In the early days of cinema, male scientists in science fiction and fantasy had female counterparts, usually assisting, sometimes as partners, but generally in peril and requiring rescue once the action builds to a climax. Those roles have evolved over time, echoing changing roles for women in society. Still, gaps in the amount of screen time allotted for male and female characters remain entrenched, as do the roles they play in narratives.
Falling Down on the Job in the 1950s
Early women protagonists in science fiction and fantasy, no matter how much exposition lauded their accomplishments, were often confined to tropes. They were frequently required to trip and slow down their male counterparts as plot points, such as in 1956 the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
In many other instances, women were limited to other forms of peril requiring rescue as a plot device. They would succumb to irrationality as a result of alien influences, such as in Joan Taylor’s portrayal of Carol Marvin (wife to Dr. Russell Marvin) in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. They would require rescue from monster attacks, such as in Faith Domergue’s portrayal of Dr. Ruth Adams in the 1955 This Island Earth.
Unsurprisingly, villainesses were more often allowed to be competent scientists and leaders. For example, Devil Girl from Mars features a female spaceship captain leading a mission to Earth, complete with ray gun, robot, and a shiny leather spacesuit. Patricia Laffan as Nyah, the titular Devil Girl, is more than balanced by “useless chick” Earth females, a fashion model and a barmaid, who stand around waiting for rescue. Such roles were so common and notoriously one dimensional that they were aptly defined in “The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis” episode of the TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as the “useless chick.”
Feminism Ushers in Expanded Rolls in Genre Movies and Television
When the Second Wave of Feminism arose in the 1970s, audiences began to see the gradual expansion of women’s roles. On television, shows like The Bionic Woman, The Secrets of Isis, and Wonder Woman showed women in professional roles stepping into superhero roles when ordinary citizens needed rescue. Still, those moments were far outnumbered both on television and in the movies by women whose weak token role continued to require rescue as a mere plot point on the way to a story’s climax.
Movies began to catch up in the 1980s and ‘90s, as women’s roles broadened substantially. In the horror genre, bold lead characters such as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien movies franchise were summoned not only to rescue those in danger but to lead return missions.
Black women had an expanded presence in genre television and film during the period as well. Launched with Nichelle Nichols’ groundbreaking role of Uhura on Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek in 1966, the role is now ably portrayed by Zoe Saldana in the reboot movie series launched in 2009. The trend continued into the 21st century as black women took on command roles in other movies and television series, such Angela Bassett’s portrayal of Dr. Kaela Evers in 2000’s Supernova and Gina Torres’ portrayal of Zoe Washburne on the television series Firefly and its companion movie Serenity.
Wakanda Forever: Black Panther Sets the Bar Higher
“Wakanda Forever” can be heard all over the U.S. lately as a result of the juggernaut that Black Panther has become. Yet another demonstration that the audience hungers for movies reframing the image of women and people of color, the movie remains among the top earners, inspiring repeat views in a year marked by empty seats and box office bombs.
Two of the most popular characters in Black Panther are women in charge. General Okoye is portrayed by Danai Gurira, a playwright who portrays Michonne on The Walking Dead. Scientist Shuri, T’Challah’s younger sister, who created Black Panther’s bullet proof suit, is portrayed by Letitia Wright, previously seen in many roles, among them the “Black Museum” episode of Black Mirror.
Boldly breaking glass ceilings of gender and ethnicity, the characters set a new high mark for other superhero movies (and movies in general) to reach. Both characters are seen in top form in Avengers: Infinity War.
All of which begs the question: has a new day dawned for female scientists in movies? Possibly, but old stereotypes neither die nor fade away without resistance. Are the days when female leads trip on their stilettos and wait for rescue over? Not completely; there are still many problems across genres.
Women Doctors Need Care in Comic Book Multiverse
Though the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is making strides on the big screen, gaps remain. For instance, women doctors seem to revert to more limited roles in the MCU. In the first season of Jessica Jones, the character of Wendy Ross-Hogarth, better known as Lawyer Jeri Hogarth’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, is defined in exposition is an activist for underserved populations. Robin Weigert, who was previously nominated for a Prime Time Emmy for her role in Deadwood, brought emotional depth to the role. Still, at crucial times in the story, the character is seen reeling from infidelity or passive-aggressively seeking vengeance against her partner by delaying court proceedings before her life is put in jeopardy first by both protagonist Jessica’s physical aggression and later by villain Kilgrave’s psychological control.
To be fair, Nurse Claire Temple is portrayed as a skilled healer by ALMA Award Winner Rosario Dawson across multiple series, starting with Daredevil and Jessica Jones before moving to Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and The Defenders.
Women doctors fare far worse in the DC Comics Universe. In the 2016 movie Suicide Squad, psychiatrist Harley Quinn as portrayed by Margot Robbie comes across as someone who lacks self-awareness. Though originally drawn as an abusive relationship in the comics, the movie’s editing seems to convey a romance. This rewrite is troubling because movies like Suicide Squad attract young audiences. Therefore, the effects of its mixed messages on boys and girls are unavoidable and potentially longer lasting. In a fantasy sequence, Quinn imagines herself and the Joker [played by Jared Leto] at a dinner table with two kids, after which she turns the dishwasher to the “normal” setting. Although meant to show Quinn as completely delusional, a very unsubtle message about how traditional relationships are ideal seems to resurface. Both Robbie and Leto have reportedly committed to filming sequels. Depending on the writing and editing of subsequent movies, the issues will either be resolved or cemented.
There is not a lot of room for ambiguity going forward. The message is clear. Audiences are hungering for newer, more affirming images, as shown by mega box office smashes Wonder Woman and Black Panther. The older paradigms have been rewritten. With a little tweaking, the older tropes, such as the “useless chick” and the “bitter ex” will fade into cinematic history.