Based on a comic book by the same name, the sci-fi show Dark Matter certainly captured my attention with its interesting premise and diverse cast. Six people wake up from stasis aboard a spaceship that looks as though it was sabotaged while they were asleep. Unfortunately, during the damage, something went wrong with their stasis pods and all of them lost their memories. Our ragtag crew soon discovers that they are all some of the most wanted criminals in the galaxy.
The show delves into a lot of different issues, some of which it unfortunately doesn’t have enough time to fully explore (but the groundwork to do so is definitely there for future seasons). Our characters spend the first, and so far only, season working through their identity issues and discovering that the people they were in the past don’t have to define who they are now. While I wouldn’t call Dark Matter a specifically feminist show, it does have some really good female representation and interesting commentary about sexism. There are so many different things to talk about that I wasn’t sure where to even begin when writing this, and even then, I couldn’t fit everything into just this one post. For now, I’m going to focus on two characters designated as Two and Android and talk about the other female characters in a future post.
In our main cast, we have three female characters—Two and Five, who were the second and fifth people to wake up on their ship, as well as Android, who helps operate the ship. Two immediately takes charge of the situation. She speaks authoritatively and starts handing out orders to the others. It’s only through her leadership and guidance that the team survives numerous dangers. At no point in time do they call her “bossy” because she’s a woman, or resent her for being in charge—in fact, once she takes over, they almost immediately fall in line and listen to her commands.
Dark Matter walks a very fine line when it comes to sexism—on the one hand, like Two, the other female characters are all really well developed and interesting, but on the other, the show subjects them to common tropes. It attempts to subvert these tropes, but on occasion Dark Matter falls victim to them as well.
Two, we learn, being our female heroine, has a dark victimizing past. This is a trope a lot of female heroes face in sci-fi. They can’t just be heroes or protagonists without something hurting them in order to get them to where they are. Two ended up on the ship because she was running from a corporation. We learn that she was born—rather, constructed—in a lab, that her existence is illegal, and that her creators want to hurt her for having abnormal behaviors and thoughts. We often say that stories don’t exist in vacuums—female characters with dark pasts are not a problem by themselves. It’s a problem because of how common and overused that plotline is. And it’s a problem because women are told constantly that they can’t be heroes without being hurt first.
Interestingly, though Dark Matter gives us yet another female character who was victimized, her victimization is not what’s pushing or driving her forward. It can’t be, because she doesn’t remember what happened, and she doesn’t learn about her true origins until near the end of the first season. As such, her motivations lie elsewhere, in keeping her crew alive and figuring out who she wants to be as a person, not in getting revenge or proving herself because of who she was.
Her origins also lead into a much needed discussion about the patriarchy and men wanting to control women. Two’s creator, a man named Alex, is very much enamored with her. He says he would never hurt her, only to back-pedal on that when she doesn’t listen to him and he attempts to have her murdered. Her aforementioned abnormal thoughts and behaviors aren’t abnormal at all—they are simply her refusing to listen, obey, or remain Alex’s willing captive so he can experiment on her. Alex is so wrapped up in his own privilege and his own wants that he cannot see her as an equal or even comprehend that she would refuse him without there being something wrong with her.
Unfortunately, the show doesn’t do that great a job with everything it sets out to do. As you can tell, Dark Matter takes place in the distant future, after humans have colonized space. There are different empires and factions ruling things. Corporations have become bigger and bigger—now they practically have ruling power as well. Sadly, as our main characters survive by staying on the fringes of society, we don’t get to see too much of their universe and how things are run. From what we can see, the different societies and other people, like Alex, are most definitely sexist—people attempt to objectify the female characters and the world is filled with androids or service bots that are almost all female-coded. However, because our characters wake up without their memories, they have very few preconceived notions about gender themselves—this is why our main characters have no problem with Two being in charge, but when they meet other criminals, those criminals definitely have a problem with her. In fact, most of the sexism that we see in the show is intentionally written in and perpetuated by characters outside the main cast, characters we are not supposed to like. This is not true for all of the sexism, unfortunately, but it is true for a good deal of it. The use of sexism in this regard is subtle, and while I like what Dark Matter is doing so far, its
subtlety sometimes makes the show feel sexist as opposed to a show talking about sexism.
The use of androids specifically leads into this problem. One episode deals with an entertainment android, and it is by far the most sexist episode in the show—the android turns out to be a double agent, so not only do we have a female-coded character presented as a literal object, she is also an evil seductress. But despite how bad this episode is, it does have some good things. This episode leads into a character arc for the crew’s own android, who is simply called Android. Android realizes that she’s experiencing human-like emotions such as jealously and feelings of inadequacy. This concerns her, because she’s not programmed that way and leads her to thinking there is something wrong with her and that she needs to be repaired.
The crew, however, likes her the way she is—Android’s characterization mirrors the other characters, in that she has feelings of displacement and uncertainty and grows to learn that she likes who she is and not who she was. That it is okay to have emotions, even though she’s not supposed to. Her arc peaks around the time Two is discovering her own past and Alex tells her she is abnormal. Through the Android, Dark Matter not only creates a narrative parallelism, but it does a really good job in the process.
There is a lot more to talk about when it comes to Dark Matter and its take on women—I haven’t even touched on Five’s character yet—and while it’s unfortunate that the show does have some less-than-welcome storylines for its female characters, for the most part, it was a lot better than I would have expected. I look forward to where Dark Matter wants to go in Season 2 when that eventually comes out and how it wants to continue handling everything in the future.