Women on Film, sci-fi edition: It gets dystopian

When it comes to winning female superheroes in 21st-century Hollywood blockbusters, Katniss Everdeen really is one in a million.

Bidisha
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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay  Part 1 (2014)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

Katniss Everdeen is back, bestriding the districts of Panem with the pure heart of Legolas, the sure aim of Hawk-Eye and the implacable focus of a killer drone that’s gone renegade and turned against its makers. Played by Jennifer Lawrence, she returns in the third Hunger Games film, Mockingjay Part One, leading the rebellion against the control and cruelty meted out to Panem’s child soldiers and menial workers by the politicians, media classes, business chiefs and entertainment consumers who live in the Capitol.

Katniss is rare within her own fictional world, adapted from novelist Suzanne Collins’ gritty and haunting trilogy. The starving, browbeaten residents of Panem are captivated by this rebel who sticks her head above the parapet, who is fierce and deep, who fights power and drives the narrative through her own movements, who sublimates her pain and sorrow into anger and action, who is impressive for her strength, not her beauty – and not even her words, for Katniss is a classic Clint Eastwood saviour, the enigmatically silent messiah who cleans up the town by shooting without flinching. Katniss Everdeen is a military-industrial survivalist heroine in a world where diplomacy counts for nothing, inequality is systematically enforced, idealism is laughable and the only language those in power understand is force.

Depressingly, Katniss is no more outnumbered within imaginary Panem than any action, science fiction or fantasy film heroine is in the real world. While the last three global movie phenomena – The Hunger Games, Twilight and Harry Potter – were based on adaptations of book series written by women, Twilight was about a passive girl pulled this way and that by a vampire and a werewolf and Harry Potter featured one teen witch in a sidekick role. Combined, the three brands have spawned 17 films, only one of which had a female director, Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first and most soulful Twilight film. Are we supposed to be grateful that out of all the spandexy, fun, futuristic, techie, brooding, action-led movies slated for release by DC and Marvel over the next decade, there is only one led by a woman character, Wonder Woman, and that is the only film out of dozens to be directed by a woman, Lauren Montgomery?

Terminator 2 Judgment Day (1991): Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor

Terminator 2 Judgment Day (1991): Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor

Have we actually regressed from the days in which Sarah Connor, played by a ripped Linda Hamilton in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), turned herself into a warrior and survived – more than 20 years ago now? Even Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien series (1979-2001) did some defiant arse-kicking, as well as being followed about in her underwear with Ridley Scott’s camera leering up her backside.

Jennifer Garner as Elektra (2005) died despite proving her action cred in TV series Alias. Jessica Alba got a push-up bra and a skintight catsuit in the Fantastic 4 films (2005-) despite proving her action cred in TV series Dark Angel. In Underworld (2003-) Kate Beckinsale also gets a catsuit – black PVC this time – and cavorts as a lithe “fighting fucktoy”, to quote US feminist documentary Miss Representation (2011). Halle Berry as Catwoman (2005) got mocked to death. In both the 1990 original and 2012 remake of Total Recall, the ‘good’ action heroine beats down the ‘bitch’ action heroine and we are supposed to be happy with that. In the Matrix films (1999-2003) Trinity dies. In Avatar (2009) Michelle Rodriguez and Sigourney Weaver die. The cool Kryptonian fighting woman in Man of Steel (2013) gets… vanquished, or whatever they call it on Krypton. The Transformers films (2007-) have one running, gasping, quipping booty-and-booby babe, currently played by Sophia Myles. The Star Trek film remakes (2009-) emphasise the male characters’ personalities and the (very few) female characters’ bodies. The X-Men films (1996-) have degenerated into a bromance between Magneto and the Professor, with Wolverine tossing off on the side and Mystique naked and blue. Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013) gets to float forever in short shorts in a seemingly strong-woman story directed by Alfonso Cuáron….who along with his dude cronies is currently being sued by the bestselling novelist Tess Gerritsen, who argues persuasively that her own novel Gravity has been ripped off for Cuaron’s film.

Sometimes, Gaia be thanked, the women don’t always die. Okay, in The Dark Knight (2008) the only woman character, Rachel Dawes, did die. But in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Catwoman just gave it all up to be Bruce Wayne’s housewife.

Under the Skin (2013)

Under the Skin (2013)

Even those more interesting recent films which appear to feature ‘strong women’ have been produced by virtually all-male boys’ clubs. Think of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), adapted from a Michel Faber story, and Luc Besson’s Lucy. Both star Scarlet Johansson and both are sadistic, objectifying and punitive towards their ‘heroine’, fetishising and exposing Johannson’s body and beauty then punishing it. In Under the Skin a predatory female alien is destroyed first by her affection for a human man, which makes her vulnerable, then through sexual battery and murder by another man. In Lucy a frightened young woman is drugged, violated by surgery and made a carrier of a wonder drug by a gang of sadistic East Asian men playing out age-old racist stereotypes. Because of this abuse she becomes a personality-free superhero with 24 hours to live, turns into a giant oozing black supercomputer and…

Anyway, it’s been a good year for the always-charismatic Johansson, but not for women’s emancipation. The blank women ‘heroes’ of these two movies have no memorable lines and are dead by the end. There are no other women characters in the films and the multiple men who made all the films I’ve mentioned so far get the money, the kudos and the career rewards for being such big feminists.

Meanwhile, actual women directors struggle to get their films made, distributed, reviewed, taken seriously or awarded major prizes. Prejudices dominate: a woman director does not have the authority, ability or vision helm a major film; a story about or by women is not interesting, relevant, important or universal; a woman actor cannot lead action and captivate audiences for a whole 120 minutes; a woman must be young and beautiful to earn screen time; women’s friendships do not exist and women characters only exist, feel and act in relation to men; women over 30 are worthless nothings or nasty bitter monsters on screen and in reality; if there is an iconic female lead, she must be outnumbered five to one by men; a woman voicing dialogue about science, or space, or society, or technology, or superheroic origins or alien life forms is laughable and inauthentic both in fiction and in reality.

Tank Girl (1995)

Tank Girl (1995)

Coinciding with the release of Mockingjay Part One, film curators’ collective Club Des Femmes launches Ada & After: Women Do Science [Fiction], a season of screenings and events putting women creators back into the scientific and film cultures from which we have been erased. Named after pioneering early computer programmer Ada Lovelace, it launches with Rachel Talalay’s 1995 adaptation of Jamie Hewlett’s comic Tank Girl, billed as “the first and only female-led superhero movie.” Ada herself gets a quirky biopic in Conceiving Ada (1997), directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson, as does the godmother of literary science fiction, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, in Abigail Child’s Unbound (2013).

The most interesting work in Ada & After reflects a more contemporary hunger for participation. Short film Afronauts (2014), directed by Frances Bodomo, is based on the Zambian Space Academy’s attempts to beat America to the moon in 1969, while Silvia Casalino’s No Gravity (2011) depicts a young engineer dreaming of going into space. Berit Madsen’s Grierson Award-nominated documentary Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars (2013) is a joint Danish, Iranian and German production in English and Farsi: protagonist Sepideh wants to be an astronaut, resists the pressure to marry, is independent and ambitious and idolises the first Iranian woman in space, Anousheh Ansari.

Sepideh (2013)

Sepideh (2013)

Ada & After… shows that creativity in film can take many forms. The majority of the works are shorter than feature length and experimental in narrative, visuals and soundtracking. They span 20-odd years and demonstrate that the most radical work is not crafted in Hollywood or in the context of Anglo-American western culture at all.

However, I also believe in the mainstream and in the infrastructure that major studios can provide. I do not think that women who make films should have to struggle to make every second of footage or battle to get it screened. The profits from the Hunger Games films and other stories which appear to foreground women have been taken and used to help the careers of the men’s clubs which directed, produced, wrote and shot them and to make yet more dross in which white men do what white men gotta do, like – in the past year – Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow (Tom Cruise), Elysium (Matt Damon) and now Interstellar (Matthew McConaughey). I’m sure that soon we’ll see Zac Efron and Justin Beiber cast as nuclear physicists going to save a troubled Mars colony while countless brilliant scripts by women screenwriters and pitches from women directors languish on the reject pile.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay  Part 1 (2014)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

Katniss Everdeen is an enthralling character in a compelling series. But if we allow her charisma to lull us into false optimism about women in film, we are just like the entertainment-doped masses of the Capitol, applauding a spectacle while remaining wilfully blind to reality.

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