Imagine the female protagonist as the last human on earth. She hides during the night, stealing supplies from abandoned stores during the day. She is a lone survivor of the apocalypse who fights back against the mutated population. Can science fiction filmmakers envision a strong, capable and independent “she” as humanity’s last hope? Apparently not very often, as the last survivor role is usually given to men such as Charlton Heston in Omega Man (1971) or Will Smith in I am Legend (2007).
Have you seen the sci-fi film in which a woman leads the poor in an uprising against corporate and government greed, challenging a dystopian society’s values and rules? Leadership and power roles usually belong to men such as Keanu Reeves in The Matrix or Charlton Heston in Soylent Green.
So, what about leader of an Earth colony on another planet? No.
Creator of artificial intelligence? No.
Creator of a child? Yes!
The female as last survivor or political leader can be difficult to believe for some audience members, because North American society does not connect women with active survival. In science fiction, “men belong to the realm of mind; women and nature, to no-mind. Women are the bearers of life; men are life interpreters and masters,” (Barr). Science fiction is the genre of the imagination and yet, women in sci-fi cannot seem to break free of traditional roles such as the damsel in distress, the princess or the mother. These roles belong to a patriarchal society, but are often recreated in futuristic texts, even though science fiction has the luxury of re-envisioning society. In most science fiction films, the role of the female is limited to being rescued, being born into a higher station or being the breeding mare for a male protagonist.
Woman given to man to breed is the story of Eve, an ancient biblical narrative that provides one explanation for the creation of mankind. According to the book of Genesis, a fertile woman is created by a superior entity (God) to give birth to mankind. In science fiction, a similar resolution for earth’s population problem is to give the male protagonist a fertile woman. I am going to refer to this fertility pattern in science fiction as the redundant eve. In Planet of the Apes, protagonist Taylor, (Charlton Heston) is an astronaut stranded in the future earth of 3978. Apes rule the planet, and the humans have become infantile in their oppression. Nova, a beauty dressed in a fur bikini, is given to Taylor for breeding purposes. In the end of the film, the two ride out into the forbidden land to begin a new population of humans. Planet of the Apes hit the screens in 1968. According to literal translations of the King James Bible, Adam’s creation date is estimated around 4000 B.C. (Ross). Nova has not progressed much past the role of Eve in over 5000 years in audience time, and over 7000 years in the futuristic time of the film. Nova’s most obvious benefit to the situation in Planet of the Apes is fertility, and therefore, her role is to be mate to man, birth children, and populate the earth. The redundant eve pattern is also evident in the British-American 2006 film, Children of Men. In this film, the pregnancy of Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), only woman on earth who can procreate, is a miracle. The future of the world relies on a man (Theo Faron played by Clive Owen) to save Kee and her child. The ability of women to bear children is a gift, but “giving” of a fertile woman to man, the dominance and protection of that man, seems to be an outdated role for women to be playing in films about imaginative and future possibilities.
Another ancient role for the female that occurs regularly in science fiction and fantasy, is the princess. Born “uncommon”, the princess can be haughty and demanding because her rank has allowed it and often we confuse this behaviour with strength. “The word “princess” “can imply an unreal, bland, or cosseted character,” (Myss, 2010). This view of woman is what I call the princess pendulum. On one hand, we think we have a progressive female but then the script reminds us that she is privileged, and that her deviations from the typical female role are a result of her higher birth. As the story swings on the princess pendulum, the audience is pulled back and forth between an archetypical female and a feminist role model. Any sci-fi fan will know the Star Wars princess, Leia (1977), born privileged to a society under siege. Leia is courageous and assertive, but much of her “strength” is minimized through the dialogue of males in the film as they attribute lesser traits to her. Governor Tarkin states, “she can be reasonable” when asking her to choose a target for destruction. When he deceives her, he says that she is “far too trusting”. Sounds like a housewife from the 1950s. Leia’s character is built through her actions and through other character’s responses to her. When these other characters are males in power, their categorization of Leia carries more weight with the audience than her actions. When Tarkin finds out Leia deceived him and calls her a “liar”, viewers watching the film will feel like saying “hooray” at Leia’s deception. But this deception is not true power. It is one of the socially acceptable strengths women are allowed to have in film and literature. Another of Leia’s “strengths” is her ongoing dialogue of cutting disdain. She calls Chewbacca a “walking carpet,” insults Tarkin by alluding to his cowardness and “stench”, and openly despises Solo’s ship. Though this type of bantering is amusing to the audience, it does not represent true strength in a character. Leia is just acting like a little “princess”. “The Princess archetype is also influenced by our colloquial use of the term and especially its heavy freight of antifeminist connotations of a woman who is overly demanding, as in “Jewish-American Princess” or in the story of the Princess and the Pea,” (Myss). Leia’s power is also minimized by Solo’s comments. Solo takes the stance that women of strength are not always desirable, and he reinforces the submissive role of women when he says, “Wonderful girl. Either I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her.” Solo is stating that a woman should be attractive to a man or she is not worth having around. Eventually, Solo approves of Leia’s non-traditional behaviours and states, “You think a princess and a guy like me…”. Leia’s role does not empower women as long as it is held up for approval by Solo, and if the end result is partnering with Solo. It cannot be denied that Leia can wield a gun and did kill Jabba. However, Leia’s aggressive actions do not affect the audience perception of female capability because Leia is not common, she is born to royalty and therefore does not represent the main population. The end perception of the character’s strength will depend on the audience and which side of the trope, the pendulum last touched before the end of the film.
According to Myss, the damsel in distress role for females is one of the most ancient archetypes. The damsel in distress crosses many cultures dating back to ancient Greek myths and ancient stories from India. Moving forward in time, the damsel is found in European fairy tales and Arabian folklore and finally populating medieval texts (Conn, 2003). The archetype continued in Victorian theatre, silent movies and is still gracing films today. The more recent film John Carter (2012) features rescuer Carter, a Southern gentleman, who saves Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris. Though Dejah is intelligent enough to discover the components her enemy’s weapon, and is strong enough to fight by Carter’s side with a sword, she is still a damsel in distress and a princess, and therefore, set apart from the common female. In addition, the film’s plot offers Dejah two resolutions to her problem, marry the enemy or be rescued by Carter, neither of which are empowering. “This archetype mistakenly teaches old patriarchal views that women are weak and teaches them to be helpless and in need of protection, (Myss, 2010). The original story by Edgar Rice Burroughs was written in 1912, so we can expect a less than progressive female role, but 100 years later, we have a science fiction audience for the stereotypical “male rescues female” and “female sells self to solve problem” plot. The rescuing male comes in many forms, sometimes honourable knight and sometimes the man’s intentions are less chivalrous. Either way, the damsel in distress must sell herself for self preservation. I am going to call this the damn sell pattern.
Though we see the patterns redundant eve, the princess pendulum and the damn sell in science fiction and recognize how enduring it is, there have been some deviations that are valid. Some realistically portrayed, and empowering feminine sci-fi roles include Sarah Connor in Terminator and Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979). Both female characters broke out of the pattern of depending on men. Both stepped up as valid leaders and both did what they had to do to survive, without being limited to selling themselves to men for rescue. There have also been female roles of false power such as female who uses sexual manipulation to be powerful. “Science fiction films such as Barbarella (1968) [featured women who] were often portrayed as simple sex kittens,” (Tierney, 1999). Sometimes lesbianism is used as the reason for “abnormal” female power such as Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town, 1989. The main character is female and she and her gang of lesbian motorcyclists ride around chopping off zombie heads. However, the lesbian portrayal of the strong character sets the female apart from the “norm” just as the princess role does. The audience accepts the woman’s power because she is a lesbian, just as audiences accepted Zena, Warrior Princess. Often power is a pumped up version of female “traits”, which we saw with Jean Grey in the X-Men. Jean is powerful member of the team, but her super power is jacked-up women’s intuition. Jean mutated, but only within the realm of woman. Storm is another strong female from X-Men, but her control over nature reflects the mother-nature archetype. Women are “allowed” to control nature. “This archetype is the keeper and protector of life, from children to the family to the greater Mother Nature archetype whose province is the Earth and all life. (Myss, 2010). This is an acceptable role. Occasionally science fiction films break the female stereotype, but not as often as literature.
In literature, strong female protagonists are more common because female readership is more recognized and more accepted. According to Women’s studies encyclopedia, the “use of speculative fiction to explore gender roles in future societies has been more common in the United States compared to Europe and elsewhere,” (Tierneyc, 1999). However, there are still notable European writers who have moved the gender roles into new territories. Irish born writer, Anne McCaffrey has created many female protagonists who were capable survivors and leaders in their societies, such as Lessa in the first novel of the Dragonriders of Pern series (1968). Literature has provided female and feminist the opportunity to share gender options through science fiction.
The issues of sex, gender, race, and class addressed by the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s were certainly taken up in several major science fiction novels of that period—Joanna Russ’s Picnic on Paradise (1968) and The Female Man (1975), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and, perhaps most famously, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness(1969), to name a few. (Larballestiere, 2003)
As literature with strong female characters becomes more accepted, and the cinema audience seeks a strong female protagonist, perhaps gender equality will be found more often in these lands far, far away on film. Or perhaps the female audience enjoys the archetypical roles of women in science fiction, desiring strong male leaders, fighters and survivors. Perhaps females evolutionary sexual selection of competent mates spills over into cinema selection, allowing female viewers to manipulate the “future by filling it with heroic males worthy of repopulating the earth.
Conn, M. (2003). Balancing the scales. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America.
Inness, Sherrie A. (1998). Tough girls: women warriors and wonder women in popular culture. Published by University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 102
Larballestiere, J. (2003). A space of her own: Pamela zoline’s “the heat death of the universe” by mary e. papke. Retrieved from http://justinelarbalestier.com/books/daughters-of-earth/excerpts/papke/
Myss, C. (2010). A gallery of archetypes. Retrieved from http://www.myss.com/library/contracts/three_archs.asp
Ross, Hugh. 2004. A Matter of Days. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 300 p.
Tierney, H. (1999). The female in literature. Women’s studies encyclopedia.
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