I’ve written twelve tons in the last few days on science fiction tropes of women in the military, and I’ve discovered that my feelings about it come down to one thing:
Stop it. Just stop it.
Now, I know that’s largely unfair. Tropes are not, in and of themselves, a bad thing. Tropes can make a story work. They’re well-worn paths that give the reader an anchor, a sense that they know this story, that they can go ahead and immerse themselves without worrying that they’re going to get lost in the weeds. There are damn good reasons to use tropes, and even when there aren’t, it’s hard to avoid them completely, because someone’s going to see one where you didn’t intend it.
And I write military science fiction, or space opera, or soap opera, or something of that sort. So: yay, tropes! I’ve got bunches of Competent Professionals Who Can’t Manage Their Personal Lives, People Who Get Drunk Instead Of Dealing With Their Problems, and Folks Who Are Super Articulate When They Get Pissed Off. (I love that last one. I am never articulate when I get pissed off.)
But tropes of military women…hm. So often these seem to have much more to do with tropes of men in the military, and whether or not it’s easy for a female character to be molded in a way that will allow them to fit in. So: Tough lady, super-strong (or super-armor), stoic, sweary, insert promiscuity as necessary, but make sure she doesn’t bond with anybody, because ew, girl germs.
Is that unfair of me? I feel like that’s unfair. I can think of an awful lot of examples that don’t go Full Trope with their women characters. Take Vasquez, from Aliens (yes, I’m picking on a 30-year-old movie here). In some ways, she’s a Super Tropish Military Woman: uber-competent, fearless, mad as hell, never hesitant, sacrificing herself without a second thought. But at the same time…they fridged her boyfriend. (Or friend-friend, or whatever he was, but it’s very clear they were close.) I liked Drake, or at least the brief glimpses we had of him—but that was brilliant.
How would this have played if the genders had been reversed? They might’ve made it work. It’s an extraordinarily well-written film, in particular from a character perspective. But one more guy motivated to stoic battle/violent revenge by the sadness of a woman’s death? Boring. So overdone. (Maybe less overdone at the time. It makes me wonder if all of the relentless woman-fridging since then is a way of reassuring audiences of books and movies alike that it’s OK, we won’t be subverting your tropes too much, you can relax. And I say this as someone whose first book fridges a guy’s mother on page 5, so I’m in no position to throw trope stones.)
But let’s talk about the girl germs thing, because if you look at the kinds of personality traits that make a female character “too girly” for the trope, you can pretty much turn around and find a convincing, well-written male soldier somewhere who’s embraced all of those traits. Trope-wise, male soldiers are allowed to have emotional bonds, to save one person at the expense of all the others because it’s someone they love, to make bad choices out of desperation, to screw up for foolish, selfish reasons and still be heroes by the end of the story. Male soldiers get to be entire, fully-realized people and still be accepted as soldiers. Female soldiers better be tough guys, because otherwise, wow, shouldn’t they stay out of the fighting?
It’s the usual catch-22: Be feminine, but also be tough, and no, we didn’t mean that way, get out of our sandbox. Which is why I’m feeling stop it about it.
The problem isn’t tropes of military women. Tropes of military women are fine. (Don’t get me started on the “women who act like men” nonsense. I have ranted on that before, and I will again. TL;DR: It is a meaningless phrase and don’t waste my time with it.) The problem is when they’re used to insert female characters into military tropes that are centered on stereotypical masculinity. If you start with the assumption that a military unit needs to be a bunch of stoic, smart-assed MMA experts, you’re not going to have a lot of range to work with. Add to that the girl germs problem, and…well, you’re pretty stuck.
To subvert your Military Woman trope, you’ve got to subvert your Military trope. Which means subverting your Military Man trope, and probably your Man Trope in general.
The danger with tropes of all types is that they represent one small subset of the human experience. They can make for indispensable storytelling building blocks, but as a writer, if you get lazy, it’d be like Drake seeking revenge for Vasquez: realistic enough, but ultimately not all that interesting.
My paternal grandfather was a four-star general. He taught me to spit watermelon seeds, and he loved our cat so much that we left her with him for an entire summer. My maternal grandfather was a major general in the Air Force. He was an accomplished magician, and taught me numerous card tricks (and swore me to secrecy—sorry!). He taught me to play blackjack, and dealt off the bottom of the deck so I could beat my brother.
Tropes notwithstanding, there are no typical soldiers, male or female. If you’re going to integrate your tropes, you’ve got to throw off the stereotypes in both directions, or you’re just welding big, clunky story elements together. Are there plots that require it? Sure. Are there authors out there who can get away with it? Absolutely.
But in most cases? Just stop it.
Elizabeth Bonesteel began making up stories at the age of five, in an attempt to battle insomnia. Thanks to a family connection to the space program, she has been reading science fiction since she was a child, and is the author of The Cold Between and Remnants of Trust from Harper Voyager. She currently works as a software engineer and lives in central Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and various cats. Follow her on Twitter @liz_monster.
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