Tag Archives: hooray for science!

Astronaut Heroes and Heroines: A Romance Sampler

{Courting Critique is a post series that takes a literary-critical and intersectional feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because good analysis can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound!}

I’ve been waiting years, actual years, to get my hands on Margot Shetterly’s Hidden Figures book (and you’ve heard there’s going to be a movie! Starring Taraji P. Henson and Olivia Spencer and my favorite Janelle Monáe!). The book comes out quite soon now, and I could not be more excited.

Meanwhile, I passed time reading all the astronaut romances I could reasonably get my hands on. We’re talking real-world Cold War space-race or contemporary astronauts and cosmonauts — no astronomers, sci-fi spaceship pilots, or telescope-loving Regency misses allowed (much as I adore those). Naturally, this led to some thoughts about how the role of astronaut is presented in this small slice of the romance genre. I’ll let the argument unfold in the same way I found it: chronologically in reading order.

Cover image for Heaven's Time by Susan PlunkettHeaven’s Time by Susan Plunkett

Readers who miss the old style of romances jam-packed with plot and melodrama will want to check this one out. Heroine Melissa Fuller is a former foster child turned astronaut, who names the stars after the people who tried to love her but who tragically died. (Her childhood: SUPER rough.) She has shut down all social ties to achieve success in her career, and then when she finally does get into space a meteor shower damages her capsule (this was written decades before Gravity!) and sends her hurtling toward the Earth and her death. She has just enough time to regret never letting anyone get close to her before a giant beam made of greeny-purple magic reaches up from the planet and grabs her.

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Space, Science, and the Gender of Perfection

{Courting Critique is a post series that takes an analytic and intersectional feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because good criticism can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound!}

Engineer Eugene Parsons demands perfection. It’s the first thing, possibly the only thing, people know about him.

The problem: perfection is unattainable, like a limit in calculus that is never quite reached. The other, less obvious problem: the definition of perfection keeps shifting, especially where gender is involved.

Cover image for Earth Bound. Starry background behind two light-skinned people in a tense embrace. The woman has dark hair, artful makeup, a black dress, and full-length black gloves. The man has a grey suit, intense expression, and his hands on the woman's bare skin.

First, a capsule review: Earth Bound,  the latest entry in Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner’s stellar Fly Me to the Moon series, is an absolute gut-punch of a romance between two difficult, critical, closed-off engineers who put their ambitions and the mission above everything else. Oh, and seedy ’60s motel sex. I could not have possibly loved it more. Full spoilers from here on out.

The most basic definition of perfection is free from factual or mathematical error. Parsons has good reason to pursue this kind of perfection, as the lives of real people depend on the machines and mathematics used by the American Space Department to send men and machines into orbit: “If the capsule wasn’t traveling fast enough, wasn’t flying straight up, the massive hand of gravity would catch it and pull it straight back down. It could crash right into a place filled with houses and families” (Kindle location 63). Not to mention that whole Cold War business, which Parsons at times seems to be fighting as though he’s out to win it single-handed. The urgency of this mission leads him to look for the very best — which is how he meets our heroine, computer and programmer Charlie Eason.

Charlie is a perfect hire for ASD — except that she’s a woman.

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Lady Robots, Dude Robots, and the Echo Chamber of Gender Stereotypes

In an unexpected follow-up to my brief post about ancient Greek lady robots made of gold who practiced smithcraft, we hear about a clever gender-and-robotics study out of Germany. And now we know that gender stereotypes are really, really easily applied to robots, even if the robot doesn’t have a body.

They [the subjects] looked at the heads of the two human-like machines, which were identical except for two details. The “feminine” one had longer hair and a slight curvature of the lips; the “masculine” one had shorter hair and straight lips.

Participants then were given a list of 24 traits and asked the extent to which they felt the robot embodied each of them. Twelve were related to agency, such as “assertive” and “dominant,” while 12 represented communal values including “polite” and “affectionate.”

Next, the students were asked to rate how likely they would be to use each of the robots for a list of possible duties incuding stereotypical male tasks like “guarding the house” and stereotypically female tasks such as preparing meals.

Guess what comes next — go on, guess:

Participants were more likely to view the short-haired robot in masculine terms, and suggest it was more suitable for such take-action tasks as “repairing technical devices” and “guarding a house.” Conversely, the long-haired robot was perceived as more appropriate for such stereotypically feminine tasks such as household chores and caring for children and the elderly.

Sad trombone for gender equality.

The researchers note their results could be used in two ways. From a social-policy point of view, it might be worthwhile for designers to develop “counter-stereotypical machines,” which could challenge our rigid conceptions of “male” and “female” work.

On the other hand, they note, if the goal is “to facilitate human-robot interaction” and minimize mistakes and accidents, it makes sense to design robots that conform to our human assumptions.

The problem with that second suggestion is that gender-conforming robots — can I call them cis robots? let’s call them cis robots — won’t be merely a compromise with flawed human assumptions. They will instead confirm and reinforce gender stereotypes.

It is one thing for a woman to have long hair and work in a traditionally feminine-coded career like, say, teaching. She’s an individual, making the best choices she can to maximize her own position in a system that is seriously rigged against her — much more so if she’s disabled or a woman of color. We all have to put food on the table somehow, and we have to use our individual skills and inclinations as best we can.

In contrast, imagine someone mass-produces teaching robots with long hair and curving lips — this is a much stronger statement about matching feminine-coded work with feminine-coded appearance. It means someone has made an individual assumption that teaching = feminine, and the hundreds of teaching robots will echo and amplify that assumption. Stereotypes will be reinforced when they need breaking down.

So yes, let’s make all the counter-stereotypical robots we can. And then let’s give them a classroom of curious third graders, because pretty much everyone can agree that would be entertaining.

*Side note: did you notice that headline? “Sex Stereotypes and the Single Robot” — ‘robot’ replacing the word ‘girl.’ It’s an allusion to Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown, who made Cosmopolitan what it is today. We are talking about human-shaped machines to take over unwanted jobs and free us from tedious labor, and the headline equates those human-shaped tedious-labor machines with women. There are not enough facepalms in the world.

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The Point of This Quick Post is that Land Crabs are Super Creepy

We here at Olivia Waite like to think we’ve learned a lot from romance novels over the years. And one of our recent favorites, Carla Kelly’s Beau Crusoe, turned out to be more accurate than we knew at the time.

Behold: land crabs!

A picture of a small land crab, perched on the threshold of his burrow.
Land crabs!

This particular land crab lives in the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor in the British Virgin Islands. (That’s the West Indies, to you historical types.) That hole he’s sitting in is actually his home. Normally I love crabs and find them fascinating — not to mention delicious — but there is something about watching a crab the size of your face scurry sideways into a hole in the ground that is just creepy as all hell. There is the unmistakeable impression that the crab is only waiting until your back is turned and then — attack!

In sum: we should all read (and write!) more good romance novels with critters that are both real and terrifying.

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