Every movie that has ever been made about artificial intelligence owes a debt of gratitude to one woman: Mary Shelley. When Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818, which is widely regarded to be the first science fiction novel, she effectively invented a genre. The power of science fiction to open up a portal into a parallel universe where the usual rules don’t apply, provides a unique space for radical reconsiderations of gender, bodies, power and other cool stuff. Here are some of the most intrepid lady trailblazers in sci-fi:
Maria – Metropolis (1927)
Played by Brigitte Helm
Fritz Lang’s sinister robot Maria is the prototype from whence all fembots came. If there was a robot hall of fame, Metropolis’s robot sits at the top of that family tree. With her art deco fetish-gear bodywork, the violence-inducing machine double Maria was an amalgam of every fantasy authored by man and one of the most powerful images in the history of film. Her cinematic legacy is still sending shockwaves through contemporary pop culture with icons like Kylie, Beyoncé and Madonna all paying direct homage. When they don retro-futuristic robotic body armour on stage, make no mistake about who (or what) they are channeling. Ave Maria.
Doctor Who Companions (1963)
Played by multiple actresses
There have been almost 60 companions since the 1963 launch of British TV series Doctor Who, including Karen Gillian as Amy Pond, Catherine Tate as Donna Noble and Billie Piper as Rose Tyler. When Jenna-Louise Coleman stepped down as the Time Lord’s assistant, there was speculation about whether the Doctor had a crush on her but the truth is he barely registers she’s a girl. She is somebody that embodies the spirit of Doctor Who – fun, feisty, she isn’t there as a love interest. But like The X-Files’ Scully, below, she repeatedly saves the Doctor, in this case throughout history. The Hettie MacDonald directed Blink episode of Doctor Who, in which Carey Mulligan played Sally Sparrow, is widely regarded as the best episode of the series since its revival in 2005.
Lieutenant Nyota Uhura – Star Trek (1966)
Played by Nichelle Nichols
When Gene Rodenberry’s unrepentantly feminist Star Trek aired for the first time in 60’s America, to have a woman, let alone a black woman, on TV with a cast of mostly white males was unheard of. As the ship’s communications officer, Uhura was fluent in many alien languages and a pro when it came to the technical aspects of her station. Nichols’s portrayal of the intelligent, force-to-be-reckoned-with Uhura was the first step in what would become the show’s astral mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Uhura set the precedent for strong female characters in science fiction and most memorably knocked it out the park when Sulu, played by Takei, once told Uhura, “I’ll protect you, fair maiden,” to which she replied, “Sorry, neither.” A badass retort if ever there was one.
Princess Leia – Star Wars (1977)
Played by Carrie Fisher
She may seem like your average golden bikini-wearing royal, but in reality, Leia really didn’t need saving. This princess was very much from the toss-off-your-tiara and roll-up-your-sleeves-in-a-crisis school of regal realness. Switching a sceptre for a blaster, she thwarted Darth Vader repeatedly, refused to capitulate to his torture techniques, and payed her beau Han Solo back by rescuing him before they defeated the entire Empire. Happiest when commanding a battalion of soldiers and leading a rebellion, Leia turned the age old damsel in distress trope on its head. That’s just the kind of kick-ass, cool-headed, hair-in-buns gal she was.
Ellen Ripley – Alien (1979)
Played by Sigourney Weaver
Ellen Ripley is the greatest character in science fiction history. With flamethrowers, malfunctioning androids and face-hugging aliens to contend with, Ripley’s defining moment came on the U.S.S. Sulaco spaceship when it looked as if the Queen was about to kill Newt. Ripley appeared in a power loader, the tremendous thudding of her vehicle/armour being the only audible sound. Finally her face fills the frame, and she unleashes her battle cry: “Get away from her you bitch!” This iconic moment of female versus female inter-species conflict identified Ripley as both maternal and defiantly badass, proving beyond doubt that women could play tough-as-nails action heroes.
Sarah Connor – Terminator (1984)
Played by Linda Hamilton
Most people love the Terminator franchise for its explosions, robot fights and balls-out, backs against the wall carnage. But at its core is the story of an unapologetically aggressive, surly and suspicious woman, not character traits you’d usually associate with a leading lady. Sarah’s obsessed with protecting her son, because he’s going to save the world. This means that her attitude to everybody is always exactly the same: BACK OFF. Sarah Connor’s muscle-bulging physique and subsequent badassery throughout the rest of Terminator 2 helped shape feminist sci-fi in its non-conformist depiction of womanhood. As with Alien, the film blazed trails by challenging concepts that had reigned since the inception of motion pictures.
Dana Scully – The X Files (1993)
Played by Gillian Anderson
Most female law enforcement characters today have been informed by Gillian Anderson’s shoulder-padded, eye-rolling, Scully. The X-Files, an iconic pop-culture phenomenon in the ’90s, was a landmark in feminist screenwriting and groundbreaking in its presentation of a truly equal TV partnership. Dana Scully was the skeptical rule-follower led by logic. She was brilliant and capable with her feet firmly on the ground, diametrically opposed to her partner Fox “Spooky” Mulder’s head-in-the-clouds, follow-the-spaceship approach. The ongoing appeal of Scully is beautifully encapsulated in a BuzzFeed devoted to “24 Dana Scully Faces To Shut Down Unsolicited Men’s Opinions’.
Captain Janeway – Star Trek (1995)
Played by Kate Mulgrew
When the boundary-breaking Star Trek franchise put a no-nonsense woman at the helm of U.S.S. Voyager it was a revolutionary moment that re-wrote the rulebook (and the Captain’s log). Kathryn Janeway, Star Trek’s first female captain, was a perfect vehicle for actress Kate Mulgrew who with a booming, resonant voice reminiscent of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford was pure old school Hollywood. There was something about that husky, patrician tone that commanded respect when hailing all frequencies, regardless of which species she was talking to or which planet she was on. Janeway was fair-minded, battle-tested and big-haired. She was also fallible, much like Alien’s Ripley, which made her endearing as well as imposing.
Furiosa – Mad Max:Fury Road (2015)
Played by Charlize Theron
Mad Max director George Miller enlisted the help of activist, feminist icon, and Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler in order to ensure that Fury Road wasn’t just another story about helpless female victims. As our hero Furiosa (Charlize Theron) collaborates with The Five Wives, and later with the matriarchal Vuvalini, women are given voice and agency, thereby rejecting the toxic masculinity that has poisoned the dystopian world of the movie. Furiosa was a strong, complicated and brave middle-aged heroine with many years of experience and skill, which set her apart from the Katniss Everdeens of the sci-fi universe. One thing is clear: Theron’s rough and tumble character was not to be trifled with.
Jyn Erso – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Played by Felicity Jones
Often women are used largely as a token in movies, but not so in space. The force will no doubt be strong with British actress Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) who will play the lead role in the first Star Wars stand-alone movie, which aims to bring a grittier, battlefield tone to the fantasy series. Jones will carry the baton of a long line of badass British women in science fiction. Take Emily Blunt’s character in Edge of Tomorrow (2014), starring alongside Tom Cruise. She was powerful and could kick anyone’s butt. Carey Mulligan excelled in the dystopian movie Never Let Me Go (2010), a medical sci-fi that didn’t get the recognition it deserved. And let’s not forget British actress Andrea Riseborough’s brilliant performance in another Tom Cruise sci-fi blockbuster, Oblivion (2013), in which she literally pulls the levers and flips the switches in the control tower.
About the author:
Richard Bence is a British-born, LA-based cross-platform media professional with a decade-plus career as an editor, copywriter and digital content creator focusing on arts, culture and style. As arts & entertainment editor for The Positive, a concept newspaper that reports positive news, he was responsible for interviewing visionary, out of the box people in the arts and entertainment world. Richard is a guest critic and talking head on various pop culture, TV and radio shows for BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5 and VH1. Richard is currently West Coast correspondent for radio station Monocle 24’s Arts Review. richard-bence.com