Notes from Loncon 3: Women and TV

This year I went to my first convention: the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. I went to a lot of panels, a LOT of panels. And I took a lot of notes.

I’m going to share a few of my notes here. Rather than chronologically, I’ve grouped the panels thematically.

These panels talked about two TV shows I enjoy: Orphan Black and (though not the exclusive focus of the panel) Doctor Who. The depiction of female characters in these shows was a particular point of discussion.

There are SPOILERS for Orphan Black, especially the second season finale.

Welcome to Clone Club

Tracy Berg, Jo Charman, Jeanne Gomoll, Moira O’Keeffe, Sunil Patel

This panel discussed the feminism and science of Orphan Black.

My takeaways:

  • Interesting that the show that gives the most varied exploration of female characters is a show where the women are genetically identical. These women have different personalities and attitudes. They relate to each other (and not all about men).
  • Different female attitudes to motherhood are also showcased. Including Cosima’s not-that-fussed attitude. [As someone who has no desire to have children, it’s nice to see that one of the clones has this attitude.]
  • The clones infertility (and Duncan’s casualness about it) has shades of Naziism. The arrogance of scientists in removing a basic human right from these women.
  • Orphan Black portrays a wide range of sexual relationship types: marital, casual, gay, straight, consensual, coercive. The show itself doesn’t seem to put any judgement on the (consensual) sexual encounters, leaving the viewer to make their own mind up.
  • Portrayal of rape. These portrayals are also varied, showing that there isn’t just one type of rape.
    Helena having her eggs removed while drugged. (Even with no ‘sex’, it’s still exploitation of her body against her will for someone else’s power/agenda.)
    Gracie being implanted with embryos. (As above. There’s no way she gave a clear, explicit, and non-coerced ‘Yes’ to this use of her body.)
    Paul being abused by Rachel. (Rape happens to men too.)
    Paul having sex with Sarah thinking she’s Beth. (False pretences is still rape.)
  • The clone-monitor relationships are all sexual. (With the exception of Tony’s?) This is a little creepy. And perhaps implies that all women are weak to being wanted.
  • The diversity in the show. The diversity is really good. There was a point in the first season where Paul seemed like the ‘token’ straight, white male. (Donnie was a bit of a nonentity at the time.) Only diversity not yet seen is body shape diversity – except in the minor character of Sarah Stubbs in the second season.
  • The male clone line:
    Is this going to take away from the strong female focus of the show?
    Is the male line less diverse? Were they all raised identically in the military?
    How self-aware are the male clone line?
  • The science:
    The scientist moderating the panel said that some software Cosima uses on the show is the real software that she (a cancer researcher) uses in real life. [I loved this tidbit of info. This show loves their science and their scientists.]
    There is a diversity in the way scientists are portrayed: Cosima – the curious explorer; Leekie – the ego; Scott – the geek; Delphine – career-driven; Duncan – perhaps closest to the stereotype of a scientist.
    The science is realistic. There is no computer magic. The clones have to wait for several episodes before a full DNA sequencing gets done.

The Girls Who Waited

Russell Blackford, Sarah Ash, MaryAnn Johanson, L. M. Myles, Jack Bowman

This panel discussed the lack of female protagonists in time-travel stories.

[Note: I wasn’t particularly comfortable with the title of this panel, given that it was grown women being discussed under the heading ‘girls’. However, it does kind of highlight the point about how women are perceived and referred to differently than men. Yes, the panel title is a reference to an episode title. But in that episode it is still full-grown-woman Amy Pond who is referred to as a girl (even when playing a 50 year old). ]

My takeaways:

  • When female characters participate in time travel stories, they rarely have agency.
    Continuum given as an example of time travel story with a strong female protagonist – but Kira has no control over the time travel itself, she is thrown back against her will.
    In the comic of Days of Future Past, it was Kitty Pryde who went back to sort things out. But in the movie, they gave the agency to a male character, Wolverine.
    River Song, a character who initially seemed to be able to navigate the timeline on her own initiative became more and more diminished into just the love interest and the pawn of other people’s plans.
  • When women do appear in time travel narratives, it’s all about a man anyway.
    Sliding Doors (not quite time travel, but another movie where the woman has no control of her progress through the timeline) is marketted as a romance. It’s about a woman getting rid of the crap boyfriend and meeting the right man.
    The Time Traveller’s Wife is about how a woman’s life is impacted by a time travelling man.
    Outlander – a woman send back in time (again not by her own agency) falls in love with a man there and decides not to return (to a different man) in her own time.
    Doctor Who – because now it’s all always about the Doctor isn’t it [*sigh*]
  • Doctor Who companions:
    Do the female companions tend to reflect their time period?
    Has the representation of female companions improved linearly from the past to the present? Not really.
    In the 60s/70s, compared to other TV shows at the time Doctor Who contained better female roles.
    The companions are always intelligent, but how are they used? Do they challenge the Doctor? Rose did for the 9th and Donna for the 10th. Other than that, not so much in the new series.
  • The argument that it is harder to send women back in time because of historical attitudes to women is a cop out. Wherever you look there are always examples of women in power.
  • You can’t force artists to make stories they don’t want to tell. Instead we have to open the field to a wide range of storytellers.

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