Warning, there are spoilers for the following movies and shows: Star Wars the Force Awakens, Mad Max Fury Road, 28 Days Later, and the Flash.
I grew up watching television in the 80s, an era that portrayed women on the big screen as damsels in distress, sexy vamps, or alpha bitches that needed a good screw to chill them out. Women weren’t showcased for their brains, but were glorified for their bodies or their ability to elevate their male counterparts to stardom. Of course there were exceptions, like Ripley from Alien. Yet, there just weren’t many shows or films that showed women as astrophysicists, super heroes, or warriors.
In the last few decades, there’ve been significant improvements in the portrayal of women on the silver screen. Shows like How to Get Away With Murder, Eureka, and Jessica Jones paint us as complicated, intelligent characters with narratives that are so enriching that they’ve basically helped coin the phrase, “Netflix and chill.”
We still have a long way to go in terms of providing empowered characters that don’t depend on their sexuality to have value and who can function on a level that isn’t peripheral. The problem of the “peripheral” woman—that one female character that has huge potential, but is somehow forgotten and underutilized in a story—is something I see a lot these days. The Flash comes to mind when I think of this problem. Iris West and Caitlin Snow could be such rich and nuanced characters, but are instead utilized like some sort of set prop from which their male counterparts can launch. Why can’t Iris West have a meatier story, using her wit and investigative skills to crack big cases and catch corrupt corporations in the middle of their machinations? Or how about Caitlin Snow? Why has her storyline suddenly become so Jay-centric?
It’s not like strong, interesting female characters haven’t graced the big screen; there just needs to be more of them. Characters that can provide much needed narratives, that scream “I am woman, hear me roar!” We need this because many of us are living the reality of being successful, strong, intelligent, independent, beautiful (inside and out) human beings who deserve to have a mirror into which we can stare with pride and inspiration. This is especially true for women of color, as there are even less roles in film and television that allow us to spread our wings and be as awesome as we are in real life.
When I think back to all of the television series and movies I’ve watched over the decades, certain characters stick out in my mind as women that I admired. These characters provided narratives that I could relate to, or were simply such intriguingly different individuals, that they still saunter around in my mind like Grace Jones with a fighting staff and a f#ck you face. This is my short list of women in science fiction that helped kill the idea of the damsel in distress.
- Selena from 28 Days Later: Naomi Harris’ character Selena was the first time I ever saw a black woman in a zombie movie—a fact that was pretty invigorating, proving that women of color didn’t have to be relegated to specific genres. Her character challenged the damsel in distress trope, even going as far as to save the male protagonist from certain demise. Armed with a sharp machete, good running legs, and her knowledge of pharmaceutical medicines (she was a pharmacist), Selena is equipped with the tools to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. I also liked the fact that she was able to have a romantic interest (Cillian Murphy’s Jim) without compromising herself—something that Hollywood in general seems to have a hard time doing with its female characters.
- Ripley from the Alien Series: I’m not going to lie; I seriously dig Ripley from the Alien series. She was the first woman in a movie that literally kicked alien ass. She didn’t need saving, she had the means, strength, and smarts to save herself, forever changing the film world’s portrayal of women as weak, gutless creatures ruled by their emotions and periods. There was absolutely no effort made to sexualize her. Instead the focus was on her ability to swing a flamethrower as she decimated as many xenomorphs as possible. Ripley was convincing and unapologetic as a protagonist, and will always be etched into my mind as one of the greatest sci-fi horror characters of all time.
- Zoe Washburne from Serenity: Zoe Washburne speaks to my inner warrior woman. She’s not much for small talk and bullshit. She tells it like it is, keeping her wits about her in explosive situations and her fists ready to pummel any fool that is dumb enough to stand against her. Zoe can literally kick any man’s ass, always giving that edge that is needed to win a fight. It’s very enjoyable to see a strong woman not only respected for her skills as a warrior, but also admired for her decision-making abilities. The fact that she is a beautiful, strong, black Latina woman is the icing on the cake for me. Too often, if we are strong, we are angry, spiteful, and relationship-less. I say, “hell no” to that! I need more Zoe Washburnes in my life. Period.
- Athena from Battlestar Galactica: I think her abilities as a pilot, her love for her family, and the fact that she would do anything to protect the ones that she loved are what drew me to her. Her perseverance in circumstances that would make any sane person crack is admirable; her navigation within a world that feared her people is fascinating. She is a warrior not only in her fighting and piloting abilities, but in her perseverance. The character is also one of the few Asian women that had a meaningful and interesting narrative in a science fiction show. Too often the roles available to Asian women reinforce sexual stereotypes or are so underdeveloped that they serve as peripheral fixtures without a narrative voice.
- Rey from Star Wars the Force Awakens: It was great to see Rey’s story unfold on the big screen and even better that she differed so drastically from Princess Leia. Sure, Princess Leia is iconic, but even as a young girl I was disturbed by the character’s enslavement by Jabba the Hut (that chain, that bikini, ugh). Her character, as badass as she is, is largely defined by the men in her life: her father, her brother, and her lover. Rey, on the other hand, is defined by her tenacity, which is further punctuated by her savviness and steampunk-ish existence.
Another nice touch provided by Rey’s character is that she isn’t sexualized by her appearance. She wears clothing that actually works with the desert environment; loose pants, semi-fitted blouse with a loose tunic sort of thing. She’s not in heels, tight jump suits, or ridiculously short dresses. Now don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with showing a bit of leg and I’m not trying to shame women that like to let it all hang out. Covering it up doesn’t mean that Rey’s intrinsically better than a woman that flaunts her gifts. The real problem is when a woman is completely and utterly defined by her sex appeal with little focus given to what makes her tick, what makes her, HER! In the case of Rey, the entire focus is on her abilities rather than on whether or not she’s hot. In my opinion, this allowed for a much more nuanced character than Princess Leia was ever allowed to be.
- Michonne from The Walking Dead: It’s not often that you are introduced to a character like Michonne. Based on the equally famous graphic novel version of herself, Michonne wields a katana and is one of the only characters, besides Daryl Dixon, that I envision being the last person standing in the series. Her character is vibrant in the graphic novel series, complete with complicated relationships and straight up zombie killing skills. Even though I feel like the show’s interpretation of her is still a work in progress, there is no doubt that Danai Gurira’s portrayal does this character justice and I’m happy to see her come alive every week.
- Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max Fury Road: Charlize Theron’s Furiosa might be one of the most badass women I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Her fighting and shooting skills combined with her ability to lead is what makes her such an awesome character. Her toughness is almost otherworldly, and her baldhead in itself is empowering. I like that she has a mechanized arm, can take a beating and give one too, all while starting a revolution in a post-apocalyptic world defined by sand, blood, and guzzoline. Furiosa is truly the definition of, if I were to use her world’s vernacular, chrome.
- Uhura from Star Trek (Original series): Being one of the only black women on television in the 1960s that wasn’t a maid, Nichelle Nichols’ role as Uhura inspired little black girls everywhere to reach for the stars. Because of her presence on television, we felt empowered to explore space, a fact supported by the existence of my hero, Mae Jemison.
As the communications officer on the Starship Enterprise, Uhura uses her sharp ears and knowledge of various alien tongues to navigate a universe that was as culturally rich as it was vast. Uhura’s very existence broke through racial and gender divides, telling America that women and minorities belonged in science fiction and that the future was a place where a woman of color could navigate the stars.
- Allison Blake from Eureka: As one of the greatest minds in America’s smartest town, Allison Blake was one of the few characters on television that talked theoretical physics, travelled through time, and managed a town full of unruly scientists. Blake was not only a scientific genius and a professional woman of color; she also successfully juggled her professional life as a single mother of two.
As a scientist, I enjoy seeing female characters that can whip up algorithms, calculate the event horizons of black holes, and travel through wormholes prior to their morning coffee. We need more representation in the sciences on television. Too often these types of roles go to the nerdy, white be-speckled guy, perpetuating the idea that women, and especially women of color, don’t have the ability to absolutely rock out as astronomers, astrophysicists, biologists, mathematicians, etc. Facts be told, there are many of us out there, exploring the very fabric of our universe.
- Jadzia Dax from Star Trek Deep Space Nine: First of all, anyone that can embrace Klingon culture is great in my book. Jadzia is such a character, and serves as a science officer under the command of Commander Benjamin Sisco. She listens to Klingon opera, fulfills blood-oaths, and uses her symbiotic relationship with an ancient alien, along with her skills as a scientist, to navigate cosmic anomalies.
11. Garnet from Steven Universe: Those shades! That voice! The fists! Garnet is the leader of the Crystal Gems, a group of aliens in rebellion against their home world. I admit I haven’t watched much of the show yet; in fact, I’ve only tuned in to a single episode, which blew my mind with its creativity and quirkiness. Garnet is a teacher, protector, leader, and likely much more, which is why I can’t wait to really get into the meat and bones of the show.
12. Jessica Jones from Jessica Jones: There are many things that I don’t particularly like about this character. Her attitude, the fact she killed a lady and then slept with the widower, and her implied self-hate and loathing. Yet, I recognize that it’s not often that a protagonist like Jessica is allowed to be herself—a drunk, superhuman, angry woman (rightfully so) with a chip on her shoulder and revenge on her mind. These qualities are exactly why Jessica’s character has helped break through the stereotype of the perfect heroine, which is a whole other damsel problem in itself.
14. Naomi Nagata from the Expanse: I’m so happy that this character exists; she is everything! I just finished the first season of the show and I’m not ashamed to say that I’m probably Naomi’s number one fan. She’s a Belter (born and raised amongst the asteroids of our solar system), has multiple degrees, and is a spaceship engineer. In other words, she’s the brains of the show, using her skills to get her comrades out of sticky situations. She also has an authoritative quality to her; what she says goes. Naomi is highly logical, and is the voice of reason in a group comprised of an idealistic captain, a self-doubting pilot, and a trigger-happy sociopath. I can’t wait to see more of this Mohawk rocking, spacefaring maven as she continues to kick ass intellectually.
Jahkotta Lewis is a professional archaeologist, an amateur astronomer, and an aspiring writer. When she is not documenting pacific island archaeology, she spends her days hiking through native forests, spelunking within the depths of an active volcano, and watching/reading all things fantasy and science fiction.