Misogyny on Mars

Even though The Martian was only officially released last year, I felt like it sat in my to-read pile for way too long before I finally got to it this week. And while I really enjoyed the book, I was disappointed by the lonely protagonist’s occasional sexist comments, which were unnecessary, a little cheap, and (one hopes) out of place in an era where humans are making repeat visits to Mars.


Note: This post is mostly spoiler-free, unless you have no idea what the book is about at all and want to preserve that complete innocence. Basically, everything in here is the background you’d get in the one sentence synopsis: Mark Watney gets left for dead on Mars and he and NASA spend the book trying to figure out how to get him back.

What sorts of comments caught my attention? Among others: at one point he disparages a committee conducting an investigation by telling another NASA employee that “each and every one of their mothers is a prostitute.” He refers to his mission’s chief computer scientist as “a hot chick who went to Mars.” Perhaps worst, he uses the word “rape” to describe intrusive modifications he had to make to a spacecraft.

That sucks. It sucks because it’s a distraction from the gripping story, because it makes Watney seem like more of an insensitive oaf than a likable smart-ass, and because it suggests a cynicism about science work remaining uninviting.

But mostly, it sucks because The Martian is an engaging story of space exploration that could spark a desire in young people to pursue interests in STEM. Unfortunately, these offhand remarks also sends the message that half of those young readers will be less welcome if they do so.

And for a novel so widely praised for its ingenuity and attention to detail, it seems like a weird example of lazy character development. An interview response from author Andy Weir doesn’t do much to assuage that concern:

It was a really easy book to write; I just had him say what I would say.

When The Martian was self-published in 2011—and even when it was released by a publisher in early 2014—these concerns may have been off people’s radar. A lot of that changed in late 2014, when the excellent Rose Eveleth 1Did you read her article on futurism’s lack of women? Go do that, I’ll wait. started a global conversation about women in STEM when she called out the inappropriate sexist shirt one scientist wore to celebrate landing a spacecraft on a comet.

Matt Taylor’s shirt wasn’t intended to send any larger message, just as Mark Watney’s comments are surely “just a joke.” And it’s true, that scientist’s shirt doesn’t define him any more than a few lines of dialogue define a character over the course of 370 pages. But in both cases, it projects an air of hostility and unwelcomeness to women in a field that has historically excluded them.

I hope this is an arena where we’re making progress. I hope the issues that Eveleth highlighted are getting better—and I hope they’re getting better fast enough that the real 17th person on Mars doesn’t think in sexist terms about his colleagues and crew. In that optimistic worldview, Watney’s comments feel weirdly anachronistic.

But there’s also a degree of self-fulfilling prophecy, and this kind of dialogue from a generally likable character doesn’t help the cause. With The Martian as a best-seller, and its movie adaptation coming out later this year, it is one of the most prominent public representations of space exploration out there right now. It’s disappointing that, despite placing women in powerful mission roles, it perpetuates stereotypes of misogyny and sexism in space.

1 Did you read her article on futurism’s lack of women? Go do that, I’ll wait.

Published by Parker Higgins

I'm the Director of Special Projects at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and previously led copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I live and work in Brooklyn, New York. more »

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  1. I had the same thoughts when I read The Martian. I thought it was an absolutely excellent book and I loved all the in-depth discourse about how Mark Watney would build things and make them work. But a few throwaway lines here and there kind of took me out of the book, and I found them pretty distasteful.

    I personally came to the conclusion that Watney wasn’t really a great guy. I also thought it was weird and unnecessary when he called Iris a “gay rocket” or something like that. I felt like that line was sort of weird and maybe offensive, but I wasn’t sure. It just made me feel weird.

  2. This was a strange read for me. I LOVE the story, but I HATE the writing. The casual misogyny didn’t help, but overall, this felt like a 14-year old boy wrote it. The most misogynistic passage I recall was the Mindy character reflecting on the Annie character and how she was everything she wished she could be–confident, BEAUTIFUL, respected, etc. as if a woman with a masters degree scanning satellite images of Mars all day has nothing better to do than be jealous of a colleague. Please. Again, written by someone who clearly doesn’t understand or have any respect for women.

  3. Yes, I completely share your point of view. I felt engaged, and even started doing my own personal research into astronomy and engineering just out enthusiasm for the technical development in the storyline. But then I got to those misogynistic lines and wondered if Weir was aware that he was excluding women. Yes, a woman is commander. But that does not override the blatant misogyny throughout the book.

    1. Beth is the hot chick on the ship. Everyone wants to sleep with her. She is “won” by her colleague Beck. But Mark still expresses how he (and every male he knows of) fancies her. There is a passage where she is having a conversation with her father and it is disgusting. He implies that she was the chaste, good daughter. He praises her for her CHASTITY over her computer genius. It is only worth making her a genius because she is hot.

    2. Mindy Park (a Korean-American) is perceived as less than Annie Montrose, because she is not beautiful. There is something sexist AND racist about the depiction of Park. She is the stereotypical meek Asian girl, whose brains in engineering don’t matter because all Asians are great as this subject. What she really wants is to be white; to exemplify eurocentric standards of beauty. Whether Weir meant this or not, he is admitting his own preference for eurocentric features. As well, Park remains subordinate to men. She never uses her voice.

    3. Park and Johanssen (Beth) both cry and tear up. The men don’t cry. The women do. Only Commander Lewis does not because she is a commander…seriously.

    4. More about racism. One of the NASA guys, either Teddy or Mitch refers to the whole Chinese population despicably. He says “these chinese nerds are a weird bunch”. Seriously. How must it feel, being Chinese and reading this? It undermines the great alliance between the Chinese and the American government….It makes them seem again, almost subordinate to the U.S. government.

    5. Dr. Kapoor is a Hindu and apparently it is funny that he is one. When asked if he believes in Gods he replies “lots of them”. Yes, Hinduism is polytheistic, but the context is weird. he also says “Oh gods!” …this seems to remind me of Apu from the Simpsons. The already established trope of the funny Hindu man. Seriously…what Hindu says “Oh gods”. This is pathetically racist.

    6. Martinez asks Beth who she would eat first if she was alone on Hermes after the rest of her crew died. She obviously did not want to answer this and Martinez says that he’s meaty. Then he says “what you don’t like Mexican”? He’s referring to his ethnicity as something delicious…this is how white people like to exploit others. It’s like saying “I love sushi” when you meet someone Japanese.

    7. Back to misogyny, the use of the word “rape” is absolutely abhorrent. He might as well stick in a Holocaust joke in there. I mean, there is no reason to use the word rape. He’s a writer, and he couldn’t think of another word? I almost puked when I read it. Immediately lost respect for the author.

    8. And then of course, the pangs of not sleeping with women. He could have written about an actual woman from home that he loved and missed. He could have written about relationships and intimacy and feeling less alone in the world. He could have written about kissing a woman or holding her in his arms. He could have mentioned sex ALONG with love instead of independent. And a lot of people have already picked up how he compared a Martian goddess to a human woman. Women are as real as hypothetical alien monsters huh? No one his character is single.

    9. The comment, as another person pointed out, about the gay spacecraft coming to save him. Why casually throw in the word “gay”? There was nothing empowering about it. I’m LGBT and I felt excluded and condescended to. It’s like saying “that’s so gay”. Weir is very behind the times.

    There’s a lot more disgusting anti-humanity sentiments in this book, which is such a shame because I felt more inspired to become a scientist after reading it. It gave me mixed messages. His narrative is privileged and demeaning. I get the feeling that women and people of colour are jokes to him. That this is nerdy white cishet male novel and is not meant for anyone else.

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