Gender Bending and sci-fi action

Check this out …

This is a rather pivotal scene from the 2009 film Star Trek, with one very obvious change …. the role of young Kirk and Captain Pike are played by women ( I was pretty damn impressed with the woman playing Pike).

I think this brings up a pretty interesting point of discussion.  Every so often I will come across some actress or critic bemoaning the fact that there are so very few good roles for women in films these days.  That may be a matter of opinion, but I think that something that can be said is that even when there is a pretty good role, they tend to be pretty much the same.  Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for playing a wife and mother.  Natalie Portman won hers for playing a ballerina.  I think if you go back through history and see in any given year, the good roles for women break down into:

* Mom/wife/girlfriend

* Royalty (queen, princess, baroness, etc)

* Nurse/teacher/other female dominated profession

* Writer/journalist (note: rarely anything important)/performing artist

* Prostitute/home wrecker/addict/bitchy underqualified administrator

* Secretary

* Victim

Keep in mind, sometimes women get some more glamorous occupations, but they are variations on these themes.  Lois Lane may be a professional journalist, but you never see her as the great reporter on film (she is Superman’s girlfriend or the damsel in distress).  That also isn’t to say that some of these can’t be great roles.  Jodie Foster won Oscars playing both sides:  the victim of rape (The Accused) and tough young FBI agent Clarice Starling (fth fth fth fth fth).

As I was watching that Kirk/Pike film clip, I pondered a few questions:


1. How many roles like this do you routinely see women in?

My answer was “very few”, but when they do come along, they tend to be in films like this:  science fiction, fantasy, or action adventure.  Ironically, it seems that many of the top flight actors in Hollywood stay far away from these films unless they are desperate for a paycheck … yet here is where women tend to get some roles that allow them to stretch into new characters:  soldiers, detectives, pilots, leaders …


2. Had these roles originally been played by women instead of men, would I, personally, have reacted differently?

Admittadly, Star Trek, is a long standing franchise, and if anyone would have up and decided “we’re changing everything”, it might have been unnecessarily distracting to the point of annoyance.  So maybe this particular clip is a poor example to judge.

Even in many cases … the job description may not be that traditional, but it doesn’t take long before the character’s conversation turns to men, fashion, cooking, and its a stereotype in a different costume.

Perhaps the best example would be one of my all-time favorite films, Alien.  The character of Ripley that turned Sigourney Weaver into some kind of avenging feminist angel was originally written for a man, up to the point where original casting calls were for male actors.  It was only at the last minute that someone decided to change the character to a female and send Miss Weaver down the path of stardom.  I’ve always regarded Ripley as one of the great film heroes of scifi and action films, her gender be damned.  Ironically, the greatest portrayal of the character, in Aliens, involves the development of a mother-daughter bond with young Newt.  Does that somehow make her less of a hero?  I would think that had they made Ripley a man, and made Newt a little boy, that Ripley would still be a great hero, all things being equal.  I treat the character as I would any other action hero.  I wonder if most women look at Ripley the same way they would an Indiana Jones or Han Solo?


3. (The million dollar question) Why are there not more roles like this for women?

I’m not saying that there needs to be more roles where women strap on flame throwers and ride off to save the galaxy … but why aren’t there more roles where women do some different things without treating it as if it were an after school special?

Think about it!  In Air Force One, it was about 20 minutes from the end of the film before I realized “The vice-president in charge of the crisis at the White House, is a woman.” (Glenn Close for those who haven’t seen it).  In Salt, you get Angelina Jolie as a James Bond-esque spy.  In The Abyss, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays a structural engineer.  In Episodes I-III of Star Wars, Natalie Portman gets to be a politician who carries a gun.  The list starts getting short.  These films were all successful to one degree or another …. Its a non exhaustive list, but I’m not sure how much further you could take it.

In the end, I suppose there are two main reasons that women don’t get these roles more:

A.  Much as I said earlier, no one picks up Star Trek for real and starts recasting the characters from scratch, many films are based on previously written works.  I suppose that it takes a special director or producer to say “change this” when “this” is a big deal.  If it is a popular work, then you risk alienating the fan base.  If the work isn’t that popular, it might fly, but then again, if the work isn’t that popular, what are the chances it just got a $50 million green light?  I am sure that if more and more writers would include these things in print, it would go.

One of the few instances I can think of where a director made such a small tweak was in Jurassic Park.  In the original novel, Tim was the computer nerd who ends up saving the day while Lex was the sterotypical blonde girl interested in pleasing her father and making fun of her brother.  She is the one who on more than one occasion almost get them killed when she won’t listen.  In the film, while hardly a nerd (she calls herself a “hacker”), she is the one who manages to get the computers under control.  It was a small tweak by Spielberg that did nothing to alienate fans.  Ironically, Ellie, the paleobotanist (not a standard role for a woman) really was screen candy because Micahel Crichton did not write the character particularly strong.  I think Spielberg gave her a little more to do than in the book, but in the end, she has to hide behind Alan Grant while the Raptors move in.

B.  Film producers/studio heads, in their glorious infinite wisdom, don’t think people will want to see this (read: the film will lose money).  I would like to think that we have moved past this … a good film and a good part are a good film and a good part.  I don’t think that people will look at a woman as the chief mining engineer and throw their hands up and say “ridiculous”!  I can’t imagine if the person who happens to break the code to save the day happens to be a woman, that people will say “unrealistic”.

I guess what I am saying is:  Its been 33 years since Ripley, and there’s no reason these roles have to be 33 years apart … and she doesn’t have to kill aliens or carry a gun to be the hero.


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