Viable Paradise: A Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop

The Girl Cooties Theory of Literature


Listening Students
Girl Cooties
By Debra Doyle, Ph.D.

Okay. The Girl Cooties Theory of Genre Literature, as applied to sf and fantasy.

We start by positing the existence of a body of sf readers and writers (numerically perhaps fairly small, but nevertheless extremely vocal) who are deathly afraid of getting girl cooties. "Hard sf" is their science fiction of choice, because it has the fewest girl cooties of any of the sf subgenres. No subjectivity, no mushy bits, none of that messy relationship stuff getting in the way of the classic sf values of hardness and rigor (and no, I don't think the elevation of those particular values is coincidental.) Admixtures from other genres are allowed provided that the secondary genre also provides the reader with a low-cootie environment. Westerns don't have girl cooties, for example, and neither do technothrillers. Men's action-adventure is about as cootie-free as it's possible to get. And so on.

Romance, on the other hand, is absolutely crawling with girl cooties, and any sf which contains, or appears to contain, romance elements is going to be viewed with alarm by this set of readers. It's often possible to offset the presence of girl cooties by including a sufficient number of explosions and fistfights and rivetty bits, or (in cases where even violence and rivets aren't enough) by the inclusion of an appendix full of knotty-looking equations -- but the readers are ever-vigilant and you can't fool them forever. The incorporation of romantic elements into a work of sf, therefore, has to be done with considerable care, not to say deviousness.

It's possible to include sex (as distinct from romance) without adding girl cooties, but it's risky. There's always the chance that the hero might take a few minutes to talk to the girl afterward, and that gets you perilously close to cootie territory.

This theory also comes with a bonus explanation of why feminist sf, contrary to what some people might expect, does not have girl cooties. (Admit it. You were wondering.)

It's been conjectured by some theorists that the lack can be attributed to a failure of nerve on the part of the writers involved. And while that may be true in some cases (many-but-certainly-not-all feminists do seem to have a pronounced fear of coming down with girl cooties), the real reason—in my opinion, of course—is that feminist sf, being structured and informed by feminist theory, partakes thereby of the cardinal virtues of hardness and rigor.

Ursula K. LeGuin, for example, doesn't have girl cooties, even when she writes a novella as classically romantic in its deep structure as Forgiveness Day. Connie Willis, on the other hand, has to bring in the Blitz and the Black Death just to keep the girl cooties from crawling out of the gutter margins of her novels and taking over the whole enterprise.

© 2000 by Debra Doyle,