As in all things political, the portrayal of women in politics has been problematic, uneven, and riddled with outdated stereotypes. Even as strides forward were taken, old modes of thinking often pushed women in political roles right back into their prior limited options. Such was the result of a genre that was overwhelmingly dominated by males in every segment of production, from writing, through direction, editing, distribution, all the way up to studio leadership. As a result, very few women have ever portrayed political leaders in science fiction – as in any other genre of television or film. Often, there have been cringe-worthy results. Herewith comes a sampling of women as leaders:
In what would otherwise have been a minor footnote for genre video, Project Moon Base (1953) featured a female commander facing an enemy plot to sabotage a space station. Arguably, the movie was prescient in that it predicted reaching the moon by 1970 and ambitious in that it foresaw a woman president. However, the movie is ripe for parody because it also perpetuated some of the worst stereotypes of the period, with women too frightened, distracted by romance, or inept to lead.
Queen of Outer Space (1958) is a parody of itself. In this cheesy vehicle, Zsa Zsa Gabor played herself to campy perfection. An evil Venusian queen gets rid of all men, except for the scientists who serve some use to her. Meanwhile, Zsa Zsa and her friends find themselves desperate for male companionship, staging a revolt to save the Earth astronauts whose ship crashes on their planet. Audiences who managed to maintain their attention spans were too busy laughing along with Zsa Zsa to take anything seriously, including stereotypes the movie perpetuated because it was made with tongue firmly in cheek. With Zsa Zsa staging the coup, everyone was in on the joke.
Star Wars stands in a class by itself, offering women leaders in a variety of time periods across the series of films. Princess Leia Organa, portrayed by Carrie Fisher, was a royal who ventured into politics. The character’s heroism, her willingness to stand up to tyranny, her ability to take decisive action in times of crisis, and her leadership ability assure that the character will be remembered among the best in speculative movies. Her mother, Princess Amidala, portrayed by Natalie Portman in The Phantom Menace, evidenced the potential to become an able leader. Unfortunately, her downfall came in the form of a fatal love for the man who would eventually succumb to the Dark Side and emerge as Darth Vader. In many ways, the character encapsulated the mixed results of the Star Wars prequels: reaching for the highest ideals, she was thwarted in her choices by sentimentality. Senator Mon Mothma, portrayed by several women over multiple movies, was a step forward as a politician undaunted by the threat of greater power, who stood up to the chancellor in the days before he achieved total control over the empire.
Battlestar Galactica (2004) President Roslin: What can be said about the so called “Madam Air Lock?” She tried to steal an election and got caught. She suspended civil liberties. When her successor abandoned his post to an enemy, she seized power without holding an election. She allowed torture. She sanctioned stealing a baby and faking its death in the worst soap opera tradition. She blamed her actions on the need for security against alien insurgents. What wouldn’t she do? To what lengths wouldn’t she go to hold onto power? Which of the recent candidates for the presidency would Roslin most likely resemble, regardless of gender? Just like almost every significant female character in the show, she died before the series ended. Though Roslin constituted a step forward in gender politics for science fiction television dramas, the evolution of her character gave a metaphor of what went awry with a show that held itself out to be a feminist revision of its original concept. In the final analysis, Roslin’s strategy and tactics provided no role model for anyone, alienating much of the audience in the process.
President Lanford, as portrayed by Sela Ward, in Independence Day: Resurgence, provided a different kind of president entirely. Lanford led her people in the fight against an extraterrestrial invasion force by standing her ground, insisting all along that there would be “no peace,” before being assassinated during enemy interrogation.
Nova Prime, as portrayed by Glenn Close in Guardians of the Galaxy, did what most leaders do in times of battle. She led from the civilian side to protect the people, gave orders to the military and others engaged in battle, and then safeguarded the spoils of war, one of the infinity stones that would be key to future conflicts for the Avengers. There is potential for further development of the character.