By its nature, sci-fi is a genre of revolution. The fantastical elements (time travel, dystopian future setting or parallel worlds) allow the genre a certain amount of artistic license. This generally results in society being represented as fairer, less discriminatory or strong themes of trying to make the world a better place. Sci-fi cinema has its roots in defeating archaic institutions, we only need to look at the godfather of science fiction to see this: Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis.
In the late 70s/early 80s, inspired by sci-fi’s underlying incentive to challenge the status quo, there began a shift in the portrayal of femininity within sci-fi cinema. Two women in particular began an uphill journey to pave the way for female characters in the sci-fi genre. Two characters who became household names, in addition to appearing in every academic textbook written about women onscreen: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).
In a world dominated by men and machines, these two extraordinary female characters gave rise to the phenomenon we have come to know as ‘the strong female character’. Whilst it’s a character trait that nowadays easily falls into a bad trope, these two characters ensured that women could begin to be viewed as three dimensional people, rather than just titillation or background objects.
Despite the promising beginnings of female empowerment in cinema, it seems that current sci-fi cinema has relatively little to offer in the way of well rounded female characters. Where have the Ripleys and Sarah Connors of today gone? How did it all go so wrong? Or more importantly, how has sci-fi television managed to carry on the legacy of fantastic female characters, but cinema has fallen flat on its face?
Television For All
There are countless online lists of female sci-fi characters (often with adjectives like ‘kick-ass’ sprinkled around them), and on deconstructing those lists, one thing becomes incredibly clear. A good majority of these female characters are from television shows, not cinema. Characters which shaped what it meant to be a woman on television, that tackled diversity head on and yeah, are completely kick-ass tend to have been written into sci-fi television shows.
Take, for example, the 1990s cult classic The X Files. Not only was Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) a smart, scientific, sassy FBI agent – the show’s entire trajectory relied on the swapping of gender norms. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), the fantasy filled believer, embodied traditionally female characteristics whereas Scully was the rational thinker, using logic above all else. Mulder’s defiant belief in extraterrestrials completely does away with notions of ‘male rationality’.
Post-X-Files, we have been gifted with characters such as Gina Torres’ Zoe Washburne of Firefly. In fact, all of the female characters of Firefly were interesting, well-rounded characters. Inara, Kaylee, River and Zoe all have their own personalities and are radically different from one another. Zoe is physically strong, and exhibits traditionally masculine behaviour. This is similar to Kaylee, as the ship’s engineer, but Kaylee also desires to be feminine, to wear dresses and believes in romance. What Firefly is telling us is that all of these things are not mutually exclusive – we do not have to conform to traditional gender roles.
It’s not just Firefly and The X Files that gave us incredible female characters. Buffy Summers, Xena, Leela, Captain Janeway, Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace (not to mention the women of Doctor Who; Rose, River, Donna, Martha and Torchwood’s Gwen and Tosh) were all a breath of fresh air when it came to female representation onscreen.
“Women are from Venus. Men are from Mars. Hamlet does not scan as Hamletta. Nor does Han Solo as Han Sally. Faceman is not the same as Facewoman. Nor does a Stardoe a Starbuck make. Men hand out cigars. Women ‘hand out’ babies. And thus the world, for thousands of years, has gone round”.
As you can see, writers behind the 2004 reboot of BSG took a momentous risk in gender-swapping the male Starbuck character, but not only was this a hugely important decision to make in terms of what it says about the series – it also paid off. Sackhoff’s Starbuck (despite Benedict’s ‘reservations’) is one the greatest sci-fi characters of all time.
From the moment she swaggers on-screen in the mini-series, she is iconic. Full of emotion, love, rage and with a talent for Triad – Starbuck ignores gender roles and instead gives an insight into a world where we don’t discriminate or judge based on gender. This is a key theme throughout BSG, from the president down to engineers in the hangar – everyone is just doing their job. Gender doesn’t come into it.
So why were Moore and Larson willing to sacrifice potential viewers in order to give us a utopian society where sexism and racism are pretty much null and void – yet the re-booted Star Trek film franchise could not even adhere to the code of the original series? Essentially, BSG is what Star Trek should have looked like, if it had still been in syndication in 2004.
Instead, when it returned in the form of J.J. Abram’s 2009 film Star Trek, the film failed to break any new ground in representation. Gone was the Uhura of Star Trek: The Original Series, the multi-lingual, multi-talented force of nature that became a living legend. Gone was the idea of female captaincy that had been instigated with Captain Kathryn Janeway of the USS Voyager.
In Abraham’s Star Trek, Uhura is reduced to the role of ship receptionist and Spock’s clingy girlfriend, and there are no other named female characters in the film. Star Trek: Into Darkness does even more to remind us that the male gaze is alive and well within cinema by cutting in a shot of Carol Marcus in her underwear for no apparent reason. Marcus is supposed to a highly regarded science officer, and expert in her field. Yet, Into Darkness portrays her only as a female body to be objectified, nothing more.
Bridging The Gap
In addition to Into Darkness, there seems to be a similar pattern emerging in recent sci-fi blockbusters. Interstellar, arguable the most anticipated film of 2014, produced a (semi) engaging story and inspiring visual effects but felt distinctly lacking in terms of its female characters. It’s hard to say who has it worse out of Murph (Jessica Chastain) or Brand (Anne Hathaway), but they both get very clearly lumbered with a whole host of daddy issues which seem to define their behaviour for the entire film.
Smart, capable Murph saves the entire human race, but the catalyst for her doing so is to find her father. Murph needed motivation to succeed in her career, and the source of that motivation had to be the most important (and most absent) man in her life, Coop (Matthew McConoghy). Brand, in a similar vein, is sent out by her father (Michael Caine) as part-scientist-part-baby-making-machine to act as a backup plan should the crew not find a habitable planet.
The plan, formulated by her father, is for Brand to bring new life into the world, effectively using female anatomy to restart the human race. She is supposed to be an intellectual, but it seems her only relevance to the mission is her womb. Similarly, Brand is the only crew member who manages to jeopardise the mission by going after her long lost love. It’s a terrible cliche (women are too sentimental and drive by their emotions to be rational thinkers) that hurts the image of women on-screen.
Gravity, the other big sci-fi blockbuster in recent years, also manages to fall over the same cliche issues as Interstellar. The set-up of Gravity seems promising. Whilst Matt (George Clooney) is initially the focus, Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan seems to be an intelligent scientist with no qualms about being a woman in a STEM career. It gets even more promising when (and I promise I do actually like George Clooney) Matt jettisons away into the outer depths of space never to be seen again.
It meant that, just maybe, Ryan was going to become Ripley the second – ready to get to Earth independently with her unwavering skill and survival instinct. Sadly, she doesn’t make it that far, not on her own at least. She makes it back to Earth, but only after a pep talk from the ghost of George Clooney and a scene which explains how she is grieving her dead child. So, the motivation for a woman to get herself back to Earth? Must be child-related.
Outside of these two films, there hasn’t been much traction for any female protagonists at all in the sci-fi genre. The Martian is 99% Matt Damon talking to himself and films like Super 8, Guardians of the Galaxy, Total Recall and Elysium are all headed up by a white male lead. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t good films, or interesting pieces of sci-fi cinema. But, as a genre, shouldn’t we be reaching for more?
Thinking back to Terminator, Sarah Connor only really exists in the film due to her relationship to Jon as his mother. It becomes quickly apparent though that Sarah Connor is more than just a mother – she is a fighter, a friend, a nurse and a lover. She can be all those things, not just the entity which bought John into the world – so why is that cinema seems to have forgotten this?
The reason that Ellen Ripley was such a huge leap forward in the portrayal of women in sci-fi rest entirely on the lack of pigeon-holing in terms of her character. As I’m sure most of you are aware, Ripley’s character was originally intended to be male but was gender-swapped right before casting. It means that instead of writing Ripley ‘as female’, she is written ‘as a person’. She isn’t weighed down with the traits which women in cinema usually possess (over-emotional, love interest, mother figure). Ripley was one of the first characters to prove that hey, women are also people.
A New Hope?
Perhaps the only survivor of this dismal wasteland of shoddy female characters is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) from Mad Max: Fury Road. Whilst the film itself categorically belongs the universe of post-apocalyptic cinema, it is also very clearly rooted in sci-fi and Furiosa is a wonderful character who seems to directly descend from the likes of Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley. She has her own mission, her own motivation and she is the key figure in ensuring that the characters around her survive. With fantastic intuition, she resembles Sarah Connor in Judgment Day, but visually she’s a match for the androgynous Ellen Ripley.
So where can we look to find the leading women of sci-fi in films today? Moving away from big studio funded productions and towards independent cinema, there are some truly inspiring female fronted films that are continuing to pave the way. Advantageous, a film by Jennifer Phang centres around a dystopian future where beauty and looks are valued above everything else.
A female oriented story, Advantageous details a relationship between a mother and daughter in a world where women are still commodities whose usefulness is determined by their looks. With some fiercely feminist dialogue, Advantageous succeeds in making a film about humanity, about the state of society today by using a hideous future as a metaphor. It also speaks volumes about the unique relationship between mothers and daughters. Not only does the subject matter delve into what it really means to be a woman in our society, Advantageous truly encompasses the on-screen diversity that sci-fi cinema is supposed to champion.
We can also look forward, perhaps with some trepidation, to the new Star Wars film. The two protagonists, a black man and a white woman, are already more diverse than the previous films and from the trailer it doesn’t seem like Daisy Ridley will be swanning around in a gold bikini any time soon. I keep my fingers crossed anyway…
What do you think about the representation of women in sci-fi today? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.