I had a fantastic time guest posting at Sleeps With Monsters last fall. So much so that I badgered Liz to let me back through security for another round. This time, I wanted to step away from language and take a different tack: to look at one of my favorite television shows from the past season—The Expanse—and specifically at the women on the show.
One of my favorite things about The Expanse (and there are quite a few, because I love my space opera, and I’ve worn treads in BSG, The 100 [with two glaring exceptions] and Farscape) is the plurality of women in major roles on the show. Naomi Nagata on the Canterbury and Rocinante, Chrisjen Avasarala on Earth, Octavia Muss and Captain Shaddid in the Belt. All have deep backstories, active involvement in the show’s trajectory, and solid character arcs that weave dramatic threads throughout the plot—often independent of arcs relating to the primary male characters. ::fistpump:: Even Captain Yao on the Mars battleship and Elise Holden on the homestead, two secondary characters, feel strongly depicted and multi-layered. And of course, there’s Juliette Mao, the show’s… well, I have a theory about what and who Julie Mao is, but I’ll leave it to the end.
The way The Expanse treats these characters’ arcs feels entirely refreshing, evolving the traditions of the tv space opera I love. In almost all cases, the collegial relationships built among the characters are intense because of the politics and loyalties depicted through looks and dialogue*. And there’s competence. So. Much. Competence.
[* Even if the several major characters are still mostly siloed in their settings—i.e.: one lead woman surrounded by several lead and secondary men (true on the Cant/Rocinante, in all the Earth/UN shots, but not at Star Helix or when Avasarala goes to the Holden Farm).]
So I asked Daniel Abraham, one of the authors of the Leviathan series and a consultant on the show, if he’d answer some questions for me about the currently featured female characters of The Expanse, Season 1—and I think we’ve managed to do it in a way that is mostly spoiler-free.
SWM: Each of the primary female characters in the first season are actively involved in the show’s trajectory, with deep backstories and real lives, attachments, sorrows, and joys. This is something I’m enjoying seeing more and more in my SF television and movies. While the POV character of Leviathan Wakes is male, television has allowed you to broaden out and balance the characterization. How do you think the novels helped drive this structure forward?
Daniel Abraham: It was always our intention to have a future world that included women who were strong as characters, and we also had a male central protagonist. In Leviathan Wakes, we made the choice that, when we found people in positions of power, we’d try to make them women to balance out the fact that both of our protagonists were men. And so, Yao and Shaddid. The later books wound up feeding into that too. One of the interesting things about that structure is that one of the point of view positions in every book is this one guy. If you try to keep the rest of the character mix balanced, what you’ve really built is an engine for generating interesting female characters. So Caliban’s War had room for one new male character—Prax—and two women—Bobbie and Avasarala. Abaddon’s Gate had room for a guy—Bull—and two women—Anna and Melba.
When the time came to adapt the books into a show, we had a lot of very interesting, complicated, fully conceived characters that were also women.
SWM: Especially because there are so many different roles for women to play in each setting (leader, captain, diplomat, embed, spy, rebel, to name only a few)—and because the women in question are rendered eminently capable in their chosen careers while some of the male leads are—frankly—charming fuckups trying to claw their way back to respectability, what are the challenges with keeping each character multidimensional?
Abraham: Having any hyper-competent character and keeping them well-rounded—regardless of gender—involves giving them weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and moments of relaxation. Avasarala has her husband, Arjun. Her complex relationship with her dead son. Muss has terrible taste in men. Bobbie in season two will also have her weaknesses.
That said, in the books at least, some of our experiments aren’t as successful as others. Everyone loves Avasarala and Bobbie in part because they’re competent and powerful. But that same book has Prax, who is just as non-traditional by being an explicitly nurturing man. He doesn’t get the same love. In book four, we have Elvi who is very good at her job, but is emotionally a charming fuck-up (to borrow your term) and isn’t as easy to embrace.
SWM: Chrisjen Avasarala fascinates me, in part because we see her in so many settings being incredibly good at what she does, and succeeding as well as failing. In part it’s because of her amazing facial expressions as she plots and plans. I know she appears later in the novels than she does in the show. What impact did bringing her character forward in the show have on the plotline? What were the rewards of doing so?
Abraham: The thing we really wanted with her was a point of view on the large-scale political game that was in the background of the first book, but didn’t really come to the fore until Caliban’s War. Having Shohreh there to contextualize everything going on into the other two arcs was meant to make it all a little more accessible.
SWM: While costuming is important throughout the cast of The Expanse, Chrisjen Avasarala is easily the most vividly dressed at any point (with many other characters relegated to space-trucker grays, Martian blacks, and official uniforms with a single pin (in Muss’ case). Meantime, color is often rendered in a greater range during Earth scenes—and accessories seem to be part of Avasarala’s armor or camouflage. Is that in direct contrast to Miller’s grey hat?
Abraham: I wouldn’t say camouflage. I’d say, rather, that it gives a sense of richness and opulence to Earth and a much more desperate, hardscrabble impression of the Belt.
SWM: What’s the role of the brothel in The Expanse?
Abraham: How to handle sex work in the project was a long conversation. We decided early on to have prostitution (and drug use) be legal and regulated in the world we were building. The thing that the Belt is most like is naval ports, and when you have ships that are either military with regulations against fraternization or workplaces where relationships are complicated by power relations within a company, that kind of industry seemed weird to omit.
We also made a point of having sex workers of both [sic] genders in the show. It’s a touchy, complicated subject, but this was the version that fit best in the world we imagined.
SWM: The zero-G sex scene from all the trailers is the only such scene in the first season—meantime, characters are engaging in different kinds of relationships—some told only through exceedingly strong Looks as well as frowns, glares, grins, and smiles. I loved seeing those connections develop in that way, even in the brothel… why was the choice made to focus there rather than elsewhere?
Abraham: We wanted to give the relationships time to build and deepen through the season and the show. Sex is a basic, deep, important human connection, but it’s not the only basic, deep, important one.
SWM: Do you think any of the female leads may get to talk to one another in season two?
Abraham: Count on it.
SWM: Ok: hair. Let’s talk about this. In the opening scenes of The Expanse S1, Juliette Mao’s hair is free-floating, and reminded me a bit of female astronauts leaving their hair long on the space station so that kids would see there were women aboard the ISS. Later in The Expanse, we see all sorts of hairstyles, short and long, on all genders—but that image of long flowing hair in zero-g is so very striking. Why do you think that is?
Abraham: In part because it’s the first image in the show, and Florence Faivre is such a powerfully striking woman. Coming into the first frame, we see not just a very feminine woman, but one in a traditional feminine role—the damsel in distress. Now that gets undercut pretty quickly as she breaks out of her confinement and arms herself, but in the moment, she’s like a mermaid in air. It’s a great image.
SWM: The Expanse has several scenes with children, and parents—or stand-in parents. At one point, Avasarala meets James Holden’s mother, Christine, and the exchange is electric. In another case, a character takes on a motherly role when it will only endanger her. What is important to the story line about those scenes?
Abraham: Well, there are a couple things in the first case. On one level, it was a way for Avasarala to show us where Holden came from and what drives him, but it was also a way to let Shohreh Aghdashloo and Frances Fisher do a scene together. That’s not a chance you pass up. But the relationships between parents—mothers and fathers both—and children comes up a lot in the project. It’s a primal relationship, and deeply human. Having that be part of the world is important because it’s a less human world without it.
[No spoilers, but my own personal theory about Juliette Mao is discussed below, for those who might be avoiding fan theories!]
So here’s my theory: Juliette Mao isn’t just a lost rich girl, or a pawn. In the classical tradition, she exists as The Expanse’s Helen (for the Belters), as a Siren (for the Canterbury), as a thematic McGuffin—much more so than what was discovered on Phoebe—and as a complex character of her own, revealed in a flashback. I asked Abraham about one of these… and got exactly the answer I deserved:
SWM: Is Julie Mao an interplanetary siren?
Abraham: And also Gene Tierney in Laura.
Thanks very much to Daniel Abraham for answering my questions about the women of The Expanse. I’m looking forward to seeing how all of these themes play out in the next season.
Fran Wilde’s work includes the Nebula-, Andre Norton-, and Compton Crook Award-nominated novel Updraft and its sequel Cloudbound, publishing from Tor in September 2016. Her short stories appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Nature. Her novella The Jewel and Her Lapidary is available from Tor.com Publishing. She writes for publications including The Washington Post, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, iO9.com, and GeekMom.com. You can find her on twitter@fran_wilde.