Women of the Future: Where Art Thou?

This blog post was going to be split into two reviews for Star Trek and Terminator Salvation but I saw a link in both movies that would serve as a better theme for this blog.

Someone on a board I frequent mentioned that the new Salvation must have forgotten the strong complex female character of Sarah Connor in T2, the female Terminator kickin' booty in T3 and the leading women of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the title character herself and android Cameron. After seeing the new Star Trek film I was disappointed (in more ways than one but I digress) that my fave character Uhura was relegated to the girlfriend/comforter role. What has happened to female in movies today especially in the sci-fi films and tv franchises that I loved growing up?

A long time ago I did a piece on the strong female characters and gave a whole list of movies featuring females in leading roles. The 80s were not only the golden age of SF tv and film but also started the trend of showing women as strong leaders, fighters, lovers and adventurers themselves. The 80s gave us Ellen Ripley who was the only survivor on a scout mission to a derelict space ship. After which she was hired to advise a team of marines (including the awesomely kick butt Vasquez) and ended up being one of three survivors with a heck of a character arc that culminated in a one on one female match against an alien queen.

Fast forwarding a little, we got Mace in Strange Days. A protective mother, former waitress turned limo driver who harbors a love for her misguided friend and ends up saving his butt more times than he can count (and she can do it with one hand tied behind her back as well). Maybe I'm just on a James Cameron kick because all of these females were written by the master himself. But we also got Princess Leia who was no damsel in distress and could take a gun and shoot with the best of them. We also got Geena Davis doing a one two hit as an amnesiac assassin in The Long Kiss Goodnight and as the underrated (yes, I said underrated) Captain Morgan of a pirate ship in Cutthroat Island. Recently Ms. Davis played the Commander in Chief in a show of the same name but apparently we're to forget such a thing considering how quickly it was yanked off the air. The Matrix movies were stellar in showcasing strong females in the midst of war with Trinity, Zee, and my favorite captain, Niobe. I love my copy of Enter the Matrix because it's a Niobe/Ghost showcase (can we get more of these two please?).

In The original series of Star Trek, Uhura may have been remembered by pop culture as just a hot chick with a wireless bluetooth in her ear, but enthusiasts and people who grew up watching the show knew that she was a trailblazer that showed not only women in space but women of color in space doing their job with grace, professionalism and dignity even when she's being a mirror image of herself. The 80s films gave us more of her character. In Search for Spock especially when she helps Kirk smuggle Bones out of the 'federation funny farm' and grab the Enterprise, Uhura was the one to tell a young lieutenant (Mr. Adventure) just where to go with his ideas about a woman "who's career was winding down".

What happened to women in film today? It looks like they're either disappearing altogether, or becoming random hot chicks to score with (in the countless gross out comedies), fodder for gruesome killing (in the countless horror movies) or eye candy trophies (in blockbusters like Transformers). The three main female roles in Terminator Salvation were not much than pregnant wife role (Kate Connor, after having more to do with the story in T3), Freedom fighter turned damsel in distress turned potential girlfriend (Blair Williams) or potential mother figure before being yanked out of the building.

Grant it, these roles were stuffed into a film that was already overstuffed with larger leading characters. And movies can't provide the depth that a novel can, but since studying the intricacies of screenwriting for a few years before I dove into narrative, I notice it's just a way of presenting characterization even in the littlest of forms. While novels allow you inside the character's head to see what their thinking and experience what they're feeling, movies can show you this with dialogue a flashback or two and through other visual cues. Screenwriters of the past took time to make sure the story was told to the fullest in the best way possible. Modern screenwriters (in mainstream Hollywood) rely on fast paced flash with characters and story just hanging along for the ride. Sci-fi films are becoming more wallpaper sci-fi (action movies in space with) and the futuristic roles for women are dwindling.

In tv, we had a great surge in female leading roles. The aforementioned Sarah Connor Chronicles' standouts wasn't Thomas Dekker's John Connor. While holding his own, Brian Austin Green's Derek Reese worked with show standouts Lena Headey and Summer Glau (with Shirley Manson and Stephanie Jacobsen coming in later). In the last couple of years Blood Ties gave us headstrong yet feminine Vicky Nelson, a private investigator, Patricia Mackenzie's misplaced otherworlder Rena in Charlie Jade, butt kicking Rachel Luttrell as Teyla in Stargate Atlantis, Freema Ageyman's Martha Jones in Doctor Who, Gina Torres' Zoe Washburn & Summer Glau's River Tam in Firefly and Serenity and Sally Richardson's Allison Blake in Eureka. All of which are in sci-fi (speculative) shows that's no longer on the air with us anymore (except for Eureka which is on its way back this summer).

Some would also argue Battlestar Galactica was pretty female driven but I'm not sure I'd hold much of the characters on the show up to a candle, especially the off and on Starbuck character. I would say the original was more progressive especially from the shining 'Lost Planet of the Gods ' episode that featured an all female viper squad lead by a woman of color. I did admire Dee's character who royally got the shaft in terms of characterization advancement but actress Kandyse McClure brought an amazing strength to each of her scenes that actually would have been cool to see as an alternate Uhura. It would've been great to see her as a new version Deitra. But I digress.

The science fiction genre has always been one about ideas. Whether a look into an alternative past or a dark dystopian or utopian satirical future, it has been one to ask and answer the question 'What if'. Although there has been some missteps in analyzing this future (for instance, most works focusing on the mainstream rather than including people of color or women) the genre has been open for more exploration especially since we've achieved some advancements in certain technology that has only been dreamed up decades and even centuries ago. On the contrary film has been a boys' game where often aspiring female directors were discouraged from pursuing careers in film "that belonged to men". I did a study on this during my speech course in college and found so little numbers that continued to dwindle as the years went on. The results are probably the same for female screenwriters who are usually relegated to romantic comedies and "chick flicks".

Perhaps the golden age of sci-fi and strong heroines finished in the 80s as far as film goes but with the rise of female driven paranormal romance and urban fantasy especially, books and stories are leading the way. After all, romance accounts for 55% of books sold in the industry and as more independent presses focus on this genre and good storytelling, perhaps the future will open up a range of possibilities for more and more chances at telling stories featuring women of the future.


Chandra Ryan said...

Great blog, Rae! I haven't seen either movie yet, but I have noticed the lack of strong females in films in general. I'm holding out hope that it's a fleeting trend, though.

Savannah Chase said...

I think females need to come back and kick butt....Their roles have been drowned down.. There are so many characters out there which gave chicks power....Lara Croft...Sara Conner, The BSG ladies....and the list goes on..

Rae Lori said...

Thanks for stopping by, Chandra! I agree. I hope we see another resurge soon in strong female roles.

Definitely, Sav! It's weird how TV is showing a lot more strong women than films are.