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Op-Ed – Gender on the Screen: Where have all the strong men gone?

1950s B-Movie Image: Bmovienation.com

1950s B-Movie
Image: Bmovienation.com

Editor’s note: All opinions belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect The Geek Girl Project, even though we think she’s awesome.

It seems that “gender equality” is the buzzword in fandom lately. As someone who has loved Sci-Fi her whole life, it’s been interesting to watch the shifts in focus over time. I adore ’50s-’60s cheesy Sci-Fi flicks where all the old stereotypes are firmly in place and on view. The strong, rugged scientist type has to rescue the poor female assistant/girlfriend/sister/random person off the street he later falls in love with. The heroine of the movie spends most of her time screaming and running or screaming and standing. This trend stuck around until the 1970s when suddenly we had things like Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, and the woman wasn’t standing around screaming waiting to be rescued, but the one actually doing the rescuing!

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Image: www.toplessrobot.com

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
Image: www.toplessrobot.com

Star Trek was one of the first shows I remember that had women doing things, whether Nurse Chapel speaking her mind or Uhura commanding the bridge! Then Buck Rogers in the 25th Century created by Glen A. Larson (yes, the same Larson who created Battlestar Galactica) with  Gil Gerard as Buck and Erin Gray as Wilma. Wilma was every bit Buck’s equal in a spaceship or with a blaster. Then, of course, came Princess Leia: strong, tough, but also every bit a woman.

I may not be specifically chronologically correct in the order these programs and movies came out, but this was the order I watched them growing up.

Then, we come to the ’90s and the shift starts to happen. The mix from very strong male and female characters to suddenly we’re getting back to the b-movie mix only, with gender reversal. Suddenly, it’s the man standing around, not exactly screaming, but maybe yelling, standing or running, needing to be rescued.

Star Trek: Voyager Image: voy.trekcore.com

Star Trek: Voyager
Image: voy.trekcore.com

It wasn’t so obvious at first. The first few seasons of Star Trek: Voyager had a wonderful mix of characters and genders, but as the series went on, all the male characters slowly lost their backbone. Even the wonderful Chakotay lost his ability to stand up to Janeway. X-Files also suffered from this in later seasons once Mulder left (was abducted). Scully was a bit overwhelming to all the other characters the last few seasons.

In the ’90s and on, women dominated Sci-Fi. Friday The 13th: The Series, Earth Two, Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even Farscape–the women either completely outnumbered or commanded the men. This trend kept going on into 2000.  Stargate: Atlantis, Dollhouse, Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles, Sanctuary, Fringe, Warehouse 13, and more. Strong women are great–some of these shows on this particular list are some of my all time favorite shows–but where have all the strong men gone?

Granted, there were a lot of shows that got the mix perfect: Smallville, Andromeda, Eureka, Firefly, Stagate: SG-1, Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful,  but a lot didn’t.

Eureka Image: marquee.blogs.cnn.com

Eureka
Image: marquee.blogs.cnn.com

I can hear the argument starting: “But the women were in command; that’s why they were front and center.” It’s not that. In Eureka, Dr. Allison Blake ran Global Dynamics, but the focus of the show was on the characters equally and their dynamics together. Stargate: SG-1, Captain Samantha Carter was a very independent woman and sure of herself, but she was also part of a team. Whereas, in a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all the male characters were sidekicks, support staff, or love interests. I mean, Xander perfectly fits into the 1950s damsel in distress, and he routinely complains about the fact. Joss Whedon was smart enough to acknowledge this.

This trend doesn’t stop with with just Sci-Fi, many TV shows you would flick on have relegated the men to the role of “sidekick, support staff, or love interest.” The Good Wife, CSI: Cyber, Major Crimes, and, The Good Witch stick with this formula.

Let me clarify here. I’m not saying these kind of shows are bad or even the mix in them are bad, but it is the shear volume of them that is getting overwhelming. You are more likely to turn on a show and find a strong female lead and men in supportive role than you are to find a show with strong male leads and women in support roles.

Many even older shows have been changing. A few months ago, I wrote a bit for one of my Doctor Who reviews that my editor asked me to pull out and save for a longer article on the subject. The last season of Doctor Who was rather a disappointment to me. It wasn’t the acting or the Doctor. I adore Capaldi as the Doctor, but it was the stories. Many were just boring or fell short of actually being memorable, with a few rare exceptions such as Mummy on the Orient Express or Flatline.

I wrote this after Kill the Moon aired:

The final thought is  about just how many female-centric episodes of Who has had lately. There are so many episodes that are decided by female companions and female characters in the time and places they land. Men have been relegated to the role of secondary characters or villains. Rory was one of the few strong male characters in Who, but he was secondary to Amy as the companion. Also, Danny Pink has such wonderful potential, but he is secondary to Clara. Strong male companions and strong male characters central to a story seem to be in the past in “new” Who, and that’s sad. There is so much potential that is being left untapped and ignored, but then much of TV in general has shifted that way of late. Strong female leads have become dominant, and male leads are put into supportive roles. It would be nice to see strong equal partners, but it seems that is being ignored for now.

So many shows are falling into this too. They’ve shifted into the 1950’s b-movie trope, except with a gender reversal.The cry for equality and diversity has actually came back again, only reversing the polarity of the neutron flow.  It leaves the viewer to wonder…Where have all the strong men gone?

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