By Carolyn Hinds
There is a Chinese saying made popular by Mao Zedong that states “Women hold up half the sky”, that spoke to the idea that women are equal to men in society and should be allowed to work outside the home. As the phrase speaks to having a work where gender equality is the norm, it can also be interpreted to mean that without women, everything that we depend on for survival would come crashing down if women weren’t there to support, and essentially be the back bone of, society, and this statement is never more true than in The Expanse. One of the things that sets the show apart from its contemporaries is the number of women who make up the main ensemble cast, the number of women (all women of color by the way) are equal to the men, which is practically unheard of, even in this day and age.
In The Expanse, it is the women who encourage, lead and when need be, prod the people around them to do what needs to be done and jumps into the action alongside their male colleagues. Among these women, is Secretary-General of the United Nations Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a no-nonsense, take charge politician who is as quick to cajole people into doing what she needs them to, as she is to give them a verbal dressing-down with language that would make a soldier blush.
When it comes to politics, the books seem to be prescient, because right now there are two women going for the highest position in the system, and at the same time women are vying for the presidency in the United States. It’s interesting to see these events – fictional and real life – happening at the same time, and this season the show is tackling subjects such as socialism, nepotism and veterans affairs, and it’s interesting to see these discussions taking place between two women of color on screen. While Chrisjen doesn’t like being challenged, she respects Nancy Gao (Lily Gao) her former assistant and protégé, for going up against her and refusing to back down. In speaking on this topic during our recent roundtables with The Expanse cast, the actress said:
“Exactly. What Avasarala is hoping for is more powerful women at her disposal, and either to work with or to debate with, and I have to share this with you guys…when all of this started, guess who I went after and started studying…Nancy Pelosi. It was unbelievable. I was reading this scene with Nancy Gao, and I looked up and there was Nancy Pelosi in her red coat, Max Mara with the big pair of dark glasses…walked out, she had changed her hair, clothing and stuff, and I looked at her and thought ‘Ummhmm, ok. That’s a great idea.’ Of course, you want to look young, and energetic for your people to see that you’re not just…you shouldn’t be retired at this time. Yes, maybe Avasarala needs a new haircut [laughs], maybe a new outfit. At one point…it was Avasarala, it wasn’t me, she turned around and looked at herself and I felt like “Ok, she’s made her decision, but she’s not happy about it.
I don’t know how to describe it, we’re so interwoven now after five years, I have a feeling that I can feel her now so it’s…yeah. She’s a pragmatic woman, she’s practical, she knows that she’s not the only one, others are coming but what she needs to do to protect the earth, which is her first and foremost duty on earth is to try to be at her best.”
To those who don’t know her, Chrisjen can come across as a gruff and condescending, but to those who do, her honesty – while scathing at times – is a demonstration of how much she values and trusts the people she allows into her in her personal life. Aghdashloo spoke to this intimate side of her character:
“In general. I think…and I’m speaking from Avasarala…she’s a people’s politician. She likes to listen to people, she likes to hear stuff from people, that it helps her lot in order to make further decisions in whatever she’s doing, especially those who understand her. With Bobbie, with Frankie, what my feeling is that Avasarala sees in Bobbie is Bobbie is that Bobbie reminds her a lot of herself when she was the same age. A soldier, strong woman, genderless, ready to work, ready to go through hardships to prove herself…that’s what Avasarala sees in Bobby.
With Cotyar (Nick E. Tarabay), another aide of mine who unfortunately passed away, and I loved him…again when she feels that she’s on the same page with a colleague, or with someone who works for her or with a friend or even her husband, she immediately allows the person to come into her life, other than that she keeps them at a distance. She would rather keep them at a distance. Last year she had two aides who were like imbeciles, they didn’t know what to do [laughs], so she never shared anything with them. She never allowed them into her private life, but with Cotyar…she allowed him to come in because they were on the same page. Cotyar was a public servant, as much as she claims to be.”
In the current season most of Chrisjen’s frustrations stem from once again being in the position of having to place both offence and defense against an entity she, nor anyone else in humanity knows how to deal with. Having to depend on people like James Holden (Steven Strait) – a man who has a tendency to touch things connected to the protomolecule that may set of a chain reaction that could lead to the demise of all humanity – her ire is justifiable and understandable, and often quite funny. I asked her about one of my favorite scenes from season 3 where Chrisjen in no uncertain terms, let a roomful of men know exactly who she is, and what she was capable of and her purpose as a politician:
“It’s when Senator Gillis asks her why she isn’t running for office and she says “I like to get shit done.” It’s one of my favorite sentences of them all. She’s right. She’s a true public servant, as she keeps saying. I keep saying sometimes it’s the lines that bring me to work. When I’m extremely tired, I can not wait to wake up, come here and say “Hey, look, it’s because of us poor public servants who aren’t looking for a fat pay off from the private sector.” [laughs]. I swear to God, because I can see in real life what’s happening as a result of corrupted politicians making decisions. Millions of people misplaced, displaced…so when I hear “public servant” [hits table] I want to go say this. I can’t wait to come here, run the lines and tell the world that we need public servants who are not working for fat pay offs from the private sector, that was in season 3, yes.”
From the moment it was discovered how dangerous the protomolecule was to Earth, Chrisjen has done everything she could to protect it and its people. Though she is an Earther, she knows to do this she must by extension protect the people of Mars, the Belt and all the other planets in the system because there is a ripple effect that affects everyone, whether some fully realize it or not and may not even appreciate what they see as interference in their lives. As someone who sees the bigger picture of what the potential negative fall out of the ring gates could mean for all humanity, Chrisjen is constantly faced with people doubting her motives and methods, but she continues to be determined to do what she feels is right. As a mother, Aghdashloo relates to what she sees as Chrisjen’s maternal instincts influencing has actions as a politician:
“She’s a mother. She’s a mother, more than anything else and would do it over and over and over again, because you are right…it’s not just the earth, it’s other planets as well and she knows it’s like a house of cards. The moment anything happens the ripple effect of it will destroy the universe. So, it’s interesting when I was offered the role, after a couple of weeks of portraying this role…it dawned on me that she is the true mother earth. This huge woman, with huge bosom that humanity is feeding off of. All she cares about is to save the earth from it’s predators, and poor woman, she’s so interwoven from her job that you cannot tell them apart from herself.
I’m a mother myself, if I have food inevitably, I have to feed my children first. I will give them [children not her own] less, but whatever is left I will give to the others. I close the doors when there are stampedes in the streets because I have children at home, and if I hear children crying out, I bring them in one by one. I can not bring the chaos into my house. Same mother is working for the universe now.”
As entertaining as it is to see Chrisjen verbally sparring with those who oppose her, there can be no denying how powerful and inspiring it is to see a woman lead not only a country but an entire plant – and by extension a solar system with conviction and at times vulnerability. Seeing her give voice to doubts she has about the ramifications of every decision she makes, is just as important as seeing her stand firm during a news conference. It also helps that she does all this while being the best dressed woman in the galaxy.
Check out the rest of our coverage of The Expanse here at The Beat!