In the last few years, there has been a trend to have a strong, independent woman as the hero in science fiction, horror, and action films, but it hasn’t always been this way. For years, women played the roll of “Damsel in Distress” and needed to be rescued by the “big strong man”. Possibly because Hollywood was run by men who didn’t want to give up their power and feelings of superiority, living out their fantasies in the films they made. There was also a belief that an audience wouldn’t want to see a woman as a lead in an action film. Those times have changed and it’s about time that the media industry caught up! This article contains my opinion and is not intended to be a comprehensive list of all women in genre films and television, but what I experienced as key points in the industry.
Oddly enough, the written word format was well ahead of Hollywood. The pulp fiction of the early 1900s is full of strong, self-confident women who do not need men to rescue them. Representing both hero and villain in many stories through out the age of pulp magazines. Then in 1941, Wonder Woman premiered. A new kind of superhero, who did not fight just with her fists, but with love. But for all the wonderful female characters that had been created, we don’t really see this represented in action or Science Fiction films and television until the late 70s and early 80s. Dramas and Comedies had some good female characters, but the story always seemed to end with the woman depending on a man. Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946) is a Femme Fatale but by the end, love has worked it’s way into her heart is a perfect example. On Television, in the Star Trek pilot (1966), Majel Barrett is the first officer, but the network wanted the casting reworked and did not believe that a woman should be in the executive officer position, Trek did give us a strong black female character in Lieutenant Uhura played by fan favorite Nichelle Nichols.
The times were changing though. The same year that Star Trek premiered, a sitcom starring Marlo Thomas as an unmarried woman, living on her own. The sitcom broke ground by being the first to focus on a woman, living alone, who wasn’t a domestic or living with her parents. This show paved the way for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The movies took a bit more time to catch up to television. I love 1950s horror movies, and I applaud them for often having a woman in a role that was typically depicted as a “man’s job”. The movie Them! For example, has Joan Weldon as Doctor Pat Medford, a myrmecologist. Unfortunately, the role in most of these movies are to look pretty, get into trouble and need to be saved by the male hero. For the most part, it stays like this until the late seventies where it finally began to change.
Then, in 1977, Star Wars came onto the scene and we got a twist on the classic “damsel in distress who needs to be rescued” story line. Princess Leia wasn’t demure or submissive. Played to perfection by Carrie Fisher, this princess was outspoken and critical of the men around her. She was strong, knew how to fight and was a true leader. Not the first strong female roll model, Star Wars strengthened the idea that people would pay to see a movie where the women weren’t just objects of desire but could hold their own.
A few years later came what I believe was the turning point in Hollywood. In 1979, Ellen Ripley became the only survivor or the Nostromo. Of course, I am talking about Ridley Scott’s Alien. The movie won many awards and put Sigourney Weaver into the spotlight. Ellen Ripley was beautiful and strong, she was third in command and if everyone would have just listened to her, they would all still be alive! With Sigourney’s vast acting abilities, she added a depth to a female character in a Science Fiction / Horror movie, that we hadn’t seen before. She showed fear, strength, confidence, and tenderness all rolled into one bad ass woman. Not only was she the “Final Girl”, but she survived not only with strength, but intelligence too. Alien proved that a leading female character could carry a movie. This was expanded upon in the extraordinarily successful sequel, Aliens (1986). Where Alien was “truckers” in space, Aliens (Directed by James Cameron) was “soldiers” in space. The over-the-top macho attitudes of the Colonial Marines is in direct comparison to Ripley’s tenderness and reserved confidence. Her lake of Bravado, at first, is seen as weakness by the marines she is accompanying, but when she saves the day, they begin to see her as the leader their Lieutenant wasn’t. Being face to face with a whole colony of Aliens, not only does she survive, but she rescues a little girl and saves the only Marine to survive, Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn). Ripley is never the damsel in distress, but the hero who saves the day.
A few years before Aliens, James Cameron gave us The Terminator. The first in the franchise used the old Hollywood ideal of “Woman in trouble needs to be saved”. But with the success of Aliens, Cameron’s follow up to the success of his first Terminator movie, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), saw Linda Hamilton reprise her roll as Sarah Connor, but this time she isn’t a helpless girl needing to be rescued, she is a strong woman who has been training her son how to survive the apocalypse. By this time, it was almost expected that the leading female would no longer need to be rescued but be able to handle herself in a fight. Society was changing and studios understood that women didn’t need to be viewed as weak or submissive to men.
Television saw this trend far before the movies did. Wonder Woman (1975) cast Linda Carter as the female heroine, and although the show was campy and not to be taken seriously, it still showed that a female led superhero story could be told, could draw an audience and be fun at the same time. The Bionic Woman (1976), the female counter to the Six Million Dollar Man, drew an audience and in my opinion far surpasses her male equivalent in both acting and storytelling. Men seem to be two dimensional, where the women characters have more depth and understanding. The stories are smarter and more creative. Society looks down on men showing emotion, so female characters tend to have more depth and empathy. And in the “Next Generation” Star Trek franchise, we see strong females through out each of the shows, Tasha Yar, Dr. Crusher and Deanna Troi. Deep Space Nine (1993) gave us Major Kira, the first female “Number 1”, and finally, Star Trek: Voyager gave us the first female captain at the helm of her own series, Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew).
Video game companies also saw this trend. Where the belief was once that boys were the only one playing video games, some companies thought that there might be an untapped market out there and created Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (1995). Where Lara’s appearance was made to draw in teenage boys (her proportions are way off from reality and don’t even get me started on how Hollywood has destroyed both the female and male vision of what a healthy body image is), the fact that the main character in a game was a female, was meant to draw in a feminine crowd and empower young women.
As time has progressed, it seems that Hollywood has learned that a strong female lead cannot only carry a movie, draw and audience and perform well, but that it is a necessity to survive. The trend seems to be that all genre movies need to have strong female roll models and be able to represent them as intelligent, strong, and independent. There are critics to this trend, believing that it has gone too far. As more and more male heroes are recast with women, they feel that the strong male lead is disappearing. I understand this sentiment, as I think there should be a balance. There are strong men and women in the world, and both should be utilized. Heroes aren’t just men and they aren’t just women and we should be able to find a common ground. But then I remember the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was asked “when will there be enough female justices on the Supreme Court?” and people are shocked when she says “Nine” (When all the judges are female). For years all the justices were men, and no one seems shocked at that. For decades, women were only in Science Fiction, Horror and Action movies as a device for the hero to spring into action and as an object of sexual desire. Maybe, until the real world finds a balance and unbiased liberation is achieved, Hollywood needs to compensate for a while.
The Rise of the Female Hero!
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