In October, 2012, I made the “bold” decision to embark on a personal science fiction film fest in which I would catch up on all the classic sci-fi movies that I have missed. A self-professed geek, I ashamedly had never seen classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien – a fact, which my boyfriend made perfectly clear, challenged my geek status. I decided that in the month leading up to Halloween, I would watch enough science fiction to secure my status both as a geek and as a lover of sci-fi.
The month turned into many. I found so many movies I wanted to watch, I couldn’t stop at just a few. I scrolled through “best of sci-fi” lists on the internet and solicited advice from my friends in the scientific community. (I learned at last year’s Halloween party that it is a topic that will garner a bit too much enthusiasm from certain folks; one gentleman dressed as Superman couldn’t stop just at movies and wanted to give a blow-by-blow over every great television eposofe of Star Trek and Firefly. Neither the fact that I’d seen all episodes of both shows, nor the fact that I was only observing movies would stop him.)
By the end of my quest, I had watched a list of movies that are considered to have made important contributions to the genre for one reason or another. Some are classic, others artistic, and others totally campy. Here’s a list of what I watched:
Aliens (Alien 2)
2001: A Space Odyssey
Solaris (The original)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original)
The Thing (Kurt Russell version)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
This list, of course, compliments the existing repertoire of sci-fi movies that I have already seen.
I enjoyed many of these movies. Metropolis, a silent film, was particularly good. The Day the Earth Stood Still held many important messages about xenophobia and violence that are still relevant 65 years later. Space Odyssey was a terrific film and Solaris was very intriguing, although I continually felt as though there must be some meaning or symbolism that I was missing. Alien and Aliens were perhaps the two that I enjoyed the most.
However, while watching so much science fiction in a short period of time, I could not avoid noticing the dismal contribution of strong female characters. In almost all of the films, women were rarely – or never - present. In many cases the women were desperate for male attention and love or depended upon men in order to be saved.
While this was true for Metropolis, it was also interesting to see that the love interest represented almost a Madonna-like figure; peace, love and compassion were associated with femininity in this film, (as were the woman’s gaggle of needy children.) In The Day the Earth Stood Still, the female character was quicker to understand and respect the message of peace, associating peace with femininity and violence with masculinity. Forbidden Planet, Logan’s Run, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Solaris epitomized women’s dependence on men –for love or safety, or for both. While the first three fall into the “campy” category I got tired of seeing women acting like poor, love-starved, idiots.
While Bladerunner was a truly excellent film, I was disappointed by the scene meant to insinuate passion between Deckard and Rachel. While Rachel saves Deckard's life by shooting a Replicant in the back of the head, an obvious display of power, a later scene depicts Deckard forcing Rachel into an intimate act. Rachel attempts to leave the apartment, Deckard slams the door, inches from her face. He then forces his face into hers, very aggressively, kissing her, ignoring her attempts to get away. Apparently this act of aggression turns Rachel on, and instead of trying to get away, she says, "I want you, I want you." I have to wonder: do male film screenwriters and editors put stuff like this in films because they want to believe that anytime a women rejects them, it's because she actually really wants to have sex with them? There's no denying that these scenes contribute to rape culture that supports the message that, "if i woman says no, just keep trying because she really means yes."
Alien and Aliens were obvious exceptions. I loved seeing Sigourney Weaver perform a smart, brave, powerful role. While beautiful, her character was structured around her abilities, not her looks. Terminator also featured a powerful woman, but I was also offended by the prospect that a woman’s value is based on her ability to give birth to a man who in turn becomes an important leader.
This is partly why I was so eager to see Gravity last week, a film which features a strong female lead (in fact, the female protagonist is on screen alone for most of the film) who is as courageous as she is intelligent.
The Bechdel test can be used to examine gender bias in films; the test is to see whether there are any scenes in a movie in which two women speak to each other about something other than a man. While Gravity fails this test (there are really only two characters), the movie obviously more than makes up for it. I could be wrong (it’s been over a year) but I do not think that any of the movies pass this test.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if female characters like those in Alien and Gravity were on the big screen more often. Would more girls aspire to be strong and smart, and not just sexy? Brave and bold and not just beautiful? Would more girls aspire to be the hero instead of being rescued?
Many people who enjoy the genre argue that science fiction is important. It stimulates imagination, but it does more than that. It poses very real questions about our values and ethics; it asks important questions about the dangers and risks associated with technology and change. It encourages reflection on how we live to today and asks what kind of a future we are creating for ourselves. It asks us to reflect on what makes us human, and what we love – and hate – about humanity. Science fiction can also play an important role in imagining a more equal future. Some television series, like Star Trek, used science fiction to explore important issues around gender as well as sexuality and ethnicity. I wish more science fiction would do the same.