It’s been an unfortunate couple days for me as far as the depictions of women in my SFF television consumption. Not all of it surprising, mind. I’m human. I will probably always like problematic things. That doesn’t make it less disappointing.
Spoilers for the season finales of Fear the Walking Dead and The Strain, as well as a pretty late-season reveal in Dark Matter. You’ve been warned.
Regressive sexual politics in the Walking Dead franchise aren’t exactly new to me. Laurie Holden’s Andrea was constantly berated for not sticking around to do what amounted to housework while the men used the guns, for goodness’ sake. But after killing off all but one of the original female characters, oddly enough, the parent franchise seems at least mildly better with women going forward.
It was especially disappointing, then, that prequel / spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead fell right back into the same hole. For a while, I could squint and make it work:
Yes, Madison (Kim Dickens) has more experience directly working with troubled people as a guidance counselor than her boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis), but the hyper-macho military commander would never pick a woman to liaise with civilians.1
But the further the show went, the clearer it became that the primary characters who were meant to be learning and growing were the men. And over and over again, the lessons they learn are taught to them by hurting the women they care about.
Travis in particular seems to have a lot of “don’t touch my stuff” motivations. He has to learn that sympathy leads to pain and suffering, by having a young woman shot when he lets a soldier live. It’s that event which finally spurs his rage and fury and beating-people’s-heads-in.
And, of course, when his ex-wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez) winds up with a zombie bite, guess who, after being completely incapable of shooting a full-on zombie previously, has to pull the trigger while she’s still fully human to keep her from turning?
As Travis collapses on the beach, the ocean washing over him and his more-competent-in-this-world girlfriend clinging to his side, it comes clear that the women in this show exist in service to the character arcs of the men.
But if Fear wound up a disappointment for backsliding, The Strain has been doubling down on the “don’t touch my stuff” plots.
In the first season, Cory Stoll’s Ephram is subject to round one, where his ex-wife (Natalie Brown) is turned in a bid to manipulate him. This season, antagonist Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) is similarly punished by having his assistant / lover turned after he and she make a bid for more control. And for extra redundancy, Ephram’s current love interest, Nora (Mia Maestro) is also killed — by that vampire ex-wife.
And that’s not even looking in the direction of the nearly-realized tentacle rape of the show’s other female protagonist (Ruta Gedmintas) in a bid to motivate her boyfriend and / or send her running off screen and out of the narrative.
My response to all that is probably best summed up on Twitter:
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that a show where the vampires attack with giant phalluses turns all its women into "my stuff" props
— Jason Kimble (@jkasonetc) October 5, 2015
The only bright side to this is that such overt, tone-deaf writing is easy to spot and easier to dismiss. Slightly more insidious was a recent turn near the end of Dark Matter, a new SyFy series I’ve been binging via Netflix.
By and large, there’s a reasonable spread of capable women on the show. I had a minor kneejerk when I realized how often “away mission” stuff involved the guys while the women stayed on board, but it seemed pretty clear that had more to do with the men being expendable than valuable.
This is especially true of Melissa O’Neil’s Two (The conceit of the show is that the characters are named for the order they woke up from stasis, as they have no memory of life before), who takes instant leadership, facing only token resistance from spoiler Three (Anthony Lemke). She’s just as kick-ass a fighter as “sword guy” Four (Alex Mallari, Jr.), as good a shot as “gun guy” Three, and as capable a pilot as Six (Roger R. Cross, refreshingly getting to play someone who isn’t eternally dour).
Then, late in the season, we discover Two’s abilities come from Macguffin tech: she’s a manufactured human being. To be sure, this lets her be even more kick ass. But it also means two out of three of the very capable women in this crew (the other is Zoie Palmer’s Android) are artificial beings. The men get to kick ass because they kick ass. The women kick ass because they were Built That Way.
On the one hand, so far all the women here are alive. I mean, your female characters can’t accomplish anything if they’re already dead just to motivate your men. On the other, the narrative being (I can’t avoid this pun) constructed here doesn’t exactly lend itself to inherent female capability and agency, either. The metaphorical takeaway from having women be your embodiment of the “I’m more than what I was born as” themes certainly doesn’t help matters.
1. If I’m choosing, I want to spend extra time with Cliff Curtis, too, though my motivations are a bit more prurient. 😉↩