It’s time for a more feminist touch when it comes to cyberpunk, the sub-genre of science fiction that’s been heavy on male computer hackers, cyborg heroes, and genius outcasts.
Red Deer College instructor Carlen Lavigne, who published her 2013 doctoral dissertation Cyberpunk Women, Feminism and Science Fiction, calls attention to the influence of cyberpunk on today’s technology-saturated society.
“Mostly what I was looking at were the ways feminist input had been overlooked when it came to telling stories about new technologies, as the way women’s contributions have often been overlooked in the tech industry,” said the communications studies instructor who was one of eight instructors recognized by RDC for their scholarly work this fall.
“Part of why I’m doing this is to highlight women’s voices and to try to push back against this notion that computers are for boys. That girls are just naturally not interested in science or by extension science fiction. I don’t think that’s true and I think we need to make more of an effort to look at what women are doing and saying in these areas.”
Lavigne’s dissertation, available on Amazon, focuses on cyberpunk literature.
The term cyberpunk refers to science fiction about a dystopian future where computers and capitalism take over, lone hacker heroes fight faceless, mega corporations.
There’s a sense of rebellion, and virtual reality and humans with cyborg implants often play a role in the not too-distant-future earth drama.
“As a science fiction movement, (cyberpunk) was really coherent in the 1980s and the 1990s. It became popular to the point that a lot of it is cliché now. We can see elements of it in a lot of different movies and see new twists and turns people are coming up with.”
Some of the cyberpunk movies include Blade Runner (1982), War Games (1983), The Terminator (1984), The Matrix (1999), and more recently Dredd (2012), Elysium (2013), Transcendence (2014), and RoboCop (1987 and 2014).
Television examples are Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-09) and Almost Human (2013-14).
“It’s less of a cohesive genre as it is something that now kind of infiltrates so many science fiction texts. The stereotypes or the characters or the story texts you tend to see in science fiction now owe a lot to cyberpunk.”
Lavigne said she chose to focus on cyberpunk literature because she wanted to talk to authors contributing to the movement. Contributions in television or film would have been difficult to identify with so many people involved like the writer, producer, director and actors.
She said women have contributed to cyberpunk in a way that has not often been acknowledged in mainstream science fiction or studies.
“Most people, when they think about cyberpunk, think of things like William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. A lot of books written by men and a lot of movies starring men.”
An enduring widespread stereotype is the “socially awkward male hacker” as seen in the popular TV show Big Bang Theory. But more females with mad computer skills are starting to be found on screen, she said.
“We have started to see Felicity on Arrow, a female character that’s really good with computers, or Root on Person of Interest.”
Challenging that male dominance requires is a multi-pronged approach, she said.
“Part of it is educating girls in schools and encouraging them to enter science and technology programs. Part of it is looking at why girls then tend to drop out of science and technology programs or industries. Either they drop out of the degree or they enter the industry, and they find it unwelcoming and they stop working in that industry.”
Confronting the status quo has not been easy.
In her book, Lavigne pointed to vicious Internet attacks against Feminist Frequency blogger Anita Sarkeesian when she publicly proposed creating a series of educational videos examining sexism in digital games.
“Women on the Internet who speak up tend to be subjected to a whole barrage of rape and death threats. That is not something men normally have to deal with. That’s all part of the same cultural patterns I’m trying to study.”
A recent poll by the New York Times unfortunately put the word feminism on the list of words to be excised, she said.
“I don’t think it has gone out of our cultural vocabulary. I think if anything recent news, everything from gamergate to Bill Cosby and the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, have shown us that feminism is more relevant than ever.”
Women are slowly building stronger voices in pop culture, including science fiction, she said.
“We’re starting to see more inroads in terms of diversity in our pop culture. Not just in terms of women, but in terms of sexuality and race, different ages, different abilities.”
As a communications studies instructor, Lavigne researches pop culture, looking at books, films, television and video games, and analyzing gender, race and sexuality for stereotypes and power dynamics in media at a time when “you can’t walk five feet without encountering a TV screen or computer screen.”
“People have the tendency to say it’s just a book, it’s just a TV show, it’s just a movie. But when you’re talking about books and TV show and movies that are being read by thousands of people, or being seen by hundreds of thousands or millions of people, everyone is absorbing the same media, the same messages. I want to know what does that say about us a society and how does it shape us as a society?”
Before arriving to teach at RDC eight years ago, Lavigne, 38, taught a television history course at Carleton University and was finishing up her studies at McGill University.
For her next book, she intends to focus on technological apocalypse in science fiction.
“Either we’re afraid our technology is going to rise up and overthrow us or we’re afraid our technology is going to totally stop working. I’m interested in the way that we’re starting to see those themes play out on TV.”