What It Feels Like For a Girl HE SAID:
Why doesn't genre TV do women very well?
Well, regular TV doesn't do women any favors either, but stipulate that failing; what is it about science fiction that makes their women so very, very painful to watch?
Grant at the outset that there are interesting women on SFTV: Xena, Delenn from Babylon 5, and, to a lesser extent, Scully from The X-Files. I wanted to include examples from the various Treks but I can't. They all stink. And the minor series, past and present, are almost uniformly gynedestructive. Who remembers the names of any of the babes from Battlestar Galactica, or V, or Space: Above and Beyond?
That's right: you can't, because they're babes. They're on the show because they have to have a babe to lure in the teenage boys who (in TV wisdom) are the entire audience for science fiction. As Robert Picardo says, whenever the show's sinking, put a new babe on (as witness Seven of Nine, and in Next Gen's last season, Ensign Ro).
There's a hero, a villain, some sidekicks for each, and a babe. There's your TV formula right there. And although some dramatic series have gotten past that paradigm, either into the realm of large ensemble casts a la M.A.S.H. or Hill Street Blues, or the revolving door of anthology shows, very few genre shows have made the leap. Why not?
I think it's because science fiction producers and writers are lazy. Look at Trek versus, for instance, ER. When the writers on ER assert that a character has a traumatic pneumothorax, they can't just MAKE UP A GADGET, or worse, a whole FIELD OF KNOWLEDGE, to solve the problem. Trek does this all the time.
Well, women are harder to write well than men. At least, they are if you're a man, which most TV writers are. If you write women characters the same way you write men (that is, as plot robots) you'll look even lazier than you do when you write men. Because we accept men as plot droids more easily than women, for some cultural reason I don't want to unpack right now, because it gets into emotions and stuff.
On the other hand, if you emphasize the "feminine", that is, emotion, relationships, families and caring-sharing values, then these characters have NO PLACE in an adventure series. What lunatic let Deanna Troi into a position where she ever, under any remotely possible circumstance, might have to command a starship in combat?
Sure, if Trek were more of a soap opera and less of a western, they'd be more appropriate. But on a series with both Troi and Worf, one of them is going to have absolutely nothing to do in any given show.
Since SFTV is going to be action/adventure until further notice, let's consider what kind of woman BELONGS in an action/adventure series. She has to be smart (Scully), tough (Xena), inspiring (Delenn), or ornamental (most other women). In other words, she has to contribute to the team's ability to solve the problem of the week. TV won't tolerate women as sidekicks; they're either co-heroes, or they become babes.
Scully and Xena could easily be men; they are smart, confident and solve problems, just like Mulder or Hercules. But Delenn builds consensus without fighting, which is something Sheridan can't do. Sheridan's good at defeating enemies; Delenn is good at making friends. The Alliance, and the world of TV, needs both.
I can't disagree with anything Steve said, though I am glad he put the word "feminine" in those quotation marks because I think part of the problem is the perception on the part of certain science fiction writers that gender roles are rigid even in an era of artificial wombs and androgynous aliens. On a show like E.R., the women are more dimensional because the men are more dimensional - nobody sits around worrying about not being macho enough, or being too macho. I don't think it occurs to the producers that it would be a mistake for a male character to weep because only sissies cry, or that a woman couldn't make a brutal life-or-death decision because that's a man's job. It's only in science fiction - the last bastion of conservative sexuality and gender roles on television - where producers fret over how to make the differences obvious.
I do disagree that Trek has never had a worthwhile female character. It's just never been able to sustain one. Kira and Janeway (and to a lesser extent, Dax and Torres) started out very strong in traditionally male career positions - science and command, unlike Troi and Crusher who were in more nurturing professions. Kira could talk tough and act tough when necessary, yet she wasn't an imitation man. One of my favorite Trek scenes ever was Janeway's negotiation with a Romulan using a domestic issue - the fact that they both missed their families - as a bargaining chip. I don't think it would even have occurred to Kirk or Picard to try that. It might have occurred to Sisko, who's a father as well as a Starfleet captain, but he keeps his professional and personal roles pretty distinct. There was a time when Janeway and Kira didn't have to. They were strong and commanding, and they were also emotional and passionate and sexy...OK, I realize that they were not that last by network babe standards, but that's the network's problem, not the women's.
Then the differences between men and women on Trek got reduced to catsuits. Kira got put in one; Janeway merely inherited a character who wears one and who promptly became the only female on board with any sexuality at all. I started tuning out both shows when these changes occurred, as did many of the women I know who watched them...but we don't count, right? We're not part of the male demographic! OK, the hell with us, but I still don't understand the reasoning behind the concept that relationships and strong women characters turn a show into a soap opera. E.R. and Chicago Hope and L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues and too many other shows to name were very relationship-oriented and character-driven, with very strong women, and they still got much higher ratings among male audiences than any of the current science fiction series. Do network executives really believe that men and women are from such different planets that nobody can tell good stories which will appeal to all of us - particularly in science fiction, where it's apparently easier for them to believe in warp speed than in men who take orders from women?
Realistic television drama supposedly reflects the real world (with a lot more killings and sex). As women's roles in the public and private spheres have expanded, the shows have reflected that. We started getting women who are doctors and lawyers, and women who try to balance families and jobs, and women who give up their personal time to become corporate successes and women who like sex enough to complicate their lives with it. There are also more women writing and producing such shows, though not nearly enough for real balance.
Science fiction, however, exists in a bubble: all those boys who write it (and it is overwhelmingly boys) get to create their own little worlds. So if they have a problem with women in power, or women with independent sexuality, or women who don't fit neatly into whatever stereotype they'd prefer, they can simply declare that such women don't exist in their futures. Instead we get what they want to see, or what they think their target audience wants to see. So yes, we can have Captain Janeway, but she's never going to have a life outside the captain's chair. And sure, we can have Kira, but she's going to have big breasts and worship the Emissary, who also happens to be her immediate superior. And fine, we can have Delenn, but she's going to end up an attache to the most powerful man around. And OK, we can have Scully, but let's not forget that The X-Files are Mulder's pet project and she was originally an interloper in his little corner. As for people like Shane Vansen of Space Above and Beyond or Sheba from Battlestar Galactica, two strong women in positions of authority...we can have them too, as long as they're babes.
I'd lose hope entirely if it weren't for Xena and Buffy, true feminist heroines who have somehow managed not only to make it onto television, but to thrive in syndication. Neither one of them is perfect: Xena has made some monumental mistakes in her life, while Buffy is in many ways a standard ditzy teenager. Yet they both have wit, gumption, strength, and real independence - neither one of them has ever let a man control her destiny, even in love. They're empowered in a way few women on television ever are, not just because they're tough but because they fall apart on occasion and still get it back together. I love them.
This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.