This panel wasn't strictly about television, but hey, close enough, right?
The participants on the panel were Sigourney Weaver (Alien and like 20 billion other movies and shows), Eliza Dushku (Buffy, Dollhouse), Zoe Saldana (Center Stage, Star Trek), and Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost, V).
First impressions: wow, they all have such pretty hair! Not a very empowering observation, but it's true.
Now, since these actors weren't gathered to discuss a particular subject, the conversation, while interesting, was kind of meandering. The panel just responded to general questions from the moderator and from the audience. So I'm basically just going to report responses that I found interesting. You want more than that, you can go to Comic Con yourself.
Seriously though, the initial question asked each woman was how they got into the sci-fi genre. Other than the obvious, "um, they were willing to hire me?" the responses were pretty interesting. Sigourney was not initially interested in doing the movie Alien, but was won over by Ridley Scott's concept drawings of the alien eggs. She also commented that sci-fi often provides many opportunities for being part of an ensemble, which also convinced her to do Alien.
When Zoe was asked the same question, she noted that in the world of Star Trek there simply is no discrimination. The bridge of the Enterprise is considered truly color blind, and Uhura is not identified by her gender or color (a black woman) but by her abilities and how well she does her job. Zoe viewed the opportunity to become a character who had no experience with discrimination or being viewed as something less than capable due to her gender and race as fascinating.
While answering a question about what motivates women in the genre, Sigourney noted that female action figures are about drive and ferocity. They respond to challenges with their whole being.
Elizabeth Mitchell made a good point when asked about why there are so few strong women in television and movies. She talked about how Hollywood is afraid of female sexuality (which I absolutely agree with it...watch the documentary Not Yet Rated if you don't believe it) and that sci-fi provides the opportunity for women to be strong and vibrant.
But Sigourney cautioned that people should not look to Hollywood if they are hoping to see a movie toward social change. She mentioned that society is changing faster than Hollywood understands, and that the onus is on us to make our voices heard about the kind of strong female characters we want to see. Zoe reiterated that the audience (you) is the consumer, and you have to be sure to ask for what you want, or all we'll get are the same old stories.
You probably noticed that there isn't a lot of commentary from Eliza Dushku here, which is sadly because she didn't seem to have that much to contribute. She took Kristen Bell's (Veronica Mars) place on the panel since a panel Kristen had for Astro Boy from Summit got moved to earlier in the day. I can't help but think of how much more awesome Kristen would have been....but like I said, Eliza definitely had pretty hair, so I'm glad that worked out for her.
So what are my two cents? I think you see such a (comparatively) large number of strong, capable, badass women in sci-fi because the genre deals with fantasy. Sad, but true. The Hollywood establishment is not comfortable with putting these types of women in more realistic situations, because the establishment is mostly run by men who speak as they find. But in fantasy, anything goes, and we aren't restrained by our present day biases and prejudices and its easier for some to accept the concept of a strong woman.
I agree completely with the idea that it's up to us as the consumer to support media that reflects progressive roles for women and other historically disenfranchised groups like racial minorities and homosexuals. Unfortunately right now this means supporting material more on the fringe and independent side of the industry, but hopefully that will start to change. And as the number of women behind the scenes in media increases (directors, comic writers and artists, screenwriters, and actors), it will become less unusual to encounter strong women in pop culture.