I love a good, strong female lead in a movie. In any genre it's a great touch but in science fiction it's a whole other matter. We've been seeing a lot of these tough female protagonists lately. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Tris Prior in Divergent are both good examples, but I'm more interested tracing the evolution of this trend. All of a sudden we have this abundance of sci-fi heroines, and yet, as I discussed previously, there was a time when the simple idea of female astronauts was almost completely unheard of.
So to begin with, let's look at quite possibly the earliest example I've found of something we could call a strong female lead in a science fiction film: Barbarella. Now the movie is obviously an exploitation film that is intentionally campy and over-the-top, but Barbarella herself is actually not too bad a character, especially this was given this was around the same time we had incredibly sexist movies like Sean Connery's James Bond films running around, it's nice to see one that offers up a somewhat positive image for women if only for the time period.
Yes, Barbarella herself is obviously very attractive and doesn't get to show off her skills quite as much as some of the other women who came later (in fact she spends most of the climax just watching the final battle on a screen after being locked in a seemingly inescapable room) but on the other hand it is established that she is a competent astronaut who willingly takes on what she knows to be a dangerous mission and she never gives up her search. She also has plenty of great one-liners.
By modern standards, Barbarella might not be the perfect model of a sci-fi heroine, but the success of her film may have helped create a path of sorts to allow other woman to take the center stage of science fiction.
Fast forward a few years later. Dan O'Bannon is reworking some ideas from his script for the earlier box office flop Dark Star, and said script ends up in the hands of an upcoming director named Ridley Scott. As they began making the movie, Scott had the idea that the main character of the script (originally written as a man) could be played by a woman. The result is often considered one of the most iconic science fiction characters of all time.
Ripley does go a few steps up from Barbarella in that there is less emphasis on her sexuality. In a way she is very much like the "Hawksian woman" minus the usual romance; in other words, she is really just one of the guys. Her sexuality never comes up in the film or its sequels as an issue of any sort (unless you count her being seen in her underwear at the very end). She is every bit as capable of doing her job as the men are, in fact maybe even a bit better. One aspect of her character that would have seemed very unusual in 1979 was the fact that she has to rely on herself (after all Barbarella still had to rely on various characters to help her in her goals), being the only survivor in the original film. By the time of Aliens James Cameron is able to take her to the next level, having her last longer than most of the marines and single-handedly taking on (and prevailing against) the alien queen... TWICE!
One thing that is also a nice touch is that they don't try to make her appear overtly sexy. That's not to say Ripley's unattractive, but whereas Barbarella's costumes were obviously intended to show off Jane Fonda's body, Ripley's outfits are far more practical to the work that she does, not to mention she spends much of the final act of the movie appearing dirty and sweaty.
So now to jump ahead a little bit further ahead, we have Eleanor Arroway in Contact. This is a woman who has spent her whole life dreaming about exploring the cosmos and making contact with extra-terrestrial life, and when she finally has a chance to achieve that dream, she doesn't give up without a fight.
This is a woman who not only runs a multi-million dollar project to locate intelligent life and actually finds it, but also has to keep herself going in the face of all the insane controversies that inevitably ensue from the discovery. Pressure upon pressure is mounted upon her, and somehow she manages to hold herself together throughout.
Finally, we get to Ryan Stone in Gravity. This is a woman who had to carry an entire movie by herself (not an easy feat, even Sam Bell had GERTY to talk to). She did have Matt at first, but most of the previous characters had someone they could go to. Barbarella received help from Pygar, Ellen Ripley tried to rely on her colleagues and was still able to find some comfort with the cat, and Eleanor Arroway had the support of a few colleagues and her friendship with Palmer.
Ryan had nothing, not even the maternal instincts that drove Ripley in Aliens (her daughter died from a head injury several years prior) or any contact with Mission Control. All she has are her own wits and whatever she can improvise using what she can find. Understandably she also spends most of the film being panick-stricken and terrified, but even so she still manages to pull through alright.
So over the years there has evidently been a change in how science fiction heroines have developed. We've gone from having a determined (if overly sexualized) young woman to an astronaut that was able to survive entirely on her own in the face of multiple dangers with practically no outside help.