Rewatching The Thing From Another World (1951) as I worked on the Monsters chapter of Alien Visitors gave me fresh appreciation for Margaret Sheridan as Nikki, the female lead opposite Kenneth Tobey’s Hendry. It’s not that she plays a role in fighting the Thing, but there’s no question she could do it if she had to.
Producer Howard Hawks liked stories about tough guys, and Hendry and his crew are plenty tough. It’s not emphasized, just taken as a given that they’re willing to go up against this alien menace and fight to the last man to save the world. Scotty, the reporter (Douglas Spencer) establishes his bona fides easily: when Hendry says he should be away from the front lines, Scotty replies he shouldn’t have been at El Alamein or Okinawa during WW II, but he was there. ’nuff said.
The thing is, Hawks liked his women tough too. Contrary to the poster, Nikki never screams, never faints, never needs more protection than anyone else. She never stays behind when they’re going up against the Thing. We learn that on her last date with Hendry she drunk him under the table, a measure of toughness back in those days.
Fast-forward to 1988’s Predator. We have one woman in the cast (Elpidia Carrillo) and her role is a headscratcher. She’s working with a Russian special-forces team fomenting unrest in the region. We never learn what he role is: interpreter? Guide? Marxist guerilla? It comes off as if she’s there solely to provide exposition and avoid criticism the film’s a 100 percent sausage fest.
While Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his crew are tough, there’s more self-consciousness about it. One of the team (Jesse Ventura) carries a massive gun way too big to lug for jungle fighting; there’s the early scene where we watch Carl Weathers and Ah-nuld arm-wrestle with an emphasis on their muscles.
And then there’s Independence Day (1996) where as I’ve mentioned before, there’s a lot more worry that the male characters aren’t man enough. Jeff Goldblum lost his wife because he wasn’t ambitious enough for her; as a president, war hero Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is dismissed as a wimp because he compromises and negotiates. Both, of course, prove they’re Real Men.
The flip side of that is that the women have to be Real Woman, which is to say letting the men have all the glory. As the first lady, Mary McDonnell dies because she didn’t listen to her husband; Margaret Colin’s role as Goldblum’s ex is to see how awesome her husband really was; Viveca J. Fox gets to be a little heroic because she’s protecting her son, plus she’s doing what her boyfriend Will Smith told her to, in contrast to McDonnell.
It’s really annoying that Sheridan’s tougher and probably more capable than any of these later films. It should be the other way around, shouldn’t it? Similarly, the female lead in I Married a Monster (1997) doesn’t get to do more than in 1958’s I Married a Monster From Outer Space. All she can do is warn the town doctor and have him do the fighting. The 1995 Village of the Damned is marginally better than the classic 1960s film, but not much (I discussed this about a year ago).
Not that it’s startling news Hollywood is sexist, but it’s still annoying.
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