Analysis

Four Popular Shows That Strived for Gender Equality

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Telling an egalitarian story means fighting back against a lifetime of cultural programming, not to mention systematic bias in production, publishing, and marketing. So even when we try to make our stories just, problems we haven’t noticed can sneak their way in.

Graded on a curve, every one of these shows has earned an “A” for outstanding gender depiction. But in some ways, each reinforces cultural problems with gender. This doesn’t make their accomplishments any less; it just means that equality is a work in progress.

1. Battlestar Galactica

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The 2004-2009 Battlestar Galactica was a reboot to a 1978 series with a cult following. From the start, they made waves by recasting the character of Starbuck, a womanizing fighter pilot who drank and gambled, as a woman. At first there was a large backlash from fans, but it stopped the moment they actually watched the new Starbuck. The writers didn’t “feminize” the character at all. She engaged in just as much drinking, gambling, and generally reckless behavior as the original.

They also dared to depict a human society where gender wasn’t an issue. Sure, other shows like Star Trek talk about being egalitarian, but saying it and showing it are different things. In Battlestar, humans aren’t egalitarian because the characters say they are, but because gender doesn’t influence how they interact. No one protests when men care for their loved ones or women head into battle.

Most critically of all, there are both male and female leaders. It’s impossible to have an egalitarian society without diverse leadership, because leaders will favor their own demographic. Battlestar writers needed to keep the original Commander Adama as a military leader, so they balanced him by adding a civilian leader, President Roslin. She is as strong – and as flawed – as he is. To top it off, there’s Admiral Cain, the female antagonist who is Adama’s superior officer. She’s also complex and interesting, making a wonderful foil for Adama.

So where does Battlestar fall short? With the cylons. In the original series, cylons were just robots the cast didn’t have to feel guilty about killing. Humanizing them was a positive change in the new series, but they also became gendered in the extreme. While most of the original cylons were distinctly masculine, they weren’t officially male. The new show had a great opportunity to show human-like, non-gendered characters.

Instead it preserved the masculinity of the average centurion and introduced human-like cylons consisting of sexy women and average-looking men. Chief among these humanish cylons is a femme fatale called Number Six. Everything about her, from her tight red dress to her indiscriminately seductive behavior, screams “harlot!” In the opening scene of the 2003 mini series, she shows up at a diplomatic outpost just to kiss the human ambassador while the other cylons blow them both to smithereens.* The message is clear: this character was designed to titillate men. She’s not a fully-fleshed woman; she’s a man’s toy that is being sold as one. But to give the show credit, Six isn’t punished for her blatant sexuality. Instead she becomes more complex as the show goes on.

2. Teen Wolf

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Braeden is so awesome she gets a pic. Look at those wicked scars. Braeden is so awesome she gets a pic. Look at those wicked scars.

While a guy is still in the lead role, Teen Wolf is packed with women you wouldn’t want to mess with. On team good is Alison the werewolf hunter, Kira the ninja kitsune (fox spirit), and Malia the werecoyote. On team evil is Kate Argent, the werewolf hunter turned werejaguar, and one freakishly powerful druid, Julia Baccari. Then there’s Braeden, a human mercenary. When a character is surrounded by powerful enemies, she shows up and rescues them by herself. Then the powerful villain she’d pissed off turns around and hires her, because she’s just that good. Did I mention she’s a person of color?

The only female in the main cast who doesn’t make with the physical butt-kicking is Lydia. She’s a popular girl who screams a lot. If that’s all she was, it would be a problematic stereotype. But she’s the most complex character in the series. For instance, she screams partly because she’s a banshee, a creature with psychic powers stemming from their sense of hearing. That’s intriguing, but it’s still typical for a female character. What really brings her out is that she’s also a genius. Not everyone can tell because she conceals it. She presents herself as less capable than she is to fit into a culture that views strong women as unattractive.

But my favorite thing about Teen Wolf is how the show normalizes homosexuality. In the season two episode Frenemy, Scott and Stiles go into a gay club to find a friend they think is in danger. A lesser show would have depicted the club as a hilariously frightening place for two straight guys. Not Teen Wolf. Instead they just walk in and order drinks. Then the bartender tells Scott he doesn’t have to pay for his drink, because an admirer across the bar bought it for him. Scott gives Stiles a smug look, and Stiles glowers back.

Unfortunately, none of the characters in the main cast are gay – but the show is still running. Stiles just has to admit he’s bi* and date a guy. You can do it, Teen Wolf!

But alas, Teen Wolf has weaknesses too. Scott and Alison are in love, but they can’t date because Alison’s father doesn’t want Scott near her. Sure, they are teens and their parents need to make sure they’re safe. But have you noticed it’s never a mother who pulls out the shot gun*, and it’s never a boy being “protected”? This trope is about men competing for ownership of a woman’s sexuality. It’s time to put it to rest.

In season two, the writers decided the hunter clans are matriarchal. That’s a fine idea; it would’ve set the hunters apart and made the setting more interesting. That is, if they actually did it. Instead, characters gush about this matriarchy, while the hunters demonstrate how wrong they are. Even as the show introduces this idea, they bring in an old patriarch. He gives orders the other family members don’t agree with, but they don’t protest because he’s their patriarch. Later they show another clan with a female leader. That’s better, but where are all the other women in the family? Not leading, apparently.

Last, Teen Wolf falls victim to masculine werewolf syndrome (MWS). Somehow every female member of the main cast is not quite a werewolf. Look at the pic up top. Three of four guys in there are werewolves. None of the women are. The few female werewolves that do appear either exist only in flashbacks or quickly disappear again. MWS is a common disease caused by the notion that werewolves are masculine, and god forbid women from being masculine! It goes the other way as well; Teen Wolf could use a male banshee.

3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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There were female warriors before Buffy. Tough, strong warriors like Xena. Those characters are fantastic, but we need more variety from our heroines. Feminist storytellers can be so focused on breaking women out of traditional gender roles that we forget to give those roles their due. We have to depict feminine traits as things to be proud of.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer took the girliest of girls – a high school cheerleader – and demonstrated that shopping for clothes and fighting the undead could go hand in hand. It turned the stereotypical horror victim into a savior, and it did it in a relateable, contemporary setting. Now we have an entire subgenre where the typical hero is a young woman who fights supernatural evil in the streets, before having her nails done. And it’s thanks to Buffy’s popularity.

Buffy is also one of the few shows with a gay character in the main cast. Yes, Willow’s sudden and permanent switch from straight to gay could have been explained better. But think about all the excuses studios give for not having a diverse cast: straight white guys will only watch other straight white guys, the original characters were white straight guys, the best actors just happen to be white guys and of course the roles are straight. Now bring in Whedon, who wouldn’t even let the show’s existing canon prevent him from having a central gay character. Want one? Just make a character gay. That’s it.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t just show strong female characters in action; it also makes strong statements regarding misogyny. The show introduces Warren, a misogynist who is also a brilliant technician. He makes sexbots to replace women as girlfriends, an act that the show clearly labels as misogynist. Then he tries to enslave an ex-girlfriend and ultimately becomes fixated with punishing Buffy for thwarting him. His two male sidekicks learn about violence against women the hard way.

But unfortunately, some of the storylines in Buffy are more regressive. In most of these instances, I think the writers were simply trying to add more conflict to the story and weren’t minding the messages that came with them. This problem is especially strong in Buffy’s relationships. All of her major relationships have abusive elements.

If you’re familiar with Buffy, you’re probably thinking of her mutually abusive relationship with Spike in season 6. Sure, that relationship was not good – but it isn’t the worst offender here. That’s because the writers were clearly communicating that it was an abusive relationship; they were not taking an abusive relationship and disguising it as a healthy one.

That’s the case with Riley Finn. Riley displays emotionally manipulative behavior that is typical of early stage abuse. He gets incredibly jealous and assumes she’s cheated on him, then explains it by saying he’s so in love he just can’t control himself. Then he becomes a vampire junkie and blames it on Buffy not loving him enough. Buffy is ready to be done with him, until Xander teaches her it actually is her fault, and now she’s lost her true love.

Buffy is also punished for having sex. She chooses to lose her virginity to Angel, and as a direct result he turns evil. She feels guilty for destroying him in a moment of heated passion. Later she falls for a womanizer who abandons her right after they have sex, leaving her heart broken.

4. Star Trek: Voyager

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Voyager was the last Star Trek series that tried to live up to the egalitarian future Roddenberry envisioned. Depicting a future that is more just than today requires pushing the envelope. After Voyager, the creators didn’t bother. And unfortunately, Voyager is a mixed bag despite their efforts.

Janeway was the first female captain in a central role. Also, the last. Having a female lead on the show was great – and still is. Unfortunately, the creators marred this achievement by patting themselves on the back and continually pointing it out. When you treat your characters like they’re a novelty, you communicate that their presence isn’t natural or normal. As just one example, in the episode Distant Origin, aliens come aboard to observe and study the crew. They conclude that they are matriarchal because they are following the orders of a woman. I can’t recall aliens ever thinking Star Fleet was patriarchal because of their male captains – and that would have actually been true.

Luckily Janeway isn’t the only outstanding female character. There’s also B’Elanna, the ship’s engineer. Not only is she a woman in STEM, but she has the character depth, flaws, and nuance that Janeway lacks. B’Elanna is a half-human, half-Klingon who struggles with discrimination, feelings of abandonment, and conflicting ideas about her racial identity. She acts out more than a few times, but she’s also passionate and dedicated. As a half-Klingon, she is more masculine than most of the other crew members – adding richness and variety to the cast.

Of course, no feminist review of Voyager would be complete without discussing Seven of Nine. While not original, Seven of Nine’s character concept was nothing short of brilliant. First, the show took the most popular antagonist in the franchise – the Borg – and converted one of them to team good. Then they added what is probably the most popular character arc from the franchise – Data’s journey to become human. The result was a very appealing character with fascinating social interactions, an intriguing backstory, and strong capabilities both physically and technically.

Then they demeaned her by putting her in a catsuit. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a place for catsuits in stories. We need female characters who dress sexy for their own satisfaction and aren’t punished for it. But this is in a context where looking professional means wearing a uniform. All the Maquis that joined the crew got uniforms; why didn’t she get one? She doesn’t dress in the catsuit because she prefers it but because a male character – the Doctor – designed it for her.

Then there’s the romances. Seven’s brief encounter with Harry is pretty funny; the Doctor’s pursuit much less so. Then she is spontaneously on a third date with Chakotay, without any lead in. But she’s attractive, so she has to be in romance, doesn’t she? No, she doesn’t. The audience may have expected it, but this is a case where the show should have subverted expectations. She was still learning who she was, and she didn’t need a man for that.

And Seven’s relationships look divine next to Kes and Neelix. While the writers clearly intended to create a positive relationship for them, it’s impossible to look at the facts and miss the troubling implications. Neelix saved Kes from slavery before they even really knew each other. Immediately after, they are in a relationship. Neelix gets jealous with little provocation. Kes never appears in control of their interactions. Kes is much, much younger than Neelix; in fact, she’s not even sexually mature when the show starts. The writers wanted a healthy relationship and instead created one that reeks of statutory rape.

Last, look at the pic up top. The main cast is only one-third women. A female captain does not make up for this, any more than one female leader makes a hunter clan matriarchal. If your setting is the battlefront during World War II or a remote monastery, then fine, make most of your characters male. Otherwise there’s no excuse for less than a 50/50 split.


While all of these shows do great when graded on a curve, they still have a ways to go. They have no trans, genderqueer, or asexual characters. If we venture outside of gender and sexuality we open a new basket of snakes. They need more characters of color in central roles, more characters with disabilities, and they have to do it without stereotyping, cultural appropriation, or other destructive messages.

It’s a bit overwhelming, isn’t it? That’s why it’s important to recognize both successes and failures. We want to reward storytellers for researching, asking for other perspectives, and just doing the best they can. We also want them to learn from their weak points, so they can do better next time. If we keep pushing, someday our stories will reflect the culture we want to have.

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Comments

  1. Bess Marvin

    I’d say Avatar: the Last Airbender succeeded with gender equality in many ways. In fact there were only two episodes that commented on misogyny and it was consistent in the sense of cultural world-building since both examples stem from the Water Tribe: Sokka gives the Kyoshi warriors some flack for being a group of female fighters and Master Pakku rejects Katara as a student only on the basis of her gender. You’d think the militaristic Fire Nation would be the ones who hate on women, but we see female soldiers in their ranks and from season 2 and on our main villains are fierce ladies. Toph is a character whose disability makes her stronger and when some actors put on a play about the heroes, her role is cast as a hulking guy but the gender choice makes no impact on her capabilities in the story.

    • Chris Winkle

      You’re spot on. Avatar: the Last Airbender does a fabulous job with diversity. We raved about it in our Stories That Do Diversity Right podcast.

  2. BJ Sinclair

    Personally I’d put Star Trek: Deep Space 9 on the list instead of Voyager (but I am a proud Niner).

    DS9 had a (black) male lead in Sisko, but his ‘number one’ was Kira. In my humble opinion, she is the best character Star Trek has ever created. She is strong-willed, opinionated, rash, but also deeply traumatised at the beginning of the show, having grown up under the boot of the Cardassians, who she fought against since she was a teenager. Over seven years, she grows and flourishes, essentially from an anger teen to a mature woman, who is (again IMHO) Trek’s best scrapper whilst also being a strong female character in her own right.

    Add to this the character of Jadzia Dax, the Science Officer and next in the chain of command (until Worf arrives in season four). She is highly intelligent, very attractive and proves that female characters in Trek can be both without being squeezed into a catsuit. She is Sisko’s oldest friend and mentor (from her previous Host), who is always available to offer counsel or go off on an adventure. She embraces all that being female offers (seeing as how she has the unique perspective of having lived as both a man and woman over the centuries), whilst also being the brains of the station and an exceptional warrior.

    Ezri Dax was a late addition to the show, but likewise had a very interesting arc, going from someone who was lost and alone to finding her place in the crew. Though technically the Counsellor onboard, she embraces the distinct memories and experiences of the previous Hosts (including Jadzia) to round out her skillset and strive to accomplish more. But she still experiences things firsthand for herself, such as engaging in front-line combat on AR-558. She uses her more nurturing side in her therapy, helping those with serious emotional problems under dire circumstances (such as Garak and Nog), though also, literally, has a killer inside her as well–something she drew upon in order to stop a murderer.

    Added to the main cast there are also the recurring female characters, such as: Kai Winn (the power-hungry religious leader of Bajor, who is a constant antagonist for Sisko and Kira), her predecessor Kai Opaka (who only had a few appearances but a huge impact on the lives of Sisko and Kira, and who I just loved), the Female Changeling (the embodiment of the Dominion’s Founders and leader of the hostiles in the war), with Keiko O’Brien (showing a very real family dynamic on the show where spouses argue and have issues about their relationship and circumstances, but also shows a loving and supportive wife and mother, as well as a scientist and teacher), and Leeta (who may be a scantily clad Dabo Girl, but isn’t an airhead, and breaks up with Dr Bashir for the man she truly loves, despite him being a Ferengi–a race not known for their beauty).

    But like I said, that’s just my thoughts.

    • Anna

      I agree with you 100%- But then again, I’m a Niner, too.

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