As a child, I’d stare up at the glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars above in my bedroom at night and dream of becoming an astronaut. My parents bought me a telescope one Christmas, and I sat on my porch every night thereafter mapping constellations. I have always been drawn to science and science fiction and fantasizing about the impossible made possible. But it was the strong androgynous women leads of science fiction that have truly allowed me to believe I can be anything – even queer and non-binary.
In elementary school, I would run home excitedly after class to watch the latest episode of Star Trek: Voyager on the Space channel, eyes fixated on Captain Kathryn Janeway in her gender neutral uniform as she commanded a starship lost in the Delta Quadrant. As the first woman captain of the Star Trek franchise, Janeway demonstrated to young girls that they could pursue careers in S.T.E.M. and even take on major authority roles.
In one particular episode, a struggling crew member fumbles with calling Janeway both “Sir” and “Ma’am” to which she responds with “Captain” as her desired title. This – coupled with her uniform – broke down normative depictions of gender, enabling me to view my role model as a Captain first and foremost. Throughout the series, Janeway is a nuanced, capable leader who, despite making mistakes, puts her money where her mouth is and makes strong decisions.
At no point during the series does Janeway take on the ruthless, hardened and stoic “Iron Lady” trope. While many women characters in leadership roles in film and television appeal to stereotypical masculine qualities to garner respect and support, Janeway is an accessible, approachable leader who is directly involved with her crew and not just her senior officers. Yes, Janeway can be cold and direct but this is a no-nonsense attitude in times of need as opposed to a perpetual state of being.
Watching Janeway command Voyager was a revelation. She was a leader above everything else and subverted traditional notions of authoritative women. It wasn’t simply that she was a woman that was so inspiring to me but rather that I never had to think twice about her being a woman at all. For me, she transcended gender, and I found myself in this future world where I could be anything and even the concept of questioning that would be alien altogether.
Later, I became obsessed with Milla Jovovich, the androgynous supermodel and actress who played the role of “Alice” in the Resident Evil franchise and fought mutated creatures in a post-apocalyptic world. A high-ranking security operative of the biowarfare Umbrella Corporation, Alice joins a counter-initiative to expose their illegal viral research to the world. Her partner in this initiative betrays her, accidentally leaking a zombie virus that leads to the near extinction of the human race and the capture of Alice by Umbrella who infect her, cure her then re-infect her with superhuman capabilities. She wakes up not knowing who she is and has to find out by facing unimaginable odds and resisting recapture by Umbrella.
The narrative of Alice across six Resident Evil films resonated with me deeply and my ongoing struggle to know myself better and find my own place in the universe. She persists despite everything and gets closer to the truth after every major obstacle – similar to my journey towards identifying as queer. Throughout the films, Alice never becomes entangled in a romantic subplot nor does she exude many of the distracting film tropes that eclipse women’s roles. Milla Jovovich was my Sigourney Weaver.
Milla Jovovich has shot several boyish photo shoots and her androgyny has carried through to her roles in Zoolander, The Fifth Element, and The Messenger: The Story of Joan Of Arc. The Resident Evil franchise has cast other androgynous actresses and models to play badass women alongside Jovovich including Michelle Rodriguez and Ruby Rose. Seeing Milla in these different roles and other androgynous women beside her in Resident Evil has been important in the development of my own sense of self.
As a teenager, I created a Facebook album entitled “If I were a lesbian…” filled with photos of Captain Kathryn Janeway and Alice and others I had unknowingly come to identify with and crush on simultaneously. At first, it was a joke, but when I began to revisit Star Trek: Voyager and the Resident Evil films, I began to feel as though there was another reason these science fiction classics resonated with me so much.
One day, in my senior year of high school, a girl’s arm brushed mine in yearbook class, leaving goosebumps behind and sending shivers of electricity up my spine. While I didn’t feel any attraction to the girl in particular, I micro-analyzed this physical response to direct contact with her over and over again. It took a year or two, but, eventually, I had the crushing realization that I was attracted to women. I went from bisexual to pansexual to full-on gay, and, looking back, finally had the perspective to fully understand my attraction to Janeway and Alice.
It wasn’t just my sexual orientation that the androgynous women of science fiction lead me to a better understanding of – it was also my gender identity. Nine months ago, I came out as non-binary. My outward appearance hasn’t changed since then, and I am still commonly read as a cisgender, heterosexual woman. Despite this, I have never fully identified with womanhood and feel that my femme gender expression is more of an ornament than anything else. The way I feel inside and how I carry myself are what matter.
Captain Kathryn Janeway and Alice were incredible human beings capable of extraordinary feats and gender was not a defining characteristic in their success. While gender did matter in terms of representation, it was the way they undermined women tropes to become the rounded characters that moved me. As a child, I could imagine future worlds where not only could women succeed, but also where gender discrimination was a thing of the long-forgotten past.
Today, discrimination based on gender and sexuality does exist and is something I am still forced to navigate. Role models are critical for children and teenagers as they learn more about themselves and develop their own identities. Without Captain Kathryn Janeway and Alice, the road to the queer, non-binary person working in the tech industry that I am today would have been far more treacherous, and I hope that the androgynous women of science fiction continue to impact the lives of others searching to better know themselves.