The Strength of Women in STEM

With the rise of women in STEM, television has been working hard recently to keep up with that representation. In crime procedurals, women are playing the “logical” side of head/heart combos more and more, and genre shows are fighting harder than real world dramas and comedies to level the playing field. Recently, PaleyFest held a panel in New York with actresses portraying these women to discuss their interactions with female fans. Unfortunately, not all discussions surrounding this rise of women has been positive. The AV Club recently released an article criticizing the the main representatives of female computer science whizzes on network television, highlighting a trope exemplified by characters like Felicity Smoak and Agent Skye from superhero shows Arrow and Agents of SHIELD.

A comparison of Oliver and Felicity in their respective fields.
A comparison of Oliver and Felicity in their respective fields.

I found the AV Club’s assessment of Felicity to be both demeaning and unfair. Felicity does function as the primary tech support of Team Arrow, but when it comes to the emotional development of the characters, Felicity is often the most supportive and grounded of the show’s core trio. She can be aggressive when need-be (which isn’t infrequent with a hot-headed protagonist like Oliver), and doesn’t recoil from a fight, but she also serves as a reminder for him to retain his humanity when he sways towards being ultra-logical. Her felicity1“flirtation” with Oliver has turned into something more serious lately. However, she ensures that she’s being treated fairly and refuses to be a willing participant in a will-they-won’t-they cycle that Oliver seems determined to keep them in. In this way, her arc of gaining self-respect is shown coming into fruition not independently, but as something that functions organically within the universe of the show. Felicity is integral, rather than an appeasement and plot device. Furthermore, she’s not entirely an unwilling participant in the second season finale, as the AV club’s piece suggests. Oliver does his best to make her understand what his plan to foil the season’s villain is and provides her with a tool to help her aid her own escape. The trope of Felicity as the damsel in distress is turned on its head quite a few times, including an episode where she volunteers to be the bait, much to the protests of Oliver and Diggle.

Chloe Bennet as Agents of SHIELD's Skye in the mid-season finale
Chloe Bennet as Agents of SHIELD’s Skye in the mid-season finale

My main qualm with the article rested in its summary of Skye’s arc in Agents of SHIELD. First of all, Skye demonstrated a lot of emotional strength in her immediate rejection of Ward when she found out that he was a HYDRA agent. She was the one who warned the team of his betrayal, and ran most of the negotiations in the finale. More importantly, the article’s depiction of Skye is completely unjust in light of her development in the second season. She’s only been asked to use her computer skills a few times, and aside from that every episode has focused on her working in the field as part of the muscle, not unlike May. Skye has also been the protagonist of this season, which culminated in a stellar mid-season finale which featured her. Though her father and Ward both tried to control her, she rejected her father’s pressures to become “something more” and actually shot Ward in the chest several times the moment she had the opportunity to turn the odds in her favor. By the episode’s end, she risked everything to save the day and ended up gaining superpowers in the process.

That’s not to say that this article doesn’t make some valid points. Arrow does use Felicity as the damsel in distress fairly often, and Ray Palmer is the third superhero for whom she’s had romantic feelings. A recent episode showed Felicity as being easily bought off by an expensive dress and necklace, making her seem shallow and slightly frivolous, rather like a girly girl who, as the article says, simply provides tech support. Skye is also one of the less mature agents in the first season of Agents of SHIELD, and in the second half of that season her primary emotional arc focuses on her romantic interest in HYDRA agent Grant Ward. But, as stated previously, Skye does move past this point in her story, just like Felicity still has the ability to do.

Alyson Hannigan as Willow in circa-1997 Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Alyson Hannigan as Willow in circa-1997 Buffy the Vampire Slayer

However, the article actually leads to the implication of (but never actually fleshes out) another problem, which is that in order for these characters to grow they must abandon their status as tech geniuses. I’ll ignore the slight to high school Willow (who was always a strong and fleshed out character) to highlight the fact that Willow’s computer skills were only ignored after she developed her skills as a witch. This is somewhat paralleled by Skye’s arc on Agents of SHIELD, in which her skills as a hacker are valued less as her ability to kick physical ass strengthens. This almost suggests a woman can’t be both a computer genius and handy in the field, which is problematic as far as representation goes. We need more women in STEM, but a fair share of the girls interested in computers and the sciences simply aren’t interested in athletics. Does this mean that they should feel undervalued, or that they aren’t wanted in technology as much because they should conform to the damaging Strong Female Character trope instead?

We need women in STEM, period. And we need them represented on television as dynamic individuals who grow and change and are unique. Which they are. So let’s stop pressuring them to be something that they’re not.

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