Women’s History Month: Marie Curie and Beyond

As Women’s History Month begins, I find myself wishing I’d planned a series of blog posts about amazing women in history (similar to my daily posts for horror movies in October); unfortunately, however, I only thought of this today and this month is looking to be a beast, so that won’t be happening. I’m going to try to post more than once this month, but I can make no promises!


I wanted to begin with Marie Curie. Really, this post is not about her specifically but is more about what she represents. My dissertation (No Longer Estranged: Women, Science, Science Fiction) explored the relationship between feminist science fiction and feminist science studies, and, as part of my research, I was interested in how people think of women in science and what female scientists people know about and think of immediately. The answer essentially boiled down to Marie Curie. A few people could list other female scientists (Jane Goodall sometimes comes up, for instance, or Rachel Carson), but for far too many people, their list of female scientists begins and ends with this one woman.

This has happened many times. Just recently, I was discussing gender in STEM with my Technical Communications students and they repeated this pattern yet again, failing at naming any other female scientist beyond Marie Curie.

Don’t get me wrong – Marie Curie is an amazing figure and I’m glad people know of her and that she gets the credit she does. I hope, however, that we can get past the one token woman in science model and learn to appreciate all the women in science (past and present).

In case I don’t get a chance to write about them later this month, here are a few personal favorites:

  • Rachel Carson
  • Jane Goodall
  • Mary Anning
  • Sylvia Earle
  • Ada Lovelace
  • Rosalind Franklin
  • Barbara McClintock
  • Ellen Swallow Richards
  • Lynn Margulis

For further reading, I’d highly recommend Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World for readers of all ages as an introduction to women doing science across history and across a range of fields. Reading this book, I learned about women I’d never heard of before, and it has lovely illustrations to boot. And Julie Des Jardins’ The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science provides a more analytical approach to the topic, providing more depth (but fewer illustrations) than Ignotofsky’s book.

ASLE 2017 Roundtable

Today, my usual co-conspirator (Bridgitte Barclay of Aurora University) and I got our acceptance for ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. The conference will be held in Detroit this June and centers on the theme of Rust/Resistance. I am so excited to be going again! ASLE is my scholarly home, where I find the most interesting connections, meet the coolest people, and come away the most excited about new possibilities for scholarship and teaching.

Our roundtable is called “Resistant Discourses and Strategies of Recovery: Exploring Gender and Environment in Science Fiction.” Aside from Bridgitte and myself, it will feature Carter Soles (The College at Brockport, SUNY), Michelle Yates (Columbia College), Stina Attebery (University of California, Riverside), and Tyler Harper (New York University). It will include papers on sf texts ranging from the 1950s to the last year or two, including 1950s creature features (like The Wasp Woman), Soylent Green, WALL-E, the Mad Max franchise, Upstream Color, WALL-E, Her, Ex Machina, and – our lone novel – Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312.

Our paper titles given an even better sense of the roundtable’s specific topics and theoretical concerns:

  1. “Remixing Reproduction: Queer Intimacy and the Ecology of Sound in Upstream Color” – Stina Attebery
  2. “Saving Eden: Masculinity, Civilization, and Environmental Nostalgia in Soylent Green and WALL-E” – Michelle Yates
  3. “Mad Max: Beyond Petroleum?” – Carter Soles
  4. “‘Either you’re mine or you’re not mine’: Controlling Gender, Nature, and Technology in Her and Ex Machina” – me (Christy Tidwell)
  5. “(En)gendering Nature in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312” – Tyler Harper
  6. “Camp Resistance: Animal Avatars and Gender Exaggeration in 1950s Creature Features” – Bridgitte Barclay

I’m a particular fan of Carter’s paper title. I agonized over my own, on the other hand, and still don’t love it. Someday I’ll develop a knack for title-writing, I hope.

This should be a fun and productive conversation about gender, environment, and resistance across a range of sf texts. Any readers who may be at ASLE this year should come see us!

CFP: Gender in Science Fiction Ecomedia

Bridgitte Barclay and I are currently working on a book proposal exploring gender in science fiction ecomedia. The following is the call for papers for the project. We hope to receive lots of exciting proposals! Please pass this along to anyone you know who might be interested.

CFP: Gender in Science Fiction Ecomedia

There are many important studies of gender in science fiction and a growing number of studies of environmental science fiction, but these fields rarely come together and are even more rarely specifically applied to science fiction film, television, and other media. We wish to fill this gap and invite contributions exploring gender in science fiction ecomedia. Projects might address the following questions:

  • How do gender and environment intersect and/or influence each other in or across science fiction media?
  • How do varying media forms influence representations of gender and environment in science fiction? Does television, for instance, provide different opportunities than film? Or video games than either of those? Etc.
  • How might examining gender and environment together in non-print media influence ideas about or definitions of science fiction as a genre?

We are open to projects on any non-print science fiction, but we particularly wish to encourage projects exploring new media and forms outside of traditional film and television.

Please submit abstracts of no more than 300 words and a brief CV by August 1, 2016, to Christy Tidwell (christy.tidwell@gmail.com) and/or Bridgitte Barclay (bbarclay@aurora.edu). We have been strongly encouraged by the editor of the Ecocritical Theory and Practice series, published by Rowman & Littlefield’s imprint Lexington Books, to submit a proposal. For those asked to contribute, we anticipate completed essays of approximately 15-18 pages will be due by March 1, 2017.

Gender & Horror: Teaching Horror, Week 6

Obviously, I got kind of behind with my posts about my horror course as the semester went on. My best intentions weren’t enough, clearly. I do want to write about the rest of the semester, however, and this post is a start. I left off with Week 5, so I’ll pick up with Week 6: Gender and Sexuality. This week included Halloween (1978), Teeth (2007), and a short story by Shira Lipkin called “The Final Girl.”


We began our discussion on Tuesday by trying to define the slasher film and talking about what the class already knows about the subgenre. They were familiar with its masked killers, with the tendency for murders to be committed up close (knives rather than guns), and (somewhat) with the trope of the final girl. I placed slashers in the larger international context of giallo films for them (taking the opportunity to recommend Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which I love) and related them to exploitation and grindhouse films.


I also gave the class a little bit of Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1993) to help define slashers and to have them consider her argument about how gender is represented in the subgenre. She writes, for instance,

The fact that female monsters and female heroes, when they do appear, are masculine in dress and behavior (and often even name), and that male victims are shown in feminine postures at the moment of their extremity, would seem to suggest that gender inheres in the function itself–that there is something about the victim function that wants manifestation in a female, and something about the monster and hero functions that wants expression in a male. Sex, in this universe, proceeds from gender, not the other way around. A figure does not cry and cower because she is a woman; she is a woman because she cries and cowers. And a figure is not a psychokiller because he is a man; he is a man because he is a psychokiller. (12-13)

Students weren’t entirely convinced of this, but it was an idea we productively returned to on later days as well. Clover also writes,

One is deeply reluctant to make progressive claims for a body of cinema as spectacularly nasty toward women as the slasher film is, but the fact is that the slasher does, in its own perverse way and for better or worse, constitute a visible adjustment in the terms of gender representations. (64)

This question of whether slashers represent “a visible adjustment in the terms of gender representations” or, to put it more simply, whether slashers are or can be feminist, on the other hand, was one we spent a great deal of time on.

teeth poster

Thursday’s class, on Teeth and “The Final Girl,” was one of the days I had been looking forward to since I designed the course. Teeth, a horror movie about vagina dentata, is funny, disturbing, and complicatedly feminist. We began this class with more from Carol Clover, this time on rape-revenge narratives. After outlining the typical structure of such films and giving a couple of other examples (I Spit On Your Grave and The Last House on the Left), I introduced Clover’s argument that

although the practice of remarking male sadism in a film (like the practice of showing male sadism in a film) may be intended to align the remarker with feminism, it also works to naturalize sadistic violence as a fixture of masculinity–one of the few fixtures of masculinity remaining in a world that has seen the steady erosion of such. It is a gesture, in other words, that ends up confirming what it deplores. (226)

Again, as with Halloween and slasher films, one of our central questions became whether Teeth (and rape-revenge films more broadly) are or could be feminist. Teeth both plays into anti-feminist ideas – vagina dentata itself reflecting a fear of women’s genitals and sexuality – and into feminist ideas – sexuality as empowerment, women’s ability to defend themselves, anti-rape statements. I am also fascinated by how often Teeth shows penises. Seeing a penis in a non-pornographic or non-NC-17 film is rare, unlike seeing naked female parts, so this gendered reversal was notable to me. It’s also interesting to observe that the penises shown in the film are all severed, so these moments are either horrific (oh my god, what just happened!) or comic. The film’s penises are not sexual objects.


I am pleased to say that we had an excellent discussion about how to balance these things in our interpretation of the film and its effects. Students dealt with serious issues like rape intelligently and maturely. We also laughed a lot. The movie is, after all, part comedy and slightly ridiculous and we were able to laugh about some of its ideas. I laughed harder in that class than I have laughed in most classes I’ve taught, and I think that class day was memorable for the students as well as for me.

Finally, we discussed Shira Lipkin’s “The Final Girl” for just a few minutes. I wish I had taken more time to set this story up and left more time for discussion of it, because I think most students didn’t quite understand its central idea – the way final girls are left hanging at the end of their narratives and the way the trauma that they must suffer after their stories’ end is effaced – or the weight of that idea. Lipkin writes,

The final girl is disinterested in katabasis. She knows how important it is to everyone that those who go into the underworld emerge into the light. No one, however, tells the stories of those who stay down there, lost in tapering fractal tunnels, stumbling through the darkness. Push them down, leave them there, draw in the dark around them. The world does not want lost girls who cannot be found, so the Final Girls must pretend at all times that they have risen to the surface, even if they have not, especially if they have not.

The final girl knows that some have made the dark their home, though. She knows that the dark can hold you safe. She knows that sometimes you need to not be seen or heard.

I love this recognition that not everyone recovers from trauma or, if they do, they don’t do so in a way that others like to see. For all we talked during the week about the power of survival itself, the films ignore the damage that surviving does to these women, and I think it is important to recognize that. We tell stories about fighting back and glorify the survivors, but we don’t want to see the aftermath. It’s not nearly as much fun, after all.

Music this week was “This Is Halloween” from The Nightmare before Christmas (probably one of the most popular choices I made all semester) for Tuesday and Halloween and, for Thursday, Fiona Apple’s “Limp” and Lady Gaga’s “Teeth.” This pairing with Teeth pleased me immensely.





On Joanna Russ & The Female Man

I’m reading On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn, right now and I get to re-read The Female Man by Joanna Russ later today (both for an article I’m working on), and this is one of those times when I feel extremely lucky. I love Joanna Russ’s work and the fact that I get to revisit it and write about it as part of my job makes me very happy.

Mostly, I love her anger. The Female Man is just brimming with it, but what makes it so wonderful is that it’s angry while also funny and inspiring and so, so, so smart. Russ identifies the sexisms – both large and small – that she and her contemporaries lived with and she destroys them by showing how ridiculous they are and by imagining a world where they don’t exist.

Even Whileaway, the future utopian world that Russ creates in The Female Man, includes anger. Not only does the existence of such a world, in which women are free to live fully human lives and are not constrained by gender roles, prompt such angry or frustrated questions as “Why we can’t live more like this now?” and “Why are we still living with so much oppression and sexism?”, there’s also anger expressed by Russ’s characters who live and have grown up in that utopia. The bitterness of those questions are not in these characters, though. Just natural, human anger expressed at other humans – because in Russ’s work, even utopia isn’t perfect. That’s what makes it interesting.

I’ve taught The Female Man before and I wrote about it in my dissertation, so I’ve read it several times and I always love it. Not everyone does, though. I taught it only one semester (paired with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland) and my students disliked it so much that I haven’t tried going back to it since. I think their dislike was a combination of confusion and defensiveness. They got confused because the plot involves a lot of jumping around between times, places, and voices, and there are many cultural references they aren’t necessarily familiar with. This made its meaning hard for them to parse and they resented having to work so hard for it. In addition, I was not teaching a classroom full of feminists; I was teaching average college students in Texas who were taking a literature course to meet their general education requirements. They are not automatically on board with Russ’s feminist politics, and her anger, therefore, felt like an attack on them (for some, not all). Where I identify with Russ’s anger and am empowered and emboldened by it, they feel the need to protect themselves from it, I believe. I still hope for an opportunity to teach the book to a class that will appreciate it and gain something from it, but I’m not sure where I’ll find that.

I’ll end with a few quotes from the book that I love and an encouragement to read it if you haven’t already. It’s not to everyone’s taste – clearly – but it is brilliant and it has such important things to say about gender, sexism, resistance, and hope. And, sadly, although some cultural referents are dated, the ideas and arguments of The Female Man are still relevant today.

“This is the underside of my world.

Of course you don’t want me to be stupid, bless you! you only want to make sure you’re intelligent. You don’t want me to commit suicide; you only want me to be gratefully aware of my dependency. You don’t want me to despise myself; you only want the flattering deference to you that you consider a spontaneous tribute to your natural qualities. You don’t want me to lose my soul; you only want what everybody wants, things to go your way; you want a devoted helpmeet, a self-sacrificing mother, a hot chick, a darling daughter, women to look at, women to laugh at, women to come for comfort, women to wash your floors and buy your groceries and cook your food and keep your children out of your hair, to work when you need the money and stay home when you don’t, women to be enemies when you want a good fight, women who are sexy when you want a good lay, women who don’t complain, women who don’t nag or push, women who don’t hate you really, women who know their job and above all—women who lose. On top of it all, you sincerely require me to be happy; you are naively puzzled that I should be wretched and so full of venom in this the best of all possible worlds. Whatever can be the matter with me? But the mode is more than a little outworn.

As my mother once said: the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest.

But the frogs die in earnest.”

“If you scream, people say you’re melodramatic; if you submit, you’re masochistic; if you call names, you’re a bitch. Hit him and he’ll kill you. The best thing is to suffer mutely and yearn for a rescuer, but suppose a rescuer doesn’t come?”

“Remember: I didn’t and don’t want to be a ‘feminine’ version or a diluted version or a special version or a subsidiary version or an ancillary version, or an adapted version of the heroes I admire. I want to be the heroes themselves.

What future is there for a female child who aspires to being Humphrey Bogart?”

female man cover 1 female man cover 2

The Feminine Mystique & Helicopter Parents: Why We Still Need Betty Friedan

I’m finally reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), and there are lots of fascinating details about white middle-class U.S. culture of the 1950s and early 1960s, but one thing in the first chapter particularly stood out to me. While describing the “new neuroses” women were suffering from during this period, Friedan comments on the effect the feminine mystique (and women’s behaviors as a result of it) had on children:

And strange new problems are being reported in the growing generations of children whose mothers were always there, driving them around, helping them with their homework–an inability to endure pain or discipline or pursue any self-sustained goal of any sort, a devastating boredom with life. Educators are increasingly uneasy about the dependence, the lack of self-reliance, of the boys and girls who are entering college today. “We fight a continual battle to make our students assume manhood,” said a Columbia dean.

This is strikingly similar to the ideas in an article by Julie Lythcott-Haims about the children of helicopter parents that’s been making the rounds on social media this week:

When parents have tended to do the stuff of life for kids—the waking up, the transporting, the reminding about deadlines and obligations, the bill-paying, the question-asking, the decision-making, the responsibility-taking, the talking to strangers, and the confronting of authorities, kids may be in for quite a shock when parents turn them loose in the world of college or work. They will experience setbacks, which will feel to them like failure.

This, then, Lythcott-Haims continues, leads to young people not knowing how to cope on their own and, it seems, to higher rates of depression and anxiety.

What does it say about our current attitudes toward parenting that we are still seeing the same problem Friedan describes in 1963? Is this a resurgence of the feminine mystique?

Well, sort of.

Women are not still expected to stay home and be just a wife and mother in the same way that Friedan describes. However, women do still deal with the pressure to be perfect mothers. Perhaps there is less pressure, given the shifts in our culture regarding marriage and divorce and women’s rights since the 1960s, to be the perfect wife – that might seem too retrograde – but women are still expected to be (or at least to want to be) mothers and, once they have children, they are still expected to sacrifice everything for their children and to commit to motherhood in ways that might not be totally sane or healthy. Perfect motherhood requires breastfeeding, having the best and most educational toys, providing a wide range of activities to fill the child’s days, as well as protecting the child from everything at all times. Failure to do any of these or the many other things that perfect motherhood demands means failure as a mother and a woman. Success, however, will prove that it’s possible to have it all. Erica Jong writes,

Some parenting gurus suggest that helicopter parenting became the rage as more mothers went to work outside the home. In other words, it was a kind of reaction formation, a way for mothers to compensate for their absence and guilt and also for the many dangerous and uncontrollable things in the modern family’s environment. This seems logical to me. As we give up on ideals of community, we focus more and more on our individual children, perhaps not realizing that the community and the child cannot be separated.

Women’s magazines and mom blogs package this approach to parenting as a positive thing, competition to get kids into good schools and colleges (so they can get good jobs and repeat this pattern for themselves) reinforces it, parents internalize it. Thus, helicopter parents are born. This process and its result recapitulates a part of the feminine mystique as described by Friedan.

It is worth noting that helicopter parents – as the term indicates – are not just mothers. This term isn’t gendered in the same way that the feminine mystique obviously is. It is gendered in practice even if not in terminology, though, because there is much more discussion in our culture of being a good mom, and ideas of parenting are still more thoroughly applied to women than to men. This element of the feminine mystique hasn’t entirely broken free of its gendered roots; nonetheless, it has expanded its range and is no longer limited to women. This isn’t a good thing – not because it should remain tied to women (it definitely should not), but because it is dangerous for all of us.

Obviously, having a child means sacrificing some things and working to be a good parent, but as this pattern of damage reveals, how we think about being the best parent possible (or even a good parent) clearly needs some revision. Maybe “best” means something a little freer and less restrictive for both parents and children. Betty Friedan includes a passage in The Feminine Mystique from English feminist Ida Alexa Ross Wylie that further supports this idea:

Most of my fellow-fighters were wives and mothers. And strange things happened to their domestic life. Husbands came home at night with a new eagerness. . . . As for children, their attitude changed rapidly from one of affectionate toleration for poor, darling mother to one of wide-eyed wonder. Released from the smother of mother love, for she was too busy to be more than casually concerned with them, they discovered that they liked her. She was a great sport. She had guts.

Friedan shows us that putting children alone at the center of adult lives is unfulfilling for (most) adults; the problems associated with helicopter parenting show us that doing this is harmful to children as well; and Wylie even further indicates that changing this practice is good for both parents and children.

Ultimately, then, recent studies linking helicopter parenting to depression and anxiety in children and young adults indirectly support a feminist argument. The results of these studies back feminism’s argument that it’s not evil and selfish to think of yourself and not just of your children or husband. In addition, they show that the backlash against feminism, which argued that the feminist movement and the working women it empowered were destructive and harmful to children, was wrong.

won't somebody please think of the childrenThese results and the ongoing discussions of helicopter parenting – as well as the backlash against free-range parenting – also reveal that although many things in our culture may have changed over the last 50-plus years, elements of the feminine mystique are still with us. And as long as that’s true, Betty Friedan’s work is still necessary.