From Princess Leia to Cameron Connor: The Lost Art of Writing Science Fiction Women
|Date: 08 Apr 2015 ||
I’m gonna let you in on a secret … Summer Glau had a baby. Listen … No, Listen, I know, right? Isn’t she still seventeen? And machines don’t have babies! But it’s true.
So as the Glau changes diapers, stays up long into the night, and generally wishes death upon the man who forced life to grow inside her, all the while secretly loving every minute of it. On our side of things there are problems that one really thinks of. When you have a fan site dedicated to one actress, and that actress is on maternity leave for however long she wishes, what exactly is the editor to do?
Well don’t worry guys, because your buddy chrisdvanne came to the least qualified person on the internet to entertain you with his one man show of encyclopedic knowledge of “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”, “Game of Thrones”, Lucas Film, DC Universe, and a thousand other things that nobody in the real world cares about. If I were brash, I’d say that at Comic-Con, I could get laid. But come on, I’m a TSCC fan; we’re the most hated fans in Sci-Fi. My own mother is ashamed of me. She tells everyone I volunteer at Slayerfest.
So for the next several months, I, your unhumbled mercenary will attempt to make you think, make you swoon, make you nostalgic, and if we’re still being honest, will probably make you mad. It’s a trial run for you, the people, in your Glauless lives.
So to quote Eddie Wilson from “Eddie and the Cruisers”
“Let’s get on with the music.”
From Princess Leia to Cameron Connor:
In their latest attempt to corner the growing superhero market and whet the appetites of fanboys and fangirls everywhere, Marvel Studios released the eight episode miniseries “Agent Carter” on ABC in January 2015. It came with much fanfare and strong opening reviews. It was a sprawling period piece with stellar actors, flawless direction, and expert set design (special mention to the costume design work by Giovanna Ottore-Melton). It was truly a unique experience … visually. Where Agent Carter fell was in the viewership. From week to week ratings continued to fall as the show continued on.
Now being a TSCC fan, I’ve heard the stories before. “The Networks aren’t looking at online numbers.” Or “The Networks are stuck in the ancient days of Nielsen.” They are complaints long echoed in the nightmare of any fan of a show on the bubble. There were even a few editorials online that accused a vast sexist agenda of people not being attracted to a female protagonist. There were many excuses and theories thrown around how this female led show was doing so poorly in the ratings. No one ever stopped to ask the simplest, most fundamental question in Television.
How’s the writing?
To describe the Agent Carter experience is to simply equate it to Cereal. Imagine, if you will, you buy a delicious cereal for breakfast. You lay in bed all night thinking about it, how you can’t wait to have a bowl. Tomorrow comes, so you open the box, you pour a good helping … and everything taste’s sour to the point of near spit take. That’s because you’ve been so focused on the cereal you forgot that your milk was expired.
Agent Carter and the Marvel Studio reputation was that box of cereal. The hope for a female led superhero based show. The poor writing of the character and the settings was all spoiled milk. For any television show to be successful you must have character and Peggy Carter was, sadly, a two-dimensional female protagonist. Yes, she kicked butt, brooded over Steve Rogers, and took the barbs of her male coworkers with grace. But that was all she did. The simple fact was that Peggy Carter was a Mary-Sue character without flaws or a backstory, meant to be an empowering figure for girls everywhere. But the problem remained that to have a good bowl of cereal, it’s not just the Cornpops … it’s the Cornpops and the milk.
When someone wants a bowl of cereal, they don’t settle for one or the other. Thus Agent Carter was a failure on many levels. However, what it did highlight was the lack of an art form that is rare, sorely misunderstood, and highly politicized. This art form is the writing of Science Fiction heroines in Hollywood.
What passes in today’s society for a strong female character is someone who punches and shoots her way through a problem, all the while sticking it to her male counter parts. It’s a shielded construct that is unassailable by critics for fear of being labeled sexist. In this charged political climate, there are few that are willing to write female protagonists the right way. To create a character that is nuanced, vulnerable, defensive, and dare I say … human. Every bleeding heart has longed and pushed to spear head diversity by creating the same soulless mold for all female heroes and calling it equality.
But I write this not to join in with the bra burners, armchair feminists, and the Greek life protesters. I say this to highlight that there is always an answer to the problem and as far as this writer is concerned, there are two characters that every Executive Producer with a “Strong” female hero can point to and say …
“That’s what I want my girl to be like.”
In 1977 the world of cinema was changed forever by the movie Star Wars. Directed and written by the now legendary storyteller George Lucas. I could tell you all the things that you know about how the movies were written, how they were made, and the line around the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. But I won’t. Instead I’ll relay a small anecdotal story told by master writer, and my personal inspiration, Paul Dini. On Mr. Dini’s podcast “Radio Rashy” cohosted by his lovely wife and seance magician, Misty Lee. He has, on occasion, told a tale of going home to San Francisco to go see this “Rinky Tink” B-movie sci-fi yawn called “Star Wars” that was getting some buzz. His story is that of all those of the generations that had went to the movies and came out an acolyte of that Galaxy Far, Far away.
But what stands out to him, and I, when I heard the retelling of it was not his reaction, but another’s. While engrossed in the final act, the now iconic Battle of Yavin, he was on the edge of his seat as Luke Skywalker makes his run at the Death Star exhaust port, his unknowing father trailing him. Suddenly, blaster fire cuts through the screen and the high pitched yell of a little droid echoes through the theater. Suddenly a voice of an older man gasps behind Dini. In the 125 minutes of film, George Lucas had made a movie, crafted an experience, and created characters that welled so deep into one’s heart that the maiming of a little Astromech named R2-D2, a secondary character, elicited such a response from millions like Mr. Dini and his theater mate.
In this masterpiece there is a blue print that is often taken for granted. A treasure map that leads to gold, yet never thoroughly observed long enough to make the journey to fame and fortune. Amongst all this talk of expertly written female heroes, never has Leia Organa been more relevant. This charismatic, mature, empathetic, snobby, bossy, ill-tempered, marksmen were all the traits you learned about her in the first ten minutes of meeting the character. George Lucas hadn’t just changed the way you watch a movie in 1977, he may have changed the way a female hero is written. How?
By simply writing a character.
There were no gender specifics, no focus groups, and male bashing political correctness. Carrie Fisher's Leia Organa was simply written as a character with attributes of an upbringing as a sovereign monarch, senator, and a leader of a do or die rebellion. All these things were what motivated her no-nonsense attitude toward the farm boy and the pirate who had stumbled upon her plight. With great direction and an unimaginable vision, the character had come to life on screen to forever be etched as one of the best female heroes in the history of cinema.
Some 31 years later in a coffee shop in Los Angeles, a writer by the name of Josh Friedman would have an idea for a television pilot, based on the adventures of another iconic cinema heroine. Throughout this process he would create not only one of the greatest Science Fiction Noir shows of all time in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but he would create a character that doubled as an iconic female action heroine as well as one of the most beloved cyborgs in modern Science Fiction.
The genesis of the character of Cameron was based one part on an old James Cameron concept of what a Terminator is and one part Romeo and Juliet. In his Coffee Shop and later aided by nine people locked in a room in the Warner Offices, the protector Cyborg, known only as Cameron, came alive. Her mission was to protect John Connor and her purpose throughout the series was to play constantly against Sarah Connor’s control over her son.
What makes Cameron a unique female character is that she has attributes that one would find in a normal serialized television show. She was, of course, portrayed by the most exquisitely beautiful woman, Summer Glau. Cameron was the constant main love interest of John Connor throughout series. She often quibbled and experimented with makeup and fashion. But what was truly remarkable about the character was that she was in fact not a woman at all. She was a cyborg designed to kill, and yet she was drawn through the curiosity of a non-human toward all the things that define a female heroine and molding it to make it something of her own.
There were many things that endeared people to the character of Cameron. From Summer Glau’s subtle performance, to the character’s angelic curiosity of all things human, the cyborg’s pension for “straight man” humor, and for many it was her part in the Schrodinger’s Romeo and Juliet love story with John Connor. And while she was also a Terminator, which meant many well produced and slack-jaw action scenes from which she walked away victorious, this wasn’t what made her the most popular character on the show.
When people like fellow TSCC expatriate, Steve Glosson of the venerable Geekoutloud podcast network, and many others first saw the promos for a Terminator television show, the first thing they were expecting was the A Team with robots. What they got was character. And while sometimes TSCC was a bit haughty, maybe spent too much time trying to copy the religious undertones of Battlestar Galactica, and was inspired too much by Twin Peaks. It could never be said that you couldn’t turn on TSCC and not find interesting characters … possibly the most interesting amongst all of them was the cybernetic Juliet with eyes that glowed Blue … or Red depending on where you are in the series.
In closing, I leave you with a story retold by Playboy Online’s Marc Bernardin about Neil Cross’s creation of the seminal Idris Elba Character “Luther” on the Latest episode of “Fatman on Batman” with Kevin Smith. When the character of Luther was created, it was not created with the intention of casting race. As Neil Cross put it, he did not grow up Black on the London streets. He did not have that experience therefore, he could not write it. He simply wrote a character that Idris Elba came to inhabit the best.
What you can take away from this is simply that despite what many big gatekeeping entities of entertainment and mainstream writers may think, it does not take a woman to write female heroes, and it does not take a man to write male heroes. It simply starts with an idea …
And a Character.
“De nier ce qui est, et d’expliquer ce qui n’est pas.”
Sincerely, your Ghost Writer
“The Heir of Dupin”
Associate editor of the article: Alexandra Jean
We would love to hear from you. Please leave your comment below if you have any thoughts on this article and feel free to tell us who is your favorite female character on TV.
|Total comments: 5|
Message #2 | Thierry | 08 Apr 2015, 20:19 GMT
Very interesting paper, thx for this, Chris...
It reminds me some research papers about Joss Whedon's strong women characters. For several years, it has been a theme of universities/colleges dissertations, maybe even PhD works, as for gender studies as for litterature or art analysis.
Also a pleasure to notice, as Chris wrote, the excellent place of Summer in the text. One more proof of her great performance in TSCC (but who needed to know it?).
Anyway, the best reason (if such reason is necessary....) for "strong" women characters - in scifi or in any kind - is given by Joss Whedon himself in this speech (introduced by Meryl Streep herself) :
Brillant. A masterpiece.
Message #3 | chrisdvanne | 08 Apr 2015, 20:45 GMT
Thanks Thierry, but you'll notice I'm not the author of the article.
I asked a talented writer - who goes by the pen name of “The Heir of Dupin” (Edgar Allan Poe reference) - to write this piece for the site. I'm very well aware that the Internet and social networking accounts tend to favour short articles, preferably about lighter subjects but I thought it would be interesting to have this kind or article here.
It's no surprise to me that you appreciate this but I hope many fans will to.
Message #4 | chrisdvanne | 10 Apr 2015, 23:54 GMT
Glad you liked the article!
This is not the first time fans have been helping me write news/blog posts but this one was a bit more thoughtful than the usual stuff I post and it was also completely original. I am very satisfied with the final results.
P.S.: thanks for your help regarding the article (you know what I'm talking about )
Message #5 | KevinInEngland | 30 Dec 2016, 01:52 GMT
I see the writer saw Cameron as John's love interest. The writer saw that straight away. I was not so sure, but perhaps John was always hiding his feelings, even from us, the viewer?
I'm really glad you posted this video thierry. Something I wanted to know. Nice to know Meryll knew Joss. Wit and resolve in his female characters. Joss had a good point for male writers about strong women characters.
It's really quite weird to me, after all these years, I've never actually heard Joss speak. I suppose I could have taken the trouble to find out, as I often wondered what it was that drew Summer Glau so close to him. Now I can see. He's articulate and intelligent - which is pretty obvious really.
A good article which told me a little bit about the kind of person Princess leia was. I have never seen a Star Wars film.