I'll never forget seeing "Aliens" in the movie theater when I was 9 years old. The images of Sigourney Weaver waking from hypersleep on a spaceship and leading a war against the aliens were intense and powerful. And the final scene where she straps herself into a transformer-like exosuit to fight the alien with her giant metal arms remains one of my favorite scenes of all time (see video below). It was exciting to see Weaver as a strong, smart action hero, who was more than able to fight — and win — against aliens while piloting ships and coming up with engineering solutions.
Weaver as Captain Ripley is my personal favorite memory of a woman in space. Another is Capt. Kathryn Janeway in "Star Trek," who's second only to Capt. Luc Picard when it comes to leaders of that franchise. Generally, there are lots of women in movies and TV shows set in space, as if the writers and directors have decided that by the time we are fighting space wars, misogyny will be a thing of the past.
Zoe Saldana, who played Nyota Uhura in two "Star Trek" movies, Gamora in "Guardians of the Galaxy" and Neytiri in "Avatar," is a fan of women in space and sci-fi because, she says, the roles are just plain old better than the Earth-bound ones: “If I wasn’t doing these sci-fi movies, I would be at the mercy of filmmakers that would just look my way if they need a girlfriend or sexy woman of color in their movie,” Saldana told CNET. “Space is different … but we can still do better. We can still give women more weight to carry in their roles.”
For Saldana, it's also about the next generation. As studies have shown, little girls (and boys) absorb clues about what's expected of them from many places, including the toys they play with and the movies and TV they watch — a new report even showed Disney princesses change how boys and girls think.
And right now, what kids see about men and women on their screens, well, it doesn't look much like the world they're living in. In movie-land, women don't speak as much as men and often play supporting characters, not protagonists. We don't hear as many stories of what it's like to, say, face an academic challenge from a girl's perspective, or for an unpopular girl to find a hot date to the prom, or for teenage girls to "borrow" a car for a day full of adventures. (OK, that last one is pretty specific: It's my deep desire to see a "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" reboot with two girls in the lead roles and a tag-along guy).
According to a study from the University of California, which looked at roles in 700 popular movies from the years 2007 to 2014, fewer than one-third of them went to women. In 2015, it was a little better — but it will take another couple of years of numbers to know whether this was a blip or the start of a new norm.
And if you think these disparities exist because movies featuring women don't make as much money, well, that's not true either: “Despite a commonly held belief among producers, there is little statistical evidence to support the idea that movies featuring women do worse than films that don’t," wrote Walt Hickey on FiveThirtyEight, who led a project that looked at over 1,600 films and their box-office earnings.
Space and sci-fi movies have long been a great place to see interesting women on screen of all types, a trend which continued to 2014's "Gravity" and last year's "The Martian." One of the things I loved most about the latter wasn't Matt Damon's geeky botany jokes, but Jessica Chastain's complicated Capt. Melissa Lewis — a clear leader, but not a one-dimensional one (as demonstrated in the video clip below). And that Kate Mara's character returned home to have a baby, but Chastain's character remained independent showed that women, including space-women, can make the choices that are best for them. You know, just like real women do.