Updated October 9, 10:00 PM EST. A previous version of the article misattributed the statement “I love Moana” to Cher Martinetti.
On Friday afternoon at New York Comic Con, several science fiction actresses and female directors came together for Syfy Wire Fangrrls Presents: Badass Women of Sci-Fi. Moderated by Syfy Fangrrls creator and managing editor Cher Martinetti, the panel discussed the importance of representation and making three-dimensional female characters.
Martinetti kicked it off by explaining how the Fangrrls site vertical came about: it was “borne out of necessity. No site really talked about fandom in the way my friends and colleagues would talk about the things we love…I wanted to create a space driven by women. We are female fans, and female fans are very layered.” Martinetti joked that this means that discussions among fans could range from sexism in the movie industry, to capes needing to make a comeback, to who’s the best Chris (Evans, of course).
We were then introduced to the panelists: Frankie Adams, who plays Bobbie Draper on The Expanse; Emily Andras, creator and producer of Wynonna Earp; Fiona Dourif, who plays Bart on Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency; Sera Gamble, creator and producer of The Magicians; and Gail Simone, comic author of Wonder Woman, Red Sonja, and Batgirl, among others.
The panelists explored the meaning of the word “badass,” and what it often means when it’s attached to a so-called strong female character. “I am a little ambivalent,” Gamble said. She called for the normalization of women being competent at things, rather than always having characters express shock when a woman does a roundhouse kick, for example. “I sometimes feel women get patted on the head for things we just…do.”
Simone saw being badass as not just displaying physical but emotional strength as well. “I think the important distinction is that badassery should mean not that everyone falls in terror when you walk in the room…it’s that you overcame adversity and you became stronger because of it.” Dourif agreed, praising what she saw as a movement towards writing more fully formed, vulnerable, and interesting female characters.
“The term badass is fine as long as it’s not reductionist…as long as the character gets to be three dimensional,” Badaki agreed.
There was also a discussion about why science fiction, as a genre, is the perfect space for telling stories by and about marginalized people. “I think there’s a natural marriage between this genre and the understanding of what it is to be an outsider,” Andras said. At it’s most honest core, science fiction strives to show what could be, rather than what is. This forward-looking nature lends well to featuring more diversity and centering stories that often go untold.
The importance of this having more representation is that it allows audience members to see themselves reflected back. “The best responses are when people read my stories and it gives them the confidence to do whatever they want to do,” Simone said. “These are the types of things that people grab onto.” Yetide agreed that representation gives people a window into what’s possible. “Sometimes it takes seeing somebody going through the same thing on the screen to tell that person that they’re not alone,” Yetide said.
And it’s clear that when it comes to having more representation, those kinds of decisions need to come from the top down. Adams expressed pride in being able to represent Polynesians, and regret that she was unable to name other mainstream Polynesian actresses off the top of her head; in response Gamble said that whenever she hears a woman of color answer in that way, it “waves a flag for me that there’s not enough representation…it’s on us, the show creators, to make sure that diversity is real.”
As a show runner, sometimes that means knowing when to put your foot down. “There’s a million decisions you make as a show runner, but there has to be some things you just don’t bend on,” said Andras. “For me [for Wynonna Earp], I just wanted more women on the show so I kept putting them on. There were things going in that I knew I wasn’t going to bend on, like the LGBT content. If you want to cast diversely, you gotta be ready to walk.”
“I get upset when people say ‘let it happen organically,’” Simone said, agreeing with diversity being a conscious choice. “These decisions have to be made. If you’re not casting diversely, you’ve already made a decision.” Later in the panel, Simone told a damning story that illustrated that point; back when she was hired to write Birds of Prey for DC Comics, she asked how many female readers they had. Their answer was, “We don’t know and we don’t care.”
These conversations are certainly ones that need to take place, and it was heartening to hear Simone and others talk about how much their fields have improved even in the last ten and twenty years. On the flip side of all this, some statements made during this panel — a panel I felt was meant to uplift women — gave me pause. Gamble mentioned that she tries not to get in the way of her character’s ideologies, and writes characters who are “insensitive, assholes, sexist, misogynist, racist. I want to talk about it; I want to understand it better.” This struck me as a difference between intent and actual potential harmful impact. As a woman of color who’s seen plenty of those kinds of hateful characters on screen — some of whom fandom upholds and defends, even — I couldn’t help but think, “How necessary is this? And how is that method of writing helping to contribute, even subconsciously, to making women with more than one marginalized identity feel unwelcome?”
Later, Dourif praised Dirk Gently’s creator Max Landis for allowing her to portray a hideous female character, stating the fact that he didn’t write an attractive, svelte female character as “a testament to Max Landis;” just as many sniggers as, surprisingly, cheers accompanied this statement, and I heard somebody whisper behind me, “Oh my god.” As a polarizing figure who became most infamous for calling Rey “a Mary Sue,” who just recently penned a disturbingly obsessive 150 page manifesto about Carly Rae Jepson, and whose fans have often repeated harassed women — especially women of color — on Twitter, I couldn’t help but wonder why a Landis-oriented project was even chosen for the panel.
And as a whole, for a panel that talked so much about the importance of diversity and representation, it could’ve stood to have more women of color. It felt as if the white women were fielding more questions about diversity than the women of color were, and it let me feeling like the panel could’ve done better. Was it a panel full of interesting, accomplished women? Of course. I only wish that perhaps less time was spent on defining the word “badass” and more time on, I don’t know, making the panel actually intersectional.
If this all sounds a bit harsh, it’s because it’s coming from a place of disappointment. I didn’t go into it expecting to come away with any negative thoughts; but I truly want the film field to improve, and the only way that can happen is if we have honest conversations about where we could be doing better, and where we could be more inclusive. As Simone herself said during the panel, “We still have a long way to go.”