The sciences as fields of study/discipline have been long regarded as a male dominated arena. The same holds true for Science-Fiction or Sci-Fi as a genre. Female characters typically occupy the position of a decoration or a trophy, an enhancement to the male character. Sci-Fi fandom too, is male dominated. No wonder the content caters to the male demands and gaze. World off-screen changed dramatically over the decades and sci-fi has often reflected those changes. However, one can say that the sci-fi still lacks behind in reflecting those changes in terms of pace. On closer inspection, this slack is most evident in how women characters are predominantly represented in the visual field. Even to this date we are very used to seeing female characters as weaklings who are in constant need of male protection, hence, you have the age old trope of the damsel in distress in need of saving. Or take for example, how sexist is the lens from which we gaze at the archetypal space babes, who is out there for the male visual consumption. Despite of all these, many writers and filmmakers have used, challenged or overturn the conventions of the genre in such a way that they are used as the vehicle to imagine and realize more egalitarian worlds. It is a common misconception that sci-fi as a genre is removed from the world inhabit. Instead, I will go so far to argue that, it has a bearing on what is wrong and bad about our world. Launching from that critique, it is often times used to imagine a better world, there in, lies the revolutionary potential of the genre.
The 1970s and 80s were interesting times. They saw authors like Marge Piercy, Ursula LeGuin and Margaret Atwood envisioned futures near and far through a feminist lens. Many of their works are exploration of mainstream conceptions of gender roles and sexuality of the day. These works often speculated frightening new ways in which patriarchal authority might evolve if unchecked. Thus, these were periods of social churnings and contestations.
This was also a period of sci-fi boom on the big screen (not that it wasn’t there before). Thus, it is not surprising that we see amalgamation of sci-fi and feminist politics. On screen, filmmakers have similarly used the tropes of sci-fi to explore ideas surrounding gender as a social and biological category. Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983) is considered by many as the first/definitive feminist sci-fi film. It includes a very young Kathryn Bigelow and is about a brilliant imagining of an underground uprising of women under a totalitarian socialist patriarchy of the not-too-distant future. Interestingly, Bigelow became the first woman to win the Oscar for the best director in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. If I may be allowed to digress a bit here, I wish to point out the male domination of Hollywood lobbies even to this date.
Nevertheless, a number of brilliant female characters have left their mark on sci-fi audiences over the years. More recently, sci-fi fandom has made a home for itself online. Its female contingent has become increasingly vocal and empowered. They have started reclaiming heroes from the past and identifying icons for the future. It looks like we are in for another social churning in sci-fi fandom. In that spirit, our list for today is on women characters who have left their marks on the sci-fi scene.
10. Katniss Everdeen – The Hunger Games (2012- )
Dystopian Universe is the things that is currently trending in Hollywood. This is very interesting from a gendered perspective, in that it gives a chance of peeing into gender roles and dynamics, not in normal world like ours but one whose landscape is drastically altered. Katniss Everdeen is the hero of the dystopian universe of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books and their subsequent Hollywood adaptations. Everdeen has emerged as a poster girl for a new generation of young, female sci-fi fans. The feminist author Katie Roiphe found in Katniss an amalgamation of both the yin and the yang, the male and the female. She has written that Katniss is powerful because she combines, “female strength and female vulnerability all mingled and entwined, dangerously, ambiguously, into one.”
A strange parallelism can be drawn between the strict hierarchy that characterizes Katniss’ Panem and the divided society of Metropolis (1927). Both Maria and Katniss become symbols of a proletarian (the working class) uprising. They both are powerful characters: On the one hand we have Maria whose power gets magnified by her robotic clone and on the other we have Katniss, with her bow and arrow, defies the status quo. She is ready to fight tooth and nail to protect those she cares for which makes her a real flesh and blood hero.
9. Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace – Battlestar Galactica (2004-9)
Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace, is she possible love child of Ellen Ripley and Han Solo? She is truly one of the most kick-ass characters ever created in the sci-fi universe. The story of how she came into existence is similar to that of Ripley’s – a gender swap. If you were to search on the internet, you will find out that in the original 1970s serial, Starbuck was a roguish male. He was a character developed and brilliantly honed by Dirk Benedict. The producers of the reboot had decided to make Starbuck a woman on hearing about the old series. Benedict was so angered that he published a furious post – entitled ‘Starbuck: Lost in Castration’ – in which he railed against feminism and political correctness gone mad in Hollywood.
Much changes was made to the character in the rebooted series. In terms of characterization, Benedict’s Starbuck had been a cigar-smoking, woman rising maverick down to his very core. How can that possibly be translated into a female character? Can you imagine a female character doing the same and coming across convincing? It just doesn’t work. How does one adapt then? The answer, for Katee Sackhoff who would play her in the reboot, was: business as usual. She retained the traits and habits which made Benedict’s character so kickass but did away all his bad qualities. For instance, Sackhoff’s Starbuck is as trigger-happy, high-flying and arrogant as her male predecessor. But what perhaps makes her so compelling for fans is that she is more human, vulnerable, damaged and selfless in equal measure. I can honestly say that I prefer the female Starbuck to the male one.