Gender Role Reversal in Farscape: Mad Space Science and Mad Soldier Skills
Venture into the wormhole with us...
When I first started watching Farscape, I knew I was hooked. There is so much to love about the show – good science fiction, great characters, Jim Henson creations, and most of all, the incredibly interesting relationship between John Crichton, the human astronaut thrown into a strange world of living ships, alien cultures, and extreme vulnerability, and Aeryn Sun, the Sebacean Peacekeeper born into a society in which emotional attachment, empathy, and respect for ‘lesser species’ are strongly discouraged. A cursory glance could dismiss John and Aeryn as the requisite science fiction heteronormative, physically attractive couple. While admittedly, neither Ben Browder nor Claudia Black are hard to look at, this could not be further from the truth. So many gender stereotypes and tropes are chewed up and spat out by Farscape’s power couple that it warrants a second and/or third glance.
I wanted to start this article, “John Crichton and River Tam walk into a bar, followed by creepy scientists wearing blue gloves and a weird guy with a brain-torture chair. River looks at John and says, ‘They just want me for my brains,’ to which John replies, ‘Hey, me too! We should start a support group for brilliant characters who have mad science problems. Can I be club treasurer? See, I’m really good with numbers …’ Then, River says, ‘I’ll be president. Because I can kill you with my brain.’ And John says, ‘Sounds fair,’ and they proceed to commiserate about Reavers and Scorpius, and mad, mad space science.” But … then I realized that I was basically writing fanfiction and stopped there. I can do that later. So, focus. No fanfiction on work time.
John Crichton looks, by our standards, like an alpha male. He’s fit and muscular, has a gun he’s named Winona, and embodies a spirit of adventure and exploration. After all, he was blasted into his new life via wormhole while test piloting a spacecraft he mostly designed himself. Alpha John is, however, thrown into a world where he is more than just a fish out of water – he is initially unable to communicate, physically weaker, and seen to be of little to no value by those who eventually become his friends and lover. In this situation, he is forced to fall back on his intelligence as his chief survival mechanism. Time and time again, it is John’s intelligence that saves him and the living ship Moya’s crew as he learns how to live in an alien society.
John is immediately attracted to Aeryn Sun, but she has very little use for him until he begins to prove his worth as a crew member aboard Moya. Aeryn is Sebacean, an alien race hinted in the show to be a genetically modified human offshoot. At the beginning of the show, she is a member of the Peacekeepers, a military that hires itself out for protection and not only discourages, but actively forbids emotional attachment. It is revealed later in the show that suspected emotional bonding is punishable by imprisonment and even death. Aeryn is physically superior to John, having increased senses and a lifetime of intense military training. The trope of the strong, unemotional man and weaker, but emotionally more mature woman is turned inside-out with John and Aeryn – she can dominate him physically, and he is the one trying to help her get in touch with her emotional side.
As the show progresses, John and Aeryn grow closer and begin to even each other out somewhat. John learns how to better function in his new environment and is less noticeably “weak,” while Aeryn matures emotionally, finally able to have meaningful relationships with others, and learns to value John for his sense of humor and creative brain. These changes are not sudden, but gradual over multiple seasons with various setbacks, allowing the viewer to appreciate that such things are not immediate or easy. Aeryn’s “reward” for emotional growth is often loss, and she briefly reverts to the unemotional state that is, for her, safe. John’s vulnerability leads him to levels of personal sacrifice most commonly reserved for female characters.
Like River from Firefly, John is pursued relentlessly for the information inside of his brain. As River’s brain contained the ability to fight against the Reavers and the secret knowledge of how they were created, John’s brain contains the secrets of wormhole technology the Peacekeepers, Scarrans, and other alien races all desire. John is routinely subjected to intense mental torture, and is even inflicted with a “neural clone” of one of his main tormentors, a half-Scarran, half-Sebacean scientist named Scorpius. The clone, dubbed “Harvey” by John in an attempt at humor, tortures John from inside his own mind and even forces him to harm those he loves. Another attempt to force the knowledge out of John’s mind involved his sexual assault at the hands of Commandant Grayza, a female Peacekeeper officer. Grayza had herself implanted with a gland that excretes Heppel Oil, a substance she uses as a date-rape drug. Over and over again, Farscape casts Aeryn as the rescuing hero and John in the stereotypical role of the “damsel” in distress. (Insert GIF of John as Eowyn in all of her “I am no bro” glory. If that GIF existed. If I knew how to GIF, it would ….)
In so many formats, the tale of a hard, military man learning to care for others, getting in touch with his emotions, and embracing his inner nurturer is very common. Usually, the romantic love of a good woman is where this process begins, although occasionally, this occurs via a parent/child relationship. A current example of the latter can be seen in the new SyFy show Defiance. Joshua Nolan, a former military man haunted by his violent past, raises and protects his alien foster daughter on an Earth transformed by alien technologies. His relationship and shifted priorities are a direct result of parenthood.
As many stereotypes are turned upside down in Farscape, John and Aeryn don’t actually switch gender roles when it comes to the birth of their child (although, the fetus was temporarily incubated by a Hynerian male – think small frogpersons.) Aeryn becomes pregnant, and the prospect of being responsible for another life brings out her emotional side even more. Like Nolan from Defiance, Aeryn’s badassery count is not diminished by parental concern, merely tempered to make her a more well-rounded character. While Nolan is not Irisa’s biological father, he raised her and her presence changed his life and gave him hope. Similarly, Aeryn’s life is enriched rather than lessened by becoming a parent.
So, if John Crichton and River Tam are starting a support group for victims of mad space science, perhaps Aeryn Sun and Joshua Nolan can start one for military hotshots recovering their people skills through parenthood. I can hear the fanfiction now, “Yeah, I had the kid in one hand and a grenade in the other! I thought we were goners, but here we are!” Aeryn fixes Nolan with a withering glare. “Oh, please. I fought more while pregnant than you ever did before you found this kid!” Yeah, I might have a hypothetical fanfiction problem …
Sara Goodwin has a B.A. in Classical Civilization and an M.A. in Library Science from Indiana University. Once she went on an archaeological dig and found awesome ancient stuff. Sara enjoys a smorgasbord of pan-nerd entertainment such as Renaissance faires, anime conventions, steampunk, and science fiction and fantasy conventions. In her free time, she writes things like fairy tale haiku, fantasy novels, and terrible poetry about being stalked by one-eyed opossums. In her other spare time, she sells nerdware as With a Grain of Salt Designs, Tweets, and Tumbls.