film can make visible what is invisible


I believe I mentioned that it was in all likelihood that my experiences of science-fiction for the Sci Fi Experience 2011 would occur through film or television. In a preparatory manner, I pulled the Cinema oriented textbooks/guides I had from University off the shelves and followed all the index entries on “science fiction.”

Susan Hayward’s Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, 3rd Edition (Routledge, 2006) was easily the most provocative.

Hayward begins by pointing out the difficulties of categorizing genres, particularly science fiction. It seems to depend on the culture as to whether it is a sub-genre to horror, sub-genre of fantasy, or a genre of its own.

Next it is a travel through time, beginning with the literary sires Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. “Film, in so far as it can make visible what is invisible, seems a natural medium for this kind of narrative” (336). Yet it took time for science fiction to take hold in the film industry.

Hayward makes an observance of the newly forming film genre:

“Apart from [Georges] Méliès’ work, which was very loosely based on Verne’s writing, films in this genre have tended to be grounded more in the Wellsian fear of science outstripping our understanding and taking us over. Science-fiction films produce a futuristic vision where we are no longer in control of what we have created (this curiously assumes that we currently do control science). This genre relies on the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief and does so by playing on our fears of science. The few science-fiction films made before 1950 tended to focus on technology as the science-demon that would destroy humanity.” (337)

Alongside the historical highlights, cultural remarks are made, illuminating influences on the industry and the narratives. For instance, The 1950s were when Hollywood identified science fiction as a genre, not seeing enough in production to this point to give it distinction. “After 1950 the trend was for humanity to be at risk from alien intruders that either invaded the earth or caught up with humans in outer space in a spacecraft or on an alien planet (upon which the humans unquestioningly had the greater right to be, it would appear)” (337). The Cold War period proved perfect fodder for the genre.

“’Reds under the bed’, McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s witch-hunt of supposed communists, the threat of the nuclear deterrent (albeit only the Americans ever used it, in WWII against Japan: Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the threat of fear of totalitarian regimes—all of these elements fed into the American political culture of the 1950s and found a steady reflection in contemporary film production.” (337)

Hayward moves to how “the American paranoia and neurosis at alien threats (real or imagined) was differently expressed in Britain during the 1960s” (337). Looking at the films The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961, Val Guest) and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Hayward reads the fears of a nation stuck between two super powers armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Hayward moves through history and the genre up to just prior the publication date 2006: “By the turn of the century and into the new millennium sci –fi seems to be solidly embedded in the technics of fear. We are now in an age of genetic engineering, ecological destruction, and formally labeled ‘weapons of mass destruction’. […] the enemy is invisible, possibly even virtual” (340).

Hayward’s concluding paragraph, in which she also breaks science-fiction film into three main categories:

“The science-fiction film, then, is politically motivated but for the most part not in a challenging sense. In general, the genre functions to assert the status quo (destroying the enemy, getting home to safety, etc.). Its ideological effects are mostly (albeit not exclusively) hegemonic. Sadly, because technology should be questioned and attitudes to outsiders should come under scrutiny. But this is rare, as a quick gloss over the three main categories of films discussed below will show. The three types within this genre are: space-flight, alien invaders, futuristic societies. [Fritz] Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is the prototype of this last category. But it also set the agenda for a critique of futuristic urban spaces by challenging the 1920s modernist belief in technological progress as a source of social change—a challenge still apparent in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997). Space-flight films, on the other hand, have traditionally devoted more energy to exposing the virtuosities of film technology and as such have functioned as a vehicle for prowess (in real terms for the film industry, and metaphorically for the space industry) until the arrival of [Stanley] Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001, which placed grave question marks on man’s faith in and assumed superiority over technology. Finally, alien invader films, because they are probably the most prolific of the three categories and, arguably, the most conservative—in that they point at otherness as threatening to life and/or social mores—represent the most ‘worrying’ category of all with their innate potential for misogyny, racism and nationalistic chauvinism.” (342).

Hayward spends a reasonable amount of time arguing her point on the last category. Star Wars didn’t fare well under her scrutiny: “Sadly technophilia failed to disguise a very passé indulgence in comic-book adventure-culture and a deep nostalgia for boys-own stuff—and with it a return to a far more misogynistic worldview”(339).

The read is fascinating. Alongside Hayward’s cultural read of the history of the genre, her feminist perspective is thought-provoking, and explains much of the tone of disdain toward the genre.

“For all its appearance of promoting woman, this Alien quadrology ultimately, in a backlash way, addresses the effects of feminism on patriarchy and male sexuality. Thus, rather than a political culture feeling under threat (as in the 1950s), it is now (White) male sexual culture that feels threatened. […] Although this is not the first series of science-fiction films to attract feminist critics to the genre, it sums up why this genre is of interest to them: because it shows the danger of science and technology, explores the underlying social anxieties regarding experiments in reproduction technology, and the ideological effects of this genre which often construct female sexuality as monstrous.” (339-40).

“Mistrust of the female has shifted little over time. What, in the final analysis, separates the projection of female barrenness (intellectual and sexual) through the evil robot Maria in Metropolis from the drive to rid the world of the need for the womb as exemplified by The Matrix and many other films that precede it? We could cite the numerous cross-genetic nasties and womb fantasies made by David Cronenberg (The Brood, 1979; The Fly, 1986; Dead Ringers, 1988) amongst just so many others that wish eternally for the womb to remain absent (Jurassic Park, Spielberg, 1993; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Branagh, 1994). Curiously, too, we have come back to robots—but this time to boy robots (and not just the ‘boy’ robot Schwartzenegger of the Terminator series). We have the boy robot of Spielberg’s A.I. (2001) who rivals the real boy for the love of his mother—and guess what, for a while he wins. What do we make of a mother who bonds with the robot-child whilst her own son is temporarily put on ice (literally in the hope that a cure can be found for his congenital disease)? Here the robot exposes just how untrustworthy a mother can be.” (341).

Hayward makes me curious about the fears we harbor…

John Belton does not undermine Hayward in American Cinema/ American Culture, 3rd Edition (McGraw-Hill, 2009), but his critical approach differs in how he addresses the manifestation of our fears in science fiction films. I will post on this soon.

Meanwhile: A few of the Questions that come to mind after the reading:

A: Is it that women pick up on their extermination the reason why relatively few women are credited fans of the genre? Who wants to watch a film in which your “sexuality is monstrous?” (This question would naturally exclude women are conscious proponents of Patriarchy.)

B: Not having watched (or read) a great deal of sci-fi, is Hayward exaggerating the space invader films’ “innate potential for misogyny, racism and nationalistic chauvinism?”

C: I had just watched Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopian science fiction Children of Men (2006). I was thinking how Children of Men might return the value of the female and her womb to science fiction? Acknowledging Man and Technologies failure to supplant Nature; in their bid for domination destroying themselves? In the end, Theo (Clive Owen) as an Adam figure sacrificing himself for the sake of Eve?… [more on this as a post is in the works.]

D: Children of Men is set in Britain and directed by a Mexican. What current differences do you see in science fiction coming out of Britain, France, the U.S., Japan, etc.; most especially in relation to the U.S.?

E: Has anything changed since the 2006 publication date that might convince Hayward that science fiction might be a genre she would no longer see as a stronghold for misogynistic, racist, and nationalistic chauvinism?

F: How much do her readings of the films correlate to the literary genre? For instance, to read Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is not necessarily to read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)—something I plan to compare very soon. Would Hayward see notable differences?


I do not automatically view fans of science-fiction as misogynistic, racist, or nationally chauvinistic; nor have I found all to be so.

Also, I don’t intend to be argumentative (this time)…looking for thoughtful, not defensive or attacking.

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Very intriguing. I don’t guess I’ve ever really thought about the genre being intentionally (or unintentionally) “misogynistic, racist, or nationally chauvinistic,” thought upon closer examination, I can certainly see an argument for it.

    Still, to me it seems that genre fiction, especially SFF, has changed a lot since 2006. Sure, there’s still plenty of pulp crap targeted at a) teenage boys looking for cleavage and flesh, b) teenage girls and their insatiable appetites for dark-but-dreamy vampires/paranormal things, and c) see a & b. These, of course, aren’t the only things like this, and I believe that there’s a supply/demand relationship for practically any genre and its subsequent flaws.

    But I think the author takes it too far to imply the entire genre is this way. Just like not all Christians are bible-thumping haters, not all SFF fits into her claims.

    This post requires further pondering. Great post, though.

    1. L says:

      i agree, about the supply/demand aspect. “b” had me laughing out loud.

      Hayward highlights a few films she saw as making positive moves within the genre, to actually challenge the “status quo” … perhaps she harbors hopes for a genre who has differing goals from her own.

      just the same, her perspective is one that suddenly struck me, reviewing the films I’ve seen, that have especially predated 2006; while I had considered the racism discussion in SF, I hadn’t applied much thought to misogynistic aspects, I tend to hone in on those with other genres.
      I think she provides a thought-provoking approach to watching a SF film, but you are right that it would be dangerous to use the same wide brush she has used with the genre.

      thanks for weighing in…

  2. Carl V. says:

    One could argue right from the start that anything I have to say is invalid, given my sex. But…that won’t stop me from commenting all the same.

    It is hard to have a thoroughly reliable viewpoint of the book given that I haven’t read it and only have your quotes to go on. And while I won’t argue that some of what she says “could” be valid, it seems to me to be a fairly limited view of the genre as a whole.

    I tend to become uncomfortable when anyone takes an authoritarian viewpoint of what an artist intended in their creation, most especially when it comes to books and film. I often think that authors and film makers, especially those who have passed on, would be amused at the least, if not horrified, by the meanings we sometimes attribute to their work. But that is part of the fun of reading books and watching films. We each get so many different things out of them, and it is very one-sided to assume that because one could draw negative conclusions from SF that this was the author/film maker’s intent.

    Secondly I cannot help but wonder if she has forgotten what it is like to be entertained. So much of science fiction and film, especially earlier work, is about ideas and a sense of wonder. You can look all over and find people (men AND women) who took inspiration from SF books and film, to create a lot of the science, technology, etc. that we enjoy today. Those folks did not watch film X or read book Y and write it off as promoting some negative viewpoint, irregardless of whether or not they also saw that. They experienced something so much more.

    It also frustrates me when a specific thing is chosen, in this case sf, and it is held up to this rigorous examination without looking at the world around it at the time. There is no “excuse” for women to take a lesser, more subservient role in the science fiction literature of the 50’s per se. But it was that way in every part of life, not just SF. Was it right? Absolutely not. Should SF have been more forward thinking when it came to predicted how women would be viewed in the future? Absolutely, and some did, but even that which did not shouldn’t be simply case aside as “misogynist, racist, and nationally chauvinistic” (although sometimes I think “nationalism” gets a bad rap in this PC world in which we live).

    Personally I prefer the opinion of critics, reviewers, historians, who have equal amounts of passion for what they are critiquing and objectivity enough to point out its flaws. And again, I didn’t read this book. Hayward could profess a great love for the genre and I would probably think differently about what she had to say in regards to her more harsh, negative opinions.

    As for SF today, I think it still has a long way to go as far as equitable treatment towards women, other cultures, etc. But so does every form of entertainment, literature, etc. Great strides have been made, but there is a long way to go. And there are a number of men and women who are writing great science fiction and filming great science fiction today. Would these last 4 years change her opinion? I doubt it, as she seems pretty set in her opinions.

    As for me, I’m just happy that I can enjoy the genre without all the baggage.

    1. L says:

      Hayward’s take on Sci Fi is a 6 1/2 page entry (“Science Fiction Films)” in a ‘Cinema Studies’ book. She was headed towards a dangerously succinct style, addressing a less common perspective when discussing the genre.

      I agree with your perspective of why would Sci Fi escape certain world views when every genre in the same era contained the same traits. and that we don’t have to like it. Still, I would hope it could outpace other genres, seeing as in Film it comes across as increasingly accessible to wider audiences (especially today).

      you are also right that we must be careful in how confidently we would attribute intentions by the author/director… except maybe during McCarthyism and the House of Un-American Activities Committee when very few in Hollywood would dare subversive messages, and propaganda-filled films were practically commissioned.

      “So much of science fiction and film, especially earlier work, is about ideas and a sense of wonder. You can look all over and find people (men AND women) who took inspiration from SF books and film, to create a lot of the science, technology, etc. that we enjoy today” John Belton in my textbook on American Culture/ American Cinema speaks to this. Will have to post his remarks sooner than later. He marvels as someone who loves and appreciates the genre. I think he would be the critic you referenced, who is not already set to be hostile, yet is objective. who can talk about the cultural implications and the sheer entertainment value equally.

    2. L says:

      …wanted to thank you for your comments. i appreciate your thoughts.

  3. Carl V. says:

    One of the things I dislike about this method of communication is the inability to adequately express tone, mood, etc. I hope I didn’t come off as snarky, as that wasn’t my intention. I value other people’s opinions, even when they are different from my own, but I tend to get a bit frustrated when someone’s opinions appear to be dismissive of an entire group of people, a genre, a medium of expression, etc. And again, I didn’t read the book so I can’t really have a well-formed opinion of Hayward’s viewpoint.

    And of course some of the things she appears to criticize are aspects of SF that I enjoy, for instance the whole Cold War fear and paranoia thing. I like reading work written in the Cold War era as I think many authors were consciously addressing issues in their works. I think science fiction and fantasy are often seen, or at least were, as more acceptable venues in which to work out these fears, point them out in a way that was not controversial but was instead thought-provoking. I think the fears people had then were very legitimate. Heck, I grew up at the end of the Cold War era and I remember being afraid that any day the U.S.S.R. would launch missiles at us and that would be that. Reading work written during that time is intriguing to me as it not only causes me to examine my own childhood, but it is darn entertaining. It was an interesting time in history and I think sf written during that time reflects that.I see that as a strength of the genre, not a weakness.

    1. L says:

      i think you came across fine.

      You have 10 years on me, but I remember Red Dawn being on regular rotation (along with Lady Hawk) — ah, older brothers. And then my dad with his espionage films…and Night Crossing (1982) is fairly imprinted… and that was toward the end…

      SF continues and ever was a great venue in which to express and explore our fears. indeed it is a strength of the genre to create entertaining and thought-provoking context in which we can work through our fears, and to not merely validate them?.

      You reference the writing, and I am curious if the authors were saying anything different in their writing versus what the film makers were saying in film. (The film industry is limited by the market and time, and are not as prolific, or expansive.) If so, in what ways?

      1. Carl V. says:

        So you are saying I’m old then? 😉 Ha! I feel it some days.

        I would agree that more can, and often is, said in a book vs. a film because of the constraints you mention. Then again, a good writer, director, etc. can tell a really powerful story within those limitations. Perhaps one way the film industry is limited is in pandering to a certain age group with science fiction films in having to ensure a certain amount of action vs. dialogue, idea-exploration, etc. to ensure (in their minds, and sometimes in reality) a financial success. Now I am not complaining. I like action as much as the next guy. But it is somewhat telling that my favorite science fiction film of the last few years is very short on action. “Moon”. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

        It isn’t that books get away with not having to fulfill expectations, but books don’t seem to have the same outward financial pressure to have an explosion every X number of pages, etc. to make them engaging for the reader.

        As for whether they are saying anything different, I would suspect you could find films and books during whatever time period which were at least attempting to speak to the same issues. And, as I mentioned in my first comment, Hayward points out some valid criticisms that can be seen in these films, if you are looking for them. Whether or not that was the film maker’s intention is where she and I don’t see eye to eye.

        I think you mentioned something in your post about reading Minority Report and watching the film version…or was it Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream? Either way, I wanted to mention that a few years back I did just that. I read each story and then watched, or in this case re-watched, each film to compare and contrast them. It was a great deal of fun and I highly recommend it.

  4. ibeeeg says:

    I find the thoughts on women and their role in sci-fi to be rather interesting.

    Your first question, I will tell you…I did not stay away from sci-fi due to picking up on the extermination of women or the whole “sexuality is monstrous”.
    Frankly, I don’t buy into all that. Sure, I see where those thoughts could come from with my limited sci-fi experience, but to take offense to it and make it more than maybe what the author/writer intended is not something that I naturally lean towards. Besides, we are talking about fiction which means the story is not real. Do I like mistreatment, misrepresentation, etc of women? No, I do not, but I do not apply something I see from one author to the whole genre…or even from several authors in one genre. Besides that, the roles of women also depend on the story itself.
    I also don’t buy into the whole “innate potential for misogyny, racism and nationalistic chauvinism?” Personally, I think women can make things far more an issue that it truly is, or read into intents incorrectly. Again, this is all fiction.

    While I can see Hayward’s argument, I think there is a huge danger in generalizing. Can there be improvements across the board in all areas of life with how women are viewed? Certainly…take a look at all the other genres and even at tv commercials especially the ones shown during a sporting event or on a sports channel.

    You say that you are curious about the fears we harbor. Let me ask you, do you believe that the sci-fi genre can make women’s sexuality monstrous? If so, or even if not, what fears do think that harbors? I am curious.

    Yet another interesting post. You really get me thinking about things L. Thanks for that.

    1. L says:

      fiction is incredibly influential, ideas are explored and disseminated in the form, primarily because it is a comfortable venue in which to do so. the fact that certain Truths in a text resonate, that we use Reliable/Believable in our critiques (among other things) suggest a fiction’s influential weight…

      picture books and fables and tales carry morals and we use them as teaching tools; especially the behavioral lessons. we want our children to read books that relay a message of tolerance over racism. we would do the same with a film. some messages are more encoded.
      because certain things reflect predominant cultural values, they are reaffirmed and we are not alerted. If a particular value changes we notice and are alerted in re-viewing something. Like those middle-grade books from your past that you re-read with your child and go, holy crap, that child is a terror, “don’t get any ideas, child.” Or watching Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider (this time as an ‘educated’ adult) and go “Did he just rape her?” and the older person in the room replying “she was asking for it.”
      Screen and text (fiction or non) can be/is encoded to speak to us. messages can be sent consciously or subconsciously by their creators. N is being taught critical thought (in school) when it comes to the Media, because of the known ability for it to influence–which is often conscious on the part of the creator. However I do agree that there is a danger in confidently identifying the probable subconscious messages from the creator (and it usually takes a corpus of their work).

      I don’t think any genre escapes a certain level of criticism. I do agree that criticisms can be unfairly applied. Like you, I wouldn’t take her at her word, but her accusations are on my radar. I do think any genre, and sci fi included, can make female sexuality monstrous. That female sexuality has been portrayed as monstrous is old; the fear is old; “vaginal dentata”, fear of having sex with strange women; the amazons, fear of castration (metaphorically) by strong females, being supplanted, fears of emasculation, fears of immortality (mortality stemming from the womb/grave, woman as a mortal vessel vs. tech or supernatural origins).

      Why shouldn’t these fears find a venue for exploration alongside the many other fears Humans (male or female) harbor. But when we allow our fears to oppress or exterminate another gender or race or lifestyle…
      Reflecting our fears is reaffirming and validating, but when those that would challenge our fears are absent/not allowed expression, too, we are in trouble. I think this is the worry Hayward was expressing. That perhaps SF (in her estimation) doesn’t provide enough of a challenging counter-weight in film. whether her conclusion is fair or not is another matter.

      you are right, generalizing is terribly dangerous; especially with such and expansive genre. I like case by case examples, too.

      thanks as ever for commenting here…i appreciate your thoughts on things, and the questions you pose… i like the dialogue with mutual curious minds.

      1. ibeeeg says:

        You are very right in that literature is used as a teaching tool for children. I agree, we want messages to relay our beliefs; tolerance over racism, etc. Film needs to be kept in mind too, maybe even more so because of the quickness a moral stand or lack thereof is being flung out at the child, and the fact that visual aides (films) seem to stick in ones mind much longer.

        Your comment brought to mind fairy tales, and nursery rhymes that we have all grown up hearing. They are not rated G stuff…not really. Much occurs during those tales, and not all pleasant stuff. I think though, that fairy tales were created in a time that children did face day to day life horrors, and maybe in a way the fairy tales helped. Whereas, our children, in this day live a shelter life in comparison. When I look at literature, that is what I try to keep in mind…the time-frame from when the story was written. Film is a bit different because it is a realitivly new media. Sci-fi, well…that stuff, for the most part, is out of this world to begin with…very unreal stuff, bizarre, amazing creativity on the author’s part if done in a plausible fashion. I wonder, how much of sci-fi does influence our society in the way we think of others (race, and sex)?

        I suppose, really, what needs to also be kept in mind is the overall effect too… “That perhaps SF (in her estimation) doesn’t provide enough of a challenging counter-weight in film.” Maybe, the counter-weight effect helps to set a better tone for what is ingrained into the minds of those who mostly read a certain genre or film type.

        Believe me, I am not disagreeing with your thoughts. I am certain I agree with your thought that we must keep in mind the influence of literature/film(subconscious or otherwise). I just think we need to be cautious in how readily we are in flinging out generalizations (which I don’t think you are doing) and of the prespective the critic themselves are coming from too…not just the writer then. I am much more comfortable with case by case examples instead of an overall example…that is true for all areas in life too. Although, “watch-dog” type of stuff can go a long way with stopping the saturations of a negative situation into the society…but then, who is to say truly what the overall morals of a society is? That is another area which I think is tricky. And, I do believe I have gone way off base from the intent of your original post.

        By the way, I am about ready to read a sci-fi book and a few short stories. I am certainly going to keep these posts of yours in mind while reading. Granted, and possibly interesting, most of what I will be reading are written by women. Also, I have plans to read one sci-fi book per month this year. I think it will be interesting to see if my thoughts on this change at all, or if I will have a stronger and maybe weaker response. Again though, the books will be written by women (book club I am participating in is focusing on women authors).

        1. L says:

          a female authors take on sci fi sounds interesting, would be curious about the age of the authors and who they list as their influences, etc. in what ways might they differ (thematically, characterization–do they just reverse the gender roles?)…

          hope you’ll be sharing your reads on your blog…and that the experience will be a good one.

          sci fi is a genre (especially literature-wise) with which I have limited experience. I hope to change that and your goal of at least one sci fi a month sounds like a good one. look forward to any reads you might send my way.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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