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:
- 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;
- 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;
- 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: