Northern Exposure: Why Female-Led Sci-Fi Flourishes in Canada

Lost Girl, Continuum, and Wynonna Earp are blazing all sorts of trails few other franchises have traversed.

Since its establishment, the world hasn’t known what to make of Canada.

The joke about the Great White North as the apartment above America’s rocking pad may be older than both countries. Mike Myers, who hails from the province of Ontario, once compared his home country to being “like celery as a flavo(u)r.” Douglas Adams went as far as to compare Canada to a “35-year-old intelligent woman.” (Which is still a compliment given that Australia is akin to “Jack Nicholson.”) Meanwhile, most people assume Canada’s sole gifts to the world are dynamite maple syrup and progressive measures toward legalized marijuana.

Realistically, Canada is as much a pillar of democracy as the U.S. (despite some rigorous debate). Not to mention, the country is making waves in the tech industry and, perhaps most intriguing of all, superseding the U.S. as the land of honey and social mobility. Need extra proof of the societal prosperity? There’s one area of great cultural significance where Canada truly excels:

Female-fronted sci-fi television.

In the last half decade alone, there have been three such shows featuring a strong, female lead in the middle of otherworldly wackiness. Lost Girl, Continuum, and Wynonna Earp are all variations on the same formula, and their existence is as much the result of shared writers opening up the genre (Emily Andras wrote for Lost Girl and later developed Wynonna Earp) as it is a reflection of Canadian values/ideals. Understanding the commonality between these series, and how that ties back into Canada’s progressive attitudes, shows us the value of more female-centric sci-fi and what other countries and creators might do to pick up the slack.

The fact that there‘s been 3 successful sci-fi franchises led by women in proximity to one another is profoundly amazing. Yes, the ginormous realm of sci-fi is home to many a legendary female protagonist (Ellen Ripley, Princess Leia, Kathryn Janeway, Zoe Washburne, etc.) But as New York Magazine pointed out, much of sci-fi tends to be a never-ending echo chamber, with straight, white males writing about themselves or their honky brethren in these wacky situations. The rest of fiction has a similar gender problem, but sci-fi creators tend to be more cognizant of and active in countering the problem. Thus, it feels like an appropriate genre to delve in and understand the achievements and the greater forces at play.

Close as the two countries may be, the U.S. and Canada differ noticeably on the treatment of women. In the U.S., women earn $0.79 cent for every $1 a man earns; in Canada, that figure is $0.82 cents. Women in both countries are still unfairly punished by the gender gap, but there’s context in Canada that’s worth highlighting. Per the government’s annual “Women in Canada” report, the total income of women grew 13% from 2000 to 2008, compared to just 7% for men. It’s more than just more money, either; earning power affects everything from personal health (in 2008, 60% of Canadian women reported to be in “very good” health) and psychological wellbeing to lifespan and individual levels of personal satisfaction.

Ultimately, the lifestyle aspects are a teeny part of the much bigger picture. Women in Canada are better represented in government (our 115th Congress may be “racially diverse, but it’s still only comprised of 19% women), healthcare is much more accessible to women, including as it relates to reproductive health, and — as part of Canada’s 2017 budget — there are plans to open a $100 million research center for domestic violence, which impacts approximately 1 million women of varying age groups and cultural backgrounds.

Canada is by no means some gender utopia, and other countries around the world do just as much for women. (Sweden and New Zealand, for instance, are both ranked high on several “best places for women” lists thanks to sheer numbers in the workforce and length of maternity leave.) But the country’s efforts are important right now given the current political climate. Whereas American is run by an administration with a distinct lack of females — and a president who clearly views women as quaint status symbols to stroke his ego — Canada’s own Justin Trudeau is an unabashed feminist.

The prime minister’s created a cabinet split between men and women, and has used countless speeches and interviews promoting the idea of women in positions of power/influence. There are some who take issue with Trudeau’s brand of feminism — Maclean’s published a great piece pointing out how his policies are both slow-moving and often ignore minorities/women of color. What’s important is that Trudeau’s rise to power and subsequent efforts reflect the progressive attitudes of modern Canadians. A population who wants women issues to be a major priority, and demand that their leaders elevate people economically and socially by whatever mechanisms are available.

As Canada continues to make progress, shows like Lost Girl, Continuum, and Wynonna Earp are an important part of the battle. These 3 series demonstrate just what life is like with women in charge (totes cool), and that approach is vital to breaking down remaining societal barriers.

A couple years ago, Salon published an essay about how All in the Family actually helped race relations, despite Archie Bunker being an uber racist. While progressives laughed at the meat-headed Bunker, and racists found a form of relief in his cutting words, those undecided (so-called “mid-dogmatic” individuals) were more likely to be swayed to embrace cultural integration. Having strong examples of women on TV provides the same kind of validation to people who may not be sexist, but aren’t sure of the fuss about uplifting the rights of women in the greater society. TV is their mother and friend and religious figure, and they turn to it for guidance about how to see the world. The fact that these are sci-fi shows specifically — where people come with open minds — may be helpful in creating the right kind of approach to interacting with audiences who remain “undecided” on women and their more substantial role in TV in general.

Similarly, these shows have created of a genre of sorts. Call it “Sci-Fem” or “Fem-Fi” (or just regular ol’ sci-fi works), but there’s no denying the fundamentals of each series are effectively the same:

1) Kick-ass female protagonist (all of which are brunette) who is
2) joined by a sassy sidekick (Lost Girl features the sassy Kenzi, Wynonna Earp has the whip-smart Waverly, and, as a neat twist, Continuum showcases the uber dweeb Alec) fighting 
3) traditional sci-fi enemies that represent something deeper (Earp’s male demons represent a battle against sexism, the light vs. dark Fae in Lost Girl may be a commentary on female identity and the influence of choice, and Continuum shreds the myth of women as fairer sex); and who could forget
4) the dashing, bearded partner and/or love interest (Lost Girl’s Dyson can turn into a wolf, and Continuum’s Carlos is a paragon of virtue, but nothing beat’s Doc Holliday in Wynonna Earp).

This tight structure isn’t the result of bad writing, nor is it even remotely derivative. Having such cohesion builds a sense of connection bordering on a literary or film genre, and that has a tremendous amount of power. I think of the pioneering sci-work of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury in the early 1950s — relegated to a place in the literary canon that, as Vonnegut once described, was a urinal for critics and fans alike. Only they made history, and influenced a lot of how we see sci-fi in the here and now — as something with genuine emotional resonance — by utilizing similar structures, a tendency for twists, a dash of humor, and an ever critical eye on modern society. It’s this indirect form of collaboration that not only opens new opportunities for sci-fi creators, further establishing the non-niche power of the form, but helps perpetuate the value of “others” within the larger culture.

That sense of similarity goes deeper still, and provides even keener insights. Among all 3 shows, there is a thread as to just how our heroine came to be in this most fantastical of circumstances. Continuum’s Kiera Cameron was dragged from the future, Lost Girl’s Bo was forced into her role as mediator of dark and light by her birthright, and Wynonna Earp had no choice but to pick up her (clearly phallic) revolver. The accidental hero isn’t exactly new — everyone from Flash Gordon to Rick Grimes have been thrust onto that pedestal.

But when it happens to women as opposed to men, there’s something worth highlighting. As a man, I’ve dreamt my whole life of being placed into the hero position, to wake up with mutant powers or discover some hidden lineage. That’s not to say little girls haven’t had the same hope, but in many ways this trope is a male-centric worldview within popular culture, an extension of hardcore Peter Pan syndrome that helps ground and contextualize the aimless behavior of an entire generation of men (outside just being lazy, I suppose). As such, putting women into this role, as unexpected guardian of light and goodness, feels like a way to uplift women, to show them that fate doesn’t solely choose boys to pluck out of awkward obscurity but that women are just as capable of finding the courage to fight onward.

This is reflected in a few choices throughout all 3 shows, like how most Earp heirs have been men or, perhaps even more fitting, how Continuum’s Kiera was never even meant to be part of the series’ big time-jump. These decisions expertly show us that the randomness of fate associated with many sci-fi franchises (Star Wars, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Farscape, etc.) applies to men and women alike — all it takes to heed the call is a pure heart and decent combat skills.

As much of a role as fate plays in all 3 series, sexuality may be an even more important link of commonality. Specifically, these shows make the decision to portray sex in a way that tells us something vital, and not because all 3 leads are sexual in their own way. The only one who takes that to aggressive extremes is Bo — but given that she’s a Succubus who literally feeds off sexual energy, it’s essential to her continued existence. The fact that Bo’s sexual exploits often involve death reads like a commentary on how such promiscuity in real life scares people to the point of, say, blaming women for sexual assault. Yet the show’s creators demonstrate that “weaponized” sexuality isn’t just natural and healthy, but a force for actual good, utilizing the power of fiction to shoot holes in anyone who dare fears or balks from a woman with a sex drive. Exploring the ins and outs of Bo’s sexuality may exaggerate some elements, but her candor and openness smashes through many a stifling sensibilities.

Wynonna Earp, meanwhile, is portrayed as a women with a healthy if not as carnivorous approach to sexuality. This reflects a more realistic portrayal of sexuality among women. Even Bo’s sexuality still plays to an old myth in both TV and reality, that women are either total prudes or a she-wolf. Both of which are about as realistic as me waking up one morning with Wolverine claws. Wynonna has had her share of men she’s bedded and bolted, but she’s also been hurt by men and their promises of something more (she and Doc seem to have such issues in the middle of S1). She’s as much a winner in love as a born loser, a classification preserved for frequently for men (almost every Jason Segel character) and an important one if the aim is to create a truly organic portrayal of a woman’s sexual exploits and what this provides, or prevents, for the character’s larger narrative arc.

Continuum’s Kiera is less sexual than her counterparts, and she moves through the show (despite fleeting moments between her and Carlos and a complicated thang with Brad) mostly dedicated to the mission at hand. Again, a very organic portrayal of sexuality, and she doesn’t need to be mashed together with a hottie to achieve stability or to find emotional balance. She’s a single-minded solider with her eyes on the future (literally and figuratively), and her moments of romance and sexuality in the show may be appealing to fans, but they’re never meant to take away from the larger story or portray the savvy Kiera as in need of romance for development or added depth. Stripping sex out as a central plot device clearly isn’t easy for some creators — it’s automatic story fodder, like a sassy neighbor — but it does make for canons that respect the character and audience alike.

No matter how these shows portray their lead’s sexual identities, it’s still leaps and bounds improved over other sci-fi franchises. I can’t think about how many sexy alien women have been encountered, women as some living plot device for time travelers (forget killing Hitler; that’s why everyone messes with that wibbly wobbly junk), or ladies served up as singular sexual objects (especially in sci-fi-adjacent fantasy series). These 3 Canadian shows are a way to reclaim some dignity and sense of normalcy for women, to let them use sexuality as they see fit (or not at all) and to enhance their own lives without jeopardizing their basic values. Ultimately, sexuality is just one representation of how these 3 heroine move through and interact with the rest of the world. It’s the rest of their actions and decisions that further illustrate who these characters are and their larger contextual value.

Perhaps fitting with her hunger for life, Bo is the one who is most interested in disturbing the system with which she operates in. By not having a light or dark allegiance, she questions the very notions of the series and the procedures that have dictated the Fae for millennia. This is the most obvious and perhaps brazen analogy for feminism of these 3 shows and many others with women as leads. Bo is a walking sledgehammer, ready to bring down the whole inferior system around her. She’s not always successful, and the push-back by other more “mainstream” Fae is a huge source of tension throughout the show. When she is prosperous in her attempts, though, we see a system that’s more willing to concede certain systemic issues, and in those moments Bo is a champion for individuality based on one’s inherent skills.

The journey of Wynonna Earp is also an allegory for feminism, just not one with as much shimmery hope. To break the Earp curse, she must follow specific rules — Not just who she can kill and how, but that the whole game’s rigged against the heir as she tries to kill 77 demons before they put her down and start anew with another dumb Earp. She is very much forced to operate within a system that actively wants her to fail and to do so quick and painfully. If that doesn’t sound like huge swathes of society (the wage gap, maternity leave, etc.), then maybe you live in a different reality. Wynonna has her own share of ups and downs through season one, but what makes her a hero is that she recognizes the boundaries (once more, literally and figuratively) and does her best to succeed within these. There are certain areas in life that can’t be rebelled against, and systemic change must come from official means, which explains why it’s so essential that Canada pushes heavily for women to run for office and occupy positions of power.

Insightful and compelling as those tribulations may be, though, the struggles of Bo and Wynonna pale slightly to Kiera’s. Given what’s at stake for the woman from 2077 — the future of not just her own existence but whether the world becomes some dystopic technocracy — is a most tricky balance. Too much interference in the timeline and she’s never born, but not enough and she’ll go back to a world she learns is more fearsome than she ever imagined. Because of that, Kiera can at times feel self-defeating, taking 2 steps forward toward dismantling the world of the future and 3 back to ensure, say, her mom is born. She very much reminds me of Peggy Olson in early seasons of Mad Men: Alive with a desire for change but an awareness of what her actions might do, and the journey to (copywriting) dominance is long and perilous.

Breaking down barriers and making history has been hellacious for mist pioneers, but women especially have faced some of these troubles head-on. A similar sentiment informs a lot of Kiera’s actions, though she eventually becomes more bold in her attempts (like the whole thing with her dying and replacing herself). Ultimately, her lot in life is perhaps most harrowing of the 3, and mirrors the journey of many a strong and proud real woman. Try as they may to secure the equality they deserve, there’s often a wave of resentment (usually from bros or dudes with undercuts) that tries to correct course at the cost of women’s opportunities and potential. Scary as Kiera’s alternate future prospects my appear, it’s not the one we’ve clearly landed in with Trump.

Speaking of dudes (though not the gross or creepy variety), the way in which men are portrayed in all 3 shows further colors what female characters go through and what’s still left to overcome — both in fiction and the real world.

Given the overtly sexual nature of the show, Bo’s dealings with men are usually her sleeping around as a means of facilitating her plan or simply to feed. In this way, the creators are having more fun with the idea of women as soul-eating concubine, showing viewers that such pronounced sexuality is a complex dynamic involving a series of rotating personal decisions and behaviors. Sex is complicated and a little freaky no matter who you are, and having this example (no matter how exaggerated) gives power to girls who are uncertain about their own desires/tendencies and how that fits with forging relationships or simply living one’s life. At the same time, some of Bo’s more important interactions with men feel less progressive. The back-and-forth, will-they, won’t-they with Dyson feels far too traditional, even if she has a similar dynamic with non-fae super doctor Lauren. All that power is only further stifled as she deals with her dad, Hades, and their conversations make Bo look more like an angry teen girl than the chi-eating badass she is.

It’s similar shortcomings that link Bo and Wynonna. The heir’s issues with a broken system explain the massive chip on her shoulder and her trouble maintaining relationships with both the prickly Xavier Dolls and the quick-to-flee Holliday. Yet she remains persistent in her attempts to utilize these assets, bring together her weird pseudo-family under one happy little banner, and break a longstanding curse no one (read men) has come close to putting a dent in. It’s a common thread throughout feminist theory, from socialist circles to Emma Watson herself — nothing will ever be accomplished without collaboration between men and women. Not an easy prospect given the very old, very white contingency deciding maternity care, or how most men seem adverse to even the title of “feminist.” Yet a character like Wynonna encapsulates that fighting spirit held by many, to forego the mistakes of the past and work in harmony to build a better (demon-less) tomorrow.

Whereas Bo and Wynonna struggle with the actions of men, and often how to reconcile their many deeds, our favorite time-traveling cop Kiera is in a different position entirely. Not only is sexuality and romance not as prominent through Continuum, but Kiera has very specific ways of interacting with the male characters. She and Carlos are partners, but she’s very much the leader, the one with the biggest gun and the most secrets to hide. Meanwhile, she’s got a similar dynamic with the unassuming Alec, which is made all the more intriguing given the young genius’ eventual ascension as future boss of Just About Everything. It’s not about dominating over men in some brutish way, but Kiera is a character of a (future) world that has transcended a lot of the malarkey Bo and Wynonna’s characters have to deal with everyday. In this way, it’s a really meaningful way of furthering sci-fi’s singular power of fantasy fulfillment as a vehicle for actual change.

In 2016 alone, Canada exported over $320 billion in goods to the U.S. (Mostly cars, industrial parts, and electronic equipment.) Unfortunately, sending over whatever it is that led to these 3 shows, no matter what belief, creative environment, or stroke of pure luck that might turn out to be, isn’t nearly as manageable. It’s not because Canada likes women more, or even a greater appreciation for the expansion of feminism beyond the confines of womanhood (get in formation, gents).

Ultimately, it may be an openness on the part of the wonderful Canadian writers, directors, producers, etc. to embrace new frontiers in the realm of sci-fi. To give other voices the lead and see what that does for the genre and what lessons it has to impart on ourselves and our sense of the future. It’s a free-flowing perspective that is unfortunately in short demand in the U.S. Case in point, the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, in which men everywhere, but mostly red-blooded Americans, railed against the idea of an all-female cast. It wasn’t about damaging our fragile childhood nostalgia — but an inability to accept a much-needed shift in perspective and to face the idea that it’s not you (i.e. straight white men) saving the world and exploring the fringes of what comes next (or what we wish might). Plenty of dudes couldn’t even handle women-only showings for Wonder Woman.

For this open attitude to take hold everywhere, there has to be an admission that our heroes must represent more of the world if they’re going to be of use to us as a larger audience, and limiting them to one archetype is snuffing out so much creative potential, especially in those who don’t see themselves on the TV or movie screen. If nothing else, sci-fi is the creative place to confront people with strange and terrifying ideas. Even if that is, for whatever asinine hold-ups someone has, women in lead roles. These 3 shows are a powerful example of what happens when the sci-fi community spreads the spotlight around, expertly reinforcing important ideas about equality, gender relations, and what barriers still exist for all of us to blast apart withs laser rifles.

You go, Canada.

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