Reading Volume 2 of ‘Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy’
by: Anne Sweet , June 14, 2021
by: Anne Sweet , June 14, 2021
Representations of women on screen have come a long way from the ‘Smurfette Principle’, where there is just one female character for 100 males, or the ‘one woman in the galaxy’ trope, associated with Star Wars’ Princess Leia, where it would seem as if there were just a lone female hero. TV and films currently abound with strong female leads, plural. This book is a volume of collected work that explores the evolution in women’s roles on screen. Edited by Valerie Estelle Frankel, a lecturer at Mission College and an author and editor of many other books, it is part of a series that includes a previous volume about fourth wave representations in cinema. (Frankel 2019)
Its objective is to look at the ways in which contemporary TV gender representations inscribe themselves in the fourth wave of feminism, a largely internet-based movement that advocates for LGBTQIA+ rights, diversity, body positivity, inclusivity, and social justice, as viewed through Kimberlé Crenshaw’s conceptual framework of intersectionality that examines how power dynamics and cultural and social factors, like race and gender, combine and interact to cause discrimination and oppression. As Frankel notes of fourth wave feminism’s activism in relation to television: ‘[i]t is striking for its two-way discussion in which fan critics change content of their favorite shows to be more respectful of women and minorities. Indeed, this wave of feminism is also intersectional, merging with queer studies, and disability studies and the goals of different races and nationalities as well as a new global sensibility’. (Frankel 2020: 1)
Most of the articles are concerned with questions of representation, and are essentially semiotic and symbolic analyses of the messages and images produced by TV programs, and to some extent their relationship with institutions and publics. They are also intersectional analyses that demonstrate how TV shows attempt to feature storylines and characters that bring to light various forms of interlocking and interacting forms of oppression. The book contains four sections: ‘Section I: Fighting Authority’ deals with questions of resistance and agency; ‘Section II: Warriors in a Respectful World’ is about female heroes; ‘Section III: Intersectionality’ explores questions of discrimination; and ‘Section IV: Girl-Centric Kids’ examines questions of content targeting young publics.
Section I : Fighting Authority
TV shows can be platforms and tools for resistance against patriarchal and hegemonic forces, institutions and discourses while also at the same time being under their power and influence. A case in point is the Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, 2017-), as explored in the first article, ‘Power and Resistance in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale’ by K. Jamie Woodlief. (2020: 19-29) The series is based on a 1986 book by Margaret Atwood, but its producers have given it a modern twist by linking it to contemporary issues and current events. The producers have notably given more depth and background to the character of Ofglen, who is punished for her homosexuality, and also added African American characters into the story. In the era of #MeToo and #Timesup, they also endowed the main character, June, with more rhetorical, discursive and heroic agency than her literary counterpart who simply endured, and Woodlief emphasises that ‘in our current climate of feminism, strong female characters who exhibit agency, power and grit have come to be expected’. (Woodlief 2020: 24)
However, even if The Handmaid’s Tale decries the oppression of women who are forced to reproduce for the leaders of a tyrannical regime where individual freedoms are denied, the series’ actresses disavow both the idea of The Handmaid’s Tale as a feminist series, and its connection to feminism, as does Atwood. To Woodlief, who speculates that there could be institutional constraints and commercial reasons for an actress or a series not to appear ‘too feminist’, this contradiction would nevertheless seem inexplicable. She firmly asserts that despite these denials, the series is indeed a feminist one. She writes, ‘[t]he question of female agency and the struggle for power through small forms of pushback coupled with strategic changes made to the book align the Hulu series quite visibly with the fourth wave’. (Woodlief 2020: 23) The symbolism of the series (notably the costumes of the handmaids) has even inspired real-life feminist movements, in the wake of the recent attempts at repression of women’s reproductive rights in America, which belies the idea that it is not a feminist text.
In ‘Scattered Stories of Embodied Resistance: Sense8, Orphan Black, and Queer Cultural Productions’, Audrey Jane Black (Black 2020: 30-46) analyses two series that can be identified as part of the biopunk genre because, ‘[t]hese shows visualize and theorize stigmatization, persecution, captivity, and resistance in timely contexts of sex, gender, and sexuality, each taking its own angle at connectivity as a mode or resistance’. (Black 2020: 30) Sense8 (Netflix, 2015-2018) explores questions of identity through eight characters who are telepathically and telekinetically connected, and Orphan Black (Space, 2013-2017) does so through clones, who do not have the same interests or sexual identities. Black notes that ‘Orphan Black is a show about women for women, that happens to be queer, while Sense8 is a show about queers for queers that happens to be feminist’. (Black 2020: 31) She notes that both lack women in production roles, even if Sense8 did have the distinction of being a queer series produced by two transgender executive producers (Lilly and Lana Wachowski). Both series were also subject to market forces requiring them to position themselves as global and diverse series, in what Black calls ‘engineered globalism’. In the case of Sense8, this was accomplished by having diverse characters living in different countries. While this effect was harder to achieve with clones, it was accomplished through having the clones live in different countries (with different nationalities) and adding diversity in the supporting cast. Both series had production issues due to the more conservative politics and policies of ‘risk-averse network executives’ (Black 2020: 39), and Black feels that the ‘radical queer’ status of Sense8 resulted in it being cancelled on the streaming juggernaut Netflix, which illustrates the potential limits to new forms of gender representation. (Black 2020: 31) As she notes, ‘Sense8 and Orphan Black represent queer-oriented cultural productions designed to interface with popular genre and build communities of resistance through its grammar—all the while using the same frameworks of capital and identity and local that continue to trouble production studies, fourth wave feminism, queer politics and yours truly’. (Black 2020: 44) In both Woodlief’s and Black’s articles in this section, TV series are shown to be allowed to trouble the patriarchal and hegemonic order, but they are nonetheless not completely free to be tools of resistance due to market and institutional constraints.
Section II : Warriors in a Respectful World
The representation of the female warrior on TV has significantly changed since the appearance of Wonder Woman on screen during the 1970s ‘jiggle’ era of television, a version of the character who saved the world in her bustier and metal bracelets. Female warriors are now grittier, darker, more nuanced and violent, such as the cussing, hard-drinking, flannel-wearing , superhero detective Jessica Jones. In Section II, this evolution in the representation of the female hero is examined. The first article ‘Wynonna Earp, Supergirl, and the Power of Choosing’ by Resa Haile analyses two modern series, Wynonna Earp (Syfy, 2016-2021) and Supergirl (CBS/The CW, 2015-). (Haile 2020: 49-61) They each feature strong female characters who have been created from a male character template, Wyatt Earp and Superman respectively. Both series are inclusive and intersectional, and feature characters on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. In the 50s, Supergirl first appeared as Superman’s cousin, and was told not to use her powers, or to hide them, whereas in the current incarnation, she assumes her heroism. Wynonna Earp is allowed to be racier and more sexually active than the character from the past Haile feels she most resembles—Buffy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The WB/UPN, 1997-2003). Wynonna Earp embraces her role of fighting evil in a small town as ‘fourth-wavers don’t back down from claiming their power and reveling in it’. (Haile 2020: 56) The fact that Supergirl and Wynonna Earp are in roles that are ‘gender-swapped’ allows for a reshuffle of gender roles and ideals, as Haile notes, ‘[w]hile their origins define their characters to some extent, each uses her choices to truly break out and become a paragon of the fourth wave’. (Haile 2020: 58)
A different sort of heroine is examined in the second article, ‘“The Gods Will Always Smile on the Brave Women”: Exploring the Heroines of History Channel’s Vikings’, by Steven B. Frankel. (S.B. Frankel 2020: 62-74) S.B. Frankel examines how Vikings (History Channel, 2013-2020) offers nuanced depictions of empowered Viking women that are somewhat in line with actual historical facts: Viking women did enjoy more freedoms and rights than many other mediaeval women, in that they could inherit and own property, divorce their husbands, and be warriors. S.B. Frankel considers that the series is innovative, important and blatantly fourth wave as ‘the feminism is intentional and not just pasted on in places’ and moreover the series ‘provides a number of male role models who demonstrate how men should be behave in a society that treats women with respect’. (S.B. Frankel 2020: 63) He also feels that the series reflects the fourth wave of feminism in showing multifaceted rather than stereotypical female characters who ‘keep their relationships aloof from the rows and blunders of their menfolk and find commonalities in their struggles and victories as women in a patriarchal society’. (S.B. Frankel 2020: 69-70)
This section thus shows that the modern female TV warrior comes in many forms, within which Jessica Jones particularly stands out, according to Valerie Estelle Frankel in her article, ‘Reclaiming Power from the Toxic Male: Support and Recover in Marvel’s Jessica Jones’, that analyses the Netflix series (2015-2019). (Frankel 2020: 75-89) Jessica Jones has many vices, is seemingly uncaring, and is a rare lead heroine who is neither a sex object nor a fashion plate. As Frankel notes, ‘[s]etting aside the sexualized “Strong Female Character”, the show gives Jessica clothes and attitude that emphasize how little she cares about pleasing others’. (Frankel 2020: 75) Despite how powerful her superpowers allow her to appear, Jessica was once under the influence of her cruel ex, the mind-controlling Kilgrave, and thus she has suffered trauma at the hands of an abusive partner, or a ‘toxic male’. The first season focuses on her efforts to fight Kilgrave, and it is emphasised that her seeming inability to care is rooted in this trauma. Even as Jessica seems to be enshrouded in darkness, she still feels motivated to save others from harm and ‘toxic male’ oppression, as Frankel notes, ‘[t]hrough her battles to save innocents and friendships with those most in danger, Jessica Jones offers intersectionality and compassion, even as she sets herself against the worst of villains—an entitled white male’. (Frankel 2020: 77)
The three articles in section II taken as a whole would seem largely appreciative of the progress made in depictions of female warriors, and are perhaps not as critical as they could be. Yet the overall tone of the book would seem to be start a conversation and look at where we have gone and where we are going as a society, and as such these articles highlight that the new fourth-wave crop of female heroes have something positive to offer to the continuation of the genre.
Section III: Intersectionality
Section III tackles issues of white privilege, discrimination, racism, and inclusivity, and the way that TV shows are becoming more intersectional in their viewpoint, meaning that multiple layers and ways of oppression are being challenged, both in the narratives and in terms of representation. Two of the articles in this section particularly examine questions of race on TV.
For example, in the article, ‘From Sidekick to Romantic Lead: Rise of the Strong Black Woman’ by Sumiko Saulson (Saulson 2020: 93-109), the author shows the rise of interesting African American female characters in lead roles in horror, fantasy and science-fiction TV shows like The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010-) and True Blood (HBO, 2008-2014). Yet the author believes progress has yet to be made in Hollywood in terms of ‘colorism’ (producers’ preferring to cast light-skinned and/or mixed race actresses because they look whiter), the depiction of lesbian characters (who are disproportionately killed off compared to other minorities), and the hypersexualisation of African American women characters, which is linked to the ‘fear of black women as savage, sexual and dangerous’ resulting from ‘hundreds of years of scientific racism used to justify colonialism and oppression’. (Saulson 2020: 105) To conclude, the author provides an extensive list of female African American characters to appear in important roles in recent years, showing that in terms of sheer numbers at least, the TV and film industry has made a leap forward, even if imperfectly so.
Another article in this section also deals with the issue of race, but from a different angle. In ‘The Problematic White Woman in Black Mirror’s “‘Crocodile”’ (Eskie 2020: 127-134), Spinster Eskie explains how the producers of Black Mirror (Channel 4/Netflix, 2011-), a show known as a showcase for societal critique, tackled the subject of white entitlement and privilege when, in the third episode of the fourth season, ‘Crocodile’, a woman—who, as an architect, a wife and mother is thus the epitome of white feminist success—feels justified in killing a family of colour, including a baby, to keep herself out of prison.
The other two articles in section II are concerned with questions of gender discrimination. In the article, ‘Revisionist History and Intersectional Feminism in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow’ by Katherine McLoone (McLoone 2020: 110-126) the author shows how the series Legends of Tomorrow (The CW, 2016-) uses the plot device of time travelers who rewrite history to bring to light real information about women’s little-known contributions to history: for example, an important invention that the actress Hedy Lamarr created, or that Albert Einstein’s wife likely helped his work. It also allows the examination of women’s history and issues through the lens of the female viewpoint, such as when the series features Helen of Troy as a real person from the past interacting with the time travelers. TV series can have the potential to ‘revise’ history by presenting history in a feminist way, but this alternative view of history is not the only thing that makes Legends of Tomorrow a feminist and intersectional series. McLoone notes that it is also significant for featuring a female Muslim superhero. While criticised by some for being ‘minimalist’ (by not showing a character who is particularly devout or religious but who practices a ‘light’ version of Islam), McLoone notes that ‘Legends of Tomorrow articulates an intersectional feminism that is both imperfect and endlessly striving for perfection’. (McLoone 2020: 112)
The last article deals with Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-1969; 2005-), a series that has traditionally been a bastion of British, male middle-class whiteness and heteronormativity, which is so common for British series as to seem ‘normal’. But in the article, ‘“Bloke Utopia”: Bill Potts, Queer Identity and Cyborg Narratives in Doctor Who’, Sarah Beth Gilbert (Gilbert 2020: 135-147) shows how important it is that the series finally broke the mould in series 10 of the modern show, when it featured a queer character in the form of The Doctor’s companion, Bill Potts. About this representation, Gilbert underlines that ‘queerness is represented, subverted or reinforced through Bill’s anti-normative characterization as a companion’, which is something ‘that creates queer moments for straight-identifying viewers’. (Gilbert 2020: 137) She finds it significant that the series goes even further to feature a female Doctor and more diverse cast in season 11, and notes the importance of analysing these representations in order ‘to bring the conversation forward’ about questions of ‘the way the genre has worked as a white male-dominated institution’. (Gilbert 2020: 146) Taken together, all of the articles in this section help bring the conversation forward, and showcase the way TV series are attempting to be more diverse and inclusive.
Section IV: Girl-Centric Kids
In last section, the authors analyse animated series targeting young viewers, and their potential and limitations as fourth wave feminist fare. The first two articles deal with highly commercial franchises, and their efforts to promote empowered heroines. The first article, ‘Rebelling Heroines: Hera, Sabine, and Ahsoka in Star Wars: Rebels’ by Stephenie McGucken is about the fact that Star Wars: Rebels (Disney XD, 2014-2018) features three strong female characters. (McGucken 2020: 151-166) The author notes that ‘[t]he characterizations and stories of Rebels are an intersectional narrative against a patriarchal regime that seeks to consolidate its own power to the detriment of those it is meant to serve and protect’. (McGucken 2020: 165) The heroines are influenced by Star Wars’ past, and the ‘foundational character’ of Princess Leia, who is not ‘solely an object’ but ‘an active agent’. (McGucken 2020: 153) Princess Leia is associated with the early waves of feminism, and is often central to conversations and discourses around the representation of women in science fiction. However, as was true for their predecessor, the actual feminist empowerment of Rebel’s heroines is debatable, as the author notes that ‘while the women meet fourth wave criteria, they also reflect traditional female roles and suggest a tension inherent in defining female, femininity and feminism itself’. (McGucken 2020: 154)
Frankel looks at the commercialisation of empowerment as she examines transmedia animated series in her article, ‘DC, Marvel and Star Wars for Girls: The Transmedia Online adventures’ (Frankel 2020: 167-188), which details the ways in which these mega-franchises try to reach consumers as young as 6–12-year-olds, with content targeted to hook them on the franchise, or as a ‘gateway’ (which brings up images of gateway drugs). This trend involves the creation of ‘superheroes just for girls’, as market research show that girls like superheroes as much as boys do. (Frankel 2020: 167) Using the full potential of the internet and various online features to make kids interact with the heroes and the brands, the content creators attempt to be more inclusive, intersectional and feminist, by promoting characters like Marvel’s Kamala Khan, a Muslim heroine, and America Chavez, a Latin-American Lesbian character. This distinguishes the transmedia versions of the franchises from the movie franchises, to which the big budgets are allocated, and which Frankel notes ‘are still largely white-able-bodied-cis-hetero-male-centric’. (Frankel 2020: 187)
In contrast, the last essay argues in favor of an animated series considered to be unique in its female positivity, Steven Universe (Cartoon Network, 2013-2019), the first series on the cartoon network to have a female creator. In the ‘Rose Arisen: How the Children’s Animated Show Steven Universe Invented “The Reverse Fridge”’ by Josephine L. McGuire (McGuire 2020: 189-201), the author demonstrates how the show turns on its head the narrative trope called ‘Women in Refrigerators’ that essentially involves a woman being harmed, tortured or murdered in order to propel a male hero’s heroism, with the resulting ‘Manpain’ (sic.) being a motif in his desire for justice or revenge. McGuire argues forcefully that Steven Universe is the ‘reverse fridge’, because in handling the absence of Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz—who gives up her corporeal form out of love in order to give Steven life, and then literally becomes one with him—the show offers a different sort of narrative. ‘The fridge assumes an ugly, patriarchal, violent world; but the reverse fridge, while acknowledging and grappling with violence, pain and imperfection, assumes a better, brighter world that is both located in the present and in the future through potential’. (McGuire 2020: 199) Thus, the author concludes that the series offers hope for more interesting and richer narratives in the future. This article, as well as the other two articles in the section, perform an important function in documenting and detailing the sort of media messages and products being sold to children, but the authors could perhaps have gone a bit further by interrogating the potential harm in targeting children with products showcasing violence, even as these articles do conclusively demonstrate that cartoons have become less misogynistic and more inclusive than in the days of the Smurfs and Bugs Bunny.
In this edited collection, the sheer variety of shows and topics demonstrates that there is a plethora of progressive representations on TV that can be considered as acts of rebellion and resistance, as fourth wave and intersectional, and which thus represent a form of social progress, even if various commercial, institution, and societal factors at times limit their scope and potential. The articles, written in the essay format, are quite accessible to both burgeoning scholars and more seasoned researchers alike, and very precisely document various new series, trends and phenomenon that can be useful as starting point for further research. To wit, as the fourth wave is importantly and significantly an online movement, more information on that, and on viewer reception, in the book would have been interesting and welcome.The authors do not perhaps offer enough critique about some aspects of the messages being conveyed by the programs, notably the violence: the idea that violence is heroic, and, especially the violence in programs targeting young viewers. Yet the goal of the book and the articles within it would seem to offer food for thought, and be reflections on what constitutes fourth wave feminist fare and progress in terms of representation of race, sexual identities, and gender. Furthermore, it ends on a high note about newer representations opening a space for ‘utopian thinking’ (McGuire 2020: 201) and the potential for further innovations.
Book info: Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Volume 2. Essays on Television Representations, 2012-2019, edited by Valerie Estelle Frankel, McFarland & Co., 2020 (211 pages).
Atwood, Margaret (1986), The Handmaid’s Tale, New York: Anchor Books.
Black, Audrey Jane (2020), ‘Scattered Stories of Embodied Resistance: Sense8, Orphan Black, and Queer Cultural Productions’, in Valerie Estelle Frankel, Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 2, Essays on Television Representations, 2012-2019, Jefferson: McFarland & Co, pp. 30-46.
Eskie, Spinster (2020),’The Problematic White Woman in Black Mirror’s “Crocodile”’, in Valerie Estelle Frankel (ed), Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 2, Essays on Television Representations, 2012-2019, Jefferson: McFarland & Co., pp. 127-134.
Frankel, Steven B. (2020), ‘”The gods will always smile on the brave women”: Exploring the Heroines of History Channel’s Vikings’, in Valerie Estelle Frankel (ed), Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 2, Essays on Television Representations, 2012-2019, Jefferson: McFarland & Co., pp. 62-74.
Frankel, Valerie Estelle, ‘DC, Marvel and Star Wars for Girls: The Transmedia Online adventures’, in Valerie Estelle Frankel (ed), Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 2, Essays on Television Representations, 2012-2019, Jefferson: McFarland & Co., pp. 167-188.
Frankel, Valerie Estelle (ed), Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Volume 1, Essays on Film Representations, 2012-2019, Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2019.
Frankel, Valerie Estelle (ed), Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Volume 2. Essays on Television Representations, 2012-2019, Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2020.
Frankel, Valerie Estelle (2020), ‘Reclaiming Power from the Toxic Male: Support and Recover in Marvel’s Jessica Jones’, in Valerie Estelle Frankel (ed), Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 2, Essays on Television Representations, 2012-2019, Jefferson: McFarland & Co., pp. 75-89.
Gilbert, Sara Beth (2020), ‘”Bloke Utopia”: Bill Potts, Queer Identity and Cyborg Narratives in Doctor Who’, in Valerie Estelle Frankel (ed), Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 2, Essays on Television Representations, 2012-2019, Jefferson: McFarland & Co., pp. 135-147.
Haile, Resa (2020), ‘Wynonna Earp, Supergirl, and the Power of Choosing’ in Valerie Estelle Frankel (ed), Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 2, Essays on Television Representations, 2012-2019, Jefferson: McFarland & Co., pp 49-61.
McGucken, Stephenie (2020), ‘Rebelling Heroines: Hera, Sabine, and Ahsoka in Star Wars: Rebels’, in Valerie Estelle Frankel (ed), Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 2, Essays on Television Representations, 2012-2019, Jefferson: McFarland & Co., pp. 151-166.
McGuire, Josephine L. (2020), ‘Rose Arisen: How the Children’s Animated Show Steven Universe Invented “The Reverse Fridge”, in Valerie Estelle Frankel (ed), Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 2, Essays on Television Representations, 2012-2019, Jefferson: McFarland & Co., pp. 189-201.
McLoone, Katherine (2020), ‘Revisionist History and Intersectional Feminism in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow”, in Valerie Estelle Frankel (ed), Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 2, Essays on Television Representations, 2012-2019, Jefferson: McFarland & Co., pp. 110-126.
Saulson, Sumiko (2020), ‘From Sidekick to Romantic Lead: Rise of the Strong Black Woman’, in Valerie Estelle Frankel (ed), Fourth Wave Feminism in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 2, Essays on Television Representations, 2012-2019, Jefferson: McFarland & Co., pp. 93-109.
WHO SUPPORTS US
The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.
However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:
Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers
Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey