Poor Rachel McAdams. Three time-travel movies and not a whiff of the action. First was 2009′s The Time Traveller’s Wife, in which Eric Bana played a Chicago librarian darting through time while his on-screen wife McAdams plodded on faithfully in the present. Then, two years later, came Midnight in Paris. Owen Wilson got to party in the roaring 1920s every day of his holiday, while oblivious fiancee McAdams went sightseeing. And now Richard Curtis‘s new film, About Time, sees McAdams stay home as her partner Domhnall Gleeson goes time-travelling in secret, in a bid to change his past and have a better future. This time it’s a gift – passed down the male line of the family.
McAdams is not alone in being overlooked. From 1981′s Time Bandits to the more recent Hot Tub Time Machine, sci-fi films have rarely allowed female characters to leave the present. When Marty McFly’s girlfriend tried to come along for the ride in Back to the Future II, she was hastily sedated by the Doc for “asking too many questions”. In their excellent adventures, Bill and Ted travelled to medieval times to meet some “babes”; true, the women were then permitted to time-travel – but only with male characters, and purely to serve their needs. Hardly the sort of time-travelling role models women need.
While many of these films are immensely entertaining, it’s a curious trend that shortchanges female characters and, by extension, female viewers. At first glance, you could simply put this down to the historical dominance of male heroes in cinema. It’s a patriarchal world and mainstream movies aren’t always quick to reflect advancements in equality. But while other areas of sci-fi were making progress – take Sigourney Weaver beating her many-jawed foes in the Alien films – the time-travel genre, ironically, stood still. Yes, as far back as 1984 The Terminator gave us a groundbreaking action heroine in Linda Hamilton, but the bouffe-haired damsel in distress was still confined to the here and now, chased by one time-traveller and bedded by the other (in order to give birth to a future saviour). And the men didn’t just get to time-travel: they got to go naked, too.
This weekend in London, there’s a whole festival dedicated to feminist sci-fi films. Called Women on the Edge of Time, it promises futuristic “worlds free of sexism”. Tellingly, time-travel movies are absent from the programme. Some might argue that the theme is just more appealing to men. But I’m sure I’m not the only woman who fell in love with time-travel movies as a kid – and I wanted to be Marty McFly, not his unfortunate girlfriend. A time-travelling heroine would have been very welcome. Nor is it just action films. In the 1980 romance Somewhere in Time, Christopher Reeve rewound to woo a bygone Jane Seymour; in 2001′s Kate Leopold, a 19th-century Hugh Jackman raced forward into the arms of a present-day Meg Ryan.
Of course, it is still incredibly hard to get funding for a mainstream film with a female lead. This might explain why two recent movies that gave women at least a look-in at time travel were independents. Safety Not Guaranteed saw a female newspaper intern responding to a mysterious man’s ad for a time-travel buddy; the whole movie turns on whether she will make the leap. Meanwhile, The Sound of My Voice featured two documentary-makers investigating a cult leader called Maggie, who claims to have come from the future to warn us about environmental issues.
Whatever the merits of these semi-exceptions, it’s worth pointing out that women just don’t get to have fun with time travel like men do; it doesn’t seem to get them anywhere. While averting some unspeakable catastrophe is a common theme in everything from The Terminator to Deja Vu, our male travellers usually get to rearrange their personal lives, too. In fact, time travel seems to offer men an extraordinary level of control, as well as the possibility of achieving some sort of perfection – not to mention getting the girl (sidepoint: gay time-travellers are even rarer than female ones). Grandpa Biff in Back to the Future II gave his younger self a vintage sports almanac, enabling him to build a corrupt empire from strategically placed bets and thereby create a parallel dystopia. His ultimate goal? A trophy wife in the form of Marty’s mother. Groundhog Day saw Bill Murray win Andie MacDowell’s hand after studying her, day after repeated day. I wonder, assuming this relationship had continued, if he would have ever told her the truth.
In About Time, Curtis plays with a similar scenario. Domhnall Gleeson not only uses his talent to woo McAdams, but also to perfect his sexual technique. Little does she know how many tries it took to wow her on their first night. Admittedly, this is one of the film’s funnier parts, but it also dupes its female lead to an uncomfortable degree, a trend that continues throughout. It’s hard to root for a relationship when one party is concealing the extent of their power over the other. Thanks to time travel, this man has the ability to change his relationship, or erase it entirely, without his partner’s knowledge.
While a similar idea became a meaty moral issue in 2004′s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in time-travel movies it’s usually just ignored or played for laughs. In fact, many time-travel heroes deceive women routinely, either for their own selfish reasons or simply mistrust. In the hands of generally male screenwriters, time travel seems to be a serious business best handled by blokes – the implication being that women are somehow too emotional to deal with it. Take the Doc’s dismissive explanation after he sedated Jennifer: “She saw the time machine. I couldn’t just leave her there with that information. Don’t worry, she’s not essential to my plan.” In last year’s Looper, Bruce Willis tampered with the past in an effort to save his future wife. But did we even find out her name? No. And did she even speak? Hardly.
There are mainstream exceptions, of course – but astonishingly few, given the 500 or so time-travel movies out there. In 1986′s Peggy Sue Got Married, a lone female became unstuck in time; in 1990′s Back to the Future III, the Doc allowed his wife aboard; and in 1994′s Timecop, a female agent was allowed to time travel, but always accompanied by the hero. Ten years later, Jennifer Garner woke up in the future in 13 Going On 30; that same year, Hermione briefly had the gift in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. And let’s face it: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a 2006 anime adaptation of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel, didn’t really have much choice.
But wait. This month sees the release of Teen Beach Movie, a Disney film pitched as the new High School Musical. Maia Mitchell plays Mack, a teen surfer magically transplanted – with her boyfriend – into a 1960s surf movie. Does this represent some kind of progress, however slight? Possibly. Mack scoffs at old surf movies, saying: “The girls never surf as well as the boys.” And her lesson to the unemancipated girls of the early 60s is simple: “Girls can do anything boys can do.”
Tell that to poor Rachel McAdams.
• Teen Beach Movie is out on DVD on 16 August. About Time is in cinemas from 4 September. Women on the Edge of Time is at the Horse Hospital, London WC1, Friday and Saturday.