Spinsters, Damsels and Green-Skinned Space Babes: An Analysis of Female Representation in Sci-fi Films

by Nancy Yao, age 14
Spinsters, Damsels and Green-Skinned Space Babes: An Analysis of Female Representation in Sci-fi Films

“With 2017 and 2018 both being big years for women’s rights, female representation in films and media seem to have fallen noticeably behind the times.”

With 2017 and 2018 both being big years for women’s rights, female representation in films and media seem to have fallen noticeably behind the times. So much effort and so many resources are being put into combating sexism in individuals or groups of people — think the Women’s March and protests against President Trump’s inauguration — that activists are beginning to lose sight of exactly why discrimination against women is still deeply rooted in the minds of so many people. Not only have scores of media moguls been accused of sexual harassment of female actors, but women have also suffered from both the lack of representation and misrepresentation in American films, a disparity which is particularly prominent in the science fiction genre.

The way people perceive the world around them, including their views of women, is in part shaped by their exposure to various forms of media, including digital media such as movies and TV shows. But why are science fiction films so special? What makes the sci-fi genre in particular more harmful to society’s perception of women? After all, it seems ironic — sci-fi is a genre meant to portray futures where mankind has progressed beyond its current stage, for the better or the worse, and yet somehow still fails to properly represent 49.6% of the population(Country Meters) in a progressive way. One main factor contributing to issues surrounding how women are portrayed in sci-fi is the underrepresentation and misrepresentation they suffer on-screen. Though this problem is seen across many forms of media, including books, TV shows, and other genres of movies, science fiction movies in particular suffers from issues pertaining to not only poor representation of women, but also the lack of representation itself; of all movie genres, sci-fi films are the least likely to feature female leads, with protagonists who identify as female making up a mere 4% of all main characters (womenandhollywood) in comparison to the real-life men-to-women ratio of 50.4% to 49.6% within the United States. The absence of female representation in sci-fi films already serves to perpetuate stereotypes, sending subliminal messages to consumers about what women in the physical world are and are not capable of. Making matters worse, the tiny amount of women who do appear on-screen at all in sci-fi movies often become reduced to flat, one-dimensional characters. A less discreet means of bolstering harmful dogmas about the female population, this effect is seen through both the overuse of tropes such as the “Damsel in Distress” as well as bland stereotypes such as the “Sexy Alien” (which exoticizes women with different ethnic backgrounds)  and “Frustrated Spinster Scientist” (a lesson to female readers that career success equals feminine failure). Though it is in fact true that women will most likely be limited by their gender to at least some degree no matter what futures they pursue, this stereotype suggests that it is because they are female that they cannot perform as well as their male counterparts, while the reality is that the disparity in general “success” between men and women is rooted in how they are perceived by the world around them. This inaccurate and inadequate portrayal of women in sci-fi movies has had negative effects on how they are viewed by society as a whole, and often even how women view themselves.

The detrimental effects the sci-fi genre has on how women are perceived by society stem from a few key issues, among them the aforementioned lack of female leads in sci-fi films, which then leads to inadequate representation. In fact, according to www.womenandhollywood.com, female protagonists are most likely to appear in comedies (30%) and dramas (30%), followed by action films (17%), then horror films (13%), with animated features and science fiction films coming last with women consisting of only 4% of their protagonists. As mentioned before, this fact puts movies in the sci-fi genre at an enormous disparity with real life; according to the Country Meters, just about half of the total world population (49.6%) identify as female. So why aren’t we seeing more women — who make up just about half of the population — in science fiction movies?

One reason for why there is such poor representation of women in sci-fi, and arguably the main reason, is because the movie directing industry is still predominantly male, with women making up only 8% of the top 100 grossing films as of 2017 (womenandhollywood). Of all movies with at least one female director, females comprised 45% of protagonists, 48% of major characters, and 42% of all speaking characters. On the other hand, in films with exclusively male directors and/or writers, women accounted for only 20% of protagonists, 33% of major characters, and 32% of all speaking characters (womenandhollywood). This difference in the amount of women represented in sci-fi in movies directed by men versus those directed by women is not a coincidence; this trend shows the tendency of both men and women to cast people of their own gender in leading, or at least speaking, roles. If more women were given positions of power in the movie directing industry, more women would be represented in film. This change could potentially be seen throughout all movies, not just those belonging to the science fiction genre, and the imbalance between the number of women we see on-screen and the number of women who inhabit the physical world would start to diminish.

Female protagonists in sci-fi movies have also never been seen as complex characters and have often been reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes, as opposed to their male counterparts. This fact can be seen throughout much of the science fiction genre, and typically manifest themselves in the form of overused tropes like the “Damsel in Distress”, which strengthens the idea that women are not capable of defending themselves and perpetuates patronizing myths about women, seen in multiple James Bond movies as well as Star Trek. Also common are harmful stereotypes like the “Sexy Alien”, which serves to objectify and exoticize women who are perceived as “different”. This stereotype is featured most commonly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars(as well as Star Trek). “Frustrated Spinster Scientist” is also a common stereotype which teaches the female audience, especially young girls, that not only do men not find women working in the STEM field attractive, but also that the pursuit of STEM-related careers will remain fruitless given that one is a woman. Though the presence of the stereotype itself is not too problematic, it becomes problematic, and begins to represent such ideas, once such stereotypes are the only ways women see themselves being portrayed on-screen. An excessive use of the “frustrated spinster scientist” stereotype is especially harmful since it perpetuates not one, but two harmful stereotypes about women in STEM, thus making it doubly dangerous, especially to younger minds; one about how others will view them, and another about how their gender inherently inhibits their ability to achieve in typically “masculine” careers and/or environments. Thus, the gross overuse of harmful stereotypes quickly becomes problematic, even dangerous, as science fiction continues to present consumers with films which either confirm past dogmas about women, or serve to invent new ones.

All groups of people tend to categorize other groups into specific archetypes in order to try to understand them in a simplified way; however, that “simplification” often leads to some of the one-dimensional caricatures audiences see onscreen — and the same stands for men and their depictions of women in sci-fi. The spinster scientist, space babe and the damsel in distress all reflect not women’s perceptions of themselves, but men’s perceptions of how women should and should not behave. Society thus far has been fascinated in seeing women in these roles; the “damsel in distress” caters to the way women are perceived as submissive and unable to defend themselves, therefore justifying society’s patronizing attitude towards women’s abilities in activities and careers traditionally seen as masculine. The “frustrated spinster scientist”, on the other hand, expresses men’s subconscious fears of women in the pursuit of fields typically dominated by men, especially those relating to STEM. Such scientists are portrayed as career women who struggle to find romantic partners since they emasculate the men around them, leading the audience to conclude that real-life women will not be well liked by their male counterparts if they are too ambitious in male-dominated fields. Both stereotypes hold the power to alter how others view women, as well as women’s perceptions of themselves. This effect is made especially dangerous once the messages such stereotypes send are able to be consumed subconsciously through compact, easy-to-digest forms like movies and TV shows, which is exactly what is happening now.

Various forms of visual media including film influence our daily lives and lead us to perceive others differently, whether for better or for worse. Science fiction films in particular influence how women are perceived by others and even by themselves in a negative way, as seen by the extremely low percentage of female protagonists (4%) featured in such movies. Worse still, an outdated “discriminatory industry adage that women can’t direct thrillers, sci-fi or action films hurts the earnings of female directors even more” (Forbes). We cannot let the irrationality of discrimination based on gender infiltrate our most optimistic portrayals of the future, or poison the meticulously delineated utopia mankind hopes to someday achieve. People are being exposed to more digital media than ever with the advent of the age of technology — which is why it’s so important to ensure that what we are all consuming is just as progressive as the worlds portrayed in science fiction in which we aspire to live.


“Damsel in Distress.” TV Tropes, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DamselInDistress?from=Main.DistressedDamsel.

“Green-Skinned Space Babe.” TV Tropes, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GreenSkinnedSpaceBabe.

Womenandhollywood.com, womenandhollywood.com/resources/statistics/2017-statistics/.

“World Population.” Country Meters. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://countrymeters.info/en/World.

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