In the movie Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox’s dad, George McFly, is the archetypal original nerd — an awkward, bookish white guy who has no natural game with the ladies, the George of 1955 reads sci-fi comic book magazines that spin space fantasies to accompany our nation’s Cold War policies. By 1966, these space fantasies could be glimpsed in full swing in the new television show Star Trek. While the original series ran for just three years, it spawned a multi-generational franchise of movies and TV shows. In hindsight, those early episodes seem undeniably cheesy, but at the time they were far more serious – not only about the starship Enterprise’s mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” but also about the importance of Captain Kirk meeting hot alien babes on all of the strange planets they found.
Geoffrey William Marcy, future award-winning astronomer and UC Berkeley professor, was only twelve years old when Star Trek premiered. A couple of years later, Marcy discovered astronomy. According to a 2001 profile in the LA Times, he would often sit on his rooftop in southern California and gaze through a telescope. “He was 14 and he was obsessed…by the age-old questions that animated the science fiction he devoured… Were there other Earths teeming with life? Marcy was certain there were.” A few weeks ago, Marcy was being discussed as a potential Nobel Prize honoree. Then BuzzFeed leaked the story that Marcy had been found guilty of sexual harassment.
Last Thursday, my colleagues and I received an email from the Chancellor of UC Berkeley informing us that Marcy had resigned. A panel had found that he had sexually harassed female students for nearly a decade. According to Azeen Ghorayshi, the reporter who broke the story for BuzzFeed, Marcy’s great success was part of the reason why his pattern of harassment went unchallenged. As Ghorayshi explained, “Marcy’s is the rare ilk of scientific research that is capable of both reaching the peak of his field and capturing the public imagination.”
Ghorayshi lays out in painful detail how Marcy’s behavior was both widespread and well known; her article documents incidents of alleged misconduct with female colleagues dating back to the 1980s. BuzzFeed also noted that “UC Berkeley is currently under federal investigation for its handling of dozens of sexual violence complaints on campus.” In Ghorayshi’s article, David Charbonneau, a professor of astronomy at Harvard, calls Marcy “the most prominent exoplanet researcher in the U.S.” Charbonneau added that the fight for gender parity in the field is profoundly undermined “when the most prominent person is a routine harasser.”
Jessica Kirkpatrick, one of the complainants in the UC Berkeley investigation, wasn’t harassed herself — but as a former graduate student in the department, she witnessed Marcy’s behavior firsthand: “He’s had a long history of behaving inappropriately, especially with undergraduates.” Marcy was in his mid-fifties in 2010 when Kirkpatrick observed him getting “inappropriately touchy” with an undergraduate. While Marcy was winning international accolades for discovering exoplanets and working with NASA, he was also “groping students, kissing them and touching or massaging them inside their clothes.” While he was making great strides in astronomy and appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman, he was also responsible for a number of promising female students leaving the field.
On the eve of the release of the report finding him guilty, Marcy posted the following: “It is difficult to express how painful it is for me to realize that I was a source of distress for any of my women colleagues, however unintentional.” Yet as a man of science, he must know that this is a scientific impossibility. The hand does not “unintentionally” slip under clothing or grope the body of a student of its own volition. Yet in the white male science fiction imagination of the ’60s, outer space exploration and sexual conquest could often be blended. For Marcy, the bodies of female students seem to have represented little more than new and unexplored terrain.
According to TV.com, Geoff Marcy guest-starred in a 2001 BBC special called “Star Trek Night.” The Times article noted that his dreams were “the stuff of TV fantasy, a ‘Star Trek’ script.” Back here at home, was Geoff Marcy trying to live in his own personal episode of Star Trek? In the realm of sexuality, unfortunately, his fantasies seemed to override any more current information he might have received about what is and is not appropriate behavior. As a faculty member at Berkeley, I can attest that we are mandated to receive training on sexual harassment every other year. I have taken the the in-person training, the online training, and the fun theater skit-based training, and I know that during his sixteen years at this university, Marcy was certainly given the information that his behavior was unwelcome, inappropriate, illegal, and might cost him his job. Yet the dated fantasy trope of the space opera with the bold explorer hero does not die easily.
Earlier this year, our culture witnessed a very specific power play to enshrine this same fantasy in writers’ imaginings about the future. The Hugo Awards are the most prestigious literary awards for science fiction and fantasy. In August, there was a huge upset at the Hugos — what writer Todd VanDer Werff called “a war for the soul of nerd culture.” A group known as the “Sad Puppies,” representing a disgruntled faction of the genre’s writing community, attempted to exploit a loophole in the award nomination process and influence the outcome in their favor. Their actions were based on their complaint that science fiction and fantasy writing had moved too far from its roots, with “social justice warriors” writers being chosen for the awards. (In this case, “social justice warrior” appeared to have a significant though not complete overlap with women, people of color, and queer writers.)
The Sad Puppies were upset because apparently it is “no longer safe to automatically assume the average sci-fi fan — or protagonist — is a straight white guy.” According to one Sad Puppy author, “A few decades ago, if you saw a…space ship on a book cover…or a barbarian swinging an axe, you were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women.” (Female consent to this running-off was not mentioned.) Nowadays, the novel beneath that same cover might involve a critique of sexism, or colonization, or even feature a queer or transgender hero.
The Sad Puppies’ bid to dominate the Hugos ended in failure. Yet their criticism of the increasingly diverse content in the sci-fi/fantasy genre does not stand alone – there has also been more specific criticism of women writers. Last month, The Mary Sue reported on a male author who reviewed an anthology of women sci-fi writers by stating: “When it comes to writing Science Fiction, it still remains a purely male domain… I applaud the ladies for giving it a try, but…[l]eave the genre to those of us [men] who know how to write scifi, being well versed in its many nuances”.
In this battle for “the soul of nerd culture,” the women are well organized and well armed. In Summer 2014, Lightspeed Magazine addressed the challenges within the genre in an issue with the tongue-in-cheek theme “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” According to one of the editors, Wendy N. Wagner, science fiction “is merely the imagined history of the future. Female characters are typically trivial; women’s concerns are trivialized; and women writers disappear into the shadows cast by better known, male, Grand Masters.”
Women throughout the literary world have similar complaints. When male authors write about family, it’s “profound.” When women authors do the same, it’s “domestic.” Labels like “chick lit,” “women’s fiction,” “cozy mystery,” and “romantic suspense” are all signifiers that tell sexist gatekeepers in other areas of fiction exactly what to ignore.
There are countless examples of women authors running up against male gatekeepers in sci-fi/fantasy. In Slate Magazine, Alyssa Rosenberg discussed sexism in sci-fi and fantasy, analyzing the experience of Delilah S. Dawson, a writer of speculative fiction:
[Her novels have an] intricate alternate history steampunk world that’s based on the supposition that the majority of prey animals have become predators… Dawson describes volunteering at a convention where a guest of honor called the sorts of stories she writes “vampire porn” and told her “that women like me were ruining his genre”—even though, as it turns out, that author wrote sexually charged works himself. Gratifying his own fantasies, for that author, was a perfectly legitimate use of science fiction, but women to gratify theirs, even in well-developed fantastical worlds, was completely out.
Dawson explains her decision not to join the Science Fiction Writers Association (SFWA) thus: “I looked at their website and composition and quickly came to the conclusion that I wasn’t the target demographic.” Not only is Dawson apparently unwelcome, but any vision of sexuality that deviates from the traditional male-dominated narrative is equally unwelcome.
In contrast, in the mystery genre, Sara Paretsky founded Sisters In Crime in the mid-1980s. Contemporary women authors in that genre have a well-developed support network available. Sisters In Crime has a high profile, comparable to the co-ed professional association, Mystery Writers of America. But in sci-fi/fantasy, SFWA is the only sizable national option.
Women authors in sci-fi/fantasy encounter the toxic intersection of the bias against women in literature and the bias against women in science. Christine Yant, another of the editors from Lightspeed‘s “Women Destroy Science Fiction” issue, put her finger on the connection to sexism in the sciences: “There was—is—something else going on, too, something apart from the attacks from the outside. It’s a smaller, quieter attack from within, and it’s just as pernicious. Too many accomplished writers are convinced that they aren’t qualified to write science fiction because they ‘don’t have the science.’ I’ve heard this worry more often…from women.”
It seems that in science fiction writing, as in science, women have not always been welcome as equals. Instead we have been welcome to play the role of sassy intergalactic cheesecake, helpless interplanetary ingénue, or wanton extraterrestrial sex kitten.
Astronomer Geoff Marcy clearly approached his intended student conquests as if he were starring in his own dated, sexist sci-fi film, because apparently he just couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea that a young woman could be in his office or his lab to make an actual contribution to science. He couldn’t fathom that he wasn’t James T. Kirk on the Sex Ship Enterprise. He didn’t realize that the university wasn’t his own personal Revenge of the Nerds fantasy. The LA Times profile called Marcy “the boy who found inspiration in the made-up worlds of science fiction,” and noted that his “quest was scoffed at for years before success came” – so maybe he just thought that, just like the sci-fi “heroes” he idolized, he had earned the right to take whatever he wanted.
Given the intellectual gifts Marcy obviously has, it is a shame that he will no longer be able to explore them at the same high level of scholarship. But it’s even more of a shame that he traumatized so many women, negatively impacting their careers or causing them to leave the field entirely.
We can see the incredible contributions of women scientists in spite of a culture that often systematically marginalizes and mistreats them. The good news is that the UC Berkeley administration called Marcy’s behavior “unequivocally contemptible and inexcusable.” And as Joan Schmelz, former chairwoman of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, notes: “This should put sexual harassers on notice: No one is too big to fail.”
Until now, Marcy’s behavior was tolerated, swept under the rug, and/or tacitly allowed. But this year, he’s out on his ass — much like Tim Hunt, the Nobel-winning British biochemist who made a speech to the World Conference of Science Journalists in June in which he called for single-sex labs because women were “distracting” to male scientists. Women scientists immediately took to social media and fought back with the #distractinglysexy hashtag. Hunt became an international talking point about sexism in science, and soon resigned from his prestigious post at University College London.
Perhaps these brilliant women ought to be celebrated and claimed as the real future of science. Sad Puppies like Geoff Marcy and Tim Hunt were once the stars, but their era is over. They’ve probably been burned out a long time, but we’re just now seeing it. According to my calculations, if I multiply the speed of light by the time it takes for women to organize and build consensus to challenge entrenched and institutionalized sexism and sexual violence committed by men…the very last beam of their tired old light should be going out right…about…now.
Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, Ebony, Woman's Day, Writers Digest, Guernica, Fusion, Reductress, Quartz, Hip Mama, The Honest Courtesan, and Bitch Magazine. She blogs about culture, gender, and race at andayadeleon.wordpress.com, and about being a debut novelist at TheDebutanteBall.com. Kensington Books will be publishing her feminist heist novel Uptown Thief in 2016.