PSA: this piece isn’t an argument over whether Stone, Mori, or even Ripley do or don’t pass this or that feminist reading. Whilst this writer’s opinion is that they do, that particular discussion is already well-covered from all angles (and to be honest, I’ve gone over my word count). For the curious, there’ll be recommended reading at the end. No – what we’re looking at today is that elusive idea of the multi-faceted female sci-fi lead…
It’s 1979. Unknown actor Sigourney Weaver has just been cast in Ridley Scott’s next film, a low-budget sci-fi horror called Alien. What follows is unexpected commercial success, cult status, and the lasting impression that Ripley is something different. Something new. Something better.
Through the 1960s and 70s, Western sci-fi didn’t do too well by its women. Alien‘s casting directors were working with a script full of generic male characters they could interpret as they pleased, and they chose Weaver to stand out against the genre’s deluge of testosterone. Resourceful, cool, frightened, aloof – in short, a rounded, flawed, multi-note human being – Ripley defies the trope that men are people and women are character traits.
Fast forward 34 years. 2013. Tumbleweed rolls across the space left in Ripley’s wake. We might have 3D cinema, but where are all the 3D women in our big-screen sci-fi? The pickings on Hollywood’s slate have been slim. We can name stand-outs, like film-verse Nyota Uhura (debatable sequel aside) or the often overlooked Eleanor Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, in Contact. But it’s the 21st century. Every film needs its Ripley’s (read: female characters who get to be characters (also female)).
Now, it feels like Hollywood might finally be waking up. In 2013 Hollywood gave us not one but two – count that, that’s a whole TWO – science-fiction films with leads who were (also) female. Gravity‘s Dr. Ryan Stone and Pacific Rim‘s Jaeger pilot Mako Mori.
Now it’s true that in some ways Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, is the opposite of fleshed out. Her backstory is minimal and, read on the page, she’s actually kind of flat. We know more about George Clooney’s Kowalski than we ever do about her. But it’s vital to remember that Gravity, like Alien, is a film built on its immediacy. It’s there that Ripley and Stone come into their own, with their very different responses to their crises making the measure.
Some of the criticisms against Stone have focused on the way she panics, screams, and cries her way through the film, reinforcing the stereotypical Scream Queen trope and working in opposition to the Strong Female Character. The SFC is a whole ‘nother argument for another day, but it’s limiting in its prescription of how a female lead can and can’t behave; women like Stone, who wear their fear on their sleeve, are out. Strange, then, that it’s that physically palpable fear which turns the flat character on the page into a human being. Stone might not share Ripley’s cutthroat attitude or level head, but she does share her terror. Her breathless running commentary is an echo of Ripley’s Lucky Star. When Tom Hanks cried over a volleyball, it earned him an Oscar nomination; Sandra Bullock displaying the same emotion shouldn’t diminish hers. Whether you loved, liked, or hated Ryan Stone, whether you do or don’t think she’s forwarding the cause of feminism on the big screen, it’s undeniable that she is more than the glass ceiling has given women in sci-fi: a frightened and capable human voice.
Mako Mori is a bit of an antithesis to Ryan Stone, in that she has more backstory than anyone else in Pacific Rim. Though Raleigh Beckett introduces us to the world and its rules, it’s Mako whose emotional and narrative arc underpins the action sequences. Like Ryan Stone and Ellen Ripley, it’s ultimately Mako who turns a sequence of adrenaline-fuelled set pieces into a coherent story. And, like Stone, Mako has come under fire, often for having fewer lines than her male counterparts. On the one hand, this has garnered debate because women are traditionally given little enough to say in this genre. But Mako’s quietness is a character trait rather than a flaw; Beckett might talk, but it’s Mako whose strength is inner rather than outer, and comes to the fore at the right moments. When she declines to rebel against their commander (and her father figure), Stacker Pentecost, she explains, “It’s not obedience, Mr. Beckett; it’s respect.” This line speaks for more than just that moment: Mako leapfrogs Ripley and Stone with the double-whammy of forefronting not just a woman but an Asian woman in a Hollywood sci-fi, and Western/white criticisms often forget or ignore that Mako is Japanese (for better-educated thoughts on how this works with her characterisation, see below).
Just as Ryan Stone demonstrates that panic and terror don’t negate competence and ability, so Mako Mori demonstrates that quietness does not negate it either. These days, every film needs its Mako.
It’s funny that when the big moments come for women, they happen in sci-fi or comedy; funny because these are the two genres where women face the most antagonism, not just on screen but in the audience and as creators. You only have to look as far as the Daily Dot to see a microcosm of what women (and anyone who isn’t white and male) face every day in these genres: from Dave Truesdale’s one-man polemic to the huge gender gap in sci-fi book reviewing to some highly-influential sci-fi writers comparing a female author with a dog. And that’s just in the last three weeks. Yet when progress comes, it’s amongst the stars. The seeds planted in the present day – the drive to open science, maths, and tech careers to young girls, or to crack down on the old-boys networks linked above – seem far more possible in the future, and it’s there that women on screen are finally becoming more than just cut-outs (whether that’s Asian stereotypes or the SFC).
Perhaps, in the end, Ryan and Mako aren’t so much successors to Ripley as evolved descendants. Ryan Stone is a mid-point between Ripley’s SFC side – the image of womanhood that encompasses characters like Sarah Connor and Katniss Everdeen – and her Nostromo colleague Lambert, who sobbed and screamed her way through Alien in the more traditional 70s sci-fi role. Ryan Stone takes Ripley’s resourcefulness and survival instinct and navigates it with Lambert’s open fear and tears – and is never the lesser for it. Mako Mori is a respected Asian woman who looks out on the world with intelligence and a steel core but still provides the central emotional arc – all whilst piloting a giant robot. These two very different women, with their very different lives, are here to change Hollywood.
If feminism is the radical notion that women are people, not paradigms, then Ryan and Mako are our much-needed breath of fresh air: our rounded, flawed, multi-note human beings. In a year when the Oscars were scooped by commercially and critically successful films about people of colour, women, LGBTQ*, and the over 60s, the flatline between now and 1979 might finally have started to beat again – but, hey, Hollywood – let’s make sure it’s not another 35 years, yeah?
“She’s not meek, she’s Asian and she is strong.”
Mako Mori is (not) your strong feminist heroine
Is Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori a Feminist Hero?
The Mako Mori Test: ‘Pacific Rim’ inspires a Bechdel Test alternative
Public Service Announcement: Mako Mori is not a white girl
Alfonso Cuarón retells Kubric and Tarkovsky in a feminist reading
Dad Wanted a Boy: Feminism, Transcendence, and Cuarón’s Gravity
Does ‘Gravity’ Live Up to the Hype?
The Feminist Thing that Irritated the Hell Out of Me about GRAVITY
Is Gravity the Feminist Film Everyone Thinks It is?
Ellen Ripley, a Feminist Film Icon, Battles Horrifying Aliens … and Patriarchy
The Rise of Ripley: Gender and Alien
How I learned to stop worrying and love Ripley: A feminist nerd finally watches Alien
Reassessing Alien: Sexuality and the Anxieties of Men