Author’s Note: Diane O’Bannon has reached out to me and educated me about the origins of the script written by her late husband Dan O’Bannon, and his legacy. To honor that legacy, I have re-written portions of this article in order to be accurate about the origins of Ellen Ripley.

 

When Dan O’Bannon wrote the script for Alien, he created a series of complex characters whom he intentionally made free of gender. Although many men were seen for the role of Ripley, Casting Director Mary Selway brought them a woman who had every quality they were looking for. When Sigourney Weaver filled the role of Ripley, the only script revisions were to change pronouns from “he” to “she” otherwise, who Ripley was and what Ripley did was immaterial to their gender.

That’s the story that came to mind when I realized that I had written a character whose gender was irrelevant, and I had “defaulted” to them being male. In Time Wars Tales: the Beginning of a Bizarre Friendship, the protagonist is known only as Agent Mu, and I discovered that the story was unchanged – perhaps, in places, improved – by changing all gendered references from male to female.

Mary Selway was able to look past into Dan O’Bannon’s words and into the story he was telling, and in a feat of joint brilliance transformed Ripley into a powerful and self-determinative woman. I was able to learn from that innovation and apply it to my own work. There are lots of people who create media who think that they’ve learned this same lesson. But they have not. They’ve accidentally crafted a disempowering trope that can only be called The Strong Female Character.

 

trinity
Trinity from The Matrix movies

 

You’ve met this character before. She has black hair with a colorful stripe, wears green or purple lipstick with chipped painted nails to match; she wears black leather clothing that’s cut a little short in place, designed to help her while she skateboards or rides a motorcycle; she has a series of skills which are “for boys” and has interests which are “for boys”. In the first act we meet her and she seems rude and dismissive, saying “whatever” and rolling her eyes. In the second act we are shown that she secretly has a feminine and caring side – almost universally in the process of learning that she secretly cares for the male protagonist, and is too insecure to admit it. In the third act she learns to reconcile her feelings for the protagonist with her tough-as-nails identity and uses some typically “for boys” skill – usually combat, but also often hacking or deductive science – to save the male protagonist… so that he can save the day.

You’ve seen her in The Matrix, NCIS, and Big Hero 6. Some people have called this class of character “Trinity”, because of the character from The Matrix: a character who is female and appears strong, but has no real substantive effect on the plot. I’m talking about something slightly different, although there are many overlaps.

There are Trinities who are not Strong Female Characters (SFCs). The best example might be Pepper Potts from the Iron Man films, who seems capable and clever, but never defies her expected femininity, and also contributes nothing to the plot that couldn’t have been contributed through some other means.

And there are SFCs who are not Trinities. An example of that would be Abby Sciuto from NCIS. She does, in fact, contribute to the plot, and does so by being the only person who has the skills and knowledge to deduce the truth.

But Abby is also the Jar Jar Binks of the series. She is there so that we can laugh at how out of place she is. Even when other women join the cast, often with characters who are from different nations or divisions of government, they seem more like the other characters than Abby. Unlike her calm, cool, snappy, and acerbic colleagues, Abby is bubbly, insecure, gregarious, and affable. In other words, she would make a perfect geisha. If it weren’t for her incorrigible love of science, that is!

That’s the definition of an SFC. A character whose exterior qualities and achievements are designed to stand in contrast to her inner feminine vulnerability. She is given value because of her masculine traits; she is kept from being the protagonist because of her feminine traits.

A character who is strong is not necessarily one that is well written. A character that is female does not have to be defined by being female. A character that is designed to evoke a trope or fill a perceived voice is barely a character, and more like a caricature.

 

kimandtrini2
Kimberly Ann Hart (L) Trini Kwan (R)

 

So what do the good characters look like? Well, I think you’ll be surprised to hear this, but Trini Kwan and Kimberly Ann Hart from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers are wonderful.

Kimberly and Trini regularly talk to each other, and in the absence of the male characters. They discuss hopes and fears, their personal ambitions to become professional gymnasts, and the ways in which they can succeed in their war on evil. In other words, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers passes the Bechdel Test on the regular.

Trini likes to cook, and what she cooks is typically very evocative of the fact that she is an immigrant. Her friends are often grossed out by the food that she loves. While it’s played for laughs, anyone whose palette is remarkably different than most Americans will understand that this is a real part of the immigrant experience.

Kimbley likes to wear makeup, go shopping, and have emotional conversations with her peers. When male characters like Billy and Zack get frustrated with their own shortcomings or limitations, it’s usually Kimberly who intervenes and engages them emotionally. She is a nurturer, and would probably make a great mother.

But both are also soldiers in a war against unspeakable evil, whose physical and mental discipline is unmatched anywhere on Earth. They command machines of war the size of buildings.

When Trini’s friends are frozen with an alien beam, she has to travel to an alien world and recover the cure herself. She summons the strength of the Sabretooth Tiger, accomplishes her goal, and returns to defeat the monster almost single-handedly to save her friends.

Later, a monstrous toad-like being begins devouring the Power Rangers, slowly digesting them and absorbing their powers. Kimberly is the only Power Ranger to avoid being eaten, because of her gymnastic skills. She uses physical prowess and clever tactics to put the toad in a vulnerable position, and fires a single shot from her energy bow. That shot screams through the air and splits the monster in two, freeing her friends.

These are not stories with tremendous emotional depth, nor are they terribly nuanced and subtle. But they do demonstrate a level of feminism still absent from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and which will surely be absent from the upcoming DC Cinematic Universe. The female characters are in no way defined by their relationship to the men around them. Their accomplishments are their own. What they bring to their team has nothing to do with their gender. They do not attempt to emulate typically masculine behavior, and their feminine qualities are never hidden and never a source of weakness.

Of particular note would be Trini’s relationship with Billy – by which I do not mean a romantic relationship. Fascinatingly, Trini and Billy remain one of the most clear-cut male/female friendships ever depicted on television. Billy tends to speak in very long words and sentences to say simple things, using “egg-headed” terms for comedic effect. It was originally just convenient to have a “translator” who took Billy’s long lines and put them into conversational English. This role fell to Trini. This makes a great deal of sense to me. As an immigrant, Trini would be the only other person with an esoteric knowledge of English, and would be more likely to have learned academic words while studying her English textbook. The relationship evolved from there, with Billy turning to Trini for advice, and Trini regularly standing up for Billy against bullies. In an early episode, Trini puts herself between Billy and the aliens attacking him. The moment where she puts up her fists to save her male friend had me, both as a child and as an adult, enthralled and excited.

When Mary Selway cast Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, and when I re-wrote Agent Mu to be a woman, it worked well because the characters were already dripping with complexity, and that complexity was not tied into their gender. No character is capable of achieving that level of complexity while written under the assumption that a female character becomes more interesting by giving them typically masculine traits. When characters like the Power Rangers are written without this assumption, then they may not start out as being terribly complex, but they at least provide themselves the option of becoming more complex as they develop.

 

kimandtrini

 

What does it say about our society that we openly praise a female character for being “strong” because she emulates male expectations and defies female expectations? Why aren’t Kimberly Ann Hart and Trini Kwan being talked about as female role models? For one simple reason: being “girly” is bad, and being “manly” is good. Female characters are “improved” by making them more masculine. Kimberly and Trini are unabashedly women. They love to be women, and that’s how they want to be treated. As a transfeminine person myself, I understand that feeling intimately. And no one should be made to feel like their pink skirt, love of unicorns, and fondness for baking cookies makes them any less capable of fighting aliens or defending the world.

Bijhan Valibeigi is the creator of Time Wars and a transfeminine Muslim from Seattle. Bijhan spends much of her time inventing board and card games, and writing stories, all of which take place in the exciting Time Wars Universe. When taking a break from creating, Bijhan likes to watch Power Rangers, discuss the politics and history of the Star Wars Legends Universe, destroy chumps in Magic the Gathering, and hate on the Next Generation for being patently worse than Star Trek. www.TimeWarsUniverse.com

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  • Kenyoda-Kenyeda Adams

    What a well written piece! I really like the new dimensions you brought to Kim and Trini! I grew with MMPR, so I was especially happy to see them! Also you wrote casy instead of cast here: When Mary Selway casy Sigourney Weaver as Ripley,

    • Thank you for your support and encouragement. Also, thank you for catching that typo. I noticed a few others myself. I’m glad to have my article so well received. It’s really awesome that all the Power Rangers shows are on Netflix now! I’ve been rewatching them a lot. Very corny, but less problematic than a lot of current media. Please check out TimeWarsUniverse.com, where I’m posting my action science fiction series Time Wars Tales: Legends of the Order. It’s got a lot of cool lady superheroes!

      • Kenyoda-Kenyeda Adams

        No problem. And I will check your stuff out soon!

        • I’m glad, and I hope you enjoy!!

  • EricaHazel

    “And no one should be made to feel like their pink skirt, love of unicorns, and fondness for baking cookies makes them any less capable of fighting aliens or defending the world.”
    This is my type of feminism. Admittedly I often feel as if I don’t fit into feminism because I love things that are often viewed as not progressive or feminist in nature. What a great article.

    • Thank you for your kind words about my article. I hope you also enjoy my fiction and games, which can be found at TimeWarsUniverse.com! Time Wars Tales: Legends of the Order is an ongoing super short fiction series. I’m especially excited for the upcoming superhero the Purple Fox…

  • DTHalliday

    The same thing happened in the lesser known sci-fi movie OUTLAND; the character, Dr. Lazarus; a confidant/ally to Sean Connery’s space sherrif; was originally written as a man, but director Peter Hyams wanted more women in the movie, so he cast Frances Sternhagen without changing any of the script. What resulted was some of the best scenes in the movie between Connery and Sternhagen, who talked earnestly about standing up to corruption and the difficultly of maintaining integrity in a harsh corperate world.

    This was a great piece! I was especially happy to read your take on the Power Rangers. I’ve been a fan since I was a kid, and it always bothered me how harsh, critical, and dismissive people were of the various Pink Rangers.

    Thank you so much for writing this! It was very helpful.

    • Wow, I’ve never seen that movie before, but it just rocketed to the top of my list. Thank you for sharing that! I’m glad you enjoyed my article. If you like action sci-fi, please check out TimeWarsUniverse.com, where you can find my book Time Wars Tales: the Beginning of a Bizarre Friendship. As I mentioned in the article, the character of Agent Mu underwent a pronoun conversion in the same way.

  • Candice Frederick

    Such a great essay. Thanks for your thoughts!

    • Thank you, I appreciate it. It gives me encouragement to write more opinion material. Are there any other topics you’d like me to cover?

      I usually write fiction and create games, so please check out TimeWarsUniverse.com!

  • The Werewolf

    Major Samantha Carter in the Stargate SG-1 TV show would be an almost prototypical SFC non-Trinity type. She a soldier and scientist. She works with the team directly and more often than not is the one who figures out the problem and gets things working again. She’s also often the lampshade hanger – pointing out the technical or logical problems in the story as it progresses.

    The writers made a conscious effort to prevent the usual ‘love-interest’ getting into the story by actually writing in a trope “My Love Is Lethal”. Anyone who openly professes a love for Carter dies within the season. One poor fellow actually dies TWICE because of this (time travel story). Only two people have survived it: her fiance who basically bolted before dying and Colonel Jack O’Neill who was forced against his will to admit it (which I guess gave him a way out ticket).

    Still, while she’s all soldier and professional, she’s definitely not masculine.

    • I’ve watched that series multiple times over, and I never caught that. Excellent observation! I’m glad you liked my article. I hope you’ll enjoy my fiction and games as well. You can find them at TimeWarsUniverse.com

      What did you think of the female characters on Stargate Universe?

  • douglagoddess

    This was brilliantly written. Brava.

  • Kelli

    I loved the article especially what you wrote about Kimberly and Trini from Power Rangers.

  • Lala Blossoms

    I don’t want to start sounding like I work for AMC, but “Mad Men”, “TWD”, and “Into the Badlands” have strong female characters. A lot of people felt like Mad Men was all about misogynist ad execs, but that was only part of the story. The women were the backbone of that show. Towards the end they were way more compelling than the men for me. While the men stayed stagnant in their misery and self-destruction, the women evolved. Even the teen daughter had weighty material. The Walking Dead has Sasha, Michonne, Maggie, and Carol. None of them are just girlfriends or eye candy. They have all taken part in survival missions and have their own backstories. Into the Badlands has several strong women, including a key villainous and her girl protege, the lead character’s girlfriend ( who starts to get more complex and show her cunning ), plus two interesting wives. I don’t watch a lot of t.v., but every show I do watch has strong female characters at the center.

    Granted, there is a long way to go, but I do think some shows are doing great things.

    • LaToya Anderson

      I’d add Jessica Jones too. Plenty of strong and complex female characters.

  • LaToya Anderson

    I do also feel that no one should be made to feel less than a woman if she doesn’t like baking, wearing skirts or even the desire to fall in love with her equal. It’s funny because I truly identified with Trinity. I always saw her character as someone who was whole, who was thoroughly and comfortably herself who ended up with her match and was willing to do what was necessary to save Zion. Power Rangers, well, I’ll just say that I really can’t take much more than 5 minutes of the show.
    I don’t know. I’m a beautiful feminine woman who doesn’t express her femininity in the way you’ve described. Nor do I feel like express my masculine side is what makes me more interesting. It’s what makes me more balanced. I can’t express one without the other because they are both intermingled.

  • Bre

    This was a really good piece. I must admit that I’ve fallen prey to this sort of thing in my own writing and I need to correct it. My main character is a woman, and she needs to carry the qualities of a woman proudly while still maintaining strength. Thank you for this!

  • Merle

    Whoa, whoa, what’s that about Big Hero 6? Please tell me you’re not saying that about GoGo.

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