Women in Science Fiction Week: The Problem with Female Representation in Science Fiction on Television

Falling Skies‘ Margaret

The wonderful thing about science fiction is that the writers have the opportunity to create a world, which while based on ours, can be markedly different. This means that there should be a place for strong female characters who are not restricted by sexism or forced into a situation in which they must perform femininity on a daily basis to be accepted as ‘woman.’ Despite the freedom of this genre; however, nothing is born outside of discourse, which means of course that we end up with the same sexist tropes repeatedly. 

Even in shows which readily lend themselves to recurring scenes of violence, because women have historically been framed as delicate and passive, men end up in the leadership roles. This also means that when the action does finally happen, women are placed into nurturing roles like doctors and nurses to aid the wounded men. While some may see this exchange as complementary, it in fact sets up a serious gender divide that is reductive. 
We actually see this most strongly and most blatantly in dystopias. In Falling Skies, humanity is locked into a battle for survival against an alien threat. Humanity is nearly extinct, the group is excited at the prospect of a capital that has managed to scrape together 2,000 survivors. The 2nd Massachusetts itself is reduced to a mere 150 people, meaning it has lost nearly half of its already low numbers since the series began. Clearly, this is a series about desperation – every man must be ready to fight, desperately, to survive.
And I said “man” purposefully there. Because, while there are plenty of women in the crowd scenes and even in most of the fight scenes we will find one token, nameless female fighter in a large number of men, the vast majority of the fighters are male. In fact, there’s only ever one named female fighter at a time (Karen, who gets replaced by Maggie after she is captured. She also inherited Karen’s love interest – which did rather make the two women seem interchangeable).
Remember how desperate humanity is here. For most of the show, Jimmy, a 13 year old boy was drafted to fight. As they get more desperate, Matt, a 6 year old boy, starts carrying a gun around and taking part in military action. Where are the women? It’s clearly not a matter of military background with both children and school teachers on the battlefield, why do we only see one or two women standing side by side with their men to hold the line against the alien threat?
By contrast, the most prominent female characters we do see except for the interchangeable-Hal-Love-Interest are, of course, caregivers. Dr. Ann Glass and Lourdes, the medical team for the 2nd Massachusetts. It’s the 21st century, humanity is nearly destroyed, every day is a struggle to survive – I think we can move past men holding guns while women roll bandages.
We can see a similar pervasive female passivity in Alphas, reinforced and ingrained by the special abilities the characters have. Two of the characters, Cameron and Bill, have abilities that make them dangerous in a fight. Their physical capabilities make them the team muscle – contrast that with the two women. Well, they have super senses and limited mind control respectively. The women are inherently placed in support roles and set up as support from the very beginning. And I know that someone will say “well, they don’t have combat powers!” true – but why was it written that way? Why couldn’t Nina have the super-strength? Why did the writers choose the women and the disabled character to have the less active, support powers? And that’s not to say their powers aren’t powerful or useful – far from it – but then, so is rolling bandages.
Sanctuary‘s Helen Magnus
Even in shows like Sanctuary where we have female leadership, not all women are created equal. Helen Magnus is the only female of the original scientists to survive. The two most prominent recurring female characters outside of the protagonist are Kate Freelander and Abbey Corrigan. Kate essentially is the replacement for Ashley, Magnus’ daughter who died at the end of season one. She is a woman of colour who seems to exist only for Magnus to reform her evil ways. She disappears for large swaths of time and is barely missed by the team. In this way, they make her quite disposable. There were other options to send to work in hollow earth, but it was Kate that was chosen. Biggie would have made a much more natural choice but because he was a fan favourite, there was no way he would have been sent.
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