Science Fiction and stereotypes

By now, many of you have probably seen some of the recent issues going around the SFF world related to gender. If not, there was a backlash in the SFWA regarding recent bulletin issues. Some of this is explained by E. Catherine Tobler and a list of links was compiled by Jim C. Hines and his, Miscellaneous Thoughts on the Sexism Mess. Many authors stepped forward and told of their treatment in the SFF community, and that segues into the next kurfluffle. Ann Aguirre shared how she’s faced sexism, here. And wow, it’s a powerful post. In this, she mentions a post at the Story Hub, entitled, Talking Sci-Fi romance by Stuart Sharp.

Heather from the Galaxy Express had already written a rebuttal to Mr. Sharp, who then wrote his own rebuttal. Saying basically, he didn’t intend to denigrate SFR and his post was misinterpreted.

So. Taking a step back, does it matter if a particular person meant to say something that another author took as sexist? And if it wasn’t meant that way, should it be taken that way?

Well, yes. I had my own emotional reactions to much of this, one of which was a bit of disappointment that authors who write about the future, advanced governments, failed utopias, and a variety of social commentary would seem to be stuck in the past. And of course,  I felt commiseration with the women who’d faced blatant, in your face, mistreatment.

As for Mr. Sharp’s first article, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t intend to denigrate all SFR authors in one fell swoop, the issue comes to this: if you take his name off of it, so many SFR authors have heard it before. Someone else’s name could easily be put there. We’ve heard too many times that the Romance part of SFR means it’s inferior in some way. Or it’s not Science Fiction. This is why it struck such a nerve with many of the SFR authors who commented.

It’s a stereotype seen again and again. and placed side by side with the denigrating view many have of Romance, as by women for women, it takes on a flavor of sexism at times. (Yes. I absolutely know some wonderful SFR is written by men. One is a fellow blogger here! *Waves to Robert* Yet another stereotype that overlooks the individual).

Since we’re all here because we have a love of SF, I wondered, what is the science behind stereotypes?

For some time, researchers have said that humans have a need to categorize and label to make sense of the magnitude of data we all receive on a daily basis. On NPR, this issue is addressed in Stereotypes Are Only Human. The basis for the discussion is the premise: “Researchers say that our brains seem hardwired to create social categories that influence how we see others.”

What does that mean, if we seem to need to label and shelve all the data coming in, including other people? Are we all biased? Maybe.  In Where Bias Begins: The Truth About Stereotypes Psychology Today posits: “Stereotyping is not limited to those who are biased. We all use stereotypes all the time. They are a kind of mental shortcut.”

Yet, aren’t we all taught stereotyping is wrong? It is wrong if it put someone else at a disadvantage.

Creating the expectation that women aren’t into science or math–or science fiction–is dangerous. A recent study on the “stereotype threat” show how if people feel the pressure of a stereotype, they are in danger of underperforming. The research into this is astounding. For instance, giving college students a standardized test with the expectation all will do well will produce equal results no matter the ethnicity of the student. However, that changes simply by asking for “race” at the beginning of the test. Those who feel the pressure of a racial stereotype will underperform.

If we continue to segregate women and give this sense that women don’t like science fiction, we are creating a self-fulfilling stereotype. If we’re implying women aren’t as valid in some way as science fiction authors, we’re buying into a hurtful stereotype that needlessly adds a burden to those authors. And perhaps we’re driving away other authors and even readers, with this stereotype. I certainly believe it’s true of readers. We see time and again from some women that “they don’t read scifi.”

Even an author who’s never been groped at a SF con, or cut off, or called the “token female” on a panel, will feel this pressure applied to the group. If one woman is treated this way, then as a group, it impacts us all. All SFR authors will feel the pressure of the negative view and incorrect view that there’s no science rigor in SFR. (ha! have they seen my research pile? Or Kim Knox’s for that matter. She regularly tweets pics of her stacks and stacks of research books).

And yet, in SFR, the fiction itself should be considered on its own merit, despite the sex of the author or the genre label. Rather than being immediately labeled for being “lighter” because a Romance is involved, or even not techy enough or rigorous enough, as one whole group rather than as a critique of a particular work, is stereotyping in a negative way.

In the end, when we make negative sweeping generalizations about a genre, it impacts all the authors unfairly. What do we do? Recognize the problem and address it. We stop it. We speak up if we see another author treated unfairly, spoken over and disregarded on a con panel. Because if we’re denigrating others of our own group, we bring us all down. Yes, if we make negative stereotypes amongst ourselves, we are all brought down.

As individuals, women are as likely to be good at math, science, and author science fiction as the men. Men are as likely to be good at writing Romance. All authors, no matter the genre, research. They read the authors who came before them. They hone their artistry. They research black holes, hyper-drives, and quantum physics.

And we all stand on the shoulders of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, frequently considered the first science fiction author, and… a woman.


Ella Drake is a dark paranormal and science fiction romance author. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, & Goodreads. Her Science Fiction Romance, Desert Blade is a near-future post-apocalyptic romance from Carina Press. Currently available SFR: Silver Bound, Jaq’s Harp, Braided Silk & Firestorm on E’Terra. And now from Lyrical Press, MetalMark.


  1. Thank you for speaking to this! I’ve already been posting about this at length so I have nothing really to add here–except to note that I’m pleased to see another voice in the circle of Carina’s SF/F authors speaking up.

    1. I hope with so many speaking up, it’ll help us all address the problem.

  2. The more this comes to light, hopefully the more change will occur.

    1. I’m confident it will!

  3. Great post, Ella!

    Carina Press authors and those of us here on Contact-IF have been talking about this for awhile. Some of us even did a panel about it at CoyoteCon last year (Ella and I were on it, as well as KC Burn and Diane Dooley). For a transcript, click “Girl Cooties in SF”:

    When I began writing my first published novel, Stellarnet Rebel, in 2009, I had no idea what I would be up against. To me, my book (now series) was no different than Firefly, Star Trek or BSG — futuristic and romantic. I spent as much time researching as writing. Everything in the Stellarnet Series is based on science and fact — even the aliens. But, what a hard sell. Romance agents and publishers didn’t think it was romantic enough, while the SF crowd didn’t seem to want the romance and female POV. I am forever indebted to Carina Press and my editor Alison Dasho for giving it a chance. But, ever since, I’ve been caught up in this conflict. Happy to see the large-scale discussion happening now. And hoping that SF/SFR does become the “next thing” — that would be good for me, as both a reader and an author.

    1. I’m so glad Carina doesn’t have blinders when it comes to genre. There are so many great stories to tell and to read. Exactly where a story falls on the genre lines doesn’t limit it for them.

  4. Well said. Thanks so much for adding your voice to the conversation. *stands up and applauds*

  5. […] paranormal and science fiction romance author Ella Drake tackles the issues of stereotyping in Science Fiction and how it relates to the issues being discussed regarding Mr. Sharp’s articles, the SFWA […]

  6. I know being flippant doesn’t help, but when I see the “woman are going to ruin the SF genre” rants, what I really want to say is: “Yes, little boys. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.”

    1. Sometimes all we can do is view it with some amount of flippant humor!

  7. Oops…that’s “women”.

  8. Bravo, Ella. It’s great to see SFR gaining traction all the time; I was going to say legitimacy, but that’s bullshit because it’s been a legitimate genre all along. Sure, the quality/quantity of worldbuilding *and* romance varies considerably in SFR, but the same is true in both straight SF and Romance. SFR can be anything you want it to be, whatever your reading taste–you just have to find the right combination, the right author(s) to nail what you’re after.

    FWIW, I’ve read more female SF authors these past couple of years than male–to balance things out a bit, seeing as I never read any of the former growing up (sad fact, true for most boys)–and there’s no question in my mind that women can rock future worlds, tech, ideas, relationships and apostrophe-laden names equally as well as men. No question. Romance neither dilutes SF nor spells its doom. It’s simply another facet of SF, one that’s been underrepresented for too long. If you don’t like it, fair enough, but don’t go out of your way to undermine it for those who do–and especially for those who’ve yet to give it a try.

    I’m glad the SFWA issue caused such a furore. Prejudice is a vampire; and it doesn’t do too well in the sunlight.

    1. Well said Robert! Yes, prejudice is a vampire. May it die a fiery death!

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