8 Female TV Characters that Changed Sci-Fi

I heard recently that considering all the madness happening in the world right now, investing so much time and energy in television and movies seems fruitless. I disagree. I think art mirrors society and vice-versa, and the response to the rise of women in sci-fi and fantasy is a testament to just how much more social progress must be made.

This past Sunday, the BBC announced that Doctor Who‘s Thirteenth iteration of the classic time-traveling alien would be played by a woman, Jodie Whittaker.

Cue the outrage––from men and women alike.

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These are the nicer comments.

But it’s funny that these same die-hard fans seem to conveniently forget about all the women in their favorite franchises that helped shape the success of those franchises. And they seem to ignore that just as men love to see themselves reflected onscreen, perhaps women might too (shocker!).

For reference, here are just a few women who contributed positively to the genre nerds hold so dear. Some are main protagonists, like Thirteen will be, and some are not. The point is that they are dynamic, influential, and prove that making a character male doesn’t deem it more relevant or special to the sci-fi/fantasy canon.

1. Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek (2009)

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Lieutenant Uhura, featured first in Star Trek (1966 – 1969) and played by Nichelle Nichols, was the first black woman to appear on primetime television in a role besides a maid or other stereotypical role for a black woman. As such, the doors Uhura opened not only for women, but for women of color in sci-fi were unprecedented. Admittedly, like the rest of the Enterprise‘s female crew, she didn’t often have many lines and often went about her day in an impractically revealing uniform.

But Uhura was a ranked officer with expertise in linguistics and starship communications, and Captain Kirk needed her as much as anyone else on his crew, male or female. For a ’60s TV show, Uhura’s involvement in the main crew’s adventures was huge. She went on to feature more prominently in the original film series, and, of course, in the reboot. By the third reboot film, she proves just as capable of fighting as she is translating. In Star Trek Beyond (2016) she actually saves Spock’s life in a pivotal action scene.

Basically, Uhura is the Original Female Space Badass. All bow down before her.

2. Dr. Dana Scully, The X-Files

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Did you know that women can be doctors and FBI agents? That’s right! Dana Scully is both!

Besides the fact that Scully has encouraged countless young women since The X-Files to pursue medical degrees, her character breaks social stereotypes about gender from episode one. The FBI specifically hires Scully, based on her expertise and intellect, to challenge Agent Mulder’s belief in the existence of aliens.

Scully keeps Mulder in check; she provides logical alternatives to his assumptions, using her medical knowledge in tandem with that of standard FBI procedure. Whether or not she’s always right depends on your interpretation of the science on the show, but the point is, she provides the “rational” perspective often attributed to men, particularly in procedural dramas. Scully is often the less openly emotional character, in fact, between her and Mulder, the latter of whom is often driven by emotion surrounding his past in terms of experience with extra-terrestrials. Scully opens up to the audience gradually as the seasons go on, and we see multiple sides of her that illustrate the humanity behind what some may consider cold and calculating.

I’d argue further development could’ve been done to make Scully more multi-faceted, but the fact that she took on traditionally “male” traits was a huge step in the right direction for women in sci-fi. Even in the revived series and considering all she’s been through, Scully continues to view strange phenomena with a healthy dose of skepticism.

3. Xena, Xena: Warrior Princess

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Embarrassingly enough, I’ve not yet watched this gem of a fantasy classic. But it’s high on my watch list primarily because its positive representation of female friendship through Xena and Gabrielle. The show passes the Bechdel test from episode one (for those who don’t know, the “Bechdel test” is writer Alison Bechdel’s semi-serious assessment of fictional media, the criterion of which is as follows: if two female characters talk to each other about something other than a man in a conversation, the work passes the test). From my understanding, Xena, while she presents as a very powerful Amazon, has weaknesses and flaws like any human––man, woman, or otherwise.

Xena’s on this list because she’s further proof that people love seeing powerful women on television. After all, the show was originally written as a spinoff to Hercules and promptly soared past the original show’s ratings. Plus, Xena features storylines that focus very little on men or gender in general––in other words, they are applicable to any superhero or heroine, showing that a woman is just as capable as a man of carrying a show.

4. Captain Kathryn Janeway, Star Trek: Voyager

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Before Janeway, all the Starfleet captains from Star Trek‘s inception through its many spinoffs had been male. Enter Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway, and all hell broke lose in the fandom. Sound familiar?

The backlash Star Trek: Voyager received in its first episodes centered primarily around the fact that male fans didn’t want a “soft” captain who couldn’t make the tough calls. On the contrary, Captain Janeway is one of the strongest captains in Star Trek, not just because of those constant calls she needs to––and does––make (Tuvix, anyone?), but because she’s as well-rounded as she is.

Captains Kirk and Picard, while genius, do not necessarily show much open empathy toward their respective crews. One could argue it’s because gender stereotypes keep them from doing so. But Janeway’s heart is as big as her brain. While tough, she is a role model for the other women in the show––particularly B’Elanna and Kess––and provides advice and guidance for them as they come into their own. Voyager‘s writers effectively empowered Janeway to embody both traditionally “male” and “female” gender-performing characteristics. As one of my favorite podcasts, Women at Warp, points out in an early episode, Janeway is the only captain that displays enough experience to actively take part in conversations on Voyager’s functionality with the crew.

Janeway is calculating and logical, yet empathetic and sincere. She’s faced with leading a crew of people stranded in space, and as such, things tend to get a bit claustrophobic at times. But Janeway can handle it all: the technical, the tactical, and the very human issues.

5. Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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An episode of Buffy wouldn’t be right without at least one action scene featuring this tiny heroine ripping a vampire a new one. The best part is she could do it in fashionable shoes. Buffy is quintessentially feminine, and the normalization of the seemingly stark contrast between her “girliness” and her physical prowess set a precedent for sci-fi heroines for years to come (see Agent Carter, for example).

Yet despite her immense physical strength, Buffy is very human. This is a common theme between the women on my list, as a complaint I’m hearing about the Thirteenth Doctor is that the past 12 have always been “relatable.” Why would gender change that?

Buffy Summers is probably the most relatable protagonist you can find. She is whiny, often silly, and occasionally makes some objectively bad choices. This is one of many aspects I love about her and the show in general. The writing on Buffy makes a conscious effort to give each character depth, and uses its storylines to fearlessly tackle complex issues about pain, loss, love, and what it means to be human. Buffy Summers in a way is you, and me, and every person who’s ever been alive. Whether she’s wearing pink lipstick or not is irrelevant.

6. Missy, Doctor Who

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Ah! You didn’t think I’d forget the biggest hint to a female Doctor the fans could’ve possibly gotten, did you? One of the greatest villains in Doctor Who history, the Master––a Time Lord like the Doctor––was discovered to have regenerated into a woman in Season 8 of the show. How’s that for foreshadowing?

There was a little bit of complaining when this happened, but not much. The Master, after all, wasn’t the main character. The Doctor himself was still a man, manly as ever, doing man things.

But Missy’s character set up a female Thirteenth Doctor brilliantly because of how she developed, particularly in Season 10. She went from essentially wreaking the usual havoc of the Master on the Doctor to actively trying to change. Character development, especially in characters we didn’t think it possible, is good storytelling.

Missy’s ability to at least, in part, redeem herself is not a demonstration of womanly weakness as some misogynist viewers may assume. On the contrary, it’s proof of the Master/Missy’s character growth regardless of gender. The Doctor, knowing that the Master is the last creature like him in the universe, has always wanted to change the Master for the better to ensure neither of them are alone in time and space (see the showdown in season 4, for example). The Master’s gender change doesn’t affect that goal at all. It’s Missy’s particular connection with the Twelfth Doctor that gradually breaks down her walls, but ultimately, without revealing spoilers, I’ll say that the Master’s greatest enemy has always been himself(/herself!).

7. Zoe Washburne, Firefly

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Firefly, another Whedon masterpiece, features Zoe as the first officer to everyone’s favorite space bandit, Malcom Reynolds. Firefly is for the most part an ensemble show, with Mal being the main protagonist. However, the show makes it very clear that he’d be nothing without his crew, and Zoe is certainly a part of that.

Zoe is the first person to call out Mal when he’s being ridiculous; her smarts and quick wit make her both a fun character and an inspiration for women, particularly women of color, in science. She is also shown in a healthy interracial relationship with her husband, “Wash.” Their chemistry displays itself through affectionate banter and in the fact that they match each other intellectually. Outside of that dynamic, characters look to her for her honesty and sheer strength of will. Also, she handles a gun like nobody’s business.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen the Firefly spinoff film, Serenity, but in case you haven’t…Zoe truly proves her strength in this film more than ever. But despite all that strength, Zoe also has a vulnerable side, which is why she makes it on this list. In many cases, women’s characters in sci-fi, especially “strong” ones, are never fleshed out enough. Zoe is proof that it can be done and done well, even when that character is part of an ensemble.

8. Arya Stark, Game of Thrones

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There are a lot of women I could’ve placed on this list from GoT, but Arya seems the most appropriate.

Says this Independent article on the subject:

There is a sense with Game of Thrones that while the BBC have dawdled for a decade wondering if a woman could be trusted with a Sonic Screwdriver – and, more crucially, what that would male viewers say – on Sky Atlantic’s flagship drama women have always held the keys to the entire kingdom.

Game of Thrones has never shied away from depicting women in positions of power. The great thing about Arya is that she defies stereotypes on multiple levels. From the first season, we know she doesn’t want to play by the rules prescribed to women of her time. She’s so outwardly bored of learning sewing and table etiquette that her father allows that she receive swordfighting lessons. Later, she ends up disguising as a boy, slipping into traditionally “male” and “female” mannerisms interchangeably.

At a young age, Arya is forced to go out on her own. She seems young to be on this list, but here’s why. While many classic “forcibly coming of age” stories belong to men (i.e., The Catcher in the Rye, arguably even Harry Potter), Game of Thrones gives theirs to a young girl of noble birth. Arya undergoes a drastic, often tragic transformation in a short period, but she always holds her ground. She has convictions; she has morals (however construed they may be by this point in the show…), but most importantly, she has motivation. Arya isn’t swinging around a sword just so the show can proudly boast it features women wielding weapons. She’s been through a lot and made more sacrifices than anyone should have to make.

Fighting, a typically “male” activity, isn’t just Arya’s means of defense; it’s her way of grounding herself. It’s how she’s come into her own. By this point in the show, you could ostensibly argue she may not even be a good person (though who on Game of Thrones really is?). But her character’s powerful transformation, motivated however unfortunately by revenge, is one not offered to many female characters.


I can imagine a few potential counterarguments to this; for example, why am I mostly listing characters who were originally written as women, when the Doctor is a role “specific to a man”?

Because, my sweet summer children, these characters prove that women, in achieving things male characters do regularly and so much more, make television awesome. I imagine Doctor Who will be no exception.

Why a woman in a traditionally male role, you ask?

Because why not.

The Doctor has alluded multiple times to the fact that his species––time lords––can regenerate into any gender. It’s been 50 years. Why not now?

I foresee how this may go. The Doctor is not perfect. The Doctor makes mistakes. And when Thirteen makes mistakes as all her regenerations before have done, fans will say it’s because she’s a woman incapable of learning from those mistakes. On the contrary, the Doctor’s imperfection presents him as a dynamic character that we learn more about each season. To assume all that character development disappears when a woman takes the role assumes that women don’t have the capacity for such depth (despite the characters on my list that indicate the contrary). That women can never be part of fandom. Just outside it.

And there’s nothing further from the truth.

In 1968, Star Trek was on the verge of cancellation, but super-Trekkie Bjo Trimble wasn’t going to let that happen. With her husband as her partner in crime, Trimble kickstarted the first ever fan letter campaign, resulting in NBC’s receipt of thousands letters from around the country begging to save the show. Many of these letters were written by women, as the show represented progress for them in a time of social revolution. As a result, they relented and announced a third season. Arguably, women saved Star Trek.

Women are fans, and powerful ones at that. Women want to see themselves better represented in what is falsely considered a male-dominated genre. About a year ago, I wrote on this blog about feeling cast aside in the sci-fi/fantasy fandom as a woman even in my day-to-day. That feeling is more prominent than ever in light of the Doctor Who announcement––and in light of the female-heavy casting choices for the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery series.

Nerdboys, by protesting the fact that women can now see themselves in the Doctor, a British television icon, you’re saying you don’t believe women are worthy of representing that icon. You disregard the plethora of women fans lining up at Doctor Who comic-con panels. You ignore the millions of fan arts, writings, and analyses all pioneered by women. You deny over half the world’s population to look at television as a mirror like you do every day.

I think it’s okay, even accurate, to say that women have made sci-fi. And they’ll continue doing so.

The next Doctor is female, and there’s so much more where that came from and so much more we can do in terms of intersectionality. What’s next? A genderfluid Doctor (which is kind of already established)? A Doctor of color?

Bring it on. I can’t wait.

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5 thoughts on “8 Female TV Characters that Changed Sci-Fi

  1. I LOVE this list!!! I’m familiar with most of these characters and I am psyched that The new Dr. Who will be a woman. Could add a whole new perspective to the series add a new cadre of both female and male fans. Loved how u chose each character and included in detail how each woman had a huge impact as strong female role models but how you included Bjo Trimble and her lead to save
    ST TOS for another season. One suggestion to your list I would include is Carol Pelletier and Michone who both grow into their roles as kick ass and fierce female leads in The Walking Dead. Great blog Jenna!!!!
    PS I love Uhura!!!

    Like

  2. good choices, though I’m a bit bummed that, because you chose to restrict the list to television, characters like Ripley and Ellie Arroway couldn’t be lauded.

    Like

    1. Those are both excellent additions to this list! I grew up with Ripley. Wanted to be just like her.

      Your point is exactly why I restricted the list…otherwise I could’ve gone on forever! So many powerful women in sci-fi!

      Like

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