'Wynonna Earp's' Secret Weapon: Feminism in a Demon-Haunted World

The cast and creator of the Syfy drama talk with THR about the not-so-secret ingredient behind the genre drama's status as a cult favorite.
Courtesy of Syfy

Feminism is a thread frequently weaved throughout Syfy's Wynonna Earp, and what seems to resonate with its audience is an underlying feeling that they're getting more out of the show than what's expected.

One of those feminist threads is that, besides familial relationships, no woman is defined by her relationship to a man. And, not to diminish the importance of the men on the show because, #SuperSupportive, but their main role in the lives of these very human female superheroes is to tap into their strength and harness it. Characters like Special Agent Xavier Dolls (Shamier Anderson), Doc Holliday (Tim Rozon) and Sheriff Randy Nedley (Greg Lawson) are champions for the growth and strength of these women and want them to succeed.

The July 21 installment ("Everybody Knows") effectively serves as a 101 class in feminism, highlighted by the revelation that someone other than Doc could possibly be the father of Wynonna's (Melanie Scrofano) child. Viewers soon learn that that someone is a misogynistic, Revenant-sized jerk. The episode shines a spotlight on the power and confidence that come from being an unapologetically flawed and emotional woman with all manner of desires and needs. A woman who is able to carry herself with dignity and respect and refuses to allow the judgment that comes with ladies' choice, all while disarming every argument one would have against her by way of a bad-ass, slow-motion strut.

This is Wynonna Earp, and it's filled with romance, bromance, sister … mance and it lures viewers in with its demon hunting, but then attacks you with its ovaries-out feminism. Wynonna Earp (played by Melanie Scrofano) and the show itself continue to gain fans as well as recognition among Canadian awards circles for their portrayal of feminism. So while viewers come for the crazy chick with a gun, many remain for the crazy awesome chick shooting down the patriarchy with a pun. Here's a look at how Wynonna Earp became a cult hit.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Melanie Scrofano (Wynonna Earp): I grew up watching old black and white Westerns on Sundays with my dad, so already it felt like, "I know this." And I loved Buffy. It just seemed like a really cool story to tell. I had no idea if other people would agree, but as an actor there are few things that come along in your career where you're like, "That would be incredible!"

Dominique Provost-Chalkley (Waverly Earp): I knew the show was going to be a lot of fun. I got the breakdown and thought, "What is this crazy cowgirl/cowboy fantasy show?"

Katherine Barrell (Nicole Haught): I knew it was great, but it was a lot to wrap your head around. Buffy was referenced right from the beginning, so I watched some of that to refresh my mind tonally where it was sitting.

Provost-ChalkleyIt wasn't until we began filming season one that I realized what it was that made it so special, and that is that it’s a rarity to have so many women around that are representing such strong characters who are all individually so different and yet so badass in their own way. There was this scene somewhere in the middle of the season with three women and we weren't talking about guys at all. I just remember looking around and thinking, "This is so empowering." How cool is it that we were able to have a conversation not about men? And, actually, we were discussing how we were going to get shit done without them.

Emily Andras (creator/showrunner): In a billion years I did not think it would get the response it got. When I picked up the comic book it did sort of send a tingle up my spine, and I knew there was something special about it. There was something about taking one of the most iconic and male American heroes, that is Wyatt Earp, with all the kind of patriarchal, Western, gun-slinger mythos that surrounds him and making him this curvy badass woman. You're literally flipping it on its head. I loved the idea of taking a Western, which is traditionally so male, and just replacing all the archetypal characters wherever we could and force it to be female.

Scrofano: I went into the audition assuming that they wanted the typical, sort of robotic sexualized comic book version. Not that I don't know how to do that; I just don't know how to want to do that. So, I played it the way I wanted to play it, which was fun and slightly vulnerable, but also a little bit manic. I think the beauty of some of the messages we're conveying is we're not necessarily trying to say anything. These characters are just speaking what they know at the moment.

Andras: It was amazing to me how many fans were like, "I really need and appreciate this right now, and more than ever I want to see women in these roles. Not just one woman, but different women being different heroes in different ways." I did kind of keep cheerfully casting all these women, which I thought was really fun, and by the time anyone got wise it was already done. Which is not a tactic I recommend. I have to give credit to the producers at Syfy. Once they saw what this thing could be they were completely on board and no one has ever said, "Please tone it down with the vagina." 

Barrell: I love that I get to play a cop. If you're going to be typecast for playing a certain type of character, I'd rather be typecast as a strong, empowered woman working in a male-dominated field.

Provost-Chalkley: Wynonna Earp is constantly pushing toward highlighting feminist issues, but in the most fun and enjoyable way. The subtly in which the way Emily incorporates incredibly important issues is awesome because it teaches young women vital messages without limiting our audience or scaring anyone away. Especially in a genre that is so historically male-dominated. You can go through an entire episode of Wynonna Earp and not really be focused on the strong female lead, or the fact that the main storyline is about two sisters because you're totally swept away in the campy nature of it and the action-packed adventure. It’s not until afterward that you’re thinking, "Oh, that's really cool." It's completely equal in the way that it is both female and male without pushing it too far in your face.

Andras: I think a lot of problems arise when you have a female character that has to represent all female characters. I don't think that's fair or interesting, and I don't think that reflects real life. I like that the three women are very strong but very different, and have very different skill sets. They're good at their jobs, which sounds unsexy, but I don't think it is. They find meaning in work, and that it gives them strength and confidence. I know it's a demon-hunting, cowgirl show, but I think maybe that's one side of feminism that isn't always portrayed on television.

CHARACTER LESSONS IN FEMINISM

Scrofano: I grew up in a mad patriarchy. The Sicilian side of my family is very old country, and anything that needed to be done you'd call a man to do it. Down to changing a lightbulb. I would literally be sitting in a dark room until a man would fix the lightbulb. I'm ashamed to say it, but I never thought about it. With Wynonna, there's no circumstance that makes sense in the culture that I come from. Driving a motorcycle? Only men can do that. Oh, that's a long drive, are you sure you can do it? It's like, "Fuck yes, I'm sure I can drive the fucking car." It was just another piece of evidence that the mentality that I was brought up with was holding me back.

Provost-ChalkleyBeing a part of Wynonna Earp has really opened my eyes to the importance of highlighting feminist issues, bringing them to the forefront, and not being scared to talk about it. As a young woman, especially in a business that can be tricky for young girls because so much of it is "sex sells," there was a part of me that was possibly more scared to speak out, whereas this show has given me a platform to empower other people by opening the dialogue.

Barrell: Nicole has given me a platform to be a vocal feminist. To take my ideas of what I wanted to see in the world, and things that I believed in my heart but didn't have a way to put them into action. Playing Nicole and being the body of that character, and getting to have conversations just like this gave me the ability to put my values into action, and to actually feel like I was being part of the solution. She's taught me the challenges of being a female in a male-dominated profession, and how to stand up for yourself and speak your mind. I find Nicole very old-fashioned. She's very calm and kind, and I think she taught me that you don't need to shy away from those traits just to assert yourself in that type of vocation or setting.

Provost-Chalkley: I think Melanie gave all women out there a gift this season, because she showed the world that women are an absolute force. She showed us that being pregnant is not a disability. It's exactly what the female body was made to do, and I can tell you now, Melanie Scrofano was working literally five days before she gave birth. She inspired me as a young actress to start pushing past these frustratingly narrow-minded beliefs. What Mel has shown is that you are absolutely just as much, if not more, beautiful and bad-ass pregnant.

Scrofano: The other thing that I grew up around was when men whistle at women it's a compliment, and until my teen years I thought it was normal. It took me forever to realize how damaging and dehumanizing it was. Growing up, that was almost a compliment. Wynonna has been an awakening to the freedom you find when you don't allow yourself to be held back by those stereotypes. You don't have to sit in a dark room. You can change the fucking light bulb.

EM-POW-HER

Scrofano: There was this guy in school who said I'd be prettier if I didn't joke around so much. A lot of people seem to identify with that, and the feeling that they were somehow letting people down by being too complex. It really speaks to how so many of us feel like we need to fit some archetype in order to find a place in society. Wynonna's complexities really seems to empower people not to limit themselves to being what's expected of them by their communities or their families or friends. You can be vulnerable and still kick ass. That seems to be a revelation to a lot of people — that a powerful woman doesn't have to hide her vulnerability as something to be ashamed of, and that can be part of her power.

Provost-Chalkley: When we were at [San Diego] Comic-Con recently, a young woman who was deaf came up to me with her interpreter and said, "I'm so sorry to hold up the line, but I need to tell you my story." She explained that she has never wanted to leave the house, and her mom had been so worried about her because she's disabled, and on top of that she's young and gay. She said, "I am here today because of your show, and because I saw Waverly's bravery and how much she's managed." I just held her hand and said, "You're the inspiration. You're the real life version of Waverly in that case." That's so exciting because she will inspire other people. I never imagined that Waverly, and my part in the piece would have been able to do that for someone.

BarrellFor me especially, because my character is so closely tied with the LGBT community, I've seen how Nicole has empowered a lot of especially young women to come out, or have open conversations about their sexuality with their family. Or, just feel way more empowered about who they are as a woman and then as a gay woman. I've received beautiful letters from people, and have heard stories face to face. It's so powerful when people say, "I saw myself for the first time." It's a great honor to be a part of that. To be the skin of that character means so much to me.

GUYS ARE THE CHAMPIONS, MY FRIENDS

Andras: I don't think the male characters on Wynonna Earp get enough credit, and they have bought in so whole-heartedly what we're trying to do on Wynonna Earp. They just get it, and are happy to let Mel get the kill shot with Peacemaker, metaphorically and literally. If you're a writing a show about heroes I like the idea that they all have their triumphs, and they all have times where they fail or they're the ones in danger. Doc and Dolls are fully formed, three-dimensional characters, and they very much admire these women in their life. At the same time I think they're attracted to the strength and power of these women in certain situations.

ScrofanoWaverly has this optimism that she uses almost as a weapon. It helps her get through to a lot of people. I love that even though she's probably the most stereotypically feminine girl on the show, she still receives the respect of her male counterparts. It wasn't because she was a woman that Dolls didn't feel comfortable initially; it was because she was young, and they were trying to protect her. Quite refreshing.

Barrell: What I love about the show is that it never comes up that you can't do a certain thing because you're a woman. That's why I love the characters of Doc and Dolls, because it's not even in their vocabulary. Their world view miraculously does not seem to have been affected by the idea that women can't do the same thing as men. I see these characters and I think they're an example to men, and we need to keep creating characters that are examples rather than not having the example at all.

Provost-Chalkley: You can't have a feminist show if you don't have the men that support the women. We're so lucky that the actors are so willing to let Melanie have the limelight. I talk about Tim so highly because he truly is the biggest feminist out of everyone. The girls are never saved by the guy, which is such the typical thing that happens in stories we've been told for generations. We have these incredible male characters on the show that are lovable, kind, strong, fierce ... All of these things, but they're not always the No. 1. In fact, in this case, Wynonna comes and saves the day. I think it's even more admirable that the guys are willing to hand it over for once.

Scrofano: It's pretty impressive how progressive Doc is. The guys on the show are powerful but they don't assume the power role by default, and they don't bitch and moan about it. They're just part of the team. When Doc finds out Wynonna is pregnant, there's the slightest moment where he says, "You need to sit down," and Wynonna gets to shut him down with, "I'm not sick, I'm just pregnant." And he backs the fuck off.

SO, ABOUT EPISODE 207

Scrofano: That episode is hard for me. The way that asshole Jonas talks to Wynonna just struck a chord. I feel like I've been treated like that. I think everyone has. It’s so dehumanizing when he's demeaning Wynonna, and she's just taking it for a while. I was pretty openly crying.

Barrell: You see Wynonna protecting her baby and putting herself aside and sacrificing her dignity for a few moments because there's a bigger picture. As Wynonna gets further in her pregnancy, she grows up a little bit. She's pulling back, trying to be more professional this season. We've seen her accept more that this is her fate and after accepting it, rising to the challenge and being like, "I'm going to be amazing at this." Having this struggle of putting down this Revenant who may be the father of her child … Symbolically, I thought it was really empowering to show a woman getting out of this abusive situation and choosing that she didn't need the traditional model to raise a healthy, happy child. This whole show, there are so many themes of families that you choose, not necessarily that you're born with. And Wynonna saying, I don't care if you're biologically the dad; you're no good to me and you're no good to this baby. This baby is going to be better off without you.

Provost-Chalkley: When Wynonna goes to the bar and finds the baby daddy Jonas, she stands tall despite being with this horrible man. He is so disgusting to her. Unfathomably disgusting the way he speaks to her. I think that a lot of people watch the show and don’t really pick up on it; you just come away with a feeling. Oh, we weren't slut shaming the women and it was OK because people make mistakes and these are flawed people and we're actually all flawed. It's unrealistic to think we're not going to go through life and make mistakes. How refreshing to see it on screen and it be written in this beautiful way.

Andras: I don't have a lot of hard and fast rules about my writing, but we have a lot of hard and fast rules about characterization. And right off the bat, I didn't ever want Wynonna to be a character that apologized for sex. I think she takes her pleasure where she can get it. She knows herself very well. I really like that she explained why it happened, but she knows damn well that she's not the bad guy in this situation. That's not the problem here. I like the women on the show coming together to solve what was a challenge but at the end of the day realizing they weren't enough and that they had each other to figure it out. I love that episode. I think it's such a tour de force for Melanie in particular. When Waverly walks over to Wynonna and asks, "What is this baby?" And Wynonna says, "Ours." Just the idea that they're enough, and that they have each other's backs and they will make the decisions as far as Wynonna's body and Wynonna's baby.

FAVORITE FEMINIST MOMENT

Provost-Chalkley: Waverly when she's Gooverly has this wonderful moment with Tucker. She tells him that Nicole is her girlfriend, and he says something like, "You're confused. That'd just be wrong." And then she picks him up by the throat and is all, "I'll show you wrong." I think that was the coolest thing ever.

Barrell: For Nicole, the stuff with Tucker was pretty memorable. She was allowed to follow her own hunches and take him on. Tucker was given some really sexist language like, "Such a nasty woman." He objectifies women, and is definitely an example of the homophobic symbol of sexism in the season.

Provost-Chalkley: I love in season one when Waverly says to Champ, "Being beautiful and smart aren't mutually exclusive." I use it all the time in my everyday life now. It's my go-to phrase. Isn't that cool that I'm inspired by my character? Being able to take things from the show that you're on and use in your everyday life.

Barrell: As a fan of the show, the pregnant stuff really struck a big chord. I really love the scene where Wynonna and Waverly are training and Wynonna does a pregnant backflip. Has a pregnant backflip ever even been done before?!

Scrofano: I think Wynonna's sexuality. She doesn't hide the fact that she enjoys sex and she’s not ashamed of it. If people don't like it, they can fuck off. The way I see it is, if you're literally fighting the end of the world every single day, the morality of who I'm fucking is so small potatoes. It's ridiculous to think that Wynonna is thinking about it in terms of, "Will I upset Doc if I sleep with Dolls?" No, we might be dead in five minutes.

Wynonna Earp airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on Syfy and Space in Canada.

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