What makes a show feminist? Is it the perspective it takes? The way in which women interact with each other, as well as with male characters? The dialogue? The “female gaze”? Today I’m going to sing the praises of a show you’ve quite possibly never heard of—Wynonna Earp—a fabulous feminist show on SyFy that has all of these things, plus some.
“Well, sure, that makes sense”: Worldbuilding and Mythology
The premise of the show is this: Wynonna (Melanie Scrofano) is the latest in a line of heirs of Wyatt Earp. It is her job to defeat the Revenants, demonic reincarnations of the people Wyatt killed as a nineteenth-century lawman. They resurrect every time a new heir comes of age. She lives—of course—in a town called Purgatory, and she’s a hard-drinking mess who takes to her new task reluctantly. Recruited as a deputy by the ultra-classified Black Badge branch of the U.S. Marshalls (think Mulder and Scully, Western-style), she is the only one who can put the Revenants down, using Wyatt’s original gun, Peacemaker.
By now I’m sure you’ve got an eyebrow raised. After all, you note, Wyatt Earp didn’t even have children! He had no heirs! Ssh! Stop thinking so hard!
Eye Candy Everywhere
Wynonna’s circle is small. Her main ally is her sister, Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley), who may be my favorite character, as she uses her historical knowledge to fight demons. Wynonna’s other allies are her Black Badge boss, Dolls (Shamier Anderson), and Doc Holliday (Tim Rozon), granted “eternal longevity” by a heinous witch. Both of the men are eye candy in different ways (you might not dig Doc unless you’re into that Tim Olyphant in a cowboy hat kind of look).
In contrast to so many shows with female eye candy, however, these characters are also well-developed. Imagine. This kind of setup plays with the idea of the female gaze; instead of the male gaze (in which most people and things are set up in a way to convey and create male pleasure), women are clearly in control.
And while I haven’t read the comic book on which the series is based, a quick eyeballing of one of the original renditions of Wynonna will suggest some serious differences.
Wynonna herself is shamelessly sexy, and she self-consciously wields her sex appeal as a tool on at least one occasion—when that doesn’t work, she sends in Doc to do the same. It’s that kind of playing with expectations which makes the show charming and resonant. It’s willing to take risks in departing from the usual women-and-men playbook, risks they pay off in spades.
“When I See Something I Like, I Don’t Want to Wait”
The sexual tension on Wynonna Earp contributes further to its feminist perspective. You might be expecting Wynonna and either of her male sidekicks to be oozing the stuff, but in fact the thickest sexual tension on the show is between two women: Waverly and a new cop—Nicole Haught (Katherine Barrell). That’s right—the cop is Haught (pronounced hot). My husband calls
them HaughtWave. (You’re welcome.) It’s a refreshing change from the usual pace of these kinds of shows, and the dialogue between Waverly and her boyfriend, Champ, compared to her dialogue with everyone else gets to the point quickly: women are more than just pretty things.
“I was just thinking I needed another man to tell me what to do today, and here you are. Awesome.”
Which gets to the next point: some of the writing on this show is fantastic. Wynonna is no damsel—we’ve watched ten episodes and she’s only been in active distress once, but because she’s the only one who can use Peacemaker, she always has to save herself, a refreshing change. Doc once remarks, “She ain’t anybody’s but her own,” which pretty much sums up Wynonna’s self-reliance at the end of the day. The female characters are legitimately strong and complex, rather than just one trope (strong) or the other (vacant/undeveloped/always in distress).
In addition to the above, check out this delightful snippet:
Champ: How can somebody so pretty be so smart, huh?
Waverly: Because they’re not mutually exclusive.
It’s that kind of feminist writing that might remind viewers of early Buffy the Vampire Slayer and keep them coming back. If you’re into campy feminist demon westerns, this is the show for you.
Available on Netflix, Season 2 of Wynonna Earp starts June 9 on SyFy. All images belong to them.