Performing the Technologies of Gender: Representations of Television in Science Fiction by Women

By Donawerth, Jane | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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Performing the Technologies of Gender: Representations of Television in Science Fiction by Women

Donawerth, Jane, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

ICFA Guest Scholar Address 2007

In her essay, "technologies of gender," teresa de lauretis theorized that gender, "both as representation and as self-representation," is not only a "product ... of institutionalized discourses" but also "of various social technologies, such as cinema" (2). In this essay, I argue that in the pulp magazines and succeeding science fiction, women writers have literalized this connection through the depiction of television as a technology of gender. I examine short stories by Clare Winger Harris, C. L. Moore, and James Tiptree, Jr. (a pseudonym for Alice Sheldon), as well as the later feminist sf film, Making Mr. Right, directed by Susan Seidelman, and Melissa Scott's novel, The Kindly Ones, placing them in the dual contexts of the historical development of television and the history of women's science fiction and its representation of gender. (1) In these science fictions by women, ideologies of gender are literalized in descriptions of television as an apparatus that constructs gender through representing it. (2)

The first science fiction story by a woman in the pulp science fiction magazines, Clare Winger Harris's "The Fate of the Poseidonia," published in 1927, featured the new device. Television, "the electrical transmission and reception of transient visual images" (Abramson, "Invention" 13), dependent on the brain's fooling itself with "persistence of vision" (Burns 63), was the result of a nineteenth-century hope for a communication device such as the telegraph or telephone extended to visual representation--like today's cell phone rather than today's television. The information about this new invention may have come to Harris through the editor, Hugo Gernsback, who sponsored the contest that her story won: "In December 1923, [Charles Francis] Jenkins demonstrated his television apparatus separately to Hugo Gernsback, editor of Radio News, and Watson Davis, editor of Popular Radio" (Abramson, "Invention" 19). Newspapers across the United States reported Charles Jenkins's further success in June 1925, in transmitting an image of a windmill from Anacostia, Maryland, five miles, to Washington, DC (Abramson, "Invention" 22), and American Telephone and Telegraph Company's public demonstration on April 7, 1927, transmitting a program from Washington, DC to New York City (Abramson, "Invention" 23). Harris's story was published two months later.

While Gernsback may have been influenced in choosing the story as a contest winner because of its use of television, Harris herself deploys television not to celebrate the progress of science, but rather to frame her tale and to represent the technologies of gender as her generation constructed them. Harris's prize-winning science fiction recounts a tale of a discarded boyfriend, George Gregory, who is suspicious of his ex-girlfriend's new male escort, Martell, so that eventually Gregory eavesdrops on Martell only to find that he is using a device to communicate with other aliens in a plot to steal water from Earth for Mars.

The whole story is obsessed with the visual technologies of the twentieth century: it opens with a lantern-slide show of views of Mars (a parlor entertainment popularized during the 1890s). This program frames Mars as a culture inferior to Gregory's Earth: "the telescopic eye, when turned on Mars, sees a waning world" (246). Martell strikes George as utterly alien, and to us readers, the name indicates again Harris's anxiety about new communication devices: Mar-tell, a charactonym, suggests the alien's duplicitous character and his possession of dangerous communication technology. When George peers into Martell's apartment through a keyhole, he sees the alien using a weird instrument, perhaps "a newfangled radio that communicated with the spirit world" (247).

The story is set in a future where television has been "in use for a generation, but," George reflects, "as yet no instrument had been invented which delivered messages from the 'unknown bourne'!

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