We Are Not Things: Shining Examples of Women’s Autonomy in Sci-Fi
Recently, the bodily autonomy of women has been a recurring theme in some of the most entertaining and successful sci-fi properties. The winner in this category is, of course, Orphan Black, a show about clones struggling to live their lives free of the scientists, fundamentalists, creators, and capitalists who all want to lay claim to their genetic material and ultimately control their destinies. Given the ongoing political debates about the rights of women and LGBTQ folks to make their own decisions about their bodies and lives, free from systemic or individual interference, it’s no surprise the genre is reflecting these issues back to us. But with Clone Club coming up on its final season, what other media plays with this topic through imagined worlds, new technology and far-off futures?
The entire driving force of last summer’s runaway hit Mad Max: Fury Road is women seeking and exercising their own bodily autonomy, declaring, “We are not things.” In Fury Road’s case, this is led by a disabled woman who couldn’t be anything short of badass if she tried. Perhaps the most profound expression of the wives’ rejection of their status as “treasures” is when The Splendid Angharad, knowing that Immortan Joe will never harm his unborn child, flings open the car door and uses her body to shield the others, a move that would be echoed in an episode of Killjoys later that same summer. Her move is a brazen display of independence and internal strength in the face of extreme violence against women, using Immortan Joe’s weakness against him to protect those she loves. In the end, she loses both her own life and that of her unborn child, but every sacrifice in Fury Road, whether from the wives, the Vuvalini or Furiosa herself, was that woman’s call to make. After lifetimes imprisoned or on the run, the women of Fury Road choose to live and die by their own values, and together they earn freedom for themselves and so many others.
Much like the clones of Orphan Black, Portia Lin on Syfy’s Dark Matter comes to realize that she is considered someone else’s property, due to scientific innovation within her very person, unbeknownst to her. In this case, rather than her DNA carrying a trademark like our dear clones, Portia (or “Two,” as she and her crewmates prefer to call her) is home to a crew of nanites. While there are obvious advantages to playing host to microscopic robots that rapidly heal her body, it also puts a target on her back. Similar to Clone Club, Two’s creators see her as valuable property, which they want returned to them at any cost. For Two, the cost of her unique augmentation is that someone considers her their own, leading to a life of looking over her shoulder, trusting no one for fear that they would sell her out. In spite of this, she still forms strong bonds with the members of her crew, and no one ever questions the fact that she is their leader.
Recently, we saw the other side of the coin on Killjoys (which shares producers with Orphan Black) with the introduction of Clara, a character with so many tech-based body modifications that she’s no longer legally classified as a human being. And while she was certainly unhappy about being a kidnapped “robo slave girl,” she finds her way out through negotiation and brute force, with some help from Alice, her gun/arm. We learn she is proud of her modified status so long as she’s free, and has no desire to go back to being a “basic.” Of course, I expect no less from a show where our main character is both the ranking badass who forges a life where she is beholden only to the warrants she chooses to serve, and a woman struggling to process a childhood where she was raised to be a weapon. Her abusive mentor continually fights to be a part of her life against her will, insisting he knows best and that she freely chose a life of torture and murder. The fact that Dutch chose to become a bounty hunter (or “Killjoy”), a job where she is able to use her particular set of skills how and when she chooses while remaining politically neutral, shows us the importance of agency, and a powerful example of a woman escaping her abuser.
On The 100, the CW show that is so much more than its “post-apocalyptic teens play Lord of the Flies” premise, autonomy is everything. Octavia, the character who has had perhaps the most growth from the “We’re back, bitches!” girl of the pilot to the fearsome warrior who defies clan allegiances of the third season, was imprisoned for simply being born. A second child, her very existence was illegal up on the space station known as the Arc. This leads to a distrust for her kind that allows her to be more open-minded about those she encounters on the ground, a skill that is even more valuable than her ability with a machete. Surprisingly, though, The 100 has (so far) refrained from any depiction or even suggestion of sexual assault, a major departure from most genre and prestige shows. While thoughtful depiction of sexual assault is necessary, these days it feels more radical not to show it at all, rather than inundating the viewer with trauma.
All of these stories, from many different creators, cast into stark relief a specific set of fears: the fear of being owned, of being denied personhood, of being limited in our movement, decisions, reproductive rights and bodily integrity. But they also offer us hope. They show us women who will stop at nothing until they and their loved ones are free, and condemn those who stand in their way. They also show us characters who look unimaginably powerful systems, technology and people dead in the face and say no, you don’t get to decide for me.
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Delia Harrington is a writer, activist, photographer, and geek. She finds the intersection of her passions in feminist pop-culture criticism of her favorite genre shows. Delia works in international development, travels as often as possible, and advocates for survivors of sexual violence. Her writing can be found on Wanderful, Stop Street Harassment and her blog. Her social justice snark can be found on twitter.
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