Some sexist tropes in The Martian

*Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD*

This isn’t a critique of the book, The Martian by Andy Weir. The book is excellent. I’m neither a physicist nor an astronaut, but if Neil deGrasse Tyson tweets praise, I assume a lot of the technical details are correct. Actually the book is so good, it also catches some of the cultural details of the STEM industry. Whether these were intentional by Weir or not, I don’t know.

This is a classroom exercise. Just as you’d read To Kill A Mockingbird and examine racial injustice — which isn’t necessarily a criticism of Harper Lee or her novel — I’d like to examine some sexist themes that are nicely illustrated in The Martian.

These are “tropes”, as I’ll call them, because we see them in STEM all the time. That’s why I can even call them tropes…they are so damned predictable.

These tropes exemplify small or even tiny everyday actions that subtly shape perceptions and behaviors, and with repetition and time, they form biases.

(Also I haven’t seen the movie yet. This is purely from the book. Emphases in all quotes are mine.)

Trope 1: Men’s lists of accomplishments are their list of accomplishments. Women’s lists of accomplishments must include physical appearance.

Physical traits and appearances are mostly ignored in the novel, but here are some excerpts:

Mindy felt a pang of envy as she watched the director of media relations. She was everything Mindy wanted to be. Confident, high-ranking, beautiful, and universally respected within NASA.

Because being beautiful obviously sits right up there with being high-ranking and universally respected at NASA.

Here’s a letter Watney writes for Johanssen in case he dies. Johanssen is the “hot chick” on the mission. He also tries to tell her how to dress and how to act. Perhaps Watney also wanted her to smile more.

Johanssen: Your poster outsold the rest of ours combined. You’re a hot chick who went to Mars. You’re on dorm-room walls all over the world. Looking like that, why are you such a nerd? And you are, you know. A serious nerd. I had to do some computer shit to get Pathfinder talking to the rover and oh my god. And I had NASA telling me what to do every step of the way. You should try to be more cool. Wear dark glasses and a leather jacket. Carry a switchblade. Aspire to a level of coolness known only as…“Botanist Cool.” Did you know Commander Lewis had a chat with us men? If anyone hit on you, we’d be off the mission. […]

I get that it’s your dying letter, Watney, and you can say whatever you want, but really?

Trope 2: Men assume women can’t take the heat.

Because arguing — the way real men argue — requires a level of testosterone that women don’t have.

Annie quietly gathered her things and placed them in her briefcase.
Teddy looked to her. “Sorry about that, Annie,” he said. “What can I say? Sometimes men let testosterone take over — ”
“I was hoping he’d kick your ass,” she interrupted.
“What?”
“I know you care about the astronauts, but he’s right. You are a fucking coward. If you had balls, we might be able to save Watney.”

I love that Annie fights back in this scene. But Teddy’s comment made me cringe.

Trope 3: Men care about accomplishing shit; women only care about attracting men.

“The children are fine.” She smiled. “Eliza has a crush on a new boy in her class, and Victor has been named goalkeeper.”

It’s the worst when parents are perpetuating this shit. This was a quick, almost under-the-radar example, but its implications are significant.

Trope 4: Men discuss a woman in front of her like she’s not there.

Here, Mindy joins a meeting with Venkat and Mitch. They proceed to question her, insult her, defend her, and then apologize to her, in front of her, and mostly without her input. Indeed.

“Um,” Mindy said, “I’m Mindy Park. I work in SatCon.”
“You a director or something?”
“No, I just work in SatCon. I’m a nobody.”
Venkat looked to Mitch. “I put her in charge of tracking Watney. She gets us the imagery.”
“Huh,” said Mitch. “Not the director of SatCon?”
“Bob’s got more to deal with than just Mars. Mindy’s handling all the Martian satellites, and keeps them pointed at Mark.”
“Why Mindy?” Mitch asked.
“She noticed he was alive in the first place.”
“She gets a promotion ’cause she was in the hot seat when the imagery came through?”
“No,” Venkat frowned, “she gets a promotion ’cause she figured out he was alive. Stop being a jerk, Mitch. You’re making her feel bad.”
Mitch raised his eyebrows. “Didn’t think of that. Sorry, Mindy.”
Mindy looked at the table and managed to say, “’ kay.”

Wow if that’s not condescending, I don’t know what is. She found Watney. Poor Mindy, she really gets shit on during the entire novel.

In conclusion…

If you read this book and these tropes flew by you, ask yourself why. I’d like to challenge you to recognize it. Think about what it does to people who face it all the time.

To all the young kids out there — I praise this book for being great, for making science fun, and for maybe playing a part in your desire to pursue STEM.

I believe that the work being done every day by the fine folks at NASA/JPL, SpaceX, etc. is the most important work we can be doing as a species.

But if you are also concerned by any of the above, please email or tweet me. I’m working to make it better, and I need your help.

Thanks to @rklau, @sippey, and @chrismpls.