Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy

Elyce Rae Helford

For some reason, during the preparation of this review, the slogan from the 1968 Virginia Slims ad campaign kept materializing in front of my eyes, like a smoky mirage from my adolescent past. Disparaged by feminist and cultural theorists alike, this clever campaign, which targeted women and girls, appropriated the language of the women's movement to market the tobacco company's less-than-empowering products. After some reflection, I realized that television, in its indefatigable efforts to sell audiences to advertisers, similarly adopts and co-opts the language of resistance. Negotiating a careful path that caters to the cultural mood of interest groups without alienating the majority of audience members, speculative television offers a fantastical forum through which culturally contentious issues can be examined without risk, or, more importantly, without loss of revenue.

Fantasy Girls, edited by Elyce Rae Helford, is a collection of 11 critical essays that loosely revolve around issues of female empowerment and "pop" feminism in contemporary speculative television. In her introduction to the book, Helford takes the reader on a historical tour through the evolving portrayals of television women from the early promise of I Love Lucy and the collective disappointment in Star Trek: The Next Generation to an overview of empowered female protagonists in the 1990s. She posits that in a cultural era of "superficial tolerance without deeper commitment" and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" politics, "it is important to ask what science fiction and fantasy television have done for us lately" (p. 5).

What indeed? The underlying thread that connects the diverse essays included in Fantasy Girls is the question of whether or not speculative television's enthusiastic promises of "girl power," cyborg feminism, queerness, gender/race relations, disability politics, and postfeminism pose a legitimate challenge to contemporary gender norms or pay more than lip service to a liberatory feminist discourse.

In "Sabrina the Teenage . . .? Girls, Witches, Mortals, and the Limitations of Prime-Time Feminism," Sarah Projansky and Leah Vande Berg claim that "while the popular discourses on Sabrina celebrate girl power, our analysis suggests that the series' more powerful ideological work is the revelation of the role that popularized feminism plays in maintaining rather than undermining gender, race and class hierarchies" (p. 36). According to Projansky and Vande Berg, then, despite Sabrina's postfeminist position - as exhibited by her undeniable independence and residence within a utopian world of gender equality - she is ultimately contained by the series' normative fixation with beauty, male attention, nurturing, and race/class privilege.

In a confusing turnaround, the authors caution, "Sabrina's containment, [ . . . ] is only partial, not only because she has an independence that 'needs' containment in the first place, but also because the containment never really holds" (p. 33). In their concluding comments, Projansky and Vande Berg retract their previous claim of a subversive, feminist interpretation by dismissing the series as anti-feminist. "Ultimately, we read Sabrina's escapes from containment as co-opted multiculturalism and seductive consumerism, and therefore as antifeminist. Of course, our interpretation of the series should be understood as one potential interpretation of Sabrina, just as our readings of feminism and containment are two contradictory but mutually existing potential interpretations of the series" (p. 36).

Overall, Projansky and Vande Berg provide an articulate and fairly thorough examination of the series' first two seasons. In their discussion of the "girl power" movement, however, the authors fail to connect its commercial essence (which juxtaposes a "don't mess with me" attitude alongside the consumerist dream of an "acceptable" preoccupation with boys, hairstyles, and clothing) with the movement's questionable liberatory elements touched upon earlier in the chapter. In disguising their indecisiveness as polysemic multiplicity, the authors undermine the credibility of their own observations. And through their inability to adhere to any one theoretical paradigm, their conclusions are rendered incoherent.

Female containment is also the central tenet of Linda Badley's complex and challenging look at The X-Files. The chapter opens up with a tongue-in-cheek quote by Gillian Anderson about the nature of her role in The X-Files, "It isn't Baywatch." In summing up her character as the cerebral FBI agent, Dana Scully, Anderson adds, "I'm sort of the anti-Pam" (p. 61).

Baywatch notwithstanding, both The X-Files and the character of Scully have been touted as groundbreaking television, collapsing the essentialist ordering of biology and gender. Within The X-Files universe, agent Scully is constructed as rational, empirical, and competent. In her dual role as scientist and FBI agent, she is gender-coded as masculine. Despite what appears to be an obvious challenge to patriarchal hegemony, Badley questions Scully's feminist contribution. "[T]he X-Files phenomenon invites a vigorous, intellectually challenging, politically engaged and equitable reading of gender. But what kind of feminism (if the term can apply at all) is it?" (p. 65).

Badley goes on to examine the role of Scully through the filters of postmodernism, postfeminism, and posthumanism (or cyborg-feminism). Similar to Projansky and Vande Berg, Badley vacillates between the perception of Scully as an "independent woman," in the tradition of Alien's Ripley and Terminator II's Sarah Connor, and a less-than-progressive object of the male gaze. On the one hand, Badley claims that Scully subverts patriarchal heteronormativity through her role as both a cybercop and forensic investigator, penetrating inert, male bodies with an unfeminine, carnivorous promiscuity (p. 81). On the other hand, Scully's powerful position vis-à-vis alien(ated) men is destabilized and subsequently contained through the introduction of an abuse survivor/abductee narrative. Like Frankenstein, who is punished for his transcendence of the boundary between life/death, man/God, Scully's transgression of the gender boundaries and inner/outer space results in the articulation of patriarchal discipline upon her own body. In a cross between Donna Harraway's female cyborg and Carl Jung's mother archetype, Badley describes how "[t]he woman scientist, having violated the boundaries of identity and function is in particular threatened and threatening. She embodies the 'unnatural' union of two powers of reproduction, maternity and technology, in a monstrously denaturalized maternity, the feminine out of control, the machine run amok" (p. 81).

Badley convincingly argues that despite her superficial, "gender bending" empowerment, the character of Scully is terminally undermined by a postfeminist and posthumanist treatment. Like the series she sets out to critique, Badley operates on a multitude of levels, maintaining the reader's attention through her meticulous deconstruction of postfeminist assumptions and brilliant textual analysis. The chapter is most appealing when Badley relies on her own razor-sharp insights, and less so when she refers to research that is already "out there."

Like Scully, the character of Xena represents a cultural sight/site for celebratory, though often contradictory, interpretations. In "Feminism, Queer Studies, and the Sexual Politics of Xena: Warrior Princess," Elyce Rae Helford begins by describing Xena, an immensely popular series among straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual audiences, as the quintessential polysemic text. She outlines how the series has been linked to a multitude of critical perspectives such as "girl power" (you can be a female warrior, dress in skimpy outfits, have great hair, and get the guy in the end); the heterosexual male fantasy of an objectified female heroine, which does not preclude Xena's s/m, dominatrix qualities or voyeuristic male fantasies surrounding lesbianism; the perspective of feminist critics who laude the series' non-judgmental treatment of Xena's sexual encounters and its refusal of Madonna/whore dualities; and last, a queer perspective that focuses on the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle or what is referred to as the "lesbian subtext" of Xena.

One woman's radical, however, is another woman's reactionary. Despite Helford's acknowledgment that the very "ambiguousness of X:WP has enabled it to achieve remarkable economic success and popularity" (p. 141), she is scathing in her condemnation that "polysemy is a highly problematic basis for political struggle" (p. 142). She considers the celebration of Xena's textual ambiguity as premature and denounces the extent to which "a critic can and will bend the series to her own perspective in order to praise it" (p. 138). There is an underlying warning of any critical approach that becomes analogous with, and co-opted by, what in essence stems from the commercial imperative of television producers.

Despite her criticism of oppositional readings, Helford states unequivocally that based on textual evidence, Xena and Gabrielle are lovers. She further suggests that their construction as a butch/femme couple is imbued with darker, more insidious implications: "[T]he series' sexual politics rely on patriarchal myths of gendered identities and relations that belie the feminist and queer pleasure so many critics applaud. Conflating strength with violence and butchness with hypermasculinity leads inevitably to the image of the battered, unconscious woman lying at the feet of her smiling, unrepentant abuser and to the notion that at the heart of butch/femme relations is violence" (p. 158).

Overall, Helford convincingly refutes the political validity of empowering feminist narratives within Xena, while casting doubt on the position of contemporary speculative television in general. Though inventive, one must venture to ask how such a critique compromises Helford's own analysis of Xena/Gabrielle as a butch/femme couple.

In several of the remaining chapters, the challenges presented by race dynamics in speculative television are addressed in divergent ways. In Kent Ono's analysis of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, "the valorization and heroification of a white female protagonist is constructed through an associated villainization and demonization of people of colour" (p. 164). According to Ono, a character's racial or "unredeemable" difference, which places them outside of the white middle-class norm, is considered ample justification for their "violent expulsion from the show - the ultimate form of marginalization" (p. 164). Ono goes on to describe how the popular "girl power" movement legitimates and makes socially acceptable female aggressiveness. In the series, this translates into an inherent hostility toward "dark masculinity" parallel to "U.S. neocolonial military aggression abroad" (p. 166), and accedes "social difference as justification for waging campaigns of violence, destruction and annihilation against those labeled different" (p. 168).

In Marleen Barr's detailed examination of Disney's Cinderella, she describes a postracial utopia where race no longer matters and difference dissolves into universal similarity. It is a fantasy place ("utopia" literally means "nowhere"), where the fixed fairy tale definitions of royalty, intrinsic to stories such as that of Snow White, are ultimately rejected. According to Barr, "In the spirit of this possible cultural and impossible biological eradication of racial difference, Cinderella proclaims, regardless of race, if the shoe fits, wear it" (p. 188). Barr further suggests that in the casting of a Black Queen, White King, Filipino Prince, and Black Princess, Cinderella is an assimilationist dream come true, but she fails to consider whether this necessarily represents a positive step forward. Barr's "melting pot" analysis of Cinderella seemingly suggests that in the eradication of difference, racial strife will magically disappear in a cultural hegemony of whiteness.

Situated somewhere between Buffy's realist Sunnydale and Cinderella's fantasy utopia lies the projected feminist future of Star Trek: Voyager. Trapped in the uncharted Delta Quadrant (delta is an ancient symbol for woman), reluctant shipmates Captain Kathryn Janeway, Chief of Engineering B'Elanna Torres, and crew member Seven of Nine create what Robin Roberts astutely describes as a "triangulation of gender, race, and science" (p. 204). The underlying premise of Roberts' chapter is that gender and race influence the practice of science, calling into question patriarchal and cultural assumptions regarding scientific neutrality. Roberts' claims that "the myth of the tragic mulatta" (p. 206) reifies racial distinction and ensures that racial categories are upheld.

As a postracist text, Star Trek: Voyager focuses on the powerful bi-racial and bi-gendered characters of B'Elanna (human/Maquis) and Seven of Nine (human/Borg). Because the characters successfully negotiate feminist positions within the patriarchal hierarchy (as embodied by Starfleet and the Federation), "[t]he series, then, is not about abandoning racist and sexist structures, but about how women can appropriate existing institutions" (p. 204). The conflicting attitudes toward science presented within the speculative universe of Star Trek: Voyager force audiences to expand their traditional, patriarchal attitudes toward science in their own realist universe. However, as Hanley Kanar points out in her enlightening chapter on disability in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, such a limited vision fails to address the inherent invisibility of mobility-impaired individuals in a futuristic setting or the universal assumptions toward access held closer to home.

From a mythic past to a less than egalitarian future, the overriding message of Fantasy Girls is that after nearly half a century of television programming, feminist critics are still sifting through cultural debris in an effort to create some semblance of progress in the medium's representations of women. Looking back on Lucy's role as a subversive housewife in the 1950s, is it really so emancipatory in the 1990s to accept women as domesticated heroes? Far from the self-congratulatory, pseudo-feminist commercialism of the 1968 cigarette ads, a more appropriate motto for women in contemporary speculative television might be "We Have a Long Way to Go, Baby!"

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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.