NOTE: This post will be discussing female science fiction characters and their roles. Therefore they may be spoilers for those who haven’t seen these shows/films. It will also be discussing violence which may be triggering.
I was thinking today about Kara Thrace, better known as Starbuck, from the remake of Battlestar Galactia (of which I’ve only watched the first season), and the episode Flesh and Bone from season one in which she oversees/participates in the torture of a Cylon spy. And I was thinking that typically women tend to fill the same gender roles in science fiction as they’re expected to in current day society, and those that don’t tend to be on the receiving end of a lot of hate.
I don’t condone violence, but I know that I’m fully capable of it if I thought that it was required. I don’t think that torture is actually a way to get information from anyone, but I can understand the desperation that existed in that episode for another woman (the President) to order the Cylon to be tortured. I do not condone torture in any way, I want to make that REALLY clear.
So Kara Thrace, as stated by Wikipedia:
Kara Thrace bears some parallels to the original 1978 Starbuck character: both are portrayed as hot-headed and cocky fighter pilots, considered the best in the fleet, but with a tendency to challenge authorities and get into trouble. Both are avid gamblers and enjoy drinking, smoking cigars, and sex. Both have crashed and been marooned on a deserted planet, using a downed Cylon ship to make an escape. Both are best friends with Apollo. Kara had a relationship with Apollo’s late brother Zak (mirroring the original Starbuck’s on-and-off relationship with Apollo’s sister Athena), affecting her relationship to Apollo and Zak’s father, William Adama.
However, the two characters differ both in their gender – complicating Kara Thrace’s relationships with other characters, notably Apollo – as well as their outward appearance: whereas the original Starbuck, played by Dirk Benedict, was a slick, well-groomed ladies’ man, Kara appears more rugged and grimy. USA Today described her as “the broken warrior, a young, idealistic soldier who has been fighting for all the right reasons, but has lost something along the way.”
Salon.com’s Laura Miller states:
“Starbuck is blond, cocky, insubordinate, a cigar-chomping, card-playing showoff; another stock figure, really, with roots as far back as Shakespeare’s Hotspur — if not for a clever twist. In the original series, Starbuck was played by Dirk Benedict; in the new version, it’s Katee Sackhoff, a gender switch that knocks the character well out of type.”
And it’s that “type” that I want to explore a little tonight, mostly pointing at all the awesome female science fiction characters that I could think of, who’d be more than happy to hand your arse to you on a plate if required. These women do feminine, aggressive, loud, insubordinate, considerate, caring, violent, brave, heroic, adventurous, dominant, inquisitive, authoritative, independent, loyal, individualistic, playful, understanding, likeable, and fun. Because this is what women are really. We should get to play with all the adjectives and not just the typical ones (caring, empathic, soft, understanding, team-player, etc).
(I know this blog is going to demonstrate the type of science fiction I like, and that’s cool by me).
The women of Babylon 5
Na’Toth is the second aide to Ambassador G’Kar. When we’re first introduced to her, she pretends to be the backup for an assassin sent to kill G’Kar, before helping G’Kar out of a pain device so he could overcome the assassin (it’s been a while since I’ve watched this episode). When Deathwalker arrives on Babylon 5, Na’Toth is the first to notice and attacks Deathwalker as she’s sworn an oath to kill her after Deathwalker experimented on her extended family and killed most of them. Na’Toth is capable, strong, determined, honourable, clever and determined. I love her character and am sad that there wasn’t more of her.
Delenn is the Minbari Ambassador, she cast the vote which led to the Human Minbari war, and the one who found a way to stop it. She reacted as any Mimbari would when the Soul Hunter appeared on the station, as most Mimbari had been trained to react (by attempting to shoot him/it). She regularly makes difficult decisions throughout the show, acts with integrity, and works for what she believes is the greater good. Oh and Mira Furlan has a gorgeous voice.
A wise woman who still manages to find humor and whimsy in life, Delenn changes over time from a shy, respectful priestess to a decisive military and political leader. Her character is complex: she’s passionate, articulate and strong-willed, but retains insecurity and ambivalence about her place in prophecy. She is morally upright, always attempting to act for the better good – yet forced to keep deadly secrets and tell lies of omission. Delenn normally does not like violence, but prefers to be a consensus builder. Her decisions have repeatedly been the catalyst for violent change and war. Delenn is also quite willing to fight – as shown in the episode “Severed Dreams”, and during her encounter with the Drakh. (Wikipedia)
She’s tough and gets some fantastic lines during the show (quotes from here):
“I have served the Council for 16 cycles. I was the chosen of Dukhat to replace hiim. I held him when he died. His blood is on my hands, his spirit in my eyes, his word on my lips. You will step aside in his name and mine or, in Valen’s name, I will tear this ship apart until I find them!”
“Three years. For three years I warned you this day was coming. But you would not listen. Pride, you said, presumption. And now the Shadows are on the move. The Centauri and the younger worlds are at war, the Narns have fallen. Even the Humans are fighting one another. The pride was yours, the presumption was yours. For a thousand years we have been awaiting for fulfilment of prophecy, and when it finally happens, you scorn it, you reject it. Because you no longer believe it yourselves. ‘We stand between the candle and the star, between the darkness and the light.’ You say the words, but your hearts are empty, your ears closed to the truth. You stand for nothing but your own petty interests. ‘Problems of others are not our concern.’ I do not blame you for standing silent in your shame. You, who knew what was coming, but refused to take up the burden of this war. If the warrior caste will not fight, then the rest of us will. If the Council has lost its way, if it will not lead, if we have abandoned our covenant with Valen, the Council should be broken, as was prophecied. We must stand with the others now, before it’s too late. Between the worker caste and the religious caste we control two thirds of our forces. Do you, I say, listen to the voice of your conscience? Break the Council, and come with we. Our time of isolation is over. We move now, together, or not at all.”
“This is Ambassador Delenn of the Minbari. Babylon 5 is under our protection. Withdraw or be destroyed.”
“Negative. We have authority here. Do not force us to engage your ship.”
“Why not? Only one Human captain has ever survived battle with a Minbari fleet. He is behind me. You are in front of me. If you value your lives, be somewhere else!”
Loud, strong, opinionated, sarcastic, angry, and a very clever problem solver, she’s happy to shout down almost everyone including the Ambassadors and members of the Council. The show suggested that she might also be bisexual (which is awesome), and as a military officer (she starts at Lieutenant Commander and is promoted to General by the end of the series). She participates fully in the command structure of Babylon 5, including the Interstellar Council, this includes flying star furies and directing the defence grid of the station.
Ivanova gets most of the best lines in Babylon 5. I can’t quote them all here, but here are some of my favourite (from Wikiquote):
Mr. Garibaldi, you’re sitting at my station, using my equipment. Is there a reason for this, or to save time should I just snap your hand off at the wrist?
[ISN reporter Mary Ann Cramer tries to press Sinclair for information, but Ivanova steps in front of her.]
Susan Ivanova: Don’t. You’re too young to experience that much pain.
[Jinxo’s ship goes through the jump gate without triggering his “curse” — the destruction of yet another Babylon station.]
Garibaldi: No boom?
Sinclair: No boom.
Susan Ivanova: No boom today. Boom tomorrow. There’s always a boom tomorrow.
[Sinclair and Garibaldi look at each other in disbelief and walk out of C&C]
Ivanova: What? Look, somebody’s gotta have some damn perspective around here! Boom. Sooner or later…boom!
[As a survey shuttle limps back to Babylon 5, Ivanova has words with its crew.]
Susan Ivanova: On your trip back, I’d like you to take the time to learn the Babylon 5 mantra: “Ivanova…is always right. I will listen to Ivanova. I will not ignore Ivanova’s recommendations. Ivanova…is God. And, if this ever happens again, Ivanova will personally rip your lungs out!” Babylon Control out. [sighs to herself] Civilians. [looks up] Just kidding about that God part. No offence.
In part Lyta is a tragic figure, manipulated by both the Psi Corps and the Vorlons. On the other hand, she’s strong, angry and determined to fight back and to be her own self. She’s certainly a conflicted character, but a key character in defeating the shadows and Kosh’s Ambassadorial replacement. During Season 5 she shifted towards a more chaotic role, eventually (outside the Babylon 5 series) starting and dying in the Telepath war.
Lyta also began to more thoroughly explore the abilities the Vorlons had given her. Over the second half of Season 5, she was able to forcibly extract information from non-telepathic minds, control masses of individuals, destroy security cameras and force individuals to commit suicide. She also retained information implanted by the Vorlons regarding menaces such as the jumpgate into Thirdspace. She once described herself as the telepathic equivalent of a doomsday weapon, hinting at even greater capabilities.
She stands up to the Shadows and discovers how to stop their ships. She triggers modified (by the Shadows) telepaths to use them as weapons (as planned by the leaders of Babylon 5 in their war against Earth). She assists the leadership of Babylon 5 in assassinating the Vorlon Ambassador after they decide he is a threat to their station (and potentially their war against the Shadows), even though he could harm her badly. She uses her judgement and makes decisions that she thinks is best for her and those she is involved with at the time. She rebels against the Psi Corps and helps with the underground railway for rouge telepaths, eventually settling a world for them and starting a violent resistance movement against the Psi Corps.
Companions of Doctor Who
The female companions of Doctor Who ranged wildly from those who tended towards being rescued across to those who tended towards rescuing the Doctor. I have two favourites from the latter category (though many of the recent companions – especially Amy and Martha – I’d put in the second category), that I thought I’d touch on here.
Leela was a descendent of a crashed survey team (Sevateem), and although ignorant of technology (initially), a very intelligent, inquisitive, strong, resourceful, opinionated, brave, adventurous, and warrior woman.
Although Leela was a primitive, she was also highly intelligent, grasping advanced concepts easily and translating them into terms she could cope with. Despite the Doctor’s attempts at “civilizing” her, however, Leela was strong-willed enough to continue in her savage ways. She usually dressed in animal skins, and was armed with a knife or a set of poisonous Janis thorns which she did not hesitate to use on people who threatened her, much to the Doctor’s disapproval. Leela frequently demonstrated a highly accurate sense of danger. (Wikipedia)
Leela took on killer robots, survived the Sontaran invasion of Gallifrey, and often argued with the Doctor about what was right and wrong (and this was Tom Baker’s Doctor). Though described as “primitive” in the description above, Leela was uneducated (in ways that are meaningful in the West) and from a tribe/family of people who had to fight to survive on the planet that they lived. This doesn’t make someone primitive, just uneducated (in ways that are meaningful in the West) and different. She was able to survive on the planet she lived, was a respected warrior, acted in accordance with the morals and ethics of her tribe, and knew when she was safe and in danger.
Ace, also known as Dorothy Gale McShane, is probably my most favourite Dr Who companion. She’s also a companion of my most favourite Doctor – Sylvester McCoy (mostly because he was a sarcastic and clever). I liked her because even though she ended up offworld (ie Earth) through a time storm (dumping her a long way and time from home) she got herself a job and was surviving quite happily on a new planet. Clearly an adaptable and capable woman. Then throw in the fact that she’s an explosives expert, constantly making her own explosives and using them when required (even when the Doctor would rather she not) and she’s quite likeable. Ace sees her job as to protect the Doctor’s back and is very loyal to him, despite his increasing manipulation of her and others.
The women of Firefly
I know that there are issues with the female characters of Firefly, but quite a few of them are willing to kick arse, shout down the Captain (or others), do their own thing, be independent, wilful, funny, happy, sad, aggressive, strong, authoritative, understanding and confusing. There doesn’t seem to be a page dedicated to each of them on Wikipedia (yet), so I’ll briefly sum up their respective awesomeness.
Zoe is a former soldier, second in command to Mal Reynolds, the captain of Firefly. They were both the only survivors of a battle during the Unification War, which has made them close. Zoe will obey orders, but will also question them. She’s tough, loyal, aggressive, and deadly when required.
Inara, the Companion (consort), who rented space on Serenity, did her own thing, verbally sparred with Mal (and taught him how to use a sword), knew how to defend herself, used poisons when required and has probably trained in martial arts. Of the residents of Serenity, she has the most freedom to move, living in a shuttle of Serenity, having high social status due to her occupation and not appearing to be wanted by the central Government.
e. smith has blogged well about issues with River Tam’s character, being:
She’s the Damaged Girl, and the other characters become intensely invested in her and highly protective of her, with Simon and Mal in particular being River’s champions and defenders. River Tam almost seems like the class pet more than anything else, but of course she also carries a whiff of danger, which is another aspect of the disturbed brunette theme. It’s not enough that the Disturbed Brunette be fragile and dependent on others, she must also be unstable, and that instability must reveal tremendous danger.
Sady Doyle posted on The Awl (this blog post partly inspired this post) the following about River Tam:
It’s a generational experience; “gifted” children and “troubled” children both became trendy while I was growing up—sometimes with disastrous results!—and I was included in both trends. The chief result is that I recall much of my childhood as a series of doctors in strange rooms, asking me questions like: How? How did my brain work? Why was my brain the way it was? Could I demonstrate it, the brain? The other result is that I have an undying love for the Joss Whedon movie Serenity. And the whole unjustly cancelled “Firefly” series, really, but mostly: Serenity. Because of River Tam.
River, she was a gifted child. And she was therefore taken away to a special school for gifted children, where nobody was allowed to see her or visit her, for reasons that were totally normal and not at all suspicious because they were definitely not performing ominous surgical procedures on her brain. Except, oh snap! They were! And the procedures, they endowed her with an exciting new wardrobe of Crazy Pants! Her brother, Simon, rescues her from Xavier’s School for Brain-Damaged Youngsters, and they fly away in a spaceship. Because it’s the future, and there are spaceships there. Spaceships manned by a rag-tag crew of lovable misfit smugglers, even! Which is precisely the sort of spaceship upon which River Tam and her brother live.
For most of the “Firefly” series, River’s gifts are hinted at. She can read minds; she’s uncannily handy with guns. It’s not until Serenity that we learn that River’s powers also include kicking you in the back of the head whilst standing in front of you.
And both are true about River. She is both a trope of Joss Whendon and a very interesting character in her own right. She has been harmed deeply by experiments performed on her as well as by what she knows, and yet she fights, the system and those who would use her, while she heals.
Other science fiction women of note
Princess Leia wouldn’t’ve been included in this but for my husband’s comments about her – mostly because I am very much over the whole Star Wars franchise. But he was right, Princess Leia knows how to handle a blaster and takes control after being rescued by Hans Solo and Luke (A New Hope) because they didn’t have a plan. Despite being a woman in a 1970s Science Fiction movie, her character got to kick some arse, she stands up to Darth Vader and the Empire, disguises herself to rescue Hans Solo and generally is awesome. She doesn’t let herself be left out of the action because she is female, but participates fully, with the exception of flying X-wings to fight the Death Star.
Ellen Ripley kicked all sorts of alien arse. “Entertainment Weekly called the character “one of the first female movie characters who isn’t defined by the men around her, or by her relationship to them”.” (Wikipedia). It’s been approximately 20 years (give or take a couple) since I’ve seen Alien (really not my type of movie), and probably far less since I last watched Aliens (also something I’d normally not watch). Regardless of the fact that they’re not my type of movies, Ripley is my type of woman. She’s tough, uncompromising, caring, violent, intelligent, scary, independent, smart, right (oh how is she right), and willing to stand up to authority.
Leela (from Futurama)
Not only is Leela strong, courageous, adventurous, argumentative, aggressive, a martial artist and an athlete, but she’s also a human mutant, something she discovers in an episode, after wondering what her race was, which is an brief but interesting commentary on belonging, identity and race.
An early file Groening compiled on Leela lists some of her intended qualities: “strong-willed, opinionated, gentle (when not fighting), gives orders, unlucky in love, loves weapons, loves animals.” Katey Sagal describes her as a “tough, strong career girl who just can’t get it together in the rest of her life…she’s vulnerable and hard at the same time.” (Wikipedia)
Each of the women listed above (and I’ve only looked at a small segment of science fiction – I haven’t touched on books for example or other brilliant series) can seriously kick arse. Sady Dolye has a good point with:
River shares something with many Strong Woman Action Heroines: They have a disconcertingly high incidence of being locked up and used by institutions, and of being tarred with the stigma of mental illness. Ripley has the Company. Sarah Connor is put in a mental institution because she talks too much about Terminators. Buffy Summers has high school, and the Watchers’ Council; reboot Starbuck is either psychic or a robot or maybe Jesus or just endowed with a rich vein of naturally-occurring Wacky. It’s not as if this doesn’t happen to male heroes, but it’s remarkable how often these women are subjected to it. Maybe, in the end, it all comes back to Charlotte Perkins Gilman: To be a woman, and strong, is to be pathologized. Your voice is rendered unlistenable by virtue of its truth. But all of these other women spend a lot of time yelling about how you have to believe them, about how they’re! Not! Crazy! And River… well, River’s ill.
But if we’re going to talk about Strong Woman Action Heroines, River is a good place to start, because she expresses some basic truths. First: Strong Women are anomalous, not meant to be, dangerous and strange and suspect. Second: They are produced by a system that does not wish them well. Third: Strangeness is either a liability or a weapon. You’re only weird until you decide to own all that weirdness and use it, when you stop being someone else’s project and decide to wage your own war.
But in the end, all the women I’ve described above didn’t lose any of their femininity (well with me anyway) because they acted outside traditional gender roles by being aggressive, loud, opinionated, strong, dominant, insubordinate, considerate, caring, violent, brave, heroic, adventurous, inquisitive, authoritative, independent, loyal, individualistic, playful, understanding, likeable, and fun. And for the shows that they appeared in, typically none of the other characters reacted like that female character had just sprouted another head or changed in any way, though there may have been some surprise depending on what they knew about the other character. They were those characteristics and more, and yet were still female, still vital, still important, and still at the centre of the story. And although some fans seem to have big issues with strong, kick-arse, female characters, they’re a vital part of science fiction for me. I love the role models above, the knowledge that those characters bring in that you can be strong and still accepted, and that strong women are not widely hated and they don’t have to be “damaged” to be who they are (though sadly this often is part of their character make up).
I do find it interesting that most of the shows I’ve discussed above were written by men, or the character development was started by a man and some of the episodes/stories were written by others (men and women) such as Doctor Who and Babylon 5.
So do you have any favourite female science fiction characters? What do you like about them? Do they conform to social norms in any way or do they break free?