Carrie Fisher, Gillian Anderson, and Female Aging in Science Fiction

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Today, fans of the absolute epitome of perfection who is Gillian Anderson were pissed off and took to Twitter to tote their undying love for the X-Files star after The Daily Mail published a piece speculating whether or not the sci-fi goddess had undergone plastic surgery.

Anderson has aged gracefully, and that’s all that matters.  It doesn’t matter that she once landed a role that was meant to be token and sexualized and made it iconic.  It doesn’t matter that she refused to allow network executives to dictate her choices when the part of a lifetime was threatened by an unexpected pregnancy. It doesn’t matter that she showed droves of 80s and 90s girls that it was cool and empowering to be a smart, classy woman who would make it in traditionally men’s professions like, I don’t know, medical doctor and FBI field agent.

The show has returned after about a 15-year hiatus, and Anderson has done 15 years of living in that time.  Yes, she still looks amazing but “Beautiful Woman Still Beautiful” is hardly a newsworthy headline, especially when no one seems to care how her costar David Duchovny has aged.

We saw the flipside of this coin last year when Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought back some more beloved characters from, not 15, but 40 years ago and somehow people were shocked that Carrie Fisher looked older.  Again, critics were notably less critical of male costars Harrison Ford’s and Mark Hamill’s equally rough appearances.

In both cases, women’s bodies are being scrutinized for signs of aging, and we see women being objectified for looking more youthful than expected in Anderson’s case, and for looking exactly like a 59-year-old woman is expected to look in real life in Fisher’s case.  We know that young women’s bodies are often objectified in Hollywood and until recently older women were practically absent from movies and television altogether.  Now that roles beginning to be available for women of a certain age, Hollywood and the media are finding it appropriate to attack their age in the most superficial manner.

Princess Leia and Agent Scully were both revolutionary feminist figures in their respective eras.  Before Leia, women didn’t pick up a weapon and fight back.  They didn’t smartmouth their love interests and lead armies in their spare time.  Leia was a tough character who inspired many girls, not just in the 70s but for generations to come as evidenced by my personal seven-year-old self. 

In the 90s, Scully stepped through the door that had been opened by characters like Leia and stepped further to open a new one, epitomizing intelligence and logic while her male partner treated her as an invaluable collaborator, and sometimes let his emotions get the better of him while she stayed grounded in reason.  X-Files scared the shit out of 7-year-old me, but teenage me was inspired by her class and intelligence, and I was not alone.  Before Scully, a woman wasn’t thought of as simultaneously smart, classy, and feminine.

So why are we looking at these women whose portrayals inspired so many real-life women as if all they can bring to the table is wrinkles or lack thereof?

This is a problem throughout Hollywood but devaluing women in general seems to be a particularly big prominent issue in the sci-fi genre, one we still tend to generalize as male-centered.  While the notorious pink side of the toy aisle is stuffed with Barbie and Disney toys, girls would have to consciously venture into the segregated blue aisles of most toy stores to even find options for Star Wars or Marvel toys, and when they find them, they often don’t find the characters that remind them of themselves.  In a notable controversy this year, Rey, the main character of the new Star Wars film was conspicuously missing from toy sets, following similar controversies where Black Widow of The Avengers and Gamora of Guardians of the Galaxy were missing from their respective playsets.  This seems to indicate that science fiction is still considered a men’s genre and women are having trouble breaking that glass ceiling.

As women age, though, it seems clear that the genre only becomes more difficult to blend into.  Even when it comes to young, inarguably beautiful women such as Black Widow, we were left begging impotently for filmmakers to give her more screentime in The Avengers: Age of Ultron.  We seem to have gone unheard as it is, but when Scarlett Johansson has crow’s feet?  It’s  a tragedy, but she’ll have to fight even harder to get her share of the spotlight if, heaven forbid, she doesn’t fall forgotten from the limelight as so many actresses have when middle age comes for them.

I tried to think of some examples of women of color who are experiencing the same kind of age discrimination in the sci-fi genre, but instead came across the ugly fact that I don’t think there are really many women of color in the science fiction genre as a whole, much less any who are aging.  With some notable exceptions like Zoë Saldana’s Gamora, women of color are pretty much absent from the genre altogether.  They haven’t had much of a chance to age in the genre, because for the most part there still doesn’t seem to be room being made for them.  That’s something I really hope will change.  I suppose Halle Berry’s Storm is the closest thing we have to an aging woman of color in science fiction right now, and while I haven’t heard much about her age, the character is making minimal appearances in later X-Men films.

I love that science fiction’s feminist heroes are making a comeback, and I hope their reappearance is just a step in the direction of including older women (and all women) more effectively in the genre as a whole.  But my point is, women in science fiction are tough, smart, badass, and empowered.  We don’t need to redirect all our attention to exactly how well they have aged.

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