Space Opera – An Auden Poem

March 5th, 2007

Being set on the idea
  Of going to Atlantis,
You have discovered of course
  Only the Ship of Fools is
Making the voyage this year
As gales of abnormal force
  Are predicted, and that you
  Must, therefore, be ready to
Behave absurdly enough
  To pass for one of The Boys,
At least appearing to love
  Hard liquor, horseplay and noise.


Space opera, say, and being a girl ….

Ain’t dat the troot!  “Dolls Clad in Feminism, and Hardly Anything Else,” comes to a screen in your living room.

[  “Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll,” which is to have its premiere on Tuesday night on the CW network, may look like just another reality show with attractive, slinkily dressed women preening for the camera in the hope of a shot at stardom.

But “Pussycat Dolls Present” is about female empowerment, the show’s producers explained to a group of television writers and critics here in January,

“Everything the Pussycat Dolls are is everything that I’ve developed myself into being,” said the rap star Lil’ Kim, who is a judge on the show and who served a prison sentence for lying to a federal grand jury about a shooting outside a radio station.  ]

So many generations of young women have fallen for this line.  Back in the day, I was one of them.  Probably if pole dancing with nothing on but a cache-sex had been thought of as feminist back in those days, I would have done it.  Of course, I had the Back to do it then too ….  (I still have the T*ts, but alas, not the Back.)

Interesting.  If you do a google image search on “Warrior Women,” more often than not, you get this:


You must change the perimeters of your search “Women Soldiers” to get this:

The Auden poem is one I would guess that James Tiptree Jr. knew well, she that slick gender slipper, who also, then, turned Space Opera on its head.  Would that be why she wasn’t included in Hartwell’s The Space Opera Ranaissance anthology, that includes works from the various eras of space opera?

Then there was Katherine Hepburne, who was the real thing, a man’s woman, but also a woman’s woman, without any slipping or sliding. She was just Kate.  One would believe that Katherine, showing up in the Venusian seaports and Martian spaceports could have taken on Leigh Brackett’s  “the man called Stark,” and come out on top, and without breaking into a glow.  Shoot, Kate managed John Ford without a blink, that sadistic Hollywood monster who cowed the Duke, and broke actor after actor, man after man, woman after woman.

What does it take to see women as warriors, empowered in their womanhood, without making them naked, violent and promiscuous instead of dressed for what best suits their own desires and talent, very, very, very smart and choosing men out of their own desire, men who are worthy of them?

17 Responses to “Space Opera – An Auden Poem”

  1. Marie Brennanon 05 Mar 2007 at 6:50 pm

    These two examples don’t ditch the violence, but I was musing the other day on whether or not a shift has happened since the days when we first saw Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor on the screen. Both of those women are tough as hell, but (insofar as I remember; it’s been a while since I watched those movies) they aren’t heavily sexualized. If I did an actual survey of action movies, instead of an off-the-cuff gut feeling, maybe I’d find this isn’t true, but it feels like the female action heroes today are expected to also be boobalicious and/or scantily clad.

    Then again, my mind is now coughing up recent counter-examples, so maybe I’m wrong. Like I said, it was a gut feeling the other night, and your post made me think about it again.

    To address your actual question, I have one to ask in return: in what sense do you mean the word “warrior”? Because then you go on to mention violence as something (presumably) to leave out, whereas for me, “warrior” tends to imply violence. There are other ways to be awesome, I’ll absolutely agree, but I wouldn’t necessarily term those other ways “warrior” ones.

  2. Constance Ashon 05 Mar 2007 at 7:15 pm

    Good question!

    One I should have clarified within the post.

    Maybe I thought the contrast of the 2 photos implied the answer, but probably not. I see the soldier women as competent and trained, and who would not use their weapons except in a socially sanctioned, productive situation. (Yeah, right, war, socially productive.)

    As a contrast to these faux, fantsy feline “warriors” who are sociopaths, as is Mallory, for instance in Carol O’Connell’s mysteries, as is the Femme Nikita, as are so many of the female roles in SF — think of the babes so popular in cyberpunk and its knockoffs — and I quite, quite admire much of Gibson’s work — but these characters? Not so much.

    It’s as though in genre fiction, at least, for a woman to be considered powerful and effective, she’s also supposed to be strong, feral, sociopathic and violent. And that’s supposed to empower women and be feminist. But I don’t think so.

    That there may well be sociopathic, violent women out there, I will not deny. But that they are empowered, or are feminists, I probably would.

    I’m thinking a lot lately about a primary female character in Kate Elliott’s latest series, who is anything but sociopathic or even a warrior. But in her own way, she will soldier on. She has courage. She hasn’t done so, but I’m sure if it was actually necessary for her to do so, she might well kill — to protect her child, for instance. But she’s kind, and curious, and open to new people, new things, new information and experience. You enjoy her company. She’s sane. She’s supple like a willow or a palm, knowing when to bend because there’s no other choice at the time, but ready to spring up, all whippy and move ahead, when the opportunity arrives. People like her. We don’t see characters like this much in fiction. Mary Sues, yes, but not the genuinely sympathetic and likeable person. And you know? Communities need them as much as they need warriors of whatever gender.

    Love, C.

  3. Roberton 06 Mar 2007 at 6:50 am

    The really interesting thing about the Ripley/Sarah Connors characters is that despite their portrayal as warriors, they are first and foremost mothers, so that their role transforms into “Warrior-Mother.” Which sounds like a Dungeons & Dragons class, but stay with me. 😉

    Looked at one way, warrior and mother are opposites. The first is a traditionally male role, the main purpose of which is the dealing of or defense from death. The other, a woman’s traditional role, is the producing and sustaining of life.

    However, these “opposites” are really anything but, and that’s the clever bit.

    You recall the old cliché about a mother bear or cat or whatever protecting her young, fighting to the death. This is the Warrior-Mother. Whether it’s Ripley’s replacement child in Newt (her own daughter having grown up in her absense, according to some deleted scenes), or Sarah’s real son John, these powerful women do everything it takes, make every sacrifice to protect their young.

    In doing so, they are quite literally protecting the rest of humanity: Ripley keeping the aliens from being brought back to Earth, and Sarah keeping alive the future leader of the human resistance. The kids are sort of the stand-ins for humanity.

    There are two other powerful Warrior-Mothers involved in these two stories, and they represent another line of inquiry when it comes to your question about finding women’s roles of power. They are the antagonists of our two female champions. They are both the leaders of their civilizations. One is a horrible alien creature laying eggs, and the other is a vast AI network manipulating weapons and sending its own “spawn” in the form of cyborgs through time.

    There are probably examples from more contemporary films/stories, but these two pairs provide some very productive starting points.

    Interesting side note about Ripley, in reference to Marie’s comment about sexualization. She and the character Hicks (played coincidentally by the same actor who was Sarah Connor’s love interest, and John Connor’s father) have a bit of romantic tension developing, shown (for example) in the scene where he teaches her about the assault rifle with grenade launcher. This relationship is never fully developed further due to the capture of Newt, and Hicks getting injured subsequently. But in an appropriate twist, Ripley saves his life, getting Hicks to safety and medical aid, in a sense performing a motherly act, rather than automatically following what a Hollywood movie might have done.

  4. Marie Brennanon 06 Mar 2007 at 10:47 am

    Eh, my response to Constance got et by the migration of the databases, apparently. Pretend I said something deep and meaningful. <g>

    I like the scene you describe, Robert, because of the nature of the tension between them: it seems to grow out of mutual respect and admiration. Hicks teaching her how to use the gun isn’t condescending; sure, it’s something she doesn’t know, but she’s already proved she has the mental/psychological qualities necessary, so now all she needs is some technical info and practice.

    Oooh, I remember part of my lost comment. And it’s relevant here, too. I think I mentioned in another Deep Genre discussion that I like G.I. Jane for the cinematography; when the camera invites you to gaze on Demi Moore’s body, it focuses on her muscles, not her T&A. But I also like how she doesn’t become a soldier by becoming a guy; instead, the qualities she shows (courage, grit, comradeship, etc.) get de-gendered. Or at least that’s how I read it, though it’s entirely possible other people with different biases would get a different reading. And that, I think, is where you can contrast Ripley with Vasquez; for all intents and purposes, Vasquez is gendered male by our current standards, despite a female body. Ripley, however, is not.

    And the Alien series really is all about mother themes. Never forget that the ship’s computer in the first movie was called Mother, too. Monstrous birth (the impregnation of men, and their subsequent destruction by their “children”), the decidedly feminine gendering of the alien ship (its shape, the little white figures going through the hole, the warm and damp interior), the alien queen herself . . . and maybe that’s why those movies seem different from more recent action movies with female protagonists. The feminine focus is pervasive, rather than tacked on top of an otherwise male movie.

  5. Marie Brennanon 06 Mar 2007 at 11:19 am

    Ah, I remember the other potentially useful thing I said. Regarding Constance’s comment about characters being “strong, feral, sociopathic and violent”:

    Dominant gender ideology equates men with culture and women with nature, which is probably where the feral element comes from. Also, women killing is a breakdown of the order posited in that ideology, and a scary and dangerous thing, which might be the sociopathy coming in; a sociopath, depicted accurately, is disconnected from the social fabric. So it feels like what you’re describing, Constance, is an outgrowth out of a subconscious image of gender that doesn’t know how to depict a certain kind of capable woman without also disconnecting her and making her scary.

    Er, if anybody who knows what they’re doing in gender studies wants to rephrase all that into something more coherent, I’d be much obliged. But I hope the general idea comes through.

    And, to return to Ripley, her violent actions are contextualized as mother-protectiveness, which make them ideologically harmonious and a part of social order. Which isn’t to rag on them, btw; I think that’s a perfectly valid and interesting story to tell, especially in the greater context of the mother-themes in the Alien movies.

  6. Constance Ashon 06 Mar 2007 at 1:44 pm

    I found Marie’s original, 2nd comment, and I’ll try to put it up now.

    Marie Brennan wrote:

    My understanding is that statistically, most violent sociopaths are male.

    Your question has me standing back and pondering my own writing, wondering how I’m addressing it. “Strong, feral, sociopathic and violent” — I try to make my characters strong (unless the point of the story is that they’re weak), and some of them are violent; only one is feral (and she’s a Viking berserker who keeps getting booted out of society), and I don’t think I could write a genuine sociopath without a whole lot of work.

    Looking at it more broadly . . . the feralness may come about because of the equation of women with nature (vs. men with culture), and the subconscious ideology that a woman with physical power (i.e. violence) is a breakdown of order, a reversion to a more wild state. Which is bull, of course, but that’s how mainstream ideology would parse it.

    I think I mentioned before in a comment thread here that I quite like the movie G. I. Jane. I brought it up before because Demi Moore isn’t sexualized in it; when the camera invites you to gaze at her body, your eye is drawn to her muscles, not her T&A. But I also like how it makes her a soldier, without, I think, making her a guy; the qualities she shows (courage, comradeship, etc) get de-gendered instead. Or at least that’s how I read it. But of course I’m interpreting it through my own frame. Maybe other people walk away from it with a different idea.

    Marie and Robert — Interesting posts! Much to think about.

    For example, Marie’s comment that seemingly the majority of sociopaths appear to be male. Yes, I had understood that also, which is another prompt that makes me investigate why women as genre characters who do perform violent actions are so often portrayed as sociopaths? Perhaps both Robert’s and Marie’s posts go quite some way to forming a coherent answer to that question.

    Love, C.

  7. kateelliotton 06 Mar 2007 at 2:48 pm

    I think Robert is absolutely right about the Warrior Mother. By making the female a caretaker, it somehow makes it okay for her to be strong in that way.

    There’s another element I’ll throw out here, for fun:

    the male fear of and obsessive attraction to female sexual “power” (i.e. male response to female sexuality). It may be that in some cases if a woman is represented as strong, in the physical sense, that it also triggers a sense of her sexuality. Women have always been seen as temptresses or deeply sexual in their essence and thereby dangerous – indeed, certain patriarchal religions regulate a great deal of behavior just from this notion – so is a dangerous woman thereby also sexual?

    By putting her in filmy lingerie and soft focus, “she” is actually made less threatening. She becomes passive, the recipient of the male gaze, rather than active (which is scariest by far).

    As for sociopath, I dunno. I don’t understand sociopathy well enough to write it, I don’t think.

  8. Constance Ashon 07 Mar 2007 at 11:19 am

    Another way of putting it — to many men across time and geography and culture women are sex, which is quite other than women being sexual. Meaning, these particular men (who, also, somehow are the ones who are the writers, painters, the law makers, the law regulators and the enforcers of religious as well as secular laws regarding women, so they are a large number) women control a resource that they want, and feel entitled to, and they see women then, as all-powerful, and resent them for it (and thus must punish them too — but that’s another topic).

    Women who possess other power(s) then — such as physical strength, intelligence, creativity, mathematical ability, skill with animals — as well as the keys to the men’s sexual gratification, are terrifying monsters — so out of the id comes Grendel’s mother, Medusa, witches, succubi, and a host of other figures. The dark side of the Great Mother, one could say. And women can identify with all of those figures for they too are born of mothers and raised by them (if we are lucky and have mothers who do raise us, anyway).

    If they possess such powers, they must either be monsters (sociopaths) or be punished. Which may explain why I cannot watch G.I. Jane. To me that film feels like a punishment of a woman for being strong, put up on the screen for masculine delectation. I’m not about to declare that is correct, or even the only perspective on that. For one thing, Marie does have a different take on it. However, I did think of that movie, when this story about the murder of Private LaVena
    and its coverup in Iraq broke (hardly at all, in fact).

    Which may also apply to our love for Buffy: she’s cute, at first, but she’s also resourceful and powerful, but she suffers (i.e. is punished) like the rest of us, keeping her on a human level, and the sort of men referred to above can always take satsifaction in her beatings and pains and sufferings.

    But the thing about Buffy, is that she matures as the seasons progress: she strengthens her weaknesses — she learns the value of research and becomes a researcher herself, for example. She learns that pure physical power and martial skill is not ever going to be enough, certainly not to save the world. But through it all the masculine gaze can be gratified by seeing her beat on and beat down, over and over and over?

    I mean — that’s one way of looking at it. Not necessarily the right way, and certainly not the only way.

    Another way is that perserverance and resiliance matters as much as physical strength. Another way is that women are beat down over and over again, so this reflects reality. Another way is that in the end, Buffy destroys the baddies.

    But most interestingly, allmost all the baddies are male. Then there’s Faith, who is another road that a Buffy might walk — i.e. the feral sociopath with predator sexual appetite and behavior, the ‘bad’ girl, who is finally reconciled with the ‘good’ girl Buffy. There’s Glorificus, who was male as well a female, and finally it wasn’t Buffy who killed him/her — it was Giles. Instead, Glorificus is the motive for Buffy’s Great Sacrifice.

    Love, C.

  9. Constance Ashon 07 Mar 2007 at 1:14 pm

    As an article in today’s (“The Private War of Our Women Soldiers“) puts it in a quote from a woman who served in Iraq:

    There are only three kinds of female the men let you be in the military: a bitch, a ho or a dyke,” said Montoya, the soldier who carried a knife for protection. “This guy out there, he told me he thinks the military sends women over to give the guys eye candy to keep them sane. He said in Vietnam they had prostitutes to keep them from going crazy, but they don’t have those in Iraq. So they have women soldiers instead.”

    Pickett heard the same attitude from her fellow soldiers. “My engineering company was in the first Gulf War, and back then it had only two females,” she said. “One was labeled a whore because she had a boyfriend, and the other one was a bitch because she wouldn’t sleep around. And that’s how they were still referred to all these years later.”

    Love, C.

  10. Marie Brennanon 07 Mar 2007 at 1:21 pm

    This line startled me:

    To me that film feels like a punishment of a woman for being strong, put up on the screen for masculine delectation.

    The intention of the male characters may be to punish her, but I don’t think that means the film says that. Does Jordan go through hell? Yes, certainly. But to me, that’s an accurate and understandable depiction of the training: you put the candidates through hell, then more hell, then more hell, breaking as many of them as you can, because you don’t want them breaking when it matters (i.e. in the field). You can destroy anybody with that if you try hard enough; the trick to that method is stop just short of it, so that you’re left with the toughest of the bunch.

    Toughest. Not necessarily the best people. In fact, you could argue the reverse. But the aim is to end up with the toughest, and this is how they do it. The regular training would be like that whether she was a woman or not; you see it happening to the guys, too.

    Now, the S.E.R.E. training scene is punishment — but to my mind, the film doesn’t try to pretend it’s anything but, and also doesn’t try to pretend that it’s okay. The Master Chief steps over the line, and the men turn their backs on him as a result. They recognize that what he does there is wrong.

    But I think you and I have very different views of both violence and suffering. You say of Buffy that “she suffers (i.e. is punished) like the rest of us” — but to me, suffering =/= punishment. I don’t think bad stuff happens to her because she’s a strong woman; I think bad stuff happens to her because she’s at the center of events with stakes most of us will never face in our lives, and if they all went peachy-keen, it would be ludicrous.

  11. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 08 Mar 2007 at 1:25 am

    The Pussycat Dolls are about female empowerment about the same way that Thunder Down Under is about male empowerment, which is to say, not much. It’s cheesecake with pretentions.

    Not that there’s anything seriously wrong with that. It’s fantasy, like the rippled hunks and long-tressed temptresses on the romance covers and for that matter most of the books in the other genres as well.

    Men want warrior women, but if they’re going to fantasize about it, they’d like to see the really hot warrior women, thank you, the same as women who fantasize about soldier boys fantasize about the really hot ones with ripped bodies and whatnot.

    You want female soldiers? I just walked by the checkstand and the latest cover of Newsweek or Time had a photo of a female soldier who’s also a double amputee, this a few months after Esquire had a cover with a male soldier who’s a triple amputee. Apart from their injuries, both soldiers are attractive individuals who could do modeling, and I’d say “despite” except for the fact that there really aren’t any modeling jobs for amputees. But both soldiers are there, with their battle scars for all to see.

    But back to the fantasy. What the Pussycat Dolls are selling/being sold as, is women who could do all these things but probably aren’t going to, thus giving all the benefits of the fantasy without the ugly realities of missing limbs and PTSD.

  12. Katharine Kerron 09 Mar 2007 at 3:26 pm

    THe Kipling line obliquely referred to above is, “The female of the species is more deadly than the male.” The poem mentions tigers a lot, IIRC.

  13. Constance Ashon 09 Mar 2007 at 5:16 pm

    Marie — I think your readings of G.I. Jane and of Buffy are valid. Fine work tends to provoke many readings, and many of them can even be contradictory. Which means we can extract different meanings from them at different times of our lives too.

    You know, I think I have conflated G.I. Jane with The General’s Daughter, which latter seemed to be truly porn of violence on women. But I only saw bits of it — without meaning to or wanting to — when it was being broadcast on a television network, while channel surfing in a hotel room. I was just so appalled by the bits I saw I felt sick.

    And, in fact, as you’d be first to point out, these two movies have little in common.

    Still, I love that Auden poem, when considering writers like Leigh Brackett and Space Opera:

    “. . . . and that you
    Must, therefore, be ready to
    Behave absurdly enough
    To pass for one of The Boys,
    At least appearing to love
    Hard liquor, horseplay and noise.”

    Love, C.

  14. kateelliotton 09 Mar 2007 at 7:21 pm

    the vogue for warrior women is recent, though, together with the admiration for athletic girls and women. there’s a great deal of ambivalence embedded within this fashion, and while I agree that when we fantasize we tend to hold to certain valorizations of hot, there is also a sense in which sexualizing the physically strong female also keeps her within known and comfortable boundaries.

    otoh, I am all for more athletic and warrior women, of whatever kind, hot or not

  15. Constance Ashon 09 Mar 2007 at 8:41 pm

    otoh, I am all for more athletic and warrior women, of whatever kind, hot or not

    Hear! Hear!

    Maybe I’m out of synch with most people in this situation, as I don’t fantasize about warriors, hot or not, of any gender or species.

    I do think about soldiers and warbands and raiders and rievers and bandits and other people who live and their living by violence upon others though. I think about them a lot. Sometimes this is a life forced upon one, as with the child soldiers in Africa, for instance, or guerrillas. fighting for their homes (the word came into being in Spain, during the Napoleonic era). But most often its a choice, the best choice for getting one’s way.

    Love, C.

  16. Marie Brennanon 10 Mar 2007 at 10:20 am

    Oh, ick. I did not like The General’s Daughter at ALL.

  17. Constance Ashon 10 Mar 2007 at 4:28 pm

    Marie said:

    Oh, ick. I did not like The General’s Daughter at ALL.

    Somehow I thought that was your feeling about it! Wasn’t that the only feeling about it that anyone had? At least anyone would admit to?

    Love, C.

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