There are various ways in which the depiction of women in sci-fi has been problematic over the years, but a new YouTube video has pinned down a name for one particular trope you may have struggled to put your finger on in the past: Born Sexy Yesterday.
Describing it as a “a gendered convention that will be instantly familiar to science fiction fans”, Jonathan McIntosh – who posts video critiques on the theme of men and masculinity under the name Pop Culture Detective – identifies it as female characters in sci-fi and related genres being incredibly wide-eyed, naïve and innocent, yet in the body of an attractive, sexualised woman.
Leeloo from The Fifth Element, Madison from Splash ring any bells? Boiled down, the video says the trope involves men being adored by inexperienced women who need someone to teach them the way of the world. And they happen to look incredible, which means they probably ‘accidentally’ get naked at some point too because gosh darn it, what are these strange things you call clothes?
Citing Leeloo as the quintessential example of Born Sexy Yesterday, McIntosh says she is “whimsical and naïve, but she’s also deliberately framed in a sexualised way”.
Going on to reference titles such as Splash, My Stepmother is an Alien, Forbidden Planet and Star Trek, McIntosh explains that the character’s naivety tends to be by virtue of being raised in an isolated environment (they’re an alien or a mermaid or, in the case of Tron: Legacy’s Quorra, a “sentient computer programme in the shape of a woman”) and thus are all “deliberately written to be completely unaware of their own sex appeal.”
“This then provides filmmakers with the excuse to include at least one scene in which she disrobes in front of men,” he says. “And because she’s so naïve she doesn’t understand the implications of this action.”
While finding reasons to get attractive actors naked on camera isn’t entirely unknown in Hollywood across genres, McIntosh further explains that even though the women tend to have some kind of impressive skill – usually combat – Born Sexy Yesterday is entirely about an unbalanced relationship, which could be linked to “a deep-seated male insecurity around experienced women and sexuality.”
Which would mean that disturbing patriarchal notions about purity, innocence and virginity are coming into play: think untouched women with no sexual history. They can’t compare and are less likely to reject advances – especially if you’re the guy who introduced her to the wonders of the sandwich (My Stepmother is an Alien, step up).
The men opposite these characters “either can’t find, or doesn’t want, a woman from his own world, a woman who might be his equal in matters of love and sexuality” but can manage to whip up ham and cheese on rye.
Which, as McIntosh points out, could be any guy and thus he’s unremarkable – yet his distinctly average offerings seem wonderful to someone attempting to fit into a new society: “Male heroes get to automatically be the most extraordinary man in a woman’s life”.
In other words, “the ultimate teacher-student dynamic”. Or fantasy, if we’re heading that way…
He sums it up thus: “The crux of the trope is a fixation on male superiority, a fixation with holding power over an innocent girl.
“But in order to make that socially acceptable, science fiction is employed to put the mind of that girl into a sexualised, adult woman’s body.”
He points out that not all characters hovering around the boundaries of this trope fully fit – Cloud Atlas’ Sonmi-451 and Seven from Star Trek end up with some level of learning and a journey that doesn’t necessarily focus on a romantic relationship – but it is a convention that’s been around for years, showing up in anime (which already has its fair share of feminist issues) and early Hollywood films such as 1956’s Forbidden Planet.
His theory seems to have struck a chord with film fans; among the top-rated comments on the 18-minute YouTube clip, one user says, “I feel like I knew this subconsciously, but never really realised it until now. Very cool video”.
Another says: “I love the framing of this trope in terms of men’s needs for understanding and adulation – makes us think about objectification for the purposes of fulfilling the objectifier’s desires. It seems obvious to make this kind of analysis but it's so rarely attempted”.
Watch the Pop Culture Detective video in full here.
Images: Rex Features