Tron: Legacy’s Quorra and The Fifth Element’s Leeloo have a few things in common, despite their films being separated by 13 years. Both serve as supporting roles to fairly generic heroes; both are fierce and capable in combat; both have haircuts that would make the average person look incredibly stupid; and both are inexplicably wide-eyed about the world.
Jonathan McIntosh, who goes by Pop Culture Detective on YouTube, published a video exploring this trope, which he calls “born sexy yesterday.” These female characters are wise, but also strikingly naive about the world. They’re childlike, and yet they’re also designed to appeal to heterosexual men.
“Characters who are born sexy yesterday are often highly skilled at something that men will respect,” McIntosh says. “Frequently, that thing is combat.”
McIntosh, who also worked on a few videos for pop criticism site Feminist Frequency, calls this phenomenon a relationship trope. It’s not so different from the infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. Like the MPDG, a Born Sexy Yesterday character is typically introduced to a straight, “red-blooded man” who is alone or unhappy in the love department. He’s directionless or disenfranchised with his life. But in the case of Born Sexy Yesterday, the trope goes a step further because this man, McIntosh says, “either can’t find or doesn’t want a woman from his own world who might be his equal in matters of love or sexuality.”
The trope isn’t new or even exclusive to sci-fi. McIntosh explores its history in films like Forbidden Planet or The Time Machine, as well as its appearance in mediums like anime. The problem with the trope, he says, is that its subtext is “rooted in a deep-seated male insecurity around sex and sexuality.” The trope could improve, he posits, if both characters were inexperienced and explored their identities together, or if these women were given the chance to grow in their experiences — like Star Trek: Voyager’s Seven of Nine.
“The crux of the trope is a fixation on male superiority, a fixation with holding power over an innocent girl,” McIntosh says. “But in order to make that socially acceptable, science fiction has employed to put the mind of that girl into a sexualized, adult women’s body.”
The trope does exist in reverse as well. Kind of. Men who exhibit the same traits in film, like Big or Blast from the Past, are more often used as the butt of the joke. “Perhaps that’s because most grown women don’t find the idea of dating an inexperienced adolescent boy all that appealing,” McIntosh says. Truer words have never been spoken.