Science Fiction Studies

#81 = Volume 27, Part 2 = July 2000


Carl Freedman

Science Fiction and the Triumph of Feminism

Marleen S. Barr, ed. Future Females, The Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism. Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. xii + 323 pp. $65 cloth; $22.95 paper.

Marleen S. Barr’s new anthology, Future Females, The Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, is an important critical work in and of itself. But it also offers—quite self-consciously—an opportunity for general reflection on the history and the current state of the feminist study of science fiction. Barr, after all, can not only be identified, with a precision rarely attainable in such matters, as the founding mother of feminist sf criticism, but she has also in many ways remained its central figure over the past two decades; and the title of the current volume clearly alludes to Barr’s earlier collection, Future Females: A Critical Anthology (Bowling Green Popular Press, 1981), the first book, so far as I am aware, ever specifically devoted to women and sf.1 So the two books called Future Females together mark the beginning and the latest point of the entire feminist enterprise in the serious consideration of science fiction. It is worthwhile to reconstruct the situation that prevailed when that enterprise began.

By 1981, of course, the intersection of feminism and sf was already a major factor in the production of the literature itself. Indeed, it can be argued that the ten to fifteen years previous had witnessed what, at least in retrospect, looks like the golden age of women’s science fiction—a period of intense creativity certainly unmatched before and probably since as well. These years saw the appearance of Ursula K. Le Guin’s two finest novels, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), arguably the book with which sf most decisively lost its innocence on matters of sex and gender, and The Dispossessed (1974); of most of Joanna Russ’s best work, most notably The Female Man (1975)—which many would regard as still the central work of women’s sf in America, in much the same way that Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) is regarded as the central work of women’s naturalist fiction—and The Two of Them (1978); of Anne McCaffrey’s prescient cyborg novel, The Ship Who Sang (1969); of Vonda McIntyre’s two most influential novels, The Exile Waiting (1975) and Dreamsnake (1978); of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), the most important contribution to feminist sf by an author known mainly for realistic work; of several pathbreaking novels by Octavia Butler, most impressively Kindred (1979) and Wild Seed (1980), which established an African-American female voice in sf; of far too many important stories to list by Alice Sheldon (a.k.a. "James Tiptree Jr." and "Racoona Sheldon"), for instance "The Women Men Don’t See" (1973), "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (1973), and "The Screwfly Solution" (1977); and, of course, of much else. Just outside the feminist camp, but closely allied with it, there was also the brilliantly gender-bending science fiction of Samuel R. Delany, who in a series of major works—perhaps most importantly in Triton (1976)—established himself as the strongest, most radical voice for sexual justice among male sf figures. Has there, indeed, ever been, in the entire range of science fiction, a specific body of work as rich and impressive as the feminist and pro-feminist novels and stories produced between the first inauguration of Richard Nixon and the first inauguration of Ronald Reagan? Certainly neither the collective achievement of the Campbellian "Golden Age" of the 1940s and 1950s, nor the much fawned-over phenomenon of cyberpunk in the 1980s and 1990s, can even come close.

And yet if, in 1981, you had looked for any properly critical reflection of this extraordinary achievement, you would, for the most part, have looked in vain. The oversight may seem astonishing, but is by no means inexplicable. The commentators in a position to respond to women’s sf were those already conversant either with the study of science fiction or with feminism; and both groups had reasons for keeping their distance. As to the former, despite occasional important contributions by women—and despite the actual founding of the genre in a woman’s text, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)—the world of science fiction prior to the late 1960s was an overwhelmingly masculine one. Those exercising authority in this world, whether among magazine and book editors or among the relatively few academic critics who wrote about sf, were not necessarily more eager than the denizens of any other boys’ club to welcome the admission of the "opposite" sex. The actual reception of women’s science fiction varied considerably. True enough, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed each won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novel of the year, making Le Guin the first author ever twice to receive both prizes simultaneously. On the other hand, the manuscript of The Female Man languished in Russ’s closet for years simply because nobody was willing to publish it. One of the funniest passages in the novel as finally published is composed of what appear to be excerpts from hostile, obtuse reviews of the book itself; one suspects that some, at least, of these phrases are lifted from reports by the publishers’ readers who had been intent on keeping the most militantly feminist voice in science fiction out of print. All too often (though not always), the attitude of sf critics and editors was uncomfortably close to the famous legend painted on the side of Tubby’s clubhouse: NO GIRLS ALLOWED.

If, however, the male gatekeepers of the sf community have much to answer for, so does the mainstream of the feminist movement. By 1981, feminism was a considerable presence in the US literary academy, with an extensive system of journals, conferences, and women’s studies programs, plus the rudiments of what later became a flourishing old girls’ network. Yet almost none of the champions of women’s writing had bothered to notice that much (arguably most) of the best writing actually being done by women in their own time and place happened to be science fiction. To some degree, no doubt, this blindness stemmed from American feminism’s massive bias in favor of literary naturalism. In striking contrast to their French and British colleagues, American feminists tended (perhaps partly because of the important role that "consciousness-raising" sessions had played in the formation of second-wave US feminism) to be uncomfortable with fiction that presented itself as anything other than straightforward reflectionist "truth telling"—hence, in part, the popularity of The Awakening. Then too, what they had heard of the masculinist norms of sf and the sf community only reinforced the feminists’ presumptive disinclination to take science fiction seriously. American feminists in 1981 may not have read much Heinlein or Asimov, but most had probably seen a few episodes of the original Star Trek (1966-1969); and they were less impressed by the presence of a black woman on the bridge of the Enterprise than by the fact that Lt. Uhura was the only woman regularly featured, that she was physically stunning and wore revealing clothes, and that, despite her nominal rank, she effectively functioned as a telephone operator.

Accordingly, when Barr, after chairing a conference panel on women and science fiction in 1978, resolved to put together a whole book on the subject, there was no natural constituency to which she could turn. It is instructive to look today at the contents of the first Future Females. Of the sixteen contributors, ten were men who may have been politically sympathetic to women’s liberation but who were certainly not identified professionally with the study of women’s literature; indeed, most were not professionally identified with the study of science fiction, either. Furthermore, of the six women in the volume, two—Russ and Suzy McKee Charnas—were primarily sf novelists writing what T.S. Eliot called "workshop" criticism—i.e., criticism as a by-product of their novelistic labors. In her preface to the anthology, Barr maintains, with calm and nicely poised self-confidence, that "we need collections of critical essays which illuminate [women’s sf]. The time for Future Females has come" (1). The statement proved prophetic, but, at the time it was written, it was far from self-evident to most of those who might have been expected to care about such things.

Nor can it be claimed that the first Future Females immediately opened the floodgates to the serious professional criticism of women’s science fiction. Though important essays in the field did begin to appear with greater frequency throughout the 1980s, no major book-length study by a single hand was available until Greenwood Press published Barr’s own Alien to Femininity: Speculative Fiction and Feminist Theory in 1987. The volume not only offered insightful readings of a good many individual texts but also formulated the central insight of feminist sf criticism in general: "Speculative fiction in the best cases makes the patriarchal structures which constrain women obvious and perceptible.... Speculative fiction is thus a powerful educational tool which uses exaggeration to make women’s lack of power visible and discussable. It can motivate women to avoid handicapping themselves by conforming to the demands of femininity" (xx). At issue here is a crucial point that has never been sufficiently understood or accepted. Since gender and the oppression of women are integral to practically all significant aspects of all known societies, there is no topic, from forestry to Egyptology to medieval music, to which feminism cannot be legitimately, and often productively, "applied." But the affinity between feminism and science fiction is especially—perhaps uniquely—close and compelling. For science fiction is able not only to display actually existing gender relations with the appropriate shock of defamiliarization, but also to offer speculative representations of alternative modes of sexual and social organization: and not by fantastic inversions or cancellations of actuality, but by properly utopian imaginings that are cognitive and critical in character. "Let’s be reasonable," as Russ suggests in one of her novels. "Let’s demand the impossible."2

After Alien to Femininity, and surely in part because of it, the floodgates did open. Or perhaps one should shift the metaphor from irrigation engineering to nuclear physics and say that a critical mass (the pun is convenient) formed around the idea that feminism and science fiction need each other. In any case, the years following 1987 witnessed the decisive professionalization of feminist sf criticism in a whole series of books and articles, including such noteworthy full-length studies as Sarah Lefanu’s In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (Women’s Press, 1988), Robin Roberts’s A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction (U of Illinois P, 1993), Jenny Wolmark’s Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism, and Postmodernism (Harvester, 1994), and Jane L. Donawerth’s Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction (Syracuse UP, 1997). Important further work by Barr herself appeared (Feminist Fabulation: Space/ Postmodern Fiction [Iowa UP, 1992]) and Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond [U of North Carolina P, 1993]) and interesting new essay collections by Le Guin (Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places [Grove, 1989]) and Russ (To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction [Indiana UP, 1995]), consistently the two pre-eminent women among sf novelists. Is it going too far to describe the changed position of feminism within sf criticism over the past thirteen years as the triumph of feminism? Doubtless the term will seem an exaggeration to some, especially to those who have actually struggled to get feminist articles and books on sf into print, for it would be preposterous to claim that sexist resistance has dissolved altogether. Even so, I think the phrase is justified at least in this very important sense: between 1987 and today, feminism has made itself into a recognized and essential part of the ongoing critical conversation about science fiction. Not all male sf figures are delighted by this development, and some attempt to reduce feminism’s share of the conversation. There is certainly abundant anecdotal evidence that feminist work is often judged by harsher standards than those applied to sf criticism written from most other viewpoints ("We must be twice as good to get half as much," Heinrich Heine said of the Jews, and the point has held for every other marginalized group as well). Nonetheless, there is no serious question of total exclusion. At an sf conference, one expects to hear some feminist papers. In an sf journal, one expects to read some feminist essays. For a field so marginal, so recently, as feminist sf criticism, that is no mean achievement.

Indeed, the traditional prejudice of the American sf community against feminist writing has proved measurably less durable than the traditional prejudice of the American feminist community against arealistic fiction. Yet here too there has been real progress. Though the pro-naturalist bias of American feminism is still with us, it has been significantly eroded. The Awakening may continue to receive a good deal more than justice (admittedly, after decades of receiving a good deal less), but The Female Man at least begins to be regarded by mainstream feminists with less glaring neglect and underestimation than before. Ironically, the feminist brilliance of such European postmodernist novelists as Monique Wittig and Angela Carter—much of whose work is essentially science-fictional but is not always recognized as such immediately—has, I think, been in large part responsible for inducing many American feminists finally to take a more serious look at Russ and others of their own compatriots. At all events, feminism is now on better terms with science fiction as well as vice versa.

What, then, is the general condition of feminist sf criticism today? The field is too various for any single book to provide a definitive answer. But the new Future Females comes as close to doing so as one could reasonably expect. Merely to read through the biographical notes on the contributors is to appreciate a good deal of the immense distance traveled since the appearance of Barr’s first anthology. Of the new volume’s nineteen contributors, all are women (except for the venerable James Gunn, who contributes a short foreword co-authored with his former doctoral student Karen Hellekson), and nearly all possess significant professional credentials in women’s and gender studies, in sf criticism, or (most commonly) in both. But a shared gender and shared professional fields by no means preclude an impressive degree of diversity. Geographically, Barr has cast her net unusually wide and recruited scholars from nine countries on four continents (and it is no accident that among the issues addressed in the volume are such seldom discussed matters as speculative fiction authored by Mexican women and Chicanas, and the particular significance of Le Guin’s short fiction in post-apartheid South Africa). Equally noteworthy is the diversity of career stages represented: some of the contributors are well-established authorities in the field (e.g., Barr herself, Roberts, Donawerth, Veronica Hollinger, Joan Gordon), while others are relative newcomers just beginning to publish, and still others are at intermediate stages.

When we turn from the situations of the contributors to the content of the essays themselves, the new Future Females—and the field it represents— appears even more varied. Unsurprisingly, sf novels and stories by women are the texts most frequently discussed, and we encounter both the obvious central names—Le Guin, Russ, Sheldon, Butler, Piercy—and also such less familiar authors as Katharine Burdekin, C.L. Moore, Eleanor Arnason, Pat Cadigan, and Judy Grahn. A few male authors appear prominently too, particularly the cyberpunk novelists William Gibson and Jeff Noon. Substantial attention is also paid to sf in the electronic media, including various installments of the STAR TREK saga as well as lesser-known texts such as Mamoru Oshii’s animated film Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Rachel Talalay’s marvelous action-adventure comedy, Tank Girl (1995). But the texts discussed in the new Future Females are not, of course, analyzed merely for their "own" (positivistic) sake. The emphasis of the book is overwhelmingly theoretical, and the conceptual issues engaged include—to give a very partial list—the feminist practice of science; the science-fictional representation of individualistic "postfeminism"; the intersections of sf criticism with queer theory; the emergence of a contemporary "post-phallic" culture with affinities to feminist utopian fiction; the support offered by the sf cyborg to white male dominance and to received images of gender; the different modes of relation to Otherness; the varying gender inflections of cybernetic technology and cyberpunk fiction; the interplay of gender and genre in sf; and the mutations of utopian imaginings. A good many critical methods are deployed, though most of the criticism in the volume—like most feminist criticism in general and, indeed, like most criticism at all that is worth reading—can be situated in one way or another within the classic tradition of ideology-critique. There are also, however, a number of more "affirmative" moments (especially, as we shall see, in Barr’s own essay), for some of the contributors are intent on apprehending, in Fredric Jameson’s well-known formulation, utopia as well as reification in the objects of their study.

As to the quality of the various essays, the anthology is, like all other anthologies, uneven. But none of the contributions is less than competent and interesting, while the very best are strong candidates to become classics of the field. To respond to all the contributions in appropriate detail would prolong the current article beyond all feasible limits, and merely dutiful, perfunctory descriptions of the essays would, I think, have little practical value for the reader. I will, then, give a more concrete sense of what can be found in the pages of Future Females, The Next Generation by picking just a few of what I take to be the most interesting essays and examining them in some depth.

Perhaps the most closely and powerfully reasoned essay in the volume is Anne Cranny-Francis’s "The Erotics of the (cy)Borg: Authority and Gender in the Sociocultural Imaginary." It is best understood, I think, as a powerful corrective to the somewhat simplistic, but vastly influential, theoretical model of the cyborg offered in Donna Haraway’s "Cyborg Manifesto" (1985). For Haraway, as most readers of these pages will know, the cyborg is a deconstructive figure that transgresses and undermines the normative binary oppositions of Western metaphysics—beginning, of course, with the opposition between human and machine—and that thereby exercises a liberatory function as regards gender and other social categories as well. Her essay is wonderfully inventive and lively, and Haraway deserves credit for bringing to critical consciousness an image—the cyborg—that has been so important for Western mass culture in the years since the "Manifesto" was first published in Socialist Review. But the piece is longer on assertion than on demonstration, and displays at least two major logical gaps. In the first place, though Haraway performs an elegant reading of how the cyborg might function deconstructively, she offers little evidence that this is in fact how it does function; her reading, in other words, is essentially a formalist one. Then too, she assumes but never shows that, granting such a deconstructive function, the cyborg must have significant political effects that are feminist and generally progressive in character—though this, of course, is a failure of rigor not peculiar to Haraway but common to much of the whole tradition of feminist deconstruction.

Cranny-Francis directly addresses the first shortcoming and in so doing seriously questions Haraway’s political claims. Though the tone of her polemical engagement is muted, her intellectual challenge to Haraway is fundamental. Her analysis focuses on the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1988-1994), surely the most widely familiar cultural image of the cyborg (at least since the latter’s somewhat premature avatar as the Six Million Dollar Man). The core of her argument depends upon a brilliant close reading of "The Best of Both Worlds," the hugely popular two-part episode in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard is temporarily incorporated into the Borg, a totalistic cyborg collectivity capable of assimilating individuals and even whole species into itself. The episode marked a watershed in the popular success of the series, as Cranny-Francis notes, and she shows that its popularity is not unrelated to its strong glorification of Picard as an image of white male authority. Of course, Picard had always stood for such authority, in its best liberal-humanist version (and one might note that the actor Patrick Stewart’s baldness helped to emphasize both the maleness and the whiteness of Picard). But, before his encounter with the Borg, Picard had been rather too Olympian and aloof—"too perfect, too balanced, too rational" (153), as Cranny-Francis says, and, indeed, too disembodied—to champion liberal humanism with full affective force. When Picard is assimilated and becomes Locutus of Borg, his body, his vulnerability, and his capacity for emotion become fully visible for the first time; indeed, Picard’s body becomes intensely eroticized and invested in a way that Cranny-Francis daringly but skillfully compares to the medieval eroticization of the body of Christ crucified (and Christ, after all, is himself a kind of "cyborg," or the ancient equivalent, in being at once human and divine). To be sure, the contamination of Picard by Locutus represents the white male body of sociocultural authority in crisis. But the crisis does not result in what Haraway’s conception of the cyborg would lead us to expect, namely the dismantling or at least demystification of patriarchy and white privilege. On the contrary, the effect is just the opposite, as Picard’s patriarchal legitimacy is ultimately enhanced by new emotional depth and resonance: "Reinstated as authority, Picard is now a figure of romance, a figure invested with an erotics that invites participation and observation" (153). The process of cyborgization temporarily blurs certain boundaries in order finally to reinforce the oldest power structure in the world.

Cranny-Francis goes on to find the cyborg operating in similarly conservative ways in later installments of the Star Trek saga that feature female cyborgs. Though the latter are not necessarily without some demystificatory potential, in the end they function to support the most banal sexist stereotypes. There is the Borg Queen in the film Star Trek: First Contact (1996), at some points "wickedly funny" (157) but essentially a reinscription of woman as the dangerous and absolutely evil temptress. There is Seven of Nine, the Borg stranded among humans in Star Trek: Voyager (1995-present), who is a more complex and interesting character than the Borg Queen but who ultimately resolves into the type of female infantilization and dependency. (Cranny-Francis also adumbrates a more general critique of Star Trek: Voyager, suggesting that the apparently pro-feminist impulses of the series are consistently betrayed and neutralized to the greater glory of male dominance; here her argument might be pondered alongside that of Robin Roberts’s essay in the same volume, "The Woman Scientist in Star Trek: Voyager," which argues for the genuinely feminist character of the fourth and—so far—latest STAR TREK series.) Of course, the fact that the cyborg plays a deeply conservative role in STAR TREK does not in itself prove that it can never function in the more emancipatory fashion so vividly imagined by Donna Haraway. The debate will and should remain ongoing. But, especially given the prominence of the Borg among our culture’s images of cyborgization, Cranny-Francis does establish that, so far, the available evidence supports her own pessimistic construction of the cyborg far more than Haraway’s optimistic one—a conclusion also sustained, in somewhat different ways, by another of the most interesting essays in the collection (and certainly the most scholarly one), Despina Kakoudaki’s "Pinup and Cyborg: Exaggerated Gender and Artificial Intelligence," which shows how cyborgs reinforce the hegemonic paradigms of masculinity and femininity.

To subvert such paradigms is the central project of Veronica Hollinger’s "(Re)reading Queerly: Science Fiction, Feminism, and the Defamiliarization of Gender," one of the theoretically richest pieces in the anthology. (It was the lead essay in the March 1999 SFS special issue on "Queer Theory.") Working in a recent conceptual tradition most famously exemplified by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler—but with her own distinctive voice—Hollinger argues that feminism and the study of gender can be compromised by a conformist essentialism unless informed by a properly "queer" perspective. The point is that, when gender is regarded, positivistically, as an unproblematic and stable entity (and such conceptions usually, though not invariably, assume a taken-for-granted regime of "normal" heterosexuality), then the most radical challenges of which feminism is capable are elided. The conservative empiricism that is the normal epistemology of the status quo can assimilate the mere "experience" of femininity (or masculinity, or heterosexuality, or even homosexuality) as easily and smoothly as any other experience whose historical determinants are not put into question. Queer theory insists (and here the influence of Foucault is of course decisive) that gender and sexuality are socially constructed phenomena whose inner structure is more analogous to performance than to essence; a genuinely radical (or queered) feminism will make clear that there is little about the dominant sex-and-gender system that could not be quite other than it is.

Hollinger points out that science fiction, as the literature of cognitive estrangement, offers unique opportunities for such defamiliarizations of gender, though she immediately adds that these opportunities have all too seldom been taken. But sometimes they have been, as Hollinger demonstrates in several close readings—most extensively in a consideration of C.L. Moore’s extraordinarily prescient 1944 story, "No Woman Born." This is the tale of Deirdre, an actress and singer famed for her beauty and charm, whose body is horribly burned by a theatre fire that leaves her brain completely intact. A metal body is designed for her, and she seems able to continue her career—but can she, really? "Most of Moore’s lengthy story," as Hollinger notes, "unfolds around the question of whether or not Deirdre is still a woman, indeed whether or not she is still human" (203). What complicates this question is an apparent paradox. On the one hand, Deirdre no longer looks human in the sense of being able to "pass" for human like Philip K. Dick’s androids or the later robots of Isaac Asimov; she looks like a synthetic metal construction and hence "monstrous." On the other hand, she is nonetheless able to project immense charm and allure; observers, particularly male ones, sometimes feel that she has never seemed more "human" or, indeed, more "feminine." Though the coining of the term "cyborg" was far in the future when Moore composed "No Woman Born," Deirdre may well be the most complex cyborg in the whole of science fiction.

Hollinger’s reading of Deirdre is best considered in conjunction with Kakoudaki’s even more extensive treatment of the same story. While Kakoudaki finally sees Deirdre as a partial exception to the general tendency of cyborgs to reinforce traditional gender stereotypes, Hollinger’s approach is yet more affirmative, stressing the ways that Deirdre highlights the irreducibly performative character of gender and so realizes some of the emancipatory potential of the cyborg as posited by Haraway. The fact that Deirdre’s brilliant performing skills are capable of conveying great feminine sexual charm even in the absence of a female body foregrounds the way that femininity is always a matter of performance, of carefully constructed artfulness, for all women— including, of course, the professional performer that Deirdre already had been even before the fire, when still possessed of a "natural" body. "The cyborg that Deirdre has become," says Hollinger, "rearticulates the concept of gender, turning it into something—similar to the performance of drag queens ... —that is both excessive and disturbing" (205). Of course, what seems excessive and disturbing is just the mundane defamiliarized. One might say that what Deirdre and Moore and Hollinger help us to grasp is that "real" women have always been the most skillful and important of female "impersonators"—just as Picasso famously boasted that he could paint "fake Picassos" as well as any forger could.

A similar point is made in Alice Sheldon’s perhaps even more remarkable story, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In." The protagonist here is P. Burke, a woman so physically repellent by normative social standards that her life is a continuous misery. She finds some temporary relief upon securing a job that requires her to operate, by electronic remote control, the synthetic body of Delphi, a "woman" of spectacular physical appeal. For a while P. Burke enjoys the unwonted phenomenon of being regarded and treated like a beautiful woman; but of course the experience ends badly. She falls in love (apparently reciprocated) with a good-looking young man who, however, knows her only as Delphi and is horrified upon discovering what his beloved "really" looks like. The cruelly sharp distinction (which is, among other things, a considerable geographical separation) between P. Burke and Delphi foregrounds how constructed and artificial the performance of gender identity really is. Although P. Burke is an actual human being and Delphi only a synthetic shell, P. Burke becomes "feminine" only through her manipulation of Delphi: Delphi is quite literally neither more nor less nor other than P. Burke’s performance. Furthermore, Sheldon’s story guards against the facile hedonistic optimism encouraged in some notions of performativity by emphatically demonstrating, as Hollinger stresses, how the social imperatives of gender performance are felt by many women—like P. Burke—only as imprisonment and pain. Today, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" is most often discussed as a forerunner of cyberpunk; and certainly no particular work better substantiates Delany’s observation that feminist sf is the great unacknowledged mother of the tradition that stems from Neuromancer (1984). But Hollinger’s argument helps to make clear that Sheldon’s story deserves even higher praise: not only does it anticipate much of what is valuable in cyberpunk, but it also provides a powerful critique of the conservative assumptions about gender in which Gibson and his followers all too often remain mired. Hollinger herself deserves considerable praise for being the first, I think, to show clearly how the most radical science-fictional questioning of received gender roles in the work of authors like Sheldon and Moore bears a deep affinity to the most useful insights of queer theory.

Finally, I turn to Barr’s own contribution to the anthology, "Post-Phallic Culture: Reality Now Resembles Utopian Feminist Science Fiction." This is in some respects the most challenging and difficult of all the essays, even though it is written in Barr’s usual vigorous, accessible style. The central argument is stated plainly enough in the title: our current American culture has achieved a "post-phallic" character, and we are now actually living in the kind of feminist utopia hitherto encountered only in the pages of science fiction. Feminism, in fine, has triumphed indeed. But, of course, Barr—as practically the entirety of her previous published work makes clear—is perfectly aware that such an assertion is hardly viable as a literal statement of sociocultural fact. What, exactly, is she up to here?

One useful clue is provided by the fact that Barr is a writer of fiction as well as criticism. "Post-Phallic Culture" is, I think, best read as a kind of hybrid form: it is not so much a critical essay in the usual fashion as a theoretical fiction devoted to the apprehension of utopia in something very like Ernst Bloch’s sense. Like Bloch, Barr reads particular texts—as well as the overall social text—of actuality in order to find imprints of the unalienated utopia that may lie beyond actuality and that, in order to be attained, must first of all be imagined: though of course the full imagining of utopia can only be realized in dialectical relation to its practical attainment. It should be stressed that what is at stake here are not "trends" in the progressivist sense, as though the goal of utopian thought were empiricist prediction. All imagined anticipations of utopia, whether locally destined for "victory" or "defeat," are valuable in embodying the production of hope—indeed, in embodying what Bloch called the hope principle, which drives the human spirit no less consequentially than does the pleasure principle of Freud. In the utopian hermeneutic, then, in the practice of reading beyond alienation, hyperbole may often—as manifestly for Barr—be a useful creative tool. What she has done here, in effect, is to appropriate the familiar Lacanian distinction between phallus and penis—as so many other feminist intellectuals have done—but then to deploy this distinction in a novel way. Instead of offering to analyze the structural realities of phallic power as more durable and actual than the limp contingencies of a bodily organ (the normal strategy of Lacanian feminism), Barr constructs a utopian image of the penis that can come fully into view only as the political regime of phallocracy is overthrown. "Men’s desire to have their penises function as a means to achieve sexual pleasure," she says, "is now more important than the penis as metaphor for weapons.... Flesh-made love has replaced steel-made war" (67-68). In this way, Barr helps to make good on feminism’s classic utopian claim that women’s liberation must ultimately mean men’s liberation as well.

In constructing the utopian post-phallic culture—whose motto, if expressed in the style of the Cuban Revolution, might well be penis sí, phallus no!—Barr ranges widely over the sociocultural text of today’s America. Indeed, I do not think there is a work of hers already in print that better exemplifies her special talent for drawing theoretical conclusions from very disparate texts and very disparate kinds of texts (though this ability is displayed even more amply in her forthcoming full-length study Genre Fission: A New Discourse Practice, scheduled to appear very shortly from the University of Iowa Press). Among the objects of her analysis are sculptures by David Smith and Robert Arneson; recent novels by David Bowman, Peter Hoeg, and Will Self; the dominant representations of such mass-cultural heroines as Princess Diana and Lorena Bobbitt; various television situation comedies; fashion design by Jean Patou and Walter Van Beirendonck; the film Men in Black (1997); Candas Jane Dorsey’s sf story "(Learning about) Machine Sex" (1988); and much else. But her most audacious utopian reading is surely that of "all the president’s penises" (73), that is to say, her treatment of the Leader of the Free World, here celebrated as "the president who makes love not war" and as one who "is almost synonymous with his nonphallic penis" (73).

What Barr produces strikes me as the only politically decent defense of Bill Clinton yet attempted, and certainly one that would be about equally disturbing to both sets of cynical prudes on the House Judiciary Committee. It is only a slight exaggeration of Barr’s already hyperbolic discourse to describe her position as one that holds Clinton to be exemplary not in spite of the affair with Monica Lewinsky but in no small part because of it. Barr takes Gloria Steinem’s common-sense point—that Clinton acts on sexual opportunities with consenting adults (as with Lewinsky) while also knowing how to take no for an answer (as with Kathleen Willey)—but then goes further to celebrate the presidential penis as one completely absorbed in the pacific mutuality of sexual congress rather than (as one might put it) in the phallic bellicosity desired by that other Congress at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Crucial here is the nonmartial emphasis that Barr finds in Clinton, and one sees her point: Clinton, the first president since the Second World War never to wear a uniform, and the first president formed, in part, by the oppositional culture of the 1960s, can at least be made to seem unmilitary as no other chief executive of modern times can. Of course, there is much in Clinton’s actual record that hardly squares with the make-love-not-war image that Barr constructs: e.g., the bombing of Sudan, a plain act of state terrorism that even the Pentagon has admitted had no justification but that did temporarily distract most journalists from the various jams caused by Clinton’s lies about the Lewinsky affair. But Barr offers not political journalism but a theoretical fiction, as I have noted. If the symbolic Clinton of her utopian imagining is vastly preferable to the real Clinton, that is after all exactly the point. The nonphallic penis of Barr’s construction hermeneutically condenses and exaggerates the very best elements of current political actuality, and so provides a fractional anticipation of the same kind of unalienated futurity that can be found in much feminist science fiction. Barr’s resolutely nonseparatist vision of future females encompasses future males too.

In A Room of One’s Own (1929), that foundational essay in feminist literary criticism, Virginia Woolf—the author of the sf novel Orlando (1928), it should be remembered—at one point adopts a science-fictional device and declares, of a typical number of a London evening newspaper, that the "most transient visitor to this planet ... who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware ... that England is under the rule of a patriarchy."3 More than seven decades later, the same is still true, of England and also of any other country that one cares to name (with the arguable exceptions, perhaps, of some of the Scandinavian ones). Extending Woolf’s trope, however, we might hope that this same extraterrestrial visitor would find time to peruse not only the daily newspaper but also the new Future Females; if so, she—or he? or it?—would learn that patriarchy, while not yet overthrown, is under creative attack in more ways than even the far-seeing Woolf herself could possibly have imagined.


1. Since I wrote the above sentence, Chip Delany (to whom many thanks) has called my attention to Symposium: Women in Science Fiction, ed. Jeffrey D. Smith (Fantasmicon Press, 1975).

2. Joanna Russ, On Strike Against God (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1980), 107.

3. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1989), 33.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)   Back to Home