Feminism (Or the Lack of It) in Trek-Lit

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Title: Feminism (Or the Lack of It) in Trek-Lit
Creator: Leslie Fish
Date(s): March 1980
Medium: print
Fandom: Star Trek: TOS
Topic:
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Feminism (Or the Lack of It) in Trek-Lit is a 1980 essay by Leslie Fish.

the essay

It was printed in Interstat #29.

The essay introduces the term The Russ Test, a precursor to The Bechdel Test.

Part of a Conversation

This essay by Leslie Fish was one of two essays in Interstat #29 addressing the topic of feminism in Star Trek fic. The other was by Mary Lou Dodge, and called Feminism in Trek-Lit.

Both authors were very outspoken fans, and the printing of both of these essays was meant to be a discussion flashpoint.

The Essay

"The crucial test of feminism in a work is the presence of at least two women who are friendly. Not one, and not two who are rivals. Male works which try (sometimes honestly) to be feminist almost invariable focus of the woman-man couple among male colleagues. The secret of feminism is what happens when women talk to women, advise women, love women. The two may be lovers, friends, friendly strangers, or friendly colleagues, but this is the absolute precondition for (a) feminism or (b) truth." Joanna Russ, quoted in 'MS. Feb. 1980 issue, pg. 36.

By Russ's definition, there is precious little feminism in either ST aired episodes or fan-written stories. Lack of feminism in the eired episodes is understandable, but since no Paramount Pinhead sits over fandom, why do fan writers (90% women) still fail the Russ Test? It can hardly be for lack of experience; we've all had female friends, in fandom itself if nowhere else. What keeps us from projecting this crucial element into our ideal future?

One reason is that we don't value female friendship because our culture teaches us to devalue everything women have (except physical items depersonalized into icons). Pop culture merely reflects this. There are plenty of idealized male-male friendships on TV, but what female-female friendships do we see? Laverne and Shirley, some ideal! But I think there's also a darker reason: A deliberate policy of Divide and Conquer. Sexist men have good reason to fear female friendship; it can lead to massive unity which could destroy their power. Therefore, ruling males (and their dutiful female mouthpieces) deliberately discourage female unity, even to denigrating female-female friendship.

Supporting evidence? Easy. When any ruling group feels threatened by an uprising of its victims, guilty fear brings some amazing paranoia to its arguments: California undertakers respond to "The American Way of Death" by calling the author a Communist; when Civil Rights began gaining power, white bigot claimed Blacks really wanted to rape white women; the conservative churchs' mouthpiece, Anita Bryant, responds to Gay Lib by insisting that gays only want to rape straight children. With ERA pending, some current film, and pop-novels and patria-chal mouthpieces such as Phyllis Schafly and Mary Lou Dodge, claim that feminists are really man-haters who only want to cut up men. Note the simularitiesl

Fellow-fen, if we truly want to see a future of freedom, equality and justice, — the future that "Star Trek" suggests — we should stop accepting the oppressors' opinion of the oppressed.

Fan Comments

I just got INTERSTAT #29. What have we here? Yet another re-hash of the "I'm more Feminist than you" argument, only with Trekkish overtones, . Leslie complains that we don't write "feminist" because we're writing Kirk/Spock stories instead of Uhura/Chapel stuff. Aside from the fact that Star Trek was originally a male-oriented show, there's no reason that a writer, male OR female, couldn't use the Chapel/Uhura stuff in fanlit—except that it's not particularly exciting! (Of course, there are a couple of stories in Obsc'zine, and Guardian…)... Where does this leave us, in Trek fandom? We are writing about a paramilitary service, which is, of necessity, male-dominated. The Captain Uhura stories of Winston Howlett's are an excellent example of what I'm talking about—the struggle of a woman in the male-oriented society. And Ghu knows, there are enough of the "Mary-Sue" romances to make Barbara Cartland blush for shame. So what do we do about it? We either write K/S, in which one of the partners takes the "female" role—or we write a sort of K/S in which Janice Lester's body has Kirk's mind and he and Spock live happily ever after (with twins, yet!) or we try to write in "strong" female characters to interact with the Big Three. Or—and here's the real point—we start to move away from Trek and into Alternate Worlds or SF or something else. With or without sexism, Trekkers are going to write, and they are going to write out whatever their fantasies are. They aren't going to tailor their fantasies to the popular political or sociological games of the moment. The fun of reading Treklit comes when someone else's fantasy corresponds to one's own—and most of the yelling starts when the fan tasies clash. [1]
The feminism "debate" seemed artificially limited by Leslie's quote that she used to define the subject. Ms. Russ is a well known SF writer, with at least one award winning story to her credit—"When It Changed"— that fits her definition. But Trek-lit seemingly always uses at least one of the three main characters. If a person wishes to write about two female friends, perhaps another universe would be more appropriate. On the other hand, a woman (or two or ten or twenty) interacting in a strong positive manner with the obviously male-dominated society of the Federation, would seem a reasonable goal for a writer interested in feminist concerns. Mary Lou seems to believe that feminist by definition means "man-hater." And somehow "woman-hater," though I find it hard to take Eric Severeid as an expert—a man who brought new meaning to the word pompous. I also can't see what women putting their children in day care centers so that they (perhaps) can work outside the home for money to (perhaps) stay off welfare has to do with Trek-lit. No woman of my acquaintance who works full time outside of the home even has a full time maid or housekeeper—much less is able to pay her $20,000… And I don't know where Mary Lou hangs out but I've never met Janice Lester anywhere. She wasn't "selfish" and "neurotic", she was psychotic and a murderer. Calling her a womens' right advocate is like calling Adolph Hitler an expert on population control. [2]
I have a batch of things to comment on from I#30, all having to do with the question of portrayal of women in Treklit. First, in principle I am all with [Roberta R's] comment that we are under no obligation to support any particular philosophy in our Treklit. Nonetheless, I find it grating on my sensibilities like nails on a blackboard when some whose work otherwise corresponds to my own fantasy, as Roberta so rightly puts it, breaks not into male chauvinism, but into anti-feminism. We can all tolerate idiosyncrasies in people whom we respect--but am I the only person who found it incredible that an intelligent woman like [Mary Lou D] could seriously propose in I#29 "bringing about the world of Star Trek by having today's women retreat from the status they have so painfully won into the old domain of kinder, kuche, kirche? In the world of Star Trek that I saw on both the large and small screen, women were Star Fleet officers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, explorers, soldiers, etc. Where did those women get their role models if their mothers and grandmothers were all housewives?... That brings me to the development of women in my own Treklit, and [Cheryl R's] comment, "Trek-lit seemingly always uses at least one of the three main characters." Ahem. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy play very minor roles in the NTM universe. However, I developed that universe after many years of writing other kinds of stories. "Visit," "Parted From Me," and other of my early stories always concerned the Big-Three—and never had Joanna Russ's requirement of female friendship. The reason the Russ criterion that Leslie Fish quoted seems so right to me is that I can see the development in my own work from conscious attempts at feminism to the unconscious genuine feminist attitude as I slowly came to trust women as much as I did men as partners in writing and business. At first I tried to write strong women, and to play up some of the anti-feminist problems I had run into in my own career. For example, I have been "Jean," never "Jeannie," since I entered high school. When one of my male colleagues attempts to denigrate me by calling me "Jeannie," (and, believe it or not, this happens!), I respond by calling him "Billy," "Johnny," "Davy," or whatever. But, if Jimmy Carter can be President, why can't Mary Louise Webster captain a starship (EPILOGUE)? Sorry, Mary Lou, I invented Molly Webster several years before I heard of you; it is neither tribute nor parody. In another story I had a captain named Mary Jane. These names, and the roles, were quite deliberate. As to the Russ criterion, my early stories simply never had friendships between women. By the time I wrote EPILOGUE, I gave Molly a best friend, Margie Jones, but I neglected to give Margie a role to play! I just said she was Molly's best friend; I didn't show it. By the time I wrote THE NIGHT OF THE TWIN MOONS, however, something had happened to my subconscious. The female-dominant Penthesilean society, Amanda's role as Ambassador-- those things are the conscious feminist aspects of the novel. But how about Rille, Velinde, and Shira? I had never heard of Russ's criterion (how could I, if she didn't formulate it until last year?), but like all the best criticism, her comment makes me say, "Of course! Why didn't I see that for myself?" Ever since NTM, all my heroines have had female friends. In FIRST CHANNEL, Kadi's best friend is Carlana. In SAVAGE EMPIRE, Aradia's best friend is Lilith. My point is not to brag about what a great feminist I am (I'm not a feminist at all to the most radical feminists), but to point out that I began writing female friendships into my books unconsciously. Damnitall, I'll be doing it consciously from now on, but the original natural outgrowth of my relationships in fandom was the quite unconscious development of female friends in my writing. I'm sure I'm not alone, this kind of development is most certainly taking place among other women in fandom. Why doesn't it show in their writings? How many other women writing Treklit today published their first stories in 1968. As I said, it's not an instantaneous change. Furthermore, back in the dark ages there were stories about female friends in Treklit. The two-girls-aboard-the- Enterprise stories were a staple in the early days of fanzines. [3] Usually, though, one got either Spock or McCoy, and someone came along and labeled them "Mary Sue stories" and scared them out of the fanzines. Too bad. Had they had a normal development, we might be seeing two-women-aboard- the-Enterprise-who-remain-friends-and-find-fulfillment- in-some-way-other-than-marrying-one-of-the-Big-Three stories. And I don't mean lesbian stories. [4]
I've got to say that I'm not so sure about Leslie's argument. I'm thinking in particular of the source of her remarks? Before I can credit Miss Russ with a valid argument, or statement, I've got to ask, who is she, and what makes her statement valid? So far, I see no reason for even wanting to pass the "Russ test". Secondly, while the point is interesting, that feminist literature is about women's relationships with other women, it is not at all complete. Nor is it realistic. After all, women are not the only people which women associate with, and in limiting the definition of feminist lit to the above definition is irresponsible. It also seems to be a bit ludicrous. Good literature should encompass the entire spectrum of relationships, not just one part of it, and in this world/ women do have to associate with men [5]
Forgive me, Mary Lou... You are using the "hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world," argument. But years of living have proven to me that the hand that rocks the cradle, rocks the cradle, and that's all it does. Traditionalists have stated that because human beings have the biological equipment to produce babies, then they have the obligation to produce them. (And that seems to go double for women.) But most human beings also have the biological equipment to become concert pianists: two ears and ten fingers!) [6]
Feminism happens to be the belief that women should be granted social and political rights equal to men. While Joanna Russ is a fine writer, her definition of feminism is not the definition of feminism, so we can scrap Leslie's piece right there.... Mary Lou did a hair-shade better...but only that much. She seemed to work from her own definition of feminism, twisted though it may be. To Mary Lou it seems that someone who holds the rather innocuous belief that people should not be discriminated against because of sex, should be classed as some sort of modern-day-Medea. I get the feeling that said individuals should subsist on nothing but their children so that they can pay their cleaning women a decent wage (a wage they themselves don't earn... Is there then anti-feminism in Trek-lit? There was anti-feminism in aired Trek...male animals were more equal than others. This was not so much intentional as that it was the way it was in 1966. It also just so happens to be the way it is in 1980. I don't think that Treklit is full of anti-feminism so much as it is full of indifference to feminism. We are all creatures of 20th century Terra. Those of us who consider woman's place in 20th century Terra important will write whatever woman's place we damn well please in 23rd century Milky Way. And those of us who don't, well, they'll write woman's place in 20th century Terra into 23rd century Milky Way. As a human I know that if someone were to give me three wishes, there are plenty of things I would change. As a writer I know that each time I sit down to the typewriter I can play God. I can create anything I want, make it the same or different. The key word here is 'want'. And I think that a lot of Trek writers don't want a change in women's status very badly, or they would change it themselves.... At Mos'Eastly there was a panel dealing with anti-feminism in Trek lit, and among the things covered, two points stand out. The first was the quest for role models. The group seemed to want more women, but were unsure about writing them. It was suggested that alien women often fare better than human women, and that there seem to be few human female role models to work from. This is a fact of our history: not that women didn't participate in heroic events, but that their parts were all too often excluded in the retelling of them. If we wish to seek for sources, more and more are becoming available.... The second point that stands out is a question: How can we write good women when we, as women, don't have a very good self-image? I like to think I can answer this one, because I like to think that I created a good woman. The prospect initially terrified me: this woman was nothing like me, how could I possibly write her? By combining two real women and one fictional one, and firmly telling myself over and over that I was not writing me, I managed to write. Soon she started to write herself. Some time later I had a completely bizarre realization: damned if that woman didn't start to sound more and more like me. But how could she? She was heroic. She was admirable. She was one tough babe. And then I looked in the mirror, and I heard myself say, "That's right, toots, and don't you ever forget it." [7]
I have a theory (not original, I'm sure) that the controversies of fandom and the plot conflicts in fan fiction reflect each other and the latest "in" topics of American society at large. Thus the proliferation of interest in the relationships between women. Eileen Roy's excellent story "The Explorer" in Menagerie 16 is a case in point. And this brings me to a second and, in my opinion, very curious point. Both [Lisa W] (#30) and Jean Lorrah (#31) make the statement that friendships between women are suspect in some way in American society. One of the characters in Roy's story makes a similar comment in quite bitter terms. The TV series itself certainly never portrayed female friendship in anything approaching even a fraction of the intensity that characterized male friendships. The same seems to be true of much fan fiction. The only exception I can think of immediately is the Orloff-and-Conway series [8] that ran in early issues of "T-Negative". Most fan stories never get farther than sending Chapel and Uhura off together on a shore-leave shopping binge to buy outfits with which to devastate their (male) companions of the evening. And had anyone noticed that almost invariably female characters are described in terms of their appearance, males in terms of their occupations and skills? [9]

References

  1. Roberta Rogow in Interstat #30
  2. Cheryl R in Interstat #30
  3. One example are the Dorothy-Myfanwy Stories in T-Negative.
  4. Jean Lorrah in Interstat #31
  5. Rebecca H. in Interstat #31
  6. Mary A.S. in Interstat #31
  7. Mindy Glazer in Interstat #33
  8. This fan is referring to the seriocomic tales about two junior officers, linguist Dorothy Conway and xenobotanist Myfanwy Orloff.
  9. D. Booker in Interstat #33