Seven Sci-Fi Heroines from Silent Films to Mad Max

Lately, from Caitlyn Jenner’s new Twitter account to Charlize Theron’s road-rage character  in the new Mad Max film, Americans seem obsessed with gender-bending. But Theron’s sci-fi feminist heroine isn’t all that groundbreaking. And, that’s business as usual for the movie business. Hollywood heroines are the last to catch on. Here are seven films that make the case for how female sci-fi heroes have transformed from willowy window dressing to being rougher than Rambo.

#7.  The Lost World (1925).  In 1920 women got the vote. But as far as Hollywood was concerned, as part of the show, they are pretty much there for show. This film adaption of the Arthur Conan Doyle story about a plateau populated by dinosaurs (think Jurassic World without sound) was one of the first Hollywood studio science-fiction hits. Bessie Love plays Paula White, whose main purpose seems to be making terrified faces in front of the Triceratops. Paula’s pet monkey Jocko plays a more prominent role in the plot.

#6. King Kong (1933).  This monster movie wowed critics and audiences.  “One of the very best of all the screen thrillers, done with all the cinema’s slickest camera tricks,” raved the New York World-TelegramKing Kong also set the standard for Hollywood’s women in peril. While Amelia Earhart was making headlines as a daredevil aviatrix and real-life heroine, there are no females piloting the planes taking pot-shots at the Empire State Building. Instead, the heroine’s job was to be threatened by the monster and saved by the hero.  Nobody did it better than Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) — her screaming is unmatched in cinematic film history.

#5. Not of This Earth (1957).  The 1950s was the heyday of Hollywood science fiction films. In the real world, there were plenty of strong women role models. Golda Meir was a rising political star in Israel. In America, Rosa Parks made history inspiring the American civil rights movement. And there were strong stoic women on the screen. But they didn’t do much other than look strong and stoic.  Patricia Neal was unfazed by aliens in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Margaret Sheridan stood by her man in The Thing.  But, one of the very best tough cookies was B-movie queen Beverly Garland. In Not of This Earth, an alien comes to earth to collect human blood for his dying planet. Garland still has to get saved by the hero, but at least she doesn’t lapse into screaming delirium like Fay Wray.

#4. Barbarella (1968).  In the 1960s, American women were breaking barriers, fighting for equal pay and equality before the law.  The best Hollywood could cook up was Jane Fonda as a space sexpot.  This cheesy movie had little to offer other than Ho Chi Minh’s favorite screen actress finding innumerable reasons to shed clothes onscreen.

#3. Alien (1979).  Five years before this film hit the screen, Golda Meir left office as the head of her country after leading the nation through some its most trying times including a harrowing war in 1973.  But while women were running countries, they still were having a tough time gaining respect in sci-fi movie scripts.  Along came Sigourney Weaver’s Lieutenant Ripley. This space pilot does not flee in the face of the alien menace hitchhiking a ride on her rocket ship. In the end, she kicks some alien butt.  Ripley’s strong character, however, only emerges gradually over the course of the film.  The fact that the audience is surprised at who the movie’s real hero is really shows just how novel real women heroines still were after over seventy years of American film history.

#2. Aliens (1986). Ripley is back. This time there is no question who is in charge here. Forget the space marines sent to handle the alien infestation that breaks out on a colonized planet. Ellen Ripley is the real warrior. In fact, she proves tougher than the film’s nominal male hero (Corporal Hicks) who mostly just follows her lead.  Movie women have come a long way since Bessie Love was upstaged by Jocko the monkey.

#1. Terminator II (1991).  Charlize Theron’s character Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road has nothing on Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. In the original film  about a robot sent from the future to take out Sarah (as in Alien), the courage of the female hero emerges over the course of the film.  At the start of the sequel, however, Hamilton’s character starts out as one mean, crazy, single-minded serious person that you do not want to mess with.  Sarah Connor is basically Indiana Jones without a sense of humor.

Today, there is nothing remarkable about seeing sci-fi heroines on the silver screen pulling their weight. A shaved head and robotic arm hardly make Furiosa an interesting or novel character.  Hollywood is still just following trends.