Sally Ride, science fiction, attitudes

I was saddened to hear of the death of Dr. Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut, from pancreatic cancer. My condolences to her friends and family.

The Russians had put a woman, Valentina Tereshkova, in space, a couple of decades earlier than Ride’s trip beyond the atmosphere. The official excuse for keeping American women out of space was that engineers couldn’t come up with a way to cope with female urination in microgravity.

If what you know about the Mercury program in the early 1960’s is derived entirely from seeing The Right Stuff, you may not know that while NASA was testing males to find the Mercury Seven, they were also testing, in deepest secrecy, a group of women, who are now remembered as the Mercury 13. Although a few of these women did better on the testing than their male counterparts, none of them were formally acknowledged or got to fly into space.

I was fascinated with space travel, both science fiction and in reality, when I was young. I can tell you where I was on the evening of September 8, 1966, almost 46 years ago now. I was watching the very first episode of Star Trek, a creation of Gene Roddenberry that both in the original and in the various spin-offs and re-booted versions has been a weather vane to tell me which way the cultural winds are blowing.

In 2012, where I sit with gray hair using a device that itself would have been science fiction back then, an African-American man is President of the United States. In 1966, there were television stations in the United States, affiliates of the network carrying Star Trek, that threatened to boycott the program because there were, gasp, black characters on the show who were intelligent, articulate human beings doing highly skilled work. Some of them were even in command positions.

It seems white people in certain regions saw this as yet another example of how “liberals” and “outside agitators” stirred up trouble among their contented minority populations.

Roddenberry took a lot of flack for promoting the idea that not only was a world without institutional racism possible, but that it would be a much, much better world to live in. Unfortunately, his attitude towards women reflected the society of the time.

An episode called “Turnabout Intruder” has a woman, Dr. Janice Lester, frustrated by the policy that kept women from commanding starships, use an alien device she dug up at an archaeological site on some dead planet to take over Captain Kirk’s body and put him in hers.

One of the reasons she is really pissed at Kirk, an ex-lover, is that he agreed with the policy that kept women in their place, or at least out of the command chair.

Lester then proceeded to convince nearly everyone that the woman in sick bay making all the fuss about how she was the real Captain Kirk was just an hysterical female who had gone off her cams. The new Captain almost pulled it off, which would have let her fly off somewhere as a starship captain and left Kirk stranded on some planet as a woman.

Since they were the same people, just in bodies of the opposite sex, the episode could have taken on sexism the same way it had so effectively dealt with racism in some other episodes, but, alas, it didn’t. Instead, the episode sent a very clear message: a woman who wanted to command a starship was seriously nuts.

Before we get too smug about Roddenberry’s attitudes towards women in the mid-1960’s, let’s remember that no matter how ethical and enlightened we think we are here in 2012, some of our attitudes may one day be considered, for very good reasons, bigoted as hell.

By the 1970’s – or earlier, if you count things like Robert Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars from 1963, which has a bright, gutsy, teenage girl who wants to be the first female pilot of a space ship highly competent female protagonists started showing up in science fiction. (People who think Heinlein was just a reactionary nut, ought to put Podkayne alongside the female characters in the 1968 film 2001, who are basically allowed to serve food and talk about their families, and take a long look.)The Ridley character in the film Alien is one of the most memorable. Such fictions can change attitudes.

Science fiction can both challenge our attitudes and assumptions and reflect beliefs that are so ingrained we don’t realize we have them. An anthropologist I once knew remarked that your culture is everything you do without thinking about it because it’s what people like you are supposed to do. Fantastic fiction can help us look at things in different ways, and perhaps question things that should be questioned.



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