Feminism and SFF

Now that the first ep of Game of Thrones has aired, the topic du jour on it has changed from the NYT’s clueless review to hand-wringing over at Entertainment Weekly about whether the story is anti-feminist.

Let me make one thing clear right away: Yes, SFF is riddled with sexism. It has, historically, been a boys’ club, with few female protagonists, and more often than not, female characters that exist only to be wives, mothers or mindless sex objects. One of its worst flaws is in presuming that merely handing a weapon to a babe in a bikini constitutes empowerment. Ugh.

But such a state of things is hardly unique to SFF, and in recent years, SFF is actually way ahead of the pack when it comes to complex female characters.

Let’s do a little survey, shall we? Female leads or co-leads in the top 50 TV series currently airing (according to EWs’ midseason ratings from a couple months back):

(Reality shows not included):

  1. Grey’s Anatomy (Meredith)
  2. Mike & Molly (Molly)
  3. Cougar Town (Jules)
  4. Bones (Dr. Brennan)
  5. Private Practice (Addison)
  6. L&O: SVU (Benson)
  7. Brothers & Sisters (Nora and Kitty)

Out of 33 scripted series on that list, only seven female leads? Yikes. This is not to say that there are no strong female characters on the rest of those series. In fact, just about every show has at least one. But they’re not leads. Also, two of those series are soaps, and the leads for two others are broad stereotypes. Of the above list, I’d say only Bones has a truly interesting, complex and respectable female lead character.

Now, let’s look at a list of some of the most notable SFF/paranormal series of the last several years:

  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Eureka
  • Warehouse 13
  • Doctor Who
  • Stargate franchise
  • Sanctuary
  • Fringe
  • Lost
  • True Blood
  • Smallville
  • Caprica
  • Haven
  • Being Human
  • Medium
  • Primeval
  • Heroes
  • Supernatural
  • Vampire Diaries
  • V
  • Merlin
  • Camelot
  • Dollhouse
  • Terminator: SCC
  • Carnivale
  • Flash Forward
  • Robin Hood
  • Ghost Whisperer
  • Torchwood

A lot of these shows are ensemble series in which it’s hard to pick out a single lead, but for the sake of argument for those series, I’m going to go with any female character who gets enough narrative focus to be considered a protagonist (even if she shares that with a lot of other folks.)

Thus, out of the shows above:

  1. BSG (Starbuck and Roslin)
  2. Warehouse 13 (Myka and Claudia)
  3. Sanctuary (Helen)
  4. Fringe (Olivia)
  5. Lost (Kate)
  6. True Blood (Sookie)
  7. Caprica (Clarice, Zoe)
  8. Haven (Audrey)
  9. Being Human (Annie/Sally)
  10. Medium (Allison)
  11. Heroes (Clare)
  12. Vampire Diaries (Elena)
  13. V (Erica)
  14. Camelot (Morgan)
  15. Dollhouse (Echo)
  16. Terminator: SCC (Sarah)
  17. Carnivale (Sophie)
  18. Flash Forward (Olivia)
  19. Ghost Whisperer (Melinda)
  20. Torchwood (Gwen)

Or, 20 out of 28 series.

(FWIW, I think it could be argued that Amy Pond (Doctor Who) is now a co-lead character, and in Primeval series 4, Abby’s moving into co-lead status.)

Now, granted, this isn’t a fully apples-to-apples comparison, since I’m only using the top-rated series. There are plenty of other non-genre shows with female leads. The Closer, for instance, or Damages. But as a percentage of scripted series, I think SFF still has a much higher proportion. Not only that, but the chances of a primary female character being there solely as eye candy or in some other stereotypical role is much, much lower. In fact, of the above list, only four have been really objectified (Sookie, Zoe, Morgan and Echo) and only one (Elena) has a story that revolves primarily around her love life. (It could be argued that that’s the case for Kate and Sookie, too, but though their love lives are primary stories, that’s not the sum total of their plot.)  Every other woman there has a purpose that goes beyond whatever her relationship is to some guy or other.

Now, as for Game of Thrones itself…

Yes, it does seem on the surface to be a sausage fest. There are a lot more male characters than female, and the female ones have generally been relegated to their roles in relationship to the men. There’s also, at the moment, considerably more female flesh on display. (Contrast that with Camelot, which has, blessedly, given us quite a lot of Philip Winchester in addition to showing off Tamsin Egerton and Eva Green. And then there’s True Blood. Guh.)

However, the female characters in the story itself apparently turn out to be some of the strongest and most badass (or so I’m told; haven’t plowed through it yet, myself.)  It may well be that they’re more like Joss Whedon’s female characters–strong in terms of combat or political power, but objectified so much that they’re ultimately powerless anyway–but for now, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt. Arya, at least, looks like she has potential.

If it does turn out that we only get to see Danerys kicking ass as long as she’s also naked every episode, I’m going to be disappointed, sure, but I’m certainly not going to blow off all SFF just because of that. For every hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (I’m looking at you, Joss) SFF gives us, it also gives us half a dozen truly complex female characters. Really, I think I’ll take those women over sitcom and soap airheads every day.

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About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Feminism, TV. Bookmark the permalink.

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