The second season of Rick and Morty was hands down the best television I watched in 2015. In its sophomore year, the show became emotionally complex, more nuanced and more adventurous in both scope and structure. Most excitingly, creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon expanded Summer Smith (Spencer Grammer), older sister to Morty and granddaughter to Rick, into the most interesting female character to ever appear on Adult Swim. I know that’s a lofty claim, but I’ve been watching Adult Swim for more than a decade, and it hasn’t always been easy to find myself, or images of women I know, in the programming.
Adult Swim’s work in gender dynamics hasn’t always been memorable. The channel’s only female-led comedy, , ran from 2005 to 2007, and it comprised eleven episodes in total. The animation style left a lot to be desired, and one actress, Melissa Barden Garsky, voiced the only two female characters on the show. Notably, Garsky voiced Melissa on Home Movies as well, making her the only female voice actor featured on Adult Swim programming for several years.
One could argue The Venture Bros. has done a great job playing with gender tropes, most notably in the sexual relationship between male and female stereotypes . But Cocktease is exactly what she sounds like: a cartoon of femininity played for laughs alongside an equally laughable macho archetype. She doesn’t have the emotional depth of Dr. Girlfriend or Triana Orpheus, the other two notable female characters on The Venture Bros., but then again, the show largely isn’t acclaimed for its emotional complexity. The draw of The Venture Bros. is that it’s a well-rendered satire of boys’ club adventure stories like Johnny Quest. Women weren’t an integral part of that genre to begin with.
Childrens Hospital employs three talented comedic actresses in lead roles, and little Jazmine on The Boondocks has played a feminine and innocent role since season one, although most of her exciting dialogue addresses the fact that she’s biracial, rather than her gender. Brad Neely’s now-cancelled China, IL featured a fantastic female lead in Pony, voiced by Greta Gerwig. Pony began as a reasonable and realistic foil to the Professor brothers, but soon grew into her own B-plot storylines, looking after Babycakes and blackmailing the Dean. The channel lost a great presence, in several ways, when it cancelled China, IL.
So what about Summer makes her Adult Swim’s best bet for an engaged female audience? Well, primarily, she feels real! The pilot episode had Summer pegged as an archetypal dumb-teenage sister a la Jeanie Bueller, but as the show progressed, so did Summer’s personality growth. Notably, Summer is the only character on the show who fully understands the risks and beauties in the multiverse, aside from the titular Rick and Morty. She is unfazed by her grandfather’s intelligence, and doesn’t take his word as gospel in every situation, whereas her brother Morty tends to let Rick have his way.
In “Something Ricked This Way Comes,” Summer spends the entire episode in conflict with Rick, whom she interestingly insists on calling “Grandpa.” In a great twist at the end of theepisode, and take turns beating up Satan. I would argue that other programming on Adult Swim would never have featured this sequence co-starring a teenage girl. “Something Ricked This Way Comes” allows Summer in on the show’s lunacy, and her gender doesn’t always inform her ability to pal around with her grandpa.
However, the best part about Rick and Morty’s work with Summer is this: in order to include her as part of the fun, the writers don’t simply erase her gender. In fact, in “Raising Gazorpazorp,” Rick and Summer navigate intergalactic gender politics while being held in a female-only colony. Sure, there are cheap (but funny) jokes about women peppered throughout (one of the restaurants in the background is called Just a Bite of Yours, and women greet each other by saying “I am here if you need to talk”), but none of the assumptions Rick or Summer make about women turn out useful. At the end of the episode, Summer saves the day by pointing out that the female-only colony employs heteronormative logic! She admits that a human man, Marc Jacobs, designed the blouse all of the female aliens have been complimenting her on, and she argues that some men on earth actually have merit.
Summer is the first character to realize something is wrong with Tiny Rick in “Big Trouble in Little Sanchez,” and she uses her first-hand knowledge of being a mopey teenager, forcing her grandfather to listen to Elliott Smith, in order to fix the episode’s central conflict. She intelligently and sensitively maintains agency through her solo storylines while still speaking with vocal fry, as featured in the “Keep Summer Safe” B-plot in “The Ricks Must Be Crazy.” She has an actual friend in Tammy, until Birdperson swoops away with her, and Rick and Morty doesn’t drop this plot point in the season two finale. In short, Summer’s gender is analyzed and explored with the same sensitivity and creativity as all other aspects of the show, including Morty’s budding sexuality, Jerry and Beth’s failing marriage and Rick’s self-destructive personality.
Though Dan Harmon is responsible for two of the most annoying female characters I’ve ever watched (), Justin Roiland has worked as a voice actor on two of the most progressive cartoons tackling gender in recent years: and . It seems the two of them, in creating Rick and Morty, the most exciting and critically acclaimed current programming on Adult Swim, also managed to shape one of their female leads into a great example of powerful, funny feminine youth. That’s almost as cool as Rick’s !
Emily Gaudette is a writer living in Boston. She tweets here.
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