It couldn’t come as any surprise to readers of this blog, that its contributors want more cool stories about women. Not exactly fewer stories about men, but stories less… automatically about men, and fewer men shoved into stories that should be about women.
Which brings me to Agents of SHIELD. Spcifically the third season episode, 4722 Hours. Context, for anyone as embarrassingly behind on the show as me, at the end of the second season one of the characters – forensic biologist Jemma Simmons – was sucked through a portal to a distant planet. Early in the third season, after six months, the rest of the team manage to predict another opening of the portal and retrieve her. Following her return, Simmons is is traumatised on just about every level: her body is readjusting to different gravity and oxygen levels, normal light levels now hurt her eyes, sudden noises panic her, she has nightmares about being hunted. Hardly surprising; alone on an alien planet for six months and all that. More surprising is that she starts examining the remains of the destroyed portal, insisting they have to go back to the planet.
We find out why that is in 4722 Hours, the episode detailing Simmons’s time on the planet. Namely, that she was only alone for the first few weeks, before running into Will, a man who’d been sent through the portal many years before. Unlike Simmons, Will’s mission was deliberate, and supplied with some decent equipment. Will helps her survive. They make a parallel prediction of when and where the portal will open again, which is why she’s close enough to it for the rest of the cast to find her. The two of them fall for each other. And in the end Will goes after the monster haunting the planet, to give Simmons time to reach the portal. Back on Earth, Simmons wants to return and save him; her on-the-cusp-of-boyfriend Fitz, when he learns about Will, gets gung ho about saving him too, despite warnings from one of the other guys that this could lead to a bizarre love triangle.
And my reaction was, what a damn waste.
Don’t get me wrong. Will wasn’t a bad character, just a bit bland. And there are other plot reasons why there had to be previous travellers to the planet, and why Simmons had to remain intent on researching the portal. But we’d been primed for a few episodes for a story about how the ostensibly least badass member of the team had survived alone on an alien planet for months – and it turns out that for most of that time she’d had company, been eating from a table and sleeping in a bed – it was the guy she met who’d spent years alone there. Meanwhile, the quest to save Will became about how great Fitz was for trying to save a possible romantic rival. Ultimately, it was like Simmons’s biggest story had been handed off to two guys.
Consider this instead: Will’s mission happened, but he is long dead. Simmons finds the remains of his camp and gear – and perhaps a diary (hell, as alone as she’d be, a diary might represent enough connection to another person that she’d still credit that person for saving her). She survives alone, using what she’s found – dodges the monster alone – finds the portal alone. When she’s back on Earth, she’s traumatised enough to be obsessed with the remains of the portal, to reassure herself that it definitely is destroyed. Or – having discovered that there were previous travellers – with assuring herself that there aren’t any other portals out there, and this can’t happen to anyone else. Everything that has to be there still would be, but Simmons would be back at the centre of that arc where she should be – and 4722 Hours itself would be all about showing Simmons pushed further than she could ever have imagined she could survive, plus actress Elizabeth Henstridge getting a huge solo workout.
I guess I’m not making a deep point here. It’s not exactly big news that stories about women frequently have men jammed into them in such a way as to take them over. Just that this episode and surrounding arc serves as a really clear example of it – and an equally clear example of how the changes needed to make it better are so often frustratingly small.