Do the women of SF share a common mythological ancestor?

William Gibson recently wrote on his Twitter account, regarding Molly Millions, that:

“In 1984, amazingly, [the] idea of [a] protagonist’s female buddy kicking more and deadlier ass was considered radical and outre”.


There is no question in my mind that Gibson is right, and that in popular culture, in the decades prior to Molly Millions arrival on the literary scene, many of the women were characterized as damsels in distress rather than ass-kicking warriors. For me, it was Molly’s innate differentness that initially drew me into reading and re-read Neuromancer when I was 15, because, at that age she was like nothing I had ever seen or read before.

                However, how unique is Molly’s characterization as a masculinized female mercenary really? The late mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell wrote in several of his books, including Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth, that heroes/heroines throughout history come from a shared set of mythological touch stones. For Campbell, and somewhat Carl Jung before him, it was truly possible that all our heroes and heroines arrived at our feet in the shape of similar archetypes, having followed similar paths. Could Molly, and the other driven, autonomous women that popped up after her inception, be echoes of mythological identities and journeys from the past? Could female protagonists that display an abundance of masculine traits and/or feminine strength just be an echo of Greek mythology’s Athena, for example?

This is my first attempt at making a video. If you watch it there is a cat in it for you


12 thoughts on “Do the women of SF share a common mythological ancestor?”

  1. In my experience, a character’s gender does not affect how they act in specific roles. For example, a hero is going to act like a hero whether they are a man or a woman. An accountant will act like an accountant whether they are a man or a woman. A store clerk will act like a store clerk whether they are a man or a woman. Rule of Three. Anyways, gender certainly affects a character’s values and personality but when Molly is kicking ass, it doesn’t matter if she is a woman or a man. She is a warrior.

    As for your question regarding Athena and other strong ancient females, they probably inspired a lot but there are plenty more females characters created without their influence direct or otherwise. The Hero with the Thousand Faces details that cultures separated by vast differences all had similar traits associated with heroes and their journeys. It ties in to what I said above, people know how a hero acts and, man or woman, we expect them to act the part.

    1. I think gender specifically matters because we do not see women in hero roles or as heroic as much as we see men in hero roles or as heroic. I am sure we could all name off examples contrary to this point but the fact remains that women, specially in SF, are often relegated to that of trophy or to that of object. To that point, female heroic characterizations do not exist in a vacuum without the influences of real world patriarchy structures. Gender, and our collective perceptions of gender influence everything, including women’s representations in film, and literature. So, I guess I would say that I don’t agree that a store clerk is portrayed as the same representation of a store clerk regardless of gender. I think the social structures that we all live with on a cultural level strongly influence that type of thing. An example of this can be seen in the horror genre with the typification of the Final Girl where heroic women are left alive to obtain the title of survivor based on their level of chastity and purity (abstaining from drugs, alcohol, sex). I don’t think men can be characterized as being treated in the same extreme regard.

      In terms of Campbell’s work, I do agree that representations of heros journey’s have been found to be connected throughout cultures. However, there is a great deal of room for nuance and I think gender is a big part of that nuance.

      1. To defend my original point, we are arguing two very different things. I’m arguing that a character will behave in a particular way because of their role and not because of their gender. You are arguing that their gender matters because women are underrepresented in science fiction. A story with true gender equality will treat all the characters the same, blind to their gender. The screenplay of Alien (1979) was written without references to gender and the roles were cast based on an actor’s ability to play the role. The characters might treat each other differently based on gender but the work itself doesn’t discriminate between genders.

        1. No, I am pointing out that when you are commenting on characters roles, and how those roles inform their behavior, that the depictions of those things are influenced (whether we like it or not) by the gender of the character being written about because of the patriarchal masculine/feminine stereotypes we all live with. We do not live in a gender equal society. Writers and authors and creators are not immune to the very persuasive stereotypes of patriarchy. We live in a society that is still hanging onto binary, stereotyped ideas about gender with a lot of ferocity, and yes, I think it readily apparent in the depiction of women in film and literature.

          So, I don’t think we are talking about different things. I am just constructively disagreeing with your assessment (is constructively disagreeing a thing??). haha. That’s an interesting fact about Alien though, I didn’t know that.

          1. “Is Constructively disagreeing a thing?” I’d call it respectfully disagreeing with valid points to back you up. Also, I think I can see where I failed to communicate my point. I have been speaking of an idealized story, how stories should be told and not how they actually are being told today. Idealized may sound like a fantasy but I just have higher standards than the droves of people who support an industry that constantly pumps out poorly written garbage riddled with stereotypes. I agree with the points you’ve been making but the majority of people don’t care and that’s why these lazily written stories keep getting made.

            I hate ranting about things I find wrong with the world. I’d rather be doing something about the problem than complaining but all we can do is raise awareness and hope people care.

          2. I agree, Dillon, and I also don’t think it is hopeless. There is a lot of lazy storytelling out there, but there is also storytellers who are trying to be aware and attempting to tell stories from that place of awareness.

  2. I definitely think that if the idea of a warrior Molly was drawn from anywhere it was like from the ancient greeks. I could see her as a mortal, cyberpunk adaptation to fit in Neuromancer. I think the reason her character was so outrageous is because women were not often portrayed as being superior in regards to physical conflict. Dillon is correct I think in saying that her gender doesn’t end up giving her different values or traits because her role in the story is to be the muscle fr Wintermute’s plan.
    I think the reason she was made into a female warrior is so Gibson could introduce the dynamics of their sort of romance, and toplay with the idea of Case falling in love. This also allows the reader to see that Molly is a recurring character from another book and that she has liked someone similar to Case before. So I tihnk those are the main reasons he chose that gender, to add some layers of relationship dynamics into the story but if there was a mythological person she was drawn from I think it would be Athena, or possibly from the amazons that reside in greek mythology.

    1. The masculinization I am referring to is not her physical characteristics or traits as much as her characters adherence to masculine gender stereotypes of personality/behavior. Molly is stoic, controlled, logical, aggressive, and, in many ways, sexually autonomous and forward . I think it’s a mistake to dismiss the possibility that that was not done purposefully.

      I can see what you are saying in regarding Molly’s recurring status in other novels because I have heard conflicting reports about why Molly was not included in the Johnny Mnemonic movie. One of the reasons I heard was that Gibson didn’t want to license Molly for the movie because he was planning to use her for future novels. However, I have no idea if that is true at all.

      Interestingly, one of the ways that Molly is really not like Athena, and her legend, is that Molly is neither virginal nor chaste! haha

  3. In the setting created by Gibson, I would not necessarily say that Molly’s characteristics come from a place like Ancient Greek mythology, nor do I think Molly has any abundance of masculine traits. It isn’t unreasonable that Molly is a female character just because females were a part of society. Her many modifications seem, at least to me, to be a reflection of women’s bodies being a commodity. Others certainly have had work done, but Molly’s is obvious. Constantly, it’s referred to, and her being modified is important to the plot.

    As for the descent from Athena, I do wonder why it is only Athena we’re mentioning. Artemis was also a capable goddess. Aphrodite is one of the oldest gods. Hecate is a goddess of magic and cross-roads. Gaia is the mother of all gods (literally). Certainly, some characters will draw from Athena more than others, displaying traits like strategy and warfare. I don’t know enough about Aeon Flux, Ripley or the others to draw an inference. I would like to think that all female characters share a similar origins – actual women.

    When George Martin was asked how he wrote so many good female characters, he replied that he considered them people. It goes a long ways.

    1. I don’t really agree about the masculinity of Molly. I question, as I said above, Gibson’s possibly purposeful use of masculine stereotypes (such as Molly’s aggressiveness, her bluntness, her physicality), which are all traits or behaviors often associated with men and masculinity, to depict Molly. The 80s doesn’t really seem like that long ago but in reality this novel was written 30 years ago – in a time where the feminist movement was just beginning to split over the divide from the feminist sex wars. I guess just entertain the possibility that Gibson utilized the stereotypes of masculinity to sketch out a depiction of a sexually autonomous warrior women that was not often depicted in popular culture before that time period. That is not to say that women can’t be all those things and still be feminine or any shade of grey in between those two cultural polarities…However, I am not convinced it was wasn’t a purposeful depiction in this case, in the time period this book was written in.

      In terms of other Greek goddess’, I thought of Athena immediately because I think of her as an example of the great masculine/feminine dichotomy. She was characterized as as the virginal protectress of wisdom and the people of Greece, as well as the great destroyer of cities and facilitator of fair and just warfare. I find the feminine/masculine dualism of her character to be particularly fascinating. However, it is far from my original idea. There is a really fantastic NY University blog about how Athena’s was purposefully defeminized in Greek myth (which can be found here… if anyone is interested:

  4. It may be hard to tell if Molly’s female warrior may have been influenced or not by ancient greek myths. Many myths about women warriors have been spread down from many different cultures. It is likely that the influence of female warrior has been defused from many different places. Vikings had an idea of women warriors and women could indeed be warriors. In many different stories there are examples that Gibson could have found inspiration from. Different cultures from all over have their own versions of women warriors. Really I think that the waves feminism and movements about sexual freedom may have been a greater influence of Molly’s character and other female warriors in SF.

  5. I think the question of how myth contributes to gender roles/constructs within current stories is REALLY interesting. Even if it doesn’t immediately appear that these character have much in common with Athena, we need to remember the origins of stories.

    I also like how you brought up the movement towards giving women power by making them masculine, because this approach doesn’t give femininity power. Instead, increases the power of masculinity. Not that the sharing of traits between genders is negative, just that this sharing must be balanced.

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