Princess and General Leia Organa, “Star Wars” franchise
With “Annihilation” now out in theaters, audiences are seeing a creature even stranger than the ones encountered in The Shimmer: a sci-fi film with a predominantly female cast. The film is definitely a testament to how far the genre has come in terms of female representation on-screen. The victory, however, is a little premature. Science fiction’s penchant for putting women through hell has been around for a while and is likely to be around for a while longer.
To celebrate “Annihilation” and acknowledge the genre’s troubled history, we created a gallery of sci-fi women in television and film who show that we still have a long way to go.
Imagine being kidnapped as a baby and sent back into your parent’s past to ensure your birth. Then having to kill your husband so the universe won’t destroy itself. And then having that husband come back, only to remember you a little bit less each time you see each other.
When we’re first introduced to River, she’s a hardened badass ready to sacrifice her life for the greater good. As the series goes on, however, she becomes a woman who is almost guaranteed to suffer with each appearance. She somehow manages to permanently lose her family, freedom, and life in a world where timelines are supposed to be meaningless.
Immediately after her birth, our favorite Eggo-loving psychokinetic was abducted and then subjected to years of psychological torture and experimentation to enhance her abilities. Her birth was reported as a miscarriage to her mother. The man that stole her became a pseudo-father figure in her unstable young mind.
When she finally escapes, the intense traumas that she’d suffered makes it difficult for her to form successful social relationships. She also finally finds her mother in a now near-vegetative state: she’d been subjected to electroshock therapy after trying to rescue her.
Although each woman goes through her own trauma in this five-season thriller, discovering that they were genetically engineered for an experiment outweighs any individual issues. Sarah, Allison, Cosima, and Helena are robbed of any chance of a normal life. Worse still, all of the clones were purposely designed to be infertile and can contract an unknown, potentially fatal respiratory illness from their reproductive systems. As if cloning women wasn’t bad enough.
A business executive with a knack for underground kickboxing, she ends up in prison after discovering that her brother is embezzling money from their father’s company. Instead of exposing him, Sun takes her brother’s place, claiming blame to keep him out of prison, keep the company intact and to honor her dead mother’s memory.
During her processing, she is subjected to an invasive personal and physical exam. She finds that all of her cellmates are also in prison because of something a man had done to them. The additional indignity of having cluster-mates allowed to freely live their lives while she can only share their vision makes her incarceration all the more painful.
Being a teenage girl is hard enough. It’s just worse when everyone in your family is largely neglectful of you. Everyone in the Smith family always seems to be choosing someone else over Summer. Her mother dismisses any of her problems to focus on winning her own father’s love and approval. Her grandfather ignores and belittles her, constantly abandoning her to go on adventures with Morty. Both her parents even admit to her that she was an unwanted pregnancy and that they considered an abortion.
Though this has diminished in later seasons, Summer remains largely undeveloped and underutilized as a character.
Despite being the show’s co-protagonist, Scully seems to spend more time having things done to her than doing things herself.
When this classic sci-fi heroine isn’t busy being abducted by murderers or aliens, she spends her free time getting cancer, watching her family members killed off, and having a complicated relationship with her children (one of whom died, the other given up for adoption) and partner.
The best part about the first two “Terminator” films and spin-off television series is Sarah Connor’s evolution from timid waitress to gun-toting, muscled single mother. She takes it upon herself to be the one that will train, mentor, and prepare her son John for his eventual role as humanity’s savior from Skynet.
No one believes the threat, of course. Sarah lives a life of paranoia and isolation and the character receives one last injustice when she gets leukemia and an off-screen death in the third film. She’s not even granted a death scene worthy of her achievements.
This iconic sci-fi heroine starts off strong. After her entire crew is killed by a Xenomorph, she blows it out of an airlock and sets course for home. She ends up in hypersleep for 57 years instead. When she wakes, she’s hit with the usual “bad things to happen to females” tropes: her account of the events is being dismissed as crazy and her daughter has died.
As the series progresses, she’s stripped of all military ranking, almost raped, loses her new surrogate daughter (pictured here), watches everyone she meets get killed by Xenomorphs and finally, in a stroke of bad writing typical of a tired franchise, gets impregnated with a Chestburster and throws herself into a furnace to prevent its birth.
We’re first introduced to Ava as the talented but troubled communications officer on a mission to solve Earth’s fuel crisis. We later find out that she lost her children in a house fire before the events of the film. A traumatizing experience for any young mother, it’s made all the more poignant when she discovers that they are still alive in the alternate universe she and her crew have entered.
Feeling envious of your alternate self can’t be good for your mental state. Unfortunately, this is where her narrative grinds to a halt. She becomes fixated on reuniting with her children, despite being told that the action could potentially destroy both universes. When she finally is convinced to return home and close the portal, she is forever burdened with the knowledge of their existence and that’s made out to be the real tragedy: not the monsters that came through said alternate universe.
A replicant engineered to believe that she was born and raised human, her entire way of life is destroyed when Deckard rudely informs her of her true origin. She’s now nothing but a failed experiment; her creator abandons her. With Deckard being the only person who she can turn to, she stays at his apartment. The two later have a sexual encounter of dubious consent.
It should also be mentioned that she is the only reason “Blade Runner 2049” exists. Her ability to have a child is crucial to the plot and themes of the film, but is largely glossed over and dismissed for two unexciting male storylines. Her character is reduced to another thing for Deckard to be nostalgic for.
Though she’s seen as the model of a modern, complex, badass female character, this one-arm heroine is put through seemingly endless and sometimes excessive trauma. As a young girl, she and her mother are stolen from their homeland by Immortan Joe. Her mother dies soon after. She’s repeatedly raped, found to be infertile and therefore useless by the man who took her, and cast aside to become one of his soldiers. She is literally branded with his mark.
When she finally escapes nearly 20 years later, she discovers that her clan has been all but wiped out and her homeland is now uninhabitable. She is forced to return back to her place of captivity. Though she reclaims it and likely starts a better life there, the fact that she sacrificed so much just to get back where she started is troubling.
One of the most innovative science fiction films ever wouldn’t be possible without her. A genius hacker and first mate of Morpheus’s team, she’s directly responsible for Neo’s removal from the Matrix. She’s the one that finds him. She’s even responsible for making him “The One:” telling him that he’s not allowed to die because she loves him and then literally bringing him back to life. From the beginning, it seems like Trinity can’t lose.
Despite this, our leather-clad hacker goes from complex character to damsel in distress in the span of a franchise. Her dialogue is greatly diminished. She spends most of her time with Neo or being saved by Neo. Her death serves only as a final plot point in his storyline, being the only thing that prompts him to reset the Matrix and save everyone.
If anyone suffers from a bad case of “how much can we put this female character through,” it’s this classic space princess turned Resistance leader. Finding out that Darth Vader is her father is pretty bad, and somehow, it manages to get worse. Leia slowly becomes the only survivor of these never-ending wars in the galaxy. Her home planet and parents are destroyed in the original trilogy.
In the newest trilog, her only child turns to the Dark Side. Han and Luke abandon her. When they both finally reunite with and reconcile with her, they die. Han gets killed by their son. Luke gets absorbed into the Force protecting her and the last remaining Resistance members and her only remaining friend sacrifices herself to save her. Despite being the only member of the original trio alive, she has little to show for it.