Time Travel and Gender

Back in July, Anna Smith asked at The Guardian “Why can’t women time travel?” and laments that mainstream time travel movies almost always feature male protagonists.

My initial reaction to that article was: But women do time travel. There are plenty of female time travelers. There’s Claire Randall from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Grace St. John from Linda Howard’s Son of the Morning, Mendoza from Kage Baker’s Company novels (sort of), Verity Kindle from Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, Dana from Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the eponymous heroine of Susan Grant’s The Legend of Banzai Maguire and its sequel The Scarlet Empress (again sort of, cause Banzai Maguire is more a female Buck Rogers type character, who wakes up in the future), the time-cop heroine of Kay Austin’s Time Transit, the heroines of Teresa Medeiros’ Breath of Magic and Touch of Enchantment, the heroine of Robin Schone’s Awaken, My Love, who infamously masturbates her way back in time (really!) and many others. Writer Gwyn Cready has built a whole career out of writing time travel romances about women traveling through time to find love in the arms of a hunky hero from the past. On the TV front we have Alex Drake from Ashes to Ashes, Kiera from Continuum, Amanda from Lost in Austen and the overwhelming majority of Doctor Who companions. Torchwood‘s resident time traveler was male, but the show had a bunch of time travel episodes, which involved female time travelers, both guest characters and a female member of the regular cast. So women clearly do time travel. Anna Smith simply hasn’t read the right books or watched the right TV shows.

Meanwhile, Charles Stross responds to Anna Smith and attempts to analyse why time travelers are overwhelmingly male. Unlike Anna Smith, Charles Stross is aware that there are female time travelers in what he calls “fantasy and paranormal romance” (though time travel romance is usually considered its own subgenre apart from paranormal or futuristic romance), but claims that there are none in SF. Now he is wrong on that account, because IMO Kage Baker’s Company novels, Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, Kay Austin’s Time Transit and the TV show Continuum clearly count as SF. There’s also Noÿs Lambent from Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, an SF novel if there ever was one. To be fair, Noÿs is not the protagonist of The End of Eternity, but she is female and a time traveler and indeed the catalyst who makes the whole plot possible.

But even if Charles Stross missed a few female SF time travelers, he nonetheless makes some interesting points:

The time travel story is a tale of tourism in the classical sense: an activity of the privileged, making spectacle of the past (and, occasionally, the Wellsian future). And women make poor time travelers because in the foreign countries of the past they lack the agency conferred by privilege.

Now plenty of the examples of stories about female time travelers I listed above gain a lot of mileage precisely out of the power imbalance between the genders in the past. Issues of privilege and power imbalance (not just gender issues either, but also ethnic and religious issues) drive ninety percent of the plot of Outlander. Octavia Butler’s Kindred is basically a novel about slavery and racism. Arian Whitewood from Teresa Medeiros’ Breath of Magic is persecuted as a witch in Puritan times, a fate that befell far more women than men, and time travels into the future when the spell she casts misfires. The masturbating heroine in Robin Schone’s Awaken, My Love finds that her liberated sexuality clashes with the stifling conventions of Victorian times. Amanda from Lost in Austen comes up against the strictures of Regency era England far more often than one would expect from a devoted Jane Austen fan. The Torchwood episode “Captain Jack Harkness” addresses both the racism facing Toshiko and the difficulties of living as a gay man at a time when homosexuality was criminalized. Doctor Who, usually the epitome of escapist time travel yarns, had Martha Jones, a black medical student, forced to work as a maid during an extended stop in 1914 in the two-part episode Human Nature/Family of Blood and dealing with the everyday racism of the time, while the Doctor was blissfully unaware that there was anything wrong. And even Alex Drake, who only traveled from 2008 to 1980, finds herself dealing with the inherent sexism, let alone racism and homophobia, in the Metropolitan Police in the early 1980s. Without the imbalance of power and privilege, many of those books/TV series wouldn’t have a plot.

Charles Stross writes:

A young and intrepid male time traveler might experience a tour of the Great Times as an educational adventure; an equally young and intrepid female time traveler could count herself lucky if she merely ended up in a Magdalene Laundry. (There were plenty of worse places to land, horrifying though this might seem.)

I don’t recall any time travel tale where a time traveler ended up in a Magdalene Laundry. However, there are plenty where female time travelers find themselves threatened with workhouses, rape, forced marriage or find themselves nearly burned at the stake as witches. Claire Randall from Outlander experiences all of these except for the workhouse. And yet such books are not considered “grim reading”, even if they are halfway realistic (and most aren’t), but enjoyable escapism. So Charles Stross is obviously mistaken that readers of time travel tales want to identify only with the privileged, even though most time traveling women do end up among the privileged, i.e. the aristocracy, of the respective time.

Charles Stross continues:

For a female protagonist to successfully enjoy time travel as a form of tourism implies either that she has defensive resources that render her invulnerable to the depredations of the locals (a Culture knife missile up her sleeve should do the trick), or that she has acquired a privilege power-up—probably by way of cross-dressing, which shows up depressingly often as a get-out-of-time-jail-free card. (It’s so common in the literature, in fact, that it’s somewhere between a cliche and a full-blown sub-genre convention.) But in neither of these circumstances is she able to engage with the alien society from within: She remains an outsider. Her privilege delivers alienation, not engagement.

I don’t really know how he comes to this conclusion, because the many tales of female time travelers I listed do not support this at all. For example, Claire Randall of Outlander ends up under the protection of a Scottish clan via making herself indispensible because of her nursing skills. She lives with these people and eventually even marries one of them (not entirely voluntarily). Alex Drake of Ashes to Ashes works as a police officer in the past (okay, so it’s not really the past, but neither Alex nor the viewer knows until the very end), solves cases and befriends her colleagues. She also attempts to meddle in her personal history. And Susan Grant’s Banzai Maguire gets involved in a rebellion in the future. It would be difficult to engage more with the “alien society” from within than these women do.

To be fair, there is a difference between male tourist time travelers and the various female time travelers I listed. For while male time travelers can fall in love on their travel (and often do, all the way back to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine), female time travelers inevitably fall in love, even if the story in question is not an explicit genre romance such as Kage Baker’s Company series, Isaac Asimov’s End of Eternity or Ashes to Ashes. Contary to what Charles Stross says about women remaining detached from the alien society of the future and/or past, the detached time traveler who is merely an observer is a purely male figure. Female time travelers usually throw themselves head on into the new, alien world they find themselves in, often via throwing themselves into the arms of a hunky man from the past or the future.

There is another factor that separates male and female time travelers. For female time travelers rarely hop into their time machine and dial up 1812 or whatever. Instead, female time travel is almost always accidental and achieved via walking into the wrong stone circle, stumbling upon a time portal, touching the wrong magical artefact, getting shot and waking up in the past, vigorous masturbation, etc… Partly this is due to the demands of the time travel romance subgenre, where time machines are frowned upon. Indeed, the submission guidelines of the new defunct Dorchester Publishing, which used to specialize in this sort of thing, explicitly used to state “No time machines”, which always confused me to no end, because how else are you going to travel into the past or future?

I was so curious about the supposed aversion of romance readers to time machines that I once asked a bunch of them about this on a forum. The responses I got ranged from “Time machines are unromantic” to “It takes all of the urgency and tension out of the story, if the hero or heroine can just hop into their machine and return tp their own time.” Apparently, that reader was unaware that time machines can malfunction or otherwise fail to work as advertised as well. Just ask the Doctor.

SL Huang also responds to and disagrees with Charles Stross and points out that time travel stories are rarely historically accurate anyway, that male time travelers would be just as likely to run into trouble and find themselves imprisoned or executed as women and the modern view of the past as one big monolythic misogynist dystopia as wrong and coloured by our own inherent sexism.

Here is a quote:

The escapist time-travel sub-genre is not inherently sexist in the least—there is not the slightest logical reason we shouldn’t have just as many female protagonists zipping through time as male ones. Authors and other creators have not been somehow forced into male protagonists because “the story wouldn’t work otherwise,” and I object to giving them even the hint of that excuse. The reason we have an overabundance of male protagonists compared to female ones is not that the Doctor or Marty McFly or the Time Traveler’s Wife’s Husband couldn’t be written as women; instead, it is a far more simple reason, and the same reason we have an overabundance of male protagonists in so much of the rest of the SFF genre: simple, ingrained institutional bias. Not the inherent sexism of the material, but the unconscious sexism of its creators.
Let’s write more female-led escapist time travel, everyone.

This is a very important point SL Huang makes here. SF-nal time travel narratives tend to have male protagonists, because for way too many writers, white straight men are still the default.

But I’d even go one step further and point out that we already have plenty of escapist time travel adventure with female leads. And if you take another look at the many examples I listed above, you’ll note that almost all of them were written by women. The TV show Ashes to Ashes was created by two men and I have no idea who is behind Continuum. But everything else I listed was written by women. In fact, the whole subgenre of time travel romance is basically escapist fun by women for women with female leads.

So yes, we have plenty of escapist, female led time travel adventure. However, marketing forces as well as the SFF community have decided to engage in a bit of false categorization and classify these books as something other than SFF.

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11 Responses to Time Travel and Gender

  1. lkeke says:

    I would just like to see more diversity in time travel at all because apparently neither Asian women, Latinos or African American men do time travel.

    I would love to see how any of these groups of people handle living in eras where they wouldn’t traditionally exist or may be completely ignorant of, such as a black man in feudal Japan or an Asian woman in ancient Mexico and vice versa.

    There are so many incredible stories to be told beyond simply Western White Americans going into the past. So…

    I’ll wait.

    • Cora says:

      I completely agree. More time travelers of colour and non-western destinations (How many times can you time travel to 18th century Scotland, WWII or the Old West anyway?) would be great.

      Among filmic time travelers, we had Martha Jones and Mickey Smith in Doctor Who, Toshiko Sato in an episode of Torchwood (all of whom were mostly sidelined by the narrative) and Whoopi Goldberg in an adaption of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. For literary time travelers of colour, Dana from Octavia Butler’s Kindred is all I can come up with. One of the books in the Banzai Maguire series I mentioned in my post had an Asian heroine, but that one wasn’t a time travel story, just a regular futuristic adventure story (and deeply flawed at that).

      I hope that as the SFF genre in general gets more diverse, we’ll also be seeing more diversity in time travel fiction.

  2. Daveon says:

    I’d argue Ashes to Ashes is a poor example. Female DIs were becoming pretty common in the Met by then, there was actually already a female Commander in real life and within a few years of the date she traveled to, Jayne Tennent was a DCI….

    Life on Mars, actually was an accurate portrayal of the situation women police officers found themselves in.

    • Cora says:

      Well, Sam Tyler wasn’t a woman. Besides, Gene Hunt and his team were dinosaurs in many ways. And I recall that the creators said that 1980-1982 was the last point in time where they could have characters like Gene Hunt, because they’d be gone soon thereafter. Which is basically what happens, since by the end of the show everybody has gone to that great big pub in the sky, while only Gene hangs on like he always does.

      And it is notable from the shows how the situation for women and minorities in the police forces has improved between Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. In Life on Mars, Annie is the first woman to be promoted to DC and gets a lot of crap from Ray and to a lesser degree Gene. And the black police officer who shows up in one episode is not just a novelty, but also gets treated with appalling racism. By Ashes to Ashes, a female DI doesn’t raise many eyebrows (though Gene still insists on stamping her backside), the black desk sergeant is accepted as “one of the guys” and there is another female member of the team, while the episodes focus on the inequalities that still existed such as homophobia (not addressed in Life on Mars at all), racism against the Romany and African refugees (whereas in Life on Mars, the racism was directed at the Irish and immigrant workers) as well as the treatment of rape victinms not deemed to be sexually pure.

  3. JC Cassels says:

    I was somewhat disappointed not to find indie author Gayle Ramage’s female time-traveler, the snarky Quality Times absent from your list (“The Whispering Tombs” and “The Grandparent Trap.”) Quality Times does not fall in love with anyone she encounters in her travels. She has her own young male sidekick (not a romantic interest) who travels time and space with her trying to convince people he’s a Time Lord. Ramage’s stories are cheeky adventures with a hint of mystery.

    I was also disappointed no one mentioned Pippa Jay’s time-traveler, Quin from her novels “Keir” and “Gethyon.” While “Keir” is a romance, “Gethyon” is the story of her son, and she figures prominently in that book as well, though she is not the main character.

    Another book I was disappointed to see missing from the list *is* a romance. “A Knight in Shining Armor” by Jude Deveraux, which I consider to be one of the earlier of the time-travel romances as it was published in 1989, and rode the leading edge of the late 1980’s trend of Time Travel Romance novels, of which Gabaldon’s “Outlander” was on the trailing edge as the early 90’s gave way to gothic, paranormal, and romantic suspense.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the additions, JC.

      I actually know Gayle Ramage from an indie author forum where we both post and Keir and Gethyon are on my “to read” list, but somehow I still managed to forget to mention both of them. As for Jude Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor, I have no idea how I managed to forget that one, since it’s one of the defining time travel romances.

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  5. Daniela says:

    Bookwise there’s also Rubinrot, German YA Fantasy. I haven’t read it yet, but it does sound interesting. And it was successful enough that they made it into a movie. And translated into English as Ruby Red. With Saphire Blue and Emerald Green as the sequels.

    When it comes to movies there’s also Peggy Sue Got Married which deals with regretting decisions made in the past and having to opportunity to redo things. In a similar vein is the tv show Being Erica where her therapist sends Erica back into the past of her own life so that she can re-live certain moments and change them and how the changes or not-changes and the things she learns about herself then impacts her current life.
    Shows like Buffy (Angel too with Cordelia and Illyria being the ones jumping around time), Charmed or Xena also had episodes that dealt with time travel. I would even add Eureka in that as a whole grup traveled back in time and that group included Jo Lupo and Dr. Allison Blake (then Carter). In Stargate Atlantis Elisabeth Weir traveled back in time to change things and so save the whole expidition at the sacrifice of her own life.

    Oh, and bookwise. Hermione Granger in Harry Potter uses a timeturner to go back into the past. And later uses it to help Harry.

    The difference with most of these shows and episodes though is that it’s not time travel as tourism but either to change events in the past so that events in the future don’t happen or happen differently or where they have to face decisions they made in the past and how that influenced their life. Or to learn something that has impact on the crisis they are dealing with at the moment. So here time travel is far more relevant to the character’s development as a person and not just about having a romp around the past.

    And now I want a romance novel about a female scients who builds a time-machine ;-).

    • Cora says:

      Peggy Sue got married was mentioned in the Guardian article as well as by Charles Stross (negatively as “Well, that’s the only option she had”) and at least one person mentioned Hermione as well, but those were the only female time traveller mentioned.

      I’m aware of the Rubinrot, etc… books, because my students like them, though I haven’t yet read them myself. Also good call on the various SF series which had time travel episodes, even if they weren’t explicitly about time travel. All Star Treks had time travel episodes as well and the latter ones often included female crew members. And Shadows of the Night by Deborah Harkness has a male vampire and a female witch travelling into Elizabethan England.

      But women either travel into the past to set something right or by accident. Deliberate touristy time travel seems to be a male only thing, which is a pity. I actually have a novella featuring a touristy female time traveller who wants to visit Woodstock and ends up in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War instead, where she sings in a bar catering to US soldiers and foretells the future. I was always fond of that story and I should really dust it off, though it will probably need fairly heavy rewrites, since it’s approx. ten years old.

  6. Estara says:

    The huge lot of Lynn Kurland’s really fun historical romances are based on time-travel. Repeated time-travel even, due to the timetraveling depending on something like fairie circles (basically magic places where for some reason the times connect). She has both female and male time travellers in both directions.

    • Cora says:

      I thought that Lynn Kurland must have had a couple of female time travellers, but it’s been a while since I read her, so I left her off the list.

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