Updated on Dec. 8 at 3 p.m.
One of Richelle Rousse’s earliest memories goes like this: It’s the 1970s, and she’s 4 years old. She’s sitting in her living room, watching reruns of the original “Star Trek” series with her dad. “And something in it resonates,” she says.
It’s a show Rousse would keep watching religiously growing up in Louisiana, and then throughout adulthood, and even today, as a 51-year-old mom living in Golden Meadow, La.
For Rousse, “Star Trek” represented what the world ought to look like. She liked that the character of Spock, who is half-human and half-alien, epitomized the idea that “just because you’re different, you shouldn’t be ostracized.” And she liked the show’s exploration of social issues, including the fact that in the original series, one of the extraterrestrial commanders was a woman. “That was so different,” she says. “Even today, it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s a woman, wow.’”
A proud “Trekkie,” Rousse says she’d always had an interest in science — a passion her father, an electrician, nurtured. But science of any kind — and certainly “Star Trek” — weren’t popular for girls like her.
“Where I’m from, the Deep South, women who are slightly more intelligent — we have a rough time,” Rousse says. “It’s, ‘Hush and look pretty, you shouldn’t be into things like that.’ I was bullied all throughout school.”
Indeed, that’s a common refrain among science-fiction fans: These fantastical worlds allow them to step into more ideal realities. For women, in particular, science fiction has long been a space to stretch the bounds of traditional gender roles and imagine a more gender-equal future.
Lisa Yaszek, a professor of science fiction studies at Georgia Tech, describes the feminist appeal of science fiction like this: “We can imagine spaces that radically break from our own world and from what we know or at least believe to be scientifically or socially true about sex and gender.”
The conversation around science fiction and gender recently broke out on the national stage, when Esquire published an interview with 82-year-old Billy Dee Williams, who’s best known for his role as Lando Calrissian in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980). He’ll be reprising the role for the first time since 1983 in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” which comes out Dec. 20.
In his Esquire interview, Williams said he uses both “him” and “her” pronouns. “I say ‘himself’ and ‘herself,’ because I also see myself as feminine as well as masculine,” he said. “I’m a very soft person. I’m not afraid to show that side of myself.”
The moment was seized on by fans, with many applauding Williams’s “gender fluid” approach. But Williams has since walked back those comments, saying in an interview with the Undefeated that his remarks were misinterpreted. Williams, who said that he identifies as a man, “was talking about men getting in touch with the female side of themselves.”
The discussion of gender in the context of “Star Wars,” however, isn’t new; last year, Donald Glover, who played the same character in 2018’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” said he had a non-binary approach to his Lando.
“How can you not be pansexual in space?” Glover said in a Sirius XM interview. “There’s so many things to have sex with. I’m serious. It just didn’t seem that weird to me. You’re in space; the door’s open.”
That same year, in an interview with HuffPost, “Solo” co-writer Jonathan Kasdan said there was a “fluidity” to both Glover’s and Williams’s portrayal of Lando’s sexuality. “I mean, I would have loved to have gotten a more explicitly LGBT character into this movie,” Kasdan said. “I think it’s time, certainly, for that, and I love the fluidity — sort of the spectrum of sexuality that Donald appeals to and that droids are a part of.”
Reach back in history, and there are myriad examples of science fiction representing fluid portrayals of gender, says Yaszek. In many cases, it was women who were using science fiction to argue for a future with gender equality — “even before the genre began.”
Take, for example, a 10th century folklore tale from Japan in which a princess from the moon rejects courtship from Japan’s emperor for the company of her own people. Or Duchess of Newcastle Margaret Cavendish’s fantastical novel from the 1600s, “The Blazing World,” in which a young woman features as the hero. Today, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” published in 1818, is widely regarded as the first science-fiction novel.
“And once again, you have a story that is completely about gender,” says Yaszek. “The problem with Victor Frankenstein is both that he’s a bad scientist that doesn’t follow the rules of the scientific community, but he’s also a bad dad that simply doesn’t parent in an appropriate way.”
It wasn’t just in print. Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” a seminal sci-fi film from the 1920s, featured a world in which women “get to be both the villains and the heroes,” according to Yaszek. Meanwhile, these written works and films were entering the mainstream when women were still fighting for the right to vote, when language around “fluid sexuality” was decades from existing.
By the liberation movement in the 1960s and ’70s, women were increasingly writing their own future worlds. Celebrated sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 novel “The Left Hand of Darkness,” for example, imagined a planet where people had no gender, or both.
“Star Trek,” Yaszek says, was important in terms of bringing these ideals to a mainstream audience — by bringing them directly into people’s homes, such as Rousse’s. “A lot of people say that ‘Star Trek’ brought more people to feminism than anything else ever did, because they could see it on a screen and see it played out in all these different ways,” she says.
Off-screen, “Star Trek” was allowing women to explore sexuality on their own terms. Decades before blogs existed, women were creating entire fan magazines celebrating the show. “Spockanalia,” launched in 1967 by two women, is considered the first published work of “Star Trek” fan fiction and featured original short stories, poetry and art that built upon the TV series.
Many of the stories written by women also became the first examples of “slash fiction,” or original works featuring romantic or sexual relationships between two characters of the same sex: in this case, romances between Spock and James T. Kirk.
Constance Penley, a professor of film studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, became interested in the medium and wanted to know: Why were heterosexual women writing fantasies about romantic relationships between two male characters?
“One of my arguments is that when you have two men together, you don’t have the problematic male-female interaction, which also comes coded with it domination and submission,” she says. “You have that built-in equality.”
The largely female fan base also wrote the men as straight, Penley argues, because they wanted to “rewrite heterosexual men, heterosexuality masculinity” through their stories.
Heather Barker, a 38-year-old small business owner living in Denver, is big in the “Star Trek” world; she regularly attends conventions and hosts a podcast. She’s familiar with the slash-fiction community, too.
“Maybe it’s a lot to credit women for keeping ‘Star Trek’ alive, but there’s such a misconception that it’s only for men,” she says. “Women are basically building upon their own fantasies and what they want to see between the characters.”
In mainstream Hollywood, meanwhile, there have historically been restraints on the sci-fi medium. Yaszek cites the fact that, in Lang’s “Metropolis,” women are indeed heroes and villains — but, by the end of the film, the “villains have to be vanquished and the heroes are all married off eventually.”
That may be changing, according to Yaszek and others. For example, Ava DuVernay’s 2018 film “A Wrinkle in Time,” based on Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel of the same name, was a blockbuster fantastical story that was written, directed and portrayed by women.
Fans are important in prompting these shifts, according to Penley; producers of mainstream entertainment are increasingly responding to their desires. That’s why she’s particularly interested to see what happens when Williams reemerges as Lando.
“I’d be interested to see how more overtly gender fluid the Lando character in the new ‘Star Wars’ is, as played by someone who has talked about his gender fluidity,” Penley says. Williams could be just the type of gender-fluid character “fans would love,” she says.
Barker, who identifies as queer, is also hoping that audiences will begin to see more non-binary characters in “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and beyond.
“Television tells a story where we’re going,” she says, “and we’re not going back to black-and-white heteronormativity. It’s going to be colorful in so many ways.”
Editor’s Note: This piece was updated after Williams walked back his comments about using “him” and “her” pronouns.