Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy opened on August 1, and recently, Zoe Saldana spoke to Devin Faraci of Badass Digest about how roles for women in space—meaning roles for women actors in science fiction and fantasy films (SFF)—are better than their counterparts in more realistic films. But while there may be more empowered roles cropping up in SFF films, are things really “better for women in space,” as Saldana quipped?
If you’re looking for a good research paper topic in women’s studies, film studies, or science fiction, take a look at the reality of both women in science fiction and fantasy and female astronauts. Spoiler alert: it’s not as rosy as the Hollywood version.
Zoe Saldana interview
Zoe Saldana has been in a number of SFF films at this point in her career. She played the blue-skinned Neytiri in James Cameron’s Avatar and is slated to reprise the role in the three upcoming sequels, filmed back-to-back and planned for release, one a year, from 2016 to 2018. In the new Star Trek franchise, she plays Nyota Uhura, a communications officer on the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Saldana’s role in Guardians of the Galaxy is as Gamora, a green-skinned assassin, which required Saldana to use her background as a dancer to integrate a lot of physical action into her role. “I enjoy getting a chance to show that I can do a lot of stunts and be very physical,” Saldana told an interviewer for the July 25, 2014, London Mirror article “Superheroes across the Universe: Reel Talk; Zoe Saldana Says She Loved Playing a Maverick in Her New Sci-Fi Blockbuster.” Saldana continued: “That’s a big advantage of mine, where I can dish it out and look convincing if I’m punching out the bad guys or shooting a gun.”
Saldana explained to the Mirror interviewer why such roles appealed to her. “I could never play just the girlfriend kind of role where, as a woman, you’re just there as an afterthought to the male character.” The statement echoed her words in the June 30, 2014, interview with Faraci, “Zoe Saldana Says It’s Better for Women in Space.” She told Faraci, “[T]here are better parts for women in space. I don’t have to subject myself to just being the love interest or playing a character that doesn’t feel relevant to the story.”
Women in space
But is it better for real women in space? Problematically, there aren’t statistically enough women in the field to draw comparisons between genders, according to the December 3, 2001, article “Gender Issues Related to Spaceflight: A NASA Perspective,” posted on Space Daily. According to the article, at the time, only 22% of the astronauts in the corps were women.
Some other statistics:
- As of 2013, 552 people have traveled to space. Only 55 of them were women.
- The first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova of Russia in 1963. The U.S. didn’t send a woman to space until Sally Ride traveled 20 years later.
- The first woman to command the ISS was Peggy Whitson in 2008. The second woman to command was Sunita Williams in 2012.
There are certainly more female astronauts in leadership positions than there may have been in the past, and privatization of space travel is likely to change the overall working environment. But other male dominated technical careers have maintained a low percentage of female employees: for example, female engineers make up only about 14% of the engineering profession in the U.S.
Women in SFF
What about science fiction and fantasy? Women continue to struggle for equal representation inside the SFF genres. In fandom, many women have had to fight against the “fake geek girl” meme (in which some male fans have proclaimed that women who go to conventions, particularly cosplayers, are not “real” nerds, but instead are there to prey on men). There are also myriad stories of women confronting sexual harassment at conventions, sometimes from industry professionals.
As writers, women are so often told that they are destroying science fiction (or, at least, not writing real science fiction) that Lightspeed Magazine recently Kickstarted an entire issue called Women Destroy Science Fiction, completely written and edited by women.
K. Tempest Bradford, reviewing the issue for NPR in “Women Are Destroying Science Fiction! (That’s OK; They Created It),” quipped, “The perception that the science fiction that women write isn’t ‘real’ isn’t as pervasive as it was in the 1960s, but it’s just as ridiculous. If you need proof to back up that assertion, all you need do is read this issue of Lightspeed Magazine.”
What do you think of representation of women in space, in Hollywood SFF, and in the SFF industry? Tell us in the comments.