As you might have gleaned from the title, I have read the The Martian and found it wanting in several areas, the most glaring being the treatment of the women characters in the story. Fortunately, Matt Damon breathed life into the shallow, unemotional persona of Mark Watney, and the directors wisely left out the offensive bits of Watney’s thoughts and writings. The end result is a great piece of sci-fi cinema. While still not perfect, I think it’s pushing in the right direction.

Mark Watney and Commander Lewis

Not offensive to women = .5 pt out of 1 pt

So close, but not quite all the way there. The Martian could have been improved in several ways.

First, there is the character of Annie Montrose. While an improvement from the “bitchy” (author’s word, not mine) business woman trope in the book, her character has less agency and seems less powerful in the movie. At one point another character uses her forehead to click their pen. Yes, that pen-wielding character doesn’t understand social boundaries, but he actually hurts her (she reacts with “ow!”) while he merely intrudes upon the authority of the other men in the room.

In addition, character Mindy Park is a Korean-American in the book, but for some reason was cast as a white, blonde woman. She is the satellite planner in Mission Control who, in the book, discovers on her own that Mark is still alive. In the movie she notices after being told to go to specific coordinates of the Ares III HAB, which are given to her numerically by a male character, as if she would not know them already given the amount of work that goes into a single mission.

Another instance of confusing racial changing can be seen in character Ryoko, who is presumably of Japanese descent in the book, but that was cast as a woman of Indian and British descent.

Finally, at the end of the film we see short vignettes of the lives of the astronauts back on earth. Beth Johanssen has just had a baby and Commander Lewis is with her husband. While we also see one of the other men with their family members, the rest of the men are continuing their careers in some way. I think it was a missed opportunity to not show one of the women doing something similar.

However, since most of these observations come from the comparison of the book to the movie, not the movie in and of itself, I only took away half a point.

For more critique of the women in the film see this article. For more insight on people of color in the film see this article.

F-BOM is a book subscription box featuring indie women authors. Learn more about our current selection here.

Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2 pts out of 2 pts

Multiple women in The Martian had roles integral to the story. One of the notable and welcomed differences between the book and the movie is the larger role given to Commander Lewis. It is through her command, and her actions, that Ares III ultimately achieves their mission. She wields her authority with firmness, and has a strong sense of right and wrong. Above all else, she is concerned about the safety of her crew. We see her struggle after making the difficult decision to leave Mark behind on Mars when they think he is dead.

Ares III Commander Melissa Lewis

Beth Johannsen, the second woman crew member of the six person Ares III mission, is a programmer without whose skills the crew would not have been able to make their final decision on which path to take with their mission. It is hinted she is romantically involved with one of the the astronauts, but it is handled with much more tact (and is given much less attention) than the book version.

Beth Johannsen, Astronaut

As noted in the previous section, Mindy Park is the satellite planner who discovers Mark Watney is still alive. She is delegated to keeping tabs on his movements and given full control of re-orbiting all Mars satellites in order to decrease the delay between photos. Her characterization of an introvert unused to the spotlight is uniform between both book and movie.

Mindy Park, a satellite planner in Mission Control

The character Annie Montrose is the NASA spokesperson who is assisting with the overwhelming amount of international PR they are facing.

Annie Montrose, NASA spokesperson

One of the interesting elements of The Martian is the amount of international cooperation inspired by the need to save the only human on Mars. Zhu Tao plays a crucial role in convincing the head of the CNSA to assist the United States.

Zhu Tao, deputy chief scientist at CNSA

Passes the Bechdel test = 0 pts out of 0 pts

All conversations between the female characters are regarding Mark Watney, so the movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. However, since everyone’s conversations in the movie revolve around Mark Watney’s rescue, this test is moot. As such, instead of using the 15/15 scale to rank this movie, I will use a 12/12 scale. 

Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4 pts out of 4 pts

Yes, far more so than the book. When I started reading The Martian I was expecting an emotional roller coaster akin to 127 Hours, but instead got a tropey man’s man character whose boorish humor and easy-going bravado in the face of continuous near-death experiences is made out to be a perfect image of (toxic) masculinity. Matt Damon did MUCH to bring emotion to a character in a position that any human would find difficult. Does he still have a sense of humor about his circumstances? Yes, but there is nuance and desperation in his portrayal that the author failed to show through his prose.

Similarly, Jessica Chastain infused the character Commander Lewis with a sense of calm inner strength and a resolute moral compass. She is confident in herself and her team, but is unwilling to make any truly life-threatening decisions on their behalf. She keeps them informed and lays out their options with brutal honesty. Even more telling, her crew does not hesitate to follow her orders, even when they go against everything they’ve ever been told NOT to do in a space ship.

The situation of a man being alone on an uninhabitable planet for more than a year, with an entire plugged-in Earth watching his every move with bated breath, is more than believable. So is the determination of the crew to do everything in their power to bring him back. The Martian does us all the great favor of showing how magnificent and terrifying science, and space travel, can be. NASA has been given one hell of a recruiting tool.

Above and Beyond General Media = 2 pts out of 5 pts

It’s hard to award a full 5 points for a movie whose main protagonist is a man, but I feel comfortable giving it 2 points for going above and beyond featuring women and students as scientists, especially in all the scenes of the movie featuring extras. There were women in the background during all the of the “science-doing” at NASA. However, my favorite scene in the film is at the end, where there the camera pans across rows of aspiring women astronauts all raising their hands and smiling, waiting to ask their questions.

Thus, The Martian movie gets an 8.5/12 points (70%) on this modified Scale of Inclusivity test.

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10 thoughts on ““The Martian”: Film’s Women Characters Surpass the Book’s

  1. I saw the film last night and really didn’t enjoy it. I also had a real problem with the casting of the female characters. In terms of the male actors, a wide range of ages, ethnic groups and body types were used. Yet all of the female characters were white, thin and under 40!


  2. One race changing you missed as well is Vogel losing his accent in the movie.

    I have to dissagree that the women were portrayed negatively in the book. I loved the way Lewis was portrayed in both media.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dangit! I somehow accidentally hit post before I was done! Anyway, I was also going to say that I feel that Johansson’s relationship is not portrayed disrespectfully in the book. There’s just more good-natured ribbing between friends. This sort of interaction in the book strengthened the bond between the crew for me. Something I feel was missing from the movie.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Aww nice review. I want to watch the movie, so now I know more about it. I haven’t read the book yet (I have it on my to read list) Now it makes me think…I’ll end up reading it anyway, but now I am bugged…


    1. The Martian book is pretty good, and I think it is a good idea and story. The science is interesting too. The offensive to women parts are not constant, so you can get through good chunks without stopping and going “ugh”. In a lot of ways, I think the book is more offensive to men than women. Mark Watney’s characterization leaves a lot to be desired.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was fantastically disappointed with The Martian (the book) for the reasons you mentioned. Funny enough, within a few weeks I read another short story that was published in Analog the same year The Martian was published with a similar premise, though the execution was much better. If you can find it, “Persephone Descending” is a much better take on the same idea. Marie-Claude is a much more realistic and much less annoying protagonist than Watney. Analog has an excerpt up here:

    I’m glad to hear the movie took out some of the stupider parts re: women but I still probably won’t see it. Too much hype.


    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll definitely have to check it out. As a premise it is really interesting, and I was so relieved the movie did the idea more justice. I’m eager to read something else in the same vein though 🙂


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