Here is my final research paper that I wrote for my Politics in Film class. Feel free to read, those who are not faint of heart. We had to include certain films from class and certain novels, so some of my choices were limited.
The science fiction genre has given much to how we enjoy our modern lifestyles. Such films as those included in the Star Trek franchise open up windows of opportunity for technologic advancements based on fiction to create our own modern day innovations. Such creativity has led the way to an easier, more enjoyable way of life. The genre has even laid claim to seemingly futuristic changes in our present society that can and have influenced our current world’s way of thinking. But what happens when the ideas range beyond technological considerations, futuristic fashion and campy alien costumes? Serious social and feminist commentary is found in such science fiction films as The Fifth Element, the Alien Quadrilogy, Signs, and Dr. Strangelove: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Is it possible for women’s roles in science fiction narrative to span further than these two precedent patterns: destructive other or sacred, life-giving heroine?
In the late 1970s, feminist authors found it simpler to introduce futuristic, non-patriarchal societies more effectively through the vehicle of science fiction literature. “In the early stages of second wave feminism, feminist science fiction was the most notable of the forms of popular fiction used to explore and purvey feminist arguments. It took what was seen as a masculine genre and transformed it by unsettling some of its most basic assumptions (Bonner).” Science fiction could be seen as a powerful, explorative tool to present new and changing roles for the present or near future, providing possibilities that could be applied to every day life. “As the American literary critic Sarah Lefanu writes, ‘By the feminist, socialist and radical politics of the day [they] embraced the radical and quite different political possibilities and limits of science fiction to advance feminist agendas concerning the impact of reproductive and other and new technologies. (Newell)’” Through an observation of both science and religion in the genre, we discover most women in science fiction fall prey to the role of “Divine Mother” (Torry 1) or “Destructive Other.” Minor female characters usually fill the roles of “love interests, nurses, counselors, and low –ranking officers (Smith 1).” However, in the chance that the female rises above adversity, she is usually left behind and becomes insignificant to the plot.
A prime example of the heroine or “Divine Mother” role is what has been projected for the survivors of the nuclear holocaust at the end of Dr. Strangelove. In a hushed, almost embarrassed tone, women are spoken about as sexual objects for entertainment purposes and the life-givers. Throughout the film itself, the men are much more confident and boisterous speaking about war terms and nuclear holocaust than about women, which is quite a satirical look at men’s roles in war-making versus love-making. In the end of the film, to men, women are simply the vehicles to produce the advancement of the human race. In addition to the Divine Mother role, the women in Dr. Strangelove can also be seen as Destructives and the basis for the fluoridation hysteria. Depending on the uses for women in society, whether it be plainly reproduction or simple entertainment, we can conclude that they are considered to be the life-givers for the human race, certainly a non-progressive look toward the future of science fiction.
An example of the opposite of the female Divine Mother role can be found in the pseudo-science fiction film Signs. Throughout the story, there is a lack of major, or strong, female characters, as it is a narrative about the central character Reverend Graham Hess. The theme of religion and lost faith does, however, revolve around a female: the Reverend’s wife, Colleen. The source of his disenchantment and lost faith lies in her tragic and sudden death. Her overall involvement in the plot is seen mostly in a negative light, as she takes away the source of the Reverend’s happiness. She causes him to fall out of faith and become hateful towards his religious foundations. However, in the film’s conclusion, the Reverend realizes his wife’s last words were a sign from above. This changes little about the fact his wife’s death set his emotional and spiritual well being on a path to destruction.
Alternatively, in the film The Fifth Element, we find most of the minor characters in the story are simply décor in an engaging, fantastically futuristic world. If they are feminine, they are unimportant to the plot, only displayed for male entertainment, or both. This unfortunately remains a true description for the central character, Leeloo as well. While she is supposedly the “Life-Giver,” the perfect last element of life in the story (to complete the five elements to save the world from its inherent doom), she is still smothered under the patriarchal role of “Woman: the Beautiful Object.” To create the perfect Hollywood ending, Leeloo and Dallas fall in love and become one.
This statement concludes that while The Fifth Element seems progressive in its attempts to incorporate an important central female protagonist, upon closer observation the viewer finds she has assumed the role as minor science fiction character to allow Dallas to take center stage. In the end, the plot extinguishes any of Leeloo’s further capability to develop more than the role of beautiful giver: love giver and life giver.
Upon first observation, the Alien films have seemingly broken the mold of man vs. beast. Instead, they startlingly present man vs. beast vs. woman. The men fall by the wayside as minor characters, and with this unique development presents the first film in the science fiction genre to utilize a strong and successful central female character. Lt. Ripley is not a love interest, nurse, or counselor. She is all of these things and is also faced with the dirty work of saving mankind on a regular basis throughout the four films. Therefore, Lt. Ripley can be seen as the Divine Mother, saving mankind from the savage, dangerous others of the aliens. However, Ripley’s character roles in the Alien films develop more deeply from merely just the Divine Mother as the quadrilogy continues.
By Alien 3, Ripley is discovered to be a different kind of female character new to science fiction, and takes on masculine physical traits. “The Female Man was so much stronger a statement, so very much more political and, in terms of narrative form, so very much less conventional. (Bonner 1).” After she happens to be impregnated by the alien, she transforms into a mixture of life-giver and the much-hated Destructive Other. “Once Alien 3 confesses the covert misogyny of the previous films, we are confronted with a spectacular irony: this woman is an intolerable monster, and she is also the protagonist, the hero, and the best of us all (Smith, 154).” Furthering this breakthrough role for women in science fiction, she ends the Alien franchise by choosing her own survival instead of attempting to save mankind and the patriarchal society yet again. She is a stark contrast to the roles for women as seen in Dr. Strangelove (though satirical); they are quite literally polar opposites. “She is the end of the human, a complex post-human female [capable] of choice and action (Smith, 197).” The end of Alien: Resurrection (and the franchise) relies heavily on the understanding that the future will only advance from Ripley, much like the Alien Queen’s ability to reproduce solely by her womb. Again, Ripley assumes both of the typical science fiction roles laid out for women simultaneously, thus reinforcing the theory that there is more for women in the genre than only life or only death. She differs from the characters in the other three films analyzed because she is the answer to the problem of modern science fiction gender roles: she is capable of both independent choice and imperative actions.
The central themes in the novel A Brave New World and 1984 correspond neatly with the arena of science fiction in cinema. Both novels create a futuristic image of absolute governmental control through these central themes. In a totalitarian state, there is a lack of personal choice. In the conclusion that gender roles in science fiction are determined by the idea of independent choice, Brave New World and 1984 seemingly encourage the idea that women are unable to achieve any sort of high or important status in these two narratives.
Beginning with the futuristic science fiction work Brave New World, we find that the central themes revolve around absolute governmental control through technologic advancement to pacify the population. By providing technology-aided comfort, the citizens are kept in a state of willingness to comply with anything the authorities instruct them to do by “providing artificial pleasures which dim the mind (Varricchio).” Throughout the book, the reader is immersed in this way of life in its futuristic world, including horrible, misogynistic means of population control. This interprets to punishing the women for having female reproductive organs and even goes so far to resort to sterilization of its female population through removal of the ovaries and forced usage of contraceptives, thus stripping a woman’s sacred right to choices regarding her body. This belittles the females in this futurist society as a whole by demoting them to the status of entertainment purposes only, much like the minor characters in The Fifth Element.
The conventional female character in the story is Lenina Crowne, the protagonist John’s relationship interest. She is described as “pneumatic,” being important for mostly physical features. Like most of the general population, she has been conditioned to only bond with a person through sexual activity. Although she has been trained and encouraged to engage in promiscuity by the State, she has the audacity to stay in a relationship with one person for months. This act illustrates that she is capable of her own choices. However, while John longs for a relationship with “old world values” such as love, she is disinterested and is unable to comprehend such a connection with another person on that particular level. This character flaw makes her appear childish, in that she is incapable to develop a mature relationship beyond her own selfish, physical needs. Therefore, Lenina fulfills the criteria for liberated choices, but does not contain the ability for change or positive, independent actions central to the plot.
Overall, Lenina Crowne is presented in the story as little more than a reckless, irresponsible individual through her display of rampant sexual awareness. She unfortunately shares the same central characteristic as Leeloo in The Fifth Element; she is little more than woman: the beautiful object. Because of her obvious link to John’s suicide, she can easily be classified as the Destructive Other; she is simply developed as a distracting opponent or hindrance to John’s rigid moral lifestyle. As a result, she directly causes a compromise in his values, therefore leading him to suffer his ultimate end.
Continuing the theme of the objectification of the beautiful women, Orwell introduces a similar character, Julia to the story 1984. Julia is the love interest of the story’s protagonist, Winston Smith. While she is acting on independent choices such as her small-scale rebellion against the Party through a relationship with Winston and independent thought crimes, her intentions differ from the seemingly nobler causes of her other. Her choices are made for her own personal gain and pleasure, not for a greater good, as how Winston’s appear. Julia is recorded as a simple, doting figure and placed into the story as little more than the pleasure giver and rebellion vehicle of the protagonist.
One example of Julia’s supporting role in 1984 is evident in the scene where she and Winston are engaging in sexual behavior forbidden to them by the Party. The room is under surveillance, and the authorities quickly take the couple away. The paperweight, representing Winston’s private life, falls to the floor in a dramatic, shattered end (Dickstein). Is this ultimate destruction the result of Julia’s influence over Winston? Because Winston’s purposes for his rebellion are purely political (on a larger, more critical scale, thus appearing more just), they seem to overshadow Julia’s smaller scale reasons for mutiny, thus belittling her intentions, virtues and overall character. Is Julia to be equated with the Biblical Eve, seducing Winston into blatant wrongdoing against the Party and against his set intentions, ultimately leading to his own downfall? This certainly can make her play the role of Winston’s Destructive Other, as they are mostly oppositional in their beliefs about their reasons for rebellion. Julia and Winston connect only on the general political front that they both wish to escape the Party, but connect through little else beyond physical attraction.
Conclusively, the examples of science fiction media presented reinforce the statement that authors cannot appear to create female characters that overcome the set roles in the patriarchal societies into which they are born. With the exception of the characterization of Lt. Ripley, all the females analyzed can be grouped into either the bringer of destruction or downfall, or the giver of life and aid to the (male) protagonist. To become a member of both groups creates a fascinating new juxtaposition in literature: a female capable of self-sustaining choices and actions that move the story in a forward direction without compromising the importance of her character’s development.
With an increase in gender-sensitive science fiction, we can only anticipate that authors will create new landscapes with entirely unique means of addressing leadership through thoughtful narrative. Creating a world in which characters live in a society that is either black or white (patriarchal or matriarchal) seems to stifle the creator’s ability to access the possibilities of generating innovative and engaging, forward-thinking titles. Perhaps the future of science fiction literature lies in the delicate gender balance that we have not seen in any recent titles, nor set into action in our current society. Technological advancement is imperative to keeping the genre current, but the real advancement begins intellectually with equality and tolerance. Conceivably, this is the subject matter that will help improve the possibility of a fascinating future in which others will be inspired to write.
Alien 3. Dir. David Fincher. Perfs. Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dutton. Film. 20th Century Fox, 1992.
Aoki, Eric and Ott, Brian L. “Counter-Imagination as Interpretive Practice: Futuristic
Bonner, Frances. “From ‘The Female Man’ to the ‘Virtual Girl’: Whatever Happened to Feminist Science Fiction?.” Hecate 22.n1 (May 1996): 104(16). InfoTrac OneFile. Thomson Gale. University of Central Florida Z3950. 3 Dec. 2006
C., Ximena Gallardo and Smith, Jason C. Alien Woman: The Making of Lt. Ellen Ripley. New York: Continuum, 2004.
Dickstein, Morris. “Hope Against Hope: Orwell’s Posthumous Novel.” The American Scholar 73.2 (2004):101-112. InfoTrac OneFile. Thomson Gale. University of Central Florida Z3950. 3 Dec. 2006.
Dr. Strangelove: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perfs. Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden. Film. Columbia Pictures, 1964.
Fifth Element, The. Dir. Luc Besson. Perfs. Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich. Film. Gaumont Pictures, 1997.
Higdon, David Leon. “The provocations of Lenina in Huxley’s Brave New World. (how Aldous Huxley’s misogyny affects characterization)(Critical Essay).” International Fiction Review 29.1-2 (Jan 2002): 78(6). InfoTrac OneFile. Thomson Gale. University of Central Florida. 3 Dec. 2006.
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper Collins, 1998.
Newell, Dianne. “Judith Merril and Rachel Carson: reflections on their “potent fictions” of science.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 5.4 (May 15, 2004): 31. InfoTrac OneFile. Thomson Gale. University of Central Florida Z3950. 4 Dec. 2006.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet, 1981.
Signs. Dir. M. Night Shyamalan. Perfs. Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix. Film. Touchstone Pictures, 2002.
Torry, Robert. “Awakening to the other: Feminism and the ego-ideal Alien.” Women’s Studies 23.4 (1994): 343-364. EBSCO Host. University of Central Florida. 4 Dec 2006.
I got an A in the class! 🙂