Heroes from the Golden Era of Sci-Fi Cinema
I’ve been thinking about female sci-fi heroes lately.
Over the weekend, my roommate Mike set up a laptop connector-thingamajig for our TV, meaning that NOW we can watch Netflix on our TV screen. Naturally, the first film I pulled up was Aliens. What better background for grading my students’ lit papers than the sounds of exploding alien eggs, larvae popping out of screaming astronauts’ chest, and, above it all, Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) SAVING THE FRIGGIN DAY?
Something happened in the late 80s/early 90s. In “Enlightened Sexism,” by Susan J. Douglas, Douglas claims that in the early and mid-1990s, “we started to see more significant change, both in real life and in the nation’s imagery of women.” Douglas points out that women were identified as a media consumer group in a big way in this period, by TV and film producers. In a chapter called “Warrior Women in Thongs,” Douglas points out that it was in the early 90s that female heroes like Buffy, Xena, the Powerpuff Girls, the new Charlie’sAngels, Dark Angel, and Sydney in Alias first came onto the scene. I want to look specifically at three women heroes in sci-fi in particular, who may have arrived just before the huge period of media growth Douglas is talking about.
On the X-Files, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) played your typical “odd couple” alien/all-things-supernatural detective team, only all the “odd couple” gendered stereotypes were TOTALLY REVERSED. Scully represented all things rational, Mulder all things mystic/irrational/hysterical. Scully was a doctor and a big-time skeptic, always begging Mulder to SLOW DOWN and THINK FOR A MINUTE as he ran off on his UFO-chasing expeditions and talked mystical nonsense about aliens and Bigfoot and conspiracies involving both.
Now, we can’t forget the fact that Mulder always ended up being the one who was right. But who cares? It’s not like we were watching them try to build an IKEA table together, or drive in a car and argue about stopping to ask for directions or something. It was just great TV. Thank you, Fox, for giving this young, sci-fi-loving girl such an awesome role model to watch uncover supernatural mysteries every week.
What is so interesting about Sarah Connor’s character in Terminator 2 is that Cameron wrote her in a way that defies some gender stereotypes BY at first fitting into them. The film opens with Sarah Connor institutionalized and labeled “criminally insane” by The Man because they just won’t listen to her. They won’t believe her stories about Skynet and the Terminators and all the other horrible future events that we, the audience, do know are true. They label her “hysterical” and locked her up, just as many women were involuntarily committed for “behaving in ways that male society did not agree with” during the late 19th century. “Housewives who had lost their zeal for domestic work” were even GIVEN LOBOTOMIES throughout the 40s and 50s, and all of this due to what Alicia Curtis here calls “an attitude of paternalism toward the mentally ill.”
But, of course, Connor IS right about all the content of her ranting and raving, so we get to see her by the end of the movie as not only a kick-ass, gun-toting, bomb-making, aviator-wearing soldier who just happens to be the mother of the future savior John Connor, but also as a prophet. A woman who knew what was coming, didn’t back down from being loud about it, and was RIGHT all along.
Ripley! So awesome! Kicked so much ass in Alien, but then at the beginning of Aliens has to deal with the same crap Connor deals with. No one believes her! No one will listen to her about the aliens that ripped apart her ship in Alien. So of course, just as in Terminator 2, Ripley ends up being right, everyone needs her help killing the aliens, and she does. Everyone, in fact, dies except her.
Oh, and the little girl she adopts in the course of the film, of course. The theme of kick-ass mothers runs throughout Aliens. Ripley finds Newt, a little adorable blonde girl, and cares for her throughout the film. But the beast she’s up against is a huge, monstrous, scary female alien who has been laying eggs throughout the movie that hatch into really creepy, really violent aliens.
So you have this amazing scene (start at 6 minutes in) where Ripley faces down the queen. The queen lets her take her newfound daughter and leave safely, in a kind of standoff: “You don’t hurt my babies, I won’t hurt yours.” But, well, Ripley torches the eggs anyway. And then, when the queen comes back later pissed off (rightfully so in my opinion) wanting revenge and about to kill Newt, you get the best line in the film.
Enough plot summary. What interests me is what y’all’s opinions are of this movie and how it plays with gender stereotypes and the breaking of those stereotypes. Yes, Ripley is one of the most kick-ass characters in film history, male or female. She’s not dainty. She’s intense. But what do we do with the focus on motherhood? Is it a stereotype to have her fill the mothering role at the same time as her kick-ass role? Lots of women’s sports advertising does the same thing.
Is this “She’s awesome and hardcore and STILL HAS TIME TO BE A MOM because you have to be a mother to be a complete woman,” which I would probably find offensive. Or is this “She’s awesome and hardcore and just happens to be the guardian of a kid now”? Does it matter if the movie is just great?