Upon viewing the evolution of both fantasy and science fiction, it is immanent that both genres are demonstrating an awareness of the cultural values of their audiences. Specifically, the portrayal of female characters in sci-fi are consistently strong, being held as an example for many other genres in terms of gender-diverse protagonists. Further, with modern science fiction films such as Ex Machina exploring elements of the post-human, the genre becomes reflective of the human experience, as well as the female experience. With fantasy’s reputation for its boy’s club status, Game of Thrones’ massive success has brought an expansion of its female viewership to the genre. Whist the HBO series has been ground-breaking in its portrayal of female characters, many of the storylines and characters have proved problematic, with audiences immediately voicing their views and concerns. The emergence of the strong female character has now become a trope for each genre respectively, however, with such a multitude of female characters, how do we tell which ones are ‘strong’?
Accompanying the emergence of postmodernism during the mid-to-late 20th century came two ideologies that would become inextricably linked. With science fiction’s generic “concern with the interpenetration of boundaries… and the exploration of possible selves” (Wolmark, 1994, p. 2), postmodern feminism seemed to align with these ideals, calling for “intervention and social change” (Ebert, 1991, p. 886). Additionally, early science fiction also demonstrated a propensity for blending cultural elements including classism, humanism and feminism exemplified in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). However, although the choice to write Ellen Ripley as female was ultimately trailblazing for the genre, Ripley was originally written as male, “a product of masculine discourse” (Gallardo C. & Smith, 2004, p. 3). And though Alien’s Ripley was not necessarily feministic in her construct, it helped “fill the need for a strong female protagonist…[making] an understandable impression on many female viewers” (Gallardo C. & Smith, 2004, p. 3). Of course, Ellen Ripley’s character was significantly improved upon in James Cameron’s sequel Aliens (1986), as her inherent femininity, instincts and flaws only work to aid both her strength and character. Ripley is seen to embody the women’s rights movement, “[fitting] differing social, political and cultural imperatives for women, but they never diminished her heroic role” (Gallardo C. & Smith, 2004, p. 4). Also significant is the “focus on Ripley and the Alien Queen as mothers” (Gallardo C. & Smith, 2004, p. 9) with the engagement of the idea of motherhood brought into sci-fi ideology. Ellen Ripley’s shadow is seen throughout science fiction from Sarah Connor to Buffy, as these characters “have access to a range of emotions, skills and abilities which have traditionally been defined as… ‘feminine’” (Hills, 1999, p. 38). Only very recently in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), the character Rey was introduced to audiences as the protagonist of one of the world’s largest franchises. This strategic push towards equilibrium in representation is an important demonstration which is rooted in science fiction.
Combining both science fiction and horror tropes is the post-human motif. Often emulated through ideas of the ‘living dead’, a post-human condition also refers to “human-technology symbiosis” (Haney, 2006, p. 2). With the human condition defined by the presence of consciousness, the post-human is similarly determined by this “malleability of embodiment and consciousness” (Bould, 2010, p. 2). The elements of consciousness and influence can be seen to parallel discussions of what makes a ‘strong’ female character, especially along the branch of questioning the purpose of female characters and the post-human.
A modern example of science fiction’s evolution into a generic exploration of the post-human experience is Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015). Drawing the possibility for a wide range of interpretations, the film explores the creation of femininity in the form of artificial intelligence. Garland poses several ideas to his audience including the question of what makes a human, thus, a woman? These questions are, of course quite hypothetical. However, interpreting the constructs of Ava’s conditions of life as prison-like seems to justify her will to escape. Additionally, although Ava’s creator Nathan gave her ‘gifts’ that he perceived as inherently female (including sexuality and physicality), it is Ava’s use of these gifts against Nathan and Caleb that set her apart from the other AIs: “another’s desire, not the self’s labour, is the origin of ‘woman’. She therefore develops a theory of consciousness that enforces what can count as ‘women’s’ experience” (Haraway, 1983, p. 167).
Most significantly, Ava’s resistance of filling the oppressed roles held by the other AIs ultimately is what gives her the ability to break free. This closing idea bares significance on the current dialogue about women’s roles in culture and genre.
Fantasy is a genre which until recently has lacked depth within the portrayal of female characters with the exception of a few. Although a relatively broad genre which also shares links with science fiction, fantasy is generally defined by their ability to “tell stories that would be impossible in the real world” (Fowkes, 2010, p. 2). A defining motif of so-called pure fantasy is ‘the hero’s journey’, with an “adventure and transformation that runs through all of the world’s mythic traditions” (Campbell, 2008). Ultimately popularising the genre was Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03) which brought JRR Tolkien’s fantasy saga to the big screen. Upon adaptation, Jackson himself designated the task to “emphasise the role of female characters such as Galadriel, Eowyn and Arwen” (Leotta, 2015, p. 211). Although this act brought ‘strong’ females into the fantasy fold, the overall lack of female characters to the ratio of active male characters was far outbalanced. This general lack of engagement with the female experience led female viewers to seek out fantasy elsewhere. Furthermore, Lord of the Ring’ success ultimately lay in “the ways that masculinity…[could] be read and understood” (Madill, 2008), thus the female story is left untold.
A shining example of fantasy genre from a female perspective is Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Following a somewhat traditional structure which mimics Alice’s journey into Wonderland, Ophelia’s journey follows a far darker trajectory. It is not the fantasy elements of Pan’s Labyrinth that set it apart from pure fantasy genre films, rather the addition of horror tropes. The use of the body horror trope highlights the horrific nature of both puberty and pregnancy which seem to seep from Ophelia’s ‘real’ world to her ‘fantasy’. Demonstrated through colour, imagery and narrative connections, Pan’s Labyrinth raises “fears associated with the female role in relation to death, childbirth…often rooted in gothic horror as well as fairy-tale traditions” (Hessel & Huppert, 2010, p. 58). In terms of its reflection on culture, Pan’s Labyrinth pushes against the limitations placed upon both fantasy genre and its female characters. Furthermore, with female fantasy stories remaining mostly in fairy-tales, Pan’s Labyrinth is “a hero’s journey told as a young girl’s fairy-tale” (Lindsay, 2012, p. 3). This journey is defined by del Toro’s selection of a an 11-year old heroine, taking “an important departure from the hero’s journey mythology” (Lindsay, 2012, p. 6), and, in turn, critiquing the male-centricity of fantasy genre itself.
Game of Thrones blends both fantasy genre and serialised drama for the format of television. Adapted from George R.R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire, significant character and narrative changes needed to take place in order to fit HBO’s format and aesthetic. Although maintaining a reputable status “based upon narratively complex shows such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under…and The Wire” (Mittell, 2006), HBO’s “repetitive theme of violence” (Atkinson & Laurier, 2012) and sexuality are consistently featured throughout content. Thus, upon adapting Martin’s ultimately patriarchal world of Westeros, the decision was made to ‘age up’ the majority of the central characters. Additionally, the majority of original characters written specifically for the show’s adaptation were prostitutes, with the sole purpose of adding a sexually-charged atmosphere: “Ros, the red-headed whore, adopts the roles of several different prostitutes in the books” (Frankel, 2014, p. 13). Additionally, the use and abuse inflicted upon Ros was singularly problematic, as she was used as disposable, “as such one criticism revolved around the naked women in scenes that stop the plot…thus seem unnecessary” (Frankel, 2014, p. 14). Further, during some scenes containing gratuitous sex, dialogue that aids the partaking male’s character is built upon. An example of this kind of excess, in season two, episode two, Theon Greyjoy apparently seduced the daughter of his ship’s captain, although we do not see this scene play out. Instead, we see the sexual act and dialogue which informs the audience about the history of the Iron Islands. One could suggest that it is important to know about Theon’s rapid sexual exploits in order to press significance on later narrative development. However, this kind of sex scene is seen as extraneous, aiding the show’s writers to divide the female characters into “two categories: noblewomen and prostitutes” (Frankel, 2014, p. 15). This ultimately works against the sexuality portrayed in Martin’s books: “The books may be more sexual, but the show’s nudity is more sexist” (Frankel, 2014, p. 16). Influencing the gratuitous nature of Game of Thrones’ sexual content is the utilisation of the male gaze. With a biased appeal towards male viewers, “Game of Thrones’ sex scenes do not appear designed to appeal to women” (Frankel, 2014, p. 25), with male nudity far outweighed by female nudity. Additionally, “men are treated as characters and controllers of the scene, while the women range from exploited to ignored barely-people” (Frankel, 2014, p. 26). The active use of perspective shots in surveying the naked female characters further complicates the issue, with women “[becoming] the object being viewed, not a viewer” (Frankel, 2014, p. 27).
A continuous discussion since Game of Thrones’ first episode has been considering the exacerbation of sexual violence portrayed for the purpose of “entertainment and titillation” (Frankel, 2014, p. 17). Many of the show’s producers have expressed a nonpartisan position on the issue. Significantly, the choice for Daenerys’ husband Khal Drogo to possibly rape her on their wedding night was in obvious contrast to that portrayed in Martin’s novel: “the wedding feast is much the same between the two versions of the story, but the depiction of the wedding night differs in one aspect that changes the whole tone of the scene” (Jones, 2012, p. 19). Furthermore, the choice to force these implications onto the structuring of Daenerys and Khal Drogo’s relationship does not aid in its complexity, as “the whole narrative trajectory of the relationship…is altered by the beginning of their marriage with a rape instead of consensual intercourse” (Frankel, 2016, p. 164).
Examples of outwardly ‘strong’ female characters are provided through Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth. Emerging during season two as one of Renly Baratheon’s knights, Brienne appears to not conform physically to her gender: “actively [destroying] femininity within her own body and makes it a stunning and defiant female masculinity” (Williamson, 2014, p. 3). However, Brienne’s emotional and romantic infatuations towards Renly Baratheon and Jaime Lannister sets Brienne apart from Arya, through her true demonstration of her need to be loved. This need is both her strength and her weakness, as Brienne expresses heartbreak and yearning, a trait detached from the strength that she outwardly displays. However, through her constant vigilance to keep her promise to Catelyn Stark, Brienne establishes herself as one of the strongest protectors through her deeply engrained sense of love and purpose: “Brienne may be exceptional…but she is one of the most, if not the most, honourable characters… loyal to the liege to whom she has sworn service” (Gjelsvik & Schubart, 2016, p. 177). Furthermore, Brienne identifies a special ‘woman’s strength’ in Catelyn, which she eventually comes to embody through her protection of the Catelyn’s daughters.
Ultimately one of the most popular characters on Game of Thrones, Arya’s true journey begins after her father’s execution and her escape from King’s Landing. Previously in set in contrast with her older sister Sansa, Arya’s rugged nature guides her to “deconstruct gender norms not only thorough her outward rejection to act feminine, but also though her actions and her refusal to categorise herself specifically to a single gender” (Williamson, 2014, p. 3). Due to the patriarchal structure of Westeros, Arya’s non-conformity to her gender ultimately aids her venture, although “her role in the television show is to be neither a girl or a boy”. Further, the dissimilarity between Arya’s affluence in Westeros in comparison to Sansa’s lies within Arya’s lack of femininity and Sansa’s abundance, with Sansa ultimately punished for her feminine role.
An additional female character whose storyline has significantly change from Martin’s novel is that of Sansa Stark. Filling the role of the innocent, Sansa’s will to become Joffrey’s queen is depicted as a punishable offence prior to her father’s execution. Although initially less likable in the show’s portrayal, Sansa’s subsequent punishment through forced marriages, torment and rape only act to damn Sansa for her innocence and naïveté. Sansa’s opportunities to observe and learn from genuine ‘game-players’ such as Cersei Lannister, Olenna Tyrell and Margaery Tyrell are not taken for granted, however, as she is occasionally afforded a seat at the table. Margaery’s presence is in pure contrast to Sansa, with her main objective, like Sansa’s initially, to be “the queen”. Upon replacing Sansa as Joffrey’s fiancée, Margaery inadvertently shields Sansa whilst glimpsing her “larger strategy” (Frankel, 2014, p. 112). Although Margaery uses her sexuality to achieve many of her objectives, she does so with compelling intellect, “embracing life and sensuality, as often-widowed Margaery does” (Frankel, 2014, p. 113).
After escaping with Petyr Baelish from King’s Landing, Sansa grasps her freedom as viewers hold the hope again that Sansa’s plight would improve. By the closing of the fifth season and with Sansa’s obligatory ‘costume change’, viewers of Game of Thrones seemed both optimistic and enthusiastic to see Sansa finally put forward acquired knowledge and agency. With the Martin’s narrative ending, Sansa’s story diverted from the books, and many viewers were pleased to see this. However, upon her arrival back at Winterfell, Sansa is under the impression that she was in control and protected upon agreeing to marry Ramsay Bolton. Sansa also re-unites with Theon Greyjoy prior to the wedding, affirming that, although she doesn’t want to marry Ramsay, she has no choice if she wants to survive. Additionally, “Sansa is unaware of Bolton’s [previous] brutality” (Frankel, 2016, p. 162). On Sansa’s wedding night, Ramsay rapes her whilst Theon is forced to watch. This rape is only made more repugnant by the filmmaker’s choice to focus on Theon’s pain in reaction to Sansa’s. Essentially, the rape of Sansa Stark was used in order to feed Ramsay’s status as an antagonist.
Upon airing this episode in May 2015, viewers who had embraced Game of Thrones because of its construction of strong female characters were in abject outrage. Feminist website ‘The Mary Sue’, for example, “announced that they would no longer promote Game of Thrones” (Frankel, 2016, p. 167). This outrage stemmed due to the sheer multiplicity of “perhaps unnecessary scenes in which a central female characters are raped (in addition to secondary female characters who are sexually abused)” (Frankel, 2016, p. 167). Although this storyline did not have an effect HBO’s viewership, a wider discussion about the misogyny of filmmaking continues today, with significant changes made in future seasons of Game of Thrones.
In reaction to the negative backlash brought by the treatment of Sansa Stark, episode one of season six brought viewers back to the Dorne storyline (also written ‘off book’). After its lack of success in engaging audiences previously, the entire storyline was cut off with Ellaria and her Sand Snakes murdering King Doran, his guard and his son. As King Doran dies, Ellaria utters ‘weak men will never rule Dorne again’. This misappropriation of feminism seemed both unnecessary and alleviating, as Dorne’s plot was poorly written and received, pale in comparison to the book’s slow building plot of Dorne. Further, the ideology of this scene seemed to act as a misinformed expression of regret which in no way made up for the cruelties inflicted upon Sansa.
Having been set up for the grand finale, Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, both possessing differing degrees of strength, are the two most developed female characters on Game of Thrones. However, it could be suggested that through her greater level of flaws, Cersei’s story has been the most compelling to watch unfold. As she was pushed, like Sansa, into an unhappy marriage, Cersei’s one redeeming quality, according to her brother Tyrion, were her children. And although it seemed that Cersei would have lost everything to protect her children, Cersei is able to play the literal game of thrones. Cersei’s plight is not always portrayed as sympathetic, “as an antagonist to the Starks, she ranges from cold and cruel to deranged and monstrous” (Gjelsvik & Schubart, 2016, p. 154). However, it is Cersei’s flaws which, in some ways, do present her as sympathetic and compelling to viewers, set her apart from the misapplied feminism of Dorne to one of accuracy: “Some of Cersei’s rage is quite justified” (Frankel, 2014, p. 99). Cersei resides in a patriarchal society and excels without sacrificing her femininity, “[buying] into the patriarchy as much as she despises it” (Frankel, 2014, p. 99). In fact, whenever Cersei is garnering her strength, she prepares by dressing herself in fine clothing and jewellery, essentially utilising her femininity like armour. Ultimately, Cersei is drawn into strong contrast with her future opponent Daenerys, who would abolish the patriarchy rather than manipulate it.
Upon observing female characters in both science fiction and fantasy genres, the sum of which makes a ‘strong’ female character becomes clearer. Through the engagement of Game of Thrones, demonstrations of strong and weak female characters are both provided, with the latter being under-developed and over exploited. Additionally, discussion concerning the role and over-usage of sexual violence and nudity through the lens of the male gaze are “subject to much discussion in online feminist spaces” (Ferreday, 2015, p. 24). Thusly, Game of Thrones’ plethora of strong women identifies the need and demand by audiences for multi-faceted, flawed female characters. Furthermore, the ideals of female strength do not discriminate, positioning women to harness their innermost strength whether that be from femininity, masculinity or love.
Science fiction’s ability to reflect upon its culture illuminates the inherent sexism which shapes our society. With a vast history of strongly constructed female characters, science fiction is leading the pack of female protagonists. Demonstrating the post-human trope, Ex Machina thwarts the concept of gender roles, with Ava doing whatever it takes to resist patriarchal control.
With feminist narratives becoming all the more present in today’s culture, it is not only fitting but essential for media to reflect such ideals through representation and the construction of strong female characters. Fantasy and science fiction as cinematic genres have unlimited potential to create both characters and portraits which embody the fight for gender equality. Indeed, whist media portrayals of women can be problematic, it is ultimately discussion and demand which shape the construction of cinema and television.
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Written and assessed Semester 2, 2016