Feminism, Lost in Space
The idea of a feminist-friendly tv show elicits groans from those who believe television is best when it entertains. Striking a balance between entertainment, artistry, and message, especially when message is really A Message, appears to be a challenge the entertainment industry is not always up for. So I really enjoyed Netflix’s take on Lost in Space, which I found both entertaining and feminist-friendly.
For reasons that escape me, the series reboot has not been very well received. Some said the new Lost in Space was too slow-moving for a bingewatch (I completely disagree with this analysis, I found the action was well-paced and my entire family from 50 to 5 were on the edge of their seats while Judy was trapped in the ice). Others said LiS was trying in vain to appeal to the whole family when the whole family never gathers around the TV together any more. See complaint #1; at least one family still gathers around the TV together, or would like to, anyway, but can so rarely find something we can all stand to watch that it doesn’t happen as often as we’d like.
It’s not perfect, of course; for instance, our Lost heroes seem to have the ability to cross hundreds or even thousands of miles of distance in a very short period of time. The geography of the planet they’re stranded on goes from desert to tundra to forest to volcanic wasteland within what seems to be only a few hours’ or even a few minutes’ journey. The scenery is beautiful though, so it’s the minorest of annoyances – and heck, what do we know about the geography of an alien world, anyway? Are we xenobiologists here? No, so suspend disbelief, people.
At times the characters make absolutely ridick decisions – although I’ve seen enough people (myself included, OMG) behave in utterly nutty ways in extreme situations that I am willing to forgive that. There are also several insanely farfetched coincidences but honestly, what show DOESN’T use coincidence as a plot device? Breaking Bad is widely considered to be like the greatest show ever and it’s loaded with coincidences.
Setting aside the minor quibbles, Lost In Space is an entertaining series with cool visuals that I can sit and watch with my children without longing for death. Is it Breaking Bad, no, but I can’t watch Breaking Bad with my children. And aside from family togetherness, I liked how feminist-positive it was – without being preachy.
The show centers around the Robinson family. Maureen Robinson is some kind of scientist (I missed what kind), John Robinson is a soldier, and as such they frequently butt heads about how best to proceed through a series of disasters. In a nice turn, Mom is often correct, but Dad is not entirely emasculated and humiliated in the process. Perhaps shockingly, there are also times where his approach is proven best or a compromise occurs which both parties have to give a little and work together for a positive outcome.
I find that too often with shows featuring a strong female character, the men who surround her are nitwits present to do everything wrong constantly that the ever-superior females then have to correct. It felt very refreshing that the character of John Robinson was neither an overzealous military meathead nor a pussywhipped milksop. It also felt very refreshing that Maureen Robinson is shown to be wrong at times and makes some bad decisions, even unethical ones. She’s a more fully developed character because of her mistakes and her failings and even better, the role is wonderfully cast with the ever-awesome Molly Parker.
Maureen Robinson was married once before and has a daughter from her previous relationship, and then has had 2 children with John Robinson (Toby Stephens). John has adopted Maureen’s oldest daughter, Judy (Taylor Russell) and they have a positive relationship. In fact, in some ways he’s closer with Judy than with his biological daughter Penny (Mina Sundwall). Contrary to most Hollywood portrayals, which tend to be melodramatic and fraught with tension, mutual admiration can actually be a thing with stepparents and stepchildren – they aren’t always mortal enemies. The relationship was drawn with a light hand, without even being a massive plot point. Too often in shows featuring a blended family there is some sort of leftover baggage and it’s this constant source of faux drama. Again, it felt refreshing to have a pretty normal family – millions of blended families around the world are navigating being blended families without the nonstop TV angst – being shown as, well, being a pretty normal family.
Further, it felt refreshing that a woman can be shown as divorced and remarried without having to be punished for that. I hold it as a feminist ideal that a woman can have a child, leave a relationship, and no one is scarred for life by her decision. She can even find happiness in a new relationship with someone who loves her and her child.
The Robinson’s marriage is not perfect; before leaving for space they were on the brink of divorce and over the course of the show, they repair their relationship. I thought this worked both for the show (the point isn’t belabored, thankfully) and from a feminist angle. I’ve been married a long time, it’s hard, you both mess things up constantly, you go through phases where you legit can’t stand each other and eventually if you’re lucky and work hard at it, you make it up again. I find my experience as a woman who happens to be a wife is rarely accurately represented on screen. TV wives are portrayed as longsuffering martyrs or perfect Carol Bradys who never make mistakes or emasculating hags out to spoil their husband’s good time. Maureen isn’t punished for not being a perfect person in a perfect relationship. John isn’t punished, either. The Robinson’s marriage doesn’t implode irrevocably just because they don’t always agree. Maureen is neither a saint nor a harpy, just a person doing the best she can to juggle a lot of people’s needs and interests in an extreme situation.
Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) who was of course the star and the focus on the original Lost In Space, is a cute but fairly generic kid who fades into the background when compared with his sisters. While he does have his moments to shine, he wasn’t the infallible kid genius WesleyCrusher-esque character I feared he’d be. He wasn’t even able to pass the tests to be accepted into the colony (in order to be allowed to emigrate to the space colony the family is headed to, the candidates have to be stringently tested). Maureen actually breaks the rules and buys his way in. Instead of Will being a superstar while Judy and Penny stand around looking cute and helplessly wringing their hands, the Robinson daughters are written as courageous, talented, and resourceful. Judy is a child prodigy and is a doctor despite being only about 18-20 or so. I really like the Judy character as she’s a type of person who I totally relate to – fiercely driven to succeed and yet at times nearly paralyzed with fear about doing the wrong thing. Penny, a 15 year old budding writer, is a little harder to describe but is equally interesting and relatable.
Neither Penny or Judy are simple tropes. Judy is not simply “overaccomplished perfectionist trope” and Penny is not simply “snarky teenage wiseacre” trope; both are much more fully realized. Too often, teenage and young adult female characters are made out to be just this side of superheroes – never scared, always in control, knowing how to do everything right all the time, rarely possession of any kind of stereotypical female foible. I find them very one-dimensional and worse, it’s all the same dimension – capable of doing everything a girl “should” do while also doing everything a guy “should” do, only better.
As a young girl (and even as an old lady, at times) I’ve found the constant perfection of many so-called feminist characters discouraging rather than empowering. I could never be like that, I’m scared in that kind of situation. I’m not strong enough, brave enough, smart enough, good enough to be a hero. Perfection is too high a bar to set for young women. I was very glad for my daughter (who is quite anxious and tends towards perfectionism) and my sons too for that matter, to see these strong and tough – yet still human and sometimes fragile – girls on screen.
Judy and Penny are not conventionally gorgeous. Neither is Maureen, or any of the women on Lost in Space. Often they’re shown sweaty, dirty, and makeup-free; busy doing hard work and not thinking about their appearance at all. It is one of my personal pet peeves in “feminist” shows where the female stars are spectacularly beautiful and always perfectly groomed, and if they’re performing a physically challenging task they receive a single smear of grime across their thickly-foundationed cheek to show it. The physicality of the female characters is used in a realistic way as a plot point at least once – a lightweight female pilot is selected to fly an important mission not only for her flying ability, but for her smaller stature. Later, she’s replaced by a male pilot who has the ability to withstand G-force better. I find this far more realistic than the “anything boys can do, girls can do better” trope. It doesn’t seem at all feminist to me to portray the “ideal” female as simply just a dude with better hair. The average man is stronger in some ways than the average woman – it’s simply a biological fact – but women’s size and endurance can also be an advantage. Denying this reality doesn’t ever feel like a feminist score to me.
Another criticism of Lost in Space I found really unfair and and even anti-feminist was the idea that this entertaining television show meant for children’s viewing, doesn’t go far enough to fight against inequality, or something. That it only faintly references the deep societal problems that drove the Robinsons to leave Earth without delivering a socialist monologue every episode. But I appreciated that lighter touch. A huge part of why shows with A Message often fall so flat for me is because they get all preachy and the writers fall in love with hearing their own personal beliefs constantly spewing from their character’s mouths. Even when the character would have every reason not to share those beliefs! I liked how the larger issues on Future Earth were alluded to without having it drummed into my head again and again about how inequality is bad and how our world is really just exactly like theirs.
In fact, this was another feminist moment for me. Maureen Robinson breaks her own ethical rules to get her children off of Earth and away from a planet where people were suffering and struggling. You know, a woman doing something women actually do – protecting her children. I think it’s very realistic that a wealthy woman would be willing to break rules and take advantage of opportunities that others lack. It may not be right of her to do so – it may even be morally reprehensible – but it IS realistic. I despise the tendency of feminist entertainment to portray women as flawless paragons of virtue, especially when what is “virtuous” in any given situation is very much open for debate.
And the question of virtue brings me to Dr. Smith. Dr. Smith, you may recall, was a male in the original incarnation of Lost in Space. But in this rebooted version, he’s being played by indie darling Parker Posey.
Opinion has been divided over Dr. Smith. Some people despise the character because Dr. Smith’s motives are utterly nonsensical – after all, why bite the hand that feeds you, why attack and undermine the people who are literally your salvation? But the original Dr. Smith’s motives were equally nonsensical…it’s part of the character. I enjoyed the new and improved Dr. Smith. It appears to me like someone took a look at Dr. Smith’s original character through a lens of reality and wondered “Would a person ever really act like that? And if so, why? What type of person would they be? What would they be getting out it?”
Because people DO sometimes bite the hand that feeds them. Some people often, or even always, will bite that hand, and hard. For lots of reasons – resentment, revenge, sudden flares of uncontrollable rage. Even when it makes no sense. Even when they themselves are worse off for the experience.
I had the very great misfortune to be briefly “befriended” by a female sociopath and she behaved almost exactly like Dr. Smith. Whenever she perceived that people were not treating her as well as she felt that deserved (which was pretty much constantly, since she craved recognition and expected celebrity treatment) she would freak out and lash out. If you were in the way when that happened, it didn’t matter how much she liked you, she would attack. She lied, she cheated, she manipulated reality, she gaslighted, she even went so far as to manufacture false evidence to be used against people. The word “fake news” hadn’t been invented yet, but she was fully versed in its application. She would hatch complex and bizarre plans to get revenge on those who had “wronged” her – which worked a surprising amount of the time, simply because her schemes were so unbelievably weird. She was so bafflingly self-destructive that no one who hadn’t been burned by her before, could truly believe anyone would do anything so crazy with nothing to gain from it, and thus most people gave her the benefit of every doubt.
My “friend’s” behavior never made a lick of sense. It cost her friendships and ruined other people’s friendships. If she could have gotten away with it, she would have ruined lives, I’m quite certain. I would not be at all surprised to learn that she HAD ruined lives in the past. Because she didn’t care about anyone – even herself, really, in the end. She cared about protecting her self-image more than her own actual self-preservation. She cared about revenge and getting even and teaching the world a lesson. Her sole motivation in life was to get the people who she felt had done her wrong. At any cost, even to herself. She would rather have died then let someone else win. So watching Dr. Smith hatch a really idiotic plan that if it didn’t work out, might end in her death, might end in the deaths of a hundred other people…while I can understand people’s confusion if they haven’t witnessed it firsthand, it IS actually a thing and Dr. Smith is just the type of person who rolls that way.
Many people within the feminist movement refuse to acknowledge that sometimes, some women have dark, disturbing motivations and do things for petty and vicious reasons. It’s a weird kid of Victorian mindset – on the one hand we as feminists ostensibly want to believe that women are fully actualized people in charge of their destiny, but at the same time, a lot of “feminists” prefer to pretend that women are flawless saints incapable of bad behavior, or avenging angels who only resort to questionable actions when fighting for a noble cause. It simply isn’t true and seems little different than pretending women are all passive, frigid shrinking violets who need protection from the machinations of of our sinister uteruses.
And what was true of the rest of the female cast is equally true of Parker Posey – they didn’t go out of their way to beautify her. She looks her age – which is my age, about 50 – and she’s put together like someone who has just crash landed on an alien world. Not fashionable, not perfectly made up – utilitarian. In my opinion, it is not a feminist act to replace a male actor with a female one, if the female actress chosen was chosen solely because she met a very narrow standard of beauty. It would have been so easy for them to cast a 32 year old or even a 26 year old as Dr. Smith. It would have been easy to cast a very glam type of older actress, like Teri Hatcher or Courteney Cox in this part. It would have been easiest of all for them to simply bedazzle up Parker Posey herself, she’s lovely. I really think it’s much to their credit that the Lost in Space showrunners have had the courage to show an array of actual women looking like actual women. There’s something downright subversive about it.
In addition to all these great things in the reboot of Lost in Space there is also a giant robot that on occasion says “Danger, Will Robinson”. Lost in Space is an enjoyable watch your whole family can enjoy and I felt represented by it in a way that I oftentimes don’t.
Photo by Tammy Manet