Reel Women: Do Actresses Have to Go to Space for Better Roles?
Must women leave Earth in order to have a more fulfilling and interesting existence? In a new interview with Zoe Saldana, the star of Marvel's upcoming intergalactic superhero flick 'Guardians of the Galaxy,' said that she feels that there are better roles for actresses in space. The thing is, she just might be right.
In an interview with Birth.Movies.Death, Saldana was asked why she tends to be drawn to roles in sci-fi films like 'Avatar,' 'Star Trek,' and the upcoming 'Guardians of the Galaxy.' Saldana explained:
I like being in space because there are better parts for women in space. I don’t have to subject myself to just being the love interest or playing a character that doesn’t feel relevant to the story or playing a woman that doesn’t feel like an actual depiction of a real woman. When I read films in space and I’m working with these kinds of filmmakers there’s a neutral sense to the way they develop characters. It makes me feel very significant, very relevant and very excited.
She went on to express that the types of directors who work on these films tend notto allow themselves to be hindered by the limitations and boundaries of the real world, saying "They give themselves the right to imagine the unimaginable."
In space, anything is possible, including true equality between the sexes (and races, or even species). Saldana has taken roles that establish her as smart, competent, and badass -- the kind of woman who doesn't need to depend on a man or exist solely as a love interest. In 'Avatar,' Saldana's Neytiri becomes a love interest, but only after she's been established as an independent and fierce alien warrior. It's Neytiri who must teach Sam Worthington's Jake Sully how to live as one of her species, and she is the key to opening his mind and his heart, and thus saving her entire race.
And although the modern 'Star Trek' films have at times fumbled with their representations of women (see: Alice Eve's utterly senseless half-nudity), Saldana's Uhura is an integral member of the crew aboard the Enterprise. She may eventually develop a relationship with Spock, but it's her intelligence and capabilities that define her -- not who she couples with.
In Earth-bound narratives, women are so often relegated to roles as the girlfriend, the wife, and the mother. They are frequently defined by their romantic relationships and their gender, and are merely vessels or accessories for men, to make them more interesting, to provide them with conflict, or to teach them how to be better men. But in space, just as we are free from Earth's gravitational pull, so are we free from its exhaustive social injustices. Space is infinite, as are its narrative possibilities.
Ridley Scott helped establish this idea when he changed the gender of Ripley in his 1979 sci-fi horror classic 'Alien' from male to female, casting Sigourney Weaver in one of the most iconic roles in cinema history. Why couldn't this character be played by a woman? It wasn't Ripley's gender that defined her: it was her intelligence and her fierce determination, and by making her a woman, Scott and Weaver made her more interesting. The audience doesn't assume that Weaver is the star of the film because she doesn't speak for the first 20 minutes, and she's surrounded by men who give her orders and refuse to take her advice. And when Ripley's later attacked by Ash, there's a psychosexual and misogynist undertone to that harrowing scene that wouldn't exist if she were simply a man. Scott executes a beautiful bait and switch that forces us to examine our preconceived notions about women.
Ripley continued to kick ass through three more 'Alien' films, and even in 'Prometheus,' the much-derided quasi-'Alien' prequel, the female characters are strong, clearly taking a page from the Book of Ripley. Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw is an intelligent explorer who ultimately sacrifices her husband in pursuit of her mission, while Charlize Theron's enigmatic and cold Captain Meredith Vickers pilots her own ship with the kind of cocky swagger typically ascribed to leading men. She takes Idris Elba's Janek for a quick sexual fling in a manner that feels traditionally masculine.
Female characters in films like 'Serenity,' 'The Fifth Element,' and even the 'Riddick' films all get to be badass and treated equal to their male counterparts with no justification or explanation. They live in a different time and in different places, where society has changed to allow them to live with great importance and ferocity, to exist independently of men, to go on conquests and missions and fight to save humanity and universes alongside men -- and no one stops to ask if maybe they should stay behind because it might be a little too dangerous for them, or gee, who will watch the kids? Sometimes, a woman is the key to saving the entire universe, like Leeloo in 'The Fifth Element,' who isn't just a symbol for that which man grapples to express and freely give (love), but who undermines our expectations when the seemingly delicate and tiny, orange-haired woman turns out to be more intelligent, more strong, and more capable of depth of feeling than any other being in existence. She proves that women aren't just there to be symbolic for men, but can be agents of their own free will, and kick some serious ass, too.
And women don't even have to go that far into space to be more interesting than they are on Earth. In Alfonso Cuaron's 'Gravity,' Sandra Bullock's medical engineer Ryan Stone isn't worrying about her romantic prospects. She's desperately fighting for her life, and eventually must rely only on herself and her intelligence for survival.
This is why the initial 'Star Wars: Episode 7' casting announcement elicited agitation: this is a series of films that takes place in a galaxy far, far away, free from our societal constraints. Equality shouldn't even be a question in the realm of something like 'Star Wars,' but it's sad that this concept only freely exists in science fiction -- that equality is a fictional concept, and that women can only be truly interesting and be granted full agency over themselves in narratives that take place in space or in other galaxies. Zoe Saldana is right, and maybe more women should head to space until they figure out how to fix things back here on Earth.