Tough women, and facsimiles thereof

I know The Bourne Ultimatum hasn’t been out remotely long enough for it to be fair game for spoilers, so I’ll try to keep this general. (I’m really just using it as a starting point, anyway.)

If you’ve seen the first two movies, you’re familiar with the characters of Nicki Parsons and Pam Landy. They both appear in the third installment (no spoilers there; I think you can see them both in the trailers), and at two separate points in the film, I found myself holding my breath, praying the script writers would go that extra mile and avoid doing the obvious thing. Why? Because they’re both intelligent, competent women, and recently I’ve been going another round in the discussion about what happens to such women in superhero comics. (Not that TBU is a comic, but the topic’s on my mind.) I won’t tell you what happens to those two, but I will tell you I was really, really hoping either or both of them wouldn’t get killed off just to up the body count or cause more angst for Jason Bourne.

My brain has been attacking this topic from a bunch of different angles lately: The Bourne Ultimatum. Comic books. The X-Files; I’m watching it with a friend (having only seen scattered episodes prior to this), and we just went through an episode in which Scully gets kidnapped Yet Again. The recent upswing in a certain brand of urban fantasy/paranormal romance, with its trope of the tough and sexy female main character. The characters of Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor in the Alien and Terminator franchises, as contrasted with the likes of Lara Croft or Violet (of Ultraviolet fame, if you actually saw that movie — I did, mostly for the fight scenes, which were quite lovely, shame about the rest of the film).

Is it just me, or has something changed? Ripley and Sarah Connor are very much alike, in my opinion. Both are tough characters, but their toughness originates in the mind; neither one starts out as an action hero, though both of them grow into it by the ends of their stories. Both of them strike a balance in their presentation: they are neither “honorary males” nor hyper-sexualized objects. It used to be that we saw more of the former; these days, it seems like I can’t get away from the latter. Rather than having to sacrifice all traces of her femininity to be a tough protagonist, that kind of female character now all too often ends up in tight leather with her cleavage on display. There’s nothing inherently wrong with tight leather (or cleavage), but in movies particularly, it seems to be turning into a visual shorthand, or even a substitute, for actual strength of character. And it reaches a nadir when — as happens far too often in superhero comics — the supposed “toughness” and “power” of the character comes with quotation marks attached. She can kick ass . . . until suddenly she falls apart in the most pathetic (and implausible) way possible, usually so she can be rescued by the male hero. Or she can’t even do that; the writer tells you all the time how cool she is, but the available evidence says otherwise.

Where have the Sarah Connors and Ellen Ripleys gone? Is it just a matter of perspective? Maybe they weren’t a type; maybe they were unusual characters I remember because their movies have staying power, and instead of tough women we’ve always had an abundance of tough chicks, sexualized little things crammed into corsets, with guns to substitute for strength of character. I can think of exceptions to the rule, but they’re just that: exceptions instead of the rule, and all too prone to getting undermined somewhere down the road. I’ve heard worrisome things about what happens with Starbuck in the later parts of Battlestar Galactica.

But I’m pleased to say that in the X-Files episode I just watched, yes, Scully gets kidnapped, and in a context that carries distinctly sexual overtones and could easily turn her into an object to be rescued — but then she shows exactly the sort of psychological toughness that really matters. She doesn’t just fight back; she keeps thinking, she problem-solves, she picks herself back up again when something goes wrong and continues her escape attempt. It’s exactly the sort of toughness that is apparently far too rare in superhero comics, and — so I feel — not common enough in action movies. It’s the toughness of Ripley and Sarah. It can go hand-in-hand with the ability to kill things while looking fabulous in leather, but if I had to pick between the leather and the brain, I’d go with the brain every time.

It’s why I cared about Nicki Parsons and Pam Landy. Bourne I could take or leave — I found the question of his past interesting, but it was never an issue whether he would get to go on being competent and useful. I wish I hadn’t automatically been afraid they were going to get killed off, and I look forward to the day when I don’t fear that — any more than I do for other characters, anyway.

Despite my best efforts, I’m afraid this post has turned rambly. It’s a huge topic and one that, like I said, I’ve been chewing on for a while. But do other people see this trend? Does it worry you? Is there evidence to the contrary I’m overlooking? Who’s the current heir to the Ripley/Connor crown?

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  1. 1. Andy

    Thanks for the interesting article. Re: The X-Files it’s not just that Scully gets kidnapped again and again but that Mulder repeatedly sends her on perilous assignments whilst he goes and does some less dangerous investigating!

  2. 2. Joe Crow

    Zoe, from Firefly/Serenity.

    Aeryn Sun, from Farscape.

    Maybe Beatrix Kiddo, from Kill Bill.

    Those are the ones that spring to mind, anyway.

  3. 3. Tobias Buckell

    I have to say I was glad they didn’t off Julia Stiles in the latest Bourne movie, she’s one of my fave actresses, she usually picks good scripts. I would have loved to have seen her character fleshed out more.

  4. 4. Jim C. Hines

    Heh … I could do an entire thesis purely on the change from T2 (Sarah Connors as a tough and emotionally struggling heroine) to T3 (Sarah’s dead, replaced by the cold, sexualized killer robot.)

    As for the current heir? Nothing springs to mind. Hm … I’ll be curious to see what Heroes comes up with this year.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Off-topic to my own post, but Toby — one of my friends says that when they flashed up the profiles for both Bourne and Nicki, they had the exact same birth date. Which is quite curious, I must say.

    Back onto topic . . . .

    Jim: I’ve only seen parts of the third movie, so I can’t speak to it, but yeah — that’s the kind of change I’m looking at.

    Andy: Well, Mulder’s a punk. ::grin:: But prone to running headfirst into dangerous situations out of sheer recklessness, if his pet passions are involved.

    Joe: Maybe we’re finding those characters in TV instead of movies? Even Zoe and Aeryn get dressed in tight clothing, but at least they aren’t reduced to eye candy, which I do appreciate.

  6. 6. Robert

    As I was reading your post I was remembering another post on a related topic over at Deep Genre from earlier this year —
    — and it looks like you were involved in the discussion there as well (that was me talking about the whole “warrior-mother” role).

    Thinking back now, with your current article in mind, part of what made both Ripley and Sarah Connor remarkable was the time period in which they appeared — 1979 and 1986 for Alien and Aliens, 1984 for T1 and 1991 for T2. The idea of a warrior woman (at least in the movies) was pretty novel in the mid 80s, especially one who didn’t lose her femininity/motherhood in the process. Not so much any more. Heck, the climactic battle scene between Ripley and the Alien Queen is a joke commercial now!

    One contemporary character that springs to mind in this vein is Niki Sanders from Heroes, but I think her “divided” nature being a “real” division rather than being an internal conflict between her two sides weakens the character in comparison to Ripley and Sarah.

    I’m sure there are other examples I can’t think of at the moment — it’s an important character type that resonates for viewers — but even so, humanity can always use another Ripley fighting off the aliens or a Sarah Connor fighting off killer cyborgs from the future. We could use a new character, though, in a new franchise.

  7. 7. Tony Geer

    *slight bourne spoilers*

    I just saw the Bourne Ultimatum last night and I really liked it. I didn’t notice the birth dates thing, I’ll have to check it out. They did hint that Bourne and Nicki had a history, should be interesting.

  8. 8. David Louis Edelman

    I’ve never seen X-Files and haven’t seen the latest Bourne film yet, so I can’t comment on the heroines there… but Ellen Ripley not a hyper-sexualized object in Alien? Sigourney Weaver spends the last half-hour of the movie in practically a g-string and a wet t-shirt. And they didn’t really even come up with a reason for it, either. She just abruptly strips down, if I remember correctly.

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    David — If I remember correctly, everybody strips down to underwear for hypersleep, and Ripley was about to get into her capsule. Beyond that, maybe it’s just a difference of time period and therefore perception; she doesn’t look very sexy to me dressed like that, but might just be that I’m a straight woman who wasn’t even born yet when the first Alien movie came out.

  10. 10. David Louis Edelman

    Ah, you’re right, I remember the stripping-down-for-the-hypersleep thing now. I don’t mean to belabor the point, but c’mon, look at this pic and tell me that’s not a little exploitative…

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    It doesn’t hit me the same way, though. Maybe because it’s not all about breasts in your face (the way it tends to be these days), maybe because it comes at the end of the movie, when Ripley’s already a strong character in our minds, instead of just a sexualized body.

  12. 12. Kate Elliott

    I gotta agree with Dave. Maybe they decided to have them strip down for hyper-sleep just so they could have her dressed like that for the last half hour of the movie. She is hot.

    I’ve actually never seen ALIEN (too scary) but ALIENS is one of my favorite sf movies for the reasons Marie cites.

    I agree that it seems there was a trend toward competency in women that has stalled out in a funny way recently.

  13. 13. Kristine Smith

    A couple of comments on Sigourney Weaver and Ripley:

    I saw ALIEN at our on-campus theater, and remember the hoots and catcalls when Weaver stripped down to her underwear. I saw an interview with her around the time the movie came out, and she said that she wanted to show the softness/fragility of the human next to the alien, the contrast, the differences between the two. I’m not sure that worked, but that’s what I recall her saying.

    I’ve read in a few places that the part of Ripley was originally written for a man, and that nothing much was changed after Weaver was cast instead.

  14. 14. Marie Brennan

    I guess it’s mostly in the second movie that Ripley’s constructed (metaphorically and literally) as a mother figure, so I could understand if the character was originally meant to be male.

  15. 15. Jenna Black

    How would characters like Buffy or Syndey Bristow do as more recent examples of that “type.” (Again, TV characters, but they seem very similar to the Ripley and Sarah Connor characters in their toughness blended with femininity.)

  16. 16. Roh

    My problem with crowning Buffy as the newest of the tough-but-not-male, sexy-but-not-a-sexobject is that, well, the show is over; and more importantly, Buffy really did fall apart far too often for my tastes. It was better handled in the first three or four seasons, but by season 5 we had the girl unable to feel the difference in having a zombie for a mother (vs. the real thing, too bad she’s dead), going into catatonia when a plan failed… And season 6 was beautifully bipolar in being unable to tell us whether Buffy was a scared 20-year old or a scared angel stuck on earth. Either way, the grown Buffy was just too prone to the sudden giving up, and not quite the investigative warrior she was when she was younger. We kept hearing Joss Whedon *talk* about strong women, we never really *saw* it.

  17. 17. Marie Brennan

    The writing on Buffy got less consistent the more Whedon’s attention got split among multiple projects.

    Judging by the answers people are offering up, though, it really is looking like TV is beating out movies for its representations of tough women. I wonder why that is?

  18. 18. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I’m guessing on the TV beating out women thing is that you can do a pilot or just a few shows to see if it runs and if there’s an audience. Movies require more commitment of money. So why not go with the tried and true? It reminds me of the publishing industry that wants something new and fresh, but not too much so, because it might not sell. It’s like Saving Grace–Holly Hunter is fabulous on the show. Her character is all of the road. She’s strong, she’s weak, she’s frenetic, she’s brave, she’s frightened–She seems very real. We’d never see her on the big screen as a main character, except in a small indy film maybe.


  19. 19. Harry Futch

    I must admit that, even in my declining years, I am a fan of tight leather and cleavage. That said, I’d rather have it on a calendar in my shop than on the pages of my books.

    What good is a character, male or female, that doesn’t have the ability to think, act, or solve the harrowing problems that arise in good SFF? Wrap them in anything you want, but if they lack depth or ability – bye bye for me.

    I’m thinking of how to incorporate my bride of many years into a new story. Now there is a strong woman who has solved more thorny problems than anyone I know. Now if I could just talk her into tight leather and cleavage.


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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.



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