Butch female characters have been too few and far between in film history. In most cases, you’ll find them in so-called “gay and lesbian” genres, as though a character’s sexuality entirely defines his or her story. But in 1986, Private First Class Jenette Vasquez, expertly played by Jenette Goldstein, destroyed that trend — and endures as an Alien-franchise favorite. She's so good the character was named after her.
Goldstein considers herself a character actor. When she was cast as Vasquez, she’d been unemployed in Britain, bodybuilding to kill time. She got called in to read for a movie called Aliens but figured it would be a little rom-com about an American who marries a Brit to get a resident card. When she saw the poster for The Terminator framed behind producer Gale Anne Hurd’s desk, she realized maybe she shouldn’t have worn a nice blouse and heels. Luckily, that blouse was sleeveless, and they noticed her biceps.
“She said, ‘Are you an actress or a bodybuilder?’” Goldstein laughs. “I was a gymnast. I just happened to be in the best shape of my life.”
After multiple readings in which James Cameron got down on the floor with her to improv military scenes — Goldstein calls him simply “Cameron,” the way you might refer to a teammate — she finally got the call that they’d convinced the studio they needed her. Then Goldstein became Vasquez, training with the guys and Al Matthews (Sergeant Apone), a decorated real-life Marine.
The funny thing about Vasquez's legacy as an iconic butch character? At no point in Aliens does she ever mention her sexuality.
“She’s an outsider — she was just who she was,” Goldstein says. “With Vasquez, I never said she was straight or gay, because to her it was nobody’s business.” The ambiguity made it easy for fans from all outsider states to identify with her.
“A lot of gay women come up and say ‘Oh my god, when I saw you, and you had a masculine look to you, I saw myself,’” Goldstein says. “But I had straight women coming up to me with the same thing. Someone was going through breast cancer, and she told me that with each round of chemo she would think of Vasquez. A gay man from Guatemala came up to me, and he said, ‘I identify so much with her,’ but he was very feminine. Vasquez is universal.”
Goldstein believes that universality comes from the Vasquez's character, not her gender or sex. There’s a loyalty to her, and a playfulness. If she slaps you across the face, she’ll do it with a smile and because you deserved it. And anytime we talk about Vasquez like she’s a real person, what we’re really talking about is the personal fortitude Goldstein brought to the role.
It's hard for some people to separate the two. Goldstein is tough in real life — she has muscles in places I didn’t know existed — and that typecasting has followed the 5’2” actress around her throughout her career, leading many a casting director to walk into the room and, disappointed, say, “You’re not Vasquez.” She says that Cameron always joked that she needed to play a mother role, because she was a good mom, before he brought her the wickedly possessed character of Janelle Voight in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. For all that, while Goldstein the actress can transform herself into anyone, the deep connection people feel with Vasquez might have to do with how much of herself she was able to put into the character, particularly the grittiness of someone who’s seen some shit.
“I was attacked when I was 18,” she says. “Someone tried to rape me, and I fought them off. It was surprising to me that I fought. You know, I was a tomboy and I would hit people when I got angry. But when this happened to me, he dragged me into an alley, and I’m kicking and hitting him, and finally he was like, ‘Girl, you’re crazy’ — and I was like, ‘I’m crazy?’ I think you draw on other parts of yourself for playing any character, but Vasquez was about taking care of the people you love — and yourself — and dying for them.”
Vasquez is the likable unlikable person we all wish we could be because she’s comfortable being herself. She’s loyal to her comrades and respected for it, and if you give these traits to any character, she might connect with an audience long-term. It matters not what she looks like if she’s well-written and -acted.
“There’s a bar against actresses that aren’t that standard pretty,” Goldstein says. “Let actresses get old. Let them be beautiful or not. No one really cares.” Or let them be butch, or femme, or anything their heart desires.
With Alamo Drafthouse partnering with 20th Century Fox and Mondo for a special “Alien Day” multi-city screening of Aliens, the female stars — including Sigourney Weaver (Ripley) in New York and Carrie Henn (Newt) with Goldstein in L.A. — are getting some stage time as special guests for the screening. It’s an interesting ploy, featuring the women of the franchise specifically, but it speaks to how beloved these characters were and are, and it’s worth asking ourselves why, especially with Vasquez.