Friday, August 2, 2013

Women on Falling Skies

Science fiction is very rarely a woman friendly genre - or all that friendly to any minorities for that matter. And, as we’ve said before, dystopians tend to be even worse than general science fiction - there’s something about the end of the world that forces writers to nostalgically embrace 1950s roles and attitudes for some unknown reasons. It’s one of the great mysteries of fiction.

Unfortunately, Falling Skies is no exception to the rule. We’ve already had a look at how
Falling Skies addresses race, but it’s treatment of female characters, especially in the last season, has been deeply problematic.

The first thing that strikes me about women in Falling Skies is just how many of them actually don’t fight. In some of the group scenes early in season 1 we saw a very few women take part in the mass conflicts, but that was rare and quickly replaced by all or nearly entirely male combat forces. Among the cast of characters, the vast majority of the men fight but the only named female characters who stepped up to the front lines were Karen, Maggie and Crazy Lee (and a very brief cameo visit from one of President McAllister’s soldiers).

Don’t mistake me, we do not believe a woman has to be a fighter to be a strong female character, we’ve actually spoken about this before - but there’s a difference between not being a weapon and being a shrinking delicate figure hiding behind the menfolk. Put it into context - in season 1 and 2 the 2nd Massachusetts is desperate for manpower (emphasis on the “man”) to survive and fight the aliens. In Charleston in season 3 we see a similar position - they need more soldiers to protect themselves against the overwhelming threat of the Espheni. So desperate is their need for men to fight that they not only include completely untrained people like Tom, Hal and Pope in their army, but they even hand guns to 13 year old Jimmy and 11 year old Matt.

Let’s reiterate that, this army is so desperate they are arming children and sending them into combat. Jimmy dies in battle, even. But this desperate fighting force will send children to the front lines but we still see very few female fighters. That’s a problem, that’s a severe problem.

Further, shall we look at those fighters? Karen, after a time as Hal’s love interest, quickly becomes not only an enemy but the big bad of season 3. Crazy Lee is a vague face in the crowd until the end of season 2 and shuffles off her perch and joins the choir invisible in season 3. Leaving Maggie, also Hal’s love interest. And even she gets an annoying scene where Hal decides to leave her behind for her own protection.

Maggie as a love interest is also relevant because there are a lot of women on Falling Skies whose role is primarily defined by their relationship with men. Even while Maggie is a major character on the show, so much of her story revolves around her relationship with Hal. Her entire role on season 3 so far was to cover for Hal and the mind-control eyeworm he had in his head and even encourage him to hide it from his father and any of the other powers that be.

Anne started as an essential character, the medical and civilian backbone of the 2nd Massachusetts. But as the series progressed, her relationship with Tom consumed more and more of her time and focus. In season 3, Dr. Glass, essential medical backbone of the show had pretty much disappeared - we had Anne, wife of Tom, mother of Lexi consumed entirely by fear of her alien baby and Tom not believing her - until she ran away and ended up dying; accompanied by much pain and grief from Tom (bonus cameo hallucinations of Tom’s first wife for extra pain). It was deeply sad to see the character become so secondary

Deni was introduced in season 3 and has done little else but be an add on for Ben. I don’t think she’s ever been on screen without Ben being present.

Jeanne Weaver exists entirely for her father’s character development. Her arrival heralded lots of angst and grief from him about his lost family and a whole lot of character development for him. Her presence allowed him to worry for her, worry over the boy she’s with that he disapproved of. When there’s a disaster, he gets to worry that she may be dead adding a personal note for him. When she’s sad or despairing, he is there to offer support and reassurance, again, showing his character. When Jeanne appears on screen then something about her presence will be about her father she has no independent presence.

It’s not that the male characters don’t have storylines involving the women - but Weaver, Hal, Ben, Tom will have far more of their own storylines as well, they will be involved in interactions outside of the women in their lives and that aren’t about those women. Yet the same can’t be said for the women - or, at least, not nearly to the same extent.

Part of the way this becomes exceptionally clear is how little the women actually interact with each other, especially about anything other than men. The most common interaction we’ve seen between 2 women is between Lourdes and Anne since Anne is teaching Lourdes - to teach her to be a good caretaker, a traditional nurturing role again. But how often did Marina talk to another woman? Or Jeanne? Or Maggie (I believe she spoke to Anne briefly in season 3 - about Hal’s recovery from paralysis)? Or Karen? Deni doesn’t even exist without Ben being present. How many times does that compare to them interacting with the men on the show?

For the most part, the women in the show only really have one connection - to a man. Maggie has Hal. Jeanne has Weaver. Deni has Ben. But if we look at the men they have a lot numerous and more developed relationships - Tom has Anne, his 3 sons, he’s good friends with Weaver. Pope has a large number of friends among the berserkers, Weaver has good friends with Tom and Gen Porter and his daughter and even Pope recently. The men have wide, developed social networks while the women are usually connected to usually only one person - inevitably a man, which is a massive reversal of what we typically see of gendered relationships in our society - but this reversal isn’t subversive because it serves to further under-develope the female characters and make them dependent on a man.

Why didn’t Maggie and Crazy Lee become friends? Why didn’t Anne and Marina? Why did none of these women form social networks?

Perhaps even more disturbingly, there’s also a trend of women on Falling Skies being either ineffective or outright damaging to the cause particularly when contrasted with the big damn heroes of the Masons.

The obvious example is Karen who quickly became not just a Harnessed, enslaved enemy but rose to the position of supreme big bad (which is still bewildering considering the mental capacity required of the Overlords).

But look at Maggie in season 3 - Hal would have gone to Tom and told him about the eyeworm in his head long before he resorted to kidnapping, except Maggie talked him out of it.

Lourdes was under the influence of eyeworms when she caused so much damage as the mole. But look at Hal when he was under the influence. As far as we can tell he merely went on long walks in the woods with Karen; he did no harm we were shown. While Lourdes killed Arthur Manchester, she killed President Hathaway, she set the bomb that caused utter chaos and slaughter and nearly sealed half the cast under ground. She was probably responsible for the bombs that destroyed both the radio and the Volm encampment. Both she and Hal were possessed, but the difference in damage they caused is incredible.

And, again, part of the reason she was so free to be the Mole is her complete lack of social contacts - she was isolated so no-one could notice she was acting oddly.

Even Ann can be seen as damaging in season 3; consumed by her concern for Lexie she confirms that her daughter does have alien DNA and she runs. Where to or what she expects, no-one knows - but her actions lead to Tom resigning the presidency and the Masons leaving Charleston on a fruitless search for her - and, of course, her own death. Just to drive things home, on the way the Masons run into the Pickett family and are nearly killed - except the Pickett’s daughter stops her father and lets the Masons claim the upper hand.

With Tom’s resignation, Marina Peralta steps into the role of president. In which she not only does very little, but she manages to thoroughly convince Pope and Weaver that she’s the mole (and me for that matter, if I’m honest), actually begs Weaver not to depose her and, in a rather convoluted storyline, nearly prompts a rebellion against her from Pope and Pope’s entire motley crew of followers. Recently she spends her entire time following Weaver or Tom around begging to tell her something.

Even the female soldier from President Hathaway’s army was firing at the people at Charleston, not at the aliens.

It’s another one of those occasions where one or two instances don’t overly mean much. It happens. But when you look at the series and characters as a whole, it’s hard to miss the pretty obvious pattern developing. This is why, while it’s important to examine each episode (or each book in a series) individually to call out problematic elements that arise, it’s equally important to look at the series as a whole and see what patterns and tropes develop

And the patterns and tropes that dog the women of Falling Skies are hard to ignore when seen, and harder still to see as harmless.