of mine in the realm of the slightly-to-very-nerdy. This should go without saying, but: Thank you, Joss Whedon.
Sometimes when I really don’t want to study, I go on a hunt for music praising smart girls. Such songs are few and far between. The following isn’t precisely what I had been looking for, but provides a fairly complete retrospective of women in sci fi, and shows that some progress has been made over the past 50 to 60 years.
You could write a dissertation on the changes in costuming alone. Someone may have done so already. (Non-feminism-related side note: I love how much Blake’s 7 is represented here. Frakking no one I know watches Blake’s 7, and it makes me sad.)
Not that I don’t love the 1960s classic time-traveling-boy-meets-girl-who-would-be-the-mother-of-the-destroyer-of-Earth story. But I think things really started looking up with Sarah Jane Smith. She had a career from day one, a career based on intellectual curiosity and a genuine engagement with the world around her. She was a journalist, but I would argue that those are perfect criteria for judging the value of a career in any field. And, more recently, Laura “Airlock them all and let the gods sort them out” Roslin. Is it too obvious that this is who I want to be when I grow up? (Minus the presidential responsibilities, nuclear apocalypse, and cancer?)
And, yes, I can rebel against the patriarchy as much as the next girl. After 8 years, I’ve finally relearned how to leave the house without makeup. I have serious ideological issues with Lord of the Rings that never would have occurred to me a decade ago. I refuse to make my bed (this isn’t so much rebellion as practicality.) But. I also cook. I bake. I knit. I’ve just taken up embroidery. I mean, really. I have an embroidery hoop. It’s ridiculous.
For my fellow A Song of Ice and Fire nerds: in the game of life (“You win and you die”?), I am much more Sansa than I am Arya. And do I maybe sometimes feel guilty about that? For sure. Should I? Probably not. There are as many definitions of feminism as there are feminists (even people who would never actually call themselves feminist). And that’s as it should be. That’s sort of the point: choices.
If you want to get married, or if you specifically want not to get married, or if you don’t know, that’s great. If you don’t want to have kids, I think that’s brilliant. If you want to have babies, awesome–my stance on babies is well-known: their brains are fascinating, and their widdle toesies are pretty darn cute, too. If you want to chop your hair off, or grow it down to your ankles, if you want to write poetry or do science or go into politics, if you want to make picket signs and sign petitions, if you want to stay in and watch Pride & Prejudice for the fiftieth time, if you want to be President, a pilot, an engineer, a doctor, an artist, I will be right there with you.
I don’t think feminism can really exist except as an extension of humanism. So I will bake cookies and sew and study the inner workings of the brain and refuse to make my bed. I will cry when a woman sets foot on Mars. I will cry when a man sets foot on Mars. And I will try to make sure that girls in the future have a wider selection of role models than I did at their age.