Ever since Robert Rodriguez’s cinematic take on Alita: Battle Angel came out, it’s been receiving mixed reviews. Variety points out that “this muddled cyberpunk adventure can’t help feeling like writer-producer James Cameron’s cold leftovers.” While IGN says “it’s a noble attempt to translate Yukito Kishiro’s work into a cinematic medium.” But they seem to have failed to recognize what Alita accomplished—they let their female hero be a hero. And sci-fi films rarely do that.
“Through the use of science fiction conventions, they are brought into the human world already fully formed. The mind of a child manifested in a mature female body.”
What do I mean? Well, let’s acknowledge first how women in sci-fi often fall under a harmful trope. And that trope is called Born Sexy Yesterday. This is defined and brought up by pop culture critic Jonathan McIntosh. In his video essay, he dissected how male sci-fi writers have this tendency to downgrade female leads in futuristic settings.
“Through the use of science fiction conventions, they are brought into the human world already fully formed. The mind of a child manifested in a mature female body,” he explains in his video. “She may be an android, a computer program, a mermaid, an alien, a magical being, or otherwise raised in an environment isolated from the rest of human society.” He brought up Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element as examples.
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Both leads, Tron’s Quorra and The Fifth Element’s Leloo, exhibit traits from this harmful plot device. They both exist to have the knowledge that Plato and Socrates can only dream of. Both of them are also skilled in combat that navy seals and marines will never achieve in this plain of existence. Yet, they are somehow limited as the male lead’s romantic interests.
“It’s a fantasy based on fear: fear of women who are men’s equal in sexual experience and romantic history, and fear of losing the intellectual upper hand to women,” Jonathan indicates. Women under Born Sexy Yesterday are limited by their childlike wonder, innocence, and their flawless hourglass figure. It downgrades them to mere romantic devices, regardless of their abilities surpassing the male lead.
Here’s where Alita: Battle Angel somehow breaks sci-fi’s bioengineered glass ceiling.
[Born Sexy Yesterday] downgrades [women] to mere romantic devices, regardless of their abilities surpassing the male lead.
Western adaptation of animes or mangas could either be bad or really bad. Alita: Battle Angel is far from perfect, but it’s enjoyable to say the least. And that’s because their female lead was fleshed out properly. I can’t really say the same for the other characters.
Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) as a father figure was sweet, but he idealized Alita (Rosa Salazar) by giving her his deceased daughter’s name and body. Meanwhile, other characters who could have been more rounded weren’t fleshed out properly: Hugo (Keean Johnson) became a two-dimensional love interest and was used to fuel Alita’s tragic backstory; Vector (Mahershala Ali) was under-utilized and was unjustly possessed by a rich white man named Zapan (Ed Skrein); and other female characters that were worth exploring, like Dr. Ido’s ex-wife and fellow cyber-surgeon Chiren, were not as fleshed out as the titular lead. This film also failed the Bechdel test big time.
Alita is not entirely sci-fi’s feminist saint. She shares some traits with females under Born Sexy Yesterday. Like them, she’s an amnesiac cyber-warrior who is the last of her kind. She has the innocence of a teenager with a mind and skills of an ancient deity. Maybe that’s why she fell for the YA trappings of the ever so basic Hugo (who was eons beyond her league, by the way). But that’s where the comparison ends.
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Dr. Ido, the man who brought her back to life, knew what her kind is capable of. What shocked him is the extent of this cyber-warrior’s skillset and what she was meant to do. “I do not stand by in the presence of evil,” is the second flashback that reminded Alita of her true purpose. During a face-to-face battle with cyborg criminals, the memory of her battling evil through the ancient martial arts of Panzer Kunst triggered her past memories.
Watching the film, it isn’t about her romance with Hugo, it’s about [Alita] reclaiming her identity amidst the chaos.
Alita exists to defeat the evil genius Zapan who controls Iron City and the upper-class utopia of Zalem. Not a romantic interest to sit idly in the corner, not as a bio-weapon to cater the male gaze, but as the hero of her newfound hometown.
The saving grace of Alita: Battle Angel was Alita herself. As a self-proclaimed sci-fi nerd, sci-fi’s female leads in films are often downgraded as mere romantic interests, regardless of their capabilities surpassing the male lead. They exist to feed the ego of the male fantasy. But that’s not Alita.
We don’t need objectified cyborgs or child-like aliens with bombshell bodies—we need heroes.
To quote A Plus’ take on Born Sexy Yesterday, “The one thing the male character has going for him though is that he knows how to be a functioning human being — at least in the traditional sense. This makes him unremarkable to most, but extraordinary to someone who was Born Sexy Yesterday. This is how the trope is structured to be a male fantasy.”
Alita defies this trope completely. No one sexualized her or gave her a lolita image. She is given the Superman treatment minus the cape. The film isn’t about her romance with Hugo, it’s about reclaiming her identity amidst the chaos. She does not simply exist to satisfy someone’s romantic pinings.
And as much as she loves and respects Dr. Ido, her surrogate father figure, she defies him constantly in the film by making it clear that he is not her father. Dr. Ido might have given Alita her cyborg body (from synthetic appendages made for his deceased daughter), but Alita searched for her original body amongst the wreckage of her ship. She insisted that he put her back in her original form.
In a genre pioneered by Mary Shelley, the writer of Frankenstein, one would expect that female characters under sci-fi will be treated better.
Alita knew her worth before Dr. Ido or Hugo can define her. Unfortunately in sci-fi films, this characterization is a rarity for female leads. That’s why characters like Alita is worth watching, or at the very least, worth supporting. Mainstream sci-fi films are in need of female leads like her. We don’t need objectified cyborgs or child-like aliens with bombshell bodies—we need heroes.
Sexism in sci-fi never fails to astound me. In a genre pioneered by Mary Shelley, the writer of Frankenstein, one would expect that female characters under sci-fi will be treated better. Luckily, Alita as a character in this adaptation was spared from the Born Sexy Yesterday treatment. It’s about time for sci-fi popcorn blockbusters to reconsider the representation and portrayal of female leads.
The CGI was a masterpiece, its world is immersive, and their lead hero makes the film worth watching.
Alita: Battle Angel deserves its mixed reviews. Clearly like any other Western adaptation of a manga or anime, it fails to live up fans and enthusiasts’ expectations. It is not entirely bad though. The CGI is a masterpiece, its world is immersive, and their lead hero makes the film worth watching.
Robert Rodriguez did not give us our replacement for sci-fi cult classics like Blade Runner. What he did give us are two things: a good time filled with CGI-action and Born Sexy Yesterday found dead in the ditch, the place where that sexist trope should be.
Art by Aira Ydette