Every teacher has their peccadilloes. One of mine is my abhorrence for calling diverse groups of people “guys.” This hatred gets a workout any time I observe a peer teacher’s class or listen to my students attempt to start presentations, forever defaulting to shouts of, “Guys, hey guys!” to draw the room upright and into order. I hate “guys” as a gender-neutral stand-in because it so transparently isn’t one. If you’re talking to someone and telling a story, setting the stage with, “So we were waiting for a table at this restaurant, and a group of guys comes over” will invariably call up a wash of male faces from your mind’s central casting department. Describe someone as “a good guy” if they have an at all gender-ambiguous name (like, for instance, mine: I’ve known more men than women called Tracy) and you’re asking your interlocutor to assume they are cis-gender male. And so, I can’t address my classroom or any other mixed company of people as “guys.” It elides the presence of anyone who isn’t “guy-ish.” (And before you protest this isn’t so, consider what we’re really saying when we describe a woman as “just one of the guys” as an endorsement of her character. There’s nothing neutral about “guys” and never has been.)
That tendency to paint the default composition of a room as masculine rubs off on so much of daily life, it can all too easily go without comment. It rubs off in our imaginations, too, leading to a variety of ways sff has tried (and often failed) to create visible, memorable women characters without stumbling all over the gender identity or trying to scour it off with male-coded toxicity. The struggle to understand what a woman’s presence actually means in a story, and what her strength and agency can look like beyond masculine definitions, goes all the way back to proto-scientific theories of hysteria as literally rooted in a woman’s uterus. Thus, lumping women together with men – making them “one of the guys” – might be read as some kind of compliment, an effort to look past the native weakness of women.
Perhaps my fundamental rankling at “just one of the guys”-ness is what draws me so powerfully to Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, a novel that specifically examines the ways a woman uses the social and emotional powers of her identity to overcome barriers set up by skeptical men, infantilizing media, and even her own brain chemistry. Elma York’s nemesis is a handsy misogynist pilot with a grudge against her astronaut candidacy and the power to keep her grounded, principally by exploiting the socialized fear of “hysterical women.” In other words, by exploiting their “failure” to actually be “one of the guys.”
Writing Elma York on the lowest difficulty setting would have stopped at her list of qualifications to be among the first astronauts in Kowal’s alt-history: she’s an ex-WASP pilot with hundreds of hours logged flying aircraft through dangerous territories, a physicist, a mathematician, and the most gifted computer at the International Aerospace Coalition. She’s forthright, articulate, and ambitious. But the lowest difficulty setting doesn’t make a strong character, as Kowal well knows. Elma’s strength lies in her ability to both embody, and defy, the hysteria fear that keeps women out of the astronaut corps.
Elma York has clinically diagnosed anxiety. Her success leads to media attention, and media attention leads to a spiral of self-consuming fear, driven by her mother’s haunting rhetorical cry: “What will people think?” Shrugging off the toxic male frame of “strong female character” in favor of “strong realistic woman” means seeing Elma take anti-anxiety medications; embrace the support of her husband, Nathaniel (who is his own study in deconstructing gendered strength); and come to terms with the fact that her emotions aren’t what make her weak. They are the very thing that has made her so strong, able to see past others’ motivations to real issues, to unpack conflicts and defuse them, and to show empathy and grace, even when it isn’t deserved.
Even Elma’s panic attacks are reminders of how utterly, thoroughly competent she is. She manages them through mathematical mantras that are in themselves astounding reminders of what she can accomplish even when “compromised.”
Nathaniel stood directly in front of me. “197 times 4753?”
“Divided by 243?”
“3853.255144032922. . . How many decimal places do you want?” . . .
“That’s fine. Square root? To five decimals. . . if applicable.”
. . . “62.074559.”
Equally important to Elma’s strength being authentic, defined by skills that have nothing to do with her gender, are the strengths she enjoys because of her gender identity and her relationship with her husband. Nathaniel doesn’t kick and punch his way through problems to help Elma. He stands at her side, a faithful auxiliary, and does whatever is needed to help her do for herself.
Nathaniel breathed into my ear. “1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9 –”
“That’s wrong.” I clung to him. “The Fibonacci sequence adds the prior number to the current one, so it should be 3, 5, 8, 13. . . Oh. Clever man.”
“I can do more bad math, if that will help.” He gave me a squeeze and stepped back to look at me. “Just remember that astronauts get to fly T-33s.”
I snorted. “Here I thought you were going to tell me to remember to that you loved me.”
“Eh. You know that. But a T-33? A jet? I know where I stand. . .”
Part of what has driven sff writers toward strong female characters with few real differences between themselves and the men surrounding them is this old concern about how women feel their world and process it — and the fear that a woman might not be able to “do for herself” if she was anything less than identical to the men around her. Kowal’s book and its sequel, The Fated Sky, remind us that the solution to writing authentic women doesn’t lie in running from what challenges them or makes them different, but in exploring it, making it normal and real.
Kowal is hardly the first sff writer to write a mentally ill protagonist who earns the reader’s trust in her strength and capability. Mishell Baker’s Arcadia Project books also unpack their heroine’s mental health, embrace her struggles, and allow her to be both vulnerable and adamantine at turns. It’s refreshing to see women characters finally given the space to be less than perfect that’s so long been afforded to their masculine counterparts.
Finally, women in sff really are getting to be “just one of the guys.”