Chapter Three: Dominant Patriarchal Ideology

Stephanie Barron

Scully: I'll drive.
Mulder: Give me the keys, I'll drive.
Scully: I'll drive.   Why do you always have to drive?  'Cos you're the guy. You're the big macho man!"
(The X-Files)

The traditional representation of women has been through established convention, this is most uniquely illustrated by Gerrad Lenne in his book 'Monster and Victim: Women in the Horror Film' in order to gain an understanding of the voice of a dominant ideal. He suggests that women  in horror only exist as victims. "Perfect as a tearful victim, what she does best is to faint in the arms of a gorilla, or a mummy, or a werewolf, or a Frankenstein creature". (Eren 1979:35) [full references etc appear in sources]  His opinion can be applied clearly to the women of 1950s sci-fi, and whilst these specific images may not be   as concurrent today, the basis of woman as victim is still visible. She may not faint or be tearful, but she is still a victim to her constructed image.Female protagonists exist in only a limited narrative outcome.  This established tradition consistently rears its head in the placement of females in narratives within the constraints of a dominant perception of pre-women's liberation females. Florence Seaton aptly stated in 1924 in the magazine, The Nation, that :

"As long as women are placed chiefly as wife, mother, courtesan or whatever - defining merely a relationship to men - nothing new or strange or interesting is likely to happen. The old order is safe". (Men who understand women, Nov 12 1924, pg 119. Cited in Carter 1977:171)
Feminist critiques of the sci-fi genre tend to focus on the subordination of female characters and propose this as a direct representation of existing "social relations and power structures"  (Wolmark 1994:2)  Thus it is argued, that sci-fi has become a battleground for ideological representation.  However, Easthope argues that masculinity is similarly bound by convention, "...masculinity is an effect, and a contradictory one. In so far as men live out the dominant version of masculinity...they are themselves trapped in structures that fix and limit masculine identity" (Easthope 1990:7)  As sci-fi labels aliens as 'others' and visa versa it has become increasingly simplistic for the genre to create boundaries of normal and abnormal, dominant and subordinant, in general favour of a hierarchical patriarchal reinforcement of female subjectivity and male dominance.

In Alien there is a relevant argument to Mulvey's theory that female protagonists cannot survive because of patriarchal anxiety. If we look at Alien or Aliens as two separate films we can see this is not the case, the protagonist survives to fight again.  "There is a dig at the predominantly white male power structure in the fact that the minority character Parker (who is black) and the women (Lambert and Ripley) live the longest". (Byers 1990:42)  However if we view the Alien films as a trilogy, then Mulvey's case holds ground, for in the final 'episode' the central female protagonist  is killed.  "Ripley...leaps over the edge in what is at once a utopian gesture of defiance and a recognition of the impossibility of freedom for women under patriarchy"  (Cook, no year given: xvii)  If we assume for a moment  the Marxist interpretation of dominant ideology, it  difficult for  a dominant class to accept the authority of a usually inferior class, therefore in Alien instead of placing resentment for Ripley's leadership onto other dominant characters, it is shown through  two working class men. As Creed states,   "Yet, despite her rank, the narrative makes certain that Ripley should still be seen to struggle to establish her authority with Ash in Alien, a struggle that reprises an earlier scene in which Parker and Brett drown out   her words with steam" (Tasker 1993:148) 
If we can conclude that castrating or phallic women are present within contemporary sci-fi, we can also conclude that dominant patriarchal beliefs in coherence with Freudian philosophy deem such power as not only fearful, but unnatural and unacceptable. Considering the popular images  of women as wife, mother or sexual object within established culture, it is possible to align these very traits to action heroines and illustrate how the female threat is not only neutralised, but how   in specific instances it is destroyed completely for the sake of natural order.


Occasionally sci-fi  attempts to show a utopian future, and  it is necessary to understand exactly whose utopia is being represented. This can be clearly illustrated in the case of American television series Star Trek, (ST) as it is a programme imbedded in the ideology of its creator Gene Roddenberry.  Yet whilst its racial integration and vision of a multi-cultural workforce became a prominent and popular basis for celebration, less issue was made over the topic of gender. 

"Star Trek's promise of a utopian society which draws on many traditions of a utopian fantasy in science fiction, a world of tremendous tolerance, of infinite diversity...and yet in a world which continually fell back on stereotypical treatment of race, gender and, increasingly, sexuality". (Jenkins. August 25th: BBC2)
Jenkin's argument is supported by Dr Elyce Rae Helford who states that the production of Star Trek by white middle class males, reflected their opinions of what a utopian society should be.
"So it is a utopia for yuppies, for mega corporate America, for the lovers of the military and folks who live that way. People who are satisfied with superficial tokenistic representations of gender equality, racial equality, multiculturalism". (Helford. August 25th: BBC 2)
So whilst Uhura was used to explore the issue of black rights, and Lieutenant Sulu the issue of multi-cultural integration, no female character was used as a narrative vehicle to explore the role of women within society nor within this promised utopia, unless they were to illustrate the objectification of women.  The two female characters, Chapel and Uhura, were placed in  'safe' roles as nurse and carer of the crew, and as  little more than a "glorified telephone operator who said over and over again 'frequencies are open, captain" (Jenkins. August 25th: BBC2)

Whilst Roddenbery saw some social issues (such as black civil rights) as a clear reason for reflection within the show, he paid little attention to the issue of equality. Even his wife Majel Barrett said that whilst Roddenberry wanted to portray women in a positive light, he could not help but also associate  strength with beauty. According to Star Trek's joint producer, Robert Justman, Roddenberry's idea of  improving a costume, was to "make it more revealing" (August 25th: BBC 2)

"There is something subversive about costumes which show the entire side of a women's body, or that show a cross-section of her breast, but not any parts that will get censored. Yet those are always done in the service of turning women into sexual objects". (Helford. August 25th: BBC2)
Despite the argument that the original ST was produced at a time of social upheaval in society, with women's liberation  gaining a foot hold, the argument cannot be sustained with the second series produced in the late 1980's, The Next Generation.  Despite equality being a politically correct term, little had changed on board the Enterprise.
"Both Dr Beverley Crusher  and Deanna Troi  in the series bible are described as 'walking with a natural poise of striptease artists' and I think that language evokes the ways in which Roddenberry saw women, as equals in mini-skirts" (Jenkins. August 25th: BBC2)
In his book Science Fiction Audiences, Jenkins also points out that a similar address was made to the character Yeoman Rand from the original series as having "a strip-queen figure even a uniform can't hide" (1995:199)  So  it can be said that only Roddenberry's (white, middle class American male) utopian ideal was presented. 

Countless times the original  Star Trek presented women preparing meals, nursing wounds, and falling in love with Kirk, thus placing them into a service for the male protagonists; or  they were killed when they showed affiliation to power.  His positioning illustrates the phrase used by Tasker that  "Weakness, vulnerability [is] expressed through the mobilisation of traits associated with femininity..." (1993: 17)

In 20th Century Fox's The X-Files, actress Gillian Anderson was clear in how the producers saw women. "They wanted a big breasted blonde. That's the only way they know how to market television and make money. Everytime I went in, they told me to wear tighter clothes, but I knew the character wasn't a bimbo and that's not who I am..." (Duncan, Radio Times 13-19 July: 14)

Thus as Roddenberry manipulated the image of women in Star Trek,  Gordon Howard of The X-Files attempted to do the same to the character Dana Scully for the sole purpose of creating a fetishised image for the male spectators. The Star Trek series is a prime example of how the requisition of male power is deemed as unsafe in female hands, and the consequence of female protagonists should they fail to obey natural order as illustrated by Mulvey. In the original ST, an episode intitled 'Turnabout Intruder' presented a doctor called Janice Lester who desires the power to control the ship, thus she wants to be Kirk, and subsequently takes over his body. Whilst Kirk is femininsed Lester says "Now you know the indignity of being  a woman" (Helford 1996:15)  implying that her own sexuality is inferior and that the only way a women can become a starfleet captain is to become a man. Whilst she is 'Kirk' she displays all the stereotypical characteristics of a woman, fussing with her hair, filling her nails, and being indecisive and irrational over commands.  "Once back in her own body, she is again a weak  female, and is led away sobbing. Kirk's only comment is that she had the chance to have   everything that a woman could have wanted, if only..." (Killick Starburst  Issue 12 :59) 

Broadening Freud's theory of male as active and female as passive, the theory that specific characteristic are inherent in specific sexes is a discernible way in which dominant ideology has sought to reduce the threat of these powerful women. As such, female protagonists are frequently seen as emotional, caring, sympathetic, an embodiment of all expected female traits. 

Much has been written by Newton and Kuhn concerning Ripley's hunt for the ships cat Jonesy at the end of Alien. They see this one action as the initial removal of Ripley's power that has slowly gained credit throughout the film.  Her insistent search for a cat, and the consequential pampering of the feline is seen to these critics, and indeed to most who have analysed the film, as a scene    that reassures the viewers, most importantly the males, that Ripley may be active, but above all  she is a woman and maternal.  Combine this image of nurturing, with the image of her undressing, the film not only permits a certain amount of voyeurism by the male spectator, but promotes in its entirely that woman is once again object. (1990)


"If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from have denied its spiritual equality and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship". (Guin 1989 : 85)
Frequently in sci-fi the mother figure is what Lacan classified as 'other', alien or for the purpose of this thesis, not male.  This may seem a harsh terminology, yet not only must we consider how female protagonists have been placed within the genre, but who they have been placed in relation to.  Lacan developed the theory of the 'mirror phase', in which he stated that the infant sees his or her reflection in the mirror and from then on views the rest of the world as a version of that image. If we consider that dominant patriarchy has constructed an overall mirror, then all images are seen in relation to that image, and image of normality that society has come to accept and adhere to. Any deviation away from that image results in the labelling that it is 'other'. As motherhood is one of the strongest mechanisms for an image of 'normality', films that specify motherhood as something different from the 'wholesome' American image specifically challenge  that notion of what is normal and what is a second possibility.   In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the citizens are enveloped during sleep, and emerge from pods; in Alien3 Ripley gives birth to an alien through her chest, one of the first times this type of birth through a female has  been seen in the trilogy. Similarly  in The Next Generation , Deanna Troi gives birth (after rape) to an alien child. The pregnancy lasts only 36 hours and the child grows from infant to young boy in a matter of days.  Thus in each case either the mother or the process is considered alien. 

However, it is necessary to consider the opinion of Karl French, who states that, 

"Every single individual, male or female, staggers out  from the shadow of a mother goddess. So  we are obsessed with the image of woman. I believe that woman  is not the victim of the universe in the normal feminist way, but the dominatrix of  the universe"  (1996: 38)  
As such it is possible to conclude that  motherhood has consistently   been  seen as 'alien' or dangerous within sci-fi because ideology  is unable to acknowledge motherhood as a more powerful union than masculinity.

Creed analyses the initial primitive birth scene of Alien, that being the exploration of the Nostromo. The birth of the crew is done with the absence of the father figure, thus imitating the parthenogenic birthing ritual of the alien creatures themselves, and simultaneously constructing  female reproduction in this film as alien or 'other'.  The second exploration results in  Kane's impregnation by an alien thus constructing a  male as mother, a biological state that cannot naturally be applied to humans, therefore at that point Kane is also 'Other'. Male and female differences are nulled  and the birth of the alien through a man is some kind of sci-fi "phallus dentatus" (Kavanagh 1990:76) 

If motherhood is not an option, then the female's action or motive is considered. A woman who kills, such as the beast in  the  recent film Species, or  the character B'Elanna in Star Trek: Voyager who is part Klingon, part  human, (the human part is attracted to Commander Chakotay, whilst the Klingon side is aggressive) are examples  that show female aggression is 'alien'. In  Alien3 Ripley is assumed as an 'other' more than ever before. Whilst she is not the embodiment  of an alien, her femaleness immediately determine her as an alien to the men.  " ...we tolerate everyone, even the intolerable". (Alien 3) Despite the men themselves being the  deviants from society, they consider themselves to be 'normal' and dominant on this planet, thus any  woman as 'other'. 


Mulvey concludes that films are rooted in fetishistic forms of looking and voyeurism, and as such the male  is the bearer of the look and the woman the object.  This is conclusively illustrated in the scene in Alien where Ash attacks Ripley, thrusting centrefold images down her throat, simultaneously instigating a sexual attack and illustrating the connection between pornography and rape, and implying that Ripley should be more like the women in the pictures. Similarly the alien simulates a sexual assault on the female victim Lambert. "...[it]  extends its insidiously telescoping jaws; slithers its tail up the leg of its fear paralysed female victim in a shot that visually and emotionally connotes rape as much as death". (Kavanagh 1990:76)    In The Next Generation episode 'Violations' Troi's attacker implies her body invites rape, "Why do you have to be so lovely, so nice", (Projanski 1996:38) and her gender is the reason for her impregnation in 'The Child'.  It is becoming apparent that objectification in contemporary sci-fi is no longer the innocent form of looking, but is becoming increasingly incarcerated in  performing some masochistic act.  If we consider the sci-fi fantasy film  Barbarella, the only way this character is seen is through the eye of fetishism and objectification. Whilst there has been no contemporary film that objectifies women as harshly as Barbarella, it is important to consider in its depiction of women in the 1960s.  Not only does the film begin with Barbarella doing a symbolic striptease act  by removing her space suit, but she submits to the advances of every male character, and allows various implements of supposed torture to be applied for the production of the audiences pleasure. The entire film is based on the male audience viewing Barbarella as an object for them to own.  This could be excused as simply a fantasy film reflecting a fetishists 1960s desires, however, many sci-fi films with only a nominal basis in sexual fantasy also construct the female characters as objects. Once again, we can apply this to Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi, bound and chained for most of the film.

Despite Ripley's alien presence in Alien 3, she becomes the object of desire for the doctor Clemens, with whom she initiates the sexual encounter. Yet this scene is deeply structured around the notion of woman as masculine.  Her head is shaven, she is bruised and scarred, and as Graham  suggests, a highly lesbianised image.  If we consider for a moment that her appearance  is constructing her as a man, then her encounter with Clemens is a homo-erotic one, Ripley being a totally asexual character.  As such  it can be contended that she is turned into an object of homosexual desire,  both from the point of the Clemens character, and for the spectators.What  is also important  is how this homosexual connotation is removed to a certain degree,  by ensuring that at no time whilst Ripley and Clemens sleep together is Ripley's shaven head visible, thus the spectators only see the female body, not the masculine implications."Her phallic-feminine sexuality is an 'impossible sign' (gender indeterminate) and cannot be shown" (Graham  1994:209)   Thus, Ripley's possible masculinity cannot be visualised whilst she is constructed as an object for males. 

Whilst female protagonists can be structured as objects of desire, as mothers and carers, as ''telephone operators', they can also be constructed as warriors. Yet this warrior image has consistently been aligned with masculine heroes such as Rambo.  Therefore whilst contemporary female protagonists are fighting as  main characters and taking control of the situation, are they  not constructed in such a way as to appear as a man, or as a woman trying to be a man?  If this  is so, then the idea that female characters are becoming stronger is of little consequence if the only way they can assert power is by assuming a masculine presence.
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