Don’t Dumb Down Science Fiction For Women (Surprise! Women Are Smart)

Sometimes a television show or film will take an unorthodox narrative style. That’s standard. Sometimes the setting is surprising for the story or genre being depicted—an easily recognizable example would be Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which seems to largely shy away from admitting that it’s set in a version of the DC Universe. But a lot of people enjoyed that, so okay. That’s a stylistic choice.

But sometimes, a science fiction show is written more as a drama, focusing on “the human story,” not because of a genuine stylistic preference but because of, well, sexism. Courting a wider audience. Which translates to: “Courting a female audience.”

I will be honest: I have a vested interest in this topic, as I write fantasy (a broad umbrella term that includes science fiction). I would love to have some books made into television series. I would really love to micro-manage those shows (I’m a control-freak; it’s not an uncommon quality in writers).

But I’m also a viewer. I grew up watching a lot of science fiction (even when I was young enough that I would go and make LEGO reproductions of what I had seen). Stargate, Babylon 5, Farscape, and even Star Trek and Andromeda.

Sorry, Delenn from Babylon 5 can’t hear your preconceived misogynistic notions over the sound of what a terrifying badass female protagonist she is.

There is a lot less science fiction on television right now (especially now that Clone Wars has come to an end after five magnificent seasons). What little there is tends to be these sorts of terrestrial dramas. Campy science fiction like Eureka or Warehouse 13 combined with Battlestar Galactica to, well, kind of destroy science fiction. Wacky adventures with a relatively low-budget or gripping dramas that mostly capitalize on being upsetting aren’t what I want out of any television show. But people are letting networks get away with it.

And to networks? Well, shows that “tell stories about people” (most shows do; I only worry when they repeat that line again and again when advertising a new show) are really saying: “We don’t think that women will watch more traditional science fiction. Research says that women dominate certain markets of television viewership. We want to attract women. Women don’t like science. They like romance.

Which is, um, incredibly insulting to women.

I’ll admit that any Star Trek series can be weird and episodic and so hit-and-miss that it’s usually easier to watch select episodes that are particularly good or deal with certain story-arcs than it is to watch the Overly Didactic Episodes (TM). But Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis? They told excellent stories with a small group of really interesting characters.

And Babylon 5? Guys, if Game of Thrones were set in space and dealt with alien races instead of human noble houses, it would just be called Babylon 5. Same kinds of excellent story-arcs. Same kinds of characters.

If you want people to watch your show or your films, make a good story. Make a great one. Give it a wonderful setting and execute it properly. Hire the right actors and make sure that your writing is airtight.

Don’t change your story angle because you think that if you use smaller words, girls, who like romantic comedies and princesses, will come flocking to watch your show. They’ll probably see it for being garbage and stop watching and be just as disappointed as your male viewers.

And then girls will actually have a thing against science fiction.


PS: Yes, this means you, SeeFee (“SyFy”) Channel. A few years ago, you suddenly forgot that your name was spelled “SciFi” and your programming turned into garbage. I mean, it’s great if you want to watch ghosthunters or professional wrestling. But, as it stands, the SeeFee Channel is an insult to everything that it used to be. Kind of like how Stargate Universe was a big, stupid slap in the face to the previous two Stargate series.

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Giving ‘Dark Angel’ Another Look

Okay, I was in middle school when Dark Angel started airing. The admission, I’m sure, makes me look like an infant or incomprehensibly ancient to most of the people reading this (that’s how people outside of their mid-twenties seem to me as soon as I get context (“You were already in college on 9/11? Were you born in the Great Depression?”). It was the first time that I ever saw Jessica Alba (who is/was super gorgeous, of course—a a super cute classmate in eighth grade had a picture of her on the inside of his locker), and it was apparently created, in part, by James Cameron.

Whose name now gets the James Cameron Song in my head. Thank you, South Park, for being brilliant.

Anyway, at the time, while I was an intelligent middle school student, I was, well, a middle school student. Certain things totally went over my head (which can happen at many ages—when I was eight years old, I did not recognize the gay men or the prostitutes on Batman: The Animated Series). I appreciated some aspects of Dark Angel, but others, well, either did not seem like as big of a deal at the time or escaped my notice.

As an adult, I’ve gone back and watched a few things that I enjoyed when I was much younger. In some cases, things that I treasured when I was younger have turned out to be comically bad. In other cases, they were even better than I had thought. On a whim, I decided to watch Dark Angel (probably just an episode or two) about a month ago, to see what it was like, though I was fairly certain that it would turn out to be just a pretty-lead-actress-beats-up-men-and-shows-some-skin show.

My prediction was incorrect. Like, hot damn, it was incorrect. I ended up watching the entire first season in a fairly short amount of time.

And I’m not going to give you a summary of the show. It’s good. Watch it. If you need to know more than this, read the Wikipedia entry or something.

Dark Angel was surprisingly feminist. Even now, it’s unusual to hear a straight male character on television referred to as a “slut.” It’s accurate about plenty of male heterosexual characters, but a straight guy who sleeps around is still typically referred to as a “stud,” if anything at all. In the pilot, the protagonist casually refers to her straight male friend as a slut—it’s no big deal. Like it should always be in real life.

Dark Angel is filled with feminism, racial diversity, and a kind of awareness that is still unusual now—and was pretty unusual for a show that aired when Clinton was President (not that any of that was President Clinton’s fault, obviously). One of the main characters is a lesbian, and not only is she not characterized as man-hating or butch, she is also not treated—at all—as a sexual object for male viewers. The protagonist, Max (Jessica Alba) is a bit reserved about her sexuality (or, rather, she is hesitant to have meaningless sex), which may be some internalized stigmatization about sex, but this is a character with an awful background. I do not think that she is supposed to be the “role model” for viewers, with her two best female friends (a lesbian and a heterosexual slut) as the “bad examples.” I think that her disposition makes sense for her character and fits into an “it takes all types” world-view.

Which is awesome.

Max (again, the protagonist, played by Jessica Alba) does kick ass. Which is fun to watch. Seriously. I could watch her beat up soldiers and one-handedly choke pedophiles all. Day. Long.

Her male costar is way handsomer on this show than he is on NCIS (Michael Weatherly), and he is wheelchair-bound for most of the first season. He is also a ten-years-early prediction of Anonymous—in the form of someone who hacks television feeds under the pseudonym “Eyes Only.”

And that’s not the end of the predictions (of a show that aired in 2000 but is set in 2019). Law-enforcement (in this sort of post-apocalyptic setting, which is the result of a major terrorist attack) is assisted by “hoverdrones,” which are unmanned aerial surveillance drones. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Look, watch the show. It’s not perfect, but it is brilliant. There are two seasons. Plus, you get to have fun identifying actors on it who are much better known now (Jensen Ackles, who plays Dean Winchester on Supernatural, is on an episode, and so is the actress who plays his mother. Also, Pam from True Blood gets dangled off of a balcony by her ankle in the first episode).

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Real And Pretend: How We Use Real Beliefs To View Fictional Settings

We all have beliefs about how the universe works. Some of those beliefs are religious in nature, and others are not. Most of us occasionally encounter information or ideas that might challenge those beliefs. I think that that is a fairly standard human experience.

I love to read science fiction and fantasy stories, and I have for my entire life. I love to watch films based in such worlds. I also love science fiction and fantasy television shows. I love video games from these same genres.

I have noticed, in my own experiences as a reader, viewer, and gamer, that I tend to project some of my own beliefs onto whatever I am watching. I do not just mean evaluating the moral decisions of characters based upon my own (objectively correct) view of right and wrong—just about everyone does that, regardless of the genre. I mean that, while stories set in our world (like crime dramas or romantic comedies) may have religious conflict and people of various and even conflicting faiths, these stories are fairly standard, and it makes sense that we believe about stories set in our world what we believe in everyday life (as in, an atheist probably will not think “well, maybe Christianity is right in the Law & Order universe).

It also makes sense that our viewing might be similar to that in science fiction. If you are, say, a Christian, it makes sense that you would have a Christian worldview, even when watching a science fiction story that is set a few centuries in the future—you would not believe that your God is going anywhere between now and the future, even if events are extremely unlikely to play out exactly like they do on a television show.

But fantasy worlds that are clearly separate from our own? That’s something else. These are worlds in which the author (or writers) control everything about the setting. There might be multiple religions in a setting, but either none of them are correct, one of them is correct, or, in some cases, all of them might somehow be correct. But, intellectually, I know that it’s up to the author.

You might need examples of what I am talking about. On Supernatural, for example, which is set in a version of our world in which supernatural/horror creatures are a reality, there is also a semi-Abrahamic (though somewhat syncretic) structure to the world. That is, most monsters (vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters) came from an evil and immortal creature named Eve. Demons abound, and they are malevolent spirits who originate from a horrible alternate dimension in which the souls of wicked humans are tortured for all time. Demons were created by a …

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Science! Science Fiction That Stopped Being Fiction In 2012

Have you guys seen this list of 27 things that made the transition from science fiction to reality in 2012? I mean, they aren’t part of everyday reality just yet. But that’s okay. Some of these were big news for everyone (James Cameron’s adventure to the ocean depths, the discovery of the Higgs boson), but I had not heard about a few of these.

The short version of the list? Mentally controlling a robotic arm, robots crossing an obstacle course, silk that is stronger than steel, DNA photographed, invisibility cloaks, spray-on skin, reaching the depths of the ocean, stem cells may extend human life significantly (it worked on mice), 3D printer prints a house, legalized self-driving cars (in a few states; they’re just thinking ahead, really), Voyager I leaves the solar system, a human mandible was printed and given to a patient (as in, it’s part of his body and it works, now), rogue planet found floating through space, monkeys created from more than one embryo, artificial leaves that generate electricity, the Higgs boson discovered, inexpensive solar panels, diamond planet, optical implant to restore sight, Wales recorded the DNA of every flowering plant in Wales, an unmanned commercial flight docked with the International Space-Station, flexible glass, robotic exoskeletons (for NASA), human brain’s practical functions are observed, a planet with four suns, and Microsoft patented real-world virtual reality for games.

So, that’s just the list. You should really read the actual list and look at the pictures (and videos) and read the descriptions. So worth it.

But, for me, there were some definitely highlights. Um, stem cells dramatically extending human life. Obviously, “dramatically extending” is not the same thing as immortality. But, if this treatment is available and affordable within, say, three decades, then that gives me a very good chance of living long enough to, well, never die. This treatment does not confer immortality, but we all know that it’s …4

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