The winning answer in this month’s poll was one added by a reader:
What genre shows women in the best light?
* Crime Drama: 20% (10)
* Comedy: 10% (5)
* Action: 6% (3)
* Sci-Fi/Fantasy: 29% (15)
* Reality TV: 2% (1)
* Depends on show’s writing team1: 33% (17)
That’s just it, isn’t it? Any genre can show both men and women as characters instead of stereotypes, or as positive role models instead of people you want to hide from your kids. It comes down to the aims of “The Powers That Be” – a catchall term referring to the conglomerate of not-entirely-visible people who decide what’s going to happen on any given TV show or movie.
The second strongest answer was “Sci-Fi/Fantasy”. Science fiction’s come a long way, baby, but it hasn’t been pure progress. And when you review it, it’s actually sad to think that this probably is the best light women have been shown in.
In the 1960’s, Gene Roddenberry was lucky to get Uhura on the bridge at all, and the closest anyone other than a white, red-blooded, American good ol’ boy (played by Canadian William Shatner, cowboy hat sold separately) could get was second in command. Fast-forward ten years, and we got Princess Leia, who had a nice title, but in the end all her bitchy assertiveness just turned out to be foreplay, and once claimed by an even bitchier man, Han “Yes, It’s Still My Time of the Month” Solo, she had a personality bypass.
Around this same time, we got Ripley, who remains sadly unique to this day: a character who just happened to be a woman.
Throughout the eighties, women remained more likely to be shown as love bunnies and cardboard cutouts of prettiness than anything else – so I went on my first multi-year boycott spree of the cinema, and honestly couldn’t tell you if there was anything good. No one’s recommended anything I missed.
In the 90’s, we got Agent Starling and thought that was pretty cool, even though she had some silghtly disturbing daddy-boss lust issues with Jack Crawford – which was okay characterization for one woman, but maybe if we’d realized it was going to become the standard, misapplied model for 90% of the Kick-Ass Chick characters out there, we’d have protested. We got Scully, who was tough and (for a change) the rational counterpart to Mulder’s little girl hissy fits and irrational obsessions. ‘Course, she was always wrong, proving that even when you switch gender roles, the man still has to be right. But we tried to ignore that. We got Crusher and Janeway and Troi, but I didn’t really watch any of the Star Trek shows from this time, so if anyone wants to elaborate on them, feel free to comment. We got Xena and Buffy, who were pretty cool, but we weren’t sure female superheroes counted in the representation of real women. Then we got Sam Carter, who actually, you know, like, functioned on a military team and stuff. She didn’t have much personality, and she’d inherited Agent Starling’s daddy-boss lust issues, but we could overlook those things.
Then came the 2000’s, and suddenly we had to be punished for overlooking Sam Carter’s lack of personality and daddy-boss lust issues, as the latter took over her character and she deteriotated into someone many fans could not buy as “commanding officer material”. I’m not sure what happened to Scully because I’d stopped watching. Xena did okay, but Buffy died and got resurrected as the Shrew Beast from Hell (I dunno – I saw that one coming and stopped watching, but I’ve not heard anything nice about Buffy in the last two seasons).
On the flipside, Australia sent us the women of Farscape, who were exactly as interesting and complex as the men. It took the US a few more years to get around to anything even remotely comparable, with the new Battlestar Galactica, where women are competent, sleazy, brave and cowardly, foolish and wise – you know, like in real life.
Is there a pattern? If so, what does it correspond to? There’s been a real backlash against feminism in the 2000’s – is this why some of the good women characters of the late 90’s had to be deconstructed into stereotypes? I mean, they could’ve simply replaced Buffy and Sam with pliable bunnies, if those two women were no longer trendy. But then they’d have become martyrs, icons of a bygone era. So instead, they made them into objects of loathing for the very fans who’d cherished their mold-breaking behavior. There’s got to be more going on here than simple changing trends. I can read it as a sort of Orwellian purge of the concepts of competent military women and kick-ass teenage girls, rather than a simple abandonment of once-fashionable icons. Such is the power of deconstructing characters:
But the deconstruction is like a betrayal: it makes you feel like the character never was what she appeared to be. She fooled you, stupid. And that makes you resent her, and then – if you’re not the self-vigilant type – it might just make you suspicious the next time you meet a real life woman who says she doesn’t need a man to make her existence worthwhile. You won’t be fooled twice!