Don’t let the ambiguous first name fool you; I’m a lady. Always have been. And, despite the beaten path previous generations of women have carved for me, being a lady has had its ups and down. The positive role models are sparse, the pay gap is insulting, and the fashion is humiliating (skinny jeans are good for no one. NO ONE.) As a child, it was easier. While the other girls braided their hair, or whatever the hell they did, I ran with the boys. We hollered into sewer grates for Ninja Turtles, built rocket ships out of cardboard boxes, and argued over who got to be Egon in a healthy round of Ghostbusters. We were nerds, or at least we would be eventually. In all of these imaginary scenarios, I never got to play a main character (with the exception of Voltron); as the only girl, my roles in the imaginary games were general limited. Of course I didn’t get to play Egon; my options were the helpless Sigourney Weaver role, or Slimer. I generally opted for Slimer (more opportunities to spit). I know this experience is not unique to my childhood. There are countless other ladies out there, children of the eighties, whose playtime was diminished by a lack of viable, heroic, female characters to emulate.
As time has gone by, and my childhood has turned to agonizing adulthood, the roles of women in nerdery have changed. We’re no longer resigned to be the boobly and helpless damsel. There’s still sooooo far to go, but we’re making headway. We, at NerdBastards, think it’s time more light was shined on the women who are transforming the role of women in science fiction. The women who are breaking stereotypes and creating science-fiction gold.
We’re kicking off our first edition of Great Women in Nerdery with one of the most notable contributors to the modern cannon of science fiction, Jane Espenson. Had my childhood contained a Jane Espenson, my games of make believe would have been rife with characters to play. From writng and producing Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica, to penning episodes of Firefly, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Torchwood, Espenson has a hand in some of the most pivotal and memorable shows in modern nerdom. Her current projects, Once Upon a Time and Husbands (one of the only web series worth watching), are both one season in, and set to return for a second. We had a chance to talk with Jane and ask her about her experiences as a women in a male dominated industry. It’s not all serious faces and social politics, though. We’d be remiss if we didnt touch on the hot topics of speaking Klingon, Starbuck, and her contribution to Game of Thrones.
A large portion of your writing and producing is within the fantastical realm of science fiction. Is there something in particular about sci-fi that you gravitate towards (pun intended)? Have you had the chance to turn your childhood fantasies into “reality”?
JE: I dearly love science fiction – I read a lot of sci-fi as a kid and loved Ray Bradbury particularly. I think I always really responded to the way that people behave as people, no matter what the setting – it’s like, if you really capture something human, it stands out all the more against a fantastic background. And I think writing with the lens of a different time or place or culture… it helps you write more honestly about our own times, because it gives you a little objective distance. Hmm… my childhood fantasies… Writing does allow you to put yourself in lots of different shoes – makes you think about how you would react if the stakes where high. I think it’s made me more grateful that I don’t live somewhere where the fate of the world is on my shoulders.
Your contribution to Game of Thrones was great! When can we expect more episodes from you? Is it more fun to write fantasy or science fiction?
I wrote an episode of Game of Thrones for season one. I’m working on Once Upon a Time now, so I don’t expect to write more for GoT, although that was an amazing experience and I love that whole team very much. I don’t really distinguish fantasy from science fiction when I’m writing them. They’re slightly different lenses, but from the emotional point of view of the character in trouble, a monster is a monster, whether it’s a unicorn, a space-based threat, or even a real-world serial killer, come to think of it. Writing is about what the characters feel as much as it is about anything, so the genre matters less, I think, than people imagine it does.
In both Game of Thrones and Once Upon a Time, you are working within the confines of existing storylines. Is this stifling to your creative process, or is it more fun to tweak the original blue print, and create something fresh?
We don’t really stick very close to the existing fairy tale storylines on Once, which is what’s so great about it – you recognize the story, but we have fun in the “here’s what you never knew” area. I’d say that GoT is the only experience I’ve had where an existing narrative determined the beats of what I was writing, and I loved it. It felt like writing from a really well-developed outline, only you also had a really good dialogue writer at the keyboard with you. I love all the little fiddly work that you do with a scene once you know what it’s about. I love that a lot more than determining which scene goes where in the grand scheme. So I found that that kind of writing was a really great fit with my style.
Can you describe some of the challenges you’ve faced as a woman in a male dominated profession, and wouldn’t it be grand if that question wasn’t necessary? Any advice for aspiring female writers?
I definitely felt that there were obstacles early in my career, but those have gone away somewhat as I’ve established myself – part of it is that I’ve surrounded myself with great writers who are inclusive and welcoming. No surprise, the best writers tend to be like that – they know they’d be fools to ignore half the talent pool. Aspiring females, don’t limit yourself to certain kinds of writing – do whatever it is you love — and remember that you’re a good writer, not just a good woman writer. Seek out programs that actively look to develop women writers, and don’t let setbacks throw you. All of this focus on underrepresentation and obstacles may make you feel like this is a hopeless quest, but as my friend Brad Bell says, it only gets better when you get in there and make better happen.
For decades, science fiction and fantasy have hyper-sexualized women, but there seems to have been a move away from this recently. Admittedly, this website sometimes relies on those old tricks to turn heads and grab attention, as do a lot of other (it’s okay as long as everyone’s does it, right?) How do you combat issues like these? Have you made a conscious move to continue this evolution in the characters you create? Sub-question: Why can’t there be a Kara Thrace in everything?
Isn’t Kara the most wonderful character? I heard a female colleague of mine recently, talking about a pilot script in which a male writer wrote very two-dimensional female characters – her theory was that it because he tried to write female characters, instead of just writing characters. I think all these decades of “women are different than us” stand-up comedy has led to male writers thinking of women as a different species with totally different psychologies and motivations. Nonsense! Just write people and all the other problems that you’re talking about go away. Starbuck is a real person – with all the same complex and frakked-up motivations as anyone. That’s why she’s so great.
You and Joss Whedon work magic together, creating some of the most noteworthy story lines and concepts in television; do you plan to continue working together? Are you going to be in Avengers 2? Can we get your word that there will be NO Buffy reboots? Pinky swear?
I do still work with Joss at times – I write some of the continuing Buffy comics, and there are other things. Of course! I’m there whenever he needs me.
What is your holy grail? What show, if any, do you wish you could write an episode for? Personally, I’d love to see you write an episode or two, or twelve, of Doctor Who. If you’re willing to nerd out for a moment, what show from your past do you wish you could have written for?
I’m so happy at Once Upon a Time and with my online show Husbands, that it’s hard to think beyond that to other current shows. But past shows… wow… Lou Grant, MASH, Star Trek, The Odd Couple, Barney Miller… too many to list!
How did the science fiction of your childhood change the trajectory of your life? What did you want to be when you grew up? Now, what do you want to be when you grow up?
I entertained other options, but TV writer was definitely something I really wanted to be when I grew up. I still pinch myself. And I still think it’s the perfect job for me. I like the idea of teaching, and I would love to be a zookeeper, but tv writing is the best gig in the world. I don’t think it was the science fiction that pushed me in that direction, though. When I thought of sci-fi, I imagined myself writing stories and novels. It was TV comedy, mostly, that made me want to write for TV.
How has your background in linguistics contributed to your career and creativity as a writer? How many languages do you speak, out of nerdy-curiosity? Side question, is it just me or do the Dothraki from Game of Thrones sound exactly like the Klingons? Of course, I’m assuming you’re fluent in both of these languages.
I only speak English, but can bluff my way through some French and less German. Linguistics, at least the variety I studied, was more about language than it was about languages, if that makes sense. I learned about structure and semantics and phonology and morphology and I recommend it as a field of study. Totally fascinating. I specialized in metaphor, which is about how language reveals the structure of how we conceptualize the world. I don’t speak Dothraki or Klingon, but my guess is that you’re just noticing similar phonemes. I’m sure they sound very different to those who speak them.
Husbands is one of the first web series to grab my full attention. It’s terrific. What are the advantages of having the Internet as a medium? Also, the world has changed a little, not nearly enough, since we last saw Brady and Cheeks. How has President Obama’s intellectual evolution on the matter of marriage equality and New York’s allowance of equal rights for same sex couples altered the tone and world of the show?
Thank you! I’m so proud of what Brad Bell and I have created with Husbands. Along with Jeff Greenstein, we’ve come up with an online show that really can meet the quality of television. Hell, it can surpass it! We are getting ready to premiere season two. It will live at the same place: HusbandsTheSeries.com, and it’s going to go up later this summer. I think people are going to be shocked at how good it is – or maybe they’ll just be shocked (!). We improved the production values, got some amazing guest stars, and the story that we’re telling this time really makes me happy. It’s a relationship story, but we’ve also got a point to make that I think people will find surprising and interesting. And yes, it totally reflects what’s going on in the world right now – there are currents in current events that we are riding like white water rapids.
Special thanks to Jason Tabrys