geekery / TV talk

Should we soften SFR/PNR heroines?

Heather at Galaxy Express recently pointed out that I’d never gotten back to this discussion after mentioning it in my post on the role of pets in SciFi. I could be glib and say simply–it depends on the heroine. That is certainly true, but maybe not very helpful, so I’m going to jabber on and hope to hit on something noteworthy. Please bear with me.

What do big hair and nightgowns add to the role of starship captain?
Netflix recently added a plethora of Star Trek to its streaming offer. This has been a great opportunity to go back and revisit this time-honored favorite property. It escapes me why I chose to start with Voyager. It certainly wasn’t my favorite iteration of the franchise. It is, however, the only one to put a female captain center stage.

I’m not a Captain Janeway hater, but I never really liked the way they handled her in the show. They definitely made an effort to keep her obviously feminine. In the first couple of seasons, for example, she had very long hair. Styling it in an updo only served to call more attention to it. They also seem to show her in her nightgown far more often than any other Captain (not that Kirk or Picard actually wore nightgowns).

They seem to love to remind us of Janeway’s gender at every opportunity.  I found these attempts to be a bit shallow and obvious. To be fair, some of these efforts in visual media might be attributable to the fact that SciFi is still often targeted toward men and what producers believe the average male viewer prefers(not to be confused with what male viewers actually do prefer). Despite that possibility, I don’t think these efforts served the character or the show well.

Don’t go overboard, just get real.
From my negative reaction to these ploys you might think my answer to the question on whether we should soften SFR/PNR heroines would be a resounding NO, but that is not it at all. In fact (please throw tomatoes and not stones) I think trends in recent years to make SFR and PNR heroines “kick-ass” occasionally lead to making similar mistakes in the other directions. Not every heroine need to wear leather and stomp on the villian with her stilletto boot heels. I think that there is room for many different types of heroines in SFR/PNR (including the kick-ass kind).

Future settings are an especially good opportunity to give female characters a strong role to play and I love it when it is done well. But I don’t think that all SFR/PNR heroines need to be strong and I don’t believe that strong equates to hard. Even strong SFR/PNR heroines need vulnerabilities. All characters do. That doesn’t make them more feminine, it makes them more human.  Vulnerable and flawed people are more interesting.

Heroes and heroines need to be relatable and, at some point in the story, admirable. Most readers/viewers will find it difficult to relate to or admire a character who is very cold and harsh regardless of gender. So if a character has “hard” qualities they must also have some “soft” qualities. It isn’t a matter of gender at all.

The troubles comes in when cliche wins over depth.
I think the trouble comes in when a show like Star Trek goes for the cliché or easy symbolism to remind us a character is female rather than treating her like a three-dimensional character. That way lay disaster. Her gender must necessarily be a part of her identity, but might or might not be an important element in a story. The best of all worlds, is when the characters uniquely feminine traits are used to the full.

For more insight to female characters in science fiction, I also recommend Thomas Evans recent guest blogs on female aliens, including Why do we need female aliens in fiction?, 3 archtypes for female aliens, and A surprising pick for best female alien. Big chunks of what he has to say also apply to non-alien characters.

Your turn to weigh in!
Do you think female SFR/PNR characters should be softened?  Any examples of this done well or badly?

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23 thoughts on “Should we soften SFR/PNR heroines?

  1. You nailed it on the head when you said “That doesn’t make them more feminine, it makes them more human. Vulnerable and flawed people are more interesting.” I guess I don’t focus a whole lot on girly attributes. Females are females, that’s a given. My husband made an interesting observance once. A friend of ours preferred his wife not wear Levis because they weren’t ‘feminine’. My husband thought it was stupid because ‘she’s a woman no matter what she wears’. Exactly!

    I tend to write my heroines a bit vulnerable with a dash of pathetic, but when push comes shove, the discover a core of steel they didn’t know they had and act accordingly. Maybe it’s because society considers women to be the softer sex, and in many ways they are, but they can also endure things that would break a man in half. Then again, I look around at the infrastructure of our country and think a woman would never have built planes, trains, automobiles, and skyscrapers. I don’t like the acrimonious competition between the sexes. Neither is better or worse than the other. We’re all just people, susceptible to the human condition.

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    • Your husband sounds like a very smart man. 😉

      Really great observations, Bella. I agree that we need to recognize the similarities and respect the differences from man to woman, species to species, person to person.

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  2. Have I got some SFR female characters for you 😉

    Seriously, I agree with you here. There is no need to soften a starship captain who supposedly made rank by making tough decisions. By the same token, I don’t want my female characters to essentially be he-men with girly bits either. It may be easier in a book, especially if you are in that character’s POV to understand where her softer side is meshing with her kick-ass side. And while a TV series like Star Trek has lots of room/time to allow the character to develop, they still have to keep to the meat of the story/series. Taking the “short cut” to feminize a character is annoying, but somewhat understandable.

    Great post, Charlie, as always 🙂

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    • You are right about having more time and more tools to get it right in a book, but I’m not sure it always happens that way. Script or book, it is all about good writing.

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  3. Bella already said what I was going to say.

    I am pretty tired of kick-ass heroines (in fiction) who never need help and get themselves out of every jam. It’s almost become a trope in itself. Especially in SFR, I like the main characters to work as a team. Yes, she can be a woman. But I’d rather she be a person first.

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  4. I think there’s some sort of misconception that strong women must necessarily be masculine, which I don’t believe to be the case. However, I must admit, I didn’t find Janeway in her nightgown too problematic – it was a short cut to emphasize her femininity, perhaps, but I’m betting a female starship captain never feels more vulnerable and less in control than having sh*t happen while she’s in her nighty. Being able to function while vulnerable is where you see the strength of the character. The one that bugged me was Troi in her super-low cut “uniform”. They fixed it in later seasons, but there never seemed to be a good reason for her original uniforms, except as titillation.

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    • I actually liked Janeway, but the nighties didn’t fit for me. Maybe it is coming from a naval family. The Captain is supposed to be always on call. I would think she would choose PJs knowing that and if she didn’t, why? That’s what was missing, the why? The other women on that show (Belana and Kess) managed to be feminine without those shortcuts. I actually liked Jayneway much better after we learned that she had a nerdy science background. It made her an individual person, at last.

      Troi’s uniforms were silly. Star Trek has a history of that.

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  5. I remember Troi’s outfit early in the TNG series! It screamed–along with the heavy lipgloss and knee-hi boots–“she’s the sensual one’. Oh, brother. Silly men. LOL

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  6. I completely agree with you on this one. All too often Sci-Fi (and indeed other genres) take the cheap road for making their Heroines feminine. Women don’t need to wear leather to be tough and don’t need chiffon to be feminine. Oh, it’s perfectly fine to have characters who wear either (or both), but as you say, you need not overstate it.

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  7. I’m actually pretty tired of SFR and UF covers showing young women wearing tight leather pants and holding a knife or sword. What, exactly, are they saying? I can kick your ass but you better view me as a sex object? In the beginning, it was fine, it was cool, but now it seems like almost every single cover is exactly the same. Can’t tell one story from another.
    I never minded Janeway in the negligees. Those scenes did make her look like vulnerable and feminine, which was fine with me – I do prefer BSG, you have kick ass women (toasters and human) who wear battle fatigues and sexy dresses. BSG resorted to fewer cliches than Star Trek, at least in the first few seasons.
    You didn’t even get into Seven of Nine and her skin tight outfits! Let’s talk about that. She had very few obvious vulnerabilities, she was (unconsciously) sexy as hell, but her character worked for me.
    I always wondered how the female characters on the original Star Trek were supposed to fight in those short skirts.

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    • I always wondered how the female characters on the original Star Trek were supposed to fight in those short skirts.

      Very, very carefully 🙂

      Since we’re on a Star Trek kick, how about Tasha Yar from ST:NG? No short skirts for the security officer, but she may have been a bit too de-feminized due to her position. Dr. Crusher seemed to be a good combination.

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      • Tasha wasn’t my favorite character, but I liked that they did explain her background and that it made sense why she might avoid obvious femininity.

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    • “young women wearing tight leather pants and holding a knife or sword. What, exactly, are they saying?” Good question! I think the leather may have started because it is actually a pretty handy safety feature. Or maybe there is no good reason.

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    • Actually, as long as one didn’t mind revealing all, the short skirt would avoid fabric getting in the way… of course the heels might be a bit of a problem, but the men had those too so….

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  8. I don’t think female heroines need to be softened, but I do appreciate it when they are appreciably female. By that I mean I don’t want them to read like male characters, but with boobs and girl names. In the real world, women approach problems differently, are afraid of different things, have different vulnerabilities and (sometimes) want different things than do men. That said, all characters should be individuals, which leaves lots of room for overlapping male/female characteristics and traits. It also means they can fall pretty much anywhere on the soft-to-hard spectrum, as the story requires… with room for growth.

    BTW, I’ve started a fiction blog, as a kick in the ass to write, mostly. My first post is a story I wrote a decade ago. Feel free to check it out and let me know where you think my heroine falls in this.

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    • Wow. Very fatal attraction. She is very definetly female and there is strength there along with vulnerability. The writing is so haunting, it is a really powerful piece. Well done you – for pushing yourself to write!

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  9. Mostly I just like for there to be a variety of heroines. A completely girly, soft, feminine heroine is fine; a completely hard-as-nails, tough gal is fine, too. And everything in between, LOL. I like ’em complex and interesting, more than anything.

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  10. I seem to remember it as a very short one piece.

    On a completely different note–did anyone see Marina Sirtis in those exercise videos played as Showtime Shorts–before cable had commercials? (Goodness, I just aged myself there). A group of 3 girls would do all these sexed-up ‘exercise’ moves. I would follow along because there was nothing else to do until the next movie came on (hey, I was a teenager, okay?). One time they were doing these bun-clenchy exercises and I was going at it gang-busters when a friend popped by. She watched me thru the window before I knew she was there. Ah, the humiliation…

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  11. Especially the men in the original Star Trek! A fashionable friend of mine once wore these strange cropped pants that flared out mid-calf with high-heeled black boots. I was like ‘you look like Captain Kirk’. She was not amused. LOL

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