Something is changing for women—and for men too. I’m talking about storytelling, both in literature and in film. Only a few years ago, no one would have predicted the success of Wonder Woman, which portrays a well-rounded (gylanic) female hero as both “badass” warrior (strong, determined and violent) and kind (compassionate, nurturing, empathetic and inclusive). Sadly, its release in 2017 stirred a backlash of mysogynist censure from some males who support—like strident insecure Trump-ets—a male-dominated androcratic world where a submissive demure woman is admired as “feminine” and a determined mindful woman considered as betraying her gender. The film was a box office hit. Wonder Woman grossed $822 million (highest-grossing superhero origin film of all time). And a significant number of viewers were women.
The Androcratic Hero
The male hero stereotype in literature and films of western neoliberal-corporate culture—and science fiction particularly—has often been characterized by strength, courage, integrity & honor, intelligence, assertiveness, single-mindedness, faith in his quest, and boundless determination: he is the altruist warrior, often acting alone against an unfair society through his conscience: all traits honored, respected and esteemed in men. In a woman, these Boadicean qualities often taint her as “bitch” “bossy” or “cold”. She may be considered unwomanly, unlady-like, intimidating, and untouchable (as in lesbian).
In the androcratic model, a woman “hero” often presupposes she shed her feminine nurturing qualities of compassion, kindness, tenderness, and inclusion, to express those hero-defining qualities that are typically considered “male”. I have seen too many 2-dimensional female characters limited by their own stereotype in the science fiction genre—particularly in the adventure/thriller sub-genre. If they aren’t untouchable goddesses or “witches” in a gynocratic paradigm, they are often delegated to the role of enabling the “real hero” on his journey through their belief in him: as Trinity enables Neo; Hermione enables Harry; Mary Jane enables Spiderman; Lois enables Superman; etc. etc. etc.
In so many androcratic storylines, the female—no matter how complex, interesting and tough she starts out being—demures to the male lead. This returns us to the clichéd role of the woman supporting the leading man to complete his hero’s journey—without considering her own. And this often means serving as the prize for his chivalry. We see this in so many action thrillers and action adventures today that promote the “hero’s journey” story trope. There’s even a name for it: the Trinity Syndrome.
Just four years ago, in a post on women heroes in literature, movies and pop culture, I quoted Gitesh Pandya, editor of a box office analyst site, who argued that this is because female-driven action movies have a hard time selling. “Most of the action films that have become huge hits are either male-driven or ensemble.” According to Pandy, “The (SF action) film industry has been male-dominated for so long, the people who are creating and financing these films typically put men in there as heroes.”
The Expanse Challenges the Androcratic Trope
Miller and Octavia Muss
In 2015, Syfy released Season 1 of The Expanse, a stylish and intelligent science fiction (SF) TV series set 200 years in the future when humanity has colonized the moon, Mars and the Asteroid Belt to mine minerals and water. The series is based on the novel series by James S.A. Corey with first novel in 2011 being “Leviathan Wakes”. Humanity has split three ways culturally, ethnically and even biologically: Earth is currently run by the United Nations; Mars is an independent state, devoted to terraforming with high technology; and the Belt contains a diverse mix of mining colonies, settlers, workers and entrepreneurs. Belters’ physiology differ from their Earth or Mars cousins, given their existence in low gravity.
The Expanse is a sophisticated SF film noir thriller that elevates the space opera sub-genre with a meaningful metaphoric exploration of issues relevant in today’s world—issues of resource allocation, domination & power struggle, values, prejudice, and racism. Critic Maureen Ryan of Variety says, “It’s to the show’s credit that it is openly political, and takes on issues of class, representation and exploitation.”
Women of “The Expanse” as Heroic Agents of Change
These issues are explored well through its female protagonists with subtle nuances of multi-layered social commentary sewn into virtually every interaction.
Julie Mao (Florence Faivre)
Julie Mao (Florence Faivre) is an Earther and “the richest bachelorette in the system” according to Detective Miller, who is contracted by his boss to “kidnap” the “spoiled” wayward daughter of corporate magnate Jules Pierre Mao and return her home before she embarrasses him further. Julie joined the hard core faction of the OPA (Outer Planet Association, led by Anderson Dawes as an activist organization that sells itself as a liberator for Belters but is really a terrorist revolutionary group, looking to shift the balance of power); she naively joined to help the lowly belters achieve justice and a voice in the oppressive squeeze by Martian and Earth corporate interests. In “Back to the Butcher”, a colleague of Julie’s relates how she selflessly helped injured minors on Calisto in a tunnel collapse with cadmium poisoning: “I never saw her shed a tear over the fact that she’d have to take anti-cancer meds for the rest of her life.” The only time she cried, he shares, was when she was acknowledged as being a true “beltalowda.”
Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo)
Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is the U.N. Deputy Undersecretary on Earth and a brilliant 23rd-century Machiavelli. She will stop at nothing in her search for the truth, including gravity torturing a Belter or playing her friends and contacts like chess pieces to find answers. What makes Chrisjen far more interesting than, say a Circe or Claire Underwood, is that her scheming—as reprehensible as it may be at times—comes from a higher calling, not from lust for power or self-serving greed. She’s seeks the truth. And, like Miller, she struggles with a conscience. Chrisjen is a complex and paradoxical character. Her passionate and unrelenting search for the truth together with unscrupulous methods, make her one of the most interesting characters in the growing intrigue of The Expanse. Avasarala is a powerful character on many levels—none the least in her potent presence (thanks to Shohreh Aghdashloo’s powerful performance); when Avasarala walks into a scene, all eyes turn to her.
Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper)
Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) is a Belter who grew up on prospecting ships in the Belt and Outer Planets. An extremely talented engineer with a mysterious past of regret and secret pain, Naomi uses arcane abilities to save the ship and her crew. “I have no resentments,” she tells her Martian interrogator. “I don’t believe in causes.” While she makes a point of expressing no allegiances, the Martians accuse her of being an OPA operative and she finds herself ironically defending the Belt and Belters in the struggle between Earth and Mars. “We need to stick together,” she tells fellow Belter Miller and helps Fred Johnson’s team. Driven to help those in need, Naomi selflessly puts herself in harm’s way to save Belters used as lab rats on Eros or those left to die on Ganymede after a Mars and Earth skirmish. In an intimate moment with Holden after the atrocity on Eros with the proto-molecule experiment, Naomi reminds him: “We did not choose this but this is our fight now. We’re the only ones who know what’s going on down there; we’re the only ones with a chance to stop it.”
Camina Drummer (Cara Gee)
Camina Drummer (Cara Gee) is a hard-calculating Belter who used to work for Anderson Dawes and is currently second in command for Fred Johnson (a previous U.N. officer and ‘the butcher of Anderson Station’ currently helping the OPA) on Tycho Station. A complex character with mysterious connections and intuitive skills for people, Drummer gives one the impression that she can nimbly navigate between hard-line OPA and Fred’s Earther-version of OPA justice for Belters. In “Pyre”, she shows her mettle when—after being shot and held hostage by a militant faction on Tycho—she finds the strength to summarily execute them.
Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams)
Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) is a staunch hard-fighting Martian marine who dreams of a terraformed Mars with lakes and vegetation and breathable atmosphere. Because of Earth’s Vesta blockade, Draper realizes that she will not realize her childhood dream of seeing Mars “turned from a lifeless rock into a garden.” The blockade forced Mars to ramp up its military at the expense of terraforming. Draper laments that, “with all those resources moved to the military, none of us will live to see an atmosphere over Mars” and bears a strong resentment against Earth. However, when Bobbie discovers her own government’s culpability with an Earth weapons manufacturer that used her own marines as guinea pigs, she chooses honour over loyalty and defects to seek justice.
Anna Volovodov (Elizabeth Mitchell)
Reverend Doctor Annushka (Anna) Volovodov (Elizabeth Mitchell) is a gay Methodist doctor (married to a woman and with a daughter) who is introduced in Season 3 as she struggles through a mob of anti-war protestors to enter the United Nations building on Earth. When a young man collapses through the barricade and breaks his wrist, Anna asks him, “Is this your first protest?” then calmly and firmly directs a surly guard to help him, handling the situation with firm grace–even after being injured in the confrontation.
The Secretary General (who she had a previous friendship that soured over some dubious event) has called Anna in to write a stirring speech to unite Earth behind the war erupting between Earth and Mars. Anna enters the political intrigue with naive hope and is badly used; but her inner strength, keen intelligence and courage propels her on an amazing trajectory of influence to the outer reaches of the solar system where first contact is imminent. Like a quiet summer rainstorm, Anna brings a fresh perspective on heroism through faith, hope and inclusion.
Women as Gylanic Heroes
The gylanic hero is gaining momentum in science fiction and action-thrillers; the gylanic hero—embraced mostly by women—teaches us what humanity needs now more than ever: the heroic gifts of altruism, compassion, faith, courage, passion, and endurance. She is already there, in movies and TV shows like Lucy, Edge of Tomorrow, Hunger Games, Divergence, Orphan Black, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica and The Expanse: fighting the dragons of prejudice, ignorance, cruelty, greed and intolerance–in partnership with her male counterpart.
When we dispense with gender-bias in defining heroism in story, we display maturity as a species. I think of my favorite stories in literature, peopled by men and women; all heroes: Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Fahrenheit 451, King Lear, Solaris, The Grapes of Wrath, 1984, Doctor Zhivago, Brave New World, Martian Chronicles, and To Kill a Mockingbird — to name just a few. The gender of the hero I empathized with was irrelevant. What remained important was their sensibilities and their actions of respect and integrity on behalf of humanity, all life and the planet.
Gylany: a social system based on equality of men and women
Androcracy: a form of governing system in which rulers are male (patriarchal rule)
Gynocracy: as with androcracy, an authoritarian rule by women over men (matriarchal rule)
A list of SF books and films with whole and relevant female heroes–gylanic heroes– follows below. There are many more. I’ve listed these because they are ones I enjoyed and know, several being my own. Please add yours:
GYLANIC HEROES (portraying women as agents of change equal with men)
- Contact by Carl Sagan (Simon and Schuster) 1985. A woman’s quest into the unknown for benevolent intelligence in the universe.
- Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress (Harper Collins). 1993. A story that examines social consequences to transhumanist generic engineering.
- A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Anchor). 1998. A chilling fable of the near future, about a monotheocratic government where women are strictly controlled and assigned roles.
- Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen). 1999. A woman’s journey through deception and betrayal to find honour.
- His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman (Laurel Leaf). 2003. A fantasy alternate world adventure about a young girl who discovers that the fate of the universe lies in her hands.
- Battlestar Galactica TV series by Ronald D. Moore. 2004. This second iteration of space “noah’s arc” is largely steered by key female agents of change in a gender-blind universe from complex pugilistic fighter jock and sly but intuitive politician, to love-seeking humanistic robot—all on a significant hero’s journey.
- Darwin’s Paradox by Nina Munteanu (Dragon Moon Press). 2007. An eco-thriller about a woman unjustly exiled for murder and her quest for justice in a world ruled by technology and scientists.
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Press). 2008. A series of books about teens forced to fight to the death on television.
- The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (McClelland and Stewart). 2009. Toby and Ren must survive the apocalypse described in the previous novel, each reminiscing about their time in the God’s Gardeners religious movement and the events that led to their current situations.
- The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey and Nimit Malavia (Chizine Publications). 2012. A novel about the women of a harem in an ancient Middle Eastern kingdom, who forge themselves into an army after they’re exiled from the city of their birth — and then return to claim the city for themselves.
- The Splintered Universe Trilogy by Nina Munteanu (Starfire). 2011-2014. This trilogy, starting with Outer Diverse, follows the quest of Galactic Guardian Rhea Hawke, who must solve the massacre of a spiritual sect that takes her on her own metaphoric journey of self-discovery to realize power in compassion and forgiveness.
- Divergent by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books). 2012. a young girl overcomes her assigned caste in a dystopian Chicago to realize her true self-identity, revealed to be dangerous to the very existence of her ordered society
- The Last Summoner by Nina Munteanu (Starfire). 2012. A young baroness discovers that her strange powers enable her to change history—but at a cost. Vivianne begins her journey in the year 1410, on the eve of a great battle. She dreams of her Ritter (knight), who will save her from her ill-fated marriage and the strange events that follow. But early on, she realizes that she is the Ritter she dreams about.
- Leviathan Wakes & series by James S.A. Corey (Orbit Books). 2011. A high-stakes near-future space-colonizing conflict that brings strong female protagonists of varying cultural, ethnic and political influence into key roles as agents of change.
- The 100 TV series by Jason Tothenberg. 2014. In this post-apocalyptic Earth adventure, several women protagonists share key roles in determining the fate of humanity in violent change.
- The Expanse TV series by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, Syfy. 2015. The exemplary TV series based on the James S.A. Corey 7-book series.
- Missions TV series by Julien Lacombe, Ami Cohen, and Henri Debeurme. 2017. The protagonist of this space race to Mars is a psychologist, who discovers her bizarre and personal connection to Mars, which promises to affect humanity’s destiny.
- The Beyond film by Hasraf Dulull. 2018. This near-future thriller about first contact, features several women in key positions as scientists and mission administrators who must solve a key mystery that explores the consequences of humanity’s fearful tendencies.
Other Relevant Articles of Interest from The Alien Next Door:
Riane Eisler (in The Chalice and the Blade) provides examples of sociobiologists who draw on nineteenth-century Darwinism by citing insect societies to support their androcratic (social and political rule by men) theories. If humanity is to truly rise victorious over the scourge of climate change—a function of our current lifestyle and paradigms—we will need to adopt a cultural evolution that embraces a partnership society heralded by new and renewed symbology, language and “myth”: It starts with embracing gylanic heroes in literature and movies. Watching them, reading about them, writing and sharing these stories for the future they speak to.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.