17 November 2012 ~ 0 Comments

Heinlein as feminist — no, really

When a person rereads Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky as an adult in the 21st century, a couple of things stand out. First, there’s the Old Man motif — the wise old mentor who plays as stand-in for Heinlein himself. It’s done well or badly in all of Heinlein’s books (excruciatingly so in Stranger in a Strange Land). In Tunnel, it’s perfectly fine.

Secondly, I kinda wish that YA could still be like this. Maybe because it’s “boy” YA, but wouldn’t it be nice if YA didn’t have to rely so heavily on the love story? I am as into romance as much as the next person (who is into romance), but it is disturbing that even in action adventure books for girls, there has to be a love story.

Finally, this is one of the most feminist books I’ve ever read, possibly even more feminist than some modern SF, except where it falls back into some 1950s gender role stuff that make you go, whaaa? After all that competency and well-roundedness, and being valued by comrades, you still — they still — they what?

If you haven’t read the book, the following will be spoilers, but so what. Jeez, it was written in the 1950s and you should have read it, and anyway, spoilers only count for current books, movies, and TV episodes. So here goes:

Jack is a girl. And she hides her figure in an entirely realistic way — with body armor. Jack is such a competent girl that she survives by herself on a dangerous planet for a couple of weeks, does not need Rod to rescue her, and in fact is much smarter than Rod who takes a leadership position even though he makes stupid and dangerous assumptions about everyone and everything around him, including what planet he’s on. He’s so wrong constantly, that it’s both infuriating (they’re letting this kid lead?) and amusing (Heinlein is doing this to create an everyman character for his readers.)

And it’s not just Jack. All of the girls on the planet and Rod’s sister* on Earth are amazingly competent. Caroline is a “Zulu” girl (really, Heinlein? really?) who is as big and aggressive as the boys, a better hunter than most (and by the way, as far as I can tell, this is NOT because she’s a native or black or a Magical Negro(TM) who is closer to nature, so kudos to Heinlein there), and cheerful and funny and sweet too.

Then it goes wonky. So for instance, as soon as Jack reveals that she is Jacqueline, she becomes hyper feminine. Caroline** is essentially described as undesirable, and whether it’s because she’s black or because she’s aggressive, the reader is left to infer. She has crushes on all the boys, but none — including Rod, who is her best friend (they are drawn as equals whether Heinlein meant that or not) — ever crushes back.

None of the girls take charge. Whenever there is a question of leadership, it’s always between the boys (keep in mind everyone is between sixteen and twenty-three, or thereabouts). When they are stranded on this planet, some of the kids pair off into couples and have children. At that point, the girls — none of whom have any experience in midwifery — shoo out the fathers and make them wait outside for the baby to be born, a la 1950s popular culture. Okay, I don’t know about you, but: If I were sixteen and having a baby, I would not have trusted any of my sixteen-year-old girlfriends to know what to do. I certainly wouldn’t have expected any of the boys to know either, but man.

So it was a very interesting re-read. The last time I read it was back in the 1970s, I am pretty sure. I’ve read some Heinlein juveniles since (oh Starman Jones and Space Cadet, how much do I love your cheerful and unrepentant misogyny?) so Tunnel was a pleasant surprise.

And here’s the thing: I don’t think we have necessarily improved the portrayal of girls in YA since, especially with the current focus on romance. I may be curmudgeonly (well, yeah) but I honestly think we are doing a disservice to young women readers. In the 19th century, publishers cultivated authors to write books for young readers that would transmit cultural virtues — hence Louisa May Alcott’s career. In those books, girls have more agency and optimism than in many of the dark, apocalyptic YA novels of today. There was also friendship — friendship among girls and friendship between boys and girls. Anyone who has been to a high school or middle school recently knows that there is still friendship without romantic entanglement. We don’t see this in modern YA and I think it’s the final missing piece for feminist literature for young people. That is, we can honor and write about strong girls and also write about their friendships and connections, without saying, “you must have a boyfriend or you are not complete.”

I mean, if Heinlein can do it in his weird, head-scratching yet ultimately successful way, then so can we, right?

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*Rod’s sister Helen is a tough Marine and leads an elite assault group of Amazons. In an essay on feminist SF from the 1970s, her portrayal is criticized because after she finishes her tour she wants to get married and retire and have children, which she does at the end of Tunnel. I can see that point –why can’t Helen remain a career officer? Certainly nowadays modern soldiers can. However, after more than 10 years of war, I am sympathetic to a description of a soldier who wants to become a civilian instead. So I was more open to Helen’s portrayal, because I could see any soldier, male or female, having the same desire.

** At the end of the book, Caroline becomes an Amazon Marine, and I thought that was awesome because she is off doing more adventuring. She and Rod are still friends and — this is why people write fanfic — I could see them having drinks and reminiscing whenever they meet up over the next twenty years.

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