Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Woman, manhood and extraterrestrials

(In addition to posting new stuff again, I’m going to cross-post some of what I wrote on my own blog about the movies I’ve watched for Alien Visitors, just to add to the “new” content here. This is a post I wrote last month, slightly edited)

Rewatching The Thing From Another World (1951) as I worked on the Alien Monsters chapter (in case you’re wondering, I write about the Carpenter Thing too) gave me fresh appreciation for Margaret Sheridan as Nikki, the female lead opposite Kenneth Tobey’s Capt. Hendry. It’s not that she plays a role in fighting the Thing (James Arness), but there’s no question she could do it if she had to.

Producer Howard Hawks (according to many accounts, he was the director too, but wanted to give his friend Christian Nyby the credit) liked telling stories about tough guys, and Hendry and his crew are plenty tough.  Their toughness is taken as a given, never anything they have to prove, but it’s there. If you have an alien plant creature plotting to colonize Earth with an army of seedlings, these are men you want in humanity’s corner. They’re willing to fight to the last airman to save the world.

Scotty (Douglas Spencer), the reporter, is an example of how casual they are about being tough and capable. When Hendry says Scotty shouldn’t be in the middle of the fight, Scotty replies he shouldn’t have been at El Alamein or Okinawa during WW II, but he was there. ’Nuff said. Scotty has nothing to prove after that, any more than Hendry and his crew.

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) but her role is a headscratcher. She’s working with a Russian special-forces team fomenting unrest in the region, but we never learn what he role is: interpreter? Guide? Marxist guerilla? My impression is, it doesn’t matter to the filmmaker. Anna’s there to provide exposition and to deflect any complaints the film’s a total sausage fest.

While Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his crew are tough, the film is more self-conscious about it. There’s the early scene where Carl Lumbly and Ah-nuld arm-wrestle with heavy emphasis on their bulging biceps. One of Ah-nuld’s team (Jesse Ventura) carries an absurdly massive Gatling gun that makes no sense for jungle fighting but sure as hell looks impressively macho.

And then there’s Independence Day (1996) where proving your masculinity is very big part of the film. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is a fighter-pilot hero of the first Gulf War who has to prove going into politics hasn’t turned him into a wimp. David (Jeff Goldblum) lost his wife Connie (Margaret Colin) because he wasn’t man enough for her (they don’t use the phrase but that’s the subtext). Unlike Predator and The Thing, David and Whitmore have to work to show they’re as much Real Men as fighter pilot Hiller (Will Smith).

ID4 creators Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin apparently figured that for men to be Real Men the women must be Real Women. Which is to say their role is to admire the men and do what they’re told. Connie is Whitmore’s press secretary, a securely subordinate position; Hiller’s girlfriend Jasmine (Viveca A. Fox) is an exotic dancer. Jasmine survives by following Hiller’s orders, whereas the First Lady (Mary McDonnell) literally dies because she did not do what her husband told her.

It’s really annoying that Sheridan’s tougher and probably more capable in a pinch than any of these later women. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Not that ID4 is unique. The female lead (Gloria Talbot) in I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) can’t do anything to stop the aliens who are replacing some of the men in town. While she’s the central character, it’s the town doctor who realizes that as the aliens can’t reproduce with human women, every man in the maternity ward’s waiting from (this was before having the husband present at the birth was common) must be human. Of course, every woman in town is human but nobody thinks of recruiting them.That’s understandable in a 1958 film, but the 1997 TV-movie remake, I Marred a Monster isn’t any better. It’s still up to the town doctor and the remaining human men to save the day. No girls allowed.

I know, saying Hollywood films are sexist is like saying water is wet. But still.


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