Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 07:13:01 AM EST
Mainstream entertainment media are generally failry conservative affairs. So it is not surprising that the depiction of women's roles and capabilities in television and films have generally been that of the traditional subordinate role. However, in the 60s we can see the slow beginning of the gender revolution being represented in more imaginative shows.
From the diaries ~ whataboutbob
The character Modesty Blaise, begun in 1963, from the cartoons and books of the same name is considered by many as the first modern female action heroine. Such ideas were rapidly developed in the famous Avengers TV series, initially with the character of Cathy Gale, and then the iconic Emma Peel. Although they were still nominally sidekicks to the arch-spy John Steed, there was no doubt that these were both capable self-directed women around whom whole story threads would be woven.
Mainstream screen representation, grounded in Hollywood "reality" had no place for these modern ideas. Indeed, Nichelle Nichols,who played Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek series nearly left the show because she felt she was relegated to being just a glorified telephonist. It took Martin Luther King himself to persuade her that her very presence on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise was important, to show that, in the future, black men and women, would serve as equals alongside people of other races.
However, new generations of science fiction writers, were able to take such ideas further. Star Wars featured Princess Leia as a strong capable woman, who was rapidly shown to be in control of her situation in the first film. Sadly many feel that her role was never developed enough to reveal the true potential initially suggested, but that could well be because George Lucas was overwhelmed by the success of the film and never really knew where to take the characters. Certainly the subsequent films obeyed the law of diminishing returns pretty closely.
However, the breakthrough role for women was Sigourney Weaver's depiction of Ripley in Alien. No token female, instead Ripley rapidly establishes herself as the central active character in the narrative of the film, where her steely determination to survive and be in control of her situation was revelatory. There is so much to like about the film, so much iconic imagery, yet finally the image you retain is of Ripley winning in the final scene. There her terror, that which is traditionally supposed to disable women, is ignored and she calls on reserves of anger and aggression to destroy the monster.
After this, it became obvious that sci-fi was where women could be given real roles and the socially conservative nature of other fiction was held in stark contrast. And the ideas that sci-fi explored slowly began to be reflected elsewhere.
Other films tried to emulate this success, believing that any old science fiction/fantasy role could make do. But as with anything, a lousy script is a lousy script and good characters were thrown away with the bad through the 80s, the abominations of Super girl and Tank Girl feature prominently among such crass nightmares,
Immediately after Alien, only the Terminator series really stood out for providing a strong female character in Sarah Connor. what is interesting about her is her journey, she begins as somebody who requires saving by the man from the future. However, in the end it is her who eventually destroys the Terminator itself and then goes off to develop the skills and hone her inner strength to prepare for the dystopian future to come.
The next great character was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Joss Whedon's comic, largely ignored at the time, translated perfectly into a smartly scripted and intelligently plotted ensemble show that showcased the most popular female sci-fi/fantasy character of all-time. Other people have written entire books devoted to the ideas that underpinned this show, but without a doubt it was a landmark in the representation of women. Every woman was a strong character in herself and, even if they had normal human weaknesses, they were used only to flesh out the personality and highlight the strength that each had.
The influence of Buffy can now be seen throughout the film and television world where women are being given strong, active characters. Juliette Binoche is about to appear as the lead character in a spy movie, a part that would once have gone to a man by default.
That is the power of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It doesn't take the world as it is, or was but as it could be. And sometimes it can play a part in making such things real, for ideas that come from the dream world into daily understanding can never again be relegated to mere imagination. Nowadays nobody is suprised that women are given strong parts, but without the imaginative power of sci-fi/fantasy who knows if it might ever have happened.
Many have criticised my focus on women who are assertive and aggressive action heroes rather than on self-directed women who manifest strength in other ways. That is entirely valid, except that I am trying to portray an influential visual science fiction media and those characters, however interesting have not yet been represented on screen. I appreciate this is disappointing, but for the general cultural view, books simply don't matter.