Science fiction has long been accused of being a male-dominated universe. The off-screen world has changed dramatically over the years, but change appears to have come at a much slower pace on-screen, with female characters often restricted to being damsels in distress or sexy space babes. And yet, the nature of science fiction as a genre has meant that many writers and filmmakers have used it to imagine and realise more egalitarian worlds.
In the 1970s and 80s, authors like Marge Piercy, Ursula LeGuin and Margaret Atwood envisioned futures near and far through a feminist lens. Many of their works exploded mainstream conceptions of gender roles and sexuality of the day, or speculated frightening new ways in which patriarchal authority might evolve if unchecked.
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On screen, filmmakers have similarly used the tropes of sci-fi to explore ideas surrounding gender as a social and biological category. For many, the first/definitive feminist sci-fi film is Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), a brilliant imagining of an underground uprising of women (which includes a very young Kathryn Bigelow) under a totalitarian socialist patriarchy of the not-too-distant future.
There’s a sad irony to Bigelow’s presence in Born in Flames however, given the fact that, despite the successes of second wave feminism, the revolutions and egalitarian futures imagined by an earlier generation of women in sci-fi have failed to truly take hold. Women have continued to be excluded from influential roles in mainstream film, both on and off-screen, as many recent studies on gender and Hollywood will testify.
Bigelow has become a kind of poster-girl for this debate, with her exceptional success – she was the first woman to win an Oscar for best director, for The Hurt Locker in 2010 – often being recognised as both cause for celebration and symptomatic of the continued male-dominance of Hollywood.
Nonetheless, a number of brilliant female characters have made their mark on sci-fi audiences over the years, particularly on the small screen. More recently, as sci-fi fandom has made a home for itself online, its female contingent has become increasingly vocal and empowered, reclaiming heroes from the past and identifying icons for the future.
Maria – Metropolis (1927)
No list of women in sci-fi would be complete without Maria. However, right from the off we have to decide exactly which Maria we mean. Are we talking about the human Maria, here to lead her people into the light with promises of a better future? Or do we mean the machine, given the likeness of Maria by a man driven mad by the memory of his dead love?
It must be the robot for its cinematic legacy alone. The designs for Star Wars’ C-3P0 are a direct homage to her sleek deco lines. And yet Maria herself, played with tremulous intensity by Brigitte Helm, has life of her own to spare. The silent accusation of her gaze begs questions of the luxury found on the surface of Metropolis. Her heavily symbolic status in the film robs her of some of the agency one would expect from a modern hero. But the two different Marias ask questions about the role of women in our storytelling: exploring the contrast between real women and the fantasies authored by man and his hubris.
Barbarella – Barbarella (1968)
It might seem strange that, while the women’s movement was gathering strength in the late 1960s, Jane Fonda chose to play the free-loving Barbarella who shags her way across the galaxy, a character based on Jean-Claude Forest’s original 1960s comic. While Barbarella might not reflect the awakening feminist consciousness of the decade, she did mirror its changing attitudes to sex.
With its vision of a sexually liberated future, its lava-lamp aesthetic and Euro-jazz soundtrack, Barbarella looks and sounds a bit like the 60s threw up on itself. Feminist icon she may not be; nonetheless Barbarella does get to enjoy uncomplicated and guilt-free sex with a number of partners, from the hairy man-beast to the boyish gold pants-wearing angel. And she even defeats her enemy, the crazed Durand-Durand, when her sexual powers prove too much for the professors’ Excessive Machine.
Lieutenant Nyota Uhura – Star Trek
After almost a decade of Freedom Rides, marches and sit-ins, the civil rights movement was gradually making itself felt across American society in 1966. That same year, the singer and actress Nichelle Nichols became one the first to boldly go where no African American woman had gone before: space, the final frontier.
But Lieutenant Nyota Uhura deserves recognition for being more than just a pioneering character. As the Enterprise’s communications officer, she serves the fleet with aplomb, being fluent in Swahili, Klingon and Romulan. She is also the ship’s sole purveyor of jazzy tunes, and regularly entertains the crew, with Spock on the Vulcan Lyre.
Nichols was famously told to stay on in the series by Martin Luther King, who confessed to her that the programme was the only one he let his kids stay up to watch. She continued to break ground in 1968, when Uhura and William Shatner’s Captain Kirk engaged in television’s first interracial kiss.
Sarah Jane Smith – Doctor Who
The universe of Doctor Who is full of excellent women – Verity Lambert, the show’s original producer and Delia Derbyshire, co-creator of the show’s unforgettable theme tune for a start – so picking just one is hard. As times have changed, so too have the Doctor’s companions, evolving from screaming teens and bikini-clad babes to Amazonian warriors and punky adolescents.
But it was Sarah Jane Smith, played by the wonderful Elisabeth Sladen, who really broke the damsel-in-distress mould. She was, of course, a plucky journalist and therefore both fearless and nosy. If she hadn’t let her curiosity get the better of her, she never would have wandered into the Tardis and we would have been deprived of one of the show’s most-loved duos, with Tom Baker as the Doctor.
Ripley – Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992) and Alien: Resurrection (1997)
No list of influential sci-fi women could omit Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, a character frequently voted as one of the top movie characters of all time. The role was originally written for a man, but Weaver seized the part, and she was nominated for an Oscar her performance in the first sequel.
In Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, Ripley is part of the work-weary crew of the Nostromo, a commercial freighter on its way to Earth. She wisely refuses to let some of the crew back on board after they make contact with an alien vessel, for fear of contamination, but her orders are undermined. Her instincts turn out to be well-grounded and she soon becomes the only human survivor of an alien outbreak on the ship.
Ripley’s appeal is her determination and no-nonsense bravery. She’s no damsel-in-distress, she’s capable and fearless: just hand her a flamethrower and a radar and she’s good to go.
Sarah Connor – The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Before going to work on Lt Ripley in Aliens, James Cameron first gave us the only contender to her place as sci-fi’s first lady of survival, the indomitable Sarah Connor. From carefree LA girl to mother of a saviour to razor-sharp defender of her son’s destiny, Sarah Connor rises to meet her enemy (the machines) by mirroring them; she can’t be bargained with and she can’t be stopped. It’s very telling that, when confronted with the shape-shifting duplicate of his mother (luring him by feigning injury and pleading for help) John Connor recognises his real mother – emerging behind his would be assassin with shotgun in hand – by her cool pragmatism and her strength.
She is the lynchpin of these two classics and it’s no coincidence that the second film is sporadically narrated by her because these films are, at their core, her story to tell.
Dana Scully – The X Files (1993-2002)
In the supposedly post-feminist 90s, Dana Scully was a breath of fresh air to many sci-fi fans. Supposedly, studio execs originally intended for Scully to be merely the show’s eye-candy, but Chris Carter, the show’s creator, argued for Gillian Anderson to be cast after her serious and stoic reading for the role.
Anderson may have ended up on the cover of plenty of lad’s mags of the era, but on screen her character was no mere pin-up. Dr Scully holds a degree in physics and is a qualified doctor. As the deadpan, witty foil to her partner Fox Mulder and his faith in the paranormal, she escaped the role traditionally reserved for female characters in the genre.
Kaywinnet Lee ‘Kaylee’ Frye – Firefly (2002) and Serenity (2005)
There is more than one female character that stands out in Joss Whedon’s short-lived series Firefly. Of Malcolm Reynolds’ crew on board the Serenity, Zoe Washburn, Inara and River Tam are all forceful and well-rounded characters. But it’s Kaylee’s blend of scrappy DIY capability, shame-free lusty appetite and girlish naivety that make her particularly great.
When Reynolds first meets her, she’s having her way with one of his crewmen. But she quickly proves herself to be a highly talented mechanic, and goes from floozy to crewmember in the blink of an eye.
Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace – Battlestar Galactica (2004-9)
Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace, possible love child of Ellen Ripley and Han Solo, is one of the most kick-ass characters ever created in the sci-fi universe. Like Ripley, her character came into existence thanks to a gender swap; in the original 1970s serial, Starbuck was a roguish male, a character developed and brilliantly honed by Dirk Benedict. On hearing that the producers of the reboot had decided to make Starbuck a woman, Benedict published a furious post – entitled ‘Starbuck: Lost in Castration’ – in which he railed against feminism and political correctness gone mad in Hollywood.
Benedict’s Starbuck had been a cigar-smoking, womanising maverick down to his very core; how could that possibly be translated into a female character? The answer, for Katee Sackhoff who would play her in the reboot, was: business as usual. Sackhoff’s Starbuck is as trigger-happy, high-flying and arrogant as her male predecessor. But what perhaps makes her so compelling for fans is that she is vulnerable, damaged and selfless in equal measure.
Katniss Everdeen – The Hunger Games (2012- )
The hero of the dystopian universe of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books, and their subsequent Hollywood adaptations, has emerged as a poster girl for a new generation of young, female sci-fi fans. As feminist author Katie Roiphe has written, Katniss is powerful because she combines “female strength and female vulnerability all mingled and entwined, dangerously, ambiguously, into one”.
There’s a strange parallel between the strict hierarchy that characterises Katniss’ Panem, and the divided society of Metropolis (1927). Both Maria and Katniss become symbols of a proletarian uprising. But while Maria’s power is magnified by her robotic clone, Katniss, with her bow and arrow, defies the status quo and fights tooth and nail to protect those she cares for, making her a real, flesh-and-blood hero.
Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder, a major celebration of film and TV’s original blockbuster genre, ran from October to December 2014.
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