There aren’t a lot of women in science fiction and fantasy books. When there are women they generally need to be rescued. They are passive. They are helpless. They are there to make the hero look necessary. They are there for the hero to show he is a hero.
Maybe this is why so few women read science fiction and fantasy. People like to see themselves in what they read. If you want to learn about someone’s character or his opinion of himself, ask him about his favorite book or movie. The main character in that book is who he identifies with. Either he thinks he is like that person, or he would like to be like that person.
For full disclosure, I really like “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Hobbit”. The main character in both finds her/him-self in a strange land with no idea how to navigate it. There are some accessory characters, but the main character is the one who finds the way through the land and solves the problem essentially alone. Make of that what you will.
It is hard to want to identify with a lot of women in science fiction and fantasy, which Neil Gaiman renames “speculative fiction”. For simplicity, I’m just going to shorten it to S/F. Like regular fiction, women generally don’t have strong roles. Just like in standard romance books, women are passive agents. They are there for a man to rescue them. In non S/F romances, women need a man to rescue them from being single. In S/F books, whether they are romances or not, women still need men to rescue them, but it is usually from some monster or alien terrain.
Perhaps the two are the same. Perhaps women are being taught that being single is scary, and on par with being attacked by monsters and having to forage food for yourself out on some planet with three suns and a strange idea of gravity.
When I started reading S/F, I got into it because of Madeline L’Engle’s “Wrinkle in Time” series and Anne McCaffrey’s “Pern” series. These books featured strong characters of both genders. Nobody needed to be rescued. The female and male characters were both quite competent and worked together to solve whatever adversity was presented to them. I’m not sure if these books shaped my views on gender equality, or if I sought them out because they agreed with my already-established views.
But look at the big S/F series. Star Wars. Dune. Harry Potter. There are very few female characters. They are sometimes competent, but they are overshadowed by the men.
I like reading Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series a lot. There are an equal amount of strong characters. Nobody needs to be rescued. Granny Weatherwax is just as competent as Commander Sam Vimes, and just as respected. Both are very capable in their fields.
Perhaps this is why there are few women who go to S/F conventions and go into comic book stores. The numbers are changing, but when I first started going to conventions it wasn’t a safe place to be female. There were a lot of socially awkward guys. The stereotype of S/F geek guy has to come from somewhere. Sadly, it was true, a lot. They would wear all black. They would talk about themselves a lot. They would smell a little funky. They spent a lot of time identifying with a hero that rescued the girl.
They simply didn’t know what to do with a woman who didn’t need to be rescued.