Friday, July 27, 2012

Women in Science Fiction Week: The Problem with Female Representation in Science Fiction on Television

This piece was originally published at Bitch Flicks

Falling Skies' Margaret
The wonderful thing about science fiction is that the writers have the opportunity to create a world, which while based on ours, can be markedly different. This means that there should be a place for strong female characters who are not restricted by sexism or forced into a situation in which they must perform femininity on a daily basis to be accepted as 'woman.' Despite the freedom of this genre; however, nothing is born outside of discourse, which means of course that we end up with the same sexist tropes repeatedly. 
Even in shows which readily lend themselves to recurring scenes of violence, because women have historically been framed as delicate and passive, men end up in the leadership roles. This also means that when the action does finally happen, women are placed into nurturing roles like doctors and nurses to aid the wounded men. While some may see this exchange as complementary, it in fact sets up a serious gender divide that is reductive. 
We actually see this most strongly and most blatantly in dystopias. In Falling Skies, humanity is locked into a battle for survival against an alien threat. Humanity is nearly extinct, the group is excited at the prospect of a capital that has managed to scrape together 2,000 survivors. The 2nd Massachusetts itself is reduced to a mere 150 people, meaning it has lost nearly half of its already low numbers since the series began. Clearly, this is a series about desperation - every man must be ready to fight, desperately, to survive.
And I said “man” purposefully there. Because, while there are plenty of women in the crowd scenes and even in most of the fight scenes we will find one token, nameless female fighter in a large number of men, the vast majority of the fighters are male. In fact, there’s only ever one named female fighter at a time (Karen, who gets replaced by Maggie after she is captured. She also inherited Karen’s love interest - which did rather make the two women seem interchangeable).
Remember how desperate humanity is here. For most of the show, Jimmy, a 13 year old boy was drafted to fight. As they get more desperate, Matt, a 6 year old boy, starts carrying a gun around and taking part in military action. Where are the women? It’s clearly not a matter of military background with both children and school teachers on the battlefield, why do we only see one or two women standing side by side with their men to hold the line against the alien threat?
By contrast, the most prominent female characters we do see except for the interchangeable-Hal-Love-Interest are, of course, caregivers. Dr. Ann Glass and Lourdes, the medical team for the 2nd Massachusetts. It’s the 21st century, humanity is nearly destroyed, every day is a struggle to survive - I think we can move past men holding guns while women roll bandages.
We can see a similar pervasive female passivity in Alphas, reinforced and ingrained by the special abilities the characters have. Two of the characters, Cameron and Bill, have abilities that make them dangerous in a fight. Their physical capabilities make them the team muscle - contrast that with the two women. Well, they have super senses and limited mind control respectively. The women are inherently placed in support roles and set up as support from the very beginning. And I know that someone will say “well, they don’t have combat powers!” true - but why was it written that way? Why couldn’t Nina have the super-strength? Why did the writers choose the women and the disabled character to have the less active, support powers? And that’s not to say their powers aren’t powerful or useful - far from it - but then, so is rolling bandages.
Sanctuary's Helen Magnus
Even in shows like Sanctuary where we have female leadership, not all women are created equal. Helen Magnus is the only female of the original scientists to survive. The two most prominent recurring female characters outside of the protagonist are Kate Freelander and Abbey Corrigan. Kate essentially is the replacement for Ashley, Magnus’ daughter who died at the end of season one. She is a woman of colour who seems to exist only for Magnus to reform her evil ways. She disappears for large swaths of time and is barely missed by the team. In this way, they make her quite disposable. There were other options to send to work in hollow earth, but it was Kate that was chosen. Biggie would have made a much more natural choice but because he was a fan favourite, there was no way he would have been sent.
In the case of Abbey, she exists it seems solely to be the Mary Sue of the show. She is just shy of vapid and has no real storyline other than being Will’s girlfriend. Everything that the Sanctuary deals with is far above her pay grade. Abbey was also featured in the highly regrettable musical episode which was her only form of communication for a time. So it would seem that to elevate one woman, all of the other female characters must pay a price and it is particularly troubling when it comes to Kate because of the racial dynamic at play. Once again, we have White woman acting as earth mother to a person of colour.

Even when we have strong female characters, they are still not free of damaging tropes. In Continuum, Kiera is strong and is proactive; each week she and her partner Carlos, take turns hunting down the bad guys. Keira is not afraid to get physical if she has to. That sounds great doesn’t it? It would be if that was all I had to say about her, but it seems that once again, a strong female character cannot just be strong. She has to have a vulnerable side and for Keira it’s motherhood. It makes sense that a mother living so far away from her child, would miss her son desperately, but it does not make sense that this sense of loss would turn into her deciding to lecture her grandmother into giving birth and rejecting every legitimate reason she had to have an abortion.

Continuum's Kiera
In "The Test of Time," Lily Jones, is a homeless high school dropout with no parental support, who finds herself pregnant. Obviously, becoming a parent at this point would be absolutely daunting, but Kiera does not even pause for one moment to legitimise a single thing that Lily says. Instead, the entire message of the episode is that marriage is the answer to teenage pregnancy. Marry the father and everything will magically become fixed and you won’t regret the sacrifices you have to make to parent effectively. The writers prove this to us by showing us that when Kiera had her own unplanned pregnancy, she of course married the father and was happy. Ta-da instant fairytale.  
If you are going to go to the trouble of having a strong female character, you would think that the writers would then attempt to exclude messages that are obviously anti-woman. The entire episode implied that abortion in and of itself is the wrong choice to make no matter the circumstances and they used the strong female character to send this message. This isn’t empowerment, this is sending us back to the days of the back alley, coat hangers and death.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this female passivity and women taking an incomprehensible step back in combat is that we should be past this. We have so many shows that have female characters who will stand forward and kick arse - Mutant X had Shalimar, Heroes was willing to have women who were as dangerous as any of the men. 
And we have several female protagonists now, taking charge, fighting the good fight with everything from swords to lasers (though often, as we said above, even these characters have to be made vulnerable); so why oh why do we keep doing this? Why do we keep making the female fighters the exceptions? Why is it so hard to have female warriors standing side by side, in like numbers, like skill and like strength to their male counterparts?