From the time they are young, girls in our culture have been told that they are to stay in the land of unicorns and rainbows while the boys will explore space aboard their cardboard rockets. As girls grow older it is almost a taboo for them to display any interest in joining the fight of the backyard Jedi with wooden sticks or broom handles when they should be painting their nails or planning a slumber party. As late in the developmental stages of life as high school these girls are not expected to join the Dungeons and Dragons team and would face heckling from boys and girls alike if they did, are not expected to enjoy watching “The Lord of the Rings” without a boyfriend, and seemingly not expected to have any ideas about life outside the walls of a pink room filled with boy band posters.
Thankfully, the stigma aimed toward the demographic of girls who enjoy these pursuits is slowly shrinking. There are female figures in science fiction and fantasy who point to a different self-conception for girls. I hope for a world where girls know it is not only okay to like these things but where they are encouraged to participate. It is time to examine whether famous female sci-fi and fantasy characters help or hinder this objective.
Many may be wondering, “What does this have to do with me and my daughters? Why is this important to an LDS individual?” First, it matters because science fiction and fantasy shape perceptions of gender roles like any other genre, perhaps even more. Star Trek, for example, was one of the first shows in its day to have a woman, not to mention a black woman, as part of its starring line up. The willingness of the “fringe” genres to push where no others have gone before has a great impact on where other, more mainstream genres, will go later. Second, as an LDS individual who has been profoundly shaped by not only these genres but the women in them, I understand the importance of teaching out of the best books— and movies, and television shows. Without these influences in my life, many of the great discussions that formed my current perceptions would never have happened. There is much to be learned from movies and television, just as there is much we can give to television if we understand the conversation. If we do not involve ourselves in what is being said, we will be left behind, defenseless, as our society’s culture parts company with us.
Any choice of which characters to examine must of necessity be a personal one. I intend to speak about a few of the women characters in science fiction and fantasy that I have enjoyed watching and reading in my life. These characters have influenced my perspective on science fiction and fantasy— but have also provided different female narratives from mainstream culture. In each case they have even inspired me to push at the boundaries of both my imagination and perceived social limits on females.
At the same time, these same female characters can also be critiqued. Much like the male-drawn female figures of graphic novels and comics, the caricatures that pervade the female roles in science fiction and fantasy often stereotype a narrative suggesting there must be a distinct loss of femininity in order to achieve the rounded personalities enjoyed by the male counterparts. In other words, as liberating on one level as these characters are, they also suggest women cannot be “rounded” because they are not men.
One intuitive reason this might be is that the majority of science fiction and fantasy writers are male. It is as true that a women does not completely understand how the man thinks as it is to say that men do not completely understand women. Men may more often resort to gender stereotypes to sketch female characters. Therefore there may always be a gulf of understanding when creating characters of the opposite sex. These women characters are not as round because there are not enough female writers entering the genre. Even with the expansion of women’s opportunities in writing, directing, producing, and authorship these are still considered- especially in the fields of science fiction and fantasy- the sectors of male dominance. In order to help these women that we already adore in science fiction and fantasy shine, there must be an opening to not only allow but also to invite girls to enjoy this great world without the stigma of not being allowed because she is a girl.
I have divided the female characters into four categories. The first category is “Gun Toting Peace Keepers” or those women who serve a distinctly military or police role in their arena. These three women are Olivia Dunham from the science fiction show “Fringe,” Kara “Starbuck” Thrace from the reboot of “Battlestar Galactica,” and Josephina “Jo” Lupo from “Eureka.” The second category is “Women of Science and Invention” where the women are those known specifically for either their intelligence or their gadgets. They include, Helen Magnus from “Sanctuary,” Claudia Donovan from “Warehouse 13,” and Samantha Carter from “Stargate SG-1” and its spin-off series, “Stargate: Atlantis.” The third group, “Women with Swords” are strictly fantasy figures including Eowyn from “The Lord of the Rings,” Tauriel from Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit,” and Kahlan Amnell from both “The Sword of Truth” series and the television show “The Legend of the Seeker.” Finally, in a slightly more mobius division of analysis, Regina Mills/Evil Queen and Emma Swan from “Once Upon a Time” in their roles as “Hero Figures and Flawed Saviors.” I hope I can use these categories of women to both represent the respect I have for these genres, for the roles these women play and represent, as well as how they could be improved to better represent women as completely rounded personalities.
Gun Toting Peace Keepers: Women with the Iron Fists in the Modern Age
The roles of police officer, military personal, or security chief are typically the Halloween costumes of boys, not girls. From a young age boys are playing with toy guns, roughhousing, and displaying their physical prowess. Perhaps it is a cultural leftover from generations of hunter-gatherers, warring nations, and a need for a man to prove he is a man. Therefore it is difficult to overcome the prejudice associated with centuries of male dominance in professions like the military. Great strides are being made in the modern day, such as the lifting of combat exclusion for women and it might be said that women feel less out of place entering the military now than twenty years ago.
However the carry-overs from those ages require women attempting to compete in careers where they are physically outmatched requires them to take on more masculine traits. For example, the character of Josephina Lupo from “Eureka” is the youngest in a family that includes three older brothers and a deceased mother so her father who raises her. He is a loving dad, but regardless of his efforts to tell his daughter that she is enough being herself, she feels the need to compete with her older brothers on a physical level. Instead of going by her more feminine name she takes on the name “Jo” to sound more male. She joins the U.S. Army Special Forces and tops all of her older brothers’ scores to prove she is better than they are. In fact, in the pilot episode of the show we see her assembling a gun blindfolded as a normal activity. She prides herself on her marksmanship, her fighting skills, and--in one episode--the fact that she wears either boxers or briefs. Her only moments of femininity revolve around being infected with a drug that blocks the inhibitions of the town, when she is body swapped, and in a computerized reality— in other words, when she is clearly “not herself.” In fact, at the moment when she proposes marriage to one of the male characters she gets down on one knee, holds the ring to him, and asks for him to “make a woman out of her.” All indications about her actions, her dress, and her chosen profession seem to suggest that she is not a “woman” in anything but bodily form.
Then there is Kara “Starbuck” Thrace of “Battlestar Galactica.” In the original series Starbuck was a male character known not only his piloting skills but also for being a smooth-talking womanizer. When the SciFi Channel rebooted the series in 2005 they changed Starbuck to a woman known as Kara Thrace. No longer the suave pilot, Starbuck now had a mouth befitting a sailor, a penchant for sleeping with just about every man on the ship, and drinking habits to rival bigger men. She feels guilty for qualifying a pilot to whom she was engaged though his skills were not good enough, which choice led to his death. This eats at her in equal measure with the desire to have a relationship with the dead pilot’s brother. Consistently at odds with authority and rules, Starbuck proves to be a daring pilot whose skills are unmatched by others in her division, but her advancement is consistently stunted by her mouth and attitude. She wavers in her commitment to any single man, forever pining after Lee “Apollo” Adama while marrying Sam Anderson and staying true to neither of them. In the end her character simply vanishes, as if even the writers were unsure of what to do with her. Especially in the final season, Starbuck seemed unhinged, mentally at odds with everyone, and struggling to find her identity. Without the support of character development and the constant waffling— both the fault of the screenwriters— she was literally a ghost or shadow of what she could have been.
Finally there is Olivia Dunham from “Fringe.” Her first scene is just after she and another FBI agent have had sex. They have a secret relationship as dating one’s partner is forbidden. He proposes but their engagement is short lived as he does not even survive the pilot episode. She joined the FBI after serving as an Army Investigator and is respected by her colleagues and superiors. Later it is discovered that, as a child, she was a victim of child abuse at the hands of her stepfather and at the age of nine she shot him to stop him abusing her mother. On that day she decided she would be an FBI agent and never wavered. She has past relationships with boyfriends/love interests that were a series of failures due to her commitment to her job and refusal to bend to a different lifestyle. Further, she is put as a direct foil to her sister who has a child from an abusive ex-husband. Dunham’s relationship with her niece is a good one but she is without any children of her own.
Like Lupo, Dunham dresses in masculine clothes to fit in at work. She is slow to trust men in relationships and when she does have her own child, the connection she has to her daughter feels as though she takes the traditional aloof male role instead of the mother role. Both Dunham and her alternate version from another dimension (referred to as Faux-Livia) are more masculine in their actions and decision-making paradigms than the men in their lives who take distinctly softer approaches to problems.
Each has incredible qualities and on many a fictional occasion these proved the saving factor in their sphere of influence. They could have been deep women but they all lack basic development by their writers. Each has to turn more male, almost shunning their more feminine nature to find a niche in their life. They draw a gun faster than they reach for tissues, and tend to drink their male partners under the table. That is not to say that these qualities are bad in and of themselves or that these women have somehow failed the test of womanhood. But the new stereotypes have replaced the old. Just as the old stereotypical female characters were never full human beings, so the new female characters are not either. It is almost as if writers are afraid to allow these women characters to have emotions, lest they be too “womanly” and therefore must write them as emotionless robots instead. Why do they have to be such men about everything when they could be more fully developed women?
How could these characters be rewritten to avoid falling into this trap? To help Jo Lupo expose what makes her special could have been as simple as softening her approach to meeting new people. She already possesses enough qualities to make her intimidating so having a prickly outside does little to help her become fully rounded as an individual. It makes for good comedy but it is comedy at the expense of the character. In the few moments when she expresses a more fun-loving or exciting side, it is immediately undercut by her frosty approach. Why? Instead, the screenwriters could have her enter with a bright smile, a kind attitude, and then display her incredible marksmanship. Instead Lupo spent two seasons becoming a character people would love.
Starbuck’s character changes would have to be more significant. She is introduced running through the ship, speaking amiably with the Commander, but in her very next scene she bad-mouths the Executive Officer of the ship and is thrown in the brig for insubordination after striking him. Her sexually open attitude proves degrading, rather than attractive. Instead of being sexy, Starbuck is easy. Though the world is still trying to move from the ancient idea that male infidelity and promiscuity are acceptable while women must remain chaste forever, the new attitude that all people can have as much sex as they want is perhaps more degrading. Starbuck is violent, physical, and vulgar. Her drive to compete with others, which also serves as her double-edged sword when she alienates all potential friends and colleagues. If she is to become a better role model as well as a symbol for women, her character needs reworking. Make her the best pilot in the fleet, let her gamble and drink, but remove her status as the fleet’s communal mattress. Starbuck has many great qualities but they are buried in her vices.
Finally, Olivia Dunham needs to not seem so devoted to her work at the loss of relationships because having the main female lead chronically single suggests a permanent character flaw. Unfortunately in our culture a man who dates many times is looking for the right woman while a woman who dates a lot is either unsatisfied or dealing with standards that are too high. Her commitment to her job eventually drives a wedge in her marriage, a frustration her husband never seems to have, and she chooses her career over her family. It seems the suggestion that her priorities are confused when in fact she is struggling with a human problem, not a female problem. It is the natural human reaction to react selfishly in times of difficulty and her reversion to her job in a time of struggle is simply the human side of her.
All this is not to say that these are not inspiring characters. Lupo gives courage to any girl who is told she cannot compete with the boys. Lupo tells those girls to do it anyway. It is possible for girls to fulfill their dreams, no matter how impossible they may seem. Lupo did it and what she tells girls everywhere is that they can as well. Starbuck is a testament to dedication. We all have skills that are individual to us and we need to expand on those talents. Her skills as a pilot are natural but she also worked hard to hone them. Whenever Starbuck climbs into the cockpit, the mission will be accomplished. And Olivia Dunham tells girls that they can be heroes in small ways. She does not act to be noticed but because it is the right thing to do. I think we often forget the necessity of acting in small ways to better mankind because we want to be heroes. Maybe we should act more and think less about whether anyone was watching. These women are inspirations for me, but they are still not complete individuals. We must demand better of our scriptwriters.
Women of Science and Invention: Innovation at the Cost of Life
When I was in high school I was addicted to the show “Stargate SG-1.” On that show I idolized the military astrophysicist Captain Doctor Samantha Carter. I watched as she advanced in rank from Captain, to Major, to Lieutenant Colonel when she commanded the outpost on “Stargate: Atlantis” and eventually achieved the rank of full Colonel in command of her own ship. I wanted to be an astrophysicist, to join the Air Force, and be just like her. In fact it is because of her that I study what I do now. Her inspiration as a woman in the science fields led me to feel more courageous about stepping beyond the traditional boundaries of women’s roles. For a show that began in 1997, this type of female character may not have been revolutionary but she was definitely outside the norm… a hallmark of science fiction.
The norms were pushed even further by the character of Helen Magnus on “Sanctuary.” A woman who had lived for over a hundred and fifty years, she ran her own network of sanctuaries to protect creatures largely considered monsters by the general populace. Under that guise the show confronted issues such as judging someone on the outside appearance, accepting those different from ourselves without persecution, and the idea that we all can achieve impossible dreams. With her connections, wealth, and brains Magnus changed the lives of thousands and changed my life as well. I knew I wanted to work in a business that would put me at the service of others.
Lastly, who is not inspired by child geniuses? Claudia Donovan of “Warehouse 13” is one such genius. At a young age she watched her brother taken from her in a science experiment gone wrong that trapped him in an alternate dimension and spent her life searching for the solution to his disappearance. Her abilities with technology allowed her to retrofit the Warehouse on “Warehouse 13,” to invent new gadgets for the use of agents, and improve the network for better functionality. Her sarcasm and wit, matched with her unfailing kindness and her infectious smile drew people to her brains and her beauty.
With such idols as these it would seem difficult to find flaws in their character but they unfortunately fall into the same stereotypical trap— in order for these character not be “usual” women, they cannot be happy in their relationships. Carter is a chronic relationship failure, earning her the title in my house as “The Black Widow of Stargate.” Every man she dated either died or left her because she not only held a torch for her boss but also because her work always came first. Apparently to the screenwriters it was impossible for her technical skills, the same ones that put the people of earth almost on par technologically with superior aliens, to be honed in the bonds of a relationship. Her completely unmonopolized time thus resulted in many inventions but a stale love life. Complicate that with her unhealthy attraction to her boss who for professional reasons (one cannot date their commanding officer in the military) was inaccessible, put her in a constant state of pause as she waited for a chance to pursue what she could never have. What made her so afraid of a relationship? Apparently a woman in a relationship seemed too difficult and a healthy relationship would be impossible for the writers to create. Carter had to let go of her feminine side in pursuit of a military and scientific career because to have it all is, according to the stereotype, not possible for her (or, by extension, any woman).
Magnus had a similar problem. Though she had a daughter, the character was supposedly disliked by the fans and killed by the beginning of the second season. This move, similar to the dissolve of Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane, seemed to make Magnus seem younger and gave her an edge of constant pain to be harped on by throughout the remainder of the series. But even with the daughter, there was no husband. And why was Magnus a single mother? Because her daughter was the child of the psycho killer, Jack the Ripper! Along these same lines, none of the men who displayed an interest in Magnus in the series were healthy choices. Granted we do not always choose wisely and especially after the popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey” there seems to be a large group of women who now believe the best relationship is with the damaged man, but these are not the norm. By placing Magnus in a sphere of men that were psychotic, vampiric, or otherwise only interested in womanizing, it got the screenwriters off the hook from having to write a healthy relationship for her. There would never need to be relationship development with her character, she would need to make no changes, and her character would be untouchable. She would speak of her past relationships but all of them were fleeting and not serious. The constant excuse was that her age made it impossible for her to sustain a relationship, but those excuses only made her character flatter.
And Claudia? Younger than Carter and much younger than Magnus she did not have the level of experience possessed by either of those other women, but in my view, she still felt rounder than they. Her fears about dating came from being youthful. Well past puberty, Claudia still had the nerves girls and boys have when they are still trying to find their place in life and how that involves the opposite sex. But, as was pointed out near the end of season two by one of the male characters, her boyfriends had a history of disappearing. Her work kept her too busy to really get out into the world and address the missing portion of herself that would include hobbies not involved with work, dating, and being young. By the end of the series she tries to branch out more, to experience more of life, but still runs into the problem of placing work above all else.
So why? Why is it that the writers portray all these women as being stunted in their relationships? Is it because of the underlying feeling that women do not yet belong in the science fields? It is noteworthy to acknowledge that there have been great strides in women in the military, police forces, science fields, and as leaders of industry but the majority of science fields remain male-dominated. The argument that women make less than men is only valid if all jobs are exactly fifty percent female occupied. Since that is not the case perhaps the real argument is: do these girls know they can perform in a science field? Are girls in school being encouraged to attend the robotics club, the math club, or other science related activities? With role models like Carter, Magnus, and Claudia in my life I felt the confidence I needed to pursue a career in science, attend graduate school and perhaps even seek a doctorate. These would not be on my mind if not for these women. But what they also teach me is I can only have these things if I do not want to ever get married. Why can they not have both so that I can imagine that I could have both, too? Is it because to have both is just outside the realm of acceptability because to have a marriage and a family would require more balance and perhaps a few dreams on hold? Since apparently the writers do not believe that can happen, the women characters they create will remain chronically single or give up on their goals professionally. What a sad world.
Women with Swords: What It Means to Wield a Weapon as a Woman in a Magical Age
Historically women did not go into battle. They stayed at home, cared for the children, and cried at the graves of their male family members before carrying on alone. But these women were not completely helpless or incompetent with weapons. As Eowyn said in the film, “The Two Towers,” “Women… learned long ago that those without swords could still die upon them.” Times have certainly changed from the days when women were what men fought for to joining men in the fight. It is exactly that attitude that made Tauriel an interesting, though debated, addition to Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” while giving Kahlan Amnell her status as the “High Bitch in Charge” among fans of “The Sword of Truth” series and “The Legend of the Seeker” television show. These women have skills with swords, fight for men and with men, and they stand as symbols of equality in the right to defend what one believes. What could possibly go wrong?
While Eowyn is certainly one of my favorite women in “The Lord of the Rings,” many changes altered her movie persona from her character in the beloved Tolkien books. Written in a day and age where chivalry was still strong and women fought for the right to vote over the right to be seen as equals in all things, Eowyn seemed a girl with a crush who saved her uncle only through the explicit help from a male figure. In the movie, perhaps to better appeal to female audiences, she became a self-sufficient woman fighting grief alongside her brother and wielding a sword to save her uncle against the leader of the Nazgul. If she was so amazing, then what could be wrong with her? Unfortunately Eowyn fell into the same problem as the others we have discussed. To make her more “believable” as a swordswoman, the writers made her character colder. Instead of acting as the caring and compassionate heir to her uncle’s house, one destined to lead her people should both her uncle and brother fall in battle, she became distant and guarded against any and all help. She treated Aragorn with scorn before developing her attraction to him that was only evident when made overt and awkward. If there were to be changes to this Shield Maiden of Rohan, it would be to have her attached to her duty without making her a cold hostess. While she is allowed to be attracted to an understandably attractive man, it should not be at the expense of her character’s unfailing strength. Rejection is hard for anyone, but it seemed ill timed on the eve of war. There is so much to Eowyn: balance can be found in what we want and what we need. Now, if only we had screenwriters who would help women see that in the female characters they create.
Tauriel, the brainchild of Peter Jackson created specifically for Evangeline Lily to play, falls into the pit of female role expectations. We have already seen how most screenwriters make a woman formidable by making her cold and incapable of sustaining a relationship. In Tauriel’s case, the fact that she did have a romance was the cause of her downfall and expulsion from the Elivsh kingdom for treason. So here girls are told a cautionary tale— they can be successful, but if they try to have a relationship, all their success will be lost. The romance destroyed her character's credibility as a responsible military leader when the short-lived infatuation led to her dismissal from the kingdom and her treasonous actions against her king. The idea was that she fought to put her duty to country and her duty to heart in line but she failed at both--just making her a failure. Instead of making Tauriel feel like a character with a stance and a chance, she falls into the pit of tragically confused women, limiting women of the fantasy world to the same old either/or choice women have always been given.
And when we speak in matters of placing duty to calling equal to the duty to the heart, Kahlan Amnell is a prime example. Her role in “The Sword of Truth” series is as a Confessor. The Confessors are an order of women devoted to finding truth. As the name suggests they take confessions from those accused of crimes. However, the Confessors are an order of women with great power and when they confess someone it affects that person’s brain so much so that the confessed individual becomes infatuated with the Confessor and desires to tell them everything so as to please their new mistress. This process makes the idea of real relationships with anyone impossible as the Confessors must keep a tight leash on their power at all times in order to not harm the innocent. Such a power would inevitably be unleashed when a Confessor has sex, which makes the idea of loving the person with whom you have sex impossible as they basically become a mindless slave to the Confessor’s will. It is in that vein of thought that Kahlan is cast when she falls in love in the line of duty. Her fear at having to tell this man what she is and what she can do drives her to bury her secret so she does not drive him away. Where Tauriel’s confusion between her two duties drove her character to appear chronically indecisive, Kahlan’s character makes us respond to the fears about our personalities that would drive away those about whom we care. So what is the advice the screenwriters are giving us as women? It would seen our only chance for love rests upon our willingness to hide and bury our talents and our power.
Furthermore, in Kahlan’s case, her frustration between her duties also leads to bad decision-making. Such an action is a human one but in Kahlan’s case her character is undermined by her bad decisions. Reacting out of fear, she is in constant tears about what she has done, whom she may have injured, consistently second-guessing herself and her decisions until it wears at the reader. While she is a powerful symbol of what women can do, that women can be leaders, her symbol as a leader is born of the fear people have for her power and the fear she has for her power. Ruling men with the love they have for her, artificial as it may be, drives the idea that a woman can only gain control of a man if he never questions her decisions and that she is incapable of good decision making without driving herself mad wondering if it as the right decision.
So how are these women to be helped? I have a few suggestions. First, Eowyn could be redrawn as a woman with far more trauma. With all she has experienced in her life it would not be far from the imagination to see her suffering from mental agonies like depression, post-traumatic stress, abuse in the form of neglect and stalking, as well as the natural feelings of abandonment and loneliness. Her attachment to Aragorn could be seen as a projection of her helpless feelings onto someone she believes could help rescue her from the despair she has. With more understanding of her mental state and the forces that drive her, in other words try to paint her character as more than two-dimensional, Eowyn could be seen as a woman who not only conquered the evils of the world but also the darkness in her own soul and mind on her own. Instead, he script tells us she needs a man to save her.
If Tauriel were to be redrawn, she would need more of a backstory. Something more than a temporary attraction to a Dwarf would have to drive her to seek battle with the forces that threaten the Lonely Mountain and her own king. Her character had such potential for development in that she was the Captain of the Guard in the courts of the King of the Elves in Mirkwood. We crave to know more. How did a female prove to be so much better than all of her male counterparts? What makes her so distinguished that Legolas would be attracted to her other than obvious beauty? If there was any attempt in any way to make her character three-dimensional, she could have been a very powerful player in the movies but instead her character detracted from the story so horribly that many thought the movies were a total failure. Because the genesis of the romance with the dwarf is depicted as nothing other than looks and a single comment that could have been considered verbal sexual harassment, many could assume the contrived romance was nothing more than hormones brought on by the thrill of the moment instead of the “real love” the storyline suggested. The character of Tauriel was a missed opportunity, to be sure.
To finish, how does Kahlan become a symbol of female power in the world she occupies instead of a vacillating woman with more power than she can handle? Her character, in comparison with the other two aforementioned, already has the three dimensional nature they lack. What she needs is a different perspective on love and sex between men and women. Though that is an issue that would take more time than we have here to discuss and study effectively, in short what I am suggesting is suggested here is that the power of sex between men and women need not be a power play. Her power to force love of men toward her seems to say that she could not otherwise gain that power, that without force women are helpless before men. The perspective shift needed is one that says women and men can be equal in love, that one does not need to assert dominance over another in order to love. More than that, this perspective would teach us that love is not a weapon or a tool but a force to be shared. With storylines that seem to put constant strain on the love of the main characters, with both consistently questioning the love the other has for them, it would seem that though she wields the power of love she does not know it has power to transform her as well. To help Kahlan— and the girls in the audience— what the author needs is a basic understanding of the power of love and how it should truly be used.
Hero Figures and Flawed Saviors: To Change or Not to Change?
Five years ago one of the best television pilots I have ever seen premiered. I watched, helpless against the power of good writing, fabulous acting, and characters so developed I felt they could come out of my screen and talk with me in person. All these fairy tales that I had watched for years in many different retellings were once again presented to me, but with such interesting twists and portrayals that all the other versions seemed to melt away. What else could I do but watch, helpless, as this new show rearranged all of my ideas about these classic stories to the point where I had difficulty remembering what was canon and what had been created specifically for this new age of storytelling. This show is “Once Upon a Time.”
This show not only provided a very positive representation of women, signified by the fact that the first three names on the cast list are women, but also the idea that women are the heroes of their own stories. As Emma said, “No one rescues me but me.” There is even the suggestion that the two main female characters, Emma Swan the Savior and Regina Mills the Evil Queen, are standards for a lesbian relationship that has driven fanfiction forums wild with ideas. Now I am not a supporter of that particular theory but I will say the relationship that developed between the two women, though both are damaged in their own ways, is a symbol of hope in the powers of friendship and redemption. Emma Swan overcame the fact that she was abandoned as a baby, her mistrust of everyone based on her experience that the world is out to get you, and her own insecurities about love, while Regina overcame significant abuse from her mother, her own darker tendencies as a direct result of holding a grudge, and she eventually opened to the idea that she could be redeemed. But these women are not complete and especially between the second and fifth seasons, there was significant lack of character development on the side of Emma Swan.
This approach tends to take us back to the older stereotype where true love is all there is for women. But the development of anyone— male or female— revolves around more than just finding true love. It is a development of talents, confrontation of fears, and a trying of new things. Expansion and recognition of self are core necessities for personal development. In self-actualization, love is not a necessary component of personal achievement. In fact, judging by the pyramid, both the characters of Emma and Regina have reached a measure of self-actualization. Both have a sense of morality, a respect for others, individual creativity, and respect for self— and these points of progress only came at the price of great trial and struggle.
Regina’s character in particular has gone through a redemptive change that took her from a young victim of abuse at the hands of her mother to a scheming Queen willing to stop at nothing to gain her revenge to a mother to a friend to a hero. Her mother was a nut job that drove Regina to be more than Regina herself wanted to be. Regina only sought happiness. Instead of encouraging her daughter to follow her dreams, Regina’s mother crushed them. The abuse she inflicted, both mental and emotional as well as occasional physical abuse, drove Regina to seek out a victim of her own. That victim was Snow White and through that, Regina became the Evil Queen. After gaining a son in Henry, Regina slowly altered her dark personality to better love her adopted son. Through Henry, Regina became a hero and put aside her darker impulses. Regina’s heroic arc over the first four seasons of the show is a testament to the strength of believing in redemption.
Emma’s character, on the other hand, seems to have suffered because of Regina’s development as the focus moved from Emma to Regina. Emma, in season one, began as a doubtful and suspicious individual who eventually became the town’s savior. That shift in her personality made her less prickly and more willing to accept that she was not as alone in the world. Unfortunately for the positive progress her character made, her character development stalled at the expense of convoluted storylines, massive character introductions, and Regina’s heroic arc. So instead of Emma Swan’s revelations about her life (e.g., in foster care, on the run, or in prison) being the building blocks of a complex and interesting person, they just made her seem fragile, flat, and petulant. Where she could have used those moments to help others, referring back to those memories to grow, her character became the cause of halting storylines and awkward plot devices. With the trauma she endured, the developmental problems noted in fostered children devoid of parental affection, and the power she proved to have, Emma should have made for a stunning hero for all four seasons instead of feeling like a two-dimensional superhero.
What needs to be changed for Emma and Regina is a stronger focus on them as human beings, instead of focusing on the cool plot devices, the cool guest stars, or all the different places the production can go. The first season proved to the audience that was possible. When there was nothing but the characters to be told in a new way, all the writers did was rely on character development. Returning to what worked in the beginning will be what really brings the show back to the days when it was better— back to the days when the characters were more complete.
So What Does This Mean for Women? How Nostalgia Affects Us
Looking for the light in darkness is critical to finding what drives us to become better and to triumph over everything that would drag us down. But nostalgia for the characters our parents knew in a time when women’s roles and self-conceptions are changing is like introducing a child to a Walkman when the iPod exists. When we want our heroes to show that if we do not change we can still become a hero, we are proving the agents of our own destruction. The flaws in these women characters are believable, and we all suffer from such flaws to an extent, but without the resolution of those flaws, without their drive to be better tomorrow than they are today, what real progress is there?
Robert Cooper summed up the glories of fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy nicely when he wrote, “Science fiction is an existential metaphor. It allows us to tell stories about the human condition.” (Stargate SG-1: 200. Dir. Robert Cooper. Perf. Amanda Tapping, Michael Shanks, Claudia Black, Christopher Judge, Richard Dean Anderson, and Ben Browder. MGM, 2006. DVD.) And as Isaac Asimov once said: "Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all." (Stargate SG-1: 200. Dir. Robert Cooper. Perf. Amanda Tapping, Michael Shanks, Claudia Black, Christopher Judge, Richard Dean Anderson, and Ben Browder. MGM, 2006. DVD.) But how can we be saved if the characters we look to for our inspiration do not change and progress? With the power behind this genre, with all these women can represent, with all the good they might inspire it would seem a shame if that power to tell stories was lost in the overly flawed nature of characters just surviving instead of thriving. Horizontal progress within a TV season or novel count is not the same as vertical progress in personal development. Making it to the top of the self-actualization pyramid is as critical in the lives of these fictional people as it is in real life. These female characters represent what we want to be and what we desire to one day work to become. If they do not move upward then neither will we. If they have either/or choices regarding love and career, that is what we will think we have, too. Maybe that means the real issue is not in the female characters, but in the writers who create them. There is real power in what is written and that needs to be recognized and respected— first and foremost by the authors and writers themselves.
Furthermore, for the LDS woman reading or watching these stories can be demoralizing because what we see are the perpetuations of women who represent the world’s view of women. What message does that send our daughters if they believe they cannot be both a modern woman and a faithful Latter-day Saint? Will we really force our daughters to choose between these two ideals? If we do not step up and help our daughters hear new stories, ones where the woman can be both strong, intelligent, empowered, and follow the words of God, then we are simply leaving our daughters out in the cold. We must begin to empower ourselves, to shed the false stories given us by generations of culture that are not founded in doctrine. We must make our own stories. Women are not to be subservient to man but to be equal partners in the endeavors of building the kingdom. If we are not willing to rise up and teach that to our daughters, even through the sci-fi and fantasy stories we weave, then we abandon them to the whims of the world and the growing divide between culture and doctrine.
Overall, the suggestion I would make to science fiction and fantasy is to make women human. As George R. R. Martin said in an interview when asked how he wrote such different female characters, “I treated them as if they were different people.” (Martin, George R. R. Televised Interview. 14 Mar. 2012.) We need to pull ourselves out of the ruts of common female archetypes— both old and new— and find the ground where all are human beings, not just men. We are all flawed, we all have issues, but the time should be long past where men can be three-dimensional characters but women can only be two-dimensional characters. Let us do all we can to make women complete in the stories our daughters hear.
Full Citation for this Article: Steed, Alyssa K. (2015) "The Stories We Tell Our Daughters: Portrayal of Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Television," SquareTwo, Vol. 8 No. 3 (Fall 2015), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleSteedSciFiHeroines.html, accessed <give access date>.
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