Before we look at the role of women within science fiction, it is first necessary to examine what exactly this genre encompasses. This genre, possibly above all other cinematic forms, is totally dissonant. Whilst the films of the 1950’s supply the audience with visitors from Mars, the singular underlying metaphor within these films was a fear of the Cold War, of Communism, of individualism being replaced by a singular collective conscience.
In folklore, and especially American culture, sci-fi images and metaphors created have a strong grounding in traditional mythology. "Science fiction has its roots in, and takes its main dramatic mechanisms from, the traditions of ancient western mythological drama”. (Winnert 1995:284) [for full details of references etc see sources]
The alien creatures illustrated by so many films such as The Thing (From Another World) 1951, or It Came From Outer Space (1953) or the films I will be analysing such as the Aliens trilogy, all connect birth or evolution with some kind of forced reproduction, or total parthenogenesis. Although the action can be seen as inducing horror or psychological panic in the male spectator, it is also illustrative of myths. In the traditional Christian view we see the story of Eve created from Adam's rib, or an alliance of man and beast such as Poseidon (half man half horse). Therefore is it not reasonable to say that the human Darwinian instincts of survival and reproduction are simply visualised in films such as Alien (1979) as being normal compared to mythological fantasies.
If we look closely at the stories of Greek Mythology it is possible to examine how fables of beasts, of demons, of evil gods has been reflected in this genre, be it in a cross-genre fantasy film such as Jason and the Argonauts (1963) or Superman (1978) or in an episode of Lost In Space. If the original mythological beasts are not visualised (such as the Minator in the labyrinth, or Medusa and Perseus) then the idealisation of their creation becomes illustrated.
As the image of Hercules shows, the masculine physique was an important sign of unbeatable strength, and unlike the goddesses (who were seen through a certain amount of narcissism and vanity) the gods were deemed the most powerful.
In modern sci-fi fantasy films such as Superman (1978) once again we can see how these idealism's of strength and physical prowess becomes encoded as a recognisable form within our culture. "Stories like Superman force a boy to choose between a better self that is masculine and only masculine, and another everyday self that seems feminine" (Easthope 1990: 28) Thus the masculine side is Superman; active, powerful, commanding; the feminine side is the nervous, bumbling, emotional Clark Kent, and from an early age boys are encouraged to identify with this masculine facade.
From the earliest origins of mythology and storytelling the male hero saved the pure maiden from the clutches of beasts and violation from evil men. In mythology the women were dressed as a prize, an ornament. In rare cases the woman became the element of evil, best illustrated by the figure Medusa who can be argued as one of the first female monsters, whose horror does not come from motherhood, nor the gorgon distortion of her features, but rather her penetration into the insecurities of males, who view her power as a reversal of natural behaviour. Instead of conforming to a beautiful women, Medusa embodied the male fear of a woman who had the ability to castrate, her head of writhing snakes an image of her castrating power. Traditionally women were there ‘to be looked at’, yet to look at Medusa caused death, thus illustrating a flaw in the Freudian theory of passivity, and Mulvey's philosophy of female narcissism.
Other alignments to mythology lie within the aspect of storytelling, and its consequent linkage to the Oedipus complex and male erotic dreams considered by Vladimir Propp. Specifically in contemporary terms, the Star Wars trilogy must be the most illustrative of folktales with its narrative on rescuing the Princess and the fight for freedom against an evil empire.
The more it is discussed, the more it becomes apparent how dominant ideology is adhered to in popular philosophies. Thus woman as object in sci-fi and indeed in existing dominant ideology, can be seen to originate from mythology, which in itself was constructed by the same dominant society, and thus the metaphorical reflection of society is one dimensional.
“...women in science fiction perhaps represent the shift from the coffee wielding Maureen Robinson in Lost In Space to Sarah Connor of Terminator 2. This shift perhaps corresponds with the slow but sure changes in society's perception of women” (Barker, Starburst January 1992:19)In the 1950's a huge impact of sci-fi was felt. With films such as The Thing (From Outer Space) spouting warnings such as "Keep watching the skies" and The War of the Worlds (1953). In such cases men fought and won the battles against alien creatures, women were generally seen as wives, victims or decoration.
In other unusual cases such as The Devil Girls From Mars (1954) the aliens resembled a latter day Barbarella (1968) with high boots and black tights, their mission being to persuade members of the male population to help re-populate their planet. In The Night Caller (1965) the alien even placed advertisements in girlie magazines to find pin-up women to abduct. Whilst others deemed to take over the earth, some still preferred to simply deliver messages of peace (whilst simultaneously threatening to destroy the inhabitants if they did not comply!) as in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951).
Despite occasional attempts from the script of The Thing From Another World to introduce Margaret Sheridan as one of the boys, when the narrative calls for an interlude, the character Nikki produces the line, "Anyone around here want some coffee?" (Brosnan 1991:66) The treatment of female characters in science fictions films has predominantly played second fiddle to the action of the male characters, restricted from interfering with the bonding between central male characters, and surviving only as a minor narrative until their role is served. Consistently the audience has been aware of women as the victim, enabling the male hero to save her from the clutches of a monster, and thus essentially tallying both the genre of sci-fi and horror. As Budd Boetticher stated;
"What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance". (Mulvey 1991:19)Women have consistently assumed the roles of mother, sinner, victim, monster thus devoid of maternal feelings and subsequently a non-woman. In 1958 the mother and wife ideology was captured in the film I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958). The Gloria Talbot character marries Bill (Tom Tryon) who we discover has become an alien. The film's theme lies predominantly with the desire of the woman to have a baby, and we see her affections towards a puppy whilst she is child-less.It soon evolves that the aliens have come to earth to breed with women after the females on their planet were killed, but a chromosome structure is preventing this occurring. Thus the only human males left are new fathers, and as such it is these heroic men who chase the aliens off the planet! In Village of the Damned (1960) the female population of the story are impregnated and eventually give birth to aliens. Thus in both films the women are seen as victims, they are being used to mother evil and abnormal creatures. The birth or maternal instincts found in these films are normal functions, yet the parthenogenic reproduction found in Alien (1979) and the fact that the impregnated women in Village of the Damned became pregnant without their consent, (and in the 1955 film This Island Earth, the female scientist Dr Ruth, faces the prospect of violation by an alien) further raises the issue that rape in various forms, both of men and women (in the case of Alien where the creature views them as hosts, not parents) is a well-used format for the sci-fi genre, yet is rarely addressed as an issue.Is this because the dominant culture at that time did not recognise it as an important one? That same culture ensured that the 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still, removed the possible idea of resurrection from its main alien character Klaatu, because the censors felt that only God could be re-born. The dominant ideology was prepared to allow implications of rape, yet not prepared to waver religious testament. In contemporary sci-fi, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) had two episodes which supposedly dealt with the issue of rape, 'The Child' and 'Violations'. However, in both cases this stance for a debate became silent. The victim (Deanna Troi) fell into a coma in 'Violations', thus unable to identify the attacker nor able to question reasons why, and in 'The Child' the debate of rape was overtaken by a debate on abortion when she decides to keep the child that results from the rape. Similarly, the character Tasha Yar was the victim of rape by gangs on her home planet until the Federation rescued her. This issue is never dealt with head on, it is simply seen as the reasoning why her character is so emotionally strong. (Projanski 1996)
Historically it is possible to see how social anxieties were reflected in the films created in the respected eras. The Bomb was a popular topic, and suddenly the singular infiltration into towns by aliens progressed to a mass empirical invasion with threats to destroy earth. This theme quickly disappeared when the Cold War abated, (for fear of offending international relations), but not until films such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) had exploited the paranoia felt by people that Communism could be on their front doorstep, infiltrating the ‘wholesome ideas of America’. Yet in 1996 the theme reappeared in Independence Day, only this time with the twist that the bomb was in fact our saviour, and paranoia was no longer about the Communists, this time it was about space. This is a considerable propaganda film for the American Government, but worrying that in such a modern film women have roles little improved from that of the 1950s. Although none of them offer coffee, they do very little in the way of solving the issue. Despite the world struggling against the invasion of the aliens we see one woman as an unmarried mother, who also happens to have a career as a stripper (thus she is immediately placed as both maternal and immoral). The second woman is America's first lady, also a mother, a wife and a lawyer. The role of career woman is tackled, yet this element of a successful and powerful woman is removed when she is killed, thus shattering that illusion of power, and simultaneously implying that a return to pre-feminist days (when a woman's role was child rearing) would allow for her to live.
Similarly in the most important film of the 1970s, Star Wars (1977) the character Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher) suffered an evolutionary downfall during the three film episodes. She possesses physical female beauty that acts as a secondary narrative (the love interest, an object for the male gaze of Hans Solo and Luke Skywalker) and is also an authoritative figure, but when Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) appeared, her independence had disappeared along with her dialogue, until she was reduced to no more than an object in Jedi, tied to Jabbar The Hutt (see front cover) wearing no more than a bikini and uttering one line. As Carrie Fisher said on the matter, "What’s the big deal guys! Just because I’m in this outfit I can’t talk anymore?” (Salisbury, Empire July 1994:75)
Whilst there are exceptions to the rule that dominant codes of early sci-fi disallowed central female action, any active female characters were stereotyped into the form of typical convention; marriage, birth, care, decoration, victimisation. On a psychological level contemporary sci-fi films exploit human anxieties and whilst it is important to say that the change in the role of women within sci-fi was on some levels a restricted representation of their role in society, it is also evident that the producers of these films are often the voice of dominant ideology, and as such in this capitalist society the exploitation of the psychological fears of the (male) audience not only increases economic success, but forces the incorporation of women into central roles as protagonists or monsters to cause that anxiety. What becomes increasingly obvious, is the destruction of that new female threat in order to reduce the anxieties that dominant patriarchal ideology itself placed upon the male spectators.