Thursday, 8 August 2019

Heroine Fix: The Brave and Brilliant Dr. Ellie Arroway

I'm addicted to well-developed and capable heroines who defy the expectations of society and male-dominated genres.  Each month I examine a new character who influenced my writing or me personally.

This month, I was shocked to discover how long it was since this movie was released.  Contact came out in 1997 and I watched it in theatres at least four times.  I wanted to be Dr. Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster) and get into an alien ship and teleport my way across the galaxy (or dimensions, depending on your interpretation of the story).

As I got older, I started to realize how amazing and unusual the story was.  It didn't focus on Ellie's male counterparts and treat her like an expositional plot device (the fate of many of Dr. Arroway's brainy counterparts, such as Hermione Granger).  It didn't treat her intelligence as a joke or a deterrent to her happiness.  She wasn't the awkward loner or the repressed ice queen or any of the other stereotypical portrayals of smart women.

She's a passionate, determined woman studying a field that others ridicule, who refuses to compromise her personal or scientific integrity.  She's got no problem enjoying a fling with a hot guy if he crosses her path, but doesn't compromise her professional goals for romance (though she still gets a happy ending, as I choose to believe).  That's actually pretty rare in terms of films and movies.  Women, even in their own stories, often take second place to male characters or are diminished so as to be unthreatening to the status quo.

Ellie is strong, both in her spirit and her intellect.  Her passion is discovering evidence of extraterrestrial life and so she uses her radio telescope time to "search for little green men" even though it exposes her to professional and personal ridicule.  From her reaction, we can see that the mockery bothers her, but she doesn't let it stop her.  To me that's a more powerful message than the characters who never seem bothered by others' opinions.  It hurts to be treated as the punchline of the joke, and that fear stops us from pursuing many of our dreams.

She also doesn't hesitate to stand up to authority when it's required.  When she's begging for funding, she refuses to be politely brushed off, telling the potential donors that they lack vision and understanding.  If they refuse to fund her research, they are the kind of people who refused to see the potential in the airplane or vaccinations.  After she discovers the alien signal, the government wants to suppress knowledge of it and threatens Ellie for having shared the information with other scientists.  She's not intimidated by their bluster, laying down why their position is ridiculous and she is right.

And yet, Ellie is not blindly ambitious.  When her team discovers the plans to create a alien device that will allow someone to journey outside the solar system (and presumably meet some aliens), it's the opportunity she's dreamed of her entire life.  She wants on that ship more than she's ever wanted anything in her entire life.  She's willing to sacrifice her personal life and happiness to be the one to make contact with extraterrestrials.  She proves her competence to a inquisition-like hearing with dozens of people judging her worthiness.  Then it all comes down to a single question: do you believe in God?

The question is a deliberate sand-bag from her lover, Palmer Joss (played by Matthew McConaughey).  He knows her opinions on the subject and how the hearing will interpret that interpretation.  He doesn't want her to leave Earth and possibly return hundreds or thousands of years later.  (Which in my view, means he fails the hero test, which requires him to place his beloved's needs over his own.)

Ellie could lie and claim to believe in God.  It would be the popular answer and probably would have guaranteed her the place on the ship.  But she doesn't.  She answers honestly that she doesn't believe it's likely and she has no personal faith in an omnipotent or omniscient divine being.  She does it knowing that her answer is the end to her dreams.  

The ostensible bad guy of the film, Ellie's rival, Dr. David Drumlin (played by Tom Skerritt), gives the answer that the committee wants to hear and wins the spot.  It's of a piece with other actions we've seen from him in the film, such as using his professional interest to shut down Ellie's telescope time in an effort to force her to return to "respectable" science, or taking credit for her work when it suddenly comes with acclaim.  He's not a traditional villain.  He's more subtle than that.  He's a man who is convinced he knows what is best and who doesn't hesitate to take advantage of any opportunity that comes his way.  He is ambition without Ellie's integrity.

I think what most impresses me about the story is Ellie's character arc.  Like many independent characters, her journey is about learning to connect with others.  But it is done without diminishing her intelligence, skill, or dreams.  The only person Ellie has allowed herself to depend on is her father.  She is willing to have a fling with Joss, but not derail her career or dreams for him.  She holds herself aloof from her coworkers, keeping their relationships strictly professional.

It is only when she meets the aliens and learns that Earth is truly not alone that she begins to grasp the importance of interpersonal connections.  The alien takes the form of her father and tells her "In all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other."

That knowledge shakes Ellie to her core.   She returns to Earth a transformed woman.  She's still passionate and dedicated, but I get the sense that now she's willing to take a little time for herself to explore other sides of her personality.

I love writing strong women who fall in love and not all of them are necessarily looking for love at the start of the story.  It's a fine line between giving them the opportunity for love and making sure it doesn't seem as if they need romantic love in order to be happy.  Ellie has been given the answer to her life's work.  She now needs a new dream.  Personally, I believe that she goes on to have a long and happy life, outspoken and unflinching when sharing what people need to know.  But also, I believe she has a life where she's not cutting herself off from others any more.  And whether she finds romantic love or enjoys the richness of friendships, I think she ends up with the best of both worlds.

Join me next month on September 12 for the next Heroine Fix.  Or check out last month's Heroine: the ferocious and loyal Mazikeen from Lucifer.

Or check out my latest independent, competent and brilliant heroine from my upcoming
book, Deadly Potential.  Katie runs a multinational business, is managing a global tour, and writes commercially successful pop songs for her sister, the Princess of Pop.  When she starts receiving intrusive letters, she finds out she's been targeted by one of the most infamous serial killers in history, a man who is psychically able to make anyone forget his presence.  Special Investigator Ben will do whatever it takes to keep her alive.  Deadly Potential: A Special Investigations Case Study, available for pre-order now and releasing on October 23!

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