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.