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Elyce Rae Helford, (ed.) Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000). 250pp Pbk.er 0-8476-9835-1 US$ 32.95

Reviewed by Francis Bonner

 

This is a very welcome book for scholars of speculative television. We all know how much interest there is among researchers and students in Buffy, Xena, Seven of Nine and their many colleagues, we have probably all seen the endless calls for papers for conferences and publications dealing with them, but there has been surprisingly little out there that we can direct students to or engage with in active debate. Despite its 2000 publication date, this has only been available in the last year and I for one was getting desperate for some new voices.

The collection looks at Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Third Rock from the Sun, The X-Files, Lois and Clark, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Disney’s Cinderella, Babylon 5 and the Star Treks: Voyager and Deep Space Nine. Phew! It’s a long list, but it indicates both the range of the book and the availability of shows with interesting fantasy females at the time of its writing. The editor apologises for programmes omitted and there are new ones which no doubt are being written about now, but it is still a good range of American television drama to explore.

Elyce Rae Helford’s Introduction claims that it is because the young women under consideration are placed within the fantasy realm, that they can articulate the cultural mood of 90s America more thoroughly than those bound by the constraints of some kind of realism. Nonetheless, as she and almost all of her contributors point out, the progressive politics that seems to be available in so many of the shows is pretty illusory and what is portrayed is largely a “superficial tolerance without deeper commitment” (p.7). The leading women are young, white, conventionally attractive, heterosexual and economically comfortable (and Max from Dark Angel hasn’t made that much difference). For this and for much else that follows it is necessary to except Jessica A Royer’s analysis of MST3K - a fascinating sounding show, but not one screened as far as I know outside the US. Another exception is Marleen S Barr’s study of the “assimilationist fantasy” Cinderella with the queen, the fairy godmother and Cinderella herself all played by high profile black actors or singers.

But why all the interest if the main theme is disappointment? When you read the individual contributions and think of the more common writing on television programmes, what is most immediately striking is that most of the authors seem to be drawing on the whole corpus of episodes of their chosen shows screened to that date. This is not the more common television studies approach of generalising from a reasonable (or indefensibly tiny) number of editions, these writers may be critical but they are also fans. It means that both sides of the contradictions are explored and any chink through which a positive interpretation can be squeezed is identified and if at all possible left ajar, but the final tone is all too often (necessarily) regretful. One of the most common terms in the collection, especially the first section which deals with shows set more or less in the present, is ‘polysemy’ and the mission of the authors then is to navigate through this apparent plenitude to discover dominance. Yes, Sabrina articulates a powerful anti-discrimination position around the witches and encourages young women to be independent and study maths and sciences, but sadly the show’s feminism is one that maintains class, race and gender hierarchies. Yes, Scully started off located within the authoritative and traditionally masculine fields of science and the law, but sadly those aren’t the powerful discourses in The X-Files world and anyway, for the majority of the series Scully has been defined overwhelmingly as a maternal body.

Linda Badley’s study of The X-Files is one of the most satisfying of the essays. She shows both how the show is postmodern, postfeminist, and posthuman and how none of these is particularly positive. As postfeminist figures both Scully and Gillian Anderson stand “for individual effort and reward in a context of career as opposed to working for social change, and setting a high profile example in a world of men rather than discovering her commonality with other women” (p.74). Furthermore Scully has posthumanism thrust upon her to the point where she becomes emphatically the monstrous feminine. Yet despite wanting from The-Files more than any commercial American television programme was ever going to afford viewers, Badley obviously still loves the show - mind you she was writing at the end of the sixth series.

Helford’s own essay on Xena examines a range of reading positions, but her desire to find it positive in feminist and queer terms ultimately falters on the matter of violence. Despite acknowledging the many queer pleasures on offer she finds them undercut by the gendered identities which render Gabrielle too often a battered femme to Xena’s hypermasculine butch. Henley E. Kanar’s essay on Deep Space Nine considers the episode “Melora” to argue for its appalling grasp of disability politics, while Robin Roberts presents one of the few essay not marked by disappointment in her consideration of Voyager as a very positive text about the intersection of race, feminism and science.

Not so much disappointed as decidedly angry, Kent Ono’s examination of Buffy maintains the position of identifying a lack of progressiveness in his chosen text, but does so without seeing hopeful aspects. This is because he choses not to concentrate on the ‘Fantasy Girl’ (which given the significance of this text to the genre under discussion in the book, has its drawbacks) but on the racial or racialised others, which means that he deals with minor characters, both the occasional racially marked guest star or minor player and the racialised vampires, associated throughout (of mythological necessity) with darkness. All these characters are removed from the show, almost always violently. Ono’s anger at the post-colonial ideology of the show is all the greater because he admits that the show allows non-normative readings, but these he argues convincingly from the sample he is dealing with, are available only for white characters.

I know that authors and editors often lose out to publishers in the battles over the presentation of their books, so I don’t want to blame Helford necessarily, but I do want to note in conclusion that the ‘Girls’ of the title doesn’t really do justice to a role call that includes Kathryn Janeway, Xena, Scully, Ambassador Deleen and Susan Ivanova. It would be sad if this valuable collection was regarded as addressing only the viewing practices and the representations of the young.

 

Frances Bonner lectures in communication and cultural studies in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland. She is the author of Ordinary Television (Sage, 2003) and co-author of Fame Games: The Production of Celebrity in Australia (Cambridge UP 2000).


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