Women of Speculative Fiction: Clara Clayton

I’m quite aware that this is a minority opinion, but Back to the Future: Part III might be my favorite of the trilogy. Yes, the first is a stronger movie in most regards, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the third. And I think that liking comes in large part from the unexpected romance.

When the writers decided to create a suitable love interest for a time traveling mad scientist, there wasn’t much precedent for what she would be like. In fact, it was so unusual to see a romantic element for the type of characters Christopher Lloyd tended to portray, that he said it would be his first on-screen kiss. The whole thing could have come across as comical or bizarre.

Instead, the movie presents a surprisingly tender relationship, largely thanks to the writers’ creation of  Clara Clayton and her portrayal by Mary Steenburgen. She’s sweet-tempered without being weak; she stands up for herself when it’s important. Though she does need rescuing now and then, she’s not helpless – she climbs atop a speeding train in the movie’s climax, managing the job in clothing far less practical than her male counterparts, and she only slips when the train reaches ludicrously high speeds.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a big fan of the love at first sight trope. But even though the movie plays with that here, it’s pretty clear as Doc and Clara become truly acquainted that she is an excellent match for him, and he for her. She’s a schoolteacher, one of the few credible positions a woman could use to pursue knowledge in 1885. She’s fascinated with science, astronomy in particular, stays up all night basically geeking out with Doc. And here’s my favorite part – not just about science, but science fiction. Clara is a sci-fi nerd! An 1885 version of a sci-fi nerd, which means she can quote passages of From the Earth to the Moon from memory. And, oh, she names her sons Jules and Verne. Awesome.

I figure once she traveled to the future, she would have snatched up every sci-fi book she could get her hands on. Also, during the time it took Doc to build a time traveling steam engine, I’m 100% sure that she learned all the principles of his theories and engineering and became his lab partner. That’s the kind of relationship I can get behind.

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