Fighting for Spawn

Aliens is one of my favorite films.  I like it partly because it is a superior science fiction adventure thriller (as opposed to Alien which I have never seen and will likely never see because it is a horror film and I get scared very very easily), but mostly because it is a film about two mothers battling it out over, well, their spawn (yes, I know Newt isn’t Ripley’s biological daughter, but she becomes in every meaningful way Ripley’s child).

As a mother myself, I find this charming and entirely believable, but having grown up in an era where women are all too often portrayed as creatures to be rescued and protected, I find it affirming, too.  Yes, even that heart-warming “get your hands off her, bitch!”

As I read this recent post by Marie Brennan on “A woman’s place is not in the refrigerator,” I thought about this old idea that women have often in the past and in the present been allowed to be strong if they are protecting the young ones, as if it is only in an extremity relating to their role as a mother that they can have agency or be so fierce and powerful that they may even be intimidating.  That is, this power becomes available to them only on behalf of a theoretically helpless child.  Not on their own behalf or on a more abstract behalf or on behalf of a lover or stranger or a cause or just because they might be that way naturally or essentially.

And yet even so, even if this is partly true, think how rare it is in any case that strong mothers show up in our films and novels.  And I mean mothers with agency, whose purpose in the plot is not simply to be the supportive mother of the heroic son (think: the recent Transformers film or the first of the Spiderman films, in which his aunt is a stand in for the supportive mom role).  In such stories, who she is and her function in the plot matter only in terms of her relationship to the male lead rather than who she is in and of herself.

This is why I love stories that play with or expand on or resist this trope even more.  I like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cordelia, even if Bujold has written more about Miles than about his mother.  I like Cherie Priests new steampunk novel Boneshaker, which to oversimplify is about a mother fighting zombies to get her son back.  I like the first two Terminator films and the televised Sarah Connor Chronicles, about a mother trying to keep her son alive against the evil robots who are trying to kill him;  even here, where the “historic” focus is theoretically on the son who is meant to become a great leader, the story focus remains on Sarah Connor, thus subverting expectations.  One might even go back to the story of Temujin (Genghis Khan)’s childhood and his strong mother, Ho-elun, who kept her children alive in desperate circumstances by force of will and grim determination.

But I wonder:  if mothers are allowed to be fierce and strong in defense of their young, then why is it not an obvious conclusion that women–that is, the female of the species–are fierce and strong just because they are?  I don’t just mean by physical fighting, I mean in any variety of fierce and strong, a person with agency, purpose, will, determination, fighting spirit, endurance, and even at times the ability to intimidate.  If they possess this quality in one capacity then clearly it exists within women, whatever arguments we might hear to the contrary that women are naturally nurturing and peacemakers, that they need to be rescued, that men are their natural protectors, or some other iteration of that old line.

What is strength, for women?  Is it really all that different from strength in men?  And how good a record does sff have in conveying women of strength and purpose?

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  1. 1. Jo Walton

    I think it works as a trope because it’s a reversal. The tigress defending her cubs. The woman is supposed to be weak and in need of protection and capable only of sweet nurture. If there’s nobody to protect her she either dies or becomes unfeminine, unless she has something even more helpless to protect, whereupon she is allowed this limited power. It works as power because it’s coming out of expectations of powelessness. She has to be forced to take it up, if she’s to have it and remain feminine. And that’s why I don’t see it as something positive or feminist or empowering.

  2. 2. Jackie

    Speaking of Bujold, there is also the great line in A Civil Campaign where Kareen says, “”I mean, have you ever read a folk tale where the Princess’s mother gets to do anything but die young? I’ve never been able to figure out if that’s supposed to be a warning, or an instruction.” Which seems to me to be exactly what you’re talking about.

  3. 3. DanD

    Note of trivia: One of the DVDs features a deleted scene where Ripley learns of her own daughter dying of old age during Ripley’s decades-long drift in hyperspace. Ripley’s daughter was Newt’s age when Ripley last saw her, further emphasizing how Newt becomes “in every meaningful way Ripley’s child”

  4. 4. Jana Stocks Brown

    Another of my favorite kick butt mother is Sarah Connor in the second Terminator movie. She’s kicking butt both for the sake of her son and because she’s saving the world. Women seem to be able to be empowered a lot more in Science Fiction and Urban Fantasy.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    I agree with Jo, to an extent — I do see positive things in the “mama bear” motif, but I also think that historically, yes, the trope has depended upon its contrast with the usual state of affairs. Which is why I appreciate all the more a movie like Aliens: yes, Ripley is constructed as a mother-figure, but her toughness isn’t all bound to her role as mother. The film easily could have shortened her sleep, for example, and put her daughter on the colony planet; then it would have been “Ripley goes back to save her child” rather than “Ripley goes back to save people.” Especially when you view it in light of the first movie, she’s clearly a tough woman who takes on a mother-aspect, rather than a mother who becomes tough out of necessity.

  6. 6. Katharine Kerr

    At the height of the Victorian Age Kipling wrote “the female of the species is more deadly than the male”, but if I remember rightly, he was indeed talking about “in defense of cubs”.

    Why is violence the only or major sign of strength? That’s what troubles me about this trope among many others. Too many genre fictions seem to fall into thinking that a Strong Woman has to be a violent woman to prove her toughness. (Actually, this is true of many male characters too — only wimps refuse to be violent.)

  7. 7. Kate Elliott

    Kit, yes, I think it is important to discuss what strength means.

    While I agree with Jo and Marie to a large degree about the use of the mother defending her cubs trope as a reversal of the “natural” state of affairs of women as weak and needing protection, I think we have to be very cautious about applying it beyond the specific cultural and time we may be responding to — that is, us and now.

    Ho’elun– that is, Temujin’s mother–is not seen as normally weak and only strong because of her children. Weak women did not survive in that culture in general; it’s too harsh. I think one can see that he survived because his mother was strong.

    And while we see many mothers of to-be-great sons in traditions worldwide who are exemplars of strength in terms of raising their son to his destined greatness (all about the man, of course), that does not only mean that those women would not be strong if it were not for needing to be “strong for” their son. It’s trickier than that in societies where women had to do a lot of day to day hard labor. What I call the Victorian-American view is limited, and one we can push back against by reclaiming the idea of strong women who may also be mothers (strong mothers who may also be women?) and find it affirming.

  8. 8. Kate Elliott

    DanD: That’s really interesting. Although I’m kind of glad they took it out of the film . . . the way it’s done now, she “adopts” the child because it’s the right thing to do as a human being.

  9. 9. Kate Elliott

    Jackie – yes, exactly. It’s Bambi all over again!

  10. 10. Elias McClellan

    This is a great topic Ms. Elliot. I idolize Frank Herbert for his strong mother figure in Jessica. There is, for those who want to see it, (ie David Lynch) a Freudian undercurrent but the depiction of strong mother, strong child is resounding. I’ve noticed that it is often ‘necessary’ for one or both of the messianic hero’s parent’s to die for the charater to progress forward from childhood to hero-hood.

    As for motivation of author vs motivation of character, well, we do live in a society based on property. Said he who lives in a state found specifically for the purpose of expanding slavery. Our laws treat children like chattel and only redefined women’s status in the last 80 or 90 years; only limittedly then.

    So of course, in our oh-so-advanced stage of awareness, we can only perceive of a woman as fierce when in the defense of her child,… or kitchen, or bare-feet, or pregnancy. A man is fierce all the time but mess with HIS wife, or child, or horses; see ‘The Jack Bull.’

    Charles Bronson is a pacifist-wimp until somebody messes with his wife and child, then he becomes CHARLES BRONSON. Ironically, Clive own avenges his brother’s ‘rape.’ But the English are so much farther along than us.

  11. 11. Elias McClellan

    Just realized I mangled the final paragraph to complete incoherence. It’s Clive Owen, who avenges his brother’s rape and suicide in ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.’

  12. 12. Daemon

    There’s at least three strong mother figures in Edding’s Belgariad and Malorean books. Probably more – it’s been years since I’ve re-read them.

    Polgara is effectively the main character’s mother – and is quite literally the last woman in the world you would ever want to pick a fight with – with the sole possible exception being her mother, Poledra. Porenn’s also a mother any normal individual should be terrified of, were she sufficiently angered.

    Other than that, though, your essay brings to mind the old Disney Hates Mothers argument…

  13. 13. Jed

    Good entry.

    I think we are seeing more fierce non-mother women in popular fiction lately–particularly in movies, where the kick-ass action heroine has become something of a trope in recent years.

    A few examples off the top of my head:

    Angela Bassett in Strange Days (a difficult movie to watch in some ways, and I haven’t seen the movie in ten years so my memory may be faulty, but I remember her as being great)

    Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider movies (and other action movies)

    Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu in the Charlie’s Angels movies (again there are problematic elements, but these are nonetheless tough competent physically strong women)

    Of course, in most such movies, the action heroines generally also function as eye candy for the presumed heterosexual male gaze ( But to me, that doesn’t negate their role as physically powerful women who not only fight men but win.

    …That article also mentions Buffy and Xena; good points. And I would add Starbuck from BSG (and, to a lesser extent, some of the other women on the show). And looking around online leads to reminders to also mention Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow in Alias, Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita, Zhang Ziyi from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Michelle Yeoh in various things. Oh, and let’s not forget Vasquez in Aliens.

    Of course, as Katharine Kerr noted in an earlier comment, the question of whether/how violence equates to strength is an important one; I’d definitely like to see more explorations of other kinds of strength, from both men and women. But given that our culture often does show skill with violence as being (at least one form of) strength, I’m glad that we’re getting more female characters (at least in action movies and TV) who do show that physical/violent form of strength.

    And I think it’s worth noting that physical strength/combat skill in these movies and TV shows does often go along with personal strength of other kinds: strong will; self-confidence; standing up for themselves; defending weaker people; fighting evil; courage; fortitude; tenacity; and, for that matter, intelligence.

  14. 14. Marie Brennan

    Rewatched Pitch Black recently and reflected favorably on the heroine in that movie: they don’t try to sell you on the idea that Radha Mitchell could take Vin Diesel in a fight (hah), but instead spin her as a woman who can look him in the eye and not back down. Which is both more realistic, and in a lot of ways more admirable.

  15. 15. Kate Elliott


    Must join the fansquee for Angela Bassett in Strange Days, a really fascinating and interesting film.

    re: strength

    For me there are two aspects to this question.

    One is the question Kit asks: how do we define strength? Is it only about violence? strength? or is endurance, or, as Marie suggests, a quality of strength which has to do with the ability to stand your ground.

    Obviously I think it is all these things. The focus on the capacity for physical violence as the most important indicator of strength (or on “upper body strength”) does a disservice to many many men as well, and privileges a very small group of people.

    One thing that’s interesting about the mother protecting young trope is that it’s opposite seems to be father avenging wife/child trope. At least, I mean, in American cinema tropes, which are not, after all, the only ones present across the international film industry.

  16. 16. Elias J. McClellan

    I agree with Ms. Brennan, (bracing for the punch) about Pitch Black. What makes Radha Mitchell a heroine is that she confronts VD (that doesn’t seem right, does it?) as well as her own moral-ambiguity-issues. The Chronicles of Reddick broke my heart in the criminal misuse of both Judi Dench as well as the supremely talented Thandie Newton.

    Not only is TN’s character focused through a man, but a pooh-butt man at that. This after a seeming eternity of TN only cast as a maid, a specter of pain/shame/evil, or some other less than human, less than Caucasian person. But I’ll leave the issue of minority-women in scifi/fantasy for someone else far more intelligent than me to address.

  17. 17. Ted Chiang

    Regarding other forms of strength, I think an interesting example is the TV series Damages. Both the protagonist and the antagonist are women, and attorneys; their conflict is primarily a battle of wits. (I should note that it’s in the second season that they’re in direct conflict; it takes most of the first season for the protagonist to realize the antagonist isn’t on her side.) The series has its flaws, but overally I recommend it.

Author Information

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.



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