A recent Making Light post by Teresa Nielsen Hayden about her invisibility at Home Depot got me to thinking about women of a certain age,* one of which I am rapidly becoming. Not only are we difficult for Home Depot employees to see, we also seem to be largely invisible in science fiction as well. ** In fact, I’m not sure I can think of more than a half-dozen. And even a couple of those are fraught, like Maureen in To Sail Beyond the Sunset.
But what’s more interesting to me is that the WOACAs who do show up, don’t get to do all that much. I can list quite a few men in the same age range who are the SF story’s main actor. But women like Bujold’s Cordelia don’t get to do all that much once they are done with having their young. Is it that they stop being interesting after that point?
I feel as if I’m missing quite a few of these characters, however. Who would be on your list? And what part in the story does she play?
* Note one: quick definition, which may get refined as we go: WOACA means those who are past the knitty-gritty of childbearing (yet may still have children under age 18) but not yet old enough to qualify as a crone. Patricia Heaton, Catherine Keener and Daryl Hannah are WOACA, if stunning ones. Betty White is not. I think Meryl Streep is; however, many may not. In terms of SF, Cordelia in Bujold’s A Civil Campaign is. Cordelia in Shards of Honor is not. Celebrities aside, most of these women aren’t seen as objects of desire anymore but do not yet have the sheen of wisdom.
* Note two: Fantasy has its own set of baggage about WOACAs. That’s a different post.
8 thoughts on “Where are the WOACAs?”
A very quick survey of the last couple years of my reviews doesn't yield any names–but I'm not sure that a census addresses the issue. There are both conventions and constraints operating here. They have to do in part with notions of audience and assumptions about what they want or expect to encounter. In the mystery field, there are traditions of drawing protagonists from all kinds of backgrounds, with the little-old-lady detective going back at least to Miss Marple (and also including various kinds of detectives with disabilities). My wife and I noted with interest that Inspector Lewis's boss in the new UK series is not only middle-aged but not at all Daryl-Hannah- or (to name a woman-of-my-age who has played a sexy cop) Helen-Mirren-ish. (My wife notes with amusement that high-powered law firms and forensics labs on TV are populated by women of statistically-improbable attractiveness who have interesting and quite distracting notions of what constitutes professional dress.)
In SF, there's the question of who is likely to have SF adventures (and face it, adventure is what much SF is about) and, in SF worlds with sufficiently advanced medicine, just what "a certain age" might be or what it might look like from the outside. In much of the mid- to far-future SF I've read recently, the appearance of youth can be maintained well into what is now old age, and in a setting like Varley's Eight Worlds, appearance is completely a matter of choice–Paul McAuley's recent Quiet War is approaching that situation. And what it might feel like to be of a certain age in such a world, regardless of gender, is just as much a matter of speculation. Or should be.
Speaking of THE QUIET WAR, wouldn't Sri Hong-Owen qualify as a WOACA?
That's my point–I don't recall a specific age cue in the text, but even though she has a mostly-grown son, the genetic tech of her world renders many of our concerns about aging, from changes in appearance to loss of physical vigor, irrelevant. Our anxieties about That Certain Age, whether for men or women, are rooted in our so-far-unchangeable biology. Change those rules and it's a new game, and political/cultural concerns about who's being representated in art need to adjust accordingly. What's interesting about Sri Hong-Owen is that she's as much an actor in the drama as any of the men, and that her chronological age, fertility, and appearance are less significant than her ambition, intelligence, and ruthlessness, which mirror those traits in the powerful men she faces.
I just read the news about a new I, Robot trilogy and I think Susan Calvin may qualify as WOACA (not very nice an abbreviation, I should say), and there are also a lot of characters in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (especially Green Mars, since in Red Mars they're still young and in Blue the surviving ones are more in the posthuman side) in that age range but whose names I can't remember well: Maya Toitovna, Hiroko, Anne (is there an Anne?; I mean the Red leader), Nadia.
WOACAs are certainly underrepresented in SF. We have a partial list of them on the Feminist SF Wiki here.
Sorry about the abbreviation. It was the best i could come up with at the time. Any other suggestions?
I hadn't thought about the issue the same way that Russell has, which is why I tossed the question out there. And it looks like I need to finally read The Quiet War, as well as a bunch of the books on therem's (and other's) list.
I think Le Guin's essay "The Space Crone," from 1976 and included in Dancing at the Edge of the World, is also relevant here.
Elizabeth Moon's Vatta's War series includes the protagonist's Aunt Grace, who is initially presented as a slightly dotty, prim lady who bakes truly awful fruit cakes and insists that they be sliced properly–very, very thin. As the series progresses, it turns out that Aunt Grace has been using her "invisibility" to good effect, and there is a very practical reason for slicing the awful cake carefully. Instead of one very young kick-ass heroine, the series winds up with two kick-ass heroines of different generations (and a second young heroine in a completely different key). Moon can be counted on to bring the aunts.
And when you get to the fantasy post, there's the protagonist of Nalo Hopkinson's The New Moon's Arms, as well as Ista in Lois McMaster Bujold's Paladin of Souls, who both have plenty to do. There's also Amat Kyaan in Daniel Abraham's A Shadow in Summer, who is not only a middle-aged woman, but also a middle-manager.
The Quiet War is well worth reading. Sri Hong-Owen "reads" as WOACA to me not only because she has a grown son, but also because she has reached the point in her career where she is well beyond "promising newcomer" but has not quite yet crossed the divide to "eminence grise".