As a woman, I’ve grown accustomed to directors and movie studios underestimating my interest in horror and sci-fi. In spite of that, a tidal wave of excitement still swells inside me whenever I hear a new sci-fi movie or show is being released. It’s a golden age for streaming services such as Netflix, Shudder, Hulu, and YouTube, with a wider breadth of content than ever before.
Of course, that’s me being optimistic. I’m hopeful that with the ever-expanding range of creative influences in sci-fi we will see a more diverse array of people being given the opportunity to tell their own unique stories. So, when I see a show like Love, Death + Robots so blatantly squander the literally limitless potential of the sci-fi genre with careless clichés and tired tropes, it makes me shake my fist with disappointment and mourn what could have been… if they had just invited some women into the writers’ room.
Five out of the 18 episodes of Love, Death + Robots feature female protagonists, a feeble attempt at representing 51% of the population, and the lack of the female voice is deafening right from the very first episode. Gratuitous nudity and objectification of female characters is rampant, including rape as a cheap plot point, and women being brutalized at the hands of abusive men. In the first episode, we find out that the tough female trainer is only tough because she was raped, so now her MO is to make all men pay for that? (Sounds more like a male phobia than female behavior, but OK.) Later we see that character, in a white tank top and no bra (even though it is visibly cold out!!) make out with the boss’s girlfriend, only to have her head impaled and then crushed into pulp by the heel of her boot.
In the third episode, an exotic dancer is pursued by a homicidal neighbor, through a fetish night club she works at, while her digital titties bounce daintily as she struggles to survive in the patriarchal dystopian future that persists even in CGI. We don’t know anything about her as a character, except she really hopes this man doesn’t kill her, and that she is another waifish female character not afraid to go topless to please a male audience.
In episode 8, a woman is butchered to be turned into a steam punk, furry, real doll of sorts, to offer mechanical sexual pleasure to sadistic upper class dick-wads, but don’t worry there’s some samurai guy to help her. Phew.
Women’s sexuality serves only to tantalize men, and the safety and survival of women is second to the well-being of the male protagonists. The strength and determination of the female characters doesn’t exist as an innate personality trait, it’s attributed to a preoccupation with vengeance towards men who have victimized them. How many times do we have to watch a woman be objectified, victimized, marginalized, just because male writers are too lazy or self-aggrandizing to allow women to take the reigns? It makes me wonder, “Can men only imagine a world in which women’s thoughts and motivations revolve around them?” It’s lazy writing, but it’s also reckless and irresponsible. Portraying women as passive victims under the tyrannical thumb of male abusers has real life consequences.
Research by the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media shows that how women see themselves reflected in media significantly impacts how they assess their real life worth and potential. For example, women who watched the X-Files and saw Dana Scully, a female FBI agent and forensic scientist, make informed and empowered decisions using logic and science, were motivated to pursue their own interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.)
When the X-Files came out I was 10 years old, and the possibilities the world had to offer me were still forming in my mind. It had not even occurred to me that these possibilities may be different for me as a girl that they would for boys. I did know that I loved watching the X-Files,mostly because I thought Dana Scully was so goddamn cool and interesting. She performed autopsies, based her opinions on scientific research, and she didn’t have time for any illogical bullshit. She was very inspiring to me, and she planted a seed deep in my mind that would later propel me into a career in data science. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of women who watched Dana Scully, just like I did, said that she increased their belief in the importance of STEM and their pursuit of a career in STEM. Another study found that 61% of women said female role models in film and TV have been influential in their lives and 58% said that women have been inspired to be more ambitious or assertive.
Conversely, when our first instinct is to show women in positions of submission, abuse, objectification, or victimization we send a narrow message of what life has to offer women. We stifle the dreams and aspirations of our female audience, instead of empowering them with stories of self reliance, actualization, resilience and independence. Funny enough, women don’t enjoy watching themselves being minimized and devalued. In a 2017 study, 66% of women said they will actually turn off a film or television show if they see female characterized being stereotyped in a negative way.
So what does this mean? It means that when writers/directors/producers under-value their non-male characters, their non-male audience is less likely to watch it. It means that women are bored of your lazy tropes and tired triflin’ ass bullshit. It means that when you subjugate your female characters you are actively narrowing your audience.
So what happens when we empower our female leads with their own aspirations, autonomy, and accomplishments?
Gale Anne Hurd is the perfect example of how the role, tone, and portrayal of women in film can change when you give creative control to a female writer, director, or producer. Suddenly, we see movies like Aliens, where Sigourney Weaver is about as interested in men’s attention as she is in being disemboweled by an acid-blooded alien. We see films like Terminator where Linda Hamilton is much more interested in doing pull-ups and kicking ass than she is in taking shit from any dude. We see films like The Abyss where Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, instead of being the exploited and abused sister of Tony Montana in Scarface, is a brilliant engineer traveling to the depths of the ocean to discover new psychedelic alien species. Or Aeon Flux where a sleek futuristic assassin avoids the male gaze and slays in a skin-tight bodysuit while doing it. Do you spot a noticeable difference? I sure do.
Is the sole purpose of film and television entertainment? Am I a soul-less killjoy man-hater declaring that men aren’t allowed to have any fun or sexy female characters any more? NO, just do it right, you whiners. I love the occasional irresponsible, poorly written, guilty pleasure shit-show as much as the next guy. We don’t have to choose one or the other, the world and art are not black & white. Film can certainly satisfy our need for frivolous fun, gory violence, and even stupid sarcastic commentary, however, we are first responsible for leveling the playing field.
Once the majority of films can portray that 49% of the college-educated workforce is female, that women do not exist to appeal to you sexually or to propel the male protagonist’s story forward… once we see as many men being portrayed solely as sexual objects, victims of rape, abuse, and oppression, then we can talk about investing in some jauntily exploitative side projects.
Oh, there was one thing I did like about Love, Death + Robots… the dicks. It was nice to see so many dangly male genitals, however digital. The tallies were still MUCH higher for boobs, but it’s nice to see dicks making a comeback.