Women of classic sci-fi franchises through the decades

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Late 20th-century classic sci-fi franchises are the foundation of contemporary genre media. Series like Alien (started in the ’70s), Terminator (the ’80s), and The Matrix (the ’90s) are standard fare for American (and global) audiences, bringing together not merely heart-pounding action, but fascinating characters in fascinating situations. However, as we take a closer look, it’s the leading woman of each who truly stands out.

All are inextricably bound to their series — despite divergences, spin-offs, and other content, it’s impossible to think about Alien without Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Terminator without Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), and The Matrix without Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss). But outside of being foundational in their respective series and iconic in cinematic history, all three shaped the concept of women in sci-fi as it exists today — namely, that there is no cookie-cutter mold for emotional, physical, or mental strength. 

Mettle is an all-encompassing term for characters whose strength is ultimately much greater than simply strength, courage, perseverance, and so many more exciting related adjectives. It also has the exciting homonym “metal” — and in the most casual way possible, calling characters “metal” might also work well and have a similar connotation (“That character is so metal…”).

Beginning with the series that started in the ’70s, Alien (1979) debuted to a rip-roaring start with this movie and three sequels featuring Ripley. It then diverged with two prequels and two crossover films, alongside a slew of video games, comics, and other transmedia content. But when someone yells “ALIEN!” into the void, it’s Ellen Ripley who comes echoing back, forming the true foundation of the franchise.

In the first film, Ripley is effectively the final girl, even though she defies many of the traditional characteristics of horror’s final girl trope. But audiences and critics quickly came to admire her as a protagonist, with Sigourney Weaver even nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the sequel, Aliens — an uncommon feat for genre films. (Plus, she had an awesome cat.)

While the Terminator franchise often brings to mind Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is the beating heart of it all. This is especially the case of the trilogy that specifically follows her character: The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and Terminator: Dark Fate (2019).

The other three intermediary films and the TV series — which Dark Fate effectively dismisses as alternate timelines — were more or less critically derided. Sarah Connor’s arc is the most robust, the most heart-wrenching, and certainly the closest to the viewer as the one central human character across the central trilogy. (She only grew stronger, more iconic, and more metal as she aged.)

Finally, we get to the Matrix trilogy (which is now becoming the Matrix franchise with the announcement of an untitled fourth film). Beginning with The Matrix (1999), it was followed up by two sequels released less than six months apart, The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003). Despite its condensed release schedule, the franchise has become foundational in contemporary American science fiction. Even though Neo is the protagonist, Carrie Anne Moss’ Trinity became an exemplar of badass in sci-fi. Notably, her love for Neo only makes her stronger in her own mission and martyrdom for the good of all people, and her character is in no way merely centered around her romantic connection, despite her belief that it was prophesied.

What’s immediately apparent about all of these women in their respective franchises is the extent of character development. All three grew immensely beyond the first installment, helped to cement their sci-fi series as genre classics, and became some of the most famous fictional characters in pop culture. They each went through extensive transformations — including Ripley’s death and revival as a genetically-altered clone, the death of Sarah Connor’s son and her emotional and physical transformation over many decades, and the Matrix films consisting of Trinity dying not once, but twice.

While Alien is classic sci-fi fare, it is also very explicitly horror — namely, body horror. Ripley’s presence and endurance in these films defy the conventions of the genre (and cinematic spaces more broadly), a realm where female bodies are innately used as a vessel of pain and graphic depictions of corporeal violence. Similarly, Sarah Connor’s change from a damsel-in-distress type character in the first Terminator film into a hardened soldier by the end of the story and through the rest of the franchise pushes against tropes of women as hysterical and helpless. Rather, she’s the only one who knows the truth about Judgment Day in the near-apocalyptic setting — despite everyone’s perception that she is mentally unstable — and goes through countless campaigns depicting her own strength. As a hacker and fighter, Trinity’s skills and calm-and-collected nature cements her status as a tough, resilient woman in a community dominated by men and genre associations with masculinity and cross-field prowess in technical and physical areas.

But as we celebrate female characters embodying true mettle, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that the only installments (of all three series) not directed by men are in the Matrix franchise (but the Wachowskis Sisters directed all three Matrix films!). Not a single Alien or Terminator movie was directed by a woman (take a look at The Sarah Connor Chronicles show for a few women directors and writers — but they’re still far and few between). While it may not exclusively bring into question the nature of how these characters were constructed and developed, it does give rise to the possibility of expanded, changed representation of women by uplifting women creatives beyond the camera. Joss Whedon was projected to write and direct a fifth Alien film, but this was supposedly canned. What would it mean to have a woman (or non-binary individual, for that matter) direct an Alien movie? We won’t directly engage in speculation, but we’ll put it out there for your own interest. As Sarah Connor put it in T2: “There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.” No better time than the present to take steps forward, Hollywood.



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