The Exceptions: Girl-Positive Geeky Movies of the 1980s

In my previous post I highlighted why I felt too much nostalgia for the films of the 1980s, particularly those that seem most beloved by the geek community, might be counterproductive, if we have any desire to move past our idea of the straight white male as the default for Hero. Yet among those films I can recall a few gems, movies that stand out as including female characters who are active, resourceful, and worth rooting for. They fall into three categories.

  1. She’s the hero of her own story.

Aliens (1986). Seven years after the excellent sci-fi/horror mash-up Alien, Sigourney Weaver’s smart, brave, take-charge Ellen Ripley returned to the screen in my favorite film of what would become a franchise. Despite some conservative elements (e.g. Ripley’s desire to live and be a part of the world again is revived through her maternal instincts), she is a fighter and a leader, and there is no doubt that she saves the day. As a bonus, she isn’t the only woman worth watching. Jenette Goldstein’s tough marine Vasquez is another hero worth taking notice of, despite, or even because of, her tragic end.

Labyrinth (1986). In Jim Henson’s fantasy-adventure that had to wait several years to get the attention it deserved, a girl makes a classic Hero’s Journey to save her kidnapped baby brother, picking up allies along the way through her courage and compassion. Jennifer Connelly’s performance is disappointingly vacant (you would find it hard to believe that she won an acting Oscar years later), but when we pay attention to the way her character, Sarah, is written, we can see she’s actually a spirited, imaginative daydreamer of the Jo March/Anne Shirley school — in other words, a female hero after my own heart.

Romancing the Stone (1984). Here’s another sibling-rescue story featuring a hero initially in over her head. Kathleen Turner’s Joan Wilder, a popular romance novelist, sets out to rescue her kidnapped sister and meets the sort of dashing loner (Michael Douglas) she writes about. We’re set up to expect this jungle-wise he-man will prove her savior at the climax. What a pleasant surprise when she turns out to be the rescuer! Plus, the hilarious scene in which a group of bandits holding Joan and her rogue at gunpoint turn into worshipful fanboys once they learn who she is almost makes the whole movie.

The Secret of NIMH (1982). Compared with nearly everyone around her, widowed field mouse Mrs. Brisby is ordinary. Her late husband was a lab-engineered genius. His ailing son might have inherited his gifts. The rats whose aid she seeks to move her house out of harm’s way are also super-geniuses (and all, regrettably, male), and she trusts them to know what to do. She could easily have proven a mouse Bella Swan, the plaything of events, at the mercy of more capable characters. But no. She refuses to stand by and let others do the hard work. She insists on taking an active role, and in the end, her own courage prevails and saves her family. Though surrounded by extraordinary creatures, the ordinary mouse turns out the hero.

The Last Unicorn (1982). A faithful screen adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s novel (screenplay by Beagle himself), the movie staggers a bit in its second half, partly because the unicorn becomes much less interesting when she’s transformed into a woman. But the unicorn is the title character for a reason, and once she has her true form again, she rescues her fellow unicorns from captivity and puts an end to their monstrous captor — one of the few times a female character actually gets to slay the monster.

2. Girlfriends Who Matter

Dragonslayer (1981). Caitlin Clarke’s cross-dressing heroine Valerian is actually the one who sets the plot in motion, leading the expedition to find a magician who can slay a dragon who has terrorized her kingdom for years. She may begin the story disguised as a boy, but once she begins wearing girl’s clothes, she doesn’t lose her tough, plain-spoken, not-always-likable demeanor. It’s her uniqueness, along with her courage, that wins the heart of Peter MacNicol’s apprentice sorcerer Galen. Also noteworthy is the princess, the sort of conventionally beautiful maiden we (and Valerian) expect Galen to fall in love with. Once she discovers she’s been shielded from the dangers other girls have been facing, she chooses to sacrifice herself so that those others might live.

The Dark Crystal (1982). Male Gelfling Jen may be the Chosen One, destined to heal the Dark Crystal and bring an end to the power of the evil Skeksis, but the one who knows what’s going on is female Gelfling Kira, who, once she meets Jen, becomes his guide and saves him more than once. Her role at the climax may be a bit disappointing, but on the whole I can’t help liking her. She has wings!

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Calling her a “girlfriend” may be a bit of a stretch, but dedicated marine biologist Gillian is one of the more active one-shot female characters in the film franchise (who isn’t a villain, that is). She starts out unsure what to make of these strangers who have turned up in her world — the Enterprise crew, who have traveled through time seeking a pair of humpbacked whales that can save their universe — but once she figures out who they are and where they’ve come from, she becomes a useful ally, a difference-maker. Little wonder she finds a home in the “future.” (The bad news: Catherine Hicks’ performance is lackluster. The role deserved a stronger actress.)

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). The only movie bearing the creative hand-print of John Hughes (author of the screenplay) I can still watch and enjoy today is also the only one in which I actually like the girls involved. The protagonist is an aspiring artist (Eric Stoltz) in love with the popular girl (Lea Thompson) and loved by his tough-talking tomboy best friend (Mary Stuart Masterson), but what could have been a straightforward love triangle becomes more interesting as both girls are depicted as sympathetic and even unique. Masterson has personality to burn, and Thompson’s happy ending involves not getting a guy but finding the courage to be alone and figure out who she is.

3. Girls Can Be Geeks, Too

Real Genius (1985). Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), the female lead in this nerds-stick-it-to-the-Man comedy, is smart, funny, and flawed. She’s awkward in social situations and she talks too much when she gets excited, but her brainpower is unquestioned. She’s one of the very few 1980s heroines who is allowed a genuine passion for matters intellectual, a passion she shares with the guy who becomes her boyfriend. My only complaint about her is that she doesn’t have as much to do as I would like. Nonetheless, her presence, and the way her contributions are respected, makes this movie light-years more enduring than the somewhat similar Revenge of the Nerds (1984), which also features Meyrink but is an absolute nightmare where gender representation is concerned.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987). This is the odd movie out, in that it’s relatively free from the gloss of nostalgia that illuminates the movies listed here and in my previous post. It’s a quiet little film about adults, for adults, and it’s been largely forgotten. But it belongs here, as its heroine, played by Anne Bancroft, is a brainy middle-aged lady with a sharp wit and a love for out-of-print and antique books. This enthusiasm leads her into a love-affair-by-correspondence with Anthony Hopkins’ antique bookstore owner. Not only does their mutual interest seal their connection, but Bancroft has a circle of female friends who appreciate her passion. Not a traditional romance by any means — our two main characters never meet face to face — it deserves to be better known.

 

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Remembering the ’80s: My Not-so-Nostalgia Trip

In 1980, I turned eleven. In 1987, I graduated from high school. In 1988, I voted in my first presidential election. In 1990, I could order a cocktail with my birthday dinner. It’s safe to say I did much of my growing up in the ’80s. Yet do I miss the decade, with all its pop culture furniture? Do I find myself wishing today’s books, movies, and TV could be more like what we had in the ’80s? Do I want to go back and relive the decade?

Hell, no.

The only area of pop culture where I honestly prefer the 1980s is music. ’80s music, I’ll admit, has my heart, from Hall & Oates and Duran Duran to Luther Vandross and Al Jarreau. It’s said you never quite lose your love for the music you listened to when you were a teen, and I believe it. But the rest of ’80s pop culture, particularly the movies? Some I did and still do love, but in general, you can keep ’em.

This is not, I hasten to say, a dig at Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which my husband and I recently saw. Ernest Cline’s novel, along with Cline himself, is polarizing, but I really liked the movie and its female lead, Art3mis. The move from the page to the screen might have helped, since in the movie we don’t see Art3mis solely through Wade’s eyes, which gives her a chance to become more of a person than simply an object of desire or prize to be won; I have it on authority that Wade, too, is more likable in the movie. I may see it again before it leaves theaters, though Black Panther is still my favorite movie of 2018 so far.

Yet in general, all this nostalgia for the ’80s, and the attempts like Netflix’s Stranger Things to recreate that certain ’80s magic, only serve to remind me of how much I was missing back then, particularly where SFF and action-adventure movies were concerned. Then, far more than now, I was the Target Audience That Didn’t Exist, and while I may not have been able to articulate it at the time, I know I felt it.

Consider some of the movies that we geeks remember fondly, year by year. Most of these I have seen; an asterisk indicates those I’ve seen only partially.

1980: The Empire Strikes Back, Airplane!, The Blues Brothers*, The Shining, Caddyshack, Flash Gordon.

1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Time Bandits, Superman II, Stripes, An American Werewolf in London*, Clash of the Titans, Excalibur.

1982: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, Tron, 48 Hours, Blade Runner, The Thing*. (Haven’t seen: First Blood, Conan the Barbarian.)

1983: Return of the Jedi, WarGames, A Christmas Story*, The Outsiders*. (Haven’t seen: National Lampoon’s Vacation.)

1984: Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid, Footloose, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Splash, The Last Starfighter, Revenge of the Nerds, Sixteen Candles, Dune*, The Terminator*. (Haven’t seen: Beverly Hills Cop, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.)

1985: Back to the Future, The Goonies*, Clue, Cocoon, Fright Night, Ladyhawke, Legend*, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome*, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure*, The Breakfast Club. (Haven’t seen: Brazil. Could not be paid enough money to sit through: Weird Science.)

1986: Top Gun, The Karate Kid Part II*, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Highlander*, Stand By Me. (Haven’t seen: Crocodile Dundee, Flight of the Navigator.)

1987: Fatal Attraction*, Dirty Dancing, Good Morning Vietnam, The Lost Boys*, The Princess Bride, Spaceballs. (Haven’t seen: Lethal Weapon, The Untouchables, Monster Squad.)

1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Naked Gun*, Big, Scrooged, Willow*. (Haven’t seen: Die Hard, Earth Girls are Easy.)

1989: Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade*, Heathers*, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. (Haven’t seen: Back to the Future II, Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters 2, Say Anything, Look Who’s Talking, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.)

That’s quite a few titles. Many I adored at the time. Some I could watch at the drop of a hat even today (Empire and Jedi, Airplane!, The Princess Bride, Stand By Me, Good Morning Vietnam, E.T.) But how many of my year-by-year titles still hold up under my inescapably feminist perspective? The answer, sadly, is darned few. Not that the ’80s were a total loss for women: we did get Coal Miner’s Daughter, Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa, The Color Purple, and Broadcast News, all good female-centered movies that were nominated for Academy Awards. But of the treasured ’80s geek culture movies I’ve listed, only three — Sixteen Candles, Dirty Dancing, and Heathers — have female leads, and how interesting or empowering are these characters? (Samantha of Sixteen Candles, in particular, is average and bland because she’s deliberately written that way, and she’s surrounded by some highly questionable messaging.)

The vast majority of them serve up the wish-fulfillment fantasies of boys everywhere, hence their enduring popularity. What boy, after all, wouldn’t dream of defeating a bully (the Back to the Future films, the Karate Kid films), besting both Nazis and Indian blood cultists and finding the Holy Grail (the first three Indiana Jones films), saving the galaxy (the Star Wars and Star Trek films, The Last Starfighter), befriending an alien and breaking him out of a government facility (E.T.), or humbling an evil prince and rescuing his true love (The Princess Bride)? If you’re a boy, you can do all this and more. Of course geek guys love ’80s movies. If I were a guy, so would I.

But what do girls get to do?

They can be damsels in need of rescue (Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Lost Boys, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Raiders of the Lost Ark — and the last example is especially frustrating, since Karen Allen endows Marion Ravenwood with such toughness it’s easy to overlook that she never actually does anything). They can be villains who need to be thwarted (Excalibur, Blade Runner, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome). They can be nonentity love interests (the Karate Kid films, the Back to the Future films, WarGames, The Last Starfighter, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). They can be tag-alongs who never get much chance to do anything important (E.T.). And, of course they can be sexual conquests. Princess Leia does get her chances to battle evil and comes close to getting her own development arc in the Star Wars films, and even in the cheesy Flash Gordon Dale Arden kicks more butt than her 1930s serial counterpart ever got to do (admittedly not a high bar to clear). But on the whole, female characters’ possibilities seem distressingly limited. Hero, in particular, doesn’t seem to be an option.

Things have changed a lot in our pop culture since then, and mostly for the better, as more filmmakers have started to acknowledge that 1) yes, female geeks exist, and 2) yes, we too have big dreams, a whole variety of them. Yet today’s Hollywood also struggles to find fresh ideas, and filmmakers keep returning to the well of the ’80s, with reboots and even sequels (Indiana Jones 5??). When these reboots and sequels try to engage with the dreams of the female audience, ’80s purists bridle. Most obviously, the female-led Ghostbusters remake was drowning in Internet hate before it was even released, with purists protesting that it “killed their childhood.” A remake of The Last Starfighter (a movie I liked a lot, largely because of Robert Preston’s performance as an inter-galactic con man) is now in the works. If the screenplay expands the girlfriend’s character beyond the passive, mopey, unambitious bore we met in the original, will keepers of the ’80s flame cry “foul”?

Of course, creators should acknowledge their debt to the past, and today’s cinema owes a great deal to the films of the 1980s. Among other things, the ’80s saw a huge revival of the energetic, optimistic adventure and science fiction/fantasy stories that had largely been in hibernation for most of the 1970s, and movies like Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Wonder Woman carry that spirit in the present and into the future. Yet when it comes to mining for source material, I can’t help thinking Hollywood would be better off letting the ’80s go. They happened, they were great in many ways, and we learned from them. Time to move on.

(If anyone notices important titles left off my year-by-year list, that’s on purpose. They’ll be covered in my next post: “The Exceptions — Girl-Positive Movies of the 1980s.”)

 

 

Hope Springs Eternal

 

In my previous post, I offered a list of things that make me “die a little inside” (or that lead me to think, in the words of Futurama‘s Professor Farnsworth, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore”), ranging from personal pet peeves to more seriously disturbing signs of the mean streak in our culture. The one thing they all have in common: in ways great or small, they compromise my hope that our world and the stories that help shape it are getting better as more and more voices are heard. I mentioned at the close of the post that we as a society are suffering from “growing pains.” For almost a century, many of our core definitions — of “right,” “wrong,” “normal,” “male,” “female,” “race,” “American,” and more — have been shifting, and people frightened by the changes have been pushing back against them. Historically, this is nothing new. Where will we be when all this changing stops? The question is pointless, for change never stops.

Hope finds its way. I can fend off the threat of pessimism as long as I know where to look. Since one of my biggest concerns is what stories are being told, how they’re being told, and who gets to do the telling, I look there first.

  1. In the SFF literary community, diverse voices are honored.

A couple of posts ago I pointed out the Academy Awards’ long history of honoring films both by and about white men. For contrast, we have only to look at the Nebula Awards, given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Among the seven nominees for 2017’s Best Novel, only one (Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders) was written by a white man. Four (The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, The Stone Sky, Six Wakes, and Autonomous) have female protagonists. Two (The Stone Sky, Jade City) were written by women of color. At least one (Amberlough) foregrounds queer characters and themes. And that’s not even taking into account the other categories.

A look into the nominees, as well as into the previous years’ winners, shines a light on why diversity, far from being a matter of “tokenism” or “over-sensitivity” or “PC blandness,” is so valuable. We’re seeing a broadening, a widening, of the kinds of stories writers want to write and readers want to read. A greater variety of characters, themes, and plots not only enhances understanding; it also makes for better entertainment, and gives readers broader choices. This is why the Golden Age of Science Fiction and Fantasy is now, when a variety of approaches (from hard sci-fi to space opera, from urban to mythic/epic fantasy) is welcome, and straight white male characters aren’t the only ones who matter.

(Since drafting this blog, I’ve learned of the nominees for the Hugo Awards. Here, too, diverse voices are honored.)

2. Technology gives young readers a forum to share their passion.

We all know that the Internet can be a cesspool, a habitat for narrow-minded and mean-spirited trolls. Discussions of the Internet in general usually spotlight the bad side, yet while it’s important to know about the ‘Net’s dark corners, we should also give some attention to the good stuff happening online. In particular, I love YouTube — specifically, searching YouTube for videos made by young readers, the kind who just might become writers themselves one day. A couple of videos I’ve found and enjoyed recently:

(Regan doesn’t like featureless blank-slate female protagonists any more than I do.)

When I’m disappointed that students of mine declare they don’t like to read or can’t remember the last book they enjoyed, it does me good to know young women like this are out there, sharing thoughts on stories they love and inviting others to do the same.

3. As long as you keep finding out about books you’re eager to read, all is never lost.

Good stories can offer us an escape from the chaos in the world around us, and at the same time equip us to better handle that chaos. I never stop looking for books that just might do this for me. Here are some I bought recently, with birthday gift card money.

Book pic 1

Book pic 2

Book pic 3

Later in the year, we’ll see the release of Spinning Silver, the next stand-alone fantasy by Naomi Novik (whose Uprooted I adored), as well as the next two books in Michael J. Sullivan’s Legends of the First Empire series (Age of War and Age of Legend) and a number of titles by authors I haven’t read before, that have peaked my interest. Cass Morris’s From Unseen Fire and Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, in particular, have me hungering to get my hands on them. I have a lot of wonderful book journeys to look forward to.

4. The brighter side of human nature still shows itself in different places.

There’s a scene in Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch (see my Goodreads review here) in which the hero, Sunny, attends her first gathering for “Leopard People” (magically gifted). She goes with her friends to a wrestling match, and witnesses what she thought would be a friendly contest transform into a brutal bout to the death. Shocked and disgusted, she cries that she wants to go home. She’d met the fallen loser briefly and he’d shown her kindness, and she’s horrified that his death should be treated so casually. She’s no longer sure that she wants anything to do with the Leopard People or their world.

Yet in the midst of her shock, she notices the dead man’s stricken widow. Despite being told to stay in her seat, she sneaks down to the field to speak to the woman, to let her know she’d met her husband and would remember him and his kindness. She extends compassion to the woman, when no one else has thought to do so. When I read this moment I thought, “This is why Sunny — rather than her more experienced and confident friends — is the hero of this story.”

Kindness matters, in both fiction and real life. Whenever we see or read about someone seizing an opportunity to be kind, we should celebrate it. It’s what we humans are capable of.