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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Who are Great At Their Job

February 21st, 2012 at 16:42

Over at SF Novelists, Marie Brennan talks about why ‘competence is hot,’ about the portrayal of various careers/jobs in fiction, and which ones work better than others. She also talks about wanting more heroines who get to be good at their job instead of merely hot.

Which is true, absolutely true, that there aren’t enough of those women in TV and especially movies. It reminds me of how excited the internet got about Women Fighters in Reasonable Armour and, in fact, that if you take a very attractive actress and put her in a practical outfit, and make her good at her job, she’s actually still going to be very attractive, in many cases MORE attractive than the glamorpuss in the tiny, implausibly unprofessional outfit, because it doesn’t look like she’s trying so hard.

In other words, you can have hot women on TV who are also fantastic role models for women, merely by putting more clothes on them, and treating their characters seriously. Who knew?

Some examples of iconic women in science fiction and fantasy television who are, in fact, awesome at their jobs:

Uhura (Star Trek) who may have mostly sat there and pushed buttons, but always looked like she was taking her job as communications officer seriously. Her aura of professional competence was impressive considering she was often given little to do in the script, and that’s down to the gravitas of the brilliant Nichelle Nichols, who gave a generation of African American kids hope that there was a place for them in the future. One of my favourite things about the movie remake of Star Trek is how they added weight to the job that Uhura (now played by Zoe Saldana) did – how much education she was required, and why she in particular was qualified for that really important position on the flagship. (in comparison, Kirk crashed into his job on a wing and a prayer, and seems to have been picked for “leadership qualities” that include “being a complete tool”).

[honourable mention Star Trek women of competence: Pulaski and occasionally Beverley Crusher from Next Gen, Dax and occasionally Kira from DS9, Janeway, Torres and ESPECIALLY Seven of Nine in Voyager, the Vulcan in the other one whose name I have temporarily forgotten)

Dana Scully (X-Files) – sure she wore ridiculous shoes, so they could pretend that Gillian Anderson was more than five feet tall, but you never doubted that Scully cared about her job at the FBI, and was damn good at it, despite having Mulder being flaky at her side 24-7.

Renee Montoya (the animated Batman) – a cool, competent (there’s that word again!) and mostly sensible cop, surrounded by idiots. Such a fabulous character that they stole her for the comics and she ended up being not only one of DC’s first prominent lesbian characters, but a superhero in her own right when she took on the mantle of The Question.

Xena (Xena: Warrior Princess) – okay, maybe Big Damn Hero is a job description after all. It certainly was in Xena’s case! When she was a bad-ass warlord she was damn good at it (there’s even an AU episode that shows she would have ended up ruling the known universe if she’d kept going in that direction) and when she was a force for good, she cleaned up the country, saved damsels, preserved kingdoms, killed gods, and generally kicked arse.

[honourable mentions: one of the great things about this show was the way that Xena was surrounded by competent, professional women, such as Gabrielle the bard, ALL the Amazon queens, but especially the original Queen Melosa and the steadfast Ephiny, Cleopatra, Boadicea, and Livia, Bitch of Rome. Even Aphrodite, the flighty surfer babe goddess of love, is… okay, no, that’s going too far.

Kaylee (Firefly) – cute as a button, but while she scrubbed up nice and purdy, she spent most of her time in her engineer’s kit – grungy overalls and messy hair. But you never doubted that she knew her shit when it came to keeping the ship going, and it helped that the rest of the longtime crew respected her abilities. Of course, she probably would have whacked them good with a spanner had they done otherwise…

[honourable mention Zoe, who only doesn't get the top position because I'm not entirely sure what her job description was other than BIG DAMN HERO.]

Astrid (Fringe) – whether she’s assisting Olivia, keeping Walter sane, or exhaling precise statistics in the alternate version of Earth, Astrid (Jaskia Nicole) is never less than competent. She puts up with a lot, and is often asked to do far more than most FBI agents would dream of handling, but part of the reason she is so highly trusted in both universes is because you can rely on her, every time.

[honourable mention: Olivia herself, who might have ranked equally to Astrid if it wasn't for the fact that she doesn't tie her long blonde hair back NEARLY enough when chasing bad guys. But I really appreciate it when she does! Also Nina as bad-ass corporate queen of all technology is one hell of a supporting character]

Jenna (Blake’s 7) – okay, there’s that thing where the women almost never went down to the away missions, but in Jenna’s case there was a reason for that. She was a pilot, a damned good one, and the first human to come anywhere close to mastering the alien renegade ship Liberator. Sure, Tarrant got the job later, but the ship was basically domesticated by that stage. Jenna wasn’t the world’s best smuggler (she did get caught, after all, and arrested) but she was certainly the best pilot in the Blake’s 7 universe, and the whole crew knew it. Her loyalty to Blake and her being the only person who could fly the ship for the first two years was basically the only reason that the structure show worked at all…

[honourable mentions: Soolin for being supremely excellent at shooting things, and Servalan for being a fabulously evil supreme commander... even if her Presidential skills left a lot to be desired, we never saw her lose to Blake and his crew because of her own incompetence - only that of the men around her. Even when she was down and out, a renegade herself, she never gave up fighting, or scheming.]

So who else can you think of? I haven’t even started on characters from Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, etc. Liz Shaw, both Romanas, Starbuck, President Roslin and Emma Peel from the Avengers all come to mind. But who are your favourite SF/Fantasy women who are fantastic at their jobs?

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8 Responses to “Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Who are Great At Their Job”

  1. Narrelle Says:

    Sarah Palmer from Chuck is brilliant at her job.

  2. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    Ripley, Sarah Connor.

  3. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    Ooh Susan Ivanova as well

  4. Alisa Says:

    Princess Leia.
    Starbuck and also the President in BSG
    T’Pol is who you mean in Enterprise but also Hoshi was pretty awesome in Enterprise.

  5. Triona Guidry Says:

    I would add Amanda Pays in two roles: as Theora Jones on Max Headroom and as Dr. Tina McGee to John Wesley Shipp’s The Flash.

    Theora was arguably the brains behind Edison Carter and his team, since boy genius Bryce was often more trouble than he was worth. She was tech-savvy and cool under pressure.

    Dr. McGee was a renowned scientist who, despite her deceased husband’s equally stellar reputation, did not allow herself to linger in his shadow. She was also good at refusing to put up with Barry’s occasional whining.

  6. Ginny Jolly Says:

    Mimi Rogers as Maureen Robinson in the movie _Lost in Space_. She is a true mom, adept in the space culture in which they live, loves her family very much, and is very savvy about what her children do and are capable of. She pulls her husband up short, reminding him of his responsibility to the family and his promises while still remaining a loving, romantic wife. I love the one scene where John Robinson and Major West are arguing about a command decision, and she threatens them with declaring them unfit and taking over command. When she finds them later agreeing to disagree but cooperating, she says, “Detente’s a beautiful thing!”

    Jaime Summers (Lindsay Wagner) of _The Bionic Woman_. She got her bionics after a parachuting accident, but unlike the 6 Million Dollar Man, she insisted she would NOT be a full-time secret agent of the OSI (Office of Scientific Intelligence). She chose which ops she would take on, and the director had to ask nicely. Her full-time occupation was a Junior High School teacher. As intelligent and savvy as the 6 Million Dollar Man, Jaime Summers was also all heart. if there was any possible way at all to save the people involved, she would find it.

  7. SF Tidbits for 2/22/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog Says:

    [...] Tansy Rayner Roberts on Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Who are Great At Their Job. [...]

  8. Kevin Says:

    Lois Lane, she’s a better journalist than Clark Kent.

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