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?