Stephanie Barron

"Unfortunately, for every character like Ripley in the Alien trilogy, there are dozens of female roles that are only included as window dressing for the male-dominated heroics. Its a trend that harkens back to the days of Captains Kirk's weekly tryst with any half-dressed space bimbo who stepped onto The Enterprise, and even poor Princess Leia ended up sporting an intergalactic bikini by the conclusion of the Star Wars trilogy" (Puchalski, Sci-Fi Entertainment, Oct 1995: 30) 

This study will attempt to evaluate to what extent traditional dominant social expectations within cinematic and televisual genres are present in contemporary science fiction (sci-fi). Specifically it is an analysis of the representation of women, of gender identity, and considers whether dominant patriarchal thought is still an  influence over representation and narrative in contemporary media.  In order to fully examine this, a selection of American films and television programmes will be used  as examples of specific representations within the issue of image construction and spectatorship of sexuality.   The films chosen stretch from the 1950s to the present day and this will provide an opportunity to assess the parallel development of social anxiety and representation within film as a supposed re-construction of society.

Traditional critiques of female characters in 1950s sci-fi define the roles in accordance with Marxist philosophy of dominant ideology, and Freudian theory adopted by Laura Mulvey, viewing passivity and victimisation against activity and strength as a symbol of femininity and masculinity respectively. (Mulvey 1991) [for full references, see sources] However, in relation to contemporary genre examples, the female protagonist is considered in the light of feminist philosophy, to abound in the analysis of their position as sexuality suppressed by  patriarchy's wish to define gender roles. The issue of concern is if and how  dominant ideology neutralises female threats through either its destruction, or through the incorporation of recognisable feminine characteristics onto the protagonist. If we agree with Robin Wood that ideology is "a form of social conditioning" (Cook 1993:101) then it is possible to asses that the constructed images of women on screen are simply a reflection of dominant patriarchy.

It can be suggested that the change in sci-fi, from women as victims, to women as sexual objects, acknowledged a change in society. Most notably, sci-fi films such as Barbarella in 1968  became classic for their overly sexual images and desirable female characters.   One could possibly suggest that this was a reaction from patriarchy to the women's liberation movement;  if they weren't going  to be victims, then they would have to be objects.

Feminist theory also adopts the Lacanian philosophy of the woman as 'Other' in relation and comparison to the male characters or non-human characters. (Kuhn 1990)  This also interconnects with  Yvonne Tasker's label, ‘musculinity’, (1993:132)  the questionable sexual appearance of  active female characters.  Yet it is also arguable that 'masculine' female protagonists are more  commercially successful,  thus can we see an increase in masculinity as a necessity for economic success within this genre? 

This is associated with the debate concerning the phallus, which Susan Jeffords and Lilian Necakov label as a virtual appropriation of symbolic power by the woman. (Creed 1994) In this light the phallus is held by any female displaying traditional active male  power, or encoding themselves with male characteristics such as dress or attitude.  However, Creed argues that such a sweeping statement cannot always be applied to situations, masculine characteristics do not, in her opinion, denote phallus. (1994)  This raises questions about the very fabric of both Freudian philosophy and the Marxist dominant ideology thesis - suggesting that woman cannot succeed as a representation of their own gender. 

An important part of understanding the shifting role of women within this genre, is the popular theory that this genre alone reflects society's needs, against the promise of a universal utopia.   This is most succinctly examined in the narrative of  the Star Trek series, which  (unlike most sci-fi) offers a vision of hope, rather than post-apocalyptic despair.  However, it must be asked exactly whose utopia it is reflecting; the utopia of a consistently male dominated production, or of an equally demanding feminist perception.

This argument is  demonstrated in the work of feminist sci-fi writers such as Donna Haraway and Jenny Wolmark, whose aspirations for a utopian society  (in which women are in dominant ideological control) is virtually a reverse dystopia. “From a feminist point of view, novels which describe women-only communities should be considered utopias” (Wolmark 1994: 89)   This is supported by Francis Bartkowski who states that  “...utopias are a means of voicing women’s desires, whereas dystopias are a means of suppressing them” (Wolmark 1994:89)

The society which produces and consumes the images does so with distinct consideration of the spectators' identification or objectification of the female image on screen. As proposed by Marx, fetishism, whilst being a state of sexual gratification, is also an economic success. The ‘availability’ of the female form on screen is a commercial necessity in the creation of films, and  the work of Laura Mulvey, Anthony Easthope, and Screen is important when analysing the heterosexual  male and female gaze, whilst a more complete analysis of homosexual spectatorship is provided by Yvonne Tasker and Paula Graham when considering the source of objectification. In both cases the Lacanian theory that all infants are bisexual or 'polymorphically perverse' is an important issue if we are to consider how dominant ideology interprets masculine heterosexuality as being the universal norm, and as such most theses are based on a interpretation of this male gaze.  "Normality is our everyday common-sense world - in more recent interpretations, the world of the dominant ideology, sanctioned by the established authorities" (Cook 1993:101)

The predominant content of the following work is theoretical, drawing on critical conclusions from popular feminist and psychoanalytical writings.  American sci-fi has been chosen due to the commercial availability and predominance on both film and television, and its increasing interest in exposing the psychological fears of its audience 

Historically, sci-fi was predominantly viewed by male audiences because of the action adventure narrative.  In contemporary sci-fi films the post-modern structure has insisted on the  incorporation of other conventions and gender audiences.   Predominantly horror exposed females as victims, but in Creed's work, women were also viewed as monsters, thus equally as active and as strong as male heroes, and breaking through the Freudian theory of passivity,  “...images which define women as monstrous in relation to her reproductive functions work to reinforce the phallocentric notion that female sexuality is abject. On the other hand, the notion of the monstrous-feminine challenges the view that femininity, by definition, constitutes passivity” (Creed 1994:151)

Whilst the horror genre seems by Creed, to have the autonomous monopoly on a relationship between cinema and dreams,  the sci-fi genre, through its narrative of utopian promises and visions of the future (be they apocalyptic of hopeful) has its own basis in psychology.   Likewise, nightmarish fears conceptualise in horror and create parallels between the filmic discourse and the producers (and spectators) infant anxieties. 

With sci-fi's encroachment into individual psychoanalytical anxiety in horror, the gender identity issue in this genre has little boundary. What is conclusive are the incurring  problematic tendencies, not simply because of the breadth of the issue, but for the Oedipal narratives and sexual identities that are unlikely to change whilst the production is by and for males, and the feminist theorists that question it, do so with a dependency upon patriarchal dominant philosophies.

The Utopian issue is best discussed in relation to the work of Henry Jenkins and Dr Elyce Rae Helford who consider that Star Trek is little more than a "utopia for yuppies” (BBC 2. August 25th. 1996). Their central argument is that whilst women in Star Trek: The Next Generation  may have evolved from the revealing costumes of Uhura and Chapel, the characters predominantly encompass traditional feminine characteristics, such as caring doctors or maternal empaths. “...few strong female ego ideals exist. In cases where they do, their strength is often mitigated or recuperated by their placement in a narrative whose closure disallows such strength” (Friedberg 1990:41)    This supports the feminist theory that dominant ideology will not allow such threats to social order.  Star Trek is an important series to examine, as it is one of the first sci-fi programme to attract a female audience through the introduction of 'women's' storylines such as romance, and positioned the female characters accordingly against the "hypermasculine sexuality" (Helford 1996:12)) of Kirk. It is also the most illustrative example of a genre that dismisses vital issues such as rape as secondary narratives despite its growing female audience.  In The Next Generation episode 'The Child', the character Deanna Troi  refuses to abort the pregnancy as soon as she sees the image of the foetus. Thus little is mentioned at the fact she was raped,  in favour of an issue that maternal instincts take over  her ability as a commander.  Similarly in Alien3, Ripley's impregnation is also seen as a non-rape; the women simply accept the situation, and in this instance allow for a connection between ideology and linguistics. Ripley says of the alien foetus, "You've been a part of my life for so long I can't remember anything else". By using the word 'you', Christian Metz argues that all messages and issue surrounding that 'you' are affiliated. Thus the issue of female subjectivity, rape etc. are all linguistically implied, and all seen as issues that women socially have to deal with. So it becomes more apparent that film does (on certain levels) reflect a dominant approach to women's issues, but one that fails to ascertain a solution. (Cook 1993:103))

Author Henry Jenkins said in a personal letter that as the majority of cinema and film productions are headed by white middle-class males, any heroic female stories are  “immediately denounced for a dangerous tendency towards political correctness”. In traditional Marxist thought, the dominant classes have the power and ability to reflect their ideals and opinions onto an ever-increasing audience, thus an integral part of this work is the extent to which dominant ideology and the representation of women in their positions in society are related aspects. The result of these combined concepts is a stagnant image of femininity as 'Other' in relation to masculinity,  (an 'other' that in true Aristotelian logic must be destroyed) and an increasingly attacking feminist critique using psychoanalysis, which allows for very little alternative opinion.  Yet Easthope’s study of masculinity conflicts with such feminist thought; that women are oppressed by male ideology, when he states that men have the same amount of pressure  to conform to expectations,  that they too are constructed in a dominant image for which there is no escape until masculinity stops seeing itself as universal, and adopts a unique identity of its own. (1990)

Whilst feminist critique and psychoanalysis rely heavily on dominant ideology and the idea of repression, an emphasis on Freudian psychoanalytical theory and the issues of infantile anxiety, it is also possible to restructure such determined arguments for specific issues. Whilst this thesis will depend upon an application of established literature on  the representation of women in specific areas, it will also question the viability of these theories in today’s images on screen, and attempt to apply specific aspects of each opinion to such images, thus illustrating to what extent these structured philosophies still exist within cinematic and televisual representations.
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