A Brief Herstory of Women in Sci-Fi & Fantasy

A few weeks ago, we took a look at the long history of women in horror. Today, we look at women’s past (and present) in the speculative fiction genres of science fiction and fantasy.


Our Speculative Roots

Our relationship with these stories goes back, once again, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and beyond. Whether writing as themselves or often under pseudonyms, women have been there from the beginning. Virginia Woolf wrote fantastical sci-fi under the nom de plume E.V. Odle including the works The Puppeteer God (an influence for The Matrix) and The Houyhnhnm (an inspiration for The Planet of the Apes). Other notable early foremothers include Gertrude Bennet who wrote as Francis Stevens and is seen as the inventor of “dark fantasy,” Clare Winger Harris who was the first woman to write under her own name for science fiction magazines in the 1920s, and Margaret Cavendish who wrote The Blazing World in 1666 (LONG before Shelley) and has been cited as the very first writer of utopian fiction.

Women ON the Fantastical Screen Gorilla

There is much overlap with the herstory of screen horror and sci-fi, with monsters and aliens playing a major role in both. Across the genres of speculative fiction you also see time travel, alternate realities, angels, swords and sorcery, princes and princesses. Whatever the setting and details, when it comes to women on the screen however, we primarily have seen one of two roles, that of the evil villainess or the helpless damsel in distress who needs to be rescued by the male hero. XeniaHowever, with the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s we saw these classic archetypes being challenged. On the printed page alternative worlds presented stories where traditional gender roles, misogyny and sexuality were actively confronted. On small and big screens, the door also opened for strong female protagonists such as Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman in the 1970s, Terminator 2 and the Alien films of the 1980s, Xena Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X-Files’ Dana Scully in the 1990s, Lara Croft in the 2000s and most recently The Hunger Games and Orphan Black.


Women BEHIND the Fantastical Screen

Today, it remains a challenge for women writers and directors to break into the male dominated world of science fiction and fantasy movie making. There are big budgets, big effects and spectacle and little desire to take on any risk. Adaptions of literary hits written by women like Harry Potter and Twilight begin to make the case. Breakthroughs like Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days and the Jennifer Lee co-directed Frozen have also helped pave the way. There seem to be more and more stories every day in the sci-fi/fantasy genre that demonstrate doors have started to open for women behind the camera: Nicole Perleman was the first woman to get a writing credit on a Marvel film with Guardians of the Galaxy; Warner Bros. recently announced Michelle MacLaren will direct the long anticipated Wonder Woman movie.


The Indie SFF World

Beyond these few mega blockbuster budgeted films however, what are the opportunities for smaller speculative stories? Indie film tends to be a bit friendlier for female driven projects and stories. In sci-fi and fantasy here you can find women like Sophie Barthes who wrote and directed Cold Souls, Brit Marling who has co-written and starred in movies like The Sound of My Voice and Another Earth, Kate Rees Davies who directs the upcoming Altered Perception, and From Our Dark Side mentors Rachel Talalay who directed the cult hit Tank Girl and Amanda Tapping who was a sci-fi TV darling at first an actress but now also as a producer and director.

The Speculative Spectacular Now

The stories of speculative fiction have always pushed the boundaries and challenged the audience to look beyond the ordinary and traditional. That’s why it is a great place to tell the stories of interesting characters both male and female who have not had a voice before. It is a place to create a world worthy of devotion, a world where fans will want more and more. For all these reasons and more it is a great place for women to find and tell stories that will reward them. We see this lesson constantly in the world of books, where women writers are creating works that keep readers coming back. It is time for women screenwriters to do the same. We can hardly wait to see the sci-fi and fantasy tales you spin as part of the #FromOurDarkSide script concept contest.

By Annelise Larson, Contest Mentor & Digital Media & Marketing Strategist, Veria.ca

With special thanks for the inspiration and information provided by these articles:





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