I’m finishing up my month of vacation before heading back to Atlanta, and what better way to use that precious time than with a Stargate: Atlantis marathon? I can’t think of many. Yes, I watched all five seasons that are available on the internet during my bout of senioritis in high school, but I recently realized there is no reason I can’t watch them again. All at once. Cheers!
If you are unfamiliar with the show, a Stargate is basically the door frame for a wormhole in space. SG teams dial into different locations the way you would dial a phone and then go through the Stargate to reach their destination. Stargate: Atlantis is the second series of the three, and it is based in the Pegasus galaxy in the lost city of Atlantis, where teams of scientists, military officers, and other notable people of skill are exploring the galaxy and learning about the ancient technology in the city. I think it’s currently my favorite science fiction world.
I’ve always been a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, from the time I discovered the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS in the cupboard beneath our television. I was pretty young then, but soon thereafter I was reading Star Wars novels, Spy Kids novels, Eragon novels, Tamora Pierce novels, and anything else that involved advanced technology or magic. I never got into Star Trek, but that’s mainly because I was not exposed until the phase of most intense obsessions was long over, at which point I was no longer as susceptible to new addictions. Because of that, all my life, I’ve been a Star Wars girl.
My relationship with Star Wars now is kind of like a passionate first love that you’ve grown apart from and understand differently but will never really stop loving in some small way. That residual love is a combination of my fascination with The Force and my appreciation for George Lucas’s epic story. Before Star Wars I had never witnessed the unfolding of a story of that scope that fit together so perfectly and made so much sense but was not in the least bit obvious or predictable (I’m talking about the whole saga, not individual movies). Remember, in the late nineties the Harry Potter series was not yet complete.
But it didn’t entirely begin that way. I used to adore each movie just as much as the entire saga. As I grew older and my world expanded a little, I began making excuses for my fandom, mainly the ones you just read, because I had realized that the individual films were, shall we say, less than perfect, especially the new ones. Among the imperfections I noted were the dialogue, the acting, the pacing, and the significant lack of female role models.
I want to clarify the difference between “female role models” and “role models for girls.” It is important to make this distinction because a role model is a person who is modeling the ideal way to play a certain role. A “female role model” is a role model for anyone who wants one. She is not modeling how to be a woman; she is a woman modeling how to be a firefighter, or a doctor, or a well-rounded, smart, and compassionate person. A “role model for girls” is someone who is supposedly modeling how to be a woman.
All together now… YUCK!
Let’s shake that off our shoulders, wash our hands, and take a few long strides away from role models for girls. Who needs ’em? Nobody. These kinds of role models are not the kind I want more of in science fiction. We’ve got enough of those buggers in romantic comedies. What I want more of in science fiction are characters whose roles in the story are unrelated to their sex. There are lots of men in science fiction filling all sorts of different and unique roles, but often the women are playing the role of…woman. And by that I mean, their only unique and distinguishing characteristic is their sex. Having said that, many female science fiction characters that I know are well-rounded, smart, and vocal characters, but they can’t reeeeeally be role models until the description of their character goes beyond “the woman in the group.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I will always love Princess Leia and her mother Padme, in the old and new trilogies, respectively, but even I have to admit that Star Wars has got a serious case of the Smurfette Principle. They’re the only two lady characters in six movies and one dies as the next is born! And no, I don’t count the other female senators or bounty hunters because come on, they’re not really characters.
Not only are they all by themselves, but the purpose of both their characters is to serve as a conflict and a temptation for the other male characters (not to mention eye-candy). Leia creates conflict between Luke and Han in the original series and Padme’s relationship with Anakin is his eventual downfall, causing him to struggle so much with his intense desire to protect her and keep her to himself that he sells himself to the dark side and becomes the Darth Vader we all know so well. How romantic. And no, I don’t blame Leia or Padme for these things. None of the conflict they provide is intentional and they are wonderful, kick-ass characters, but they were never role models for me. My role models in science fiction and especially Star Wars, were usually men, because they were dynamic and interesting and clearly running the show.
Now that I am once again embroiled in Stargate, a series I did not begin watching until my teenage years (SG-1 as a young teen and Atlantis as an older teen), I have my first female science fiction role model: Dr. Elizabeth Weir, who is the leader of the Atlantis expedition. She has an esteemed background in international relations on Earth and was a prominent United States diplomat for many years before entering the top secret Stargate program. Rarely in science fiction does one get the sense that the story could not end happily without the female characters. Certainly female characters cause lots of conflict, but how often are they prominent in solving the conflict? Elizabeth Weir does exactly that. Without her calling the shots, Atlantis would not be the successful expedition it is, and that is why she is my favorite character.
Elizabeth Weir is completely different from the rest. She is accutely necessary to the story and the entire expedition. Her wisdom in advising her teams and negotiating trade and conflict between people is unmatched. She is not perfect, and she doesn’t always make the right decision in the end, but she makes smart decisions, demonstrating a balance between taking risks and playing it safe. She loves and respects her subordinates and trusts their ingenuity and ability; she is compassionate and deeply empathetic; she is strong and can accept criticism even while standing her ground; and she is layered and interesting, with a full background and her own life outside of the program. Not only that, but she is never sexualized or romanticized for any of the men on the base simply because she is a woman. Nobody even outwardly expresses interest in her, not because she is not beautiful and appealing, but because it would be inappropriate, and that’s not why she’s there. She actually is replaced in some of the later seasons of Stargate: Atlantis and I simply did not enjoy those seasons as much. She is the first woman in science fiction that I have idolized and come to respect so entirely that I would not want to be any other character on the show other than her. She is the ultimate, and it thrills me that I can say that.
She is not, however, my role model for how to be a fantastic woman; she is my role model for how to be a fantastic leader.
Most of the things about myself that I consider to be masculine, I learned and strengthened through my childhood love of science fiction and fantasy. The only female character I ever dressed up as for Halloween was Alanna the Lioness, because she was one of two female role models I had from the books and movies I loved. If I had been given more female role models in science fiction, I could have learned and strengthened all of the same parts about myself, but I wouldn’t necessarily have seen them to be masculine things.
I think it’s mostly because of my male role models that I went through such a long “tomboy” phase. I thought that the only way to be all these great and powerful things was to be more like a man.
If we present children with a wider variety of role models, both male and female, and let them choose for themselves, it’s probable that we will find ourselves with healthier and happier children who are comfortable with their gender because they have seen examples and can find a way to be themselves.
So let’s get more female role models in science fiction! (And everywhere.)