Changing the Image of Strong Women [in Sci-Fi]

There are certain stereotypical images and thoughts of how we perceive a strong female character in a story.


A strong woman is perceived as someone who stands up for what she believes in, is independent, self-reliant, strong-willed, and a motherly or matronly take-charge person. And yet more than often the characteristics of a strong woman are attributed more to a loss or psychological distress that happened somewhere in her past. Sounds familiar?


A Woman’s Strength starts with Tragedy

A strong woman happens to be someone who has faced some tragedy was further reinforced by authors and filmmakers. Whenever the “strong woman card” was played in the movie or book plot, the movie or book was a hit.

Woman in DistressWell, there are still a number of books and movies which follow the same idea. Take Claudia Gray’sFireBird” series as an example. Marguerite the protagonist in the “Firebird” series finds her strength only after her father dies in a car accident, and then she gets frenzy to take revenge.

So befalling of misfortune on a woman is considered as a reason to address the strength of a woman. Could it be that a woman can only find strength through tragedy in order to become stronger? Not to forget the popular culture perception of strong women as tomboy, less feminine, lifting furniture kind of a woman.

Men and women are different in emotional and physical characteristics, that’s true. Women might have inherited something in their DNA blueprint which makes them more emotionally vulnerable, but that never means a tragedy has to shape their emotional vulnerabilities. Women are able to perform whatever task is required simply because they are able to do it.


Being a woman

Women have been easy victims in the bullying framework. Particularly when the girl is a nerd or geek, she had been made fun of a school. But times have changed and Sci-Fi fantasies proved that nerd women aren’t losers after all. Comic books, fantasy films, and Sci-Fi TV series have hit the zeitgeist, introducing a class-strong woman to the world. And soon beauty with brains became something most sought after.

It was no more just a pretty lady in bright and peppy colors obsessing over her nails, hair, skin, and wearing 6-inch pink heels, Sci-Fi added more dimensions to the character of a strong woman. They are nerds and still look cool doing their nerd things.

Take the movie “Aliens” as an example, Ellen Ripley the leading lady of the movie showed the all-rounder image of a woman. “Sarah Connor” of “The Terminator”, Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games” are some other examples who have redefined the meaning of the word cool for women.

Unfortunately, it was not enough. The transition from a timid and poor girl who turns into a fierce and courageous awesome badass after something bad happens to her sells better. And this stereotype has been repeated in books as well, Millie of “The Quantum Thief”, where she sacrifices her humanity to a goddess in exchange for post-human technological upgrades that turned her into a one-woman arsenal on a mission of revenge, and Tan-Tan of “Midnight Robber”, where Tan-Tan flees into the forests, contending with hardship, integrating herself into an alien society, and planning her revenge against those responsible for her situation.

Yet not everything is lost. This stereotype has been challenged by great stories on a screen that was luckily well received by audiences as well. They showed the strong women as femme Fatales and brainy broads right from their childhood just like men. Characters like Diana Prince in “Wonder Woman”, Okoye, Nakia and Shuri in “Black Panther”, Michael Burnham in “Star Trek Discovery”, and Nyota Uhura in “Star Trek Original Series”, were raised as strong, independent, and confident young women who never feel inferior.


A Strong Female Character

Another point to be noted here is a strong female character doesn’t necessarily have to be related to action and violence. A book or film doesn’t need to have a strong female character that kicks ass because there are so many other ways of showing strength. It’s not just about murdering people. In the real world, there are whole regiments of women fighting for their rights through protest, strong political leaders, mothers who put their children’s needs before them, and so many more examples.

Mother touching her baby's feetMotherhood is one of the best proofs of how strong women can be, take the movie “Mother India” for example-in a Bollywood movie it might seem frustrating to see female characters reduced to their reproductive capabilities, but this movie changed the idea altogether. This film is historic. It portrays all kinds of emotions between a woman and everybody else in society. The love bond between a mother and her children is the most beautiful part of this film. The film came out in 1957 and it is, without a doubt, the most iconic film of Indian cinema! Unfortunately, that was one of those “one in a million” stories that addressed motherhood the right way. In today’s world where parenting is shown as something inferior, there is a scope to develop the plot where the strength of women as mothers can be shown as one of the best proofs of how strong a woman can be.

There is big scope for a movie or a book portrayed on the female scientist (real or not), to have a look at the way they were raised. Science and technology are often considered to be the forte of men and the idea is further subliminally transferred to the audience via books and movies- What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word scientist?

It’s most likely an intelligent type wearing a white lab coat with round-rimmed glasses. And more than likely, you see the scientist as a man making a breakthrough discovery, how he struggles with his paranoid mind inspiring sympathy, love, and respect. There is a similar scope for the character of women to be shown as such. Though there are some movies that already show this it needs to be fostered further.

For example, the 1998 film “Gorillas in the Mist” tells the true story of scientist Dian Fossey’s (Sigourney Weaver) African journey studying the disappearing rare species of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Fossey became a champion for the gorillas, putting her life at risk to protect them from poachers and possible extinction. Another example is Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) a xenobotanist who is the head of the Avatar Program in James Cameron’s 2009 hit, “Avatar”. But such roles need to be more prominent with women having the main lead.


Final thoughts

So adding a tragedy to the story to make a woman look inspirational or strong to make us believe that misery is an essential ingredient to create a strong female character is not necessary. Women can be portrayed as strong women without having tragedy or failure as motivational bait. Today there are many types of strong women like businesswomen, stay-at-home moms, single working moms, women working in the entertainment industry (including writers and directors), women in the military, scientists, and so on. All of them are just as inspirational with the way they conduct themselves through life.

Unfortunately, most of them are not being represented as they are on film, not in U.S, Latin America, Europe, or Asia. The excuse that those representations are not bankable or will not be widely accepted is just a myth. See the success of Black Panther for example; audiences widely accepted all the strong female characters in the movie. I hope this support will continue to completely change the image of strong women not only in Sci-Fi but in all other genres too.

To finalize I want to share with you a satirical sketch/music video I found about how female leads are treated, in this case, they are referring to Bollywood but I’m sure the rest of the world can relate to it since some issues like equal pay and women objectification are everywhere. Make sure to watch it on Youtube and have the subtitles on 😉

Thanks to all the contributors of this article, from those who give me the idea to those who actually helped me with the writing. I really appreciate all the help 🙂

Hope this was an interesting read for you. Many thanks for visiting this page. Feel free to leave your thoughts and feedback in the comment section below.



Hi There! I am Sci-Fi Fan who wishes to share the love for Sci-Fi. Whether you know about Sci-Fi or not, on SFM&TV you will find interesting material to explore. I'll be happy to share with you what I know and to learn from you as well.

23 thoughts on “Changing the Image of Strong Women [in Sci-Fi]”
  1. What a thought provoking article…and isn’t it funny how Sigourney Weaver is the de facto strong woman in most American films? We need more actresses able to carry the energy, unfortunately demand determines supply so often, and actresses know that their way to riches is to be the sweet one, or the friend, or the victim…I too am glad that Black Panther broke through some of that crap in a blockbuster setting.

    1. Hi Penelope,

      I agree with you, and I am glad that at least now we have strong evidence that having well written strong female characters on the big screen works.
      Thanks for visiting the page and commenting.
      Have a nice day 🙂

  2. What an interesting and thought provoking read – especially as it’s International Women’s Day today! You’ve highlighted some really important points about women’s strength and their roles in films and I agree it doesn’t just take tragedy and heartbreak to make a woman’s character strong.

    It’s great to see that Sigourney Weaver fits into the ‘strong female’ character roles in the films you’ve mentioned – I loved her in Aliens! ….Does Erin Brockovich fit in here? Great read!

    1. Hi Teresa,

      Strong women are everywhere. Most of the times they are called bad names (or gain a bad reputation) because they continue and persevere.
      I am glad you enjoyed reading it on this day. Thanks a lot for stopping by!

  3. Very nice article, I have lots more movies added to my watchlist now. I love watching films with strong female leads. It gets you feeling powerful and energized. I remember hearing young women after watching wonder woman (as cheesy as that can be) talk about how they felt powerful enough to do anything!

    1. Hi Tandy,

      Yes, Wonder Woman is a great example of the change. The success of the film showed that a strong female lead superhero film, when done right with the right team and minimal studio intervention, can be successful.
      Thanks a lot for commenting!

  4. Great read Dira! I agree that it was great to see how the female characters in Black Panther resonated well with viewers. As well as the many other movies before it that did the same. I also think that a well written script plays a huge role in how the strong female characters come across to viewers. And I guess great directors make a big difference too.

    1. Hi Yemi,

      I agree with a well-written character and a good director but also the casting is important. Unfortunately, that combination of having everything aligned does not happen as often as you think. Films such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther bring the strong female character at the forefront, at the same level of men and in some instances even guiding them. We haven’t seen this scenario’s being this successful in sci-fi or in any other genre (like action and thrillers).
      I am glad you enjoyed reading it. Thanks a lot for stopping by 🙂

  5. I enjoyed reading your article, I can relate to the movies and books I myself had to go through such a big tragedy to discover my strength, I love watching movies which portray a strong character of a woman as I come from an Indian background where women are always Put lower.

    1. Hi Mysa,

      I’m happy you enjoyed it.
      There are many types of strong women in the world and I am sure you are one of them 🙂
      Thanks a lot for taking some time to read my article.

  6. Great read here! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with all of us. I’m hoping to see more and more strong female roles on the big screen in the near future. Writing posts like this will help make that happen. Way to go!

    1. Hi Shelli,

      I am glad you liked it. And yes let’s support strong female roles on whatever platform they come!
      Thanks for commenting. Have a nice day.

  7. I really like that movies with strong females are increasing, as much as i like other superheroes (all guys), seeing a woman kicking ass hypes me up. It does bother me that plenty of movies had to give a super tragic event to the timid girl to show her true potential….but as in real life, certain event do shape our traits and the way we see the world.
    But i’m glad that the movie industry is evolving, letting us admire female leads that are not depending on a male to save them.
    BTW, i really enjoyed and appreciated your final thoughts, we have plenty of female role models that we tend to overlook, including ourselves, going through our day to day lives takes strength and courage, we should all be proud of ourselves.
    I feel motivated after reading your post, thank you!
    I look forward to more, plus is there any movie you might have not mentioned that you could recommend?
    I would really appreciate it.

    1. Hi Anne,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We do have many great female role models around us and I agree that we don’t realize it that we ourselves could be in that group. We don’t see ourselves or the women around us in film as much as we would have wanted it. I think that is why we overlook the people around us because we don’t identify them as such. We are told from a young age to behave in a certain way or are told that this is what a girl/woman should do.
      There are a few films with great female characters that are definitely worth seeing like The Matrix, Contact, Hidden Figures (it’s not Sci-Fi but it’s worth seeing), and Arrival. And I can’t wait to see Annihilation. I am sure there are a few more but these are the ones I would recommend to you next to the ones I already mentioned in the article. Hope you enjoy them 🙂

  8. What a rich topic and wonderfully written. I so enjoyed this. I have two daughters and always tried to instill in them their own power. It’s very difficult when media portrays them as insignificant or strong through heartache or tragedy or through the scope of a man’s eye. I am so intrigued to see the move Mother India now. Do you feel that women are producing more movies where women are portrayed as being strong, or do they as well fall into the trap of stereotyping?

    1. Hi Linda,

      I am glad you enjoyed it.
      It is very difficult to say since there haven’t been many women in the producing seat. When the majority is against your project I think its very difficult to stand ground, especially if financials are involved in the conversation. But there is still hope as actresses such as Margot Robbie and Anushka Sharma are establishing their own production companies in Hollywood and Bollywood respectively and are producing the movies they want, hopefully, they will remain true to their vision and will continue to do so in the future.

  9. This was an excellent post. I have alot of respect for women, and I think they should get more credit than they do, especially in work related instances. And I agree we have many great women around us, but people can be so unaware sometimes. Thanks for sharing

  10. This is a great read and definitely makes me think about how women are portrayed in the entertainment industry. It will be interesting to see how women will be represented in the next decade or so as well. I will definitely check out several of the movies you mentioned!

  11. Sigourney Weaver’s character in Aliens (the second Aliens movie) for me is the benchmark for strong women in Science Fiction. Very disappointed that there has never been a mention anywhere of Sanaa Lathan in Aliens vs Predator.

    The new Wonder Woman is absolutely gorgeous. Haven’t seen Okoye, Nakia and Shuri in Black Panther yet, nor have I seen Star Trek Discovery, which brings me to Nyota Uhura in the Star Trek Original Series. I’ve always viewed her as number one when it comes to strong women in science fiction. Let’s not forget that Nichelle Nicholas and William Shatner shared Hollywoods first interracial kiss!

    Very good post…

    1. Hi Howard,

      Everyone has their own icons that they look up to.
      For me, the character you mention did not have a strong impact in my opinion. In AvP I found her role a little annoying, for the majority of the time, she was like a mascot of the predator. But what doesn’t work for me may work for others. Each person gets inspiration for several reasons. So if that character is inspiring to you keep supporting her.
      Thanks for commenting!

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