Fantasy females should come back down to earth

Sci-fi films with a true-to-life portrayal of women are all too rare, says Emily Jupp

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The Independent Culture

Sci-fi has always championed feisty female role models, from Jennifer Garner's strong-but-vulnerable assassin-for-hire in Elektra, to Lieutenant Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols) Star Trek's communications officer, who snogged Captain Kirk in US TV's first interracial kiss, to Sigourney Weaver's character, Ellen Ripley in the Alien series, who fearlessly slaughters the enemy while finding time to address moral dilemmas, stick two fingers up to the Man and even rescue a cat.

It may seem trivial, but women genuinely do judge what they can aspire to by seeing role models on screen. For instance, former Nasa astronaut Mae Jemison said the character of Uhura inspired her to apply to Nasa. And watching Elektra inspired me to experiment with wearing red latex (a disaster, but still, I tried). Happily, sci-fi has continued in its pioneering role in film this year. Earlier this year, Jennifer Lawrence's fearless character in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, did for archery what James Dean did for denim jeans, with America's Archery Trade Association reporting that sales of bows and arrows had increased by 20 per cent.

In the latest instalment in the Alien series, the tradition for dynamic females has continued, with Noomi Rapace replacing Weaver as the main female warrior in Prometheus. Her character, Elizabeth Shaw, is just as daring and brave as Weaver was, although maybe the warrior-girl stereotype is a little well worn.

But the problem with sci-fi – and film in general – is that for every kick-ass woman there's a limp damsel in distress. For every Ellen Ripley there's a Princess Leia, for every Buffy Summers (the vampire slayer) there's a Bella Swan (the soppy, bland one played by Kristen Stewart in Twilight). You watch Sarah Connor, the tough waitress-cum-action heroine in Terminator 2, and feel empowered, then you see Mikaela Banes, the mechanic played by Megan Fox in Transformers, whose main job seems to be to lean over the bonnet and poke her bum skyward, and you feel that feminism has died.

If sci-fi is to keep inspiring us, it needs to ditch those bland caricatures that tell us women are just in films for men to look at. But it needs to do something more too. We now know that we can be bad-ass bitches, we can fight crime, we can even learn jujitsu if we want to, but what remains a rare sight on screen is a truly nuanced portrayal of womanhood.

If you peer outside of the mainstream there are already some glimmers of exciting multifaceted women, but they are few and far between. In Serenity, a film about cowboys in space, Summer Glau plays River Tam, a psychic 17-year-old genius whose brain has been programmed with military secrets. She is awesome at hand-to-hand combat, but also terribly worried about what her future holds – something that no doubt many young women approaching their A-levels can identify with.

The modern remake of Battlestar Galactica sees the character of Starbuck reimagined as a female and she's one of the most complicated females on screen. She's got a quick temper and loves to drink, smoke and gamble, but she's also a top pilot who is fighting for the right reasons. She's sometimes vulnerable too. It's characters like this that are interesting to watch. So, rather than a listless waif or a fighter who never lets her guard down, let's see more kung-fu fighting, single mums who can hack computers, who occasionally have to lock themselves in the loo and have a little cry, but keep a calm head in a crisis. Because it's the interesting characters that we can most see ourselves in, and they are the ones that help young girls choose who they want to become.