A helpless, screaming woman was the initial depiction of women in early science fiction films and for most of the early 20th century this depiction resonated with men and women alike. To inject an independent, heroic woman on screen at the time seemed a totally alien concept in the science fiction genre or any movie genre for that matter, but especially it resonated because it seem an alien concept to the prescribed gender roles in society. The depiction of women in early science fiction films were, therefore, acceptable according to the tides of the time and never gained widespread criticism as it did towards the dawn of the 21st century.
Hollywood Panders to Gender Stereotype
While Hollywood pandered to the gender stereotypes of the time, it made it virtually impossible for women to occupy roles that did not challenge society’s norms and beliefs. Society believed males to be masters of science and mathematics, society branded them providers and protectors, while women were branded images of domestic and supporting help to a man’s dominance as head of the household.
Consequently, a male-dependent woman in need of rescue from impending doom was engendered on screen. Men were saviors to women from outer space monsters, men were sky captains and knowledgeable scientists, while many films at the time limited the roles of women in science fiction to helpless beings clad in scanty metal bikinis or torn, rugged garb to satiate the male appetite for sex goddesses on screen.
Women suffered through these roles early as 1931 with the launch of Frankenstein (possibly earlier) to The Forbidden Planet of 1956 and were excluded from occupying roles that extended the range and possibilities of the female existence.
The Feminist Movement and a Change in Depiction
It was not until the second wave feminist movement of the 1960’s and the subsequent rise of feminist science fiction that women really challenged these stereotypes. Films such as The Bionic Woman (1976), The Stepford Wives (1975) and Born in Flames (1983) questioned and challenged old stereotypes of a feeble woman. Writers became influenced by the ideas of equal opportunity for men and women in society and this idea paved the way for a far more intelligent depiction of women in science fiction films without challenging society’s norms to its core.
By late 20th century, however, women’s role in science fiction cinema had drastically changed for the better. The feminist movement had ended, women established themselves as world leaders, scientists, providers, protectors and moved forward in establishing a more serious female presence in the world and on the silver screen.
To this end, women in science fiction films are now portrayed as scientists, warriors and even villains! Science fiction films such as Terminator III, The Cave, I, Robot, Serenity, the Alien franchise and The Matrix franchise, show a diverse possibility of female roles; a far cry from the first images of female gender presented on screen.