scorch trials(Image from Box Office Democracy)

Of the three dystopian franchises aimed at teenagers that are about at the moment, The Maze Runner is my least favourite. I think it is largely because its world is much less well developed and less coherent than either The Hunger Games or Divergent but also it is, in part, because it is so much less progressive or interesting in its depiction of female characters. In the original film there are essentially only two in the whole film, Teresa, who turns up half way through, and the evil character Ava Paige, and neither is more than two dimensional. The Scorch Trials has more women on screen, but it still barely scrapes past the Bechdel test (I think there is about two sentences exchanged between Ava and Teresa). It is interesting that a film which so studiously ensures it has a beautifully multiracial cast (even if it is the South Asian who is the first to die), still can’t manage women and girls in a particularly effective way. Yes, Brenda is an interesting addition who is smart and capable, but, like Teresa, she really only is defined in terms of her relationship to Thomas. And it is great to put two girls with guns and the ones who find the gang, but it might be nice to give them some sort of personality or role in addition to the guns. While it is true of pretty much all the characters that there is little to them and less reason to care, it feels particularly acute with the women – they are all acting out some archetype or another. To be honest, I liked this more than the original film which was terribly predictable, and at least we got a bit more insight to what is actually going on, but it might be nice to develop some characters who actually have depth.

Evil blondes from the future

Since the inception of film as a visual medium, blonde women have played important signifying roles. Femme fatales of film noir, the victim in horror films, the highly sexualised dangerous  woman – it has often been easy to chart the path of the character by one of her key signifiers, her hair colour. There are notable differences – Hitchcock made Grace Kelly a very different blonde in his films and she was never a victim while Joss Whedon chose to deliberately subvert horror tropes by making Buffy small and blonde. Nonetheless, there is generally a consistent archetype to the televisual blonde.

An interesting new archetype I have noticed in a number of science fiction films recently is the powerful, older,  evil blonde. Dr Ava Paige in The Maze Runner, Secretary Delacourt in Elysium and Jeanine in Divergent all exemplify this archetype. Powerful, manipulative and indifferent to the fate of others not of their caste. Willing to sacrifice anyone, Delacourt and Jeanine, in particular, aim to support and improve their own hegemonic privilege while Paige tortures children for apparently scientific purposes. Both Jeanine and Paige are closely aligned with science, while Delacourt is enmeshed in the use of technology. These women are technocrats, using science and technology for evil purposes and using need to be overcome by “good hearted” people with access to lower or no tech approaches.

These depictions are ideological from a number of viewpoints. Firstly, they posit the political and hegemonic power in the hands of women, concealing the general reality that these levers tend to be held by men. The societies in which they operate do not seem to have radically overturned gender norms to achieve this position where women are placed with power, in fact most of the gender relations within the films seem to indicate the reverse, that in general relations are not much further advance. All three of the women (and noticeably two seem to dress primarily in white), wear the feminised clothing, and, if anything, their privilege and separation from those required to do actual work is symbolised by their impractical shoes and tight skirts. In the world of Insurgent Jeanine’s main political rivals are men, and the leaders of the Factions she has assist her are also men – she is unusual in being a woman.  Similarly Delacourt is chastised by a male President and deals with a male CEO. These women are still exceptions, but they are the powerful evil centre. Inherent is an implication that women with power exploit it to maintain their own power and privilege, which, it could be argued is what male powers structures actually do.

Their close alignment with science and technological advance also serves to undermine the importance of scientific progress . In these films the heroes are all on the side of the low tech, with limited access to anything other than their own resources and ability. It is technology which serves to enslave in both Elysium and Divergent and the characters in the Maze Runner are trapped apparently in the service of science. The dystopic futures all three are set in seem to make the power of science enslaving and dividing, something the human spirit must fight against. The idea of the immaculate blonde serves to reinforce the rigidity of science and its danger. In Divergent this science-based approach is directly contrasted with the “humanism” of Abnegation, whose selflessness, low tech public service is pitted against the science-based command-and-control approach of Jeanine and her allies.

Whether this depiction of the middle-aged blonde as dystopian killer technocrat will continue remains to be seen, but it is interesting that it has emerged in three different movies made within a year of each other. As much as I like to see women in science fiction films, and older women who are smart and powerful is doubly terrific, it would be nice if they weren’t the evil one from time to time.