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The Iron Madonna or: Kicking Ass While Female

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I reluctantly acquired a Twitter account as a necessary accoutrement to my Scientific American posts.  The people I track there fall mostly into two streams: scientists and SFF writers.  This week, the two intersected, resulting in a minor epiphany.  The tributaries were Upsides of Women in Science? by neuroscientist SciTriGrrl at Tenure, She Wrote; and I Hate Strong Female Characters by author Sophia McDougall in the New Statesman.

For those eager to rejoin Twitter lest they miss a hot link, here’s the kernel: the characteristics that McDougall deplores are requirements for the survival of women in science (actually in all endeavors that aren’t explicitly coded “feminine”).  And the permission – nay, requirement – to be a strong silent kick-ass may be one of the few upsides of being a non(whiteAnglo)male in a STEM field, though it comes with a heavy load of baggage.

Gina Carano as Mallory Kane in Haywire

Gina Carano as Mallory Kane in Haywire. Photo: Associated Press

McDougall follows in the steps of several forerunners (she mis/names Carina Chocano, but these debates have been going on for a while) and hews to a meaning of the term “strong female character” as narrow as Margaret Atwood’s definition of science fiction.  Within her defined parameters, McDougall argues eloquently that “strong” female characters in books, movies and comics are pernicious because they devalue all non-heroic behavior (which of course depends on one’s definition of heroism) and limit the range of attributes, actions and interactions available to the character herself.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most SFF works contain a single woman bereft of female kin and friends.  To retain her trap-strewn status, such a construct is obliged to be a perfect kick-ass while remaining “womanly” and focused on the men and their needs: not for her the quirks and angst of a Sherlock Holmes or an Edward Rochester.  There are the inevitable partial exceptions, the most prominent one being Lara Croft before she got stuffed into normalization corsets.

By consensus of both supporters and detractors, the standard kick-ass heroine is an extreme manifestation of the strong silent type: Shane with breasts – and, furthermore, breasts that please and/or nourish without any demand for a quid pro quo. I call such characters Iron Madonnas: a ratcheted-up variation of the Iron Maiden that requires women to be maternal while remaining asexual and literally selfless, like the Christian prototype. To give just a few highly visible SFF examples, Arwen, Cordelia Vorkosigan, Sarah Connor, the reboot Uhura and Padmé Amidala (until she turns into a floor puddle) are obvious Iron Madonnas; so are most of Miyazaki’s heroines, which is why Mononoke Hime is such a landmark work: just the centrality of more than one woman (Mononoke and Eboshi) breaks the mold – to say nothing of their attributes.

SciTriGrrl ‘s article posits that, customary gloom to the contrary, there ARE some upsides to being a woman in STEM.  However, most of the pluses she and her commenters list are non-specific to either gender or discipline: following a consuming vocation; flexible if long hours; lack of a dress code.   The rest, frankly, are a wishlist.  Worse yet, they arise from tokenism (“As the single woman in X you stand out!” – which means you get to serve and be ignored in tons more committees than a male counterpart, to say nothing of the micro- to mega-aggressions that rain on you as a stand-in for all non-men) or from gender-coded behavior along the lines of “Women have more personal/ized interactions and less horn locking!” (as in: being warm and understanding and reaping benefits therefrom).

To which my retort is, if only.  Contrary to SciTriGrrl’s hopeful assertions, women in STEM, regardless of where they are in their career path, have a narrower permitted response spectrum than men.  Not only is weeping instant career demolition; so is anger, sarcasm, moodiness, flamboyance, charisma.  All, incidentally, are deemed leadership attributes in men and add depth and piquancy to male heroes – and are also reflected on what’s acceptable in corresponding outerwear.

A male mentor is never expected to waste valuable time and gray matter to even hear, let alone tolerate, tales of personal woe.  A male faculty member can show up in sweatpants or with hair combed by touching an electric socket, no problemo; and unless he’s non-white or has “odd vowels” in his name, he’s never chosen for draining service duties with the reasoning “We need ‘diversity’ so we can check off that box in our reports to funding agencies.”

Women are called to lead a department or company only when it’s in deep doodoo: not only are their careers deemed more disposable but “as women” they’re considered magically (or genetically) equipped to clean up messes while the men forge ahead with advantageous exit strategies.

What I just described is the narrowly defined kick-ass heroine excoriated by McDougall et al.  The Iron Madonna has been, and remains, the sole viable behavior mode for women in STEM – in part because we’re still asked to prove non-stop that “We’re as good as boys.” The stance does not guarantee success or happiness, far from it; it only gives people who do science while non-male the chance to pursue their vocation without handicaps of Harrison Bergeron size.  It’s a persona, an armored exoskeleton that must be worn on a planet where toxic molecules are inhaled with each and every breath.

Which is where the tiny sliver of “advantage”  comes in, if it can be called that: women in this configuration can sometimes dodge the automatic expectation of standard “feminine” responses.  They will never achieve a fraction of the fame, success and authority of male counterparts with a fraction of their dedication and talent; but they may be left alone to dream and shape the dark in small, meagerly funded labs without demands to be den mothers, wear floppy bow ties or make soothing noises (though they still get summarily slapped down if they deviate from the spacetime local academic norms).  The real solution, of course, is to make others more multifaceted and human(e) rather than women less so.  But that’s still “a consummation devoutly to be wished” even in first-world academia.

Related articles:

Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears

A Plague on Both Your Houses – Reprise

The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Bridge Struts in Pink Pantalets

So, Where Are the Outstanding Women in X?


Athena Andreadis About the Author: Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. She conceived of and edited the feminist space opera anthology The Other Half of the Sky, coming out in April 2013 from Candlemark and Gleam. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless. Follow on Twitter @AthenaHelivoy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 21 Comments

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  1. 1. sault 8:10 pm 08/17/2013

    There are several points I wish to mention:

    1. Writing female characters as “Iron Madonnas” is the easiest, most straightforward way to head-off charges that said character is demeaning to women or is trying to reinforce the belief that women are weaker than men or conform to traditional gender roles in some way. And since MOST characters in sci-fi tend to be rather flat and mostly used as tools to show off the world and all the fancy technology the writer has created anyway, this has become the default mold used to form female characters in the genre.

    2. “Not only is weeping instant career demolition; so is anger, sarcasm, moodiness, flamboyance, charisma. All, incidentally, are deemed leadership attributes in men and add depth and piquancy to male heroes – and are also reflected on what’s acceptable in corresponding outerwear.”

    Not a lot of people would think a weepy, moody or flamboyant person of any gender would be a good leader.

    3. “A male faculty member can show up in sweatpants or with hair combed by touching an electric socket, no problemo.”

    This statement has no basis in fact and may just be gathered from a few anecdotal pieces of evidence. In most professional situations, your dress and appearance matters A LOT regardless of who you are.

    4. While women make up a low percentage of people in STEM careers currently, they DO make up 60% of university students overall in the USA. Males drop out of school at much higher rates than females as well, so sometime in the future, there will be an underclass of less-educated men and more-successful women that may or may not be okay with “dragging them along” so to speak. A major underlying issue seems to be that schools are failing to make learning engaging boys and gender issues might get much worse if we don’t address this.

    While differences between the sexes are much less pronounced than the misogynists or misandrists would like to believe, they are present and they must be addressed for everybody to be given the chance tp achieve their potential.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Athena Andreadis 8:51 pm 08/17/2013

    Schools are not meant to “engage” anyone and men still command almost the entirety of this planet’s resources.

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  3. 3. szopen 5:27 am 08/19/2013

    Just because __some__ men are commanding most of planet’s resources, it does not mean you should think __all_ men are privileged. For example, me and my wife equally own some tiny fraction of planet’s resources and it does not matter to either me or she whether amongst the richest ten people are ten men or five.

    Also, if there are campaigns to encourage more girls into STEM, i fail to understand why decreasing number of males should not be met with similar campaigns.

    BTW, there were no campaigns to encourage girls into law (already almost half of law graduates are female; 70% of attorneys are females, though some say the progress of females has “stalled”), medicine (almost half first-year students are female) and yet girls flocked into those fields.

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  4. 4. sault 9:59 am 08/19/2013


    By “engage”, I mean to make learning interesting and worthwhile so that students aren’t as tempted to drop out. Since boys are dropping out of school and not going to college in increasing numbers, something needs to be done. Not treating them like dangerous animals whose base nature needs to be trained out of them is a good start.

    And why does it matter that “men still command almost the entirety of this planet’s resources”? That’s not even remotely related to the points I’m trying to make. The gathering of “resources” is not a game and it doesn’t matter whether men or women “command” the majority of them in the context of crafting fictional characters, education or any of the other issues I mentioned.

    The REAL problem is that those at the top of the “resource distribution” pyramid command a large and growing share of the wealth regardless of their gender. And they probably laugh when those at the bottom divide themselves up, blaming each other for the ever-shrinking piece that’s left. This saves people at the top from having to do it and they are probably very thankful.

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  5. 5. Athena Andreadis 10:58 am 08/19/2013

    Both of you might find it useful to read this (nice try with the “base nature” remark, by the way, in response to an article that discusses solely cultural conditioning). Also, you may want to look up basic definitions of privilege, intersectionality, etc.

    It doesn’t matter what percentage of a profession is women if they cluster in the lower rungs (and/or if the influx of women results in the profession becoming devalued as “female”, as it did for doctors in the USSR). It’s unclear why schools should be entertaining or remedial for boys. As for who has resources, land, wealth, titles, positions, perks, etc, by all means consult the UN statistics, or look at any structure in any part of the world: corporations, universities, governments, even families.

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  6. 6. sault 1:27 pm 08/19/2013


    On the contrary, working to change someone’s base nature into something more “acceptable” is entirely in the realm of cultural conditioning. And you still haven’t addressed the fact that boys are dropping out of school and failing to go to college in growing numbers. This reflects some sort of change that happened some time in the past that is causing problems in the present. It may be entirely possible that boys get turned off of school at a young age because of the “cultural conditioning” that tries to get them to act and think more like girls. This has nothing in connection with entertainment or being “remedial” in any way and has more to do with devaluing and demeaning boys’ natural thought processes in comparison to girls’.

    This approach may have been in an effort to correct for the low percentage of women going to college or employed in certain fields at the time, but its negative effect on boys is clear. Given current trends, again I need to emphasize that there will be a growing underclass of less-educated men as a result, which is not a good idea, is it?

    Short of instituting quotas, you would have to delve into hiring, firing, and promotion decisions by countless organizations to determine why there are lower numbers of women than men in certain fields. While a certain amount of privilege (or “privilege echo”) still exists, there are plenty of other factors in play as well that you might not see if you blame the entire disparity on privilege alone. For example, and we’re talking averages here since we are discussing overall rates so all the usual caveats apply, there are also several differences in how men and women participate in the workplace. Men tend to work more hours per week than women and they tend to work more overtime hours as well. Men are more willing to travel for work and relocate if necessary. Several scientific studies have shown that men and women view risk differently and some of those perceptions may favor one over the other in certain organizations, whether this is better for the organization as a whole or not. Finally, while many women choose not to have children, enough do choose to have one or multiple children, taking them out of full workplace productivity for months at a time while changing their home life a great deal. Holding a pregnancy against a woman when making hiring, firing and promotion decisions is and should be illegal, but you cannot legislate against lost experience, networking and other disruptions that a pregnancy can cause that are also impossible to prevent in the first place.

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  7. 7. Athena Andreadis 2:01 pm 08/19/2013

    Shorter Sault: “Can we talk about Teh Menz?”

    More formally, please don’t insult me with Basics 101 stuff that (again) is all cultural, from parenting expectations to workplace structures.

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  8. 8. sault 4:18 pm 08/19/2013


    Why are you afraid of actually debating these issues and merely inject an ad hominem against me only to then get defensive by thinking I’m insulting you? And how come you present no rebuttal to my arguments?

    Your initial article talked “about Teh Menz” when you claimed that there was a double standard against women in behavior and dress / appearance. When you make oversimplifications like this, expect to get clarifications like mine, plain and simple.

    And what I really don’t understand is that you first criticize me for bringing up “base nature” in response to an article that you feel the need to remind me is about “solely cultural conditioning”, and then you criticize me for bringing up “…Basics 101 stuff that (again) is all cultural…”. So, in order to discuss this issue with you, I cannot bring up either biological or cultural factors? How can we even have a debate?

    Again, you brought up cultural issues when mentioning that certain behaviors are more acceptable from men than from women. The fact that you think I’m insulting you by bringing up a lot of factors you failed to mention in your article is highly misguided. Forcing people to debate with only the facts you have agreed to beforehand is pointless.

    I understand if you don’t have the time to have a proper discussion based on your short posts, so by all means, please let me know. Just being dismissive is not the way to go.

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  9. 9. Athena Andreadis 7:32 pm 08/19/2013

    It is, if logic slippages and worn-out platitudes are all you have to offer. You can have the last word if you wish, it’s too boring to engage.

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  10. 10. sault 7:41 pm 08/19/2013

    Or you just don’t have the facts on your side. I know what you’re trying to get at and it just doesn’t add up. Sorry to say, but there is no Patriarchy, just an “Archy” that works to screw everybody over beneath them regardless of their gender. Thinking otherwise only serves to pit those of us that aren’t in the club against each other, making the “Archy’s” job that much easier.

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  11. 11. Athena Andreadis 8:25 pm 08/19/2013

    I’d look up “mansplaining” while you’re checking out Derailing for Dummies. Also, the definition of Patriarchy while you’re at it, because it clearly eludes you.

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  12. 12. z34aa 9:41 pm 08/19/2013

    I thought you were going to let him have the last word? :P

    As a guest blogger on Scientific America don’t you think you should try to act in a little more civilized way? This is supposed to be a place for debate not throwing of insults. If you don’t like to debate things then just leave it alone. I understand you feel you are the expert on the subject but that only means that you have to try harder to teach those who do not know as well as you do. Hell, sometimes you even find that the other person has a reasonable point!

    There is no reason for nastiness. Yes, other people are sometimes annoyingly, wrongheadedly, wrong, but I have found to my chagrin to many times that if I unleash my spleen and dismiss any points the other person has ‘I’ might be the one being wrongheadedly wrong, and that’s never fun to find out.

    You were invited to blog here because the editors thought you had a “thought-provoking, fascinating, debatable and challenging” opinion. And I must say I agree! I liked reading your article, I found it very interesting. Your responses in the comment section have been less than stellar, at least in my opinion. But don’t let that bother you. If I went around caring what every person on the internet thought of me I wouldn’t get anything done all day. :)

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  13. 13. Athena Andreadis 10:14 pm 08/19/2013

    Ooo, the tone argument! AND the “Educate us!” argument. A twofer.

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  14. 14. z34aa 10:46 pm 08/19/2013

    Well, never mind then, good luck with your book in April. I hope it does well.

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  15. 15. z34aa 1:10 am 08/20/2013

    Oops, I see now that it has already come out, I thought it said 2014 not 2013. Well, in any event good luck with whatever your next endeavor is.

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  16. 16. sault 1:25 am 08/20/2013

    Link to this
  17. 17. Athena Andreadis 12:50 pm 08/20/2013

    “How to Hurt a Man’s Feelings”

    Link to this
  18. 18. sault 8:17 pm 08/20/2013

    The “Patriarchy” is to feminists as “Fluoridated Drinking Water” was to the John Birch Society…

    “Not everything in the world is a debate, and the debate is a pretty patriarchal form in itself. The end point of a debate should be to communicate x idea. Instead, male gate-keepers of ‘debate’ are demanding that the communication of ideas be done in their form. They want a nice calm tone, statistics, and LOGIC.”

    Sorry, but this is pretty sexist in and of itself. If feminists automatically see men as “gatekeepers” or “oppressors” and are opposed to logical debate, no wonder more and more people, both men and women, are reluctant to call themselves “feminists” anymore.

    Tell me this, if this “Patriarchy” was such an evil cabal plotting how to keep women down while granting men “privilege, how come:

    * Men suffer 98% of workplace fatalities

    * The rule is “Women and children first” out of a sinking ship, burning building, etc. Any violators will be burdened with immense social stigma.

    * Men suffer around 99% of deaths and injuries in military combat.

    * Men still have to register for the Selective Service and can be drafted into the armed forces against their will should a major war break out.

    * Family law is hugely weighted in favor of women, especially in child custody and alimony / spousal support cases.

    * Men are guilty until proven innocent when charged with rape, sexual assault, etc. as shown by the Duke Lacrosse Team case and allegations made against Kobe Bryant several years ago.

    * Men make up 40% of domestic violence victims and many fail to report abuse because it is likely they will go to prison instead of their abusers.

    * And again, boys are dropping out of school in record numbers while women make up 60% of university students.

    NONE of these facts are consistent with a “Patriarchy” plotting against women. If you want to see REAL oppression, go to Afghanistan or Sub-Saharan Africa.

    While there are still some inequities in how men and women are treated in society, seeing patriarchal oppressors around every corner and behind every bush is not going to solve these problems. Most people agree that the State should stay out of reproductive rights and that equal work should garner equal pay. In addition, we should eliminate rape, sexual assault and harassment as much as we can. But seeing double standards that aren’t there while ignoring the fact that men experience difficulties because of their gender too is sexist in its own right.

    Look, this whole “mansplaining” thing is rather childish. First, you assumed I am a man. Second, you criticized me for not being able to read your mind to figure out what you know already so I wouldn’t “insult me with Basics 101 stuff”. Also, keep in mind that I’m not writing this just to you, and I have no idea what readers of these comments will or won’t know before I write them. So I apologize that you felt I was talking down to you, but please understand where I’m coming from. However, getting immediately defensive when you see ideas you don’t agree with is not very constructive. And becoming immediately dismissive of 50% of the population just because of who they may or may not actually be makes someone just as sexist as all those card-carrying patriarchs that are supposedly all over the place.

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  19. 19. sault 9:48 pm 08/20/2013

    This video explains some of the ideas I’m trying to get across:

    Link to this
  20. 20. Athena Andreadis 4:28 pm 08/21/2013

    I am brought to my feminazi knees by your originality and brilliance, like Saul at Damascus! (Not).

    Link to this
  21. 21. sault 10:05 pm 08/21/2013

    Well, its nice to know that you have ZERO facts on your side and have to resort to childish responses instead. Confirms all my suspicions about radical feminism and its non-existent intellectual foundation.

    Link to this

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