‘Why don’t you put her in charge?’: Female characterisation in the modern sci-fi epic | Film

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By Rachel


What do Louise Banks of Arrival and Ellen Ripley of Alien have in common? Extraterrestrial buddies, a troubled relationship with the military, and a tendency to defy authority.

What they don’t have in common, though, is infinitely more interesting.

After recently experiencing the grand, sweeping frames of Denis Villeneuve ‘s Arrival within a week of watching one of my all-time favourite science fiction works, Ridley Scott’s Alien, it sprung to mind that female leads of this genre used to come by once in a blue moon. Over the past few decades, though, female protagonists of science fiction have significantly increased in number.

Sarah Connor of the Terminator series, Eleanor Arroway of Contact, Evey Hammond of V for Vendetta, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, Furiosa of Mad Max: Fury Road, and Rey of Star Wars: The Force Awakens are arguably all iconic characters of the science fiction genre. Katniss in particular has played a large role in popularising female protagonists in a franchise that appeals to both teenage girls and boys.

In many ways, though, Scott’s film was revolutionary. It was still the 1970s, and here was a woman, out-surviving the men on a spaceship where at any turn H.R. Giger’s alien could tear her apart. Sigourney Weaver’s character is the first to see through the corrupt behaviour of the traitor Ash and the last left to initiate the self-destruction of the Nostromo. She is a badass kinda woman.  

 Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise [source]

It should be said, though, that I’m a little biased. Ripley is one of my favourite characters in film, primarily because she doesn't take any prisoners when it comes to leadership and doing what needs to be done. As much as she’s smart and rational, she doesn’t hide her emotions and isn’t afraid of showing her true colours. She is courageous and intelligent, while still retaining her sense of independence as the only female character capable of making cut-throat decisions on a mission where men blindly follow orders. She represents neither the archetype of the masculine woman out to prove herself in a man's world, nor the studious career woman hell bent on professional success with no interest in a family. She is something else altogether. As we discover in Aliens, Ripley had a family, back on Earth, and she shows great compassion to Newt, the young girl found orphaned after aliens take over her human colony. At the same time, though, Ripley decries the stereotypical feminine aesthetic of 'the only woman on the spaceship', as many would remember from the somewhat dated episodes of Star Trek and Lost in Space. She is muscular and agile, but this does not make her manly – she is simply a strong human being.

Of course, Scott’s work is not without its problems. Ripley is at times sexualised throughout the franchise – who can forget the nail-biting final scene of Alien where she single-handedly fights off the stowaway alien in her singlet and underwear? However, as much as science fiction has vastly changed over the years – and Arrival is indeed a positive example of these changes - Ripley will always represent an early step forward to more diverse characterisations in the genre.

This little girl survived longer than that with no weapons and no training’: Newt and Ripley in Aliens. [source]

Based on a short story by Ted Chiang, ‘Story of your Life’, Arrival reflects similar themes of female empowerment and independence, but in rather different ways. Naturally, they are different films with very different characters. But in terms of feminist themes, there are some interesting discrepancies in comparison to Alien.

Amy Adams takes the role of Louise Banks – a solitary academic in the world of linguistics who is chosen to aid the American military in their communications with an alien species. Banks is an intellectual, but her abrupt mannerisms and perceivably lonely existence portray her as fundamentally unhappy. We are led to believe that her unhappiness is due to her daughter’s recent death from cancer – although the viewer learns otherwise in later scenes of the film. Banks is admirable because she values intellectualism – especially its role in bringing humans together to form more powerful, peaceful communities. Her rational, intelligent decisions are in stark contrast to the meatheaded-ness of the military (a stereotype that grew slightly tiresome in this film). Banks proves to herself and the people around her that through knowledge, hard work and patience comes successful communication and, eventually, a sense of meaning. 

However, as refreshing as it is to still see such a strong female lead in science fiction, the characterisation of Banks is somewhat problematic. From the first scene to the moving final moments, Banks’ value as a human being seems to originate from her role as a mother.

Despite her knowledge as a linguist and her no-holds-barred approach to her work, the writers make sure that we don’t forget what has really given her life meaning – a child. As viewers will discover, the back-story of Banks’ family life is an essential plot device, so it could hardly be removed. But it still begs the question of why a successful, smart woman needs a child to make her life worth living.

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival. [source]

As much as I enjoyed the film, I couldn’t help but think that the story would be a little different with a male lead. That is not to take away from Banks’ story – she is a successful, driven and intelligent woman, and, incidentally, a mother. But imagine a man in the same position as Banks. It is much more difficult (although perhaps not impossible) to imagine a male linguist on a path to rescue humanity, pining for the happy memories of time spent with his now-dead daughter. Was he a good father? Did he make the right decisions? How does this affect his work on a high-profile, once-in-a-lifetime case to help ‘save the world’? It is not an impossibility, but perhaps an unlikelihood. As we see in Interstellar, Joseph Cooper is kept going by the love for his daughter back on Earth. The difference in Arrival is that all of Banks’ narration centres around the life of her daughter, despite her own vital role in aiding humankind. Alternatively, Cooper’s mission is informed by the love for his daughter, but his character is not defined by it (especially when he leaves his aging daughter behind to, again, ‘save humanity’).  

Following the revelation that her non-existent child is not yet dead (but will live and die in the future), the only tangible reason we’re given for Banks’ sad, lonely sequences at the beginning of the film is the fact that she’s single – albeit residing in a fabulous lakeside house with a high-paying university professorship to boot. But still, single.

Additionally, Banks’ decision to bring a daughter into the world with the full knowledge of what will happen to her is depicted as heroic and admirable. The audience is meant to respect her decision to continue on the path to motherhood despite the knowledge that her daughter will die young from a horrible disease. But what if Banks had decided otherwise? What if she had instead avoided pregnancy to save a child from horrific pain and suffering? Would she still be an admirable woman, or is this something only a pragmatic male would do? I would not blame her for either decision, but the alternative does make me wonder.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the majesty of Arrival; how it challenged my perception of language and the human idea of time and reality. Aliens, a female lead, and an excellent plot twist – what’s a sci-fi fangal not to love? It was a good film, and the recent Oscar nominations it’s been granted are well-deserved. I cannot wait to watch it again.

And I’m also not in the market for films in which all female characters are decidedly admirable, or representative of my own idea of feminism – I want them to be conflicted, mean, tough and foolhardy, without being perceived as ‘insane bitches’ – and in many ways, the increasing amount of women in science fiction will hopefully allow for a more diverse range of characterisations to take hold. It’s just a shame that Banks – an intelligent, strong and ethical woman –  was primarily defined by her motherhood, and not instead by her Ripley-esque rationale and independence.  
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