[GUEST POST] Heather Massey on Looking To The Future: Women on Top of the SF&F World


Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express. She also writes a monthly steampunk romance column for Coffee Time Romance.

Looking To The Future: Women on Top of the SF&F World

One day I asked myself, “What exactly would it take for a woman to direct a major motion science fiction romance film, one funded by a Hollywood studio?” (My mind works in fascinating ways!) The answer, of course, is an immensely complicated one. I can’t imagine how many stars would have to align for such an event to happen.

Let’s sample a few SF films with romantic elements/romantic SF from the past few decades. Who helmed them?

  • The Terminator (1984) – directed by a man
  • Dark City (1998) – directed by a man
  • The Matrix (1999) – directed by the Wachowski siblings (one of which, Lana (nee Larry), was male at the time)
  • Happy Accidents (2000) – directed by a man
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – directed by a man
  • Wall-E (2008) – directed by a man
  • Love Story 2050 (2008) – directed by a man
  • Avatar (2009) – directed by a man
  • Upside Down (2012) – directed by a man
  • The Host (2013) – directed by a man

I should note that SF related or not, any big budget Hollywood film directed by a woman is still a rare bird. (There’s only one Kathryn Bigelow.)

And certainly a woman helming a theatrical release is by no means a guarantee of success (as measured by Hollywood studios). But as the underperformance of Upside Down shows, a man doesn’t necessarily increase the odds, either (and director Juan Solanas had a high concept idea to boot). But as a moviegoer, I don’t even have an opportunity to find out. The odds are you don’t, either.

I can watch an SF film with romantic elements written and/or directed by a man. I can see an SF film without romantic elements helmed by a man. But if I want to experience a woman’s take on either type? Forget about it: I. Have. No. Choice.

But wait — why should I forget about it?

The reason I ask is because after my hypothetical question above, I read this article by Lois McMaster Bujold at Fantasy Cafe. She points out the cyclical nature of the “women in SF/F discussion.” No doubt her observation is correct, but in her essay she also seems to imply-assuming I’m interpreting her words correctly–that it’s time to move on from the discussion. That it’s an established fact there are women authors in SF/F. What’s the point of regurgitating the same old topic, Bujold seems to be asking:

“I have begun to suspect the structure of these two conversations actually creates the pictures that their narratives demand, regardless of the facts, perhaps through some kind of mind-ray. In each case, the demand is dramatic: we see the stricken SF genre on the longest deathbed scene in history, or the poor-little-match-girl of female F&SF writers, crying out for the essayist to rescue them (and thus grab the heroic role)
[…]
The emperor: pretty well dressed, actually. Can we please move this conversation along? My pick would be: “Science in science fiction-let’s have some!””

I sensed as a veteran author she was tired of this discussion, and I can understand why. But then I realized the issue isn’t just about women in SF&F-it’s about what’s happening to women in SF&F.

For authors like Bujold, maybe this isn’t their fight anymore. Maybe it’s time to pass the torch because there are new battles to fight win.

When I learn about men who avoid reading books by women (and where would male authors be if women refused to read books by men, hmm?); anthologies and awards skewed toward male authors; the challenges faced by women geeks and ongoing fandom misogyny; gender imbalance in book reviews; insistence that female-authored books nominated for major awards couldn’t possibly have earned the recognition; accusations of female authors promoting too much; and graphic novel covers that sexually exploit the female body, I feel the conversation is not over-not by a long shot.

Author Mur Lafferty aptly stated:

“Women are here and we’re writing and we’re getting nominated for awards and we’re going to keep doing outrageous things like building fan bases and having opinions and perhaps even being rude at conventions or even WINNING awards.”

The ongoing challenges for women in SF&F are why I look to the future and what it could hold. The day a Hollywood studio releases an SF romance film with appeal across all quadrants and undisputed box office success is a day we experience a major milestone in the movement of establishing validation for women in SF&F. Not as an outlier, but as the norm.

We all have responsibility for the current lack of female-helmed SFR films. We’re also in a time, culturally, where it’s easier for women to take the reins. Difficult? Yes. But not impossible. As they say, ladies, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

Here’s an example of how much purchasing power and influence women have in SF&F:

The Host (2013) is a film adapted from a book by Stephenie Meyer. But here’s the really interesting part. Meyer first wrote Twilight, a paranormal romance that appealed to a whole bunch of women. I mean bunches of women. These women spent so much of their hard earned money on the Twilight franchise that Meyer had enough leverage to sell the film rights for The Host.

So because a massive group of women catapulted Twilight into the stratosphere, The Host became a viable Hollywood property. Now, the film was directed by a man, but the situation demonstrates how a group of women readers who like vampire romance propelled a science fiction romance film into being. That’s the type of power women wield as consumers.

Despite my enthusiasm and optimism for the future, I fully realize the immense number of obstacles facing women artists in all genre mediums. It’s difficult to know which set of actions we need to set in motion so a woman who wants to direct an SFR film can, in fact, achieve her goal (and it’s certainly difficult enough for anyone, male or female, as it is). She’ll need time, luck, and many, many resources along the way. She’ll also have to be ready when opportunity strikes.

But you know, I have this torch. I’ll help light the way for her as long as I can.

22 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Heather Massey on Looking To The Future: Women on Top of the SF&F World”

  1. Very interesting thoughts and post, Heather! As it happens, this falls right into a Gender Through Comic Books (mooc) course I’m taking… do I have you permission to link to your post? The topic touches on pretty much everything…

      1. It is quite interesting. One particularly neat video was showing how, in Iran, men are showing support for women through drawing comics and posting them everywhere. How comics have and have not changed. (seriously, it would be very easy to spend full-time reading and studying, which unfortunately, is just not possible)

  2. We do need more female directors taking on genre materials, I agree, Heather. Maybe the perception of Genre films as being robots, elves, boys toys and action (however wrong that perception is) keeps directors away?

    1. I think that’s part of it. And what few women directors who are around might not have an SF interest. In the future, the pool of candidates could change.

      Then there’s the issue of a good script… But if a woman is powerful enough she can write it herself, adapt a book, or bring on her own writer.

      Hollywood is also big on the 18-34 male demographic so an SFR film would do well to include some action, which many women like as well.

  3. I wish that the women with clout would aggressively look for books with the awesome female parts. I’ve read such great books that would make great movies. And they have the action for the guys. I’m really hoping that Linnea Sinclair’s movie from her book Down Home Zombie Blues makes it. I heard it is doing festivals now. It was directed by a man. I could so see Felicia Day doing an awesome SFR/great female part movie. Hmmm, maybe it will happen in youtube and on the internet? She’s doing some cool stuff on youtube.

    1. We certainly can’t rule out other mediums as a venue for SFR! I can see many advantages in building a wide base before reaching to the top of the pyramid.

      Fingers crossed for Felicia Day and other like-minded geeks.

    1. A major subplot of the film involves teens in love who have to get married because the world is ending. If The Terminator and The Matrix count, seems like Deep Impact would.

      I missed your post before replying, sorry to repeat your title suggestion.

    2. Oy, I barely remember the plot of that movie, let alone the romantic elements. :) But yeah, you’re right.

      I see from Leder’s IMDB listing that she’s been busy with SMASH. Ah, well.

  4. “There’s only one Kathryn Bigelow”

    True. But she also made a major studio SF/Romance movie that’s not on the list here, for some reason: Strange Days (1995).

      1. No prob, it came to mind immediately when I started reading your piece. Didn’t mean to take away from your main points: more women should make movies, more women should make genre movies, and…I also like romantic genre stories a lot. (I even read the Twilight books, which were not the greatest examples ever, but I didn’t go EW KISSY BOOKS either. I like kissy books.)

        1. I salute you enjoying kissy books and your comment prompted me to think about how much I, as a woman, love action scenes.

          I’d be interested in hearing from other women who get excited about action scenes/elements–has there ever been a Mind Meld about that topic? Women talking about their favorite action scenes in SF&F?

          I don’t know if Hollywood underestimates how many women like action or in fact has a fair grasp of the actual numbers. But an SFR film that delivers a solid romance along with some great action might be the way to go (as opposed to more character-driven stories like HAPPY ACCIDENTS).

          Or maybe I’m too biased in favor of action. I do love me some SHAOLIN SOCCER!

  5. Thought of some others, actually: surely Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact (1998) rates?

    If you extend the category to include fantasy: how about Big (1988)? Or Shrek (2001)?

  6. What an interesting topic, HM! To be honest, I’ve never considered who directs sci fi films. And I’d love to see more romance in my sci fi movies / series. And as for action…love it. It would be wonderful to see a movie which encompasses all of the following … action, adventure, suspense, conflict and…romance. Bound to be a winner with both m & f, surely?

    1. I’ve been on the hunt for good SFR films for decades, so I’m always researching behind-the-scenes information. I think it’s an important issue to consider because everyone deserves films told through the gaze that holds the most appeal for them. I have no problem with the heterosexual male gaze except when I don’t have a choice of anything but (or have very few choices for no compelling reason).

      A few male directors have done a terrific job blending SF & romance. For example, Colin Trevorrow’s SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is a great example of an SFR film (het romance), and it’s one with appeal for both genders.

      But more often than not, the romance in an SFR/romantic SF film directed by a man is viewed through the male gaze. I’d like to see more films told through both a gender neutral gaze and a female one, and I think women directors could deliver some interesting films in that regard.

  7. “Follow the money trail….” Fictional films range from expensive to extremely expensive to produce. Film projects require funding. The financiers control the content, control who makes the films, control who’s in the films, control the focus of the work…. Films which make lots of money get copied. Pitches for films which don’t have highly profitable predecessors/aren’t copycats/are not aimed at that all-important male demographic [heavy sarcasm on my part there…], tend to go nowhere.

    Judith Tarr’s had to go to Kickstarter for two works which publishers turned down because she’s female, not a male author, and her writing appeals to a demographic outside that oh-so-all-important male one, her wanting to write science fiction outside the conglomerate publisher boundaries, wound up with her going the Kickstrter route.

    1. All of which points to how important it is to keep this conversation going.

      Thanks for your input. I agree, the obstacles are astronomical. Filmmakers will have to get creative. *Wildly* creative. They may even have to “show them [Hollywood studios] the money” (i.e., build a fanbase/lucrative platform) before being given the freedom to make an SFR film (which hopefully will make money). Oh, the irony!

      But as they say, necessity is the *mother* of invention!

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