Real Sci-Fi Women

A couple of weeks ago I made an off-the-cuff remark about a dearth of women in science fiction, and for the first time I got emails – yes, actual emails (how archaic!) as in several people took the time to upbraid me for my mistake. I can see their point: the internet is a notoriously error-free body of knowledge and opinions must be clearly-labeled as such to prevent confusion. They’re right, of course, and after being called a tard by strangers I see that. There are lots of cool women in science fiction.
Or actually there aren’t, because men write science fiction and men see women in two specific ways: as mothers and as sex objects. It’s just something to do with being a guy, I think. And probably I’ll get a comment from some dorito-crunching sci-fi buff in Delaware pointing out that Joss Whedon’s Firefly is,like, the best series ever, and it has, like, dude, so many good female characters in it. I would like to perforate your little bubble of cluelessness, old chap. Joss Whedon is a dick. Joss Whedon believes that women who can kick ass like Bruce Lee or shoot people like Clint Eastwood are legitimate female characters. Joss Wedon thinks a well-rounded female character is one who’s a sexually dominant, sassy gunslinger with a martial arts background. Joss Whedon does not write female characters. He writes male characters with breasts.
This is a mistake that lots of writers make: they think if they write a female character who acts like we expect guy characters to act she’s automatically empowered. More often than not these women also wear tight-fitting leather clothes and are vaguely disheveled (as a guy I can’t explain why we find slightly grubby-looking girls appealing, but it’s a fact).
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These women are not women. They’re just a fantasy, and they have their place. It’s just not on a list of actual “women”. The difference will become clear.
So because it’s Mothers Day tomorrow, and I’m the king of tenuous connections, here’s a list of some cool women in science fiction. You get some snarky commentary, I get to avoid writing about how dispiriting I find Mother’s Day, and we both get some pictures of hot babes. Everyone’s a winner.
Ellen Ripley, the Alien series
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Ripley is the obvious starting point in any list about women in sci-fi. Ripley goes through a development arc in the Alien series, starting as a working mother before becoming a warrior and a nemesis. There’s a significant character story in the series that often gets overlooked and is the main reason that Ripley is often seen as a feminist icon. The main reason is this: Ripley suffers. Seemingly everything that can go wrong to a person goes wrong to her, yet she persists. She survives by being better than the men around her – gung-ho soldiers, company men, and prisoners. Ripley is the embodiment of the empowered woman, but that isn’t the overriding theme of the Alien trilogy (I’m purposefully ignoring Resurrection). The theme is of one person against a universe that is actively malevolent, trying to maintain her sanity in the midst of the insane. In the course of the three films, she is many different things: skilled worker, soldier, mother-substitute and lover, but her main motivation isn’t any of these things: Ripley is afraid and works through her fear. Even when she is finally, inevitably infected by the Alien, she does everything she can to prevent it from spreading further. Ripley is a boss.
Also this.

Also this.

Mary Crawford, Taken (2002)
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What’s weird is that when Taken was shown on British TV I was seemingly the only person who watched it, and in all that time I’ve never met a single person who remembers that it existed, never mind that it was pretty good. I mean, it wasn’t perfect (Spielberg was going through his “kids are adorable in any context” phase so there’s way too much Dakota Fanning crying, just like in War of the Worlds) but it was eminently watchable television. The main story was this: aliens in UFOs experiment on three families over the course of fifty years, affecting their lives in different ways. Mary Crawford was the daughter of Owen, a soldier who became involved in the UFO cover-up and ends up an embittered, corrupted man. His daughter is, if anything, even worse, sleeping her way to the top of the research program (including, bizarrely, Matt Frewer, otherwise known as MAX HEADROOM, the absurd eighties icon) and basically behaving like a sociopath towards everybody. What’s interesting about her character is that she becomes worse than everybody else involved including her father, who habitually caused brain hemorrhages in the spirit of scientific research. Here’s the odd thing: she was played by Heather Donahue, the weepy, bug-eyed crazy girl from The Blair Witch Project. That previous experience was obviously carried forward, because Mary Crawford was by far and away the most bug-eyed and creepy woman ever to appear on TV.
Quorra, Tron Legacy
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My love for Tron Legacy against all contrary opinion is well-documented and I will argue that there isn’t a bad moment in it. It’s a little clunky, true, but it defied my expectations, and a large part of that is due to Olivia Wilde’s Quorra. I will say nothing about Olivia Wilde beyond the fact that she’s the thinking man’s Sarah Michelle Geller. Quorra could have been played as a sexy heroine or damsel-in-distress, which was fully what I was expecting from the movie. I was wrong. Quorra is more like Flynn’s apprentice, performing all of the brute-force actions including driving, fighting, and planning. But rather than being played as an ass-kicking-type heroine, Quorra is less easily categorised. She has a kind of naive openness that comes from being the last of her kind (or whatever) and knowing nothing about the world beyond the…what’s it called? Tron world? I don’t know. Anyway. Quorra is neither an ass-kicker or an idiot and I like that. Also, Olivia Wilde.
Leeloo, The Fifth Element
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I’ve never been able to find Milla Jovovich all that attractive, in stark contrast to basically every other guy in existence. In some social groups that makes me gay. I just think she’s odd-looking. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Fifth Element, the best sci-fi movie of the early ’90s. Look at her. Really look. She’s so pale you can see her heart through her chest, like a new-born fish. She also starts this film wearing clothes that give me The Mummy Returns flashbacks and hair that makes her look like Franka Potente in Run Lola Run. I am not getting the appeal, but she deserves mention because Leeloo is a really compelling character: she’s an idiot. She has no understanding of the world at all and, even though she learns at a geometric rate, she doesn’t have anything beyond the basics. That gives her a kind of vulnerability that in any other film would be played for nudge-wink laughs, but because this is a Luke Besson film it gives her a non-sexual, childlike air. The particular scene that shows this is when Leeloo discovers human history and every nasty thing ever done appears all at once, and she freaks the fuck out. Leeloo is the only person in the movie who doesn’t have a motive or a goal.
Dana Sculley, The X Files
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The X Files was quite rightly a cultural phenomenon (even though in later seasons it disappeared up it’s own plot hole) and this was largely because Mulder and Scully were personable characters given enough room for development. It’s more or less true that Mulder simplified as a character over time as he became more involved in looking for his sister (does anybody remember what happened with that? Did we care? I don’t know.) but Scully’s character, if anything, increased in complexity. She started as a lapsed catholic with strong faith in scientific principles and evidence, providing counterplay to Mulder’s more child-like faith in everything paranormal, and that by itself was pretty refreshing: in any other series these roles would have been reversed. As things progressed she developed more faith and this formed the cornerstone of the later seasons, with the interplay between belief and reason being the central conundrum of The X Files. What’s unique about Dana Scully is that she was the antithesis of how women were portrayed in similar shows; instead of being the emotional, faith-blind believer in everything, Scully was the complete opposite, keeping Mulder grounded. Dana Scully was a wilfully complex character and that’s something we need more of.
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3 responses to “Real Sci-Fi Women

  1. First time reader here. Wonderfully written article. However, I would like to make a point about Joss Whedon. The problem isn’t that he writes female characters that kick ass, gunslingers and sassy. The problem is that he writes these characters as if they can’t ever be hurt. Invincible. That’s not writing women as men. Because men aren’t invincible either. I think a lot of men write women that way because they don’t want to seem sexist.

    I got another female character for you that’s well written. Carolyn Fry from the film Pitch Black.

    • That’s a really good point. So you mean, like, it’s overcompensating in the other direction from when we used to write female characters as superfluous airheads? I think you’re really onto something there. I think it generally spoils the tone of a movie or something where you have a kung-fu lady-type person who takes down a dozen guys effortlessly because that’s simply not realistic.
      And I wasn’t really being serious about Joss Whedon, I just think he’s a massively overrated writer (but I am a notorious contrarian).

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