The Reason Escapist Time Travel Doesn’t Star Women Is That We Haven’t Written It Yet

In Anna Smith’s recent article for The Guardian, she asks, “Why Can’t Women Time Travel?” and points out the paucity of female protagonists in time travel capers.  From Back to the Future to The Time Traveler’s Wife, the time travel sub-genre of science fiction has been one trail-blazed mainly by men.

Charlie Stross then wrote a response, the thesis of which is that because of the privilege necessary to be a “time tourist,” the time travel sub-genre is inherently sexist:

The time travel story is a tale of tourism in the classical sense: an activity of the privileged, making spectacle of the past (and, occasionally, the Wellsian future). And women make poor time travelers because in the foreign countries of the past they lack the agency conferred by privilege.

(bold in the original)

Stross’s piece goes on to make the following points:

  1. People seek out “time tourism” media for escapism, and women make poor protagonists for these tales because there would be too much sexism in the past for them (and therefore the reader who is identifying with them) to have a good time;
  2. When one writes a time travel book (or film), one MUST address the sexism in past times, which necessarily makes for “grim reading” if one insists on having a female protagonist;
  3. A male time traveler can happily explore all of time as an epic adventure, whereas a female time traveler is doomed unless she’s packing futuristic weaponry (or is somehow otherwise conferred extra power).  And that destroys the reader’s ability to relate to her.

I wholeheartedly reject every one of these notions.

For the record, I think Stross was trying to make a very good point about our romanticization of the past and the privilege inherent in it.  His piece isn’t meant to be sexist—it’s meant to critique the sexism he sees in a particular genre.  My understanding of what he wrote is that he believes that the strictures of the “time tourism” sub-genre mean it must be led by men, and that the entire existence of the sub-genre is a problematic thing.

As someone who rather adores “time tourism” stories, as he calls them, and would like to see more women star in them, I quite disagree.

Sure, I certainly see Stross’s point that romanticization of the past is in inherent in escapist time travel.  And I would be willing to entertain the consideration that this is both endemic and problematic to the sub-genre—is escapist entertainment a social ill when it puts a shiny veneer across humanity’s history?  Personally, I would argue that it is no more inherently problematic than being entertained by the violence in a cheesy action movie—in both cases, a broader social consciousness of the differences with the real world is important, but I would not condemn such entertainment as (necessarily) socially irresponsible.  I do, however, acknowledge that these questions make for interesting academic discussion.

But if we accept the possible entertainment value of historical romanticization, it makes utterly no sense to me why this means the genre must be sexist!  That would be like saying cheesy action movies are violence for entertainment and therefore must have poor female representation—the existence of violence in action films is an entirely separate criticism from the propensity of the genre to have male leads, and should not be conflated in criticism.  After all, there are plenty of women who enjoy escapist action, and plenty of people of all genders who will pay good money to see cheesy action movies starring women bustin’ things up.  The answer to the male domination among action heroes is to make more buddy action comedies starring women, not to condemn the entire genre as a sexist lost cause.

Similarly, the criticism that “time tourism” presents a romanticized notion of history may be a valid one, but in no way means that the protagonists must all be men.  And I very much dislike the argument, because it dismisses the idea that women can perfectly well star in escapist time travel, just as women can perfectly well star in terrible action flicks.  In fact, just as feminism will make a great stride when women are allowed to be any type of character, I think sexism will take a great hit when women are allowed to be leads in any genre, no matter how cheesy, terribly-written, or historically inaccurate.

And it’s not hard to do this.  To further the comparison, I would say the larger-than-life qualities of action films makes it easier to make the leads any gender, and similarly, I think the very romanticization Stross objects to would allow time travel stories to be happily gender-equal.  The stumbling block isn’t that the sub-genre has condemned itself to sexism: it’s instead the same pervasive institutional sexism that defaults all our SFF protagonists toward the male end of the spectrum, and it has a very easy solution, namely, we need to write more female leads into escapist time travel stories.

And there’s no reason in the world why we can’t.  Consider the following:

  1.  The historical realism in escapist time travel stories is usually utterly laughable.  This goes along with the aforementioned romanticization of the past inherent in these stories, and it makes it far easier to write a female protagonist, because one can happily tweak reality as much as one wishes to!  After all, perhaps the quintessential example of time tourism is Doctor Who, a show that doesn’t even pretend to historical accuracy in the slightest—the trappings of past eras are just that, trappings, references that delight us by being touchstones to history we’ve heard of while not getting in the way of timey-wimey technobabble and aliens.  And Who fans like it that way. In media like this, that plays fast and loose with pesky things like facts, who cares about historically accurate sexism?  If it gets in the way, ignore it!  If the Doctor were to regenerate as a lady, she would sally forth through every era with the same unalterable confidence and brilliance she does as a man, and if the show decided it didn’t want to engage with any sexism she might face in favor of total escapist entertainment, it wouldn’t. And nobody would care.[1] But hey, even if we decide to stay closer to reality and true historical accuracy, that’s still no excuse for a lack of female-led stories, because . . .
  2. Our perceptions of women’s roles in the past is colored by sexism in the present day; the idea that women had so little agency as to render an adventurous female time traveler an impossible beast is one I am highly skeptical of.  We so often think history is far more sexist than it was; I see so often the assumption that women of the past were marble statues who sat stock still on their husbands’ ottomans and plopped babies onto the floor, and that this was the state of affairs until approximately the year 1975.  As Kameron Hurley says in “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle, and Slaves Narrative,” our unquestioned perception of historical women is often as hilariously wrong as a worldwide perception of llamas as scaly sea creatures. This is not to say that other eras (or this one) were not sexist, but even in sexist cultures a creator can grant a clever female protagonist the agency to make her way through the past.  Which brings me to:
  3. Male time travelers face challenges, and they figure out smart ways around them. Why can’t women?  A woman’s journey through time tourism might be different from a man’s, sure—but to say that it is impossible, to preclude the possibility of a female-led epic time adventure, is a failure of creativity.  Male time travelers often face challenges such as earning income and finding a place in the social structure.  We’ve never told men they can’t time travel just because some eras had almost no social mobility or had vicious aristocracies dictated by one’s birth.  Instead, we’ve accepted that a clever man from the future could find a way around all this (rather than ending up in the workhouse or in the gutter, as might be more realistic) and have a good time to boot!  Part of this is our willingness to suspend our disbelief, and part of this is our love of reading about extraordinary people.  If we’ll listen to stories of extraordinary men and go along for the ride, why on earth wouldn’t we do the same for extraordinary women?
  4. If the female protagonist is unusual in the time she is in, for doing the things she does as a woman, and for holding the attitudes she holds, who cares?  Most male time travelers are in the exact same boat: they are fish out of water, holding modern or futuristic attitudes in an alien time.  If you insist that a woman doing so would be more unusual, well, who cares?  History is filled with women (and men) who defied their time, and no, they didn’t have futuristic scifi weapons, and that lack didn’t mean that subjugation and abuse was their inevitable fate.
  5. Time travel starring a woman doesn’t have to address “grim” themes any more than time travel starring a man does.  It can, of course—but time travel starring men can also address grim themes and comment on social differences, and I fail to see why the gender of the protagonist must dictate the tenor of the piece.  In fact, I would argue that Stross seems to object to escapist time travel on its face, to think that we must address the grimness of the past in our work, and the only way to avoid it is to have a lead who is so blinded by his own privilege that he just fails to see the crapsack world surrounding him.  Perhaps I have a much more liberal view of the value of escapist entertainment, but I think a creator can choose an era or plot conflict or liberal interpretation of the times that spares her female lead the necessity of engaging with too much sexism, just as she could choose an era or plot conflict or liberal interpretation of the times that spares her male lead too many trials (as most creators do, in male-led escapist time travel), and this is not necessarily a socially irresponsible choice.[2]
  6. Time is huge, time is vast, and the eras in which a male protagonist would realistically face trouble for being wildly out of place and the eras in which a female protagonist would face such are just different orders of infinity. Human history is a vast panoply of civilizations and societies.  And there has been no linear progression of “less sexist, less racist, less homophobic”—many societies in the past have been more socially liberal than Western attitudes today.  Of course, many have been less.  But why are we assuming that we’re sending our characters to a time and place where women must be stomped all over by the menfolk?  Is it because those eras (or at least, their assumed popular culture versions) have traditionally been more popular for time travel stories?  But even if we accept that some of the more popular destinations might be an easier fit for a male protagonist, this in no way leads logically to the conclusion that women can’t lead a time travel caper EVER.  Not to mention that there are countless times and places where a male protagonist would be in equal amounts of hot water, if one were to stick to historical realism.  So why do we let our men play in the past, and no one else?

I can’t help but feel that Stross’s objections would be better framed as an issue with the willful ignorance inherent in any escapist fiction, past or present, that decides not to engage in the relevant grimness of its world.  Because hell, Western culture is pretty darn sexist and racist and homophobic today, too, so by his logic, we can’t have any fun escapist fiction in contemporary times that stars anyone other than a straight white man.  And while again, I think that the argument for or against escapist entertainment is perhaps an interesting and valuable one, I rebel against the idea that the answer is somehow to say that its protagonists must stay limited to those with the privilege to ignore the social issues it has decided not to engage with.  To me, that is infinitely more problematic than the willful ignorance of that escapist entertainment, because it denies marginalized demographics access to pure escapism and proclaims it the domain of those who, I venture to guess, may need it the least.

Returning to science fiction: To further disprove the inherent sexism of time travel, let’s look at a few of the pieces of media mentioned in the original Guardian article.

  • Back to the Future.  Doc Brown was such an eccentric outlier that he easily could have been written as female without feeling any more bizarre for his time (in eras past or in the modern day) than he already did.  As for Marty—I have no idea how accurately the movie wrote the 50’s, but considering Lorraine’s autonomy and agency in the same time period, I would consider a female Marty to be perfectly plausible.  Perhaps the movie would have hung a few lampshades—”But you’re a GIRL!”—but the genderflip is hardly an impossible stretch.  (In fact, the biggest change that I can see would be making Lorraine’s equivalent less aggressive than the female version, as a male version of Lorraine would probably disturb audiences.)  And considering how fast and loose the sequels played with 2015 and the Old West, a female Marty or Doc Brown would’ve worked just fine in those, too.
  • Terminator.  Surely it’s obvious that a franchise that spawned one of the greatest female leads of all time wouldn’t bat a narrative eye at a female hero time traveling.  In fact, in later incarnations, T3 and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the time-traveling robots were female in form.  The Terminator franchise as-written has plenty of room for kickass human women as time travelers; it just happened not to have any.[3]
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife.  Come on!  The Time Traveler’s Wife’s Husband (whatever his name was) traveled back and forth in his own timeline!  Surely there’s no argument that this sort of narrative would be any harder to write for a woman!

There may be a few types of time travel stories that are harder to genderflip, but I would claim that there are at least as many time travel stories that more naturally fit a female lead.  We just have to write them!

And by the way, someone on Twitter mentioned an awesome example of a female time traveler—one example doesn’t, of course, invalidate Anna Smith’s observations of a frustrating trend, but I rather do think she acts as a counterexample who disproves Stross’s thesis that the genre cannot accept a female lead.  That time traveler?  Carmen Sandiego.  An international, time-hopping criminal mastermind with a throne over an entire educational franchise, a shadowy figure with a gang of loyal henchmen whose name is known to all.  And do we as a society frown upon her and say, “No!  She cannot lead escapist entertainment, as she is a WOMAN!  And we all know that as a FEE-MALE, there’s no way she could’ve been a criminal mastermind in Ancient Rome!”?  No, we do not say that.  We accept her awesomeness and chase her down through space and time.

The escapist time-travel sub-genre is not inherently sexist in the least—there is not the slightest logical reason we shouldn’t have just as many female protagonists zipping through time as male ones.  Authors and other creators have not been somehow forced into male protagonists because “the story wouldn’t work otherwise,” and I object to giving them even the hint of that excuse.  The reason we have an overabundance of male protagonists compared to female ones is not that the Doctor or Marty McFly or the Time Traveler’s Wife’s Husband couldn’t be written as women; instead, it is a far more simple reason, and the same reason we have an overabundance of male protagonists in so much of the rest of the SFF genre: simple, ingrained institutional bias.  Not the inherent sexism of the material, but the unconscious sexism of its creators.

Institutional, systemic sexism.  Creators do make the deliberate choice to bring a leading man to life, of course, but too often it’s a default rather than a conscious decision, because they never considered that “female” was an equal option.  That’s why we have so many male time travelers, and so few female ones.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way.  I reject the notion that escapist time travel capers are always and necessarily the domain of men: they have been in the past, but not because they must be, and they certainly do not have to be in the future.

Let’s write more female-led escapist time travel, everyone.

  1. Well, people would care in the sense that Who fans will meta over anything and everything, but I daresay the larger audience wouldn’t care any more than they do about any of the other wild anachronisms the show is fond of.
  2. Of course, in both cases it may end up being a socially irresponsible portrayal depending on the execution, but so can anything.
  3. Yes, I know Sarah took that one jump into the future in TSCC.  It was so obviously a realignment of the show with the present day for practical reasons that I really don’t think it should count.

7 thoughts on “The Reason Escapist Time Travel Doesn’t Star Women Is That We Haven’t Written It Yet

  1. benjamin

    The weird thing about this is, as you might know, Stross wrote a whole series starring a female protagonist who travels to parallel worlds, which are currently in time periods much earlier than ours (vaguely late medieval/early renaissance and industrial revolution), and encounters rather a lot of sexism, but manages to negotiate her way through the power structures of those settings (not without making some mistakes).

    So his points are basically undermined by his own writing, which is a bit awkward.

  2. Viola

    Connie Willis’s time travel stuff isn’t what I would term escapist, by and large—certainly not in the case of The Doomsday Book—but she has written quite a bit of time travel sci-fi featuring women in leading roles, and in To Say Nothing of the Dog, at least, Verity’s femaleness is an advantage for doing certain kinds of historical fieldwork.

    It seems like really what Stross’s argument really boils down to is “female protagonists don’t work without actually putting some novel thought into what time travel fiction is.” Well! Heaven knows I’d hate to encourage anyone to put any novel thought into anything, but it does seem like that particular limitation is something we can probably get around.

  3. Polenth

    Doctor Who was my thought before I got to you mentioning it. He may be a man, but his companions generally aren’t. They don’t stay with him all the time either, as they rush off to do their own part of the plot. In the older series, there was Romana, a Time Lord and a woman. (One thing I dislike with the whole time wars plot is it removes a lot of potential for meeting other Time Lords, but that’s an aside.)

    But it doesn’t seem like time travel fiction is a special flower. Science fiction in general has a sexism problem and fewer female leads. So it’s not a surprise that time travel stories do it too. I don’t think we need any special explanations for that, outside of it being an issue with the wider genre.

  4. Michelle

    Have you ever seen a movie called Lost in Austen? Basically, a modern day woman is a huge Jane Austen fan and she gets transported back in time but into the world of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet is transported to contemporary London. Modern Day Girl adjusted and negotiated her way through an admittedly fictional and romanticized version of Georgian England.

    And as you say, we can’t judge other eras through our lens. Sure, women may have had fewer rights and fewer opportunities in some parts of the world in the past, but that’s not a uniform thing. There are always historical stories of women doing the most incredible things.

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