Belief

One of the primary tensions in writing and/or reading fiction is the tug between wanting complete immersion in a fictitious world while also accepting that it is, at its heart, a fabrication. We often talk of the willful suspension of disbelief, and that is certainly important for the enjoyment of fiction. But whose job is it to enable that suspension? Is it entirely up to the audience, as the term implies? Or should an artist be expected to ease some of that burden by creating a generally believable world?

As is usually the case, I would say there should be a reasonable balance. Yes, the artist ought to share some of the burden, but the reader or viewer must contribute their own willingness to believe. And it’s going to differ drastically, both from one genre to another as well as from individual to individual. In science fiction, we’re generally willing to accept spaceships with capabilities far beyond anything that our current technology allows, but we’d probably look askance if they existed in a story set in the present day. We allow, and even expect, science-defying magic in a fantasy novel, but you couldn’t write a tale set entirely in the mundane world and then toss in a magic spell right near the end without it having an incredibly jarring effect upon the reader.

As for individual tastes, everyone has their personal deal-breakers — consider, for example, this cleverly-titled exploration of the author’s architectural pet peeve. For the average viewer, ignorant of the actual nature of suspension bridges, these inaccuracies won’t be a problem. But for him, it’s impossible to let it go. It’s not clear whether filmmakers are aware of the gross engineering inaccuracies they’re perpetuating, but I suspect that even if they are, they don’t worry about it much. Because you can’t cater to every single viewer, and for the purpose of an exciting story, they’d rather have a cool-looking destructive scene than worry about accuracy for a tiny percentage of their audience.

And honestly? This focus on being realistic can be carried too far. I think especially in the more fantastic genres, I see a lot of trying to force real-world parameters on characters and situations that simply don’t fit. It’s one thing to playfully imagine which of the Myers-Briggs personalities match up with your favorite fictitious people, but it’s quite another to claim that a character’s behaviors are invalid because they don’t match up to a psychological profile. Unless the writer is an expert in psychology with the intent of creating psychologically-accurate characters, I don’t really think that’s a fair basis on which to condemn a story. They can’t be psycho-analyzed because they’re not real.

It could be that we want to take our fiction a little too literally. In my view, the thing that makes literature so wonderful (and the fantasy genre in particular), is its endless opportunity for metaphor. There is no such thing as a evil ring that takes control of you the more you use it, so creating a psych profile of Gollum or Frodo would be a trifle disingenuous. On the other hand, you could imagine the ring as a metaphor for addiction, or mental illness, or any wide variety of things. It’s up to your personal interpretation, but as Tolkien was very adamant of reminding us, he was not writing an allegory — a simple fable with one-to-one correspondence between fictitious and real-world tropes. Is the Lord of the Rings about World War I? Sure, if you want it to be. But not universally. And to become fixated on some small detail of the story, feeling it doesn’t match up with its real-world counterpart, will often lead to you missing out on the beauty of its vast metaphorical meanings.

As I acknowledged earlier, this doesn’t give the author a free pass to write whatever implausible thing they please and put all the blame on the readers if they have trouble wrapping their minds around it. Creating a world should be done with care and consideration, with as much inner consistency as is fitting with the specific genre and style of storytelling. But a reader has to contribute something as well if they want to accept this imaginary world. If you have trouble accepting truly fantastical and extravagant scenarios, that’s fine — maybe you’re better off reading non-fiction. Or historical fiction, or whatever level of suspended disbelief you’re able to bring. But if you’re going to read anything with the intent of being transported to another world, you’re better be willing to believe in the spaceship that’s taking you there. How’s that for metaphor?

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In Defense of the Happy Ending

Happy endings have a pretty lousy reputation in modern culture. They’re considered childish, naïve, and worst of all, unrealistic.  Let us all gasp in horror at the audacity of creating fictitious scenarios in fiction, of all places!

Obviously, I find this viewpoint simplistic at best and downright nihilistic at its worst. Why don’t we dispel, right away, the myth that darkness and grittiness and doom and gloom are more realistic? Real life is not composed exclusively of bad endings. Nor, I acknowledge, is it composed exclusively of good endings. It’s not really composed of endings at all. Endings, and beginnings, are all matter of perception, of constructing a sort of narrative out of the rather random happenings of reality. You might dispute this by pointing out that birth and death are rather obvious starts and finishes in a story. Sure. But you could just as easily argue that if you were creating a family saga, one individual’s birth or death could mark merely the beginning or end of a chapter, only one part of a much greater, overarching generational tale. The beginning and end of a war could be a self-contained story, or it could be one more step in the broader chronicle of a country’s history. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Stories are, by nature, fabrications. Whether they’re purely fictional or an artful presentation of historical facts, they must be crafted into a narrative that requires a deliberate shaping by a writer.

So dark stories are not more realistic than optimistic ones. But we’re not really talking about literal realism here, are we? A plain, unfabricated relation of events as they tend to happen wouldn’t make much of a story at all — “He got out of bed. He brushed his teeth. He ate breakfast. He drove to work. He had a conversation with a co-worker that will have no bearing on future events” — but we do want to offer something that our readers feel is realistic, even if it takes place in the most fantastic of settings. We want to ease a little bit of that burden of suspension of disbelief.  And when a story has no complications, no significant obstacles to overcome, nothing but an easy happy ending, it doesn’t feel very satisfying. It doesn’t feel realistic. I think, at the end of it all, that’s what people mean when they say happy endings aren’t realistic.

Obviously, as an avid reader and writer of speculative fiction, I’m more willing to suspend my disbelief than otherwise. I don’t mind if the worldbuilding is fabulously unrealistic compared to the actual world, as long as it has decent inner consistency and an engaging story. In fact, I’d rather that the story didn’t hew too closely to real-world happenings. Why? Well, if I wanted to read stories that matched up with reality, I wouldn’t read fiction. I want a narrative; I want meaning. There is something deeply imbedded in human nature, I believe, that drives us to create narratives out of the random, chaotic happenings of our lives. To fabricate stories that reflect reality but have a more deliberate point, something more than “Life’s hard; then you die”; to make sense of reality by stepping outside of it for a while. Some people label certain types of fiction as “mere escapism,” spoken with a contemptuous sniff. But I fully embrace the notion of escapism as a positive feature of fiction. Its purpose is not to deny the existence of real life, not by any means; it gives us a place to examine all the deep questions of life from a fresh perspective. And if it’s truly good fiction, then it allows us to come back to reality with a renewed ability to cope with it.

Grim and gritty fiction, I feel, has very little to offer me in terms of coping with the real world. It presents just as fabricated a view on reality as optimistic fiction, but it leaves me bereft and hopeless instead of invigorated and hopeful. Even if the world really were as dark and pointless as such fiction seems to say, why embrace that? Why wallow in cynicism without relief? And for heaven’s sake, why do fantasy authors insist on claiming that the truly brutal stuff, particularly the violence against women, is a conscientious choice to hew to “realism” when they’ll happily include wizards and dragons and zombies? I’m not buying it, guys.

I’m not calling for stories without conflict. Those are hardly stories at all. (Though I might argue that a better word is complication. A good epiphany-tale, for example, has little conflict but plenty of complications as a character rises nearer and near to enlightenment.) I want to see the characters struggle and strive; that’s how I relate to them, as someone who’s struggling and striving through life myself. But I want to see a purpose to the struggle. I don’t want a happy ending that hasn’t been earned, but if it has been earned, then those characters darn well better get it.

I might as well include an example from my favorite thing to obsess about. The original trilogy of Star Wars has a happy ending, not because it ignores the existence of darkness and evil, but because it stares that evil right in the face and conquers it. It’s bittersweet, full of sacrifice and loss, but it is an earned, much-deserved happy ending. (Which is why, among many other reasons, I reject the Disney movie’s notion of “Ha ha just kidding nobody really lived happily ever after.) On the other hand, the prequel trilogy was written as a tragedy, and I fully expected a sad ending. Not a despairing, nothing-matters-what’s-the-point-of-trying ending, but sorrow with only the promise of hope many years in the future. It would have been unearned, not to mention bizarre, if Episode III hadn’t ended in tragedy. Different stories call for different endings. But there’s an enormous difference between a story of relentless bleakness where there’s no real distinguishing between the consequences of good or bad behaviors, versus a story where bad choices lead to sorrow. Yes, I like my stories to be moral. Not obnoxiously moralistic, but definitely moral.

Lucas himself sums it up pretty darn well: “Being a pessimist doesn’t seem to accomplish anything…if I wanted to change the world it was no use saying how awful our society is or how stupid. The way to make things progress is to point people in the right direction, to show how wonderful life can be. Tearing things down, being pessimistic makes people simply accept the conditions that prevail. Whereas if you give them hope and point them in the right direction, things are more likely to get better.”

Fans of Tolkien might have already recognized that I also share a lot of his ethos when it comes to the purpose of stories. I’m going to finish with a quote from him.

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’…is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Strong

It’s time for a rant.

We are living in a marvelous era of compelling female characters. Thanks to the outcries of a vocal audience of girls and women, along with a (slowly) increasing willingness to support female storytellers, we see princesses who don’t need rescuing, women warriors who save the day with maybe just a little help from their male sidekick and/or love interest, and so many more narratives for ladies that revolve around something other than romance.

That’s great. But I’m mightily peeved by the oversimplification that can arise from such stories. One of them is a meme that was making the rounds and causing me an irrational amount of anger. It pictured Robin Wright’s Amazon character from Wonder Woman and Carrie Fisher’s recent portrayal of Leia Organa, with a caption saying something like “So great to see my childhood princesses become generals.”

Now, obviously, I’m going to be over-sensitive about this, since I have opinions about Disney’s current batch of Star Wars films, oh boy do I ever. But stick with me; I’m going somewhere other than just another bash-fest about Disney Space Movie (though a little bashing is inevitable).

I realize that when it comes to memes, we’re not really looking for a complicated explication of character development. We’re looking for something pithy, easily understood and easily passed along. I get it. But SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET AND I HAVE TO FIX IT. Ahem.

First off, the comparison of the two pictures is misleading, since we’re talking about two completely different characters for Robin Wright. Princess Buttercup was part of a very memorable movie, but alas, not much more can be said for her. She has a few awesome moments, like jumping out of the ship to escape her kidnappers or shoving (she believes) her lover’s murderer down a steep hillside, but for the most part she is the object of desire between Westley and Humperdink, acted upon rather than doing the acting. So of course playing a fierce warrior in Wonder Woman is going to be a major upgrade.

Leia, however, was already awesome. She was fantastic long before she changed titles. And if you want my excessively biased opinion, she was way better as a princess. Because she upturned every single expectation of the damsel in distress. Yes, Luke and Han rescue her on the Death Star, but she’s not weeping helplessly in her cell. She had willingly embarked on what was basically a suicide mission, transporting the space station’s stolen plans while pursued by Darth Vader himself. She’d done everything she could to get those plans into the right hands before being captured, and she subsequently refused to betray the location of her fellow Rebels even under torture and threat of death. She doesn’t want to die, but she’s ready to face it.

Then, when she sees the possibility of escaping, she takes charge from the two lunkheads who didn’t plan a way out. She’s resourceful, inventive and daring; she has a snappy retort for every attempted insult or disparagement. From the moment she showed up on movie screens, Princess Leia was a revolution. And she didn’t have to change her title to do it.

To be frank, General Leia is just sad. All her supposed awesomeness is implied but never proven. It’s lazy writing, frankly, giving her a new title as a shorthand for character development. Instead, her role is a massive disappointment that turns all her triumphs in the original trilogy into tragedy. Most of her scenes are reactions to something yet another man has done to screw up her life, either her son or her lover (husband? the movie never tells us) or her brother. She’s someone that men have abandoned. That’s the primary thing that defines her, reacting to things that other people do. What a sad, sad, removal from the woman full of determination and hope at the end of the original trilogy. It breaks my heart to know that Carrie Fisher’s health issues required a somewhat subdued role and ultimately stole away her chance to finish the trilogy. It breaks my heart especially because the fiery, inspiring, trope-defying princess was replaced with…a general. That’s a demotion. Princess hire generals and tell them what to do!

I could pontificate on what I would have rather seen (JEDI MASTER LEIA, COME ON PEOPLE) but instead, I’ll explore why we all seem to accept it as a given that being a general is an upgrade in awesomeness. It’s a military rank. It implies fighting prowess as well as leadership. Well, those are all fine. And I’m certainly not about to suggest that only men can be generals. Heavens, no. What I do find troubling is that we’ve been fed the lie that traditionally masculine roles are the strongest and the most worth doing. And now that we’re seeking more stories about strong women, which is great, we’re leaning heavily toward giving women characters only those traditionally masculine roles. Which is not so great. Because there are so many different ways to be strong.

Something that I’ve always loved about Princess Leia is that for all her toughness, she’s also warm, caring and gentle. She comforts Luke upon the loss of Obi-Wan (even though, for heaven’s sake, she’s just lost a whole planet). She values her relationships and connections with others. You get the sense that even while she’s a highly competent fighter and leader in the Rebellion, she’d really rather be a diplomat. A peacekeeper. Like her mother.

And Padmé’s character was not universally well-received like her daughter was. There are plenty of reasons for that, and I can’t possibly explore all of them, but I suspect that part of it came from the audacity of giving Padmé softer roles. Like falling in love rather rashly. And spending most of the third film being pregnant. And dying from the sheer emotional weight of her entire universe imploding, how dare she. Even though there are plenty of instances showcasing her strength and courage (for example, passing along a heritage of hope to her children with her dying breath), they are too often overlooked because she doesn’t enter every situation with guns a-blazing and a steady supply of witty one-liners. Would people have been more excited if she was General Amidala? Maybe. But I, for one, am very glad she wasn’t.

I find her portrayal to be quite inspiring. Not that I’m looking to follow Padmé’s unfortunate trajectory, but I appreciate the notion there are different kinds of strength. And sometimes, strong as we are, we can be overwhelmed. That doesn’t make us weak. It just means we live in a hard world. It’s all right to cry. It’s all right to be soft. It’s all right if you’d rather be an diplomat than a warrior. Sometimes the situation calls for a sword (or lightsaber) and sometimes the situation calls for an impassioned speech. Or a helping hand. Or kind words, or a smile.

I understand that fighting prowess can serve as metaphor for other kinds of strength in storytelling, particularly in fantasy, but I fear that we’re taking it a little too literally. I fear that we tend to demean anyone who’s not particularly keen on violence. And me? I can play around with toy swords and sabers, but I’m about as physically imposing as a goldfish. I don’t have that kind of strength. I do strive, however, to cultivate a different kind of emotional endurance and resilience. And that’s a trait of all my favorite characters, female or otherwise.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Cimorene

This character and series of books (the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede) provided one of my earliest encounters with the notion of turning tropes upside-down. I had a solid familiarity with the usual conventions of fairy tales and fantasy stories when I first discovered Dealing with Dragons as a pre-teen. A story that toyed with those conventions in such a playful, entertaining fashion was just about the perfect book for me at that time.

Cimorene is a princess who voluntarily runs away to live with dragons rather than being kidnapped by them. In addition to managing the household of her dragon, Kazul, she has to fend off the countless princes who keep trying to rescue her. Eventually she discovers, and subsequently foils, a secret plot to overthrow the dragons’ ruling structure. Along the way there are amusing bits like outsmarting a vengeful genie (“CHOOSE THE MEANS OF YOUR DEATH” “Old age, please”) and discovering that wizards can’t be melted with plain water like witches, but if you add soap and just a little lemon…

First and foremost, it’s funny, and rewards those readers who know the typical tropes by heart. Second, it portrays several well-rounded female characters in addition to Cimorene — one of them, a witch named Morwen, is the main character of the third book. Thirdly, the plotlines are engaging and contain just the right level of peril for young readers. There is some romance, but it doesn’t undermine the rest of the story or character development as is too often the case in other books. It’s a series that I was happy to recommend to my own daughter.

There are, of course, plenty of stories that subvert familiar conventions (my sister has noted that it would actually be subversive, at this point, to have a princess who enjoyed embroidery) but this is the particular one that encouraged me to really start thinking outside the box. I started actively looking for other books that told their tales with a bit of a wink or a smirk. In later years, I learned to deconstruct tropes as I studied literature, acknowledging what made them work but also seeking fresh, creative ways to remake them or do away with them altogether. And in my own writing I have gleefully looked for ways to turn conventions inside-out. I have no doubt that all of this carries the influence of Cimorene, who ignored the protests of traditionally-minded sorts to find her own peculiar path.

Well, that’s 26 posts in this series. I’ve spent a year on it and enjoyed it very much; now I think it’s time to wrap it up. There are, of course, countless more women writers and characters that I could discuss, but I’d like to move on to something different next year. To start with, I’ve just finished another novel — hooray! –and I have a few things to say about that. Let’s be honest; I’d love to see my own characters showing up on a list like this someday. Anything is possible…

Women of Speculative Fiction: Luthien

I would be remiss if I failed to mention J.R.R. Tolkien, the widely-acknowledged father of modern fantasy, at some point in this survey of speculative fiction. And yet when it comes to female characters, it might seem like there’s not much to write about. His famous works — and therefore most read — are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but among all the characters of The Hobbit, the book contains literally not a single woman. The trilogy fares a little better in this regard, with several significant female roles including the powerful elf Galadriel, Arwen of Rivendell, and of course the sword-maiden Eowyn. There’s something truly epic about how she reveals who she is just before slaying the Witch-King, who believed himself invincible because of the prophecy that “no man” could destroy him.

Still, it could appear that as far as Tolkien was concerned, powerful women were the exception, not the rule — unless you dig a little deeper. If you’re willing to crack open The Silmarillion,  you’ll find that Tolkien was perfectly happy to create striking female characters. The ratio is still skewed toward men, true, but it’s a marked improvement over zero or three. And then we have Luthien.

As her story begins, you might fear that she’s playing the passive part of a typical princess in a fairy tale. Luthien, the daughter of a elven king and a Maia (basically the angels of Tolkien’s world) falls in love with the mortal man Beren. Her father demands that Beren bring him a Silmaril from the crown of the evil Morgoth as the price to marry her (thinking it impossible) and then imprisons Luthien to keep her from going to help him.

But this is not the tale of a helpless maid in a tower. Using the powers she has inherited from her mother, Luthien escapes and goes to Beren’s aid. She befriends the mighty hound Huan, defeats Sauron (currently the servant of Morgoth), rescues Beren from captivity, transforms herself into a vampire and Huan into a werewolf to infiltrate Morgoth’s realm and mesmerizes him with song while Beren steals the Silmaril. Oh, and she also travels to the realm of the dead and manages to persuade the Lord of the Dead to return Beren to her after he dies, then chooses to become mortal so they can remain together.

If that’s not enough to impress you, Luthien carried deep personal meaning for Tolkien himself. He was greatly moved by the sacrifices his own wife had made, particularly her conversion from the Church of England to Catholicism so they could be married. On the Tolkiens’ tombstone, “Beren” is written below his name and “Luthien” is written below his wife’s. It was the highest tribute he could offer.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter

I’ve already written once before about this character, but since she’s one of my favorites, I wanted to include her in the this series. And today I really wanted to write about someone who is deeply principled, unselfish, and just plain good.

In The Deed of Paksenarrion, Elizabeth Moon set out to create a truly believable, well-developed paladin character. She felt like the ones she saw in Dungeons and Dragons games were kind of stupid and unreasonable. That seemed highly unrealistic to her. So she created a tale of a paladin’s origins, from her humble beginnings through all the travails that bring about her transformation into a holy warrior. Pakesanarrion isn’t flawless. She’s not just blandly good. But she wants very much to do right, to use her abilities for something good. And her understanding of how to do this matures and grows over the course of her story.

In the first book of the trilogy, Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, Paks is a headstrong young woman who runs away from home to avoid being married off. She signs up to become a mercenary because it’s what her older cousin did, and because she’s heard positive things about this particular group of mercenaries. Much of this book describes the nitty-gritty details of (psuedo-medieval) military life. It’s not all glorious battles. There’s lots of training, doing chores, marching, and studying tactics and strategy. Her first experience in battle isn’t particularly impressive, but she’s learning.

Then they encounter a particularly brutal army whose leader doesn’t obey the rules of the other mercenary armies. The honorable mercenaries decided to band together to defeat him. Paks believes with all her heart that this is a worthy cause, and she is eager to serve, particularly to honor the friends she has lost. But the ethical implications are not so simple after their enemy is defeated. As the second book, Divided Allegiance, begins, she realizes that one of their allies is himself an unscrupulous man, and as a part of their alliance with him they are required to enact harsh retribution on his enemies. Paks struggles greatly to reconcile her conscience with what she is being commanded to do. Obeying one’s leader is a virtue, isn’t it? And her leader is a good man, isn’t he? But what if he has allied himself with a bad man? Does that make him bad as well?

Paks is very naive still. She doesn’t want to confront the complexities of human nature. She wants to believe that once she has made an initial judgment on someone’s character, it should be easy to determine whether they’re good or bad. At last, however, she can’t stomach what they’re doing, and requests an honorable release from the mercenaries.

She wanders a bit, offering her sword to whatever cause she believes is good. This doesn’t always work out well for her. Again her naivety leads her to trust people who aren’t particularly trustworthy. And her headstrong nature gets her into trouble again and again. Throughout all this, there are hints that her destiny is leading her to something greater, but she tries to ignore it. She resists the call of Gird, the patron saint of righteous fighters, until at last someone shows her how she has been blaming Gird for the death of her friends who followed him — blaming him for not saving those of his own. He explains that Gird’s followers are not sheep seeking his protection. They are his shepherds. And if they fall in their fight to protect others, they fall doing just what the code of Gird would have them do. Now Paks is happy, even eager, to follow Gird.

It is upon this realization that Paks is offered the opportunity to become a paladin candidate. She can hardly believe it. She has always dreamed of such a glorious thing; the regal mount, the shining armor, the admiring crowds. But all of that is a long way off, as she must learn her hardest lesson yet. First, the nature of morality is examined a little more closely. Though paladins can detect good and evil, that doesn’t mean, as one teacher jokingly describes, that “on one side are the bad people, and you kill them, and over here are the good people, and they cheer for you…It would be nice, but that’s not how it works…Most people — and that includes us, candidates — are mixtures, neither wholly evil nor wholly good.”

Paks tries to understand this. But later, when she is kidnapped and forced to fight for her life again and again, she cannot see that the fighting is providing an opening for great evil. If she is fighting against evil beings, surely she is in the right. Surely she is good. She learns otherwise, to her great sorrow.

At the start of Oath of Gold, Paks is at her lowest point. Alone, weak, despairing and afraid. She finds healing in the most unlikely of places, where she begins to comprehend the true nature of courage. She learns to see that the path of her life, though very painful at times, has given her an understanding that many paladins lack. She understands how it feels to be helpless, and so she is best qualified to serve the helpless with true empathy. She is unique among paladins, receiving her qualifications and powers through unconventional means. And so she embarks on a quest to restore a lost king to his throne, undoing an evil plot that has been going on for decades. It’s a thoroughly engrossing tale in its own right, but I enjoy it all the more after watching the development Paks has undergone in order to prepare her for it. I’ve probably re-read the trilogy or parts of the trilogy at least a dozen times, and I never get bored of it.

Paks is one of the most compelling, multi-faceted characters I’ve encountered in a work of fantasy, either male or female. I find myself identifying with her again and again, even though the superficial details of our lives are completely different. I recognize the deeper traits –her determination to do the right thing, to see the good in people, to put her talents to the best possible use. Her anguish when her dream seems to be ripped away from her forever. Her growing maturity as she walks a different path to her dream, no longer seeking glory, focused instead on doing the most good she can with what she has been given. I’d like to see more characters like her. I’d like to see more people in the real world as unreservedly good as Paksenarrion.

Women of Speculative Fiction: Agents of SHIELD

It’s a fascinating, though troubling, phenomenon that our perception of female-to-male ratios is considerably skewed from reality. Present a scene with women making up only 17% of the characters, and people will claim it’s a fairly even split between men and women. Raise the percentage to 30% or more, and then they’ll be sure that women are completely dominating. (This has played out in quite a few studies, but if you want an example, check out the Geena Davis Institute and the research they’ve done in gender parity.)

The reason for this vast mis-perception is easy to guess. If movies and television have been consistently offering a skewed ratio where male characters are always far more prevalent than female, we’re going to start thinking it’s normal. And the slightest bit of shifting the balance toward a more realistic 50/50 will have people raising alarmist cries that women are taking over and driving men out. It’s not any single movie or show that’s done this; it’s a long-standing pattern that we’re so accustomed to, it’s become self-perpetuating. We expect a predominance of males, and so we portray a predominance of males and thus continue to expect a predominance….

We can do better. Particularly in comic book films or shows, which create extravagant universe-bending storylines wherein the implausible becomes fully possible. And yet they still shy away from the shocking notion that women can be fully realized, active characters. Anthropomorphic raccoons and trees, sure. But women? Let’s not be ridiculous. (I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t get me wrong – but if we can swallow such gleeful nonsense, why can’t we wrap our minds around a comic book film led by a woman??)  Aside from a few exceptions, the top-billed actress in a superhero film is going to be playing the hero’s love interest. Other women might play a mother, a side character with maybe one or two significant scenes, or someone who shows the promise of an intriguing power and/or backstory…only to get sidelined by the hero’s far more important journey.

So when they introduced the main team of characters when Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD first premiered, I was inordinately excited to see there were the same number of female characters as male. Inordinately, because this really shouldn’t be such a rarity. Let’s hope it won’t continue to be. True, the show has undergone a few growing pains, and it hasn’t achieved the mainstream success of most of Marvel’s films, but it’s very satisfying to watch three separate women, each with their own personalities and storylines, play principle parts in the show. They’re not even all young or white. Melinda May (Ming-na Wen) is an experienced senior agent, both mentally and physically extraordinary, but reluctant to reenter the field as she hides the emotional scars from a long-ago harrowing mission. And she’s played by the woman who voiced Mulan, so extra awesome points for her.

Gemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) is a brilliant biologist, but her character is more than a collection of broad “nerdy girl” stereotypes (and there’s more than one scientist in the team, helping to at least partly undermine the ridiculous notion that one genius can do ALL THE SCIENCE THINGS). There is one particularly powerful episode in season three in which she carries nearly the entire weight of the storyline by herself.

Skye/Daisy Johnson is biracial, a fact that plays an important role in her origin story. And yes, hers is a superhero origin story, which I never would have guessed when she was first introduced as an admittedly rather annoying hacktivist in the pilot episode. Unlike in a superhero film, which usually tries to cram an origin into the first twenty or thirty minutes so they can hurry along to the  fight-the-villain storyline, the origin of her powers proceeded at an unassuming, leisurely pace until halfway through the second season. Mind you, the reveal wasn’t necessarily a pay-off that made up for every boring bit leading up to it, but it did merit a re-watch to catch the little clues I’d missed before.

Like a lot of tv shows, Agents of SHIELD has an uneven quality – some episodes are spectacular, some are lackluster. But one of the reasons I’ve been willing to stick with it is because it continues to maintain a near 50/50 gender balance in the principle characters, and the stories of the women continue to be some of the most compelling and engaging. And somehow the world has managed not to fall into an estrogen-fueled matriarchal dystopia. Imagine that.