No more Ensign Sexypants: female sci-fi characters who don’t suck

Being a female character in sci-fi can be a tough gig. You’re either one-dimensional eye candy whose only defining features are contained in your spandex uniform top, or you’re the most ridiculous Mary Sue in existence; the badass who’s good at everything, beautiful, smart, tough, and sassy. If you need a flaw, hmm, unlucky in love, maybe? Finding a well-written, well-acted, fully developed (in the character creation sense, you pervs) female sci-fi character is harder than you think. Sci-fi has always been progressive: in the storylines, in the creation of technology, with world-building and species invention; but sci-fi writers, with a few exceptions, have often failed their female characters, and, by extension, their female audiences. Here are some characters who defy the trend:

-Laura Roslin (BSG): I have rarely had love for a TV character as much as I have for Roslin. She’s simultaneously kind and cunning, manipulative and generous, vulnerable and strong, and she loves to airlock people and/or Cylons. She’s led astray from time to time, she plays the game, she makes mistakes, sometimes huge ones, but still remains solidly Roslin. Her relationship with Adama Sr. is one of the most realistic, most touching, and most heart wrenching partnerships I can think of. Her ruthlessness in dealing with her various nemeses and annoyances, most notably Baltar and Zarek, is inspiring and a little scary all at once. Not to mention, in a cast of young, unreasonably attractive women, Mary McDonnell not only holds her own, but elevates the standard for beautiful and captivating, while being a few years past the Hollywood ideal of a leading lady.

-Samantha Carter (Stargate SG-1): Carter got off to a bad start; I’ll admit that. Her first few episodes made me cringe. Her dialogue was forced and awful, and she was really pretty annoying. She got better, though. Much, much better, as far as I’m concerned. She was a little too awesome at times: she solved all of the problems, she was the rational one, the smart one, the one to fix everything just in the nick of time. Carter still managed to avoid being one-dimensional. She had love interests, friendships, hobbies, and dorky pursuits. She carried traits of her entire team: the military/warrior mindset of O’Neill and Teal’c, the humanity and love of science and knowledge of Daniel Jackson, the diplomacy and leadership of General Hammond, and the heart of Dr. Fraiser. She was completely unapologetic about being a geek, and while she was often a bit of a know-it-all, no one was ever surprised that the pretty blonde woman was the one with the answers.

-Zoe Washburne (Firefly): My love for Zoe is pretty much boundless. Sure, she’s got a lot of that tomboy badassery going on, she’s a crack shot, she makes even Jayne look like a sissy, but Joss Whedon (who has a pretty good track record with female characters, for the most part) actually made her a person on top of all that. She’s got a dry, sarcastic sense of humor. Her marriage is realistic, with give and take and sweet little moments of humor and affection. Her instincts are military, but she has an inclination toward the nurturing that she doesn’t try to hide. She worries about the crew. She focuses on the people as well as the details. I love that she’s not the usual “under the tough-as-nails exterior lies a soft, squishy, heart of gold.” She manages to mix the heart in with the toughness, the humor in with the strategy, and she doesn’t put on a front. She’s all of who she is, all of the time.

-Aeryn Sun (Farscape): Aeryn, while being in possession of the aforementioned “tough-as-nails exterior,” still has one of the most compelling redemption and development arcs in modern sci-fi. Over the course of the series, she is forced to question everything she had believed to be true for her entire life. She is thrown into a complex group situation, where she has to interact with people (and, you know, not-people) in a non-military context for the first time pretty much ever. She never loses her general badassness, but, over time, her fragility and uncertainties surface, and she has to figure out how to reconcile the person she is becoming with the person she’s always been. Plus, she can pilot a Prowler like no one else.

-Donna Noble (Doctor Who): Donna, of all of the recent companions, partially owes her place on this list to being the only female companion who is both older than 25 and not in love with the Doctor. Companion as potential love interest can only go so far before I’m just rolling my eyes in annoyance. More than that, though, Donna is AWESOME. I know that’s not a universally held opinion, but as far as I’m concerned, she’s such a good character. She’s the Doctor’s equal in many ways. She’s his friend, his companion in the truest sense of the word. She’s resourceful, and brave, but she’s far from perfect. Occasionally overconfident and judgmental, often shrill, and intermittently completely exasperating, Donna still manages to be a real person, even while she’s saving the day/world/universe/all of time and space. She’s a temp! And she’s a really good one! She calls people out on their bullshit, whether it’s her boss and coworkers, her mother, the Doctor, or a bunch of Daleks. Plus, anyone who loves her grampa that much has a special place in my heart. (Side note: Were I to ever make a list of the best sci-fi grandfathers, it would pretty much begin and end with Wilf.)

As a point of interest, after I finished writing this, I did a quick Google search for “Sci-fi women characters,” with several variations, mostly because I like to see how my ideas line up with other people examining the same topic, and also to make sure I’m not ganking someone else’s ideas (even unintentionally). Want to know what I found? “Hottest sci-fi women.” “Sexy sci-fi woman characters.” “Hottest sci-fi girls.” “Sci-fi fantasy woman costumes.” Oh, boy. We still have so far to go.


8 responses to “No more Ensign Sexypants: female sci-fi characters who don’t suck

  1. Hopefully posts like this will start popping up one day instead of just “hottest” lists.

    It was a huge privilege to hear Jane Espenson talk about creating strong female characters at San Diego Comic-Con. It was the end of the Her Universe: Women in Sci-Fi panel, and she was answering an audience question. She stated that we have to trick ourselves. People think it’s always so easy to write great male characters and that females suffer. So her advice? Write a male and change the pronoun. đŸ™‚

    You have a great list here; I think I would have to add Starbuck. She was incredibly frakked up, but also very strong.

    • First off, I love Jane Espenson, and think she should write everything, forever. I was really hoping for a NYCC panel with her, but no luck for the East Coasters, I guess. But I do agree with her. Male characters are generally so much more nuanced and complex than female ones. It’s like writers think you can have either: A) a whole list of varied personality traits existing in a complicated and well-developed character; or B) a female character.

      As far as Starbuck goes, I’m conflicted about her. I love when she’s angry and complicated and flawed, and then they got all “Kara Thrace and her special destiny” and started to lose me.

  2. How about Janeway? Or the woman (played by Jodie Foster) in the film ‘Contact’?

  3. I’m so with you on Donna, Carter, and especially Zoe. And now I really must watch BSG!

  4. An incredible female character is Ripley, from the Alien films.

    Starting out as an intelligent woman, she is put through hell, turns into quite the badass, and shows her caring side, and if the scenes in the last movie didn’t move you, after following her through from the Nostromo, then you are dead inside. A well rounded character, even if the third and fourth films weren’t quite what they could have been.

  5. I’d like to add my personal favourite to this list: Agent Olivia Dunham from the series ‘Fringe’. She sort of started out in the pilot as the typical ‘person who is in love and must do everything they can to save the object of affection’ type of character, but as the first season progressed she quickly became my favourite character (aside from Walter, obviously). She’s strong, fiercely loyal and a total badass, while also being family and friends oriented and experiencing doubt and ‘WTF how did my life become this’ moments. She’s one of those characters that work whether the character is a male or a female and I love that!

  6. I love your list and your reasons for including these women. I’m going to add a personal favorite: Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5.

  7. Your reasons for adding women to this list greatly influenced the character creation in my novel. I didn’t want the bad-ass female lead to be perfect at everything ( or perfect at everything but love). I didn’t want her to be “hot” “sexy” or even “pretty”.
    Thanks for posting this list!

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