An Entreaty to Gamergate: Giving Ourselves Permission to Change for an Inclusive Video Game Culture

Originally, I wrote a draft of this essay last year for a special roundtable on important issues in “play and competition” for the journal NANO: New American Notes Online. However, I wanted to send these thoughts into the world as soon as possible—especially in light of tonight’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode based on the experiences of Gamergate victims (NBC, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 9:00PM). I will write an update to the essay below as part of an upcoming Nano roundtable in a future issue of that journal.

If you are not familiar with Gamergate or how it has developed over time, you can catch up with these reports: Gawker; The New York Times here, here, and here; The Guardian; Newsweek; The Washington Post; and ArsTechnica (lots of coverage).

An Entreaty to Gamergate: Giving Ourselves Permission to Change for an Inclusive Video Game Culture

Jason W. Ellis

I recently visited Adam Yauch Park near where I live in Brooklyn, New York, because I sought inspiration for this essay about inclusion and video game culture. As you might know, Yauch, whose stage name was M.C.A. and who was a founding member of the hip-hop group The Beastie Boys, passed away from cancer in 2012. I felt that visiting this park in a corner of Brooklyn where I now call home would help ground my thinking about the way exclusionary actions and beliefs threaten and continue to threaten video game culture as a community for anyone who likes to play games, talk about games, and build games. What drew me to this park is that fact that M.C.A. and The Beastie Boys represent something that I feel to be very important to the human condition: the ability to change over time, admit to past mistakes, and make amends for those transgressions. As you might know, The Beastie Boy’s infused sexist attitudes (e.g., “Girls” and other lyrics—notably on songs from their first album) and homophobic prejudices in a proposed album title (Licensed to Ill was originally titled Don’t Be a F****t). As they grew older and listened to challenges from their fans and critics, they reflected on their past actions and changed their attitudes and behavior for the better—to be more inclusive and respectful to others by changing lyrics during performances (Tyler-Ameen par. 10) and writing socially and politically progressive songs on their later albums (e.g., “Song for the Man” on Hello Nasty, and “It Takes Time to Build,” “Right Right Now Now” on their album To the 5 Boroughs, and “In a World Gone Mad,” released online as an mp3 download).

The Beastie Boy’s shift toward inclusivity and away from the exclusivity of their early career provides a useful guide for thinking about one of the most pressing issues in video game culture made paramount by the largely misogynistic Gamergate movement. In particular, two songs come to mind where M.C.A. uses his low, course voice—the most mature voice of the trio—to establish The Beastie Boy’s program for inclusivity. In “Sure Shot” from 1994’s Ill Communication, M.C.A. sings, “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and sisters and wives and friends/I want to over my love and respect to the end.” These lines promote the idea that empathy, understanding, and welcoming constitute respect for others. Related to this is an idea that comes from “It Takes Time to Build” from 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs, where M.C.A. lays it down: “Waiting like a batter who is on deck/When it’s time to wreck shop then shop I’ll wreck/So let’s calibrate and check our specs/We need a little shift on over to the left.” While M.C.A. explicitly takes issue with Bush-II era politics, his entreaty for a shift to the left—of opening minds instead of closing them, of listening instead of speaking, of empathizing instead of victim blaming—is something that we must continue to strive toward if we are to move into the future constructively rather than destructively.

The ongoing actions taken by misogynistic Gamergate supporters and instigators against feminist voices—voices calling for equality and righting cultural stereotypes, prejudices, and attitudes—in the video game community demonstrate the pressing need of inclusivity. I define inclusivity to be the unconditional acceptance of everyone as members of a community of game developers, game players, and game fans. In all of these overlapping groups, inclusivity particularly applies to the unconditional acceptance of historically marginalized groups from gaming culture, including women, LGBTQ persons, people of color, and persons with disabilities. To illustrate the marginalization as evident in the production and consumption of games, consider that while 48% of game players are female (ESA 3), only 22% of game developers are female (IGDA, Developers 9). Or, as Patrick Yacco reports from an interview with game designer and critic Mattie Brice: “While there is little data regarding LGBT characters and players, Brice believes that ‘most developers find it too much of a risk to include queer people in games, even when it comes to avatars with little to no narrative arc in the games’ stories,’ leading to a paucity of queer characters. She adds, ‘The majority of queer people are stereotypes many people are tired of seeing’” (Yacco par. 8). Or, at 79%, the overwhelming majority of game developers are white (ESA 9), and at 75.1%, the overwhelming majority of video game characters are white (Williams et. al. 825). This is despite the fact that some evidence shows that African-American and Latino gamers spend more time playing (Packwood par. 8), are more likely to purchase games more frequently than their white counterparts (Good par. 3), and have a greater percentage of homes with video games than their white counterparts (Nielsen 5). Furthermore, Williams et. al. conclude their study of gender and race that, “Nevertheless, the current study demonstrates that the world of game characters is highly unrepresentative of the actual population and even of game players. For developers, this is a missed opportunity. For players, it is a potential source of identity-based problems” (Williams et. al. 831). Or, the fact that the conclusion of the IGDA’s 2004 white paper on game accessibility begins with this paragraph acknowledging the need for political will to potentially overcome financial over ethical concerns: “It goes without saying that the efforts of game accessibility must have a realistic financial grounding, otherwise they risk not become implemented in mainstream games. What is important is: to achieve this we need to work on a political level” (IDGA, Accessibility 26). Yet, the report backpedals in the next paragraph and again asserts the financial calculus: “Efforts of individuals or small companies to create accessible games are important and interesting from many perspectives. However, to get mainstream games to be accessible to as many as possible we need first to resolve the financial issues, which are related to the time and effort accessibility development takes, and the increased number of sales you get by doing it” (IDGA, Accessibility 26). This sampling represents only a small part of the quantified data regarding marginalization in gaming culture. Reading online screeds, comments, and tweets reveals the semi-anonymous vitriol against inclusion of these groups. Listening to the lived experiences of these marginalized peoples and the challenges to building their own communities and attempting to enter exclusionary communities provides a deeper insight that these other sources cannot capture.

Obviously, one person excluded from gaming culture might occupy one or more of these marginalized identities. Their exclusion from gamer culture takes the form of misogyny, homophobia, racism, religious intolerance, and an overwhelming lack of empathy, understanding, or even acknowledgement. Some exclusive practices are organized by anonymous mobs of ethically unhinged persons who threaten anyone, any idea, or any game seen as antagonistic or different than those games celebrating male power fantasies supported by violence.

For example, Gamergate (or #gamergate on Twitter) continues to play out online and in real life (of course, both being lived experience). What began as false allegations by an ex-boyfriend against the award winning indie game developer of Depression Quest, Zoe Quinn, exploded into an unrelenting assault on women and their supporters dubbed by Gamergate supporters as “Social Justice Warriors.” Organizing on sites including 4Chan and Github, Gamergate supporters organized attacks against anyone seen as potentially upending, challenging, or critiquing male power fantasies in games or game fandom. Instead of recognizing the work of Quinn and others (such as developer of Revolution 60, Brianna Wu; editor-at-large of Gamasutra, Leigh Alexander; or founder of Feminist Frequency and creator of “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” video series, Anita Sarkeesian) as adding to gaming culture, they were seen as threats to the status quo needing silencing or in the most extreme elimination. Continuing over the past several months (though, the threats extend further back), people have been doxed (having their private information released online), harassed in the worst possible ways, and threatened with assault, rape, and murder. Even more alarmingly, as of a few moments ago, even mass murder was leveled as a threat against Utah State University where Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak. She has since canceled, because the police declined to perform security checks due to Utah’s open-carry-gun laws, which understandably made Sarkeesian feel unsafe in an already threatening situation (Wingfield par. 2). As M.C.A. entreats us, “the disrespect to women has got to be through.”

The disrespect and exclusion of women from game culture (space here does not permit me to further describe other examples such as the “fake geek girl”) is only one (albeit alarmingly so) component of the overall exclusion of Othered individuals from gaming culture. Exclusion leveled against women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, ethnic groups, and religious persons confront largely explicit exclusion from participating in games culture writ large. Stereotypes presented in message board visual memes, hate speech written and spoken, and exclusive cliques, teams, and guilds all serve to warn marginalized persons that they are unwelcomed participants in game culture.

The other form that exclusion takes, of course, is implicit. On the one hand, these are the game design decisions that developers, publishers, or advertisers make (the tail wags the dog as surely in video games as in other spheres). They include choices such as: Who is the hero? Who is the villain? Who are non-playable characters (NPCs)? Where does the story take place? What level of control do players have in the visual appearance, gender, sexual orientation, race, etc. of their playable character? How central are these considerations to the development of the narrative and its interactive progression? When developers are overwhelming white and male (cite), they might not know from their privileged position how important considerations are for audience identification, engagement, and empowerment afforded by providing the possibility of identifying with in-game characters, nuanced and informed handling of cultures and identities as part of a game narrative, and supporting an inclusive and respectful community of gamers.

Another implicit concern has to do with issues of accessibility and accommodation. To what extent are video games and video game platforms playable by persons with disabilities? To what extent are gamer communities receptive to the voices and needs of gamers with disabilities? Do message boards for game fan communities adhere to usability guidelines to enable everyone regardless of challenges to participate in this shared culture?

These exclusions—explicit and implicit—are opportunities for us to confront and correct them in the work that we do together as faculty, students, and the public. Video games are an important part of our culture that we should bring into the classroom as new texts to experience, confront, question, and in a word, grok (meaning to understand completely and holistically within a larger historical and cultural context—see Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land). Together with our students, we can explore how games and game culture are a part of real life and lived experience. We can discover how we learn from video games and how we have lessons to offer to others about games as they currently exist and as they have yet to be made. We can critique how game culture as it has evolved to be exclusionary is not how it has always been or how it always will be. Simply helping our students understand that their choice to behave a certain way to others in game culture is a decision that they should make after having the tools and knowledge to make informed and ethical decisions will be an important shift, as M.C.A. puts it, “over to the left.”

Deeply embedded in this challenge is an observation by the celebrated science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who writes, “A human being without the proper empathy or feeling is the same as an android built so as to lack it, either by design or mistake. We mean, basically, someone who does not care about the fate that his fellow living creatures fall victim to; he stands detached, a spectator, acting out by his indifference John Donne’s theorem that ‘No man is an island,’ but giving the theorem a twist: That which is a mental and moral island is not a man” (Dick 211). For Dick, it is our capacity for empathy that makes us human and not machine-like androids. However, he cautions us that human beings can become android-like if we lack empathy and ignore the suffering of others. Social justice advocate Mark Bracher argues in his body of work that literature is one important avenue to teach students how to feel empathy for the suffering of others. In a recent essay, he asserts, “From the perspective of these and other philosophers [Sandra Bartky, Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, and Robert Solomon], the question of how the study of literature might contribute to the production of social justice is thus not a question of how it can inculcate new values, provide new knowledge, or develop new analytical skills but of how it might help people overcome their indifference to, and instead experience compassion for, the billions of people who live in misery on our planet. If literary study could systematically help students overcome their indifference to the suffering that surrounds them and experience compassion for the sufferers, it would make a significant contribution to social justice” (Bracher 471). Likewise, I argue that video games provide an even more important cultural point of contact for these issues and for teaching students how to empathize, because 1) video game culture as it now stands is overwhelmingly exclusionary and provides many engaging teachable examples, 2) the interactive aspect of game play provides different kinds of characterological, narratological, and psychological engagements on the part of the player, and 3) video games are significant carriers of culture for an increasing number of people worldwide of all age groups.

As part of our engagement with students playing video games, we need to help them reflect on what they do in video games. Of course, this is not a concern for all video games, but it is for the popular first-person shooter (FPS), real-time strategy (RTS), and other games brokering violence. In my previous work, using cosmopolitanism as a lens is one approach to rethinking and re-engaging a video game apparently meant to be something else. For example, World of Warcraft. “which is overtly about war, death, and defense of one’s own race and faction, carries an implicit cosmopolitanism hidden within the game’s mechanics (quests), in-game achievements (associated with travel and exploring the entire world of Azeroth), and the over-arching game narrative in which the two opposing factions, which are comprised of the only playable races, tentatively cooperate against the subversively encroaching Burning Legion. Furthermore, it is these cosmopolitan imbued in-game elements that may serve an educational and pedagogical function for game players” (Ellis 157). That is, helping students see others as human beings sharing the same world despite arbitrary borders. More to the point with Dick’s ideas is the need of teaching empathy. While video games are often registered as mindless fun, we need to work with our students to identify with and consider Othered characters in games so that they might feel something instead of tuning out their empathy for others and disabling their ethical compass. Through games, we can help our students be more human and less like androids. Similarly, we can work with the public using outreach in person or with new media outreach (Twitter, YouTube, blogging, etc.).

As far as how digital play might play a role in restructuring how we structure learning, I am sure that it will in some way. More learning is taking place now via games and reward/achievement systems than ever before. More research is taking place on how the reward centers of the brain might be harnessed to improve learning outcomes, too. My concern about these developments is three fold. First, we need qualitative alongside quantitative assessment of student learning outcomes, and we need to be a part of the process that develops the implementation of these pedagogical methods instead of having them imposed from less qualitative disciplines. Second, we cannot ignore the material conditions of our students and their access to technology that supports studying digital play. Also, we cannot assume anything about our students’ backgrounds and experiences that inform their engagement with digital play. Third, we cannot ignore the material conditions of the faculty who design, implement, and improve gamification of learning environments. Faculty cannot be exploited to pursue the next buzz-worthy wave of digital pedagogy.

Finally, I think the most important lesson for all involved—faculty, students, and the public—is that, like The Beastie Boys, we are not bound by our initial conditions. M.C.A. and his band mates Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) and Mike-D (Michael Diamond) became who they are through learning and experience. In 1986 when their first major album License to Ill was released, they were disrespectful towards women and LGBTQ people, but they became inclusionary over time—admitting to past mistakes and misjudgments and working to put things right through their rhymes, public work, and open acknowledgments. For example, Ad-Rock published an open letter to the gay and lesbian community in Time Out New York on December 16, 1999, in which he wrote, “There are no excuses. But time has healed our stupidity. … We hope that you’ll accept this long overdue apology” (qtd. in MTV News Staff par. 1). The Beastie Boys can serve as an exemplary model for how we should all aspire to be—permit ourselves to change our minds based on new evidence, connect with people who we might not have made connections with before, attempt to understand others who we might believe are different than ourselves, welcome others, and finally, encourage others to follow our example and actions as inclusive teachers, designers, makers, players, and critics.

Works Cited

The Beastie Boys. “It Takes Time to Build.” To the 5 Boroughs. Capital, 2004. MP3.

—. “Sure Shot.” Ill Communication. Capital, 1994. MP3.

Bracher, Mark. “Teaching for Social Justice: Reeducating the Emotions Through Literary Study.” jac 26.3-4 (2006): 463-512. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.

Dick, Philip K. “Man, Android, and Machine.” In The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. 211-232. Print.

Ellis, Jason W. “Engineering a Cosmopolitan Future: Race, Nation, and World of Warcraft.” In The Postnational Fantasy: Essays on Postcolonialism, Cosmopolitics and Science Fiction. Eds. Masood Ashraf Raja, Jason W. Ellis, and Swaralipi Nandi. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print. 156-173.

Entertainment Software Association. Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry: 2014 Sales, Demographic, and Usage Data. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Good, Owen. “Survey: Hispanic Gamers More Inclined to Buy Games.” Kotaku. 1 April 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

MTV News Staff. “Beastie Boy Apologizes for Past Lyrics.” 17 December 1999. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.

International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Accessibility in Games: Motivations and Approaches. 29 June 2004. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

—. Developer Satisfaction Survey 2014: Summary Report. 25 June 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Nielsen. Ethnic Trends in Media. March 2009. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Packwood, Damon. “Hispanics and Blacks Missing in Gaming Industry.” New American Media. 13 Sept. 2011. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Tyler-Ameen, Daoud. “Adam Yauch, Co-Founder of The Beastie Boys, Dies.” NPR. 4 May 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

Williams, Dmitri, Nicole Martins, Mia Consalvo, and James D. Ivory. “The Virtual Census: Representations of Gender, Race, and Age in Video Games.” New Media Society 11.5 (2009): 815-834. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Wingfield, Nick. “Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in ‘Gamergate’ Campaign.” The New York Times 15 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Yacco, Patrick. “Game Developers Conference Tackles LGBT Representation in Video Games.” The Advocate. 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 4/5, The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik Conference Paper, November 29, 2008

This is the fiftieth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

If I had to pick one seminar at Kent State University as being the most important to my shifting my thinking and rigor into running gear, it would have to be Professor Tammy Clewell’s Methods in the Study of Literature class. Methods is the introductory class that all PhD students have to take. Each year, a different faculty member teaches this class, and I am glad that the planets aligned for me to take this class from Professor Clewell. My joy for taking this class derives from Professor Clewell’s laser-beam accurate and calmly delivered criticisms. She expected rigor in our work, but she delivered her appraisals and commentary kindly. There was no malace in her demeanor—only the daily expectation of meticulousness, demonstration of preparedness, and application of theory. Her candor about higher education and the challenges of scholarship were eye-opening and appreciated. I was very happy to take another class from Professor Clewell the following year and even more so when she agreed to lead my postmodern theory exam and join my dissertation committee. For all of her efforts teaching, advising, and advocating, I am eternally grateful.

This is the fourth of five Recovered Writing posts from Professor Clewell’s Methods seminar. Each post is one project from the seminar. They should be considered parts of a semester-long process of entering professional discourse. These are attempts at learning, arguing, and improving. The culmination of this work is the fifth project/post in this subseries—a publishable-length essay, “The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik.”

While my third project’s argument was a complete disaster, the feedback that I received on it enabled me to find a better approach supported by a stronger argument and more persuasive evidence in the fourth project. I went through three drafts before arriving at the conference-length paper included below.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Methods in the Study of Literature

29 Nov. 2008

The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik

Ubik has generated a significant amount of discussion in the thirty-eight years following its initial publication in 1969. Brian McHale includes the novel as an emblematic example of New Wave Science Fiction (SF) that represents, “SF and postmodernist mainstream fiction [becoming] one another’s contemporaries, aesthetically as well as chronologically, with each finally beginning to draw on the current phase of the other, rather than on some earlier and now dated phase” (228). Patricia Warrick most lucidly describes the postmodern aspects of Ubik in her textual and biographical analysis of the novel in which she says:

The power of Ubik…lies in Dick’s perfect yoking of content and form. He is writing of entropy, of a time when things fall apart, when death begins to eat at social structures and at the individuals who live in society, and he uses a form that is itself decayed and nearly worn out. He writes of the struggle between order and entropy, and the form becomes the content. (146)

Beneath the level of form creating content, most of the discussion involving the novel primarily involves economics and class structures. Darko Suvin argues for an elaborate structure to Dick’s writing periods by studying his, “use of characters as narrative foci and as indicators of upper and lower social classes or power statuses” (par. 2). Fredric Jameson continues the discussion on Ubik with a Marxist analysis, and he notes Dick’s postmodern dissolution of history when he writes, “Consider Dick’s capacity to render history. Consumer society, media society, “the society of the spectacle,” late capitalism–whatever one wants to call his moment–is striking in its loss of a sense of the historical past and of historical futures” (346). However, these analyses stop short of any sustained commentary and critique of gender in the text. Peter Fitting tacitly engages this when he writes, “Ubik is…a deconstruction of the metaphysical ideologies and the metaphysical formal implications of the classical bourgeois novel” (par. 14). His critique of the “metaphysical formal implications of the classical bourgeois novel” has to do with the nature of reality and linear time rather than other aspects of the bourgeois novel replicating and reinforcing accepted gender roles. Christopher Palmer talks about sex and sexuality, but only in terms of male sexual fulfillment. He connects sex to consumer advertising when he writes, “Joe Chip’s quest for sexual pleasure strikes us as grubby in the circumstances of Ubik, and anyway is continually frustrated…The implication seems to be that one can find Ubik–which is simultaneously a deity; the ultimate, shiny, and wonder-working, but insubstantial consumer product; and the promise evanescently behind every consumer product. But sexual satisfaction is not to be had” (57). My question then is for whom is that satisfaction intended? In this reading, the answer clearly is for men, thus promoting patriarchic hegemony. Ubik becomes a story for and about men as well as men’s “needs.” Yes, there are women, but they are made subservient to the needs of men and the narrative progression centering on the favored narrators: Joe Chip, and his employer, Glen Runciter. Krista Kasdorf’s recent work brings us one step closer to investigating female subjectivity in Ubik through an analysis of thermodynamic entropy in Dick’s novel and Pamela Zoline’s 1967 feminist SF short story, “The Heat Death of the Universe.” Kasdorf, extending the metaphor of entropy to women, writes, “the young attractive women of Ubik can be combined into one type based on function instead of merely by physical description–they are the Maxwell’s demons of the text, and their usefulness is determined by their willingness to expend energy for men” (39). Despite the intriguing aspects of her argument about the function of women in Ubik, I disagree with her reductionist argument to combine the “young attractive women” into one type. Instead, I argue that the individual representations of the women in Ubik serves as a more useful model to critique and understand gender roles within the novel and their replication and commentary on the real world–historically or in the here-and-now. Therefore, the question stands: How does Dick (re)present women in Ubik, and what does that representation mean?

To answer this question, Joanna Russ’ significant Second Wave Feminist essay from 1974, “The Image of Women in Science Fiction,” serves as an important starting point to engage Ubik and its representation of women. Her essay is published only five years after Ubik, and one year before her own groundbreaking New Wave SF work, The Female Man. In the essay, Russ argues that the majority of SF lacks an imaginative extrapolation of sex, gender, and sexuality. She summarizes her paper by writing:

The title I chose for this essay was “The Image of Women in Science Fiction.” I hesitated between that and “Women in Science Fiction” but if I had chosen the latter, there would have been very little to say.

There are plenty of images of women in science fiction.

There are hardly any women. (Russ 57)

For Russ, “images of women” lack, “speculation about the personality differences between men and women, about family structure, about sex, in short about gender roles” (54). Instead of imagining gender roles other than those rooted in the past or present, she finds that what’s often generated is, “the American middle class with a little window dressing” (54). However, there are some examples of extrapolation that require biological oddities or reengineering rather than a re-imagining of the interaction between men and women in a future space.

For all the literary experimentation as well as critiques of capitalism and subjective experiential reality in Ubik, women are subjected and subordinated to male hegemony through the reinforcement of “images of women.” First, all of the women, save one briefly in chapter five, are subordinated to narration and internal dialog of the favored male protagonists. Without a deeper, psychological voice, the women characters are flattened into images. They lack the depth of their male counterparts. Second, the women are immediately identified by physical appearance and sexual attributes, most notably through the character Ella Runciter. And third, the women are literally miscounted in relation to male characters–more on this later.

Ella Runciter, like the other female characters in Ubik, is constructed as a mere image, because she is presented and restrained by the sexualized descriptions of her body and sexual desirability. Her full name, revealed in the penultimate chapter, is Ella Hyde Runciter. She is framed as the perpetually twenty-year-old dead wife of Glen Runciter. Also, her first name, Ella, sounds like a child’s name, possibly derived from Stella, Isabella, or perhaps whimsically, Cinderella. Her maiden name, Hyde, brings up two questions: Is she hiding from the real world in half-life, or does male authority, signified by her husband, hide her away from the world through the masculinized half-life technology provided by the Beloved Brethren Moratorium?

There are two “encounters” with Ella in Ubik, and each is loaded with physical images of the character, revealing her subjection to male hegemony. The first appearance of Ella takes place in chapter two, when Glen visits her at the half-life moratorium to speak with her on dire business matters. She is described as, “upright in her transparent casket, encased in an effluvium of icy mist…with her eyes shut, her hands lifted permanently toward her impassive face. It had been three years since he had seen Ella, and of course she had not changed. She never would, now, at least in the outward physical way” (Dick 11). Ella is described most effectively as Runciter’s “dead wife,” because she is encased in a casket, with her hands posed just-so in relation to her “impassive face.” The casket conceals her “pretty and light-skinned” body, and her closed eyelids cover her “bright and luminous blue” eyes (Dick 12). Additionally, her “impassive face” indicates that she lacks agency on the real world. Runciter chooses when to visit with Ella, without any apparent way for Ella to request or demand an audience with her husband who hasn’t visited her in three years. In terms of her appearance to someone inhabiting the real world, she cannot change “in the outward physical way,” further reinforcing her lack of dynamism, choice, and ultimately, future in the real.

Ella, in the moratorium described above, and in the world of half-life, is a character constantly seen rather than seeing. Dick describes Ella very differently in the next-to-last chapter, when a dying and increasingly sexually frustrated Joe Chip, riding in a cab, spots Ella walking along the sidewalk. The narration illustrates her as a “girl” with a “slow, easy gait,” “window-shopping,” and she’s “a pretty girl, with gay blond pigtails, wearing an unbuttoned sweater over her blouse, a bright red skirt and high-heeled little shoes” (Dick 203). In two sentences she’s described as a “girl,” despite her twenty years, and her body is eroticized by the juxtaposition of “gay blond pigtails,” implying youth, and her adult attire modified by the words: unbuttoned, bright red, and little.

Ella is made more of an objectified image when Chip learns her identity, and exclaims, “You’re the other one…Jory destroying us, you trying to help us. Behind you there’s no one, just as there’s no one behind Jory. I’ve reached the last entities involved” (Dick 206). Chip objectifies her doubly, first as a sexual object with “gay blond pigtails,” and now, as an “entity.” She responds to Chip by saying, “I don’t think of myself as an ‘entity’; I usually think of myself as Ella Runciter,” to which Joe adds, “but it’s true” (Dick 206). Granted, there is a sarcastic element to Ella’s response, but nevertheless, it’s interesting that she “usually [thinks] of [herself] as Ella Runciter,” than absolutely declaring herself as a human subject identified as Ella Runciter. Also, her agreeing with Chip, further implicates herself in her own objectification as an “entity” and not a human subject. Instead of a female subject, or a human being, she is reduced to existence as an “entity.” An entity usually refers to a thing, rather than a person. This is an objectified labeling by the favored male narrator enforcing the real world’s male hegemony on Ella within the psychological, dream-like world of half-life, which in a sense, is an even more despicable enterprise considering that her psyche is undermined in addition to her body.

The final aspect of Ella’s creation as an “image” rather than a woman comes when she reveals her plan to Chip about his future in half-life. She tells him, “I have a very selfish, practical reason for assisting you, Mr. Chip; I want you to replace me. I want to have someone whom Glen can ask for advice and assistance, whom he can lean on” (Dick 206). This seemingly innocuous scheme reveals the facsimile nature of Ella’s existence. She pointedly tells Chip that she wants him to replace her. Granted, she’s nearing her point of departure from half-life into rebirth, but the straight-faced manner in which she delivers this plan indicates that her role as provider of Ubik and advice, as well as role as wife, is interchangeable. Interchangeability implies commodification and objectification. Despite her youthful, sexualized entrance on the stage of half-life, her plan for replacement eliminates any other desires whether they are personal fulfillment, sexual, or otherwise. Therefore, she, by this admission of replacement, relinquishes any possibility of human subjectivity and she is laid bare as an “image of women in science fiction.”

Considering Ella as an “image of women in science fiction,” is there the possibility of a redemptive reading of Ubik? Reading Ella as a cyborg as defined by Donna Haraway has the potential for interpreting her image in the novel. Haraway defines a cyborg as, “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (149). Ella is transformed through the technological mediation of her body on cold-pac life support, and the audial technology that facilitates the conversion of her thoughts into voice, and a live speaker’s voice into thought–what Runciter calls, “impediments to natural communication” (Dick 12). She is a “hybrid of machine and organism,” because her life and interaction with the real world is made possible and mediated by technology. Additionally, Ella is repeatedly referred to as a machine in need of “[cranking] up” and Runciter fears she’s “worn out” (Dick 7 and 12). Through her life encased in cold-pac, as her being seen as a body within a casket, she is termed more machine than human. The hybridization of half-life as being between life and death, mirrors Ella’s own hybridity of flesh and machine. Furthermore, Ella’s subjectivity as a cyborg is, in Haraway’s terms, “a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century” (149). It should be noted that Haraway’s Third Wave Feminism affinity politics structured around the idea of the cyborg comes much later historically than the text to which I’m applying it. As such, my reading of the image of women in Ubik reveals something about the acceptance and reinforcement of stereotyped gender roles in culture perpetuated by works of SF.

In the preceding examples, Ella is represented as an image and not a realized subject with her own voice. Connected to her image is the sexual language surrounding her cyborg encapsulation in half-life. Haraway points out that, “far from signaling a walling off of people from other living beings, cyborgs signal disturbingly and pleasurably tight couplings” (152). Nothing could be further from the truth in Ubik. Half-lifers’ intermingle minds and experiences through a shared hallucinatory experience. Unfortunately, this facilitates what the moratorium owner describes as, others “may have gotten into her because of her weakened state. She’s accessible to almost anyone” (Dick 18). The phrases “gotten into her” and “she’s accessible to almost anyone” are sexually laden and imply rape, particularly considering the “getting into her” involved an adolescent boy. Therefore, Ella’s cyborg subjectivity is more of a disturbing bodily nightmare than a political space of “pleasurably tight couplings.”

To conclude, it appears that images of women in Ubik just don’t count. This is alarmingly illustrated by a mathematical error in chapter four. It begins with Runciter gazing about his office, and thinking, “And so it went: five females and–he counted–five males. Someone was missing” (Dick 57). Prior to this, four female characters are named in the office: Edie Dorn, Tippy Jackson, Francesca Spanish, and Wendy Wright, as well six males. Also, he only pauses to count the men (albeit incorrectly). Following the passage above, the narration continues, “Ahead of Joe Chip the smoldering, brooding girl, Patricia Conley, entered. That made the eleventh; the group had all appeared” (Dick 57). Pat Conley increases the number of female inertials to five, whereas in the incorrect count, there should be six female inertials. Instead, there is an unacknowledged weighting of inertials towards men. This undocumented mistake or purposeful inclusion begs the question: Do women in Ubik really count? Ella Runciter’s loss of agency as a half-lifer would indicate no. Wendy Wright’s claim as the first of the team to die a lonely, accelerated entropic death further demonstrates this. And, Pat Conley’s false belief of destroying Runciter’s team with the use of her time traveling psionic power also implies the inability of women to act on the strange world of Ubik. Therefore, these images of women lack signification afforded to (male) human subjects caught in the subjective postmodern world Dick (re)creates in Ubik, and reinforces what Russ decried as the “cultural stereotype” of “masculinity equals power and femininity equals powerlessness” (55).

Works Cited

Dick, Philip K. Ubik. New York: Doubleday, 1969.

Fitting, Peter. “Ubik: The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975). 19 October 2007 <;.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-181.

Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. New York: Verso, 2005.

Kasdorf, Krista. “Ubiquitous Entropy and Heat Death in Philip K. Dick and Pamela Zoline.” Thesis. Florida Atlantic University, 2006. Proquest/UMI Microform 1435298.

McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Palmer, Christopher. Philip K. Dick: Exhilaration and Terror of the Postmodern. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2003.

Russ, Joanna. “The Image of Women in Science Fiction.” Vertex 1.6 (Feb 1974): 53-57.

Suvin, Darko. “P.K. Dick’s Opus: Artifice as Refuge and World View.” Science Fiction Studies 2:22 (1975). 19 October 2007 <;.

Warrick, Patricia S. Mind in Motion: The Fiction of Philip K. Dick. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.


Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Utopias Module, James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Bridging Herland to the Stars, June 8, 2007

This is the seventeenth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

During the second semester of the MA in Science Fiction Studies programme, we had two modules: ENGL612: Utopias and Dystopias and ENGL681: Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin. We also pitched our dissertation projects and began meeting with our assigned advisor (I was very happy to have worked with Dr. David Seed on mine–more on that in another post).

In the Utopias and Dystopias module, we read a library’s worth of utopias and discussed them in depth during our meetings with Mr. Andy Sawyer, Dr. Peter Wright, and Dr. Seed (depending on the work being considered during a seminar session, we met with different faculty).

After studying under Dr. Lisa Yaszek at Georgia Tech, some texts stuck out in my mind–namely stories by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Julie Phillips had very recently published her excellent and authoritative account of Sheldon’s life, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. Reading Phillips’ biography of Sheldon rekindled some ideas from my SF and Gender Studies classes at Georgia Tech, which I brought into our seminar discussions in the Utopias and Dystopias module. This essay is the culmination of those discussions and further research. Also, it permitted me to think about how First and Second Wave Feminism related to these two very important writers and their work. This essay was the final project in this module.

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer

ENGL612: Utopias and Dystopias

June 8, 2007

James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Bridging Herland to the Stars

What women do is survive.  We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.

James Tiptree, Jr., “The Women Men Don’t See”

The above quote by Ruth Parsons in James Tiptree, Jr.’s 1973 story, “The Women Men Don’t See” is probably one of the most quoted lines from Tiptree’s stories, because it’s a powerful indictment of male patriarchy as well as a shout from the heart of the author behind the pseudonym, Alice B. Sheldon.  It’s interesting that Tiptree employed the word, “chinks” to describe the space in which women may inhabit in the overwhelming male created world-machine, because chinks can describe an opening, crevice, or aperture as in the gaps between gear teeth.  However, chinks may also describe a weakness in one’s armor either figuratively or literally.  It’s within the weaknesses of the patriarchic hegemony that women may find their own space, but it’s confining and forever shifting.  Sheldon, through Tiptree, developed a voice that challenged the “world-machine” in many of her stories including the later published, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

What’s engaging about Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” besides its own message and vector is that it maintains a striking similarity to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, which was first published serially in Gilman’s groundbreaking monthly magazine, The Forerunner in 1915.  In fact, “Houston” could be referred to as a far-future retelling of Herland in outer space.  Additionally, these two works form their own geared system where one’s earlier movement within First Wave Feminism propels the other’s movement in the much later era of Second Wave Feminism.  These actions in turn inspire later feminist SF.  It’s this interlocking and intertextual engagement between the two stories that positions “Houston” as a bridge between Gilman’s classically utopian story and First Wave Feminism with the SF impulse in later utopian writing and Second Wave Feminism.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Alice B. Sheldon

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in 1860, and endured a childhood of near-poverty and dislocation along with her brother and single mother, Mary A. Fitch.  Gilman’s father, Frederic Beecher Perkins, a member of the well-known Beecher clan, left Fitch following Gilman’s birth.  Rising above her beleaguered childhood, she maintained a certain independence by working, “as a designer of greeting cards, an art teacher, and a governess” while living at home, and later establishing herself as a writer and lecturer on socialism and women’s issues (Lane vi).  Her life is accented by an early marriage to Walter Stetson, with whom she had a daughter, Katherine.  However, the marriage didn’t last, and it was later agreed that Stetson and his second wife, Gilman’s friend, Grace Ellery Channing, should raise their daughter.  Through her first marriage, and the years following it, she returned to a nomadic existence of writing and public speaking in part to avoid attacks from the press, “particularly in California, for ‘abandoning’ her child and for being an ‘unnatural mother’” (Lane viii).

During this tumultuous time, Gilman wrote her most famous work, Women and Economics and it was first published in 1898 (Lane viii).  She went on to write many more books that further galvanized her prominence and reputation.  Following her second marriage to George Houghton Gilman in 1900, she began publishing The Forerunner in November 1909 until December 1916.  The Forerunner was a monthly magazine that contained articles and stories that supported socialism, Edward Bellamy’s “Nationalism,” and women’s rights issues.  It was during 1915 that her comedic utopian novel, Herland found its first and only publishing during her lifetime.

Alice B. Sheldon, who later assumed the pseudonyms James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon, was born on August 24, 1915 to Mary Wilhelmina Hastings and Herbert Edwin Bradley (Phillips 12).  Mary was a socialite and writer, and Herbert established his wealth with shrewd Chicago housing investments.  Together, they traveled on safaris in Africa, and they brought Alice along with them.  Alice was never left wanting, and her early life was punctuated by adventure and attention (though not always welcomed).  Before the Second World War, she had a tumultuous marriage to William Davey, and she considered a life in making art.

Unlike Gilman, Sheldon didn’t settle on one career earlier in life.  She worked at photoreconnaissance in World War II, where she met her second husband, Huntington Denton Sheldon, and subsequently worked for the CIA.  Between the war and joining the CIA, Sheldon and her husband ran a chicken hatchery, and she earned a PhD in experimental psychology following her work with the CIA.  It was during the final stages of her dissertation, that she rediscovered SF, something that she had enjoyed in her youth, and wrote four stories of her own, which she mailed out to magazines under the pseudonym, James Tiptree, Jr.

Gilman, Sheldon, and First Wave Feminism

Before continuing, it’s important to describe the political movements that both of these authors arrive from initially.  Gilman and other women around the turn of the century were building political power for change and improvement to the lives of women.  Today, we call this movement in America, First Wave Feminism.  First Wave Feminism has deep roots and an established history that goes back hundreds of years.  Many historians and critics point to the Enlightenment as the beginning of feminist thought, because it was also the time when established systems of political control and patriarchy were challenged.  A notable date for American First Wave Feminism is the year 1776 when Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors” (par. 1).  John Adams incredulous response was, “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh…We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight” (pars. 7 and 12).  The struggle for women’s rights and issues would be a long and arduous one, but significant change was on the horizon when Gilman was born.

Gilman grew into a world where many women were fighting for universal suffrage and additional rights for women at the turn of the twentieth century.  There were two prongs to this and they were the woman’s movement and feminism.  The woman’s movement preserved sex and gender differences while taking back the language of patriarchy and supporting municipal housekeeping (i.e., if a woman can run a household, why can’t she run things in the public sphere).  On the other hand, feminism challenges the idea that there are fundamental difference between men and women.  This idea grows out of the increasing awareness and promotion of socialism at that time.  Feminists sought women’s rights rather than supporting assumed concepts of “duties.”  Also, proponents viewed economic and sexual freedom as intertwined.

Gilman, following a writing tradition established by revolutionary writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and her 1792 published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, employed writing to get her vision promoted with reasoned arguments.  Her most recognizable work is Women and Economics first published in 1898.  However, her rediscovered serialized novel from 1915, Herland, is a more humorous story that uses the utopian tradition to elucidate liberal humanist themes and her thoughts on women’s issues.  The major liberal humanist themes that Gilman promotes in Herland include:  meditations on the changeability of human nature (usually for the better), inevitability of human progress, inevitability of human rationality and reason, and the danger of unexamined authority.  Also, these themes can be seen through a feminist lens as including:  the danger of women’s economic subordination and the need to replace existing male-dominated power structures with new ones based on female nurturance and cooperation.  Furthermore, Ann J. Lane describes Gilman’s particular approach to enacting change:

Convinced of the plasticity of human nature, she vehemently sought to destroy the molds into which people, especially but not only, female people, were forced.  Her specific contribution to this wing of Social Darwinist thought was her assertion that women, as a collective entity, could, if they so chose, be the moving force in the reorganization of society (x).

Gilman, as did other leftist thinkers at the turn of the century understood, it was the power and will of the people that could evince change.  For her, it was the power of women, as half of the population, to “be the moving force in the reorganization of society.”  She hoped to enact this political shift through the ideology of First Wave Feminism and the woman’s movement:

In her utopia, Charlotte Perkins Gilman transforms the private world of mother-child, isolated in the individual home, into a community of mothers and children in a socialized world.  It’s a world in which humane social values have been achieved by women in the interest of us all (Lane xxiii).

“A world in which human social values have been achieved by women in the interest of us all” is the central, defining theme of Herland.

Where does Alice B. Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr. fit into Gilman’s and other First Wave Feminists’ ideologies and plans?  Sheldon was born the same year that Herland was serialized in Gilman’s The Forerunner.  Her mother, Mary, was clearly an independent woman who was well respected, published, and not afraid of hunting in the unexplored wilds of Africa at the turn of the century.  However, Mary played a role of the socially active and ebullient woman who flirted, hosted parties, and enchanted men with her stories and charms.  Also, Sheldon considered getting married again after her first failed marriage to Davey in order to achieve independence from her parents prior to getting an art critic job at the Chicago Sun (Phillips 104).  In fact, Sheldon didn’t espouse hard line feminist ideals in her early life beyond wanting to do the things that she was interested in, and that was not something available for compromise, which is something Gilman learned the importance of in her first marriage and the medical treatment she received during the depression following her daughter’s birth.

It was after World War II that she began to find out more about women’s rights and issues.  Phillips writes about Sheldon’s discovery:

What Alli finally discovered in the 1950s was women’s work.  She read Hannah Arendt, who led her to Simone de Beauvoir.  She studied Rebecca West and Mary Wollstonecraft.  In 1955 she told Dr. K that she was reading Lady Murasaki and that a man friend had just given her Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (192).

It’s highly unlikely that Sheldon read anything by Gilman, because Gilman was not largely rediscovered until late Second Wave Feminism.  Additionally, Phillips responded to an email query that neither Alice or Mary mention Gilman in their personal writing.  This makes the connections between these two authors’ works that much more interesting.

Sheldon’s late awakening to First Wave Feminism beyond her own headstrong and striving character to lead her own life and propagate negentropy (altruistic adding information and order to the universe), situates her in a unique position as a bridge between the old guard and the approaching Second Wave marked by the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966.

Second Wave Feminism and Its Influence on Sheldon

Following World War II, the short term freedoms won by women both on the home front (e.g., jobs, economic independence, and greater self-esteem and personal worth) as well as on the front lines (e.g., the Women’s Army Corps, of which Sheldon was a member during her photoreconnaissance work in WWII) didn’t last for long.  However, there was a backlash against women in the wake of the war that by-and-large forced them back into the home.

Many women struck back at these trends to enforce culturally derived notions about a woman’s place in society.  Leading up to Second Wave Feminism there were several key events and shifts taking place that led to the new wave.  First, Esther Peterson was named Assistant Secretary of Labor and Director of the United States Women’s Bureau for President John F. Kennedy.  She directed investigations and commissions that uncovered discrimination against women across the board, which led state and city governments to follow suit and form their own commissions.  Another impetus was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which was published in 1963, and it disseminated what is best described as a popularized version of the government reports.  Then, in an attempt to kill the Civil Rights Act of 1964, certain members of Congress included sex along with race and religion as criteria barring discrimination.  However, this ploy failed, and as a result, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, and religion.  And finally, women were already involved in the civil rights and peace movements, but they were restricted from attaining the higher positions within these organizations.  Therefore, women had to go out on their own and found organizations, such as NOW, to address issues with which they were most concerned.

These new organizations, as well as individuals, were concerned about several key issues.  The Equal Rights Amendment was hoped to establish equality by employing simple language:  “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” (Paul sec. 1).  There were also struggles over reintegrating women into the public sphere and the work place.  One way to accomplish this was achieved in the 1972 Title IX Education Codes, which regulate how education is done in public schools.  It guarantees access to education regardless of sex.  Other important goals involved women’s health care issues (e.g., physical, mental, and spiritual), and domestic issues such as having access to the things that make a household work (e.g., having a credit card in one’s own name).

Sheldon was aware of the growth of women’s rights, and she contributed to the effort through letter writing and research that ultimately didn’t result in a book as she had initially hoped.  After Sheldon had begun writing SF as James Tiptree, Jr., she paused in the spring and summer of 1973 to begin a new project.  It was to be “a book under her own name, on the nature of women, to be called ‘The Human Male’” (Phillips 291).  It was to be an “answer to all the ‘scientific’ studies men had produced over the years on Woman” (Phillips 291).  Sheldon set out to counter male centric views in these ways:

It would review current research on gender differences while serving as a guide for young women to the male world and the male agenda…At the same time, by talking about men from a woman’s point of view, it would illustrate women’s way of looking at the world (Phillips 291).

Had “The Human Male” been completed and published, it would have been a work much like Gilman’s earlier works about women, and it would have employed a strategy similar to that Gilman uses in Herland.  However, Sheldon never finished “The Human Male,” but she did utilize “talking about men from a woman’s point of view” in a future Tiptree story, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

Twice Told Tales:  Herland and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

Sheldon, as Tiptree, wrote stories about women either escaping the bounds of Earth and male patriarchy, as in “The Women Men Don’t See,” or women who entered the patriarchic circuit found only pain and death as in “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”  However, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” is a compelling example, because it follows on the footsteps, most probably unknowingly, on that of Gilman’s Herland.  Both works appropriate a male voice, but the dissonances and contrasts reveal a woman’s point of view speaking of men.

Herland is about a group of three male adventurers who discover an isolated land only attainable by the then new technology of powered flight, and there they discover much to their initial disbelief that only women populate it.  In fact, as Lane describes:

In Herland women have created a utopia without men at all.  Again this world is unfolded through male eyes and a male consciousness, not in the traditional manner of a dialogue, but through the dramatic confrontation that occurs when three American men stumble on an all-female society (xiii).

The “dramatic confrontation” allows “Gilman [to romp] through the game of what is feminine and what is masculine, what is manly and what is womanly, what is culturally learned and what is biologically determined male-female behavior” (Lane xiii).  The author’s questioning of accepted sex/gender roles through contrasts and confrontation breaks with the typically didactic approach of earlier utopia fictions.

Gilman explores male points of view through her three American male creations in the story:  Terry, Jeff, and Van.  Terry is a hyper-masculine chauvinist, who is rich, a dilettante, and mechanically inclined.  Jeff is a sentimentalist who is the opposite of Terry, because he idolizes women and reads poetry.  Between these polar opposites is Van, a sociologist.  He represents a synthesis of Terry and Jeff, but he’s also a willing learner and he never fit in well in our world outside Herland.

The men are presented with a world created by Gilman that combines elements of “the new woman” and “the true woman” into what Rebecca Holden labeled, “the new, true woman.”  This amalgamation combines the “new woman’s” concept of “angels in the household” with the “true woman’s” “cult of domesticity” and “cult of true woman,” both of which were debated during the era of First Wave Feminism.  Examples of the “new woman” in Gilman’s Herland include:  Celis insisting on carrying her own basket (92), the women’s control over their own sexuality and the sheer force of will to procreate (56), breaking the linkage between child bearing and childrearing (102-103), the women are “people” (137), switched gender roles, and Herlanders radical departure from Christianity (109).  Examples of the “true woman” in Herland overlaps some of those of the “new woman” and include:  sexual purity and non-sexuality, always considering the future, having children and nurturance, municipal housekeeping (e.g., Herland is like a great big house where the cats are quiet, everything has a purpose, it’s tidy, and there’s no distinction between public and private spheres), switched gender roles (e.g., Moadine was “patient…courteous,” but also described as “some great man” on page 74), and the religion of Herland as the worship of Motherhood or the cult of true womanhood (109).

James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” echoes the issues and narrative themes in Gilman’s Herland, though through a far-future lens and in light of the shift from First Wave Feminism to Second Wave Feminism.  Tiptree’s approach to this relied on her, “[embracing] evolutionary biology as a source of hope.  Only when people understood their biological drives, she believed, could they transcend them, learn to control their emotions, and achieve real cultural change” (Phillips 293).  She embraced this in her writings as James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon.  Also, her transcendent beliefs mirror those held by Gilman in that culturally derived containers that box people, particularly women, in, are something to be resisted and overcome.  However, Sheldon, as an experimental psychologist, believed that much of our behavior is wired into us, and “one of the ironies of [Sheldon’s] career as Tiptree is that she insisted most on the biological, essential nature of gender at the moment she seemed to be proving that it was all an act, that gender was what you said it was after all” (Phillips 294).

She did embrace the consciousness raising works and Second Wave Feminism beliefs, at least in part, because she realized how dated her own mother’s views were regarding equality of the sexes.  Her mother’s “independent spirit had begun to tarnish in Alli’s eyes.  Like many older women, Mary resisted the new wave of feminism, and Alli now described her as ‘distinctly unliberated’” (Phillips 296).  Additionally, her correspondence with other women SF writers, most notably Joanna Russ, further fueled her recognition of the plights of Second Wave Feminism.  However, these exchanges were tempestuous at times, because Sheldon performed herself as the male James Tiptree, Jr. in her correspondence as well as her writing until her identity was revealed in late 1976.

Sheldon, as Tiptree, received a real education about Second Wave Feminism from Russ, but she had been exposed to all major varieties through her reading.  The four types of Second Wave Feminism included liberal humanist feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, and lesbian separatist feminism.  Betty Friedan is most closely associated with liberal humanist feminism.  Gilman and the contemporary critic, Shulamith Firestone are aligned with Marxist feminism and it’s analysis of reproduction with production.  The Catholic philosopher Mary Daly is a well known radical feminist who believes that patriarchy can not be changed from within–the entire system would need to be scraped and rebuilt from the ground up.  Lesbian separatist feminism is often connected to radical feminism, but it also holds that emotions for another woman are feminist ideas, and that only women can be feminists.  Joanna Russ runs the gamut between radical and a lesbian separatist both in her fiction and professional writing.  For example, Russ “wouldn’t accept [Tiptree] as an admirer, only sometimes as a sympathetic figure, and as a feminist not at all” (Phillips 305).

With these things at heart, Sheldon, as James Tiptree, Jr., began contemplating a new story for Vonda McIntyre’s upcoming anthology, Aurora:  Beyond Equality.  McIntyre and her coeditor, Susan Janice Anderson tasked Tiptree, Russ, and others to write “fiction that explored what the world might look like after equality between the sexes had been achieved” (Phillips 304).  The result for Tiptree was “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”  “Houston” is about a space mission with three men onboard who are flung several hundred years into the future after encountering an energetic solar flare at pointblank range.  These men discover that they are in a future inhabited only by cloned women who exist in an anarchistic culture of creativity and exploration on planets and in space.  In the end, two of the three spacemen react against their female rescuers and all three are ambiguously confined, because as Lady Blue tells Dr. Lorimer, “We can hardly turn you loose on Earth, and we simply have no facilities for people with your emotional problems” (Tiptree 221).

The obvious connection to Herland in “Houston” has to do with the fact that it’s a society of women with a unique means of reproduction.  Lorimer, the beta physicist of the three men, realizes when talking to the “twin” female Judys, “You aren’t sisters…You’re what we called clones” (Tiptree 206).  Judy Dakar replies, “Well, yes…We call it sisters” (Tiptree 206).  Gilman’s parthenogenesis in Herland, if there were some kind of scientific basis to it, would result in cloned children of the mother.  In “Houston,” there are many copies, but each copy is an individual with her own personality, goals, and abilities possibly shared with the other clones, but not necessarily so.  The elimination of men in the story necessitates women finding a way to continue the species.  However, a double meaning underlying the cloning is the solidarity and shared experience of women that’s realized through the “book” that each of the 11,000 clone types share to pass along information and experience across and between generations (Tiptree 207).  As sisters, they are human beings that sing, “Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, roaming songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs–everything” (Tiptree 207).  Also, they have love–friendships as well as deeper, physical love, which is diametrically opposite to the asexualized beings in Herland who literally consider one another sisters.  Another layer of meaning to the clones comes from a letter Tiptree wrote to Ursula K. Le Guin, in which she wrote, “the clone fantasy arose…from, ‘my own loneliness and longing for siblings–sisters especially’” (qtd. in Phillips 311).  Additionally, clones imply the elimination of having to make choices, which for Sheldon would have seriously considered in order to relieve her own stresses imposed by pushing herself professionally and creatively (Phillips 311).

A further parallel between Herland and “Houston” is that mothering and childcare take place behind the scenes.  In both cases, there’s a portion of telling, but little showing by either author.  Tiptree briefly describes the implementation of enucleated ovum in a mother’s womb, and Gilman recounts the parthenogenesis and restrictions placed on potential mothers in Herland.  These stories are significantly different than Joanna Russ’ Whileaway in The Female Man and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time in the way that childbirth and rearing are carefully described.

Sheldon breaks with Gilman regarding the ‘new true woman.’  Sheldon’s Second Wave Feminist ideals enables these future women to be sexual beings that enjoy one another and establish relationships beyond friendship.  In part, this is probably a wish fulfillment on Sheldon’s part, because of her own unrealized lesbian fantasies and relationships.

This is one of the things that the three astronauts in “Houston” are unable to wrap their patriarchal minds around.  Unlike Terry, Jeff, and Van, the astronauts aboard the Sunbird are all more or less chauvinistic.  Dr. Orren Lorimer is a physicist, and the narrator of the story.  Often there, but observing instead of acting, he’s accompanied by the alpha males of his crew compliment:  Major Norman (Dave) Davis and Captain Bud Geirr.  Bud rapes one of the female crew members aboard the Aurora, Dave tries to kill them all in support of his Judeo-Christian fundamentalism, and Lorimer watches and is slow to act in favor of the women with whom he’s supposedly aligned.

The actions and reactions of the male astronauts propelled into the future, “raises many more questions than it answers, including ‘Are men/women really like that?’ and ‘Is this society really happy?’” (Phillips 311).  On the one hand, these characters are extremes or archetypes that Tiptree employs to realize her utopia.  Additionally, “Tiptree said at the time that he was enjoying imagining the world of ‘Houston.’  It’s a world of cool, competent women who take care of practical matters while the men flounder in a useless search for hierarchy and authority” (Phillips 311).

As Phillips points out, the story very much rests on the problems of the men choosing to either conform or react to their new surroundings.  They come from a society very much entrenched in hierarchy and based on a command structure.  Coupled to that structure is the belief that as men, they are superior to women physically, mentally, and morally.  Cracking under the pressures of arriving in a ‘brave new world,’ Dave reverts to the patriarchy of his religion to enforce order, and Bud lapses into misogynistic power over women through rape.  Dave exceeds his rank by noting his middle name of “Paul” and proselytizing, “I was sent here…You have spared us from the void to bring Your light to this suffering world.  I shall lead Thine erring daughters out of the darkness.  I shall be a stern but merciful father to them in Thy name” (Tiptree 218).  Dave’s self-righteousness as a male, Christian leads him to the conclusion that the new world order is evil and it’s up to him as the ranking male to enforce God’s will on these feminine profaners.

When Bud rapes Judy in the bower, he openly speaks his inner thoughts under the influence of a drug administered by the women.  Between telling Judy sweet nothings and coaxing her towards sex, he says, “You can tell you’ve been out too long when the geeks start looking good.  Knockers, ahhh–,” and “Ass-s-s…Up you bitch, ahhh-hh” (Tiptree 213).  For Bud, the women are objects subject to his will and exist for his gratification.  His hostility to women marks him as a misogynist surpassing even Terry in Herland.  However, even more interesting about this character is his refusal to believe that he and his two crewmates are literally the last men.  Judy, held and shaken by Bud, asks, “Why do there have to be men,” and Bud replies, “Why, you stupid bitch…Because, dummy, otherwise nothing counts, that’s why” (Tiptree 215).  For Bud, Dave, and even Lorimer, men are the unit by which progress and life are measured.  Without male patriarchy, “nothing counts” in their antiquated worldview.

One final comparison between the two stories involves the use of plants in both stories.  Herlanders cultivate the Earth by means of a harmonious arrangement that doesn’t serve to deplete or destroy their isolated ecosystem.  The female spacefarers of “Houston” use plants for air and food on their long journeys.  It’s necessary for them to maintain a balanced ecosystem within the metal confines of their ship holding out the vacuum of space.  In Herland, Van comments on Jeff by recording, “Jeff, with his gentle romantic old-fashioned notions of women as clinging vines” (Gilman 21).  Tiptree mentions vines, particularly kudzu, within the confines of the women’s spaceship Gloria.  The literary identification of the vine with Eve/woman has a long history.  Horace and Virgil both wrote of the vine wedded to the elm, and in Christian theology and related literature such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, the identification falls between the vine/Eve and the elm/Adam.  However, Gilman and Tiptree use this imagery for different effect.  Gilman further develops Jeff as the hopeless romantic who idolizes women, and therefore doesn’t understand them as people, but as objects worthy of worship as defined by man.  Tiptree specifically names the vine as kudzu, which is a peculiar choice compared to the more pleasant vines like ivy (168).  Kudzu would be useful in a space environment, because it grows very quickly and spreads out to cover a large area.  In this sense, when the reader later discovers that the Earth has been overrun by women and the men metaphorically suffocated by a disease induced failure at the genetic level, it’s apparent that kudzu is more than a scientifically minded choice on Tiptree’s part.  However, kudzu’s enormous growth potential must be controlled, just as the cloning and expansion of the new feminine-only humanity is controlled collectively.

Tiptree’s use of kudzu and other troubling imagery in “Houston,” could be a warning about what might appear as a perfect lesbian separatist utopia, which Philips described thus:

Alli decided after all to write about an all-female world, as seen through the eyes of a male narrator.  She wanted to know what women would be like as themselves, outside men’s shadow.  The world of ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is more peaceful than ours, and knows neither greed nor power.  But it does not seem like a free or comfortable place–certainly not a utopia in which Alli could live (310).

This is where the story derives its power.  Additionally, the story explores recurrent Tiptree themes:

The question of the alienness of women to men and men to women is an important one in her work.  The alienation of one sex from another stands as the paradigm, one to which she repeatedly returns, of other forms of difference, of the relation between self and Other (Lefanu 108).

Typically utopian authors build utopia to match their ideal world, but in this case Tiptree/Sheldon uses the utopian setting to challenge and provoke the reader.  And, it is this skill that she employed on her other stories to make them memorable and notable as great SF.


Reading and engaging Gilman’s Herland and Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” provides a new insight into the literary development of feminist literature in transition from First Wave Feminism to Second Wave Feminism.  Furthermore, reading these two works together brings out further meaning from each singular story.  They are in dialog with one another thematically, narratively, and culturally, and therefore, deserve critical analysis together even if the connection was not deliberate.

Herland provides a primarily upbeat and comical utopian fiction about the successes of a race of women, while “Houston” reveals darker themes about a female utopia threatened by the male penetrating force as well as the conviction of the new female-only world order.  First Wave Feminists such as Gilman were fighting for something that they had not had before, while Sheldon as a product of First and Second Wave Feminism shows a hidden anxiety about the potential loss of gains made, but she also makes clear that women are capable of confining threats and ultimately, building utopia.

The most fascinating thing about the parallels between Gilman and Sheldon’s lives and works is that Sheldon probably didn’t know about or read Herland.  The parallels in theme and narrative elements are unmistakable, but they are telling very different stories.  Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” is a bridge between time as well as ideological and political ideas.  Even today, these works are invaluable cultural resources that tell us about where we’ve been and they point the way to way to the future by challenging us to consider new possibilities as well as warn us about our launching pad.

Works Cited

Adams, Abigail and John.  “Letters Between Abigail Adams and Her Husband John Adams.”  The Liz Library Collections.  1998.  15 May 2007 <;.

Friedan, Betty.  The Feminine Mystique.  New York:  Dell, 1963.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.  Herland.  New York:  Pantheon, 1979.

Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace. John Conington trans. London: George Bell and Sons, 1882. 17 May 2007 <;.

Lane, Ann J.  “Introduction to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland.”  Herland.  New York:  Pantheon, 1979.  v-xxiii.

Lefanu, Sarah.  Feminism and Science Fiction.  Bloomington and Indianapolis:  Indiana UP, 1989.

Milton, John.  Paradise Lost.  1674.  16 May 2007 <;.

Paul, Alice.  “Equal Rights Amendment.”  National Organization of Women.  1921.  16 May 2007 <;.

Piercy, Marge.  Woman on the Edge of Time.  London:  The Women’s Press, 2000.

Phillips, Julie.  Email to the author.  7 June 2007.

—.  James Tiptree, Jr.:  The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2006.

Russ, Joanna.  The Female Man.  London:  The Women’s Press, 2002.

Tiptree, James, Jr.  “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”  Warm Worlds and Otherwise. New York: Ballantine, 1975. 79-121.

—.  “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”  Her Smoke Rose Up Forever:  The Great Years of James Tiptree, Jr.  Wisconsin:  Arkham House, 1990.  168-222.

—.  “The Women Men Don’t See.”  The Year’s Best Science Fiction No. 8.  ed. by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss.  London:  Sphere, 1976.  57-88.

Vergil. Bucolics, Aeneid, and Georgics Of Vergil. J. B. Greenough. Boston: Ginn & Co, 1900.  17 May 2007 <;.

Science Fiction, LMC3214: Lecture on Feminist SF and Readings by Zoline, Russ, and Tiptree, Jr.

For today’s class, my students came prepared to discuss three readings: Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” (New Worlds, July 1967), Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed” (Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972), and James Tiptree, Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t See” (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dec 1973).

Before discussion, I treated the class to a lecture on terminology (sex, gender, sexuality, sexism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and feminism), a short history lesson on Feminism (bringing it full circle with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792 and covering First, Second, and Third Waves of Feminism), and a history of Feminist SF (building on our earlier readings by female writers, Dr. Lisa Yaszek’s rediscovery of “women’s SF,” and the New Wave/Second Wave/Feminist SF boom).  We also discussed some of the major figures, including Margaret Cavendish, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, Ursula K. Le Guin, Marge Piercy, Pamela Zoline, and James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon). Learn more about Feminist SF on the Encyclopedia of SF entry here and in Ritch Calvin’s Feminist SF 101 article in SFRA Review #294 here.

Following lecture, my students engaged in another energized debate on the readings that brought up a lot of issues that I could only gloss over in the lecture. I was fortunate to have some students offer personal experiences with their families and others who played devil’s advocate. I believe that our discussion facilitated a much deeper exploration of the stories and the issues surrounding them.

Tomorrow, we will begin our viewing of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). I consider this an example of feminist SF film, because unlike most SF film, it revolves around a strong female hero character who charts her own path based on the challenges of her future, corporatized society. However, it was made possible by the earlier work of feminist SF in the 1960s and 1970s. It also accomplishes interesting things with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), because she is the strong hero who rediscovers her lost motherhood by destroying the mother of the xenomorphs–the Alien Queen. We will watch this through Thursday’s class, discuss it, and review for the second exam (taking place next during Monday’s class).