Keeping female aliens pretty

I’ve been watching the DVD extras for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and they have interviews with the makeup artist who creates all the funky looks for various species of aliens on that show. He refers often to conversations in which the producers tell him they’ve hired a “pretty girl”, so he needs to “keep her pretty”. So he’ll do just a little forehead ridge or some wrinkly stuff at the bridge of the nose, or some tattoo work – nothing that would distort her eyes, cheekbones or mouth from looking human and traditionally attractive.

No, this is not the most appalling instance of misogyny I’ve come across. It’s just one example of those very subtle things that can make you think an actress is less talented than her male counterpart in a similar role. Even in sci-fi, with characters who aren’t supposed to be human, producers are more concerned about an actress’ visual appeal to the audience than they are with the character’s visual integration into a story.

Comments

  1. says

    The exact same thing gets said over and over again in the special features about makeup on the Next Generation DVDs, iirc. This is one of the issues I’m planning on talking about in my very last women-in-DS9 post, when I finally get there (I really should finish the next one soon. Like this week) – the series as a whole is overwhelmingly woman-positive, in my opinion, but there are still some things about it that make me want to hit stuff.

  2. MaggieCat says

    I’ve noticed this in the past when watching the ST series- the male aliens are allowed to be unattractive by traditional human standards, but even the female characters who aren’t there are as a potential love interest conform. The only exception I can think of is Quark and Rom’s mom. (Ishka? I think?) And since she was already flouting the rules of Ferengi society left and right, I think that might be a bit suspect.

    I find it kind of sad, since I’ve frequently thought that say, Anthony Simcoe, was extremely talented to be able to act so effectively and subtly through all of those prosthetics. It would be nice to see actresses given the same opportunities. (Although Farscape doesn’t seem to follow this rule particularly, come to think of it. Natira was just awesome.)

  3. Maartje says

    You haven’t yet? My you’re gonna love Ivanova!

    I can’t say that in farscape they didn’t keep a lot of the pretty women pretty as aliens, though there were exceptions. But they also did it to the men (and there were some really pretty men there). And they had quite a few not so attractive people in there as well, and a whole lot of ugly (to our standards, but the make-up and prosthetics were fabulous) aliens.

    Star Trek is a lot more conservative in that area. The federation is an ideal, a utopia and I suppose ugliness isn’t a part of that ideal. It’s very weird because living in a space-station you would find out pretty quickly that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Of course, this leads right back to the audiance being the beholder and the target audiance apreciating pretty women. Barf.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    I think ST may have gotten its conservative beauty standards from the networks. Farscape was produced by Sci-Fi, and that cable market is more willing to try new things (else, I rather doubt Claudia Black would have landed her lead role, and what a shame that would’ve been).

    Which is not to say the producers of ST don’t buy into those standards themselves – I don’t know.

  5. J Salem Gourley says

    I always thought Zhiyal(Gul Dukat’s daughter) from DS9 was one of the more attractive trek aliens. Something about those Cardassians, they just look so dignified.

    Of course, I’m a Doctor Who fan, so the most attractive alien I’ve seen lately has been descended from a tree, so maybe I’m biased towards good alien design.

  6. MaggieCat says

    I thought Voyager and Enterprise were the only ST series produced for a single network, and the rest were syndicated? I think I remember hearing a lot of people use the ‘network interference’ reasoning for why they thought that Voyager was the worst series (at that point)- because the show didn’t have as much freedom as TNG and DS9 had.

  7. says

    They did outfit the female Klingons with scary teeth, forehead ridges, and thicker eyebrows, but the ridges usually didn’t extend as far down the face as they do for male Klingons, if I recall correctly – if you listen to the makeup artist talking about his craft on the special features, he really does repeat many times that they tried to keep prosthetics away from women’s eyes, lips, and cheekbones, and the Klingon women are no exception to that.

    And, of course, there was plenty of cleavage in the typical female Klingon costume…

    Going back to what Maggie was saying, I can actually think of a few other aliens played by women under a significant amount of makeup, or with a radically face-altering prosthetic – there was the other female Ferengi character, Pel (Quark’s one-time almost-love-interest), and the woman from the alien species whose name I can’t recall that had very rough skin (I think her makeup was textured silicon all over her face, or something like that), both of whom were important characters in single episodes. But I can’t come up with any recurring characters played by women under significant prosthetic makeup.

  8. says

    No kidding! I loved the Klingons enough to kind’ve overlook that, but it always nagged at the back of my mind when I was watching.

    The other inexplicable gendered difference that drove me a little crazy was in the Vorta. The first one the audience “met” was Eris, and she had this oddly textured-or-styled hair that later male Vorta shared. But a later female Vorta, Kilana, had very classic-feminine long hair and wore ostentatious lipstick and eyeshadow. WTF?

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    That’s correct. But syndicated shows can make more money with broadcast networks than cable. I’m speculating that this is why they felt the need to conform to the network way of thinking in some ways. (They certainly defied it in others, though.)

  10. Jennifer Kesler says

    EXACTLY! Cleavage can be perfectly appropriate for a particular character in a particular situation, but Klingon women seem as inclined to fight as men, so for them it’s just stupid.

  11. MaggieCat says

    And, of course, there was plenty of cleavage in the typical female Klingon costume…

    That always bothered me. Not because of the cleavage per se, but because it is just not smart to leave your chest exposed like that in battle. You’d think the Klingons of all people would go for function rather than sex appeal.

  12. J Salem Gourley says

    ergh, my browser lost the first draft of this comment. I’ll sum up.

    I’d completely forgotten Ziyal was played by three women! Looked it up as reference though, and you are correct. One was a pre-skank era Pussycat Doll, one was also on the premiere of Angel(kate!), and one was an actress of apparently little other than guest spots, one Melanie Smith. The third and final, Ms Smith, was my favored Ziyal. PcD looked a touch awkward in the makeup, Angel guest looked a touch stock sci-fi stripperish. Ms Smith as Ziyal actually LOOKS alien. Unfortunately I was unable to locate any pictures of her out of the makeup, so no reference.

    Still, as a Cardassian, they seemed one of the better examples of Trek aliens. Despite being humanoid, they aren’t just “human with a funny nose/forehead/ears.” Granted I don’t think we’ve ever seen a nude Cardassian, but you can imagine that the bones-and-ridges effect is pretty much all over, a bit of a departure from the “human from the neck down beautiful exotic aliens.” Those Orion slave girls make me sick, btw. They’re nothing but cheap castoffs to old Bond movies. Alright I’m stopping now before I get carried away.

  13. SunlessNick says

    The Tree aliens in Doctor Who had the same phenomenon though: Jabe’s face was far more open and humanlike, while her male counterparts’ looked more like mossy bark. But Jabe was cool character in other ways.

  14. Patrick says

    I can imagine how the conversation between the Farscape producers and a major network would have gone:

    Network: And recast this Erin Sun girl. She’s all wrong.
    Farscape People: But Claudia Black is totally badass in the part.
    NW: But she’s not PRETTY.
    FSP: Umm… four out of five of the men we polled think she’s gorgeous.
    NW: That can’t be true. She’s not blond, and her arms are all weird. It’s like she has some kind of growths under her skin.
    FSP: You mean her muscles?
    NW: Yeah, those things. Creepy. They make her look like she could actually fire a gun or hit someone.
    FSP: But –
    NW: Get a pretty woman (by which we mean blonde, with a tiny nose), and make sure she doesn’t weigh over a hundred pounds. Now, about this blue chick…

  15. Jennifer Kesler says

    LOL, I think you nailed it.

    It actually sounds like a lot of conversations I’ve had with people who work in film.

  16. E says

    I can imagine how the conversation between the Farscape producers and a major network would have gone:

    Network: And recast this Erin Sun girl. She’s all wrong.
    Farscape People: But Claudia Black is totally badass in the part.
    NW: But she’s not PRETTY.
    FSP: Umm… four out of five of the men we polled think she’s gorgeous.
    NW: That can’t be true. She’s not blond, and her arms are all weird. It’s like she has some kind of growths under her skin.
    FSP: You mean her muscles?
    NW: Yeah, those things. Creepy. They make her look like she could actually fire a gun or hit someone.
    FSP: But -
    NW: Get a pretty woman (by which we mean blonde, with a tiny nose), and make sure she doesn’t weigh over a hundred pounds. Now, about this blue chick…

    And a few girls agree she’s gorgeous too but DEFINITELY not the standard by which women are often judged.

    I’m so glad that Farscape was filmed in Australia and not Los Angeles.

  17. says

    There are people who don’t think Claudia Black is drop dead gorgeous?! Who?! Where?!

    (Actually, I’m not sure the costumers did until the beginning of season 2. In season 1, she wore a lot of baggier, full body covering costumes…Season 2 started, and she was suddenly wearing a leather jacket which was only zipped up over her sterum, if memory serves…)

  18. Patrick says

    I also noticed they didn’t give her fancy hair as often, but just had her wear a ponytail. Presumably someone figured out that a) it made more sense for her character, and b) emphasized her cheekbones.

  19. Jennifer Kesler says

    I would refer to her as hot rather than gorgeous, and to me that’s an important distinction.

    Look at male actors. We have some very pretty male actors who look just great. Then we have these funky looking guys like David Duchovny and Chris Noth who really aren’t good-looking, exactly, but to some women they are just so hot beauty couldn’t turn up the heat one more degree. What is it about these guys? Personality? An air of… something?

    To me, CB is like that – not terribly good-looking, but very attractive for much more interesting and mysterious reasons than the usual pleasing visual image. Because that beauty will fade with age… but that hotness is forever.

    Does that make sense? Lisa Edelstein is another female actor I think of in this way.

  20. says

    Although not technically aliens, the remade Planet of the Apes had this phenomenon as well.

    And speaking of ponytails, I always thought that Ivanova on Babylon 5 looked better with pulled-back hair and no make-up than on those few occasions when she was “dolled up.”

  21. MaggieCat says

    I think it’s probably too subjective to even try and parse out guidelines, but “hot” and “gorgeous” are essentially the same when I use them. But normal human beings have a much broader definition of “gorgeous” and “pretty” than the media does, so whenever someone who would fit into most normal people’s definition of Pretty somehow wanders over and gets accepted by Hollywood‘s definition of Pretty as well we get confused and start adding subcategories to desperately try and explain it. But since one’s motivated by an actual response, and one’s motivated by how much money they think they can make, I doubt the two will ever be able to live in harmony. (Especially since no one will listen to ME when I say that most of those “Pretty” actors are very very boring, and not as good looking as everyone seems to think.)

    Or I just refuse to live in a world where Chris Noth is described as someone who “really [isn't] good-looking, exactly”. Madness, I tell you! (Yes I’m aware that he’s the same age as my mother. I don’t care, I’ve had a crush on him since I was 10.)

  22. Jennifer Kesler says

    Oh, Maggie, Chris Noth is one of the hottest guys on the planet. But he has enormous dark eye bags and a big nose, and normally those features are not good-looking to me. Yet it doesn’t matter with him, because there’s just something droolly about him.

    It seems to me that most people use “gorgeous” interchangeably with “attractive”. I make the distinction because I’m very into the idea that non-great-looking people can be sexy as hell, because that’s life.

  23. Caroline says

    the male aliens are allowed to be unattractive by traditional human standards, but even the female characters who aren’t there are as a potential love interest conform

    Seems to be an accurate analysis, but this knocks it down:

    As I recall, a lot of the female Klingons were not conventionally very attractive

    Very true – they were actually quite frightful-looking (other than B’Elanna who was only half-Klingon) – certainly unattractive by human standards (A face only a Klongon could love). To me, they even seem more ugly than the male Klingons.

    And, of course, there was plenty of cleavage in the typical female Klingon costume

    That’s a good point too – even when they’re not trying to make the female aliens pretty, they still feel they have to make them ultra-sexy – you just cant have an ugly unsexy female alien like you can with the males. Maybe some network exec decided the Klingon gals needed to dress like Xena!

    But now that I think of it, I think I have seen several female aliens on star trek (minor or guest-starring characters mainly) who did look pretty “ugly” by human standards and didnt have cleavage showing.I’m going to look out for that from now on.

  24. Ink says

    Not an alien example but… Lisa in the Torchwood episode “Cyberwoman”. Partially converted to cyborg by the Cybermen, process got stopped halfway through and she spent awile strapped to a sort of life support machine undergound, with all these cybernetic components.

    You’d expect some sort of scarred, scary looking cyborg woman, bits of metal clashing with flesh, and the like.

    Instead, Lisa was a healthy looking woman wearing what amounts to a a very stylish metal bikini.

    Of course *sigh*

  25. Charles RB says

    IIRC, Russell T Davies was a big confused to see giant metal tits being put on it by the designer.

    But he didn’t do anything about it, which is daft. It’s the damn Cybermen, Russ! The original ones were covered in bandages with huge metal bits sticking out and couldn’t talk properly – an imcomplete Cyberwoman should be hideous and unnerving.

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