*Ultimate meaning final or last, not best or most extreme
The best panel I caught at Comic-Con was entitled "Entertainment Weekly: Wonder Women: Female Power Icons in Popular Culture." Yeah, its a long and rather inelegant title, but it featured Eliza Dushku, Elizabeth Mitchell, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver talking about women in film and television, particularly in sci-fi. I'm just now writing about it because it's taken a bit more processing than a pilot preview or a publicity panel. Also, because I didn't do it right away, was so that it wouldn't fall into post Comic-Con torpor.
Each woman had a chance to talk about their biggest roles. Weaver hadn't been interested in doing Alien until she met Ridley Scott and saw the production design. That was when she realized it was unlike anything she'd seen before. She also thought of it as an ensemble piece and was surprised when she became the breakout star. Elizabeth talked about how fun it is for her to play Juliet, whom the moderator called the "most morally slippery" character on television. Saldana said it was "humbling" to play Uhura, a character that was a hero of previous generations of women, including her own mother. She tried her best to honor Uhura's experience as a black woman in the post-racial and post-sexist 23rd century. Eliza Dushku, well...
In contrast with my new hero Zoe, Eliza Dushku was completely out of her depth. She seemed excluded from the rapport the other women shared, and just not very intelligent. She just kept saying that her character on Dollhouse is "kickass" and "complicated" and "uses her womanly wiles." But she never addressed the fact that her character is ultimately a victim. She gave up her personality and life to become a blank. She only has the skills and resources her programmers give her, and when she uses those "womanly wiles" it's because she's an actual whore. She plays possibly the most antifeminist role on television and to pretend like it's empowering is an insult. [/feminist screed] At any rate, she didn't say much.
Saldana was hands down the breakout star of the panel. Everyone in Ballroom 20 emerged with a girlcrush on her. She was so intelligent and eloquent Mitchell said in the future she'd like Zoe to do all of her interviews. She was also refreshingly frank. When an audience member asked why whenever people discussed casting for a possible Wonder Woman film they only talked about 25 year olds, although a 30 or 35 year old may be more suited to the role. Saldana said, "Do you want the real answer? It's because 65 year old men just want to watch 25 year old girls run around, and they're the ones writing the checks."
When asked why films don't reflect the real life growth of women in power, Weaver said that it's a mistake to look to Hollywood to bring social change. Hollywood lags behind and only responds to profits, so it's up to moviegoers to tell studios what they want to see. All the panelists agreed television, as a more immediate medium, is more reflective of the current climate. They also agreed that it has better roles for women as they age. Weaver said great roles come when a writer sets out to write an interesting character, not when they set out to write a woman. Saldana agreed, saying, "Ripley could have been a man, but it was a woman, thank god." Weaver then interjected that Ripley was originally written as a man, and Saldana amended her statement to, "It was supposed to be a man, but a woman did it better."
One problematic aspect of women in science fiction is costuming. Sci-fi seems to tell women, "Yes, you can be strong and intelligent and powerful, but only if you look good in spandex." Weaver addressed this beautifully and succinctly when she said of her ass-kicking Alien days, “I just feel grateful I got to wear actual clothes.” Saldana suggested that the key is education, and talked about sitting down with directors and explaining why she should wear pants for action sequences instead of "a miniskirt and Gucci boots."
The final question was whether things are getting better for actresses, or worse. Although Mitchell claimed that she's so fortunate in the plum roles she's gotten on Lost and V that she can't comment, Saldana seemed to think there's room for optimism. Hopefully things will continue to improve and someday soon she won't have to explain to writers that her character "shouldn't sleep with the lead guy just because she kind of digs him." That's a hope I share, Zoe.