Edgar Rice Burroughs and Alien Gender
This article was originally posted at Feminist Borg.
One of the areas in which the male-dominated nature of the media often shows through with dazzling clarity is in the gender representation of alien species. All too often, artists and designers will come up with a creative, complex, fascinating design for the species, but then hit a brick wall when trying to make it female. For instance, the art director of Mass Effect 3 said:
We usually try to avoid the females because what do you do with a female Turian? Do you give her breasts? What do you do? Do you put lipstick on her? There’s actually some of the concept artists will draw lipstick on the male one and they’ll say “Hey, it’s done” and we’ll go “No, can you take this serious?”
He deserves mild credit for recognizing that putting lipstick on a male creature is not, in fact, actual design, but instead he’s gone the route of leaving female aliens out altogether (In fairness, female Turians were eventually introduced, and it was awesome). He is still suffering from that mental block: A complete inability to imagine how gender could be depicted separate from our cultural signifiers.
Now let’s rewind about a century and turn to about the last person you’d expect to demonstrate progressive gender representation: Pulp adventure writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. Best known as the creator of Tarzan, Burroughs also wrote the John Carter of Mars series, which can be summed up as “man goes to Mars, has adventures.” The first alien species that John Carter encounters in the 1917 book A Princess of Mars are the Tharks, or green Martians. These are not the little green men that would be popularized later, but something far more unusual:
They seemed mostly head, with little scrawny bodies, long necks and six legs, or, as I afterward learned, two legs and two arms, with an intermediary pair of limbs which could be used at will either as arms or legs. Their eyes were set at the extreme sides of their heads a trifle above the center and protruded in such a manner that they could be directed either forward or back and also independently of each other, thus permitting this queer animal to look in any direction, or in two directions at once, without the necessity of turning the head.
The ears, which were slightly above the eyes and closer together, were small, cup-shaped antennae, protruding not more than an inch on these young specimens. Their noses were but longitudinal slits in the center of their faces, midway between their mouths and ears.
There was no hair on their bodies, which were of a very light yellowish-green color. In the adults, as I was to learn quite soon, this color deepens to an olive green and is darker in the male than in the female. Further, the heads of the adults are not so out of proportion to their bodies as in the case of the young.
The iris of the eyes is blood red, as in Albinos, while the pupil is dark. The eyeball itself is very white, as are the teeth. These latter add a most ferocious appearance to an otherwise fearsome and terrible countenance, as the lower tusks curve upward to sharp points which end about where the eyes of earthly human beings are located. The whiteness of the teeth is not that of ivory, but of the snowiest and most gleaming of china. Against the dark background of their olive skins their tusks stand out in a most striking manner, making these weapons present a singularly formidable appearance.
These aliens, then, are exactly the sort of thing that puzzled the Mass Effect art director. In some ways they resemble insects, in some ways reptiles or amphibians, in no way humans. Obviously it wouldn’t make sense to give female Tharks breasts, since they aren’t mammals, and because they don’t wear clothes or have hair, options for tertiary characteristics (dress, makeup, hairstyle, etc) are limited. You might well expect Burroughs to take the easy route and simply make all the green Tharks male. But he doesn’t. Here’s how the female Tharks are described:
The women varied in appearance but little from the men, except that their tusks were much larger in proportion to their height, in some instances curving nearly to their high-set ears. Their bodies were smaller and lighter in color, and their fingers and toes bore the rudiments of nails, which were entirely lacking among the males. The adult females ranged in height from ten to twelve feet [males are about fifteen feet tall].
Female Tharks vary from the males, but (aside from size) the differences between male and female Tharks are not at all like the differences between male and female humans.
It’s important to note that Burroughs did not design the Tharks out of some egalitarian ideal. He was about as diametrically opposed to feminism as it’s possible to be. The Tharks are portrayed as a brutal, savage species, while the more civilized human Martians fall into very rigid, traditional gender roles, and his stories are filled with the typical rugged heroes and fainting damsels. For instance, in Warlord of Mars, when Carter and his wife are beset by attackers, his wife’s contribution to the fight is to hide behind him and sing to raise his spirits while he defends her.
Burroughs must have simply observed that mammals, reptiles, insects, and so on all have their own types of gender differences and concluded that his distinctly non-human aliens ought to have distinctly non-human gender features.
If he could do it in 1917, today’s designers have no excuse.