Sarah Louisa Phythian-Adams watches a futuristic drama set in a fictional Northern American town circa 2046 and finds a refreshing change from the usual limitations placed on female characters in sci-fi
As numerous F-Word articles on female characters in popular science fiction attest, feminist challenges remain in this genre. Even in the most venerated sci-fi, inequalities exist in both pure casting numbers (visible by simple head-count in cast pictures) and the depiction of female characters, whose roles are too often a battle against the one-dimensionalising pressure of being the ‘eye candy’. Refreshing then that the three-series-strong Syfy Channel show Defiance represents a 50:50 gender split and an aim to include meaningful female characters has been openly stated from the outset.
Defiance is the name of a fictional town in North America circa 2046. Some three decades before, Earth was radically transformed. A collective of aliens escaping the doom of their solar system by heading to earth with terra-forming technology find on arrival that the planet is already inhabited. Fearful, humans strike their space-ships, or ‘arcs’, causing ‘arc-fall’ and the crashing technology partially re-terra-forms the earth, creating a planet that is no longer human, but not fully alien either. As the only habitable planet within reach, stakes are high and war rages. Fifteen years prior to the pilot show’s timeline, a war weary and ‘defiant’ few decide to lay down their arms, stop fighting over the earth and learn to share it instead. That town, built on the ruins of St. Louis, still miraculously (and symbolically) retaining its iconic arch, becomes the town of Defiance, where humans live and work alongside a collective of alien Votan races.
Right away they have me with this quite feminist premise (the not often explored alternative to the masculine all-winners-losers, zero sum game modality of war is to just, you know… share).
The series initially follows Human Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) and his adopted Irathient (alien species) daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), who come to Defiance after pursuing fallen arc technology close by. We learn that war-torn Nolan was one of those original defiant few and the unlikely duo become law keepers in the frontier town, a city-state ran by Mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz). The merged community of Votan races and humans, busily re-building itself, is a mixture of basic frontier living tensions integrated with incredible salvaged alien tech.
The first thing I’m struck by is the female opening narrative: the central character Irisa’s internal monologue is dismissive of her father Nolan’s grand schemes, as he drives beside her, talking about the next big plan, but whom she confirms is full of “shtako” (shit). Instantly we are aware of a complex relationship between them; her tone and rebellion is characteristic of a teenager wanting to fledge the nest while an oblivious parent clings to the relationship, invested in a fantasy of childhood need. It is an immediately compelling central character relationship – these are two violent, flawed characters who are neither lovers nor biologically related, but clearly share a strong bond of love and history of surviving in this post-apocalyptic landscape. They also perhaps share hope, with their motto, “We live or die together” becoming well-worn as the series progresses.
However, this is by no means the only important relationship; the town has a host of female characters, with complex and contextually rich backstories that unravel over the series. For example, there is Mayor Amanda Rosewater, a genuine but perhaps naive leader who is still adapting to her new post and struggles with a maternal tendency towards her town (we are given to believe the town is very unusual in its ability to mix species in a democracy and she helps hold this together), while trying to let go of a maternal role regarding her younger sister Kenya (Mia Kirshner). Meanwhile, Kenya is the keeper of the town bar and brothel (the NeedWant). She is, in many ways, far more emotionally capable than her troubled mother-sister.
When Irisa is injured, we also meet Doc Yewll (Trenna Keating) and are perhaps seduced into thinking her character may be the witty, light-hearted relief of the show, with a bedside manner that includes extensive language skills, as well as human (US) sarcasm. We come to know her species, the indogenes, as a manufactured biological race who are wickedly smart. However, her quick-paced, easy banter hides a more stoic, introspective character tortured by a sinister backstory. She is undoubtedly a war criminal and responsible for some despicable science at that, but the measured character revelation leaves only the audience really knowing this; there is little indication from the others that they suspect the full spectrum of her past. It would have been all too easy to make this character male, the sci-fi analogue of a Nazi scientist settling down in a quiet South American town, treating sniffles, cracking jokes and delivering babies, with the townsfolk certain he is an all-round good guy.
From the pilot, we are introduced to two central families, both patriarchal in their own way. I initially shrug this off, thinking “You can’t expect everything in a show,” but later see it for the clever set-up it is. The McCawleys – a family of humans – are essentially hard-working ‘good guys’, headed by single parent of three grown children Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene), who employs pretty much half of the town in his mines. The Tarr family, on the other hand, has Castithan (alien race) Datak Tarr (Tony Curran), who is essentially an entrepreneur criminal.
Two things strike me about these families. Firstly, Defiance resists the instinct to represent the human race with white, mid-western all-American stereotypes. The McCawleys are a first nation family – and in one memorable disagreement with Datak, Rafe objects to his description of humans as “pink skins” by defiantly asking (pun intended), “Does my skin look pink to you?” Secondly, it is only right at the end of season two that we see a hint of further history between them, explaining the tensions seen in the pilot show, when the families find out Rafe’s daughter Christie (Nicole Muñoz) has been sleeping with the Tarr’s son Alak (Jesse Rath).
The complexities of the Tarr family really steal the show for me. The Castithan race is highly patriarchal and class based. However, many of the survivors who had taken refuge on the arcs are of the ‘higher’ castes, such as Stahma Tarr (Jaime Murray); in this ‘new world’, as Stahma often refers to it, we understand she and Datak had sacrificed much despite her ‘class’. In this sense, there is a strong undercurrent of an immigrant story in their struggles. At one point, Stahma argues with Datak about their son’s choice of a human wife, whereas Datak sees this as nothing but ungratefulness for their sacrifices by threatening his lineage. Stahma argues, “Alak will never have to endure the hardships we did and I thank Rayetso for that.”
Alak is a charming and naive character, completely unaware of his privilege. In this sense, he and his human girlfriend Christie are the epitome of the story of both struggle and success. This is portrayed perfectly in the pilot, when the two dance together to a strange Castithan-human hybrid music track. Alak joins Christie in her unencumbered and human dancing, by caressing and moving her arms in a more thoughtfully, ritualistic Castithan way; what results is an extraordinary conglomerate of their cultures and symbol of their innocent love for each other finding a seemingly organic middle ground. Their ease both metaphorically and literally casts aside the struggles of their parents’ generation, with Alak’s simple sentiment that “I was born on earth, as was Christie,” which culminates in their engagement at the end of the pilot.
Christie is another fantastic human character; at every turn, the writers resist over-sexualising her. (Teenagers in love surely don’t need to be ‘sexy’ to anyone other than each other.) This is a refreshing characterisation that endures. Throughout we see this strong-minded woman with expectations of equality in marriage challenged by the oppressive Castithan culture she finds herself immersed in. This is explored throughout the first two seasons, but particularly in season two, when some surprising incidents reveal Christie to be a very capable character indeed.
For me, what is principally alluring about the Tarr family story is the relationship between Stahma and Datak: we are led tantalisingly slowly into the power struggle between them, despite it being obvious early on that Stahma is ambitious and smart and that both characters are single-minded, power hungry and casually evil. (The writers promised good characters, not good people.) This is because it initially seems Stahma is content to express her power by “whispering in ears”. However, Nolan appears to notice this when he says, “You know I’ve had my eye on the wrong snake”, to which Stahma coquettishly replies, “You’re very sweet.”
Despite this, we see in the second series that Stahma’s feminist struggle is as much with her expectations of herself and other Castithan women as it is with the men. She is egged on by both of the Rosewater sisters: in the setting of their intimate love affair in the first series, Kenya encourages her to defy Datak; in the second series, Amanda encourages her in their talks about female empowerment. The latter leads to the great moment where Amanda says, “We burned our bras,” to which Stahma expresses utter incomprehension: “Why would you burn your undergarments?”
I will also shamefully admit to developing a massive crush on pitiful patriarch Datak in the second series, as I watch the corollary of the feminist struggle play out in his coming to terms with a loss of power and privilege. We come to realise that, according to their culture, he should have ritually killed Stahma for ‘shaming him’ in her actions. However, despite his quick temper and sensitivity to being ‘shamed’, we discover that not only does he not do so, but we also get to see some incredible (though reluctant) humility from him in accepting the new dynamic. Indeed, the more times he is kicked to the ground and gets up again, the more I can see what Stahma finds so admirable in him and my heart melts just as her on-screen resolve seems to.
Throughout the series, Datak does seem to find peace with Stahma’s arguably superior intellect and more overt exercising of power. Along with this, Castithan men are expected to have a strong sex drive and permitted to have sexual relations outside of their marriage, but women are under threat of death if they do the same. In the face of this, Datak does seem to come to uneasy terms with Stahma exerting her own equally strong and independent sexuality. However, he is sometimes bombastic and sulky towards her for it; a hilarious illustration of this can be found in the lament he delivers to his months-old baby grandchild about “Grandma’s love of purple enchanter penis” (which had me laughing until my sides hurt).
Throughout this journey, neither Stahma nor Datak is consistent in their resolve to reach this new state, making it feel as though there is real struggle against automatic reactions and previously unchallenged norms.
At the same time, opposing forces are working on the relationship between their son Alak and Christie; in the second series, we see that with Datak temporarily incarcerated, not only is Stahma flourishing, but Alak has become the new de facto head of the Castithan household. We see that, despite his initial protestations at being part of the new world before he married Christie, as the benefits of Patriarchy rack up, so too does the lure of it (sound familiar?). We see everything that was charming about Alak dissolve, along with that rebellious streak of dye in his hair. No longer is he dressing in human-influenced clothes, wincing at making Christie partake in ritual bathing with his family and attempting monogamy because this is the agreement he had made with her; he’s now taking on a mistress, telling her to stop being “so human” and even at one point essentially accusing her of “shaming” him when he finds her enjoying a night at the ‘SkinWalker’ alien cosplay club. Despite this, Alak surprises us throughout this journey, taking U-turns when moments shake him out of the unawareness of his privilege that seems to be a very central character flaw for him.
Alak and Datak’s character flaws juxtapose combustively with Stahma’s – which I would say is essentially a fundamental lust that fuels much of her more shady behaviour. This isn’t just sexual lust, which (though problematic for a woman in Castithan culture) does not define her character as it is just one dimension of many in her well-drawn dramatis personae. Also, the fact she is a grandmother and unabashedly sexy is subversive enough. The flaw comes into play in the extent that she hungers for not only power, but also love. One fascinating form of this is that Stahma is a particularly lusty mother – I would observe that, as much as Datak is obsessed with his lineage, he seems to admire Stahma for her almost overbearing motherliness in protecting it.
Some commenters have interpreted Oedipal undertones to Stahma’s maternal relationship with Alak, but I would suggest this is an over-simplification. I would suggest neither of the actors play on this in their interactions: Alak embraces his naked mother in an unselfconscious way and receives her kisses with both deference but also an open-eyed, sullen undertone that comes across as teenaged in its resentment of his need for both her affection and approval. Meanwhile, the wide smiles and tilted gazes Stahma reserves for Alak are awash with more of a kind of self-satisfied motherly pride than sexual intrigue. Their relationship is a hothouse of fears of failing control and repressed rage, which is compelling to watch, rather than simply sexual.
Stahma’s lusty motherhood is apparent beyond Alak. We see her offering sweets to hoards of little children and offering a home and hand-maiden status to the destitute Andina (Amy Forsyth). However, this particularly manifests itself with Christie. Throughout their relationship, we see Stahma progressively grooming her – she calls her ‘Hanya’ or ‘hanyataivo’ (heart-daughter) and finds moments to share her sometimes quite frightening wisdom, as well as offer the same wide mouthed, gazing approval she offers Alak for even the most poorly executed efforts to fit in with their Castithan family lifestyle. It is only at the end of the second season that the audience even sees Stahma may have wanted to mother Christie before her relationship with Alak (when she worked for the McCawleys). The face-off with Pilar (Linda Hamilton – yes, her!) at the end of season two is a sight to behold: never so much vitriolic pride has been delivered in the holding of a single syllable as when she goads, “and your daughter’s love is mi-ine”.
Other supporting female characters are equally entertaining. One of my favourites is Berlin (Anna Hopkins), an Earth-Republic officer in search of a sense of belonging who takes the town to heart and becomes a main cast member in the third season. Another is Treasure Doll (Kristina Pesic) from season two, who is wonderfully complicated for a vignette, not to mention Andina, whose wide-eyed longing for both Stahma’s motherly affections and Alak’s romantic attentions really tug at my heart. On the whole, they deliver what they promise: interesting multi-dimensional female sci-fi characters who are integral to plot and intrigue in themselves, not just as decoration and support for male-centric ‘action’. I’d argue this also makes the sympathetic male characters who interact with them, like Datak, Alak and Nolan, all the more interesting for it.
I don’t, however, want to hold Defiance beyond reproach, as some feminist masterpiece. It is ultimately a sci-fi show that simply promises better female characters. I also admit I’ve been disappointed by one or two writing choices. For example, the loss of focus on the McCawleys in season three comes to mind.
My biggest season three grumble is with what feels like a loss of ground with the introduction of Kindzi (Nichole Galicia). I am excited for another female villain, but disappointed when she isn’t afforded the kind of complex context other female characters have. Quite a lot of the season three storyline focuses on Kindzi, a member of a former overlord race known as the Omec, who can pretty much be summed up by the description of “space vampire-werewolves”, and her father. I find myself tiring of her licking and menacing people as sex toys/food and realise that may be because it constitutes her having a too limited part in the Omec story, while her father gets to be more complicated.
Also, I feel the use of an exposition delivered by a male character to short-cut Kindzi’s context (i.e. a man talks about a woman, instead of woman revealing this aspect through her own action or introspection) results in a narrowed, predominantly sexualised focus to her screen time – the very thing I think Defiance is otherwise redressing. Finally there is a substantial amount of violence throughout the show and, although this is sometimes justifiable for the storyline, this could be seen as glorifying and indulgent.
I would suggest that being able to summarise my reservations in a few paragraphs shows just how much of a treat Defiance is. Indeed, I’m very much hoping for a fourth season. I’m invested and left wanting more, not least because of the very beautiful, hopeful ending from season three that almost moves me to tears (almost – *cough-cough*). It is also because, in my imagination, some writers and execs somewhere had a conversation of the field of dreams ilk: “If you build it they will come.” Then they built it, I came… and it was awesome!
I’m particularly curious about other takes on the feminist perspective I have offered here. However, if you haven’t seen Defiance and your interest has been piqued, you can thank Rayetso that we live in an era of box sets and web-streaming and know I’m almost jealous of anyone who might get to watch the whole thing for the first time.
All are taken from the sleeve design for the DVD release of Defiance: The Complete First Season and shared under fair dealing.
1. Cover picture showing (left to right) Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) and Mayor Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz) against a Defiance town landscape, with toadstools and foliage in front of them. They all look out into the distance. Irisa has her back to the camera and is looking back over her shoulder, while Joshua and Amanda face the camera and are turned slightly to the left.
2. From the back cover. Head shot of Irisa looking into the camera with a very slight smile. Her facial features are characteristic of the Irathient species (a large forehead and v-shaped nose).
3. From the back cover. Head to waist edit showing a noble looking Amanda Rosewater looking striaght at the camera. She wears a leather jacket.]