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Everything Old Is Worse Again: Of Vs and Backlashes

Hey! Do you remember V?

Um, no, not that one…this one:

Yes, that one! Everyone’s favorite reptilian-aliens-coming-to-eat-us-and-drink-our-milkshake (er, water) saga from the early 80s! There was the original V miniseries, a rather memorable if straightforward aliens=Nazis parable, followed by the less-than-memorable V: The Final Battle miniseries that existed to mostly tie up loose ends in a big sloppy bow, and then the ill-conceived V: The Series, a show so unmemorable that the writers didn’t even know it had been canceled!

As a young person of surprising gender, I’ll confess that I ate this stuff up with both hands. I was, then as now, a science fiction geek, and for once during the great Age of the Miniseries, when those Antediluvian Giants did do battle on the air seemingly for weeks on end, there was something directed at me–a miniseries about flying saucers and laser pistols and cheap War of the Worlds resolutions. It was something I actually wanted to see, rather than miniseries that seemed to last as long as WWII or one about a Catholic priest getting it on Down Under.

Which isn’t to say that it was any good.

Although the parallels between various fascist takeovers and the coming of the Visitors are handled nicely, if with a heavy hand in the original, the special effects are decidedly ordinary, the acting barely up to late-night soap standards, and the central premise an object of ridicule in real SF circles even back then. (Hint: you can move spaceships almost 10 light years within the lifetime of a member of your species, but you can’t figure out how to harvest comets for water? Huh?) It did feature a young Robert Englund (the future Freddy Krueger!) as, unbelievably enough, the most nebbishy alien in the entire invasion

Still, it got my geekgirl mojo moving when I heard there was a new remake of V coming, one that promised to fix the issues with special effects and acting talent–to bring a little Battlestar Galactica reimagining magic. And it stars not only Juliet from Lost, but Wash from Firefly, and in this week’s episode, Tory from the BSG reimagining! We’ve got an Other, a Big Damn Hero, and a Cylon!

And of course what’s really interesting is that in both incarnations, the leader of the Visitors is…a woman:

Well, not quite: while Anna in the reimagined series is unambiguously introduced as the leader and public face of the Visitors, in the original 1983 miniseries the actual leader of the Visitors was John, an elderly, avuncular figure (played by professional…avuncle…Richard Herd). While John ultimately proved to be rather distant and half-hearted in his leadership, it was Diana who was the one who believed in the mission to the point of obsession, the idol of the Visitors and the character the audience loved to hate. This, of course, is science fiction without any real-world counterpart:

In 1983, Margaret Thatcher was the darling not only of her own country’s conservatives, but America’s as well. In contrast to President Reagan, she was seen as a true believer in Conservative causes, aggressively taking on her country’s powerful labor movements, slashing spending, and even trying to dismantle one of the Western world’s most progressive welfare states. And she had just proved that Great Britain still belonged in the Great Powers club, by doing the thing that makes a nation a Great Power in the first place: beating up a technologically and industrially less developed nation.

Since the original V fed into the fear that now haunts the industrialized world–that conservative movements in politics might devolve into fascism–it’s no surprise that the chief villain would end up being an analog of conservatism’s unlikely hero. (The new series feeds into the American obsession with invisible terrorists: the Visitors had planted “sleeper cells” decades before their public arrival, and it is implied that they have been behind some of the major recent terrorist actions–cough 9/11 cough UFOsdominatingManhattanskylineliketheTwinTowersusedto cough.) But more than that: the fact that in both series the aliens are led by a woman is also part, strangely enough, of the developing backlash against women’s rights in both eras.

This may seem counter-intuitive: in both versions of the series, the Visitors are shown as having a surprising gender equality, with women occupying leadership positions in a way that human society (in both 1983 and 2009) can only dream of achieving. And both series have a career woman as the female lead–Faye Grant’s Julie Parrish in the original, a doctor who we eventually learn ditched her dreamboat doctor fiance because she didn’t want to become a housewife, and Elizabeth Mitchell’s Erica Evans, an FBI agent and single mom in the reimagining. And while the male lead in the original was Marc Singer (an actor who seems to prove that if Kevin Bacon did not exist, we would have to invent him) playing a hyper-macho war correspondent (the miniseries opened with him on assignment covering those darlings of the Reagan administration, the Contras), the reimagining has the decidedly mousey Joel Gretsch playing a priest. Progress, right?

But hearken to the little lower layer. The original V came out at the awkward moment between the sexual revolution and the AIDS crisis, between the moment of the greatest victories of the women’s movement and the ugly backlash that conservative administrations and courts would soon inflict. And it shows all those tensions: sure, Julie is a Resistance leader and brilliant doctor, but she remains properly deferential to Singer’s Mike, who somehow manages to nearly win the war all by himself. (And just guess who gets captured, imprisoned, and “mind-raped” by the Visitors.)

But of course the real woman at the center of the show is Diana, and into her are poured all of 1983’s anxieties about women in power. Diana is a woman who doesn’t merely “act like a man”: she transcends both genders, seducing men to get what she needs but then tossing them away, murdering those above her in the chain of command, and literally swallowing whole cute little furry creatures. She stomps around exclusively in her pantsuits, intimidating the men in her life and contemptuous of the women around her–she is the rough sketch of Sigourney Weaver’s castrating, backstabbing antifeminist caricature in 1988’s Working Girl. (The later film came out when the backlash was firmly in place, and we needed to learn that being a cute and perky liar with the shelter of a strong man was a more moral way out of the secretarial pool than actually being as ruthless as the men around you: a neat way to reincapsulate Victorian contradictions about women–being both the “purer” sex while at the same time being completely untrustworthy–in a nice veneer of pseudo-feminism.)

The current series’ Anna, by contrast, has barely displayed any overt villainy: so far the most evil thing she has done is pressure a vapid tabloid reporter to avoid asking any tough questions during their televised interview, a characteristic that puts her more in league with Madonna than Medea. But that’s precisely it: if Diana was a caricature of the swaggering 1980s second-wave Superwoman who would make men irrelevant by out-butching them, then Anna is a caricature of third-wave’s “lipstick feminism”: prim and attractive in skirt suits right out of Collezione Alison McBeal, she uses her attractiveness not the way that Diana used her sexuality–as both a source of pleasure and means of control–but to lull the men in her life into stupefied compliance. (Asked why all the Visitors seem so attractive, she paused meaningfully before sultrily purring “You’re not so bad yourself,” at that same reporter.) And yet while presented in a more overtly “sexy” way than Diana, she’s also curiously sexless–Diana beamed mad sex-rays in all directions as part of her bottomless desire for power; Anna remains seemingly inviolable in her miniskirts, a symbol of a culture that insists women look sexy all the time but punishes them for actually, you know, having sex.

Anna’s characterization plays into the deep contradictions American women find themselves after the backlash of the previous decades: being a Superwoman is an empty existence, we are told, but no valid alternative presents itself–sexual and personal independence is currently being snowed under by a rampaging raunch and dudebro culture that sees women only as the mother figures of those annoying rollover minutes commercials, the raunchy strippers of beer ads, or the clueless victims of Pick Up Artists like Tucker Max. It’s no wonder that there’s so much pressure to turn back the clock, even if the idealized domesticity of the Opt-Out movement remains today as it ever was, a luxury of the well-to-do, or that women themselves would devour anything that seemed to offer an island of stability in an increasingly hostile Assault on the Second Sex. Erica’s tagline from the first episode (“They’re arming themselves with the most powerful weapon of all–devotion”) indicates that our worst horror has come true–not only have the aliens invaded, but they’ve read The Rules.

Likewise, the reimagined series operates with a primness in sexual matters that seems positively retrograde compared to the original. While decidedly more competent than his 1983 counterpart Willie, Morris Chestnut’s Ryan, a sleeper cell Visitor working against the invasion, is also a picture of domesticity, buying an engagement ring for his girlfriend the day the spaceships arrive. In contrast to the sexual tension between the original’s action hero Mike and blonde single doctor Julie, in the reimagining the male and female leads occupy the two most desexualized roles possible on television: a Catholic priest, and a single mom. And in the biggest turn-around, the new series combines two important plotlines from the original–the joining of the Visitor Youth movement by the human teenager Daniel, and the seduction and impregnation of human teen Robin by the Visitor Brian. Heavy-handed as these stories were, they at least attempted to capture some of the realities of war and occupation: the subversion of the occupied by their oppressors, and the relations between enemy soliders and the women of the country they have invaded–resonating in a country where some of the children of WWII “war brides” would go off and father their own children in Indochina (and it should be noted that these children were just becoming teenagers when V premiered.)

In contrast, the new series has Erica’s son Tyler seduced not only by the Visitors’ power, but one of their representatives, Lisa–with clear indications that this time around, it will be the Visitor that gets impregnated, not vice versa. Thus in one step it erases the very real reality of men often raping or otherwise taking advantage of the women they encounter during war, and replaces it with another: the male nightmare fantasy of the taking woman, the woman who screams sexual assault the day after, the goldigger out to have a child with a powerful man. If the original at least unintentionally illustrated the very real pain and suffering of women in war, the new version gives us a puerile fantasy–not a science fiction nightmare, but simple misogyny.

In a time when even progressive reform must be tied to the greatest setback in women’s rights in a quarter-century, it’s not surprising that science fiction–a genre always better at talking about the present than predicting the future–should reflect a conservative backlash. (And I won’t even get into how a show that has an alien offering peace, hope and universal health care debuted on the anniversary of President Obama’s election.) Especially not from a network that is owned, after all, by Disney. And I can’t say that I’m surprised all that much–it isn’t even like this is the first science fiction event of the year to end up being less progressive than its original incarnation.

But seriously, was it too much to ask that the evil space lady come to destroy us all at least wear pants as often as the other women out to destroy us do?


  1. As a young person of surprising gender

    I think that’s the first time I’ve heard it described that way.

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 5:52 pm | Permalink
  2. yinyang wrote:

    Don’t forget Morena Baccarin, also from Firefly, as Anna!

    I stopped watching the new V about ten minutes into the first episode, but your analysis is interesting. Because, like you said, even though sci-fi tries to predict the future, it always ends up saying much more about the present, and (in my experience) those things are usually unflattering.

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  3. Nymeria wrote:

    Watching the first episode of V was..interesting. Especially the part where the evil music flared up when she mentioned universal health care. As if that was the breaking point where everyone would go “Well, now we KNOW she’s evil!!”

    I admit I’m still watching it. It’s just..Juliet! She does things!

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 6:29 pm | Permalink
  4. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @Nymeria: I know! I had watched the first two episodes without making that kind of connection, but after I read the WaPo article on it…well…it’s getting pretty obvious! Like how on last night’s episode, we find out that the sleeper agent played by Morris Chestunt was born in Hawaiian Gardens (a black alien from Hawaii…well, California, but that’s almost as bad.) And the aliens are poisoning our flu vaccine! Glen Beck was right!

    @Mr_Subjunctive: I assure you, nobody was more surprised about that gender than me!

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  5. Beth wrote:

    This is a fascinating take. I have heard speculation though, that it’s the teenage boy who will be impregnated, not the alien girl. We’ll see of course!

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 10:39 pm | Permalink
  6. ChelseaWantsOut wrote:

    Yeah, I’m still watching, too. Juliet is such a fucking badass!

    About the impregnation thing, isn’t Ryan’s fiancee pregnant? Did he impregnate her or did they do it to her at the “healing center?”

    When I realized Anna was Inara, I was like, “Whoa!” And speaking of Anna, in episode 4 she does the “bliss” thing and she walks up to this platform wearing a long white diaphanous, um, sheet? Which she then casts off before falling to her knees and giving every V in the universe the longest orgasm ever. So that was interesting.

    Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  7. Samantha b. wrote:

    Also a show I would watch: C.L. Minou-Sady Doyle as indomitable blog superfriends! Thanks for the excellent post.

    Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  8. SunlessNick wrote:

    Well, that takes care of any lingering desire I might have had to watch this. Even notwithstanding Elizabeth Mitchell.

    Three things from the old series that I wonder if they’ll repeat…

    First, regarding Juliet and the mind-raping; she was also the only person in the course of the series to beat the brainwashing to any degree, and she did it pretty much because she was tough. No one “saved her true self,” as it were. Assuming the brainwashing thing is still in this version, one of the good guys will get it, that’s a given: if it’s a woman, will she beat it by her own toughness or be saved? (Or will it be used as a way to break down Erica).

    Second, while they couldn’t abort Elizabeth in the original (and seeing as she mystically saved the day at the end, aborting her was made the wrong choice), the “Robin’s body, Robin’s decision” was clearly stated by main hero Mike. What are the odds that’s going to happen again if a human female is impregnated?

    Third, Maggie seducing Daniel for information: with 1, her remaining completely a goodie; and 2, her boyfriend getting angry about it and being told by several people that he should remember how much worse it was for her, and not keep making her prove that she isn’t cheating on him.

    Though with what’s said above about Tyler and Lisa, if Lisa is also going to be the one to get pregnant, then maybe she’s also the one who will seduce for information. And that way, the series can put a “bad woman” in both roles. Allowing it to avoid repeating either of the latter two aspects of the original – and either way of acknowledging that women have feelings that matter – without having to admit that they’re doing it.

    Friday, November 27, 2009 at 8:11 am | Permalink
  9. Simone wrote:

    I am a big fan of sci fi that has to do with alien invasion, so I was pretty excited about this show initially. I have to say that it kinda lost me after the first couple episodes – not only are the politics questionable, but it got boring- like, whatever, that alien dude and his human fiance, whatever, obnoxious teen boy trying to impress alien girl. It’s just too heavy-handed! It ain’t no BSG, that’s for damn sure.

    Saturday, November 28, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  10. Isabel wrote:

    would you be offended if i told you that i find gender-related analysis of scifi ridiculously hot? even for shows i have never watched? i don’t know what it is but i could read about gender in scifi ALL DAY.

    and speaking of gender and scifi, on a totally unrelated note but out of curiosity, have you ever read the writings of james tiptree jr. (real name: alice sheldon)? (i ask mostly because i will take any excuse to recommend james tiptree jr. to people, because – scifi! with feminism! AND really good writing! HOW COULD YOU SAY NO?) (though, full disclosure, her stories are also depressing as fuck, she kind of leaned towards “fuck, sexism is never going to end” feminism). (man i love parentheses).

    Saturday, November 28, 2009 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

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  1. Mental Landscape Sunday « The Hero Complex on Sunday, November 29, 2009 at 11:44 am

    […] on Tumblr and feeling the urge to live a gleefully twee life. + The reimagined V series. + Tiger Beatdown’s take on the reimagined V. + Staunchly resisting the urge to curl up in a patch of sunlight, like all three of my […]

  2. uberVU - social comments on Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 4:43 pm

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by thedrymock: Fabulous post on the new V: Everything Old Is Worse Again: Of Vs and Backlashes