Even the spirited Antigone, the brave Joan of Arc and the unfettered Thelma and Louise meet tragic ends in large part because they are spirited, brave and unfettered. They can defy kings, refuse beauty and defend themselves against violence. But it’s challenging for a writer to imagine a world in which such free women can exist without brutal consequences.
Butler and other writers like Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood did not employ speculative fiction to colonize other planets, enslave new life-forms, or extract alien minerals for capital gains only to have them taken at gunpoint by A.I. robots. These women used the tenets of genre to reveal the injustices of the present and imagine our evolution.
As time has passed, I’ve come to understand what deep influence shaping a narrative has. Stories inspire our actions. They frame for us existences that are and are not possible, delineate tracks we can or cannot travel. They choose who we can find empathy for and who we cannot. What we have fellow feeling for, we protect. What we objectify and commodify, we eventually destroy.
I don’t want to be the dead girl, or Dave’s wife. But I don’t want to be a strong female lead either, if my power is defined largely by violence and domination, conquest and colonization.
Sometimes I get a feeling of what she could be like. A truly free woman. But when I try to fit her into the hero’s journey she recedes from the picture like a mirage. She says to me: Brit, the hero’s journey is centuries of narrative precedent written by men to mythologize men. Its pattern is inciting incident, rising tension, explosive climax and denouement. What does that remind you of?
And I say, a male orgasm.
And she says: Correct. I love the arc of male pleasure. But how could you bring me into being if I must satisfy the choreography of his desire only?
I imagine new structures and mythologies born from the choreography of female bodies, non-gendered bodies, bodies of color, disabled bodies. I imagine excavating my own desires, wants and needs, which I have buried so deeply to meet the desires, wants and needs of men around me that I’m not yet sure how my own desire would power the protagonist of a narrative.
These are not yet solutions. But they are places to dig.
Excavating, teaching and celebrating the feminine through stories is, inside our climate emergency, a matter of human survival. The moment we start imagining a new world and sharing it with one another through story is the moment that new world may actually come.