Joss Whedon and James Cameron are famous for their strong female characters. For example, Cameron singlehandedly turned Sigourney Weaver into an action star while Whedon basically did the same for Scarlett Johansson. Even though they are both really good at turning women into seemingly unstoppable killing machines, they do so in completely opposite ways. Let’s discuss examples of how they do this and what it means to their films.
Joss Whedon’s Superpowers
Whedon’s heroines are almost always endowed with their powers by external forces. They appear weak on the outside, but they’re harboring secret abilities that transform them into deadly weapons. They can’t change what they have been turned into. In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, Buffy is destined to become a vampire slayer by pure chance. She didn’t ask to be supernaturally gifted to fight demons, but she has to and she realizes that she’s really good at it.
In Firefly, River Tam is a teenage girl who was experimented on and driven nearly insane by a corrupt interplanetary government. She comes across as mostly helpless and weak, relying on her brother to protect her. We see brief flashes of what she’s capable of over the course of the short-lived sci-fi TV series. But she’s finally revealed to be a living weapon in the follow-up film Serenity. It turns out that she has psychic abilities and she can win fistfights with even the most brutal enemies. She didn’t want these powers, but when push comes to shove, she can easily hold her own.
Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff is another interesting example. She became a Russian assassin at a young age before being reformed into a spy working for the good guys. In The Avengers, she has a couple of scenes where enemies underestimate her and believe that she’s physically or emotionally vulnerable and compromised when she’s actually in complete control of the situation and lulling them into a false sense of security. She uses others’ misconceptions to her advantage to get information from them. Natasha was turned into a weapon, and she attempts to use her skills for good, even though she does have a guilty conscience about her bloody past.
James Cameron’s Courage from Within
Let’s contrast those with Cameron’s heroines. They are all women who are not terribly happy about their lot in life, but they look within for the courage to make it through any danger life throws at them. Sarah Connor has no superpowers. She’s thrust into a situation where she is being hunted by a Terminator from the future, and her only chance at survival is to find the strength to fight back. The next time we see her in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, she’s attempted to harden herself into an unfeeling killer after spending the past decade learning everything she needs to know to help her son become the leader of the human resistance against Skynet. But the soft, caring Sarah is still buried deep within and she comes out at moments when she’s feeling vulnerable and lost. Sarah is just a regular person put into impossible circumstances and forced to find new parts of herself she never knew she had without forgetting who she was before the insanity began.
In The Abyss, Lindsey Brigman is another woman who’s forced to summon her courage when confronted by a truly terrifying situation. She gets stranded with her estranged husband Bud on an underwater oil rig that she designed. When Bud tells her, “I’m glad you’re here,” she laughs derisively and responds, “I’m not.” At one point, she and Bud are stuck in an underwater vehicle that is crippled and quickly filling with freezing water. She doesn’t have a suit while Bud does, so she tells him to let her drown and then bring her lifeless body back to their home base and revive her. Bud spends several excruciating minutes attempting to pump life into her seemingly dead body until he gives into frustration and yells at her to come back, which she somehow finds the strength to do.
True Lies has a subplot about Harry Tasker’s wife Helen, who doesn’t know that her husband is a secret agent. She seems like a boring housewife, but she craves adventure. When given the chance to participate in a little bit of espionage, she sheds her frumpy outfit and discovers that she can actually pull off the roll of sexy seductress quite convincingly.
And, of course, Titanic has the appropriately named Rose because she must rise to the occasion when she finds herself in a life-or-death situation aboard the ill-fated Titanic. All of her life she’s been told the proper way to behave and she feels trapped into an arranged marriage to a man she doesn’t love. It’s only when she meets a penniless artist named Jack that she begins to believe in herself and seek to do what she wants to do instead of trying to please others. When others fail her, she just forges ahead on her own. She even leaps off a lifeboat back onto the sinking Titanic as the lifeboat is being lowered into the water because she doesn’t want to abandon her love Jack. None of what she does is superhuman or outside of her character. She always had great strength within her, and she just needed someone to tell her it’s okay to let it out.
A Tale of Two Ripleys
Things get really interesting when we realize that both Cameron and Whedon left their own distinct marks on the character of Ripley by writing the screenplay for Aliens and Alien: Resurrection, respectively. Cameron’s Ripley is a mother grieving for her lost child. She is also traumatized by her horrific experience in the first Alien film. She reluctantly accepts an opportunity to return to the planet where her crew first encountered the alien, hoping to find some closure. She meets a little girl named Newt who is the only survivor of an alien attack on her colony, and she bonds with her. Later, she is forced to face her fears in order to rescue Newt from the clutches of the Alien Queen. In the end, Ripley expels the Alien Queen through an airlock and saves herself and Newt from the nightmares they had both been experiencing.
Alien: Resurrection takes place about 200 years after Aliens. Ripley is long dead, but she gets cloned several times and the eighth one is a success. This clone has part of the alien’s DNA fused with her human DNA, so she’s freakishly strong and is psychically connected to the aliens. She even has some of the original Ripley’s memories. She’s a conflicted character, not because of anything she has done, but because of what has been done to her. She spends most of the film trying to make her way through a spaceship full of aliens that’s headed straight to Earth. In the end, she comes face to face with a mutated Alien Queen who gives birth to a hybrid alien/human and forces that abomination to die an excruciating death by being sucked into outer space through a tiny hole in the ship’s hull. The film ends with the Ripley clone (and a few fellow survivors) on the verge of returning to the Earth, which she is only vaguely familiar with.
You can see their two styles of strong female characters on display in these two films. Cameron reinvented the Ripley of the first film into an unlikely action hero and a surrogate mother of one of the aliens’ victims. Whedon reinvented that Ripley into a clone with special powers and a quasi-mother of the aliens themselves.
Cameron and Whedon approach the same thing from opposite angles and both of them work very well. Of course, Aliens is clearly the superior film in this case, but both kinds of female characters offer interesting possibilities. One is vulnerable and relatable while the other is surprising and unpredictable.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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