Look at all the women in this photo! It's... um, a wedding scene. But one of them besides female protagonist talks! But, well... it turns out she's a guy. Women are still just scenery on Mars.

I’ve been thinking a lot about women and power.

J. and I went to see John Carter last week, but this isn’t really a rant about John Carter, which has its own issues. What particularly struck me was when J. pointed out that he was surprised to see so many women background characters in the army in the film, and wasn’t that progressive?

This… in a film filled with male characters and exactly one female (humanoid) character (yes, there’s Sola, the green alien, but her story arc gets badly truncated. I could have watched a whole movie featuring Sola). Since there was just one woman, she ended up being several women – scientist and soldier both – but still a chick in skimpy clothes that is simply married off because, you know, that’s what people do to unite kingdoms on every planet. Women just get forced into marrying guys they don’t want to marry.

And I think this gets back to something I discussed earlier, because John Carter is just the latest glaring example of this problem I see in a lot of current media. It’s this idea that if we just give a woman a sword, sexism has been solved. As if the ability to shoot guns alone (though a very useful skill) somehow erases stuff like our shoddy record on reproductive health, the wage gap, sexual harassment, the devaluing of stuff considered “women’s work” and the like.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love me some slash-and-hack. But what intrigues me more is how the world would be different if women really did have physical and economic power that was both valued and respected by society at large. Giving a hot spunky chick a sword and saying she’s a magical scientist but still producing a work that doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test doesn’t do that. It’s giving people the symbols of power but not the actual power.

Then I started to wonder what, exactly, does power look like? Does the ability to work behind the scenes and scheme for a throne for your husband/son/male lover count as power? Certainly, you’re influential, but you’re influencial in putting other people into power, not yourself. At any point, that person can decide to no longer support you, and what then? Rome was a great example of this. Here were all these powerful, aristocratic women, but at the end of the day, if they pissed off Cesar, what Cesar wanted, Cesar got. Supporting other peoples’ rise to power always struck me as a path to power that was fraught with potential problems.  The women of Rome were strong characters, and wielded power over certain aspects of their lives, but at the end of the day, they were still subject to Cesar (or their husbands, because legally, women were property), and to the peculiar limitations their society placed on them and their ambitions.

What would the world really look like if physical and economic power rested equally between the sexes? Or with women alone? And how would men operate in that world? I want to know more than just what the armies look like. What are the economics like? The assumptions? The limitations and restrictions based on sex? What does gender look like? Is there only one? Or two? A multiplicity? What about reproduction? Family life? There are an infinite number of things we take for granted in our day to day lives that not only are not at all inherently biological but are only considered “normal” because we’ve done them for fewer than 50 years. Five hundred years ago, things looked a lot different. And I can guarantee you that 5,000 years from now, on another planet, they’re going to look MUCH different.

So why can’t we explore that more in our fiction? Why take the lazy route out?

Fabulous CGI and sunships are cool, but if your Martian guy is sitting around reading the paper in the living room while his wife is making breakfast, you’re probably doing something wrong.

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