The Depowering and Deflowering of Female Characters in Speculative Television
by Bekah Witten, University of Tampa
The idea of immortality and impossibility is a popular one in modern media, ranging back to the days of the immortal Dracula and the ever-intelligent Spock. Why this theme is one in such high demand is unknown. Perhaps it’s the mix of adrenaline and the emotional thrill, or maybe it’s the fantastical idea that there is just something more out there. Speculative fiction (SF) in modern television series, particularly in the vampire genre, has donned our screens as a way to explore sin, skin, and sexuality without actually sinning. These mythical shows intrigue viewers in a way that shadows most other television genres. One might even say that these series do more than intrigue – they seduce viewers, much like a beautiful, illustrious woman. Taking that metaphor, however, and delving into a closer examination of these mythical and mystical portrayals suggests a disturbing wane in the ebb and flow of female representation. When thinking of male heroes in SF, viewers might imagine strong character traits. Perhaps raw, God-like power would come to mind, perhaps confidence, heroism, or even an ability to lead that endures all obstacles. The same traits likely do not come to mind when it comes to female SF characters. Although powerful female characters do exist in SF television – like Mary Winchester or Bela Talbot in Supernatural; Elena Gilbert in Vampire Diaries; and Amy Pond in Doctor Who – these characters face a historicized oppression from related genres, which renders them as merely expendable crutches to the male counterparts, often sexualized to deflower and depower, and where any remaining power they have is perceived as evil.
Speculative Fiction includes a multitude of subgenres, most prominently fantasy, supernatural, and science fiction. It is the latter subgenres that scholar Gary Westfahl points his finger at as the culprit behind the depowering of SF female characters. He suggests that SF television writers have statistically done a suitable job of presenting heroines, but said heroines cannot replace, and are rarely even seen as equal to, the male heroes. It is only at the point when heroic females may stand as replacements for the male heroes that SF authors are forced to weaken them, “reduce their status, burden them with stereotypical feminine traits, and sometimes eliminate them altogether” (2). To provide an example for this point, Westfahl tells the story of a 1966 Star Trek episode wherein an intelligent and competent female captain is incorporated into the plot. Before the character could be developed past the first episode, network executives dismissed her and she was removed from the show. Yet, the actress who played her returned to a later episode arc sporting a blonde wig and playing the role of a nurse—a career that is stereotypically connected with femininity (Westfahl 2).
While he doesn’t dispute that SF media features a string of mistreated female characters, Gary Westfahl does believe that the genre as a whole should not be considered the one to blame, but rather the “sexist climate of the times” (3) in which it was initially conceived should take the blame. Surely, any viewer or nonviewer could argue that early SF like the ’60s Star Trek or, even more excusably, Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula get a get-out-of-jail-free card because of their historical contexts. When considering that early science fiction was what Westfahl calls “an unenlightened form of literature in an unenlightened age” (1), and one that was made to appeal to the young male demographic, the argument even sounds logical. It can also be asserted that the influence of the genre’s earliest works on its contemporary works is so great that, of course, this thread of sexism will still be present. Yet, in a time when feminism is being discussed through as many outlets as it is, no genre, even one that began as a creative outlet for young boys, should be pardoned for neglecting and abusing the women that are featured in it and who also enjoy it.
One brief example of how these women are mistreated can be seen in the way their intelligence is received by audiences. Sarah Jane Leslie and her colleagues conducted research on this idea, not within television or film, but rather in the inner-workings of science and academic fields. They concluded that women are often perceived as having to work for their intelligence, while implications suggest that men are born with that intelligence. Leslie told NBC News the following: “Pop culture has not helped. On the big screen, genius men are often portrayed as being innately smart, never having had to work hard to gain their insights” (Naggiar). She likens this phenomenon with characters such as the Harry Potter series’ Hermione Granger, who is constantly reading, writing, and studying. Her ally, and the book’s namesake, Harry is considered to be talented and gifted by birthright, as he is the one who defeats the antagonist of the story and saves the fictional world. Although Harry is rarely preferred over Hermione in terms of schooling or socializing, he is certainly never bullied for his appearance or bossiness, while Hermione constantly is. Because Hermione is a character aimed at an adolescent audience, it’s deduced that this constant contrast between male ability and female ability is being taught to viewers from an early age, and in many different ways.
Female SF Characters Exist as Crutches to Their Male Counterparts
It should be clearly stated that, yes, there are generous numbers of strong, independent, and competent women in modern media. Certainly, powerful and independent women are presented in the SF genre, as in Buffy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the Halliwell sisters in Charmed. It should also be stated that no character, female or male, can be perfectly portrayed. Just as Hermione Granger could be seen as a poorly portrayed character in contrast to her male counterparts, she could be seen as a positive influence on young girls saying, you don’t have to change yourself because boys don’t always like the way you act. However, Gary Westfahl was correct in saying that this genre was conceived for young boys, and more often than not, that tradition is still held up and the works cater to a male audience. This leads to a lot of implications to how SF’s female characters are meant to be perceived: perhaps to encourage the audience’s masculinity, rather than to enforce the audience’s confidence in its femininity. The role of female characters as mere expendable crutches to their male counterparts marks a disturbing pattern across several modern SF television series, including Supernatural, Doctor Who, and The Vampire Diaries.
Supernatural is one of the most popular SF television series of our time. The show focuses on two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, and their journey through life as hunters of the supernatural and sinister. After ten seasons, only two female characters with recurring story lines have survived; most of the other female characters lost their lives in exchange for the brothers’ survival, or for the advancement of the plot. Of those two surviving women, one is gay – and therefore represents no threat the males’ statuses as single men.
The first female character seen in the series is Mary Winchester of Lawrence, Kansas. When we first see Mary, she is young and the new mother to baby Sam and child Dean, wife of doting and lovable mechanic John Winchester. She dresses in a white nightgown that finds symbolic harmony of the purity of her golden blonde hair; she is seemingly content in her role as housewife and mother. She dies within three minutes of the series’ opening. Mary’s death is the catalyst of the series’ plot, which may seem empowering, but it actually is exactly what steals any of the power she could potentially have by demoting her from a character with intricacies to a plot twist used to shock audiences. Viewers are only given a glimpse of one side of Mary: mother and wife. Her role as a character was to inspire the males of the show and drive them and their plotlines, not to have her own. Although her death was vital to the show’s storyline, it is entirely plausible that the same plot advancement would have unraveled if it were the Winchester patriarch that was killed so soon and not the matriarch.
Another popular modern SF series is Doctor Who, which focuses on a thousand-year-old alien by the name of the Doctor that travels around the universe saving galaxies and planets. The Doctor is usually accompanied by human companions, most of whom are female, that help him accomplish his glorious feats of rescue. Many of these female companions, however, are depicted as either giving up their pasts for a life with the Doctor, or as paradoxes who were created to aid the Doctor in the first place.
Author of the blog Whovian Feminism, Alyssa, explores the topics of misogyny and gender representation of female characters in Doctor Who. Her analysis of the portrayal of Amy Pond, one of the eleventh Doctor’s companions, gives insight into this idea that female characters in SF exist as crutches for their male counterparts. Amy is first revealed in the first episode of the fifth series as Amelia Pond, a young girl whose house serves as the location for TARDIS’s crash landing. Flash forward a decade or so, the Doctor reappears at her door, only little Amelia is adult Amy: a kissogram (a message delivered by someone hired to dress as different characters and attend parties), who is romantically attached, and surrounded by childhood memories and mementos of her “imaginary friend.” Alyssa writes that Amy’s career is mentioned for only one episode for the entire series; Amy as a working adult is completely written out of the show as soon as the Doctor comes into the picture. Alyssa also writes: “Just like rejecting her childhood name of ‘Amelia’ for ‘Amy,’ Amy’s decision to work as a kissogram is represented as another way in which she is playing at being an adult. It is represented as a symptom of her ‘damage [caused by the Doctor’s disappearance],’ rather than a choice she made for herself.”
One of the most beloved teen dramas of the time is also part of the SF genre. The Vampire Diaries focuses on Elena Gilbert, a human-turned-vampire girl who falls in love with two brothers, Stefan and Damon Salvatore, both of whom are vampires. Although Elena is the protagonist of the series, she is often depicted as helpless and incapable of making logical decisions, and instead must rely on the Salvatore brothers to rescue her.
In a listing of female archetypes found in Klaroline Magazine, author and blogger Becky S. lists the following: The Boss, The Seductress, The Spunky Kid, The Free Spirit, The Waif, The Librarian, The Crusader, and The Nurturer. Among these, Elena Gilbert fits into the mold of The Waif, a pure and trusting, wistful orphan who spends her life searching for a home and leaning to the whims of immoral men (Becky S.). As a human, this damsel-in-distress-esque model was almost fitting for Elena, but it was assumed that she would drop her naivety and passiveness after her transition to vampirism. Shockingly, this was not the case. When she first turned, she was under what is called a “sire bond,” wherein she felt an unwavering obedience to Damon, whose blood turned her. This devotion was so potent that when Damon told Elena to kill, she did, even though it terrorized her for episodes after.
Sexualization of Female Characters to Depower and Deflower
Aforementioned blogger Becky S. writes that there is a simple breakdown of female archetypes that entails “Virgin, Mother, Whore.” She explains that a woman is often characterized as having to make the transition immediately from daughter to wife, but if she is liberated of this transition sexually, then she is deemed as what is seen as the lowest female standing, a “whore.” This idea of depowering through sexualization is seen in all forms of media, and it is worrisome not because it is a fantastical, titillating exploration of skin, but because it inflicts a certain perpetual neglect for female characters.
Likewise, in a set of 10 interviews that this author conducted in Spring 2015 to compare with outside sources, 95% of interviewees answered without hesitation that SF women are usually sexualized. One participant, Alex Bayer, posed an answer to this question that raised many concerns. She states, “[SF women] will be in supporting roles that will help the main hero, either that or they’ll be a sexual reward for the hero once he finishes his quest/journey. If they are the main protagonist, then they’re most likely white, slim, pretty, and sexualized.” In congruence to Bayer’s statement, the three aforementioned shows conform to this mold of “white, slim, pretty, and sexualized” females. Only one female in the long line of “dead or gone” ones in Supernatural was not white. Her name was Cassie and she served as a love interest for Dean. Viewers do watch the two fornicating, but she does not endure past that story arc and only appears in one episode.
Amy Pond, as alluded to earlier, is one of Doctor Who’s most prolific and popular companions. She is lean, ginger, pale, and Scottish. While it is not unusual that the Doctor’s companions be slim and pretty, the portrayal of Amy is slightly shocking in that she is often referred to simply as “The Legs.” In fact, showrunner Steven Moffat has been quoted saying the following in regard to Amy’s casting: “[When I saw Karen’s audition video] I thought, ‘well she’s really good. It’s just a shame she’s so wee and dumpy’…When she was about to come through to the auditions I nipped out for a minute and I saw Karen walking on the corridor towards me and I realized she was 5’11, slim and gorgeous and I thought ‘Oh, oh that’ll probably work.’ ” (Donelan). In her article “Amy Pond, AKA ‘The Legs’,” blogger Alyssa explains that this explicit admittance of sexualization by a man so powerful in the genre as Moffat exemplifies society’s ideal that talent is expendable in a woman, but attractiveness is vital to success.
Female Power Equates to Evil
Feminist and SF critic Ashley Scout suggests that the power of a female is not always reduced by belittling her, but by likening her power to evil. In a personal communication, she traced the sexualization of females, especially those with significant power, back to the “demonization of [them]” (Scout).
Similarly, scholar Jennifer A. Fountain suggests that the incongruent portrayal of male power and female power, especially that of a supernatural origin, can be linked to the initial introduction of vampire media—one of the first forms of SF. Fountain writes in her thesis The Vampire in Modern American Media 1975-2000 that vampire media became so linked with gender identity that women gradually became synonymous with sin and immorality. So much so, that the Romanian culture viewed women, as it began with Eve in the Garden of Eden, as the “source of all trouble” (Fountain). Even Eve, however, was not seen as a protagonist or an antagonist, but rather she was the naive catalyst for the plot; her choices were made under the influence of the serpent, not her own free thought.
In terms of modern television in the SF genre, this phenomenon persists. In the case of the 2005 Doctor Who, River Song fits into this mold. When we first meet River, she is an intelligent woman in her own right. As her character arc unfolds, we see that she is not only intelligent in her own right as a human, but she is also part Time Lord—though the Doctor is said to be the last remaining Time Lord alive. River can drive the Doctor’s TARDIS better than he, she continuously escapes from prison to help the Doctor, and she evens saves his life once or twice. Yet, her true ability is eventually realized to have been orchestrated by an enemy of the Doctor’s as a weapon to kill him. Her new tagline became “the girl born to kill the Doctor.”
No matter the origin of this “demonization” of women, it is being constantly drilled into the ideas of viewers of SF television. Be it through the sexualization of Amy Pond, the demotion and lack of agency in Elena Gilbert, or the use of Mary Winchester as a plot twist, women are shown so that their existence is necessary only on the terms of males.
Author Kathleen Sweeney suggests that viewers of SF, primarily female ones, demand to see powerful girls and women within the genre (13). If the demand is constant, then the supply must be constant. It’s time to change the minds of people like Westfahl who excuse “sexist climate”[s], and portray women not only as melting pots of masculinity and femininity, but as heroines and geniuses that act on their own decisions, not by the influence of their male counterparts. SF women should not be limited to white, slim, pretty, and sexualized ones, as its viewers have noticed is the trend. Powerful SF characters should be fat girls, hairy girls, brunette girls, Black girls, Latina girls, sad girls, smart girls, girls with acne, girls with tattoos, gay girls, trans girls, asexual girls, girls who have children, girls who never want children, girls who learn to fight, and girls who teach others how to fight. There should be no limit to the characteristics of SF women – nor should there be a limit on their abilities. In order for this to happen, we must increase the number of female writers, female producers, female directors, just as much as we need to increase everyone’s awareness of misogyny and the dangers of excusing it.
“Amy Pond, AKA ‘The Legs’.” Whovian Feminism. Tumblr, 6 Oct. 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2015. Bayer, Alexandra. Email interview. 19 Feb. 2015.
Doctor Who. Writ. Sydney Newman. BBC/BBC America. 2005-2015. Television.
Donelan, Loretta. “10 Sexist Steven Moffat Quotes.” Hollywood.com. Hollywood.com, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
Fountain, Jennifer A. The Vampire in Modern American Media, 1975-2000. Thesis. Dartmouth University, 2000. Web. 29 March 2009.
Leslie, Sarah-Jane, Andrei Cimpian, Meredith Meyer, and Edward Freeland. “Expectations of Brilliance Underlie Gender Distributions across Academic Disciplines.” Science 347.6219 (2015): 262-65. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.
Naggiar, Stacey. “Cracking the Gender Gap: Why ‘Genius’ Fields Tend to Snub Women.” NBC News. NBC, 15 Jan. 2015. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.
S., Becky. “Opinion: Regression or Perpetuation: Has Julie Plec Created an Anti-Feminist Universe on TVD?” Klaroline Magazine. Ed. Caryn Welby-Solomon. WordPress, 24 May 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
Scout, Ashley. Personal interview. 23 Mar. 2015.
Supernatural. Writ. Julie Plec. The CW. 2005-2015. Television.
Sweeney, Kathleen. “Supernatural Girls.” Afterimage 33.5 (2006): 13-16. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.
The Vampire Diaries. Writ. Eric Kripke. The CW. 2009-2015. Television.
Westfahl, Gary. “Superladies in Waiting: How the Female Hero Almost Emerges in Science Fiction.” Foundation 58 (1993): 42-62. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
Calvert, Bronwen. “Angels, Demons, and Damsels in Distress: The Representation of Women in Supernatural.” TV Goes to Hell: An Unofficial Roadmap of Supernatural. Eds. Stacey Abbott and David Lavery. Toronto: ECW Press, 2011. 90-105. Print.
Radosh, Daniel. “The Good Book Business.” The New Yorker 18 Dec. 2006. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.
Bekah Witten is in her third year of studies at the University of Tampa, where she is earning a degree in creative writing. She constructed this essay with the help of technical writing professor Aimee Whiteside, PhD, who helped her broaden her feminist and writer mind. One day, Bekah hopes to use her words to inspire awareness and laughter in others.
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