Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Marking International Women's Day - The Best Female SF Characters

Today is International Women's Day, a time to reflect on the accomplishments of women around the world and the challenges that still lie ahead.

Certainly women have always played an important role in creating and guiding speculative fiction, from Mary Shelley at the dawn of the genre, to Leigh Brackett, Octavia Butler, Alice Sheldon, Phyllis Gotlieb, Ursula K. Le Guin, Judith Merril, Nalo Hopkinson, Kit Reed, Naomi Novik, Cherie Priest and many, many more.

As memorable and influential as the authors (and directors and producers and pencillers and inkers and letterers) are, so are the female characters that we get to know in science fiction, fantasy, and comics. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at who some of the best female characters are in SF, and what makes them so interesting, and most of all, why are they important?

And because it's International Women's Day, I thought it was especially important that I get a woman's perspective on this issue. So I've gathered a group of female friends who are from different walks of life and different parts of the country, but who all share a life-long
love of SF to share their opinions. I'll throw in my to cents as well, but today, it's ladies first.

First up, my oldest friend, Sam McCreath, university student, private school housemother, and the person who tried (and failed) to get me to like
Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels:

"Discovering sci-fi & fantasy at an early age is what really turned me on to
reading. As a young-ish girl I first found Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series, then Mercedes Lackey's books. I was attracted to their female characters, each of whom was strong, independent, and intelligent. They represented an image of being a girl which is often missing in mainstream literature and other media. The stereotype of being female that required being rescued instead of a woman saving herself never appealed to me. In sci-fi and fantasy, strong female characters are the norm, not an interesting plot twist.

"My appreciation continues today. I’ve found shows and movies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Resident Evil, the Lara Croft character in Tomb Raider, and even some of the Bond Girls portray an image of femininity based on strength rather than being compromised by it."

Another friend, Sarah Corbeil, a financial analyst, and hoarder of books with a collection that may rival (or exceed) my own in size, had this to say:

"For me, the female characters in SF that are the best or most important are the strong characters who are women in stories where the fact that they are women is irrelevant and plays little or no part in the point of the book.

"For example, the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. The books cover the career of a very strong woman, starting from a young age and mov
ing forward/upward through her career to various command positions. The fact that she is a woman isn't even emphasized; in fact, it is her class that causes issues in her society. When the series takes you to a planet where women are considered less than men, it was interesting seeing the two societies clash as Honor's people learn to deal with people who look down on women, believing them incapable of things they take for granted. Over several books you see Honor and her society change the views of this planet as she refuses to be anyone but her
self. Honor is respected as a person, and it has nothing to do with her being a woman."

My cousin, Jenn Eades, is an entrepreneur and mother, and used to watch
Battle of the Planets/G-Force/Gatchaman with me when we were kids, and always had a Stephen King book by her side as a teen, summed up her thoughts in
one word:


My friend Nicole Yamanaka, a kinesiologist, personal trainer and fitness studio owner, and truly amazing costume maker, had this take on the question:

"As a woman, my love for comic books has always been kind of a 'Secret' (a badly kept one, at that) because it just wasn't cool, even though I spent hours at comic book stores and religiously make reference to Star Wars Day (May 4th, but I'm preaching to the choir here)! My love for comic characters has been a huge influence on my life, ever since childhood.

"Catwoman, since the campy
Batman TV show days, has always captured my heart. Admit it, the majority of you women out there have this strange affinity for felines (sexy!) but the appeal to the tom-boy, bad girl in all of us is also satisfied. I don't know if I love her because I love cats, orif I love cats because I love her. Call me sick and twisted, a martyr, or an angry anti-hero and tormented type, which is probably why the Tim Burton version (okay, I love black vinyl and leather too) resonates with me so much. And finally, I do happen to have two 6+ foot bull whips in my possession, which I love dearly and do play with from time to time. Clients hate that. Which brings me to the second big love in my life, Rogue, of X-men fame.

"When I discovered this character, I wished that I was indestructibe and, yeah, that I could fly too. Being a science major, I knew self-propelled flight was out of the question, so when my boyfriend at the time suggested I start weight training (I think he was sick of my whining), I took it up. And it stuck. So I have Rogue to thank for dropping the seed in me that lead me to my career as a kinesiologist, personal trainer, and attempting feats of flight through climbing, pole dancing and whatever else I can laungh myself off of.

"There are a million fun female characters that have meant a lot to me, for various reasons, but I'll stop there before you all get glassy-eyed and skip away from Robin's blog.

"Many women in
my life laugh at these stories and judge me for loving a gal in spandex and critique the negative image of women in comics. But I prefer to see the beauty and good in what they can (and have done) for me. At this stage of my life, I look back at the complexity of the women in fiction and realize that we are drawn to them because of how real they are. Story lines, character development, conflicts... they resonate because we see ourselves. Take away the powers and the costumes and what do you have? Us. Simply, and beautifully, just us. I have learned a lot about myself through fictional characters and watched myself evolve through my attachment to certain strong female 'role models'. We take the good from them, leave the bad (I should hope) and make our lives a little richer, if not a little funner (yes, I know 'funner' isn't a real word, but that's why English is so awesome) sometimes, too."

And my wife, Phoebe Lau, an entrepreneur and administrative professional, who always has the last word in this house, had this to say:

"Zoe from Firefly has to be one of my favourite female characters. She's comfortable with being tender and loving with her husband, but she's also a soldier who doesn't take crap from anyone (even Wash) and fights 'till the end. I've also always like Eowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan, from The Lord of the Rings... another great fighter, responsible for taking down the Nazgul king."

Thank-you, ladies!

For my part, there are a lot of female SF characters that I think are worthy of highlighting:
Martha Jones and Donna Noble from Doctor Who - smart, adult Companions who supported the Doctor but also stood up to him; Admiral Jane Roland from the Temeraire books; Athena and Six from BSG who grew into so much more than replicants; Brawne Lamia from the Hyperion books; Zoe from Firefly; Aeryn Sun from Farscape; Arya Stark and Daenerys Targaryen in the A Song of Ice and Fire series; Galadriel from LOTR, who joined her family's mad rebellion in the elder days of Middle Earth but settled down to rule with wisdom; Ellen Ripley from the Alien movies (except the fourth, which was so bad we shall not name it); Uhura from Star Trek; Chrysalis from the Wild Cards shared universe; Sultana Katima from Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt; Machiko Noguchi from the first Aliens vs Predator comic series; Yu Shu Lien from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon; Briar Wilkes in Boneshaker; Fio Piccolo, whose aeronautical engineering genius keeps the pig in the air in Porco Rosso; and General Susan Ivanova and Delenn (too many titles, so much greatness) in Babylon 5. And I can't forget Wonder Woman, who, when I was just a little guy in the 70's, I first saw incarnated as Linda Carter camping across the TV screen, but over the years has been a character that's revealed herself to be more than a jiggling pin-up girl, rather a strong, intelligent character who holds her own and certainly deserves her status on the front-line, A-list of the Justice League. And last, but never least, Princess Leia, who also formed a lasting impression on me when I was knee-high to an astrodroid; she's smart, tough, tender, and quite capable of cutting down the badguys with either a blaster or her caustic wit. Give me another million pages and I'll name another million women in the pages and on the screens of SF
who I like and respect.

So how about you? Who are your favourite female SF characters? Why? What makes them important? Nominations from ladies and gentlemen are both appreciated.

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