Guest Post: 3 Archtypes for female aliens.

Yesterday, we looked at the role of female aliens in fiction. Today, more on the types of female aliens with guest blogger, Thomas Evans of the The Archaeologist’s Guide to the Galaxy.

A quick glance through films and literature show that principal female characters come in three basic archetypes: 

1)      The Blancmange: Soft on the outside, soft on the inside — this is your classic damsel in distress.  Feminine, helpful and utterly hopeless. She needs someone else to come to her rescue.  This is Lana Lange (no… not Lois Lane, who was a good reporter working out of her league against supervillains, but Lana Lang who basically brought nothing to Clark/Kal/Supe but eye candy that needed rescuing).  If taken by a villain, she may fight her assailant, but each hit is flailing and ineffective. 

Alternately, a slightly more developed version of this character is one who is competent, but still wears her emotions on her sleeve.  Thus, she is prone to getting irritatingly teary eyed when hard choices need to be made. 

Once the most popular kind of female character, you don’t see as many examples of Blancmange as principal female leads anymore.  Thank God. This totally ineffectual female holds no appeal to me what-so-ever, nor to most men that I know. The totally unable to help-her-self woman is bore no matter what her species.  Add alien to it, and you just get green make up and prosthetics. 

Examples of this type of character include:
Yeoman Rand from the Star Trek the Original Series was a blancmange, as were most of the single episode heroines from that series as well. Hell, even Kirk became a blancmange when he was transferred into a woman’s body.  Now, to be fair to ST-OTS, most heroines from most pre-1970’s Science Fiction (or indeed fiction) were blancmanges and at least Star Trek had some capable women as well.[1] Still, the general lack of appeal of the blancmange of character is one of the thousand-and-one reasons I’m glad I don’t live in the past. 

More refined Blancmanges (i.e. the competent but emotions on the sleeve) include both Diana Troy and Dr. Crusher from Star Trek the Next Generation. Characters that, in short, are supposed to be appealing, but seldom are. In fact, they come off as pretty much boring and annoying.

2)      The Maple Syrup Candy: Soft outside, hard inside — The female who seems soft, demure and classically feminine, but when push comes to shove, is hard as nails on the inside.  This is, perhaps, the hardest kind of female character to carry off.  Oh there are tons of attempts to write her, but usually what results is a Blancmange who just mystically changes character at the end of the story, or does something vaguely useful like stabbing the villain while he isn’t looking.

The reason it is so hard to create Maple Syrup Candy female is actually quite simple. The truly appealing soft-outside-hard-inside character has to appear competent from the outset while remaining effectively passive for the bulk of the story. She must be strong and capable, but not aggressive. She must be soft, loving, supportive, powerful and really have her act together.

The problem? A character like this doesn’t make a good lead no matter what their sex.  Think about it.  A Maple Syrup hero(ine) has no faults, no weaknesses and can readily match the challenge they are faced with. They have no room for character growth and thus don’t make for a very interesting reading or watching.  It is one of many reasons why such characters are great in a supporting role, but can’t be primary protagonists or romantic leads.  In fact, if one has a character like this appear in a book, TV series, or movie, they usually only serve as advisors, become martyrs, or are written out before too long because their power gets in the way of creating good challenges for the story.

Examples of well done versions of this archetype are:
Jadzia Dax from Deep Space 9… at least, her initial character.  As the series developed she became much more whimsical, but when we first met the young woman with the 200 plus year old symbiont in her belly, she was serene and wise.  Even when she became less inhibited as a character, she remained effectively at peace with herself.  Note: she proved limited for central storylines so through the series they both changed her character AND killed her off.

Pa’u Zotoh Zhaan from Farscape.  Zhaan is in some ways the perfect example of the soft-but-hard alien female.  She is a kind, wise, healer.  She gentle, giving, caring, and probably the most deadly character on the ship. Note: she was written out of the series.

Which brings us to the most appealing archetype for a Female character of any type: 

3)      The Tootsie-pop: Hard on the Outside, Soft inside — This is by far the most appealing archetypes around.  The woman who is super confident and capable, but has some internal dilemma tearing them apart. She may be able to take care of herself, but she still needs someone else to help her overcome her problems.  She’s got it together, but not so much together that she doesn’t need help along the way.  She’s smart, she’s strong but she has room to grow as a character.[2]

Of course, done badly, this archetype is as bad as any other. The most classic example of a badly done Tootsie-pop is Star Trek Voyager‘s Captain Janeway. Oh, I know, there are tons of people who like her, but even beyond her incredibly irritating voice, I felt she just didn’t cut it as a character. Her hard side/soft side came across as Schizophrenic rather than hard nosed captain with a soft interior.  Her softer side was too blatantly displayed on her sleeve.  Oh Torres pulled it off, as did Major Kira from Deep Space Nine, and Captain Deladier from Starship Troopers or, of course, Honor Harrington… but Janeway?  Cack!  She has to be the most annoying… wait, she’s human. So’s Honor Harrington.  I’m getting side tracked… again.

There are several subtypes of this kind of character, from the unemotional T’Pol of the First Season of Enterprise (who they sadly screwed up in subsequent seasons, making her subtle internal emotional struggle all too obvious and thus turning her into a refined blancmange), to the gun-toting hard-as-nails warrior woman like Farscape‘s Aeryn Sun.  This kind of female has several things going for her: competence (indeed superiority) in her own right, an internal struggle to make her interesting (and possibly in need of personal, care and love), room to grow as a character and the appeal of an individual whose approval needs to be won (time to go read some Jung).  Put these elements together and you have an appealing female, the alien bit then just needs to emphasize this. 

One of my favorite female aliens is Neytiri, the big blue Na’vi from Avatar. She has all the key elements: a brilliant warrior woman whose approval is hard to win, yet she also has the advantage of actually being alien, and not just a babe with some makeup (or in Aeryn Sun’s case… just a babe).  Oh she is physically attractive, but not in a classic beauty kind of a way. In the case of Neytiri, her alien-ess was key to her relationship to the world she lived on, and thus illustrated human relationships to the natural world.  To that end, she was an alien who illustrated more than just what it is to be female, but what it is to be human.  

[1] Uhura remains an archetypal female in my mind – competent, attractive, gentle most of the time but more than capable of pulling a knife on Sulu and threatening him with no help from anyone else in the Mirror Universe… but she’s not alien and I’m getting ahead of myself.
[2] Of course, it may be blinding obvious to many of you, but this is also the most appealing kind of male character.

Tomorrow: A Suprising Pick For Best Female Alien

13 thoughts on “Guest Post: 3 Archtypes for female aliens.

  1. Great post. I enjoyed the break down, I think that it is more like a sliding scale from Blancmange to Tootsie-pop. Your choice of desserts for the archetypes is an interesting one psychologically and socially. One could see it as a sophisticated way of calling women, alien or human sweetie or honey. Curiosity makes me ask what set of things or ideas would be good for a list of of male archetypes?

    I liked Janeway. What would Seven of Nine be (part alien, part human). T’pol was a ridiculous travesty of any type of Vulcan, While there was a great deal of room for that character they instead painted her a graphic novelist’s wet dream: not a strong warrior like Neytiri or a a super-alien like Seven of Nine.

    • I’m glad you liked the choice of desserts. I was really torn about using it, as that I feared people might take it (or worse yet, not take it) as a ok way in which to view women. I meant it as a commentary on how female aliens were portrayed, which clearly you got.

      As for male archetypes, Actually,l I’d use the same metaphore, and really the same characters. The only difference is that very very few people try to use the Blancmange for a male unless they are supposed to be pathetic or comic relief.

      I agree with your assesment of T’pol. As for Seven of Nine? I’d say she was a Human-Cyborg, and Cyborgs and robots are a WHOLE other discussion….

  2. I’ve so enjoyed these posts on gender/aliens. And Thomas, I’ve found your perspectice so interesting, I now have you on my ever-burgeoning reader.

    Ref: Janeway
    Oh, boy, was that woman dull. And for that matter, that particular series was my least favorite of the franchise.

    • I completely agree. The only character lines in Voyager I enjoyed were those of Seven of Nine and the Doctor, particularly when they started to have romantic overtones. Indeed, I thought the resolution of those romantic overtones was quite disappointing.

      What kills me about Voyager is that it had a great premise that was undermined before the end of the pilot. Take two opposing groups, the Maquis and the Federation, and throw them into a situation where they need to cooperate to survive. Problem? They were fully cooperating before the end of the first show. Chakote (sp is wrong no doubt) and Janeway should have been in conflict through most of the first season, but nooooo… they worked together from the get go.

      What’s more Tom Paris was clearly made to be a bit of a Rogue, cockty and edgy pilot. Instead he came across as nothing more than an arrogant kid. And… oh wait,… am I digressing again?

      Female Aliens… Torres was the only one who comes to mind, and where as they did some good things with her, there wasn’t enough *real* conflict.

    • I LOVED Zoe, particularly that the fact that there was no sexual tension between her and Mal, but a clear love of her husband. Gina Torres added a great deal to a character who was already well scripted, and I wish she’d had more story lines dedicated to her. But then again, she was a human sooooo…

  3. Nalini Singh has a number of Maple Syrup Candy women in her Psy/Changeling series, noteably always in supporting roles and often the mother/healer figure.

    A bummer how hard it is to think of any type of alien females in lead roles. There are some, but they are thin on the ground.

    • I don’t know anything about the Psy/Changling series! Is it any good?

      Yes, good strong female leads of any type are hard to find, but particularly those who are alien. Maybe some of us should change that?

      • The Psy/Changeling series is very good with lots of strong female characters. It falls squarely on the romance end of the scale. One of the things modern romances can take pride in is that strong female characters have become a staple of the genre. You can still find weak heroines, but strong ones abound.

  4. While Romance is not “my thing” per se, I am more than happy to admit that I enjoy a good story regardless of its genre. I will have to check this series out.

    • Further thoughts along these lines, I think it is interesting that both Romance and Sci-Fi often get slammed as genres. While there is schlock to be found in both, there are also some brilliant stories. What I find most interesting is that the best of both of these genres get ‘claimed’ by the literary crowd as *really* being part of their bit. Case in point? I just read an article that claimed that “The Time Traveller’s Wife” was really a Literary Novel because it was character driven. If you ask me, it is CLEARLY a Sci-Fi Romance.

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