I stumbled into sci-fi by hitchhiking around the galaxy with Arthur Dent. This started a lifelong obsession with this genre. As a typical nerd, I researched the history of the genre and read some of the early work (Lucian of Samosata), the later work (Huxley), the contemporary work (Gaiman). I found that, more often than not, I was disappointed with the unexceptional portrayal of women in science fiction by some of these (generally) male authors. These authors would choose to use these women as plot devices only to help the male protagonists to their goal or portray them as shallow by only describing their appearance. They were not seen or imagined as fully realised individuals. Some of these men were better at writing women and some were worse. But the underlying problem was that these women of scientific fiction were essentially written two-dimensionally. The characters lacked the agency needed to become actual individuals because they were written down by some man in a book and that was that.
This realisation led me on my very own quest to find women in scientific fiction: women who struggle, women who are happy, women who are unhappy, women who make decisions without having to think about how men will respond, women who aren’t just men written with female pronouns, women who are participants in the world.
Delenn to Janeway to Donna Noble
This is not a typical ‘top 10 strongest women in sci-fi’ kind of article – those are available in plenty on the Internet. I want to dig a little deeper into these characters and what they taught me.
Ambassador Delenn of planet Minbar in science fiction television series Babylon 5 taught me what it meant to stand up for what you know is right. Babylon 5 is a neutral space station, which is home to many different species. When Earth is taken over by an autocrat Babylon 5 is in danger of essentially being dismantled, she stands toe to toe against a fleet of Earth ships and says, “Babylon 5 is under our protection. Withdraw… or be destroyed.” The Earth Captain replies “… Do not force us to engage your ship.” Delenn says, “Why not? Only one human captain has ever survived battle with a Minbari fleet. He is behind me. You are in front of me. If you value your lives, be somewhere else.” I cannot do justice to explaining the full context of the show, but this is one of her most defining moments you know that she will not take anything lying low (and those last three words form one of the best delivered lines in sci-fi).
Delenn wasn’t there as a romantic foil, she wasn’t there as a plot device. She was a leader in every sense of the word, and Furlan’s representation of her captured that. RIP Mira Furlan.
Kate Mulgrew’s representation of Captain Janeway in Voyager was inimitable. She was not perfect, indeed like all of us she was flawed, but she stuck to her ideals. She saw through her officers on more than one occasion, she cared about the people under her. Her relationship with Seven was the depiction of a wonderful friendship, rough to begin with but eventually epitomising love between friends. On occasion, she let emotions guide her (this has long been an argument against women in leadership positions), but men do the same thing. Think of two very different starship captains. Captain Janeway endangers her entire crew in Equinox because she wanted revenge against a fellow starship captain who failed to uphold her (and the Federation’s) ideals – primarily to not kill aliens for your own gain. At the end of the episode, she acknowledges that she was out of line. Captain Picard too makes decisions based on his emotions, like his hatred of the Borg in First Contact. It reminds us of how sometimes, we all do that, despite gender, because we are not perfect.
Doctor Who has a long, very long, history of portraying women as important, in their own right, not just because they were companions of the coolest alien in the universe. Sarah Jane, Ace, Rose, Donna, River, Bill are examples of women who are strong in their own ways (I won’t say much about the 13th Doctor it is still too soon). Donna’s character arc was just beautifully heartbreaking in its writing and its portrayal. Donna was sassy, fun, friendly, but she didn’t think much of herself. She even says so, “I’m nothing special. I mean … I’m nothing special. I’m a temp! I’m not even that. I’m nothing.” Yet saving the universe, all the universes, hinged on her. “Donna Noble, you’re the most important woman in the whole of creation.”
It reminds me that sometimes we are blind to our own worth. Doctor Who does this often, where they take a human (or alien) and demonstrate how important they are, and it reminds you that all our actions have an impact, sometimes ones we didn’t even consider.
Despite being women in science fiction, none of these three have some otherworldly, supernatural abilities that immediately make them special. They portray their characters earnestly, demonstrating both the difficult decisions that they have to make and the amusing situations in which they sometimes find themselves. They are multifaceted people who have an impact on those around them.
Yes, there are problems with science fiction’s representation of women too. I do not want to undermine the behind-the-scenes trouble some of these women faced. These problems would, on occasion, slip into the on-screen portrayals too. Inequality, wage gap, sexual harassment, not passing the Bechdel test… But, these portrayals demonstrated the depth of these characters magnificently. Personally, they taught me that being a strong woman was about attitude and not what I do for a living. So, I could be a starship captain, a temp, a student, and still be a strong woman who takes no shit.
In another life, Aishani was a lawyer. She is now a researcher and writer. She spends her free time reading, watching tv, and analyzing human behaviour.