Monday, October 8, 2012

Fembots Deserve Better (Futurama)

For reasons that I can’t divulge at this particular moment, I have spent the past four days watching Futurama. All of it. Like, seriously. All.

In the course of my watching I’ve discovered a few things. First, I quite enjoy the show (not really a surprise). Second, I sympathize greatly with Zoidberg, for reasons that don’t entirely make sense to me but are probably related to all the fish I ate in childhood. And third, I really hate how this show deals with women.

Big shock, right?

Look, I know that I sometimes sound like a broken record, but at least I’m a broken record telling the truth. Futurama is really awful to its female characters, and here’s how: they’re all about sex.

It’s not just that the female characters on this show are slotted into the usual spaces of “girlfriend”, “potential girlfriend”, “girlfriend of some other guy”, and “robot girlfriend”, they’re also deprived of any real plot that doesn’t revolve around their sexual desirability. Take Leela for example. Nearly every episode that deals with her directly is in some way related to her attractiveness.

Either she finds the only other one of her species (kind of) and is forced into being a housewife so that they can carry on the Cyclops race, or she’s being talked into cosmetic surgery so that she can look normal and date a normal guy. It is extremely rare that Leela gets a story not about her physical appearance, but about her as a person. And that sucks.

It’s even more pronounced when you consider that the episodes that don’t have Leela chasing some guy are usually about Leela being chased. Zapp Brannigan is obsessed with her and constantly trying to trick her into his bed. Fry wants to date Leela, and is so obsessed that at one point he actually moves the stars to get her attention. But we never really get the impression that Fry understands Leela. He views her more as a really hot goal – the reward at the end of his journey. Which is, of course, shitty.

And it’s not just Leela. Amy is defined entirely by her sexual attractiveness. When someone mentions cosmetic surgery, Amy says that she had a cuteness-reduction operation. When someone talks about dating, Amy brings up all the guys chasing her. When she washes the spaceship in a bikini, Fry ogles her. And we’re supposed to be okay with that.

At no point, though, is Amy a character in her own right. She’s never having adventures or fighting pirates or minting counterfeit money without it being cute. She is always, always the object of someone else’s gaze.

This even extends to the robots.

Bender, our favorite lovable scoundrel (and I use all the words in that phrase loosely), treats female robots with absolutely no respect. I mean none. He cheats, objectifies and insults them. And they like it.

I’m not kidding. There’s an episode I remember watching in college, and hating it then too, where the whole gang is stranded on the planet of the Amazons. When found there, the men are taken before the great fem-puter, ruler of the world. It sentences them to death by snoo-snoo, which is pretty much just sex. And, of course, most of the guys are thrilled.

As they get more and more chafed though, they insist something be done to save them. Bender goes and tries to seduce the fem-puter. Lo and behold, it’s actually just a fembot. So Bender has sex with her. And that saves everyone.

For serious. That was a plot that happened.

Now, you could tell me that I’m being too serious about this and I need to chill out. Which is something that people tell me pretty regularly, to be honest. But I don’t think so. Yes, it’s a cartoon. Yes, cartoons are supposed to be funny (unless they’re Persepolis or Japanese). That isn’t an excuse, though, for sexism.

No matter what the fictional world you create, you should have the decency to treat your characters like people. It’s the only way to have good stories, and it’s the only way to make those stories matter. Futurama is good, but it lacks the one quality that would make it great: empathy.

You see, you don’t feel for the characters on this show. You don’t even like them very much. How can you, when all you see is them arguing and hating each other and degrading themselves? When we watch Leela get cosmetic surgery, we’re supposed to be upset and frustrated with her. But we aren’t. It’s just another day in sitcom-land, where everything is fixed by the end of the show. Everything reverts, nothing changes, and there’s no reason to be emotionally involved.

But I want to be emotionally involved.

For me, that’s what television, and any story, really, is about. Feeling for the characters, living through them. Fiction is the great chance to live a story that isn’t yours. To go places and do things you can’t in the real world. You experience it by empathizing with the characters. But when the characters don’t receive empathy from the world they inhabit, how are you supposed to do this?

I’m not going to lie and say that Futurama is a bad show. Because it isn’t. It’s a really good show that treats its female characters like crap. It devalues them and lets the audience think of them as less than human.

And I can’t get into that.

And this? This is just offensive.