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Guest Post: My Body is a Cage: Girls, Science Fiction, and John Carter

A guest post by Alyssa:

Note: There are no spoilers here for John Carter or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars.  Well, except that there’s a princess and the story is set on Mars.

The Barsoom series is an almost forgotten piece of vintage science fiction written by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs.  It was inspired by the work of astronomer and Mars-enthusiast Percival Lowell and tells the story of John Carter, a retired Confederate captain who is transported to Mars against his will and adopted by a tribe of four-armed, green Martian warriors.  Considered a staple of the sci-fi genre, the series hasn’t been adapted for film until very recently by writer/director and Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton.  The movie was first called A Princess of Mars, then John Carter of Mars, and finally just John Carter.  In one interview, Stanton has this to say about amputating the title:

“Here’s the real truth of it…I changed [A] Princess Of Mars…because not a single boy would go.  And then the other truth is, no girl would go see John Carter Of Mars. [emphasis mine]

It’s a bit difficult to pinpoint what makes a statement like this grate on your nerves.  It doesn’t have so much to do with the actual ratio of female sci-fi fans to non-fans; there’s something less tangible going on.

This is what Andrew Stanton is saying: “Our market research shows that male audiences are statistically less likely to go see women-centric films and female audiences are statistically less likely to go see films about space.  It’s too late to go and make another movie that will predictably do well enough at the box office to justify the $250 million dollar price tag, so I’m basically trying to trick as many people as possible into seeing this one.”

And this is what girls who like science fiction hear: “YOU DON’T EXIST.”

Girls aren’t supposed to like sci-fi.  This isn’t anything new and it’s a stereotype that causes two big problems:  First, it stops writers and directors from creating science fiction for girls and women.  Second, it reinforces the notion that girls who do like sci-fi are different and weird, i.e., not real girls.  The former prevents the genre from attracting a more diverse female audience and also makes it more difficult for those writers and directors to be female themselves.  The latter is a dehumanizing tactic that bullies use to justify their teasing.

Being ostracized for not fitting in takes a serious emotional toll on girls and it has considerable influence over their behavior.  Remember Katie, the adorable first grader who wanted to swap her much loved Star Wars water bottle with a pink one because the boys at school made her feel ashamed of it? If you’re a girl who wants to fit in at school and you notice than none of the other girls have the Millennium Falcon on their lunch containers or raise their hand to answer questions in math class, you’re going to do what you have to do to minimize the social anxiety and peer pressure.

It’s our responsibility to foster a culture of acceptance and encouragement if we want to see more progress being made in STEM-fields and the entertainment industry.  I don’t think I’m going out on a huge limb here when I say that sentences like the above quote from Stanton contribute absolutely nothing to discussions about the relationship between young girls, science, and science fiction.  John Carter’s marketing strategy of hiding Mars like it’s an un-popped pimple sure hasn’t helped attract the female audience Stanton hoped for, at any rate. If John Carter does flop at the box office, he can’t really blame it on an audience that wasn’t invited.


Alyssa is a part-time retail assistant and full-time job hunter looking for work in nanomaterials and renewable energy technology. She writes a bit in her free time.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia commons

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  1. March 26, 2012 at 11:18 am —

    Is it really that bad?  I remember being a teen some 30 years ago and being the only girl in my school who had read Heinlein, despite Podkayne of Mars and Wyoh in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Peewee in Have Space Suit — Will Travel.  Now all I see on the Internet is a celebration of the Geek Girl.  Women my age fawn over David Tennant in Dr. Who and watch The Walking Dead and the Star Trek reboot and whatnot.  
    I'm not entirely sure I would have gone to see A Princess of Mars, except that I've read the book.  A Princess of Mars sounds too much like Ozma, Princess of Mars, or The Little Princess.  There's no suggestion about what the book is about, namely exicting action and adventure.  Even the references in Heinlein's The Number of the Beast… (which is where I first encountered the series, and why I read it) don't hint at the exciting nature of the series.

    • April 10, 2012 at 4:30 pm —

      Is it still really that bad?  Well, yes.  The blog post I linked to about the young Star Wars fan who was teased was written in November 2010.  I think a lot of it also depends on who you are and where you live.  If you grow up as a social deviant in a small town, it's hard to find friends whose interests mesh with yours.  The internet is a great tool for bringing groups of people together, but I don't think it's a solution.  We still need to see a celebration of strong, intelligent girls and women offline in schools, in the media, and in the workforce.  Also, I think as we get older, we develop thicker skins and tend to feel much more confident with who we are and what we like.  There's a difference between being a forty-year-old Doctor Who fan and a thirteen-year-old Doctor Who fan, one being that when you're older, it's highly unlikely that someone is going to tease you for hanging a poster of a sonic screwdriver-wielding David Tennant on your cubicle wall and even if it does happen, it's a whole lot easier to shrug off.
      I definitely agree that the title John Carter does nothing to even hint at the kind of adventure that happens in the book.  Also, did you mean Ozma: Princess of Oz or did I somehow miss out on one awesome Wizard of Oz book?

  2. March 26, 2012 at 11:48 pm —

    Yes! I was so frustrated when I discovered that the reason they removed "of Mars" was because they were afraid they would somehow scare of the women… WTF?
    I wrote a similar article on my blog, Worldbinding, at trying to figure out WHY people seem to think women don't like science fiction, which I believe essentially goes back to people thinking women aren't interested in the STEM fields.
    And I'm glad to see I'm not the only one annoyed by, as you said, essentially not being invited to the movie insofar as Hollywood was concerned.  

    • April 10, 2012 at 5:22 pm —

      Excellent blog post, thanks for sharing it!  I agree, if you're saying that girls aren't or could never be interested in sci fi, you're basically saying that girls just aren't cut out for science (or technology or engineering or math); STEM is the only thing that differentiates science fiction from fantasy.
      It's really funny how absolutely no one, and I mean no one, likes the title John Carter.  Aside from those who are already fans of the books, I haven't found a single person who's said: "You know, I wasn't too interested in that new Disney movie with the dueling spaceships and weird CGI alien gladiators, then I found out it was just about some guy named John Carter and I was absolutely stoked!"

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