Women in Science Fiction

by Paul Schilling

Women in science fiction have had a roller coaster ride. The first woman starship captain wasn’t on Star Trek, she was in “Starship Troopers,” a novel of a previous generation’s sci-fi first published in book form in 1959. (Originally it was serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.) Heinlein apparently believed women made better pilots than men, so put them in charge of the space navy, but the idea didn’t stick well to the genre. Author Isaac Asimov wrote numerous short stories staring a sort of detective heroine Susan Calvin, chief robopsychologist at US Robots and Mechanical Men. Calvin was accurately portrayed in “I, Robot” the movie, but she had to play second fiddle to the ever charming Will Smith.

But even in the literature, the fact that these heroines were women required commentary by the writer to explain it. What made “Star Trek” some of the most feminist sci-fi out there is that the characters so rarely commented on women being officers; they assumed women could be officers. Certainly it took the series a while to actually put a woman in the big chair, but just like in real life, women climbed the chains of command, and in only one episode did anyone argue the point. They mostly accepted women’s abilities as too obvious to require comment. The original Uhura may have only rarely been allowed anything interesting to do, but her character’s very existance was still a shock to the American psyche; after the series was cancelled Nichelle Nichols went on to help NASA recruit more women and minorities.

This only goes to prove the old adage that sci-fi movies are twenty years behind the sci-fi television, which is twenty years behind the novels, which are twenty years behind the magazines. Both men and women sci-fi writers, if in different ways, inched women generally forward in capability and importance to the story, perhaps culminating in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series in which he, if rumor is to be believed, flips a coin to determine the gender of every character aside from Harrington and her family. I’m not saying Weber is the best writer of his generation, but you can’t get much more feminist than the Royal Navy of Manticore.

Feminism in science fiction movies may have reached its climax in the “Alien” series and “Terminator II.” Originally the main character of “Alien” was written as a man, but Sigourney Weaver proved a heroine could carry the movie. I wonder if she was cast because “Alien” was a hybrid of sci-fi and horror, and horror movies are often about a woman in danger. Fortunately it was sci-fi/horror, so the heroine could fight back with true grit. As for “Terminator II,” Linda Hamilton was so buff in that movie she still looks more like an actual woman warrior than any other action heroine since. In most movies, its takes a certain suspension of disbelief to accept that a woman lacking muscle tone and body weight could actually win the choreographed fights. It was only quite recently that Zoe on Serenity and Agent May on Agents of SHIELD came close to matching Linda Hamilton for believability of combat, and it should come as no surprise that Buffy creator Joss Whedon had more than a hand in both projects.

In a similar vein as “Alien” but with reverse causation, Samantha Carter of “Stargate” became one of the most convincing heroines on TV during her time. The writers had wanted her scientist character to be a woman, but complained about floundering when trying to write a realistic woman scientist. Reputedly, the actress told them to worry about writing the scientist and let her worry about making her a woman. It was one of the better compromises in television writing.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give some more room here to Joss Whedon. His feminist icon “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” laid the foundation for his later feminist sci-fi, if I may define sci-fi in the broadest possible sense. My friends have argued whether Inara from “Firefly” was a feminist character or not. If you define a feminist character as a woman of talent and intelligence, then obviously yes, but she entertains men for money, so obviously not? But since lots of women throughout all of history have done so in every culture, that Inara is such a unique character in TV and movies does not so much prove that Whedon is a closet sexist but that the American media has been in puritanical denial about women’s experiences. Then again, any man with sense would prefer Kaylee anyway, with her above the board sexuality, tom boyish talents, and girl-next-door personality. She embodies a cheerful feminism without the battle between the sexes.

The most understated feminist statement in “Firefly” is actually Jayne’s reactions to Zoe. Jayne is the muscle, subject to his hormones, but never seems to question Zoe’s competence. He’s actually more doubtful about their captain’s abilities than hers. Despite his being a thug, even the most fragile women seem quite comfortable around him, if sometimes disapproving, taking their safety for granted.

 If I may digress, I found myself wondering why “Buffy” did so much more to shape women’s roles on television than the “Wonder Woman” TV show. I suspect the reasons are twofold, the first being timing. The audience was simply more ready to embrace a feminist central character in the late 90s. The second was that while Wonder Woman (in the show) was only strong on occasion, and the rest of the time was too cheerful, friendly, and in love with her boss to become a feminist icon, for Buffy being strong was a constant. Buffy’s strength became the center of gravity for the relationships of everyone around her, whether she liked it or not. She symbolized the conflict between the feminine and feminist in her generation, while Diana Prince (the secret identity of Wonder Woman) was determinedly non-threatening and her greatest inner conflict was how to hide her strength so it didn’t interfere with the relationships around her. That, too, might be symbolic of a generation, but it didn’t serve as fertile soil for future feminist television.

When my students and I were discussing what a female James Bond would be like, I mentioned that the Black Widow from “The Avengers” would be a good template and my students, who were Chinese teenagers and roughly 3/4 female, broke into applause. I was so pleasantly surprise that I tried to find an email address for the actress to let her know, but failed, so unfortunately I’ll just have to hope she reads this article. I realize that “The Avengers” is only science fiction if you liberally apply the adage that all sufficiently advanced technology would appear to be magic, but my greater point is how excited my high school students were watching her hold her own on the screen with genetically manipulated and technologically enhanced superheroes.

“Agents of SHIELD” thus far has been more careful to remain within the bounds of sci-fi, but has the potential to be some of the most feminist television going right now. I’m not so much concerned with the younger agents, since hyper-capable teenagers is a trope with Whedon, but with Agent May, who is one of the more convincing heroines in the Whedonverse. It has finally occurred to Whedon that the most kick-ass woman on a show probably has lots of training and experience, and so would be over thirty. I looked up the actress on the Internet, and learned that Ming-Na Wen is around fifty, which surprised me, since she’s in such good shape I would have guessed thirty-five at the most. It gives me hope for my own future.

“Continuum” grew on me as I watched the evolving moral complexities of tampering with time. As Kiera balances her desire to return to her family with the moral demands of her situation, she slowly digs herself into a deeper hole that eventually only her enemies could help her get out of. Each morally correct decision she makes takes her further than ever from returning to her family, and she eventually seems to accept giving up her role as a mother for that of an action heroine, becoming the rogue warrior aligned with but separate from her former police partner’s position of authority; the characters even reference her Batman–like position in a Vancouver perpetually threatened by agendas from unhappy futures. She is a tragic figure but with awareness of the consequences of the decisions she makes anyway, which makes her more tragic than Oedipus.

Another notable sci-fi TV show was “Fringe,” and while its science is certainly out there, it had an interesting relationship with its women characters. Olivia Dunham started off on the feminine side in her relationships, but I noticed that she always broke herself out of the villains’ hide outs; she’s not one to wait around and be rescued. Her other self from the parallel universe also has a balance of the masculine and feminine, being friendlier but apparently the better shot. This carefully navigated identity turned her into an interesting character and a strong center for the show, despite the occasions when it looked like Peter might take over as the driver of the plots.

The “Fringe” writers also used parallel universes and timeline reboots to repair their mistakes with Astrid. Initially it appeared that they didn’t put any thought into her at all. In the first season, she was just an assistant for Walter, but each time the writers created a new timeline they added depth to her character (characters?). Nina Sharp, already a powerful woman executive in the first season, became a more and more emotionally powerful character which each new timeline.

“Pacific Rim” is a good example of the advances and limitations of feminism in the action sci-fi movie genre. No one in the movie says Mako cannot be in the robots because she is a woman, but rather because of her childhood trauma, a psychological barrier she has to overcome, and overcome it she does. Mako was also pivotal in the triangle of relationships between the other two men. But Hollywood being what it is, the default point of view character was the white guy, so it limited the amount of time the movie could spend on her father/daughter relationship with the commander, a relationship as important as the teamwork between Mako and her co-pilot. If the movie had been written with Mako as the point of view character, it would have been significantly improved, and they wouldn’t have had to change more than ten or fifteen minutes of it, mostly cutting back on the Aussie-American tough guy contests or the especially unlikely action scenes.

Or, more radically, they could have let Mako beat up the Aussie, but that might have denigrated the Aussie’s macho identity in this “go team go” movie.

I haven’t seen “Lucy” yet; I couldn’t quite bring myself to overlook the ridiculousness of the concept to actually buy the ticket. Increasing the brain’s percentage probability would not give people paranormal powers. I don’t know why that bothers me more than the ridiculousness of “Guardians,” except perhaps if the premise of a movie is the enhancement of intelligence, I would want more intelligence and less CGI. Writing characters that are supposed to be of superior intelligence is always a risky business for writers, with as many pitfalls as time travel stories. The most convincing examples are merely quicker intelligence, when characters simply figure out normal problems in minutes rather than days or even years. But a qualitative leap in intelligence is always limited by the writer’s imagination; gone are the days when Western writers could steal liberally from Buddhism and Taoism and pass it off as their own genius.

Most recently, I’ve seen “Guardians of the Galaxy,” another movie that can be called feminist because it takes women’s competence for granted, but less feminist because of the default male point-of-view. I submit the movie would have made more sense if Gamora had given the rousing speech that united the heroes for one last throw of the dice, since it would follow from her plot arc. I might be bias, since Gamora reminded me a lot of my favorite ex-girlfriend (great at martial arts, all male friends, severe daddy issues), but that movie was so nearly headlined by a heroine it’s a shame the opportunity was wasted. I do suppose making Gamora the lead would have made it a much more serious movie; the light hearted humor of our hero amorally dancing his way to riches would not have worked for the traumatized warrior woman whose primary goal is the defeat of tyranny and terrorism.