I’m not sure if this still holds true today, but if you came of age in the 1970s, were a strong early reader who had read through all the books specifically written for children, and you were lucky enough to have a sympathetic librarian, you’d be directed to the science fiction and fantasy shelves.
At least that’s my story. The Heinlein juveniles had been published a decade before I was born, but they were the first genre books I read. From there, I found all the Lensman books — written even earlier! I may have only been 10 or 11 when I read these, but even then I was frustrated by the insistence that only one special, fierce woman — to be born in some far future — could be a Lensman. Lenses were objects of power that amplified the qualities within a person. The message I got was that girls, as a rule, didn’t deserve power and couldn’t wield power. That I didn’t deserve power; that I was wasn’t good enough. It angered me that girls weren’t the ones leaping up to explore the stars. Asimov’s Robot books fascinated me, but the only woman portrayed in them — Susan Calvin — was more robotic than the robots.
Of course, this essentially mirrored what I saw in real life: All astronauts were men. (All people in power were men. White men, though I have to admit that understanding the role race played in representation wasn’t on my radar as a 10-year-old.) When I told people I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut, they laughed at me. This was not just adults, but even my peers. Even other girls. Everyone knew girls didn’t grow up to be astronauts. It just wasn’t possible, despite the fact that Uhura had a prominent job on the bridge of the Enterprise.
I was just a bit too old to have watched the original Star Trek series when it was first released, but I certainly saw every episode multiple times in syndication and while the series centered around Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty, I latched on to Uhura and Nurse Chapel and dreamed of being aboard a starship someday.
I remember wanting to go to a Star Trek convention in the ’70s, but even if my mother had let me, I wasn’t comfortable dressing up in the short skirt that was the women’s uniform and it was pretty clear to me that convention space was a male space.
What all this meant was that for a large chunk of my childhood and emerging adulthood, I felt like an outsider in my peer group and an outsider in my interest group.
I never did get to be an astronaut. In High School, I was actively dissuaded from taking advanced math and convinced by my guidance counselor that my interest in studying computer science in college was folly. (And I started college in 1980. That still feels fairly contemporary to me!) Fast forward to now. After a successful 25-year career as a physical therapist, I now write science fiction novels. I’m part of a large community of individuals of all genders who write their visions of the future in all of its glorious diversity.
It’s not perfect. It’s far from perfect. Cons can still be a fraught space for women and minorities, along with folks who live at the intersections. Publishing is not a bias-free field by any stretch of the imagination: there is still a woeful lack of real diversity and decolonization in both the business side and in the fiction that reaches the marketplace.
I can’t believe it’s taken until 2017 to see a movie focused on the power and heart of a female superhero, seen through the lens of a female director. How long will it be until we see another? What will it take for a movie that has a non-white, non-male focus to be simply another story we either enjoy or don’t enjoy without it having to carry the weight of so much expectation, where failure means there might never be another? When will publishing stop justifying the white/male default by trotting out stale statistics showing that boys don’t read books with female protagonists?
What gives me hope? The proliferation of young adult and adult genre literature with non-white, non-male characters. The growing diversity of the cosplay community. Cons adopting anti-harassment policies. The increasing acceptance of and language for gender identity among young people. But most of all, that we have sent women and people of color into space and no child growing up with their eyes looking up at the stars will have to hold their dreams as a shameful secret anymore.