Do We Like Our Women Violent?
Women kick butt in genre television with more power and consistency than any other venue. Not only do we find trained martial artists like Dark Angel's Max and Relic Hunter's Sydney, super-heroines like Xena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, professional assassins like La Femme Nikita; we also find women commanding in battle, from Voyager's Captain Janeway to Andromeda's Beka Valentine to Farscape's Aeryn Sun. On TV action shows, women who can maul and maim aren't the exception. They're becoming the rule.
Is this a good or bad thing?
A few trends disturb me. The primary one is the question of whether idealizing fighters promotes violence, but that's not a gender issue -- it applies equally to male action heroes -- so I'll set it aside for the moment. There's also the fact that women warriors are portrayed inevitably as young, pert, clad in spandex, and ostentatiously sexual. Women who deviate from this list of desirable qualities tend to be shown as less competent overall. Above and beyond that, there's the bizarre construction of something called "femininity," which has traditionally been an insult in action entertainment -- how many times have we heard a macho man suggest that a less-macho man must really be a girl? Apparently "femininity" now encompasses the ability to kick butt, but only within certain limits; we still see our action babes placed in near-rape situations much too often for comfort.
There's no question that Xena is a feminist heroine. She's a woman who strides into patriarchal regimes from Greece to Rome to Britain, whomps all the men in their armies, and turns the systems on their heads. Yet, she's no simple role-reversal, a woman who acts like a man. She enjoys showing off her feminine physical attributes, she's attracted to bad boys like Ares, and motherhood has had a more dramatic affect on her life than almost anything else she's experienced. Her soulmate is a woman, as are most of the people who have made a major impact on her -- Lao Mah, Callisto, Hope, Eve, her mother, to name a few. Does it make any difference that her armor was designed to show off her breasts, or, conversely, that she can fight as brutally and viciously as the male tyrants she combats? I don't think so.
In general, the portrayals of women warriors fighting within sexist systems offer hope and empowerment. Dark Angel's Max is surrounded by villains who appear at this point to be exclusively male; her nemesis Lydecker, his military and scientific buddies, the corrupt cops, her obnoxious boss, the bratty boys in the neighborhood make her life miserable, while she unwinds with roommate Kendra and wisecracking buddy Original Cindy. Even Logan, the good guy in her life, plays at being part of the system, which means he gets to enjoy wealth and privilege. Similarly, the women of Andromeda live in a galaxy dominated by rape-crazed Magog and reproduction-hungry Nietzscheans, meaning they've lived with the threat of sexual oppression all their lives. Artificial intelligence Andromeda can afford to be sanguine about her tightly clad curves because she's got tremendous physical prowess. But Beka Valentine's only got her wits and the muscles she hones in single combat. As actress Lisa Ryder says of Beka, she's obviously got some male authority issues, and it's obvious why.
Buffy's a teenager forced into a protective role, Nikita's a kidnapping victim being used to fight terrorism, Scully's been abducted and lost her ability to reproduce, Aeryn's still coming to terms with having been a member of a brutal fighting force. And they're all living in cultures that are pretty traditionally patriarchal. Women with real power seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Like earlier TV heroines Charlie's Angels and The Bionic Woman, it's easy to appreciate them for their achievements within systems that make things tough for women. But what about female heroines without those restrictions? How do Colonel Kira, Commander Ivanova, and Captain Janeway measure up?
I adore Kira professionally, though we rarely saw her giving orders to more than a few people at a time. Because she was not given a Starfleet commission until the Dominion War, and then it was apparently honorary, we never got to see what kind of captain she would make, which is a real pity. On a personal level, I had issues with all sorts of problems relating to her "femininity," from the dreadfully-written rushed pregnancy arc in which she carried another couple's child for them, to the passivity she often exhibited in her desire to please her powerful lovers Bareil and Shakaar. With Ivanova as well, I generally admired the way she behaved as a military officer, but her personal life was a mess, and Babylon 5 often seemed to be comparing her sensibilities unfavorably with those of the more traditionally supportive Delenn.
Then there's Captain Janeway, who sometimes seems to have been created specifically to demonstrate why women shouldn't be captains on Star Trek. It's hard enough to watch reruns of Kirk's psycho girlfriend Janice Lester trying to take over his position by force since her gender makes it impossible for her to achieve it otherwise. For the past three years, I've felt like we were watching Janeway in a similar position, except that she actually is in command and has hundreds of lives depending on her. On Voyager, Seven of Nine has taken the role of the young, pert, spandex-clad heroine, plus she's also the most intelligent person on the ship. Prepubescent Naomi Wildman, who used to want to be the captain, now pretends to be Seven when she's afraid.
Janeway's a less impressive physical specimen than Kira, Ivanova, and certainly Xena; she's been defeated repeatedly in single combat, which probably makes her easier to relate to for many women, since most of us don't have martial arts training, and god knows we don't look like Sarah Michelle Gellar or Tia Carrere. She also avoids violence to an unprecedented degree, which ought to be a good thing, except it usually ends up getting her ship into a situation from which someone else must save them. Then, when she does choose to show strength, it often makes her look unstable.
Do we want female heroines who are just as dangerous and deadly as their male counterparts? Or might there be another model entirely that would meet viewer demands for action, yet move us away from the violence on genre TV? I know that I prefer to see women using their brains for thinking and their bodies for pleasure, rather than their minds for plotting and their muscles for kicking ass. I bet there are men in the desired demographic audience who agree with me.
There are; they watch soap operas. Soaps are about romance and betrayal; science fiction and fantasy (and let's face it; most TV producers don't know enough science to understand the difference) as we now understand it derives from the pulps of the '30s, aimed at teenage boys and therefore containing a lot of action, violence, bloodcurdling thrills and pretty girls. It's the same formula TV uses to appeal to teenage boys today.
Do we want heroines who are just as dangerous and deadly as their male counterparts? Damn straight we do! Ineffectual males are just as annoying as ineffectual females, whether they're ineffectual at telling their friends the truth before it's too late, as on Dawson's Creek and other soaps, or ineffectual at saving their friends from bleeding to death in a shell crater, as in war movies. The desirability of another model of feminine heroism altogether is, in my view, irrelevant to the present discussion, which is of TV/movie SF as it exists now and is likely to exist in the future.
I have defended the general concept of adventure fiction before, at cons and in print: while I don't claim it's the only worthwhile form of fiction (a claim its enemies are not shy of making in defense of their particular hobbyhorses), I think it speaks to a certain sort of audience better than any other. That sort of audience is excitable, bored, interested in exotica, and hungry for decisive action to solve important problems (something many of us keenly feel the lack of in the real world).
In a word, male. Sorry, but those traits appear to be found more often in male readers/viewers than female, even in today's enlightened culture. So it's not surprising that so many women warriors appear to be "acting like men"; to paraphrase de Beauvoir, there are two kinds of people in adventure stories: human beings and women. And when women try to act like human beings (that is, when they step out of the narrow role of Nell on the Railroad Tracks) they are accused of trying to be men.
After all, there are far more interesting things to do as a human being (fight wars, stop wars, start wars, raise children, be children, etc.) than as a typical TV female love object. I don't believe it diminishes a woman's femininity to step outside the Lucy Ricardo box; I believe it enhances the definition of femininity, which in the long run can't help but benefit us all, of both sexes. A culture that artificially restricts men and women to various roles wastes some of their potential, just as cultures that define certain other sorts of people as less than human do.
Ahem. Sorry for wandering; Doc Savage would hardly approve. What I believe Michelle says above when she asks if we want deadly women is whether we want action heroes to be all action and nothing more, without the leavening of traditionally feminine traits like clever dialogue with multiple meanings, complex social relationships, ties to the larger world and to the future, etc. Of course not. Depth and action are not mutually exclusive, as Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine have shown. Which women warriors in the recent oeuvre meet that test of being not just competent warriors but interesting people?
Janeway: Hell, no. No on both counts. Back when the Borg swallowed her up, I was telling my buddies that now was the time for the Federation to strike, while the Borg were assimilating Janeway's unerring tactical idiocy. And as for a personal life, well, there's such a thing as multiple personality disorder with paranoid delusions of grandeur alternating with suicidal depression, but it's hardly a life.
Janice Lester: She, too, was insane, and wouldn't have been fit to command a starship if she'd been more male than John Wayne. The throwaway line in that script about Starfleet forbidding women to command was asinine, of course, and utterly at odds with the rest of Starfleet ethics as demonstrated in the rest of the series. But it was the last episode, and they were tired, and some chauvinist on the production staff screwed up. Let it go.
Ivanova: This character appears often in sf: the soldier who lives for battle and puts up with all the other crap just to get from one firefight to the next. As a Russian, Ivanova tolerated no backtalk, but also had a deep drive to set things right by force. Not "if necessary"; she thought that if people were going to abuse each other, they needed to be smacked around, hard, until they straightened up.
Scully: She's a warrior in the sense that Renaissance courtiers were warriors, fighting hidden enemies in a vast bureaucracy. Scully is an example of another adventure fiction cliche, the Woman Expert, who knows something vital to the plot but which might make a male hero look, y'know, all bookish if he said it. The James Bond movies are particularly full of these women. But Scully has more guts than anyone, because she faces the consequences of her actions and does them anyway. Mulder's brazen rush into the unknown isn't really courage, it's mental illness; he genuinely doesn't care about anything but his quest.
Ripley: Kills hard for her little girl's life, and those of her friends. What could be more female? (I refer here to Aliens, of course, not the dopey sequels). Ripley has classically feminine concerns for the colonists cast into outer darkness by moneygrubber Burke, and she figures out Burke's slimy scheme faster than any of the Marines because she looks for motivations, not just opportunities. If only they'd let HER command Voyager -- hey, is that another column topic I see leering around the corner of that black, dripping machinery, jaws savagely agape? Go find out, Hicks.
Xena: Her warrior prowess is less impressive than it would be without the cartoon leaps and kicks; it's semi-comedy, sure, but if you don't believe it, it doesn't impress you. But her warrior attitude is excellent, sometimes macho, sometimes not, and unlike Janeway, for valid reasons: Xena throws insults in the teeth of Death when her friends' lives are at stake, or when the odds are small, but when the odds are very long and there's no compelling reason to fight, she's not going to taunt Caesar just to score points off him. Yes, she enjoys intimidating bad guys, but why get killed over it? And her motherhood, her de facto marriage to Gabrielle, her maternal feelings toward several proteges, all add a dimension most cartoonish heroes lack altogether. Xena's series, though historically absurd and physically impossible, is true on the emotional level, something many sf series don't seem to be able to manage. Yes, UPN and USA Network, I'm looking at you.
This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.