I like hard science fiction and space adventure stories, but there are times when they make me cringe. The way they represent women is one of them. I'm not talking about stories from ages past here, but ones written in the last few years. Modern writers know there's a problem with sexism in the genre, so they find a solution...
...they make their women into engineers (or some other traditionally male-dominated job).
This seems great on the surface. She has a responsible job. She'll act in a calm and collected manner when the engines explode. Everyone will comment on her competence.
At the same time, she's part of a plot like this...*
- A team of four people are sent to Mars. Three are men. One is a woman. An accident means the woman is stranded in a cave and the men have to rescue her.
- A women and her husband are astronauts. He's chosen for a mission to Venus. Something goes wrong. She sits and home and waits while some men go and rescue her husband.
- A female engineer is trapped on a broken spacecraft. The rest of the crew are dead. But don't worry - some men are on the way to rescue her and fix the ship. She sits and waits for them to arrive.
- A woman is held hostage by terrorists because of her awesome technical knowledge. A team of men rescue her.
- A woman is the best engineer ever. Everyone says so. Something goes wrong with one of her machines. She has to ask a man to fix it.
The plots have one thing in common: the female characters are completely passive. A damsel in distress is still a damsel, even if she wears a engineer's uniform. A woman waiting quietly at home is being passive now, even if she was supposed to have saved ten star systems in her youth.
It wouldn't be a problem at an individual story level. I'm not suggesting that women never need rescuing** or never end up waiting at home. When it happens in ten space adventure stories in a row, I'm asking questions. Why couldn't astro-wife captain the mission to rescue her husband? Why don't the rescue crews have female members? Why couldn't the woman stranded on the broken ship repair it? Surely the best engineer in the world can fix her own creations?
It's as though it's okay to give a woman a responsible job, as long as she isn't any good at it. Other characters can say she's good at her job, but that's not the same as seeing her succeed.
You don't make a female character strong by making her an engineer***. You make her strong by giving her an active role in saving the day.
* I've changed details to protect the innocent. Should you know of a story exactly like one of these... it wasn't the story I meant, but it proves the point anyway.
** Of course, there are passive and active ways to react to a rescue. Leia in Starwars is an active damsel in distress. When they rescue her the first time, she grabs a blaster and starts shooting stormtroopers. When she's rescued from Jabba's floating platform, she uses the chain she's tied down with as a weapon.
I'm always amazed by stories where the woman stands and watches the fight. You don't let your loved one get killed by the bad guy. You do something about it. Pick up a chair and hit the bad guy over the head. Do something.
*** You certainly don't need to be an engineer to save the day, which is another issue with the idea of engineer = equal rights. There's no reason why a woman in a traditionally female occupation couldn't save the day. An ordinary housewife who decides to pick up a ray gun and rescue her husband would be an interesting character.