“The Martian”: Film’s Women Characters Surpass the Book’s
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The character Annie Montrose is the NASA spokesperson who is assisting with the overwhelming amount of international PR they are facing.
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.
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 along 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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