I interviewed Clara Jackson at Nine Worlds Geekfest 2015. Clara, together with Siân Fever, is responsible for organising the Geek Feminism track at the convention and it has proven to be one of the most popular among the con’s attendees.
RM: Geek Feminism has been present at Nine Worlds for three years now, right?
CJ: Yes. Siân and I have been running a full track of content for them since Nine Worlds started up. We’ve each headed up a year and now, in year three, we’re running it very much in partnership. It’s not really a one-woman show; it’s too big and too important.
From the very beginning of Nine Worlds the Hive Mind felt it was key to have Social Justice tracks and for that to inform a lot of the content and the feel. You can really see that walking around the convention, inclusivity and accessibility is part of the DNA. We get a lot of support from the convention and a lot of the other tracks run their own feminist content independent from us, which is really great.
RM: It’s a growing trend, which is a good thing, especially in genre, now that there are lot more people examining the role of women in genre fiction in general and in movies as well; how they are portrayed – not just being mere sex objects – to the fact that they are actually strong in their own sense. Mad Max, which you were talking about within this particular panel, was a good example where Imperator Furiosa almost outshone Max as a character in it. What drew you specifically to that and to put it on the panel?
CJ: The film was a huge success and I don’t think that from watching the trailer people could have known what they were in for. Right from when the film was first released, there were IMDB Scores and reviews online that were really exciting. Dropping the word “feminism” into a mainstream action film review, that’s new. When you start digging into it, there’s so much commentary and so many interesting things in there that it was just ripe for discussion.
But picking up from the point you made, about this being a growing trend, it’s not actually such a recent thing, we always had this kind of running commentary. You can go into bookshops like Forbidden Planet and pick out all the essays. People have been writing about this for years but now we have Tumblr, for example, and it means there’s a wider audience and it’s more accessible.
RM: When we talk about it, it can be easy to misconstrue what strength is. With men, generally people say, ‘He’s strong, he has big muscles.’ But with women it’s slightly different, or can be. What, in your opinion, do you see as strength in a female character?
CJ: I think we are talking about strength of character versus beating people up here. ‘Strong Female Character’ doesn’t mean what we commonly think it means, we don’t mean the attribute of strength – we mean well written. But also there’s a general view that women are strong simply through being enduring, whereas men are strong through the amount of things they can smash up and hit and beat through physically. I think Mad Max is more rounded than that. You get endurance from the male characters and physical strength from the female characters as well. You’ve got more of a mix going on and it’s breaking with that tradition of, ‘This woman is really strong because she can put up with more than everyone else”.
What’s so great about the movie is that we get to see so many different female characters and we get to see them flawed. We have enough that we were ok seeing a couple of them making not so great decisions or going against what we were hoping they would do. That for me is one of the successes of the film. It’s not perfect, but we do get a lot of different characteristics, which is definitely a strong step forward.
RM: I suppose if you’re looking at it from another perspective, perhaps like the character of Inara from Firefly, in that ship, although she works in an industry which could be construed as a negative one for women, she’s actually a strong character and she does push back in that lot; she uses that to her advantage. Would you agree that she’s another good example of a strong female character?
CJ: It’s probably worth noting that I’m not really in a position to talk about whether the depiction of an industry I don’t have experience of is being represented well or not.
Having said that, a lot of women don’t get characterisation; they just get the default “character” of woman or victim or sex worker, etc. and they don’t get a personality.; They are not rounded. Inara is a rounded character; that just happens to be the job that she does. But she is a person separate from that, and part of the crew. What I also find interesting about Inara is that people tended to go to her for comfort and not just through her job. For example, there is a lovely scene where Shepherd Book is kneeling at her feet and Inara has her hand on his head, at the close of the episode.
RM: They tend to be few and far between, these good female characters in genre fiction. Another that springs to mind is Ellen Ripley in the Alien movies; she’s one of the archetypal early examples of that.
CJ: She was written as a man and gender flipped. Perhaps sadly, I think that’s one of the reasons she is such an enduring character; it’s because she wasn’t written as “character woman”, she was allowed to written as a fully rounded male character, and then they flipped it. It’s worked positively to show that women can be more complex characters too though.
RM: Any other favourites that spring to mind in fiction?
CJ: Talking of Firefly, I’m a big fan of Kaylee. She’s allowed to have the typically male job of ship mechanic while still being very fem. I love the scene where she is talking high-level mechanics at a ball while simultaneously enjoying her amazing pink wedding cake of a dress! She is also sex positive, which I don’t think enough female characters are allowed to be without having to pay for it in some way.