Analysis

Six Unsolved Cases of Missing Women in Spec Fic

We just can't figure out where they went, Captain. Uhura is the only one left, and she isn't talking.

Speculative fiction has always had difficulty including women. The number of spec fic stories that don’t have enough women in them is nearly equal to the number of spec fic stories in existence, but some stories are particularly egregious. The absence of women in these works is so extreme that it can be no accident of authorial sexism. Something must have happened to these women, a missing persons case that has never been solved. Fortunately, I’m here to crack the case. Detective Oren, at your service! I never rest until the perp’s been brought to justice or at least until I’ve done enough snarking as to be close enough.

Spoilers: Rogue One

1. The Hobbit

Bilbo and several dwarves from the Hobbit.

Ah yes, The Hobbit, a book which seems like Lord of the Rings‘s little sibling but is actually older. In this story of daring do, a troop of 13 male dwarves led by a male wizard approach a male hobbit about an adventure. On their quest, they meet male elves, male humans, male goblins, a male dragon, and more male dwarves.*

If there are any women present in The Hobbit, they are incredibly well hidden. None appear when Bilbo and friends visit the Elves of Mirkwood or the human settlement of Lake Town. It’s even stranger that none of the dwarves are female, as they are a group of exiles fighting to reclaim their homes, which is certainly something women would have an interest in.

Nor do we see any evidence that Middle-earth has the kind of extreme sexism that would keep women in their homes and out of sight at all times. Quite the opposite. While Lord of the Rings is not exactly overflowing with women, we see several ladies of great power among the elves, and Rohan is specifically established as having a tradition of training noble women to fight.

This case is a tough one to be sure, and to solve it, I turn to the work of fellow investigator Terry Pratchett. Through Pratchett’s Discworld Report, we learn that dwarves are a monogendered society,* though they have two sexes for the purposes of reproduction.

Since The Hobbit is explicitly written by Bilbo, we have our answer: he is attempting to respect dwarven tradition by not differentiating anyone according to gender. Of course, if he were writing in dwarfish, there would be a gender neutral pronoun, but it seems singular “they” hasn’t caught on in Hobbitese, so Bilbo went with default “he.” Not the most enlightened choice for certain, but I believe his heart was in the right place.

Now that the case is blown wide open, we can safely assume that approximately half of the Hobbit’s characters are female. Mystery solved!

2. The Aeronaut’s Windlass

Title art feautring a man with a cutlass from the Aeronaut's Windlass.

This story takes place in a world where humankind resides in tall spires of rock, and the only way to get around is via crystal-powered airships. At first glance, it seems to have plenty of women. Three of the ensemble cast are female, as are many members of the nobility and the prestigious Spire police force.

Things only get dicey when we take a closer look at the airships that are so prominent in this setting. Remember, airships are not simply the most important mode of transport – they are the only mode of transport. And yet, of the several ships featured prominently, not a single crew member is female. It’s wall-to-wall dudes as far as the eye can see.

One of the ships does have a female captain, but that only makes the absence of other women even more confusing. No one seems to think Captain Ransom’s gender is an issue or makes her unusual, thieving pirate though she may be. And as mentioned before, women have plenty of status in this setting, so it seems unbelievable that none would be drawn to the important industry of airship commerce or the air navy, which is so vital for defending a spire from attack.

If I were not such a dedicated investigator, I might conclude that the author automatically equated “sailor” with “male” and didn’t question his assumption. Fortunately, I am far too thorough to follow such reasoning, especially when the real answer is sitting there for anyone to see: the spires are tragically short on women.

I can’t tell you why, exactly, but it’s clearly the case. Perhaps there was a plague that only affected females, or perhaps the women have all left the spires in search of education and enrichment. Whatever happened, the women who remain clearly form some kind of high-status matriarchy, with the male king as their figurehead.This would explain all the women we see running noble families. With so few women, low-paying sailor jobs would be beneath them, but the prestigious and relatively safe police force is perfect. Captain Ransom is no doubt an exile from this elite clique, probably banished for her criminal ways, but she still has the status to command instant obedience.

There you have it, another case of disappearing women handily solved. One only needs to apply the proper investigative technique.    

3. Rogue One

The main cast of Rogue One.

This newest edition to the Star Wars franchise has been roundly praised* for bringing new diversity to a galaxy far far away, and rightly so. It features a racially diverse cast among both the main and secondary characters. Even the extras are a diverse group. It’s also the second Star Wars film to feature a female protagonist, along with several female leaders of the rebellion.

But something strange happens when we look at the background of the Rebel base. Nearly the entirety of the Rebellion’s rank and file are male. This is true of both the main Alliance and Saw Gerrera’s splinter group. For most of the movie, I didn’t see a single female face outside of the conference room.

This is highly suspicious. The Empire oppresses everyone, after all, so certainly there’d be women signing up to fight it. Of course, the original trilogy was also notorious for a lack of female faces, but this hardly qualifies as a defense of Rogue One. An extra wrinkle in the matter is that near the end of the film, at the Battle of Scarif, four or five female pilots are introduced in quick succession. Are all the Rebel females pilots? Seems even more unlikely.

In order to answer this mystery, we must turn to the Force. As is clearly documented, the Force is all about getting people where they need to be when they need to be there. The only conclusion we can reach is that the Force called away the Rebel women just before the movie started. That would explain why the Alliance leaders were in such a state of disarray. I’d be confused too if a good chunk of my army just got up and left.   

But where did the Force guide these women? Why, to the only job more important than destroying the Death Star: destroying the old Expanded Universe. You might remember how Disney declared the old EU non-canon after it bought Star Wars back in 2012. But as we all know, just because something isn’t canon doesn’t mean it will go away, and so the Force stepped in.

You see, Rogue One needed the old EU gone in order to work. The Rebels getting the Death Star plans had already been covered, and if those stories weren’t completely destroyed, the movie wouldn’t work. And so the Force called on the women of the Rebel Alliance to perform this most important of missions. A few of the women made it back in time for Scarif, which explains the sudden plethora of female pilots.

Clearly the Force is with me: I’ve already solved three of these cases. Soon we’ll be able to rest easy, knowing what really happened to stories that seem to be missing all their women.

4. Star Trek Into Darkness

Meeting scene from Into Darkness

From one giant scifi franchise directly into another, now we’re looking at Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of a bright future, or at least JJ Abrams’s version of it. Star Trek’s progress toward adding more women had been a rocky one, until Abrams took over and apparently decided not to bother anymore.

Star Trek 2009 was notably lacking in female presence, but it is the sequel Into Darkness that raises things to a suspicious level. This is ostensibly a world where such ills as bigotry and discrimination have been done away with, where no one is held back because they do not conform to the dominant group. And yet, when the commanding officers of the Starfleet vessels around Earth all gather in a room together, only 2–5 people out of a 16-person group are women. I say two to five because the camera only shows us two of their faces. I’m guessing three more of the gathered officers are women from the backs of their heads, but that’s hardly a certainty.

If we take Star Trek’s assertion of a prejudice-free world at face value, this number seems unlikely. It’s barely better than the modern-day American military,* which is certainly not prejudice-free. Perhaps it’s just random chance that most of the officers assigned to Earth’s defense ships are male, but if that were the case, we should be seeing the occasional gathering dominated by female officers, which is obviously not happening.

Combined with how few female officers and crew we see outside of the big meeting scene, it’s clear something is afoot. While the filmmakers saw fit to skip over this obvious mystery, I have discovered the answer after hours of painstaking research.*

The answer lies deep in the Animated Series. Most of Starfleet’s female personnel have fled to Tauren system. Seen in the episode The Lorelei Signal, this is a paradise ruled by women, where the technology is literally powered by draining the life from men until they turn into wrinkly old prunes. This might sound like a strange destination for Starfleet officers, but it makes more sense when you consider that these women have spent years with no uniform options outside the miniskirt, being consigned to traditionally feminine caretaker roles, or just ignored. They’re fed up with the whole thing. Now they can live in luxury, and any man who talks down to them or assigns them menial tasks for no reason* can be fed to the machines.

Those women we do see in Starfleet are clearly volunteers who have stayed behind just to make sure no one gets wise. So far, that doesn’t seem to be a problem.

At this point I’d normally make a “damn it Jim, I’m a blogger not an investigator” joke, but I seem to be an investigator of the highest order. Is there no case of missing women I can’t solve?

5. Assassin’s Apprentice

Raiding ships from Assassin's Apprentice.

This story takes place in a well-developed medieval setting with a deep culture and complex politics. It is a world of monarchs and nobles, of coastal villages and raiding longships. While many parallels can be drawn from European history, one notable change stands out: across the Six Duchies, inheritance is based only on age, giving no preference to sex. If a noble’s eldest child is a daughter, that daughter inherits title and property just as a son would. This is explicitly established in the story, and it does the author credit.

Our mystery begins with examining the rulers of the Six Duchies and of the neighboring Mountain Kingdom. All are male. Not only that, but the vast majority of past leaders anyone mentions are also male. This seems unlikely, almost as if the author established a world in which women could be rulers but then backed away from it at the last second. Of course, that can’t be the real reason. There must be something hidden in the text which explains it.

If this were only down to the randomness of birth, we would expect something like half of the rulers to be female. Since they aren’t, something must be happening to change the ratio. At first, I considered a covert campaign of assassinations targeted against eldest daughters, perhaps by this setting’s equivalent of MRAs. I had to discard that theory though, because one of the main characters is the King’s head assassin, and he would surely know of such a plot.

Perhaps this is one of those settings where women can technically be rulers, but sexism is so bad they would never be accepted.* If that were the case, it’s possible that female heirs would usually abdicate in favor of their younger brothers, if just to avoid constant questions about the contents of their carrier-pigeon messages. But no, that’s not it either. The story’s protagonist spends a lot of time in the homes of various noble lords, and never does he see any elder sisters wandering around with nothing to do.

With political factors ruled out, the answer must be scientific in nature. To deduce it, we must again borrow from history. Specifically, the history of how European rulers tended to be thoroughly inbred. We can assume the nobility of the Six Duchies is similarly afflicted, and so any genetic disorder would quickly spread among them. The answer is now obvious: all men of noble birth have a condition which makes it extremely unlikely for them to pass on an X chromosome to their offspring. This accounts for the extreme prevalence of sons over daughters, but it still allows for the occasional queen spoken of in stories. It’s also quite likely that any female rulers mentioned were married into the position, rather than being born to it.

It’s tragic, but there you have it, another mystery solved by science. Because that’s what this is – science, certainly not a paper-thin justification for the absence of women. I’d never do that.

6. Foundation

A futuristic city from the Foundation.

Romans. In. Spaaaaaace! That’s the premise of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, back when such a concept still required a lot of explanation. The Galactic Empire is collapsing, and when it falls, there will be 30,000 years of darkness unless strong actions are taken. Those actions come in the form of Hari Seldon and his Foundation, an organization created to preserve scientific and technical knowledge for future generations.

The Foundation is a big project, starting with nearly 100,000 people and growing into the millions as the years go by. It is a project that stretches for hundreds of years in the first book alone. And yet, we never see a single woman in the Foundation, named or otherwise. Even though the book has a third-person omniscient narrator, not one woman is ever described. Nor are any of the Foundation characters ever described as having close female relationships, not even sisters or lovers. Seldon makes a brief mention of “wives” when he first starts the Foundation, but if any of the characters are actually married, they keep it hidden.

And it’s not just the Foundation. In numerous visits to nearby worlds, not a single woman is ever mentioned. Not even a noble lady at one of the many fancy parties. It’s not until near the very end of the book that a woman is finally described, and she hails from a distant planet.

This is my toughest case yet. I’m not investigating the disappearance of a few commanding officers, or even a large number of soldiers, but of an entire population demographic. For it seems impossible that women could exist in the Foundation and yet always evade the narrator’s eye. At the same time, new children are born from somewhere. Most puzzling.

In order to solve this case, I had to completely change how I was looking at the mystery. It wasn’t a question of where all the women had gone; it was a question of whether there were any women in the first place. Since they are never described, I can only assume the answer is no. The most likely explanation is that the wives Seldon mentioned were slang for the artificial wombs needed to grow new children.

For more evidence, I looked at how Seldon kept mentioning that he’d set up a second Foundation on the other side of the galaxy. That must be where the women of Seldon’s plan have gone. This second Foundation handily answers another question: why does all the “advanced” technology of the Foundation seem so low tech? They still use paper and fission power. Call me a dreamer, but I’d imagine that by the time humanity has settled all of the Milky Way, we’d at least have figured out fusion.

No doubt the women of the Foundation are busy preserving the Empire’s more advanced secrets. They are charged with guarding anti-matter reactors, transporters, and smartphones. This is very important, because the Foundation’s men don’t really seem to know what they’re doing. They have trouble with enemies who use gasoline-powered spaceships;* they couldn’t be trusted to safeguard the galaxy’s scientific future.


Well, I certainly feel better after clearing up all those mysteries. People might complain that spec fic doesn’t have enough women in it, but I say to them that they aren’t looking hard enough. There’s always a logical explanation for missing women, and no doubt the answers I’ve detailed here are exactly what the original authors intended. Either that, or our fiction is badly in need of better representation, but who would believe that?  

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

Read more about ,

 

Comments

  1. Sandstorm

    I always thought that the makers of the Hobbit missed a golden opportunity to have some badass dwarf women characters, especially since they had already established that dwarf women have beards in Lord of the Rings. Imagine the dwarves having to explain to a bewildered Bilbo that half of his traveling companions are indeed women, he just hadn’t noticed. Instead we got a single throwaway joke when Legolas looks at the picture of Gloin’s wife, and for female representation we were left with Tauriel, who still could have been an interesting character but ended up being a very cliché one.

    Thanks for the great & funny article! There are too many stories that need this sort of investigation.

    • Sandstorm

      I amend: you were talking about just the book while I was specifically talking about the movie adaptations, which had an opportunity to improve the gender balance but just didn’t.

  2. Tyson Adams

    Are you trying to tell me that women aren’t just tied to the kitchen in these universes? I find that hard to believe.

    And sausage-fest universes are terrific. It shows such great world building.

  3. Yvonne

    Great investigations, I really enjoyed your explanations. Keep up the good work

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy.