Sex and Science Fiction

The other day, while I was checking up on science fiction news sites, I came across an article that SciFiWire posted: “Fringe’s Anna Torv As You’ve Never Seen Her Before: Topless (NSFW)“, with a couple of photographs that weren’t actually revealing or anything too distasteful – no shirt, but she was definitely covered, and on the whole of things, pretty light fare compared to other websites out there – just take a look at some of the late night titles that io9 will post up every now and then.
What really got me was reading the comments in the article. A number of posters were pretty annoyed by this article: “I’m getting really tired of this site displaying low level porn on it. You must’ve recently hired some juvenile male to run the site.“, “Yeah, it’s fun, and it probably increases web traffic significantly, but it’s really annoying to us ”real’ science fiction fans, and that’s why we came here: science fiction.” There’s a bunch of others as well, but that is the basic flow of some of the comments, although there were some good comments that went the other way as well. While some of the commenters were complaining more about the site’s propensity to post up related Science Fiction and Fantasy news, there were certainly a number of comments relating to the actual content of the article.
Sex has long been a part of science fiction, either as a ploy to get young, male readers to part with their money in the early 20th century and incidentally, read magazines and novels, or as a direct plot point, science fiction is hardly a genre that is as innocent as a lot of people seem to think that it is, along with horror and comic books. Going back to the American Depression in the 1930s, Science Fiction magazines, under Charles Gernsback and Mort Weisinger, often featured and objectified women and men alike on the covers of magazines and novels, as well as in their content. (Gerard Jones, Men of Tomorrow, 132-133). As major comics such as Superman moved into the markets, much of the same moved with it. Looking at Superman, the relationship between Lois Lane and Superman/Clark Kent is a good example of this objectification, on both sides: Lois rejects Clark because he isn’t perceived as man enough, especially compared to Superman. It’s an ironic twist that holds a number of lessons in identify and judgment, but it also holds up a standard when it comes to gender roles: the strong, not the weak are desirable, while women are attracted to the image of a person, not necessarily their character behind it. (Jones, 143) Women and men are both heavily objectified in comics: just look at some of the art work when it comes to the Marvel and DC comics – characters are exaggerated in their proportions to the extreme.
This says nothing of the deeper roots of the genre, which science fiction historian and author Adam Roberts asserts, comes from the tradition of Gothic literature that far predates the materials cheaply available to wide-eyed boys in the Great Depression. “Gothic fiction is a popular category of academic pedagogy and research: a usefully delimited subgenre of fantastic literature… typically, a gothic novel includes mysterious and sinister goings-on, usually involving supernatural agency such as ghosts or devils … located in distant, wild places, castles or monasteries in inaccessible portions of central Europe, where innocent young women are terrified, men have commerce with the devil and there is much to do with graveyards, ruins and madness, all flavored by a distinctive atmosphere of eroticized suspense, shock and horror.” (Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction, 82) Look no further than Bram Stoker’s Dracula for a good example of this sort of eroticized atmosphere, something that has carried into the modern day with similar elements of the genre, such as True Blood or Twilight.
This is why I find the shock and appalled nature of a number of a lot of people so ridiculous, simply because it represents a sort of high-minded elitism, either from somebody looking down on the collective genre of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror as something insignificant and childish, or from within, with people taking the highbrowed route that scrubs the genre clean by removing anything mildly offensive to the common viewer/reader to fit their needs. Both approaches do the genre a disservice, either by rejecting it or by selectively looking back on it for an inaccurate look. It’s even more ridiculous in the internet era, where advocates of free choice insist that everybody must be protected from everything offensive.
The point in all of this is that sex and science fiction have never been all that far apart, no matter what shocked and appalled commentators believe to be the case. Used either for selling extra copies or for story content, there is a reliance on character types that have prevailed throughout literary history to become fairly resilient staples in our books, movies and television shows. If there is anything really worth getting offended over, or at least looking more closely into, is gender objectification, as well as our own outrage over seeing what is usually heavily implied.
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3 thoughts on “Sex and Science Fiction

  1. nice article pointing out that sex has been a part of sci-fi (or at least cover art) for the history of the genre… i’m sure back in the pulp era, there were the same views of sci-fi. back when i was in college, my wife(then girlfriend) took a Gender Studies course on Sex and Science Fiction, looking at how the portrayal of gender and sex changed through the course of science fiction – moving past objectification. while taking sex out of sci-fi entirely is stupid as sex is part of the human condition, taking out objectification might not be a bad thing.

    • Well, it’s not just cover art, it’s the contents, but I see what you mean. I took a course called Race and Gender in Military History, which was eye opening to say the least. There’s a lot of attention on the treatment of women in warfare, but there was coverage of how men percieve war, and how there’s a bit of objectification going on there, ie, that warfare is predominantly a men’s activity, which has huge ramifications on how war is fought nowadays. I think the same goes for science fiction as well.

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