The femmebots, go-go boot wearing nurses, and tentacled villainesses in sci-fi are enough to make a female fan of the genre go crazy. Thankfully, women like Star Trek‘s Uhura have blazed the trail of complex, strong, and worthy female sci-fi characters. Each of these five women have brought something unique to the genre, and re-imagined the way we look at the female side of sci-fi adventure in film and TV.
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) — Alien
The ultimate survivor, Ripley is an icon in the sci-fi genre, amongst both male and female characters. A quick-witted and tough space traveler, Ripley grapples with a vicious alien life form and ends as the only survivor of a team of seven–a team that had been considered by the company ordering its mission as expendable.
Ripley was a female character that was lean and sexy and appeared in her underwear to appeal to male sci-fi fans, and kicked alien butt with no whimpering angst to appeal to female sci-fi fans. Sigourney Weaver lent Ripley an air of authority and intelligence, with enough legitimate fear and anger to keep her from becoming a warrior woman cliché.
Alien was groundbreaking in its treatment of women in sci-fi. With a crew of five men and two women, the five men are killed (or destroyed) one by one. Ripley survives, while Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartright) is the last to meet her end at the hands of the alien.
The key to writing a complex, strong, and exciting female character? Total Sci-Fi Online reports that the character was originally written as a man, “but 20th Century Fox executive Alan Ladd, Jr. suggested they change Ripley to become female to make the protagonist stand out in a male- dominated genre.” That decision gave us one of the first trailblazing female characters in sci-fi film and TV history.
Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) — Star Trek: Voyager
Though Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was a man ahead of his time, putting together a multi-cultural cast with women in positions of authority, sci-fans were not always as progressively minded. When new series spin-off Star Trek: Voyager appeared with a female starship captain, many male fans of the genre considered it blasphemy.
Voyager continued despite the objections, and became a study in how tough it is to write a female character of power that pleases everyone. Though Captain Janeway was ideally a woman who ruled with authority yet sensitivity, over the seasons she ranged from overly emotional and dependent upon male second-in-command Chakotay, to stern, aloof and verging on despotic. Kate Mulgrew forged on through all of the character shifts, valiantly meshing the personality changes as seamlessly as possible, and giving Janeway a captivating blend of intelligence, dry wit, and feisty feminine bravado. When the balance of her warring character traits worked, Voyager was an intriguing and captivating success.
To appease more traditionally-minded male viewers, Voyager eventually added a Barbie-esque Borg, Seven of Nine, to the cast, though thankfully her character was written as more than a set of fantasy figure measurements. Forced to face the male ideal of a female sci-fi character every week, Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway forged on, head held high, taking on the role of mentor to the conflicted young Borg/human hybrid.
Despite the flaws and controversy, Captain Kathryn Janeway stands as one of the mighty predecessors to strong female sci-fi characters. Star Trek itself even honored her by making her an Admiral for appearances in later Star Trek projects.
Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite ) — Firefly
Joss Whedon’s Firefly remains one of the best sci-fi creations ever, with an ensemble cast of captivating and complex characters that few series have rivaled. The fact that the main cast included an almost even split of male and female characters was enough to set it apart; the well-written variety of women represented made it even more appealing.
Female characters in sci-fi are often written to extremes–unbending toughness, genius intelligence, avoidance of anything romantic or sensitive, reliance on heavy artillery to obliterate even the smallest target–to combat years of oppressive bubblehead roles. The character of Kaylee, on the other hand, was simply a realistic portrayal of a country girl with a natural talent for fixing mechanical things. Her introduction in the series is her having sex with the ship’s mechanic on Serenity. While she’s on her back under the engine, she notices the very problem that’s been keeping the firefly grounded and knows just how to fix it. Now that’s an entrance.
Kaylee was a perfect blend of earthy girl and tomboy mechanic. At a town dance/ball for the elite, she excitedly makes an entrance in a giant pink wedding cake of a dress, and though she’s snubbed by the snooty charm school girls, she attracts a crowd of men by talking shop about spaceships. Relentlessly sweet and optimistic, and terrified of violence, Kaylee can be naive about the ways of the world and sometimes gets hurt both physically and emotionally. Kaylee never backs down, however, from the important things: keeping Serenity in the air, doing everything she can for her captain and his crew, and pursuing the handsome Dr. Simon Tam. The way she succeeds at all three was a large part of what made Firefly and subsequent film Serenity so appealing.
While writers continue to struggle with portraying strong women in sci-fi, Kaylee proved that it’s possible to write an admirable and compelling woman character without making her super human.
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) — The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day
In the original film The Terminator, Sarah Connor was a regular woman whose entire life was turned upside down in a matter of hours. Linda Hamilton expertly portrayed Sarah as a terrified but intelligent woman who struggles to make sense of the insanity she’s been presented with: repeated attempts on her life by what appears to be an indestructible robot that looks human, and a man who claims to know her son in the future, during a world war with machines. Unlike many sci-fi epics that live within the unreality, The Terminator gave us Sarah, a woman we could imagine being or knowing, and made us feel exactly what this sort of terror would be like.
In the second Terminator movie, we got a completely different Sarah. Burdened with the knowledge of a devastating future and being the mother of the savior of the human race, Sarah becomes a military expert–and a candidate for the psych ward. Viewers were stunned to see the delicately beautiful and fragile Hamilton turned into a lean, muscled, hard woman with a maniacal gleam in her eye.
Sarah Connor stands as a trailblazer to women sci-fi characters. With her adaptations to a rapidly changing and terrifying reality, Sarah traveled through an impressive character arc that set the standard for complex female roles.
Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) — The Matrix
The Matrix starred Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, so it was a surprise to viewers when The Matrix opened with a startling action sequence featuring Carrie-Anne Moss. When the Wachowski Brothers chose to debut their groundbreaking visual effects with a female sci-fi character, it was a huge step forward toward equality in the genre. Trinity didn’t stop there, however.
Though the Matrix plot centered on finding The One, aka Neo (Reeves), this was all about a partnership. Neo and Trinity live together, work together, and fight together. After Neo has his pivotal moment of dodging bullets, his lapse of strength leaves him vulnerable to the deadly agents. In another trailblazing moment for women sci-fi characters, and female characters in general, Neo actually calls for help from Trinity. There in a flash, Trinity saves The One from certain death.
Though esteemed movie critic Roger Ebert lamented that Trinity “has a sensational title sequence, before the movie recalls that she’s a woman and shuttles her into support mode”, Trinity can be admired for her faith and loyalty and love (not the usual girlish romance). Female sci-fi characters needn’t be asexual to be worthy of admiration. To be fair to Ebert, it would have been exciting to see Trinity as the chosen one and Neo as her supportive partner. This is only a small regret, however, since Trinity and Neo act so often as equals. Trinity is not a damsel in distress, and when Neo saves her life, it’s only successful because she’s acted to facilitate her own rescue.
Carrie-Anne Moss gives Trinity a continuing aura of strength and fortitude, with a vulnerability that’s been carefully buried under layers of survival instincts. Trinity is a complex woman, and a groundbreaking female sci-fi character who kicks the ass of her enemy and repeatedly saves the ass of her male counterpart.