Science Fiction That's Not Only Anti-Woman, It's Anti-Science

Illustration for article titled Science Fiction Thats Not Only Anti-Woman, Its Anti-Science

You can't really be a fully fledged sexist prat without also being kind of a bad scientist. The science supporting the idea that women are less rational than men is looking flimsier all the time. So it's probably not a surprise that the outrageously sexist science fiction story that blew up the Internet, "Womanspace", is bad science as well as bad gender politics.


Because when you venture into the realm of the dumbest stereotypes, you leave all rationality behind. Next stop: caveman metaphors!


Top image: Benis Arapovic/

So here's what happened — the science journal Nature publishes science fiction from time to time, usually very very short stories, aka "flash fiction." Usually, Nature's forays into science fiction are excellent and science-focused. Until they suddenly decide to publish something like "Womanspace" by Ed Rybicki.

If Rybicki's story was a great piece of science fiction that happened to feature insanely retrograde 1950s stereotypes about women, there would be a bit of a dilemma here. It would call, perhaps, for a nuanced approach, praising the good depiction of science while lamenting the stereotypes.

Fortunately for those of us who like to write the occasional searing rant — and unfortunately for everybody else — Rybicki's story is A) not really about science, and B) not really much of a story at all. It's mostly a rambling series of "observations" about how women like to shop, and how men are Hunters and women are Gatherers, because we're all still basically homo erectus, deep down. And then it lurches into a really flimsy scientific conceit — which is not explained at all — in the final couple paragraphs. It's a shaggy dog story that turns into a "Here's An Idea, The End" story towards the end.


(The whole thing is an ultra-quick read, although I had to read it twice to make sure I hadn't missed something.)

To the extent that there's a science-fictional idea here, it seems to be that women defy rational explanation — so one has to venture into the realm of parallel universes just to find a rationale that fits. It's like trying to understand why you lose one sock in the drier, or why your cat wants to sit on your computer keyboard. Or maybe why it never rains unless you forgot your umbrella. Women are like that.

Illustration for article titled Science Fiction Thats Not Only Anti-Woman, Its Anti-Science

The Rybicki story seems to have gone online in late September, but the outcry only began in the last couple days, after Nature published two letters of complaint. (The image at left is an absolutely brilliant mockup by entomologist Alex Wild, posted over at Scientific American.)


There's a great roundup of all of the takedowns of "Womanspace" over at Contemplative Mammoth — they're all worth reading in their entirety.

Enough has been said about the sexist stereotyping elsewhere — as Galileo's Pendulum so eloquently puts it, the depiction of "incompetent and impractical (yet strangely brilliant and clever) men, and magical women with access to arcane knowledge about how to buy mysterious stuff like underwear."


So instead, I'd rather talk about the fact that this story is so anti-science.

There's the fact that the scientific method, in this story, consists of "we went on the internet and posted stuff, and then our Twitter friends figured out the secrets of the multiverse." Which, okay. Sure. Why not.


There's the fact that the whole story is about throwing Occam's Razor out the window, and replacing it with a rusty spoon.

But most of all, there's the fact that stereotypes, by their very nature, are unscientific. They are about lazy thinking, rather than empiricism. We reach for stereotypes because we feel hostility and annoyance towards a class of people, from deep in a pre-rational part of our brains, and the whole business of dealing-with-the-world-as-it-is seems like too much effort. This is really true of all stereotypes and clumsy generalizations — and we've seen over and over that when scientists start with a stereotype as a hypothesis, the result is usually crap science.


A big part of what makes science fiction great is that it dramatizes the search for the truth — both scientific truth, and the truth about who we are and our place in the universe. So yeah, anybody who loves science fiction ought to be disappointed by a story that's about stumbling towards a justification for the dumbest assumptions about human nature.

And finally, the story reinforces the sense that scientists are a tribe, rather than a profession. A homogenous, male-dominated tribe, who share certain cultural attitudes. This, more than anything, is why this particular science fiction story is bad for science... and why it's so weird that a science magazine chose to publish it. [via Genreville]


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*Puts on flame proof suit.*

I've always been kind of confused as to why the stereotype: "Men shop with an objective, women browse" is offensive to women. I'm open to my confusion being corrected. I don't see either stereotype as negative, but maybe browsing is really offensive somehow in some way that I'm not fully appreciating due to my privilege?

Even if you assume they are alluding to evolutionary psychology "Women gather, men hunt" I don't see how one or the other is intrinsically superior and therefore offensive to either gender. It would be like saying "Men like mugs, women like glasses". Ok, no idea if there is any basis to that, but whatever. In fact I would say if we were to strain the evolutionary analogy (assuming it even were true in the first place) the modern workforce is far more gathery than huntery putting males at a disadvantage.

Moving from a hunting and gathering to a hunting and agricultural society (in which in many cultures women worked the fields while the men hunted) is credited with the establishment of civilization. If anyone should be offended by the metaphor it should be men who are being stereotyped as incapable of navigating modern society or contributing to its advancement. It seems like all of the male stereotypes are completely counter productive to modern society. If I was to be offended by a stereotype it would be the "Women are irrational" variety... those are actually negative stereotypes.

I think the differences from any one person to any other person are fare larger than gender differences but conversely I don't think it's accurate to say that there aren't relatively predictable differences between the genders in a number of (mostly insignificant) areas.


I was thinking about that while watching the trailer for Pixar's Brave. It occured to me that I've never seen the movie about the boy who doesn't want to be a soldier he just wants to sit with the women and mend clothes but isn't allowed to. I don't see how being an archer and being able to hack someone's arm off with a sword is a more glorious ambition than a fashion designer.

It's like setting up a test for employment to be bench pressing weights. If you can bench press another 10 pounds you get a promotion. Every 'girl power' movie seems to be about the girl out-bench-pressing the men. But that's just accepting an already sexist and unfair test as legitimate!

The basis of Pixar's Brave should be that archery is a lousy way to pick a government not that women can also be archers. The reason we think fighting bears, hunting antelope and defeating enemy armies are great accomplishments is because men think they're better at those things and men have been largely in control. Even if men actually are better at those things it doesn't mean those things are better. The sexist premise is that they're better activities.

It's like car shopping vs clothes shopping. American men spend more money on cars than women. American women spend more money on clothes than men. That's not a stereotype, that's a fact. The truly sexist stereotype in that statement is that clothes shopping is inferior to car shopping. They're both fashion items. When sociologists get all hung up on whether or not women spend more on clothes than men they're just buying into the sexist assumption *that there is something wrong with that*.

Man: "Men have smaller breasts than women."

Woman: "Not true! Women can have smaller breasts than some men!"

Me: "No, no, no, no. It's a trap! There's nothing wrong with having breasts, arguing against the claim but not the premise that breasts are undesirable is implicitly accepting that breasts are something women shouldn't have."

I see debates like that all the time and it really annoys me since it feels to me like insidious sexism that gets the discriminee to be defensive over the details while ignoring the really offensive premise. And I guess that's how I feel about this article. Disagreeing about whether women like to browse seems to implicitly condemn that browsing is bad. Browsing isn't bad!