Have you ever noticed that the best female characters in stories tend to live in the science fiction and fantasy universes? Sometimes I wonder if it’s because we are only able to believe in amazing ladies of pretend worlds since the real one seems to be full of gossiping airheads, sensual housewives, and type A career women. At least, those are some of the basic stereotypes we’ve been sorted into by various entities from “reality” programming, film and even literature.
Watching Continuum has been eye opening, since it presents one of the few great lead dramatic roles assigned to a woman. While there are great ensemble roles, such as Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, Zoe from Firefly, or Uhura from Star Trek: The Original Series, there aren’t so many TV shows that portray a lead female as tough, feminine, intelligent, and emotional. Science fiction has allowed us to explore what that looks like for women in the future, and it all started a couple of decades ago with Agent Dana Scully.
The X-Files was different in that it was the first time I’d seen a real, multi-faceted female character in a television show. She was practical, scientific, logical, and a tenacious pursuer of the truth, but she also had a strong belief system and struggled with questions of faith and the unknown. She had a family, and later a child, and also dealt with a terminal illness. While she did have romantic interludes, they weren’t the focus of her character. This allowed people to see that some women were like Scully, not only female scientists and law enforcement, but real women who were practical and practiced faith. The X-Files paved the way for writing women as real people.
The next step in the process I saw while Fringe was on air. Olivia Dunham was the center of the show, and while she was less emotional overall than Scully, there were reasons. She’d been sleeping with her partner, and after he died, it came to light that she’d been sleeping with the enemy. She too became a relentless pursuer of the truth, no matter how crazy it might have seemed. Olivia was great at her job, but at the cost of her relationships and her inner self. Fringe taught me a valuable lesson: damaged people are still valuable, are still capable of doing great things. Olivia may not have been perfect, but then, neither are we. I think Fringe also did a fantastic job at showing how past actions affected present and future actions, a continuity we haven’t had access to across the board yet, but a necessary part of crafting believable characters.
Watching Continuum has confirmed that once again, the science fiction leading lady is evolving. Kiera Cameron is a nobody, just a cop trying to do her job. When she’s sent sixty-five years into the past, she must push past the grief of losing her husband and young son for the foreseeable future and adapt to the world of 2012. While Kiera is good at her job, she does have help in the form of her tech. When that fails, she survives by being willing to change. But the most interesting thing about her is that she is average. She wasn’t anyone special, she was normal. It’s a common element in fantasy stories, the ordinary person being plucked from obscurity to be groomed as a hero, but you don’t often see it in shows like Continuum.
This isn’t some sort of feminist rally, but I do want to praise these shows, especially Continuum for crafting multi-faceted human beings instead of damsels in distress or testosterone dressed in drag. It’s high time that all of us writers employ the knowledge that every single character can be fleshed out just as we are, foibles, beliefs, special talents and all. It’s what these writers were aiming for: a vision of the future where people could be anything, from a spaceship captain to a soldier to a parent to a regular human being with complicated thoughts and emotions.
Gina Torres, who played Zoe on Firefly, mentioned once that there weren’t many roles for a woman like her, until shows like The X-Files, Fringe and Continuum came along. “Thank God for sci-fi,” she said, and I heartily agree.