Science Fiction was the original breaker of barriers. A place where writers could challenge social norms without alienating the audience. Get it? Alienating? Huh huh.
Some of the earliest stories of space, technology, and exploration had no women or only sidekicks whose job it was to observe the action. Even the movies where the female lead is meant to be scientist in her own right becomes the glorified coffee bringer in the time before the second wave of feminism. Here’s a shout-out to the earliest women of sci fi whose creators tried to make them more than a pretty face to scream at the monster.
Metropolis (1927): Maria
The inspiration for the famous robot clone of herself who seduces an entire society, the actual Maria is a progressive freedom fighter and empathetic voice of the people. She has a soapbox that no one can push her from (until she’s kidnapped and nearly murdered that is). Still, her goal to free her people from the oppression working within the underground prison the upper-class has cast them into. Her character is brave, sincere, and, although a bit aggravating her sentimental speeches especially for a silent film, passionate. A part of this comes from her creators, Fritz Lang and his wife/creative partner at the time, Thea von Harbou. She was a novel writer first and always put research and logic behind her books and scripts. However, she would later cow tow to the Nazi Party in an attempt to protect her second husband, who was Indian born.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): Helen Benson
I love Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly, but nothing can beat Patricia Neal. Also that remake looked just awful. This Jesus allegory about atomic weaponry (you know it’s true) features a widow and single mom, Helen Benson, who is level headed and independent. She works, she looks out for her precocious youngster Bobby (because they are always named Bobby in the 50s), and still has her own social life with boyfriend that she doesn’t need. Her character is also brave. The military don’t dare to go near the impressive robot, Gort, except with heavy fire power. She instead has a moral compass that brings her face-to-face with Gort. The original short story that the film is based on, Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates, did not feature any leading ladies so Helen is the invention of screenwriter Edmund H. North. North also wrote Dishonored Lady, in which Hedy Lamarr plays a business women and party girl who suffers from a mental breakdown. On the feminist level, that movie sends mixed messages, but the character is still a well-written woman.
Forbidden Planet (1956): Altaira “Alta” Morbius
For those of you who have the words to Science Picture Double Feature memorized, yes, it’s that Forbidden Planet. Alta is an intelligent, but naive woman who has grown up without human contact beyond her father. This nod to Miranda from Shakespeare’s the Tempest (yes, science fiction can be classy) is suddenly surrounded by a ship-full of good looking young men led by Leslie Nielson. Alta faces these hormonal Earth men as her own science experiment, making out with each and commenting on the results like a curious child. Her character wears outfits considered scandalous for the 1950s, so are of course called out as inappropriate by ship’s captain (and don’t call me Shirley). Cyril Hume, the screenwriter on Forbidden Planet, was the man who adapted the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan for the big screen as well as an early version of The Great Gatsby. I don’t know much about him beyond his IMDB credits, but he tried to create a woman who was more independent than women at the time were considered. Still, I object to her changing her style in order to accommodate the man she wanted to attract. Two steps forward and one step back.
Flash Gordon (1930s & 1980): Dale Arden
The most popular of the early science fiction sidekick love interests (yes, she is a sidekick, but she’s the sidekick love interest who inspired all other science fiction love interests of later science fiction). Dale was based on the comic strip character created Alex Raymond and enhanced by serialized films where she changes from a passenger on a doomed rocket who is constantly needing to be rescued to a reporter, scientist, and diplomat. . . who constantly needs to be rescued. Baby steps, I guess. Either way, without her we wouldn’t have Princess Leia. Point made.
Images belong to Universal, Twentieth Century Fox, and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer