Last week, the guys discussed who was the toughest female hero in science fiction, and this week continue the discussion for your reading enjoyment.

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Chris: So women are hard to write for. Are we all in agreement there? Great! I think that pretty much wraps things up here for the week, yeah?

Okay fine, let’s dig deeper for the sake of Internet discussion. Right now in the mainstream culture surrounding movies, TV shows, and video games, there are generally three kinds of female characters: Sex appeal, corpses, and men. Alright, more explanation is needed there.

First, you have your obvious with sex appeal. I’m looking pretty heavily at video games here, specifically ones like Dead or Alive or Soul Calibur insomuch as the female characters represented there are more to show off jiggle physics than competent and deep game mechanics.

Second, you’ve got the corpse, the classic “woman in a refrigerator” that comics have been going wild with. This is essentially any female character whose main purpose is to be either bait for the hero, a reward for the hero, or the emotional righteous anger-inducer so that the hero may push through to their Super Saiyan transformation (though interestingly, Dragon Ball Z very rarely made females in peril the impetus for ragesplosions save for one throw-away fight in the Tenkaichi Budokai series).

Last, we have the most common female character for movies and TV shows: The man character that just so happens to have lady bits. She walks like a man, dresses like a man, talks like a man, and most importantly feels no emotion, just like a man. We’re talking Michelle Rodriguez or The Bride from Kill Bill.

So why am I wasting time talking about stuff we already mostly likely know when I could be talking about the best science fiction female debate? Because I can’t honestly bring up a truly strong female character in science fiction or really any fiction because what we define as “strong” doesn’t work across genders and there isn’t a universal agreement as to whether a strong woman is stronger than a strong man.

You wanna get some rage in ya? My senior year political science teacher got the class to levels of pandemonium one day when he mentioned that the best male athletes are always stronger, faster, and more impressive than the best female athletes. On a purely scientific level, yeah, you can’t disprove that (world records for universal “best” are currently all held by men). But the problem comes from us defining women’s abilities based on the standard we’ve supposedly agreed upon, which is currently “man.”

This is like trying to judge a car by how far it can fly compared to a jet. A jet was built to fly, whereas a car was not, but we don’t look at a car that flew an absurdly far distance despite its design as impressive because that jet still flew farther and made it look easier. Same goes for any races in the Olympics. Gold medal? Greatest guy in the world. Silver medal? Never heard of him.

Okay, back to females. My point is we’re so damned stuck on this notion that female characters have to come as some sort of a comment, reaction, or inverse to male characters, and that simply doesn’t have to be the case. I haven’t mentioned books here because books, thank God, are still plowing ahead with stories and characters, especially of the female variety, that are unapologetically separate from the “men but different” ideas. And I can give you exactly no examples here because I read far too little and I wouldn’t be able to appreciate that sort of story anyway because I am, sadly, very stupid when it comes to literacy.

Science fiction is one of the few genres that has begun pushing forward with some interesting plays with motherhood as central themes, such as in the Alien movies and here and there in the Metroid series. We’re not quite all the way there just yet, but we’re moving slowly forward at the very least. All that I ask is that we don’t fall into the usual trappings of judging female characters against their male counterparts.

In terms of the debate though, damn, Sarah Connor had a super awesome moment where she told a terminator that it was terminated as she was terminating it, so my vote goes to her. Boom goes the dynamite.

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Kyle: I fully stand by my victory here. Ripley rules. Although I feel like Dan could have taken this one if he had gotten to mention Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and all the additional awesomeness brought to the character.

As it stands, he didn’t. But I had some other stuff in my back pocket. For instance, both of these characters suffer from a survivor’s guilt brought on by their ordeals. In Terminator 2, Sarah is angry and jaded because Reese died protecting her and no one believes her crazy story. That’s rough, but she makes it through and finds closure. Ripley, on the other hand, continues to muscle through a lot more.

In Aliens and in Alien 3, Ripley is twice made the only survivor of the onslaught from her nemesis species. First she must cope with the loss of her entire crew, then she must cope with the loss of her daughter and her 57-year drift through space. Then at the end of the second film, she voluntarily enters another extended period of suspended animation (a direct return to her trauma, and a confrontation of her inability to sleep). To top it all off, she wakes up with a whole new bout of survivor’s guilt and the alien menace has followed her. At this point, the toughest person in the real world would curl into a piss-soaked ball and cry themselves to death.

But Ellen Ripley is a special kind of fictional tough.

I also favor Ripley because she commits suicide in order to destroy the unstoppable alien race and save humanity from the dangerous ineptitude of militarized capitalism … oh, and the aliens.

Sarah Conner would lay down her life for her son. She believes so zealously – just as Reese did – that John will save humanity. But he is her son. That’s the main reason why she protects him. Sarah is clearly less interested in society or humanity in general, because she is already convinced that the Golden Child will have that taken care of. Would she die for John Conner? In a heart-beat. Would she die for an innocent, oblivious, admittedly dimwitted stranger? Like, say, John’s dingus buddy played by the same kid from Salute Your Shorts? I think not.

Oh, and one thing that I totally didn’t realize while we were shooting: Michael Biehn has a thing for rifle-carrying menace-exterminating women. But even using the Sarah/Reese and Ripley/Hicks relationships as a barometer, Ripley still comes out on top even though Sarah actually got on top…hee-hee.

Reese was straight-up manipulated by his future son into a one-sided love affair. His devotion to Sarah is noble, and his love is real. John sent him knowing that he would die, but they both knew that Reese would gladly die for Sarah Conner. That doesn’t change the manipulation and weird chronological inbreeding that’s deciding the fate of a good man, a dutiful soldier.

Corporal Hicks, meanwhile, takes a real and natural liking to Ripley and makes her safety his responsibility. Not through any obligation, but rather because he trusted her judgment in a time of crisis. And he respected her. Ripley and Hicks get one moment of real intimacy before the acidic blood hits the fan for the rest of the movie. Rather than a passionate kiss to break the tension or take their minds off their oncoming death, the two share a moment of practical thinking.

In teaching Ripley to use the Pulse Rifle and giving her a tracking device, Hicks is telling her, “Look, we’re in this together. You are now a soldier. So I should treat you like one. Not like some dumb betty who’s gonna get me killed.” Ripley reciprocated in a small-yet-profound way by accepting Hicks’ help. It’s not like she would open up and admit her vulnerability to someone like Bishop or Burke.

What I’m trying to say is this: Hicks and Ripley were in a desperate situation and they connected with each other in a way that helped keep them alive. Was it as passionate (and nude) as Sarah and Reese? Not really. But it said more about the characters and in my opinion made Ripley the much more faceted character.

Anyway, when do we start with the Hicks vs. Reese debate?!

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Dan: A lot of the comments this week were about how we were perhaps missing the mark on what makes a female best, especially a strong sci-fi protagonist. Sometimes we forget that in discussing what we will debate on before and post filming, the two guys and I get a more rounded definition of our subject matter. So, in fair discloser and making things right with our more vocal commenters, I will expand on my personal view of what makes a female a great protagonist, and how she can avoid being an “Ice Queen”.

Let’s start with a guy that we can all agree is universally heralded as a bad ass, take no gruff awesome dude; Indiana Jones. Here’s a guy who is intelligent, strong, good looking (or so my wife tells me), and knows how to punch a Nazi in the face. My guess is the male equivalent of an “Ice Queen” would be an A-hole, and we all can agree Indy is not one of those. But why? Well, he tries to avoid conflict whenever possible, opting to outsmart his opponent as plan A. He does this by using his surroundings, using back doors that only truly educated and experienced adventurers would know about, and romancing ladies if need be to get out of jams. If, as the situation demands it, he has to introduce the room to fist 1 and fist 2, he christens the fight with a knowing groan and eye roll, as if to say to the audience that he knows he’s going to win, yet it’s realistically not going to feel good for anyone involved.

Great, now we’ve defined why he is a bad ass strong protagonist. Think first, make your enemies look dumb, and when violence is needed, don’t act like it was your idea to begin with. Now if you swapped his gender to a woman, you would get Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. She may swap a little intelligence for being quicker to punch you in the face compared to Indy, but the reflection remains. Has anyone, anyone ever called Starbuck an “Ice Queen”? No, because her gender is only something that comes into play with whom she chooses to romance. The audience reacts positively to that.

The other point made by our commenters was that greatness in female-itude should not have anything to do with being maternal, because that is a gender-role prison that men don’t have to be strapped down with. I flat-out reject the place those complaints come from. Men have gender roles that, when followed, make them stronger protagonists as well. Sure, men can’t give birth to a child, so it would be pointless to shoehorn character development into a male role that revolved around such tropes. But you know what men do have issues with? Impressing their father.

Did someone say Indy again? Oh wait, it was me, reminding you of the third and arguably best of his exploits. The entire film was about Indy having daddy-issues, and coming to terms with them. Like it or not, women have mothers in them by hard-wired design, even if they never have a child themselves. Like-wise, all men are hard wired with a need to deal with their father, whether that be impressing them, or surpassing them.

You find this trope in Finding Nemo, where Nemo convinces his father that he has grown up and can be allowed to swim free. You see this in Taken, where Liam Neeson battles with his impotency as a father, and practically jumps for joy when his life skills fall in line with what will bring his child back to him. We see this in Big Fish, where the entire film centers around a son rejecting his father, then later accepting him for the lies that make up his life.

What I’m trying to say is that saying that motherhood shouldn’t be criteria in measuring the qualities of a female protagonist is wrong. Protecting your young and drawing power from that is a unique skill that women bring to the table, and should not be ignored or sidelined. With more and more films showing men protecting their children or parents instead of some bimbo get made, the better off women will be.

Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley are strong female characters because they are protecting humanity as if we were all their kids. John and Newt are just microcosms of that urge. If they made a film where a guy had to go save the world, but also was saving his child, it would be awesome as well. Or we could realize that movie was Live Free or Die Hard and call it a day.

Daniel Epstein
Father, filmmaker, and writer. Once he won an Emmy, but it wasn't for being a father or writing.

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