Science-Fiction TV Finds a New Muse: Feminism

As fantasy shows like Doctor Who and The Legend of Korra tackle issues like abortion and consent, a question emerges: Is this the golden age of feminist science-fiction television?

11.29.14 11:45 AM ET

Science fiction and fantasy are often at their best when they use unfamiliar worlds to sneakily tackle the familiar issues of the day. In the past this has included industrialization (The Lord of the Rings) or technology’s dark side (Neuromancer, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 2001: A Space Odyssey, everything since then). And while science fiction and fantasy literature has not been one to avoid social injustice, two of TV’s most fantastical shows have recently been credited for finding a new muse: feminism.

The representation of women on screen has been a huge talking point in the last year: Evangeline Lily’s belief that characters like The Hobbit’s Tauriel help promote a strength that is uniquely woman, the release of the new Ms. Marvel comics, the launch of the Bechdel test in Sweden, the furor around portrayals of rape in Game of Thrones, Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Video Games video series, or the revivals of Sailor Moon and The Powerpuff Girls.

Still, sci-fi and fantasy that is actually motivated by the issues surrounding women is a rarity. That’s why stories that allegorize and analyze abortion or sexual assault are so interesting: they are not just about improving the representation of women, they seek to improve the discussion around them. By extrapolating these topics away from the individual and placing them as higher-stakes problems, what can seem like obtuse or gender-specific topics can be universal concerns if only because viewers are asked to engage with them in a way detached from their complex real-world implications.

Doctor Who’s most recent season has been, perhaps, the most woman-friendly in an often reviled run that has spent more time on sassy and bossy than complex and intelligent. It is a season that addressed the Bechdel test head-on in on-air gags: in one scene, sidekick Clara Oswald tells a female character who she’s sealed in a room with that they shouldn’t spend all their time talking about men.

This season also saw a female director take on the finale where the main villain the Master returned as a woman (an early step, perhaps, towards a 50-year-old franchise getting a female lead in the future) and far more development of Clara in every episode. It also had the show’s most consciously female-centric episode in “Kill The Moon,” in which the Doctor leaves Clara, a schoolgirl named Courtney, and a hardened astronaut called Lundvik to debate terminating the creature that lives inside the moon’s core. It is an episode that is so on-the-nose in its tackling of pro-choice debates that you can practically see the freckles.

Meanwhile, The Legend of Korra went beyond just being a Bechdel-busting lady bonanza into looking at the issues behind the lead’s violent adventures. The titular character’s inability to function in her role as a superpowered messianic figure was inhibited by trauma caused by a series of scarring defeats by the show’s three main villains, all of them male. In a series of flashbacks, Korra recalls each moment at which the show’s villains hurt her the most. When these disparate scenes are placed together in one montage it becomes clear that Korra has not just been defeated by villains, but physically assaulted by three very invasive and unpleasant men. The villains either physically grabbed her, extracted something from her forcibly, or implanted toxins into her body in ways that, although magical and supernatural, are undeniably men assaulting a young woman and doing what they want to her with no consent.

The poisons she was forced to ingest are a symbolic blockade from returning to her original grandeur, and they can only be expelled by coming to terms with what others have done to her. Although Korra looks at PTSD and assault with supernatural grandiosity, fans were quick to pick up on it in some forums. “These are really dark and fucked up violations to a person, all on a physical level much deeper and darker than simple brutality,” said one user on The AV Club’s recap of the episode. Other commenters were less sold: “Not every instance of a woman having heinous shit done to them by the villain is ‘OMG, rape metaphor!’,” said another, “and how eager you guys are over making the connection is a little creepy.”

While sci-fi TV that bases its lore on feminist ideas and gender studies is still developing, it has long been the case for fantastical literature. In 1818, one of the most important early science fiction novels was written by a woman: Frankenstein, and it was focused on ideas a female writer had a particular knack for—birth and childrearing. Mary Shelley, daughter of acclaimed feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, takes pregnancy and womanhood and places them into the context of the solitary male genius creating medical marvels. It’s even told through epistolary letters that are scribed over a nine month period.

In the 20th century, Indian writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain continued in a grand tradition of feminist utopian literature with Sultana’s Dream, as did The Yellow Wallpaper’s Charlotte Perkins Gilman with the Herland trilogy. Although other women continued to write powerful and intelligent looks at worlds that challenged 20th century gender norms and sexual politics, it was the ‘60s and ‘70s that really saw an explosion of the genre of feminist science fiction: Naomi Mitchison’s 1962 novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman for example, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s seminal feminist sci-fi classic The Left Hand of Darkness about an “ambisexual” race that only conform to the gender binary once a month at times of peak fertility.

While the list of feminist science-fiction novelists goes on and on (Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Samuel Delany, Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler are a few worth checking out) feminist science fiction written for television or film is a smaller clique entirely.

In talking to experts in the field, only a few women immediately came to the fore. Noah Berlatsky, author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism, recommended the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Angel One,” in which the team seek freighter survivors on the planet of Angel I, ruled by women who subjugate and objectify men. It’s an exploration of gender stereotypes, but also fails to deconstruct them when male crew member Riker uses sex to persuade the matriarch Beata not to kill the freighters.

In fact, some feminist critics have pointed to a long history of objectification in Star Trek. The show, Bell Hooks argued in Black Looks: Race and Representation, “represents wom[e]n as the object of a phallocentric gaze.” Perhaps this was best shown in costuming blunders, like the decision to make Deanna Troi the only crew member to wear a miniskirt, and when fans responded negatively the skirt was only lengthened when the neckline plunged.

Star Trek has, for all its faults, frequently explored issues of social injustice and inequality and should be commended for how insistent it can be. And although Uhura may have been in a short skirt, Professor of Communication Studies at Lynchburg College Michael Robinson still considered a black woman in a high-profile main ensemble as groundbreaking. “Compared to Kirk or Spock or McCoy, Uhura did not do as much. Storylines rarely involved her directly. And she had to wear those skimpy Trek mini-skirts,” admitted Robinson in an e-mail. “Yet, in the late 1960s, having an African-American female on the bridge of the USS Enterprise was a bold statement about equality.  She was part of the team and her presence was never questioned.”

Other shows have allowed gender and inequality to inspire some episodes: The Twilight Zone, for example. Other shows have allowed the issues of their female leads to nourish central themes: The original run of The Bionic Woman or Joss Whedon’s short-lived Dollhouse. Perhaps the best example at the moment, and a sign of a growing trend, is the much neglected Orphan Black which has used its clone-centric narrative to explore issues of reproductive rights among other things.

Although TV is behind literature, maybe this can be blamed on its youth: after all, if Star Trek had been around since the 18th century it might have had more time to develop, too. Time has also shown sci-fi can really accommodate for women in ways other genres did not: Leigh Brackett, was the writer of the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. Zoe Saldana has also recently praised sci-fi movies for the depth and breadth of women in its ensembles.

But, as stated before, this year’s season of Doctor Who, a show that has been around for 50 years, responded to the fierce critique received. Although it is still a show light on women in the writing room and behind the camera, “Kill the Moon” showed that Doctor Who can be propelled along by three ladies. Profess is indeed progress.

To see episodes like these tackle, subtly or conspicuously, the issues of women today is a sign that the 2010s may be to televised science fiction what the 1960s were to literature. This year sci-fi literature magazine Lightspeed raised over $53,000 on Kickstarter to publish an all-female-written magazine. Perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to see an entirely feminist, or indeed entirely female, sci-fi epic soon.