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The decade's most influential women in genre

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Jan 3, 2020, 6:04 PM EST

It's 2020 and we here at SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS are breaking down some of our favorite moments of the last decade. It's been a particularly stellar ten years for women in genre, with women creating some of the most told stories, acting in some of the hottest properties, and leading some of the top-selling franchises of all time.

Here is our list of the decade's most influential women in genre.

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Ruth E Carter

Ruth E. Carter

There have been several science-fiction and fantasy costume design winners at the Oscars in recent years (including Jenny Beavan for Mad Max: Fury Road and Colleen Atwood's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and some notable nominees. However, before the 91st Academy Awards, no Marvel film had been nominated in this category, let alone won it.

Ruth E. Carter's three decade-spanning career includes two previous Academy nominations, but winning for Black Panther was a milestone moment. Marrying technological advancements such as 3-D printing with sacred geometry, African History, and Afro-futuristic street style gave the designs deeper meaning. The superhero costumes were impressive, but the detail in Queen Romona's crown, the Pan-African flag colors worn in the Bond-inspired casino scene, Shuri's contemporary princess styling, and the masculine-meets-feminine Dora Milaje uniform were a handful of the reasons why this win for the 2018 movie is so important.

In her Oscars speech, Carter said: "Marvel may have created the first black superhero, but through costume design, we turned him into an African king." She added, "Thank you for honoring African royalty and the empowered way women can look and lead on-screen." The power of costume design is so much more than looking good and Carter has delivered an important message on a global scale. - Emma Fraser

Jennifer Lee

Jennifer Lee

The 2010s were a huge decade for Jennifer Lee. Brought on to help with the writing of Wreck-It Ralph in 2011, this initially short-term gig led to her co-writing and directing Frozen, for which Lee has the distinction of being the first female director of a Walt Disney Animation Studios film and the first female director to have a film cross $1 billion in box office gross. Lee has gone on to have a creative hand in every Disney animated work since, such as Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and Moana. Under her watch we’ve seen a sea-change in the voice of Disney animated work, moving away from more traditional stories of romantic love and damsels in distress, and moving towards more sophisticated stories involving female characters with a rich inner life and character depth. These types of stories being targeted to a young audience is a huge deal and Lee’s appointment to the role of Chief Creative Officer at Disney Animation in 2018 means that her influence over an entire generation of kids, and kids at heart, isn’t slowing down any time soon. - Riley Silverman

NK Jemisin NYCC 2019

N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin has completely changed the face of science fiction and fantasy novels over the last decade. In fact, if not everything, almost everything she has written has been published in the last ten years. While her work speaks for itself— have you read the Broken Earth trilogy yet? — the wider acknowledgment of her work has been historic. In 2018, she became the first author to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel three years in a row, after an already historic win as the first African-American to win a Hugo for Best Novel. Her works include the Inheritance Trilogy, the Dreamblood series, a book of short stories called How Long 'til Black Future Month, and a new Green Lantern comic series. Her fiction explores race, gender, sexuality, and societies at war with themselves. Jemisin's work has been life-changing for many readers and her advocacy for change within the field has been notable.

In her third acceptance speech for the Hugo, after a very tense series of events leading to WorldCon, Jemisin spoke about the purpose of her books, being a Black author, and how little she cares about racist opinions about her work and notoriety. She said, "This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers — every single mediocre insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, that when they win it it's meritocracy but when we win it it’s 'identity politics' — I get to smile at those people, and lift a massive, shining, rocket-shaped middle finger in their direction." - SE Fleenor

Nina Gold

Nina Gold

Actors are often asked about audition stories, whether it is recounting a nightmare experience or discussing how they landed a life-changing role. A casting director has the power to make (or break) a career, as well as being the reason why the alchemy of a cast works (or fails). In recent years, there have been calls to add casting to the accolades dished out at the Oscars, which makes sense considering the power they wield behind the camera in laying the foundation blocks. Shouldn't the industry celebrate the invisible figure who instinctively knows who will be great in the next Star Wars?

One name you have probably heard mentioned in award speeches or spotted their name in the credits is Nina Gold. Gold was the Game of Thrones casting director, launching so many careers and finding kid actors who have gone on to big things. She is also behind the latest Star Wars trilogy: having cast John Boyega in Attack the Block, Gold remembered his talent and presence for when The Force Awakens came around. Over the last decade alone, you can see her fingerprints stretching far and wide. Maybe the semi-anonymity helps her do her job, but it is about time the Oscars followed the Emmys example (Gold has won three Emmys for her work on Game of Thrones) and honor the people that shape so much of what we see on screen. - Emma Fraser

Kathleen Kennedy

Kathleen Kennedy

Very few studio executives receive the kind of heat that comes the way of Kathleen Kennedy. She's respected and reviled in varying waves at almost every turn. But no matter where you fall on the Kennedy spectrum, you can't deny that 2010s were a fever pitch decade in her long career. She oversaw conclusion to the Skywalker Saga, which divisive as it may be, still brought Star Wars back to the mainstream conversation at a level it hadn't reached since before the prequels. Her stewardship over the franchise also yielded the acclaimed Star Wars Rebels animated series and even a set of theme parks and the development of a destination hotel. Now with The Mandalorian, she's helped guide Star Wars into a whole new frontier, prestige live-action television. And while her hiring practices and the voices she’s chosen to elevate to creative power over Star Wars have earned her some righteous criticism over the years, the series finally opened the door for diverse talent in above the line positions offscreen.

With the recent announcement of the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi-centered series for Disney+ exclusively directed by Deborah Chow, Kennedy has shown the first indications that while the film series may be taking a few years off, Star Wars' bright future is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon. - Riley Silverman

Prime Georgiou Star Trek Michelle Yeoh

Michelle Yeoh

The legacy of Star Trek captains is long and storied with Michelle Yeoh's Star Trek: Discovery casting being celebrated upon announcement; however, there was a big twist to her role. As the mirrored Cpt. Philippa Georgiou, she has become a fan-favorite in her portrayal of two distinct characters, which has since led to the news of spinoff series Section 31 being in the works. What also made Yeoh's performance so vital is she kept her natural accent, a meaningful choice that underscores what Yeoh refers to as Star Trek's essence: "Diversity, the inclusiveness, the gender equality. It's always been, that's been the real spirit of what it is." Star Trek continues to break boundaries and Yeoh's performance is striking (and important).

Star Trek isn't Yeoh's only big-budget franchise, as she also made a memorable cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as Aleta Ogord. She has also been cast in the four forthcoming Avatar sequels, which instantly makes me more excited for the new installments. Rounding out the decade with whimsy in the Paul Feig magic-infused holiday movie Last Christmas, she charmed as a festive store owner Santa. This decade proved that Yeoh turns any movie or TV show into a must-see. - Emma Fraser

Debra Wilson

Debra Wilson

Debra Wilson deserves her flowers and not just from her spot on impressions when she was on MADtv. She has been quietly collecting her bags over the last ten years voice acting in some of the best video games to come out this decade. Imagine the gif of Beyonce counting on her fingers, that’s how I look thinking of all of the video games she's been in. She kicked 2010 off voicing a slew of characters in Fall Out: New Vegas. From 2011-2014, she provided vocals for background characters in critically acclaimed games like Infamous 2, Grand Theft Auto V, and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. She also voiced THE Amanda Waller in Batman: The Enemy Within and Grace Walker in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. In 2019 she not only voiced a character in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order but her character, Cera Junda had a major role in the game. Debra Wilson is without a doubt one of the most influential women of the decade in the world of gaming. - Stephanie Williams


Sarah Paulson

American Horror Story is one of the defining genre television series of the '10s, inspiring several other scary anthology shows across the decade. The Ryan Murphy acting troupe continues to grow, however, there is no denying that Sarah Paulson sits at the head of the AHS acting table. Of the nine seasons, she has only been absent from 1984 and her presence was missed. Five Emmy nominations for her variety of roles from conjoined twins in Freak Show to witch Cordelia Goode in Coven underscores how vital she is to the ensemble cast. Her ability to play a variety of figures (often in the same season) is a testament to her versatility as a performer. No matter how off the rails AHS gets, she is always an anchor to the story. AHS is not her only foray into genre: she also starred in the meme-generator of the decade aka Netflix's Bird Box and as Dr. Ellie Staple in Glass. There is a reason why Murphy keeps her close, and we will see their partnership continue in 2020 when Paulson takes on Nurse Ratched as the titular character. The next decade is starting strong for Paulson, which could see her land on another list in another 10 years' time. - Emma Fraser

Queen Ramonda, Angela Bassett

Angela Bassett

Angela Bassett was kind enough to grace us with her presence throughout the 2010s. She showed up in some of our favorite genre movies and shows. She made her first appearance in a superhero property playing Amanda Waller in the Green Lantern movie. In the timeline Deadpool fixed, Amanda Waller had her own solo movie starring Angela Bassett, so we don't at all have to continue to acknowledge this timeline's Green Lantern fiasco. She was in multiply seasons of American Horror Story. We were blessed with the iconic character, Maria Laveau, in both AHS: Coven and Apocalypse among other characters she played. She was even nominated for an Emmy for her performances in both Coven and Freak Show.

Both Olympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen were lucky enough to have her. I mean, what is an action thriller without a little Angela Bassett? Mission Impossible: Fallout knew the answer to that question. She made her long overdue debut to that franchise. The MCU finally wised up and got better with Bassett as well. She played Queen Ramonda, mother to THE Black Panther, and she voiced the Transformer Shatter in Bumblebee. You almost had to go out of your way to avoid her in genre and I’m not sure what kind of monster would even think to do such a thing. We could only hope to be as blessed in the new decade with more Angela Bassett in our lives. - Stephanie Williams

G Willow Wilson

G. Willow Wilson

When you think of influential women in genre, G. Willow Wilson should be a name that quickly comes to mind. Her contributions to fantasy and sci-fi themed genres have been not only award-winning but inspiring as well. Her novel, Alif the Unseen, was a beautiful blend of fantasy, dystopian fiction, techno-thriller, and Islamic mysticism. A testament to how amazing of a storyteller she is. One of her greatest works from the decade is the Ms. Marvel comic book series. Wilson did a tremendous job bringing to life Kamala Khan, a character she co-created with Sana Amanat. Together they laid the foundation for one of the most influential characters to come out of Marvel in the decade.

Wilson has also been extremely vocal about diversity in the comic book industry. When Marvel's Vice President of Print and Sales interviewed with online magazine ICv2, he suggested Marvel's sales were being hurt by the presence of diversity and female characters; Wilson pushed back with her own thoughts on the success and failure of diverse characters, arguing that the driving force behind Ms. Marvel's success was "authenticity and realism" and not solely based on diversity. It's simply not enough to have a character present for the sake of checking off some diversity list. Her Ms. Marvel run is as great as it is because of how genuine the experiences of the character felt to readers. It was important that Wilson spoke up against those remarks instead of saying nothing at all because that is what someone with an influential voice does. - Stephanie Williams

Ava DuVernay TRoS premiere

Ava DuVernay

Director, producer, screenwriter, and film distributor Ava DuVernay has to be one of the most obvious picks for this list. Over the last decade, she has made a splash with her Oscar-nominated film Selma, brought the incredible Queen Sugar to the small screen, and became the first Black woman to be nominated for an Oscar in a feature film category for direction in her documentary 13th. In 2018, she helmed a delightful adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time becoming one of the few women — and possibly the first Black woman — who have been given the reins to a major Hollywood blockbuster.

Afterward, DC Entertainment approached DuVernay to direct a major franchise installment, a little project called New Gods. While it’s just plain exciting to know that superheroes are about to get the DuVernay treatment, knowing that Big Barda is her favorite superhero means we’re in for something special. Perhaps more importantly than all her personal accomplishments is how she uses her platform and powers for good. As the creator and executive producer of Queen Sugar, for example, she has committed to hiring female directors helping elevate those creators’ profiles to help them secure future work. We’re all in this together and DuVernay understands that every opportunity could be the opportunity that changes the course of a creator’s life. - SE Fleenor

Kelly Sue DeConnick ECCC

Kelly Sue DeConnick

It's impossible to talk about comics from the 2010s and not mention Kelly Sue DeConnick. After all, she wrote three of the most popular, critically acclaimed, and female-led comic series of the decade: Captain Marvel (Marvel Comics), Pretty Deadly (Image Comics), and Bitch Planet (Image Comics). And she's the person responsible for Carol's upgraded look in her run, "This is a woman with a military background, a feminist background," DeConnick said. "The idea that she would be flying around with her ass hanging out is ridiculous."

Off the page, DeConnick is a champion of women in comics and an outspoken feminist who uses her platform to encourage women and girls to go after their dreams and desires. In 2016 she started the #VisibleWomen hashtag on Twitter to prove that women in comics aren't as rare as people think. This movement placed a spotlight on women, trans, and non-binary individuals in the comic book industry, allowing them to showcase their work on social media and increase their visibility. No matter where she's working, be it Marvel or DC, DeConnick brings a force of strength with her wherever she goes. She's part of a new future of women in comics and has earned her place on this list. - Sarah Brown

Patty Jenkins

Patty Jenkins

Patty Jenkins started off the decade by making a choice to step down as director for Thor: The Dark World due to creative differences, but she didn't let that slow her down. With an Emmy nomination and a Directors Guild of America win for her work directing the pilot episode of The Killing, she set the tone for what would be a decade of busting through the glass ceiling. Jenkins uses her directing to redefine how the world sees women, a feat accomplished in spades with the release of Wonder Woman in 2017. She created a world where strong, aggressive, and assertive women could also be soft and emotional without compromising any part of themselves. Jenkins refers to this by stating, "I think the legacy of Wonder Woman is a different kind of hero, one that hits the same marks but also really is about love and empowerment in a slightly different way."

With the success of Wonder Woman, Jenkins not only became the first female director of a superhero movie, but she also become the most successful woman ever to direct a live-action film. And with the upcoming sequel due this year, Jenkins is already breaking records and paving the way for other female directors by smashing through the pay gap to become the highest-paid female director ever. She had a hell of a decade, but it seems like she's only just beginning. - Sarah Brown

Ming-Na Wen the Mandalorian premiere

Ming-Na Wen

She played self-realized badass Chun-Li in Street Fighter. She was the original voice of Mulan (1998) and reprised the role in Ralph Breaks the Internet. She appeared in Stargate Universe and voiced Finn's mom on Adventure Time and big bad Hala on Marvel Rising. Ming-Na Wen is genre — and for many of us, she has defined what science fiction and fantasy TV and film look like. In fact, earlier this year, she was honored as a Disney Legend for her performances for Marvel and Disney. Since 2013, Wen has played Agent May aka The Cavalry on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., bringing her trademark ability to balance action sequences with humor and a careful sprinkling of gravitas.

And to close out the decade, Wen took on the role of sharpshooter assassin Fennec Shand on The Mandalorian, becoming the first major villainous female Asian Star Wars character. The role is incredibly personal to Wen who grew up on Star Wars. "As an Asian kid in Pittsburgh, and especially in Mount Lebanon, sometimes you feel very alone and very isolated. And I think for me, with Star Wars, I connected so much with Luke having these dreams and wanting something bigger and better than being a little farmer in Tatooine. Just that image of him looking at the binary suns and wishing for more, it always stays with me," Wen told Vanity Fair.

This impressive list of performances barely scratches the surface of Wen's impact on science fiction and fantasy. We're better for her presence and her humor. - SE Fleenor

Carrie Fisher October 2016

Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher started the decade turning her book Wishful Drinking into a one-woman show. This was bigger than a performance, or a book. This defined the Carrie Fisher of the 2010s, the Carrie we knew and loved beyond and outside of Leia but still deeply connected to and forged in her fire. Princess Leia meant the world to us, but we fell in love with Carrie: her humor, her words, her honesty. Carrie Fisher was real about everything — her body ("I haven't been naked in 15 years. And I haven't been sleeveless in 20."), her brain ("You know how they way 'Religion is the opiate of the masses?' Well I took masses of opiates religiously"), her family (her mother, Debbie Reynolds, called Cary Grant to talk to Carrie about her drug use — standard mom move).

Then, in 2015, our princess became our general, when Leia Organa returned in The Force Awakens — older, wiser, resilient as ever. But off-screen, Carrie was the star. Her ever-present middle finger, her constant companion Gary Fisher, her love and adoration for her daughter Billie, whose career took off this decade, and her incredibly honest and weird tweets, written almost in code but a code we always understood and loved her for. Then, in 2016, we lost her. But no one is ever really gone — not Leia, and not Carrie. We began the decade getting to know her in a new way, and we ended the decade saying goodbye to Leia in The Rise of Skywalker. But this isn't goodbye. Her effect on all of us will live forever. We love you, Carrie. (She knows.) - Courtney Enlow