Comediennes in Outer Space

Though women make up slightly more than half of the population of this planet, we remain woefully under-represented in all media. Frequently, female characters are limited to tokenism, window dressing, and the old clichés of cute kid, love interest, mother, and wise, nurturing grandmother. This is doubly true for women of color, who are shamelessly stereotyped everywhere, regardless of genre, even today. When reconsidering the topic of women in leadership roles in space movies and television – or women in any role in genre media — one place emerges where women consistently subversively defy and even redefine the norms: comedy.

In the 1950s, women were stifled in their ability to portray well-rounded characters, even when exposition gave them intelligent back stories. One of the most striking examples of this stereotyping comes from 1955’s This Island Earth. Even though Faith Domergue was cast as Dr. Ruth Adams, who held credentials roughly equal to her costar Rex Reason’s character Dr. Cal Meacham, her role was limited to a plot device who asked questions, looked perplexed, and needed rescue from monsters. Yet her title and status alone were points of progress not seen in other media.

A prior post noted one early film that was memorable for sneaking in campy rebellion under the guise of conformity. That film, 1958’s Queen of Outer Space, shook off the norms at times, even as it perpetuated some of the most tedious, long-held stereotypes about women desperate to “find a man.” While it showed a woman leading an authoritarian dictatorship, it also showed a character (played by Zsa Zsa Gabor) taking power away from the leader, whose oppression had become unbearable. Reversing the helpless woman narrative ever so briefly, the movie portrayed women ultimately saving the men they were supposedly so desperate to find. In the 1950s, only one of the Gabor sisters (a family of Hungarian immigrants whose celebrity is roughly analogous to the Kardashian family today) could pull something like that off — and only as a punch line.

Progress for women in genre media has been uneven and unsteady with many back steps, but a review of media from the dawn of the electronic age reveals that while the nature of women in science fiction movies, television, and video orbits around male-dominated clichés, women in comedic roles can be impulsive, rebellious, and frequently powerful. Yet for nearly seven decades, “the funny” has cracked open the door to wider possibilities for female characters. Here’s a sampler of movies in which female characters have bent or broken with norms.

  • In 1987, spoof-master Mel Brooks took on the Star Wars saga in a send up of its mythos as well as its clichés in Spaceballs. The spoof featured Daphne Zuniga as Princess Vespa, who defies the dastardly Dark Helmet (played to comic perfection by Rick Moranis) and works with Bill Pullman as the roguish Lone Star and John Candy as Barf, his mog (half man/half dog) buddy. Joan Rivers (and briefly Lorene Yarnell) provided the voice of Dot Matrix, the plucky robot who accompanied the princess on her adventures. Together, they defeated Dark Helmet to go off for more adventures. Though a promised sequel has not yet materialized, the film has been immortalized of sorts by the Tesla Corp.’s use of the film’s starship speeds for its acceleration levels.
  • In 1999’s Galaxy Quest, Sigourney Weaver stepped away from her Aliens role of the serious Ripley. Instead, she played an actress portraying an officer on the bridge of a starship eerily reminiscent of the Enterprise from the original Star Trek series. Weaver’s character only had two tasks: first, to repeat everything the ship’s onboard computer says and second, to serve as the captain’s unobtainable love interest. The ultimate in meta, the movie was about a TV show that becomes “real” after the cast are kidnapped to fight a battle for aliens oppressed by an evil villain. In the process, Weaver reshaped her character as a strong leader who worked with her fellow cast members to help the aliens win their freedom. Completing the meta sequence, the team returned to Earth in a renewed TV show in which Weaver’s character was more fully developed as an active member of the team.
  • In this century, 2005’s movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy portrayed women in multiple comedic roles. Zooey Deschanel portrayed Trillian (shortened from Tricia McMillan to make it “more spacey”) as a free spirit, ready to explore the galaxy with the right adventurer. Anna Chancellor portrayed Vice President Questular Rontok who tried to prevent the Vogons from killing Rogue President Zaphod Beeblebrox until she could try to talk him into coming to his senses. Though Rontok managed the former, she never quite achieved the latter. Viewers were free to draw their own parallels to the modern political process. Many fans with attuned ears recognized Helen Mirren as the voice of Deep Thought, the computer who discovered that “the answer” to the question of “Life, the Universe, and Everything” was 42.