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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