Lost in space
Was Uhura a spaceship's officer or a 23rd-century switchboard operator? The pop-culture portrayal of women in space - grounded in suburban homes but capable of crossing the galaxy in the blink of an eye - is perplexing, writes
IN NOVEMBER 1968, several months before a global audience watched Neil Armstrong make his small step and giant leap, outer space was the site of another charged, and apparently seminal, moment. Although the intimate encounter shared by Capt James T Kirk and Lieut Uhura in the Star Trek episode Plato's Stepchildren was not quite the first interracial kiss shown on American television, it continues to be popularly celebrated as such.
Its iconic status helped to cement Star Trek's reputation, deserved or not, as a show driven by liberal and trailblazing attitudes to race and gender.
Yet for all the perceived progressiveness of a show in which a bridge officer could be both female and black, Uhura's role aboard the USS Enterprise was primarily limited to sending and receiving messages on behalf of invariably male superiors.
In professional terms she was little more than a glorified 23rd-century switchboard operator, an occupation that a 1960s audience would have readily recognised as a woman's domain.
In a new book, Space Oddities: Women and Outer Space in Popular Film and Culture, 1960-2000, Marie Lathers writes about the way American popular culture has struggled to overcome anxieties about, and outright hostility to, the idea of women in space. Launching women into this new frontier was, Lathers suggests, relatively unproblematic, at least in a fictional setting. Knowing what to do with them when they got out there, on the other hand, was another issue.
In early science fiction, Lathers says, "space women" were routinely depicted as "human secretaries and assistants who cater to men's needs on the spacecraft". If a function of science fiction is to imagine other possible futures and other ways of social organisation, then film and television have frequently been unimaginative and hidebound in this regard, consistently failing to see beyond contemporary gender realities. As Lather demonstrates, fictional space women have traditionally been excluded from areas of command and control, confined instead to positions of caregivers, administrators and mediators - or, as was the case in 2001: A Space Odyssey, futuristic Pan Am cabin crew.
The ostensibly progressive Star Trek: The Next Generation famously, or infamously, dramatised this traditional dynamic. To the right of Patrick Stewart's cerebral Capt Jean-Luc Picard sat First Officer Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes), a rugged, square-jawed man of action in the Kirk mould. To Picard's left was the ship's counsellor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), a character who, initially at least, was asked to do little other than express bottomless empathy and compassion, spout psychobabble and look good in a figurehugging bodysuit.
GIVEN THE cross-pollination that occurred between Nasa's real-life space programme and the shows and films that it inspired, and that inspired it, Lathers's discussion of the actual history of women in space is fascinating and relevant. What comes through loud and clear from the quotes Lathers lifts from a 1962 House of Representatives hearing on the issue of gender discrimination in Nasa is a profound discomfort with women's issues. Menstruation, in particular, appears to have dominated the thoughts of Nasa's menfolk, as both an engineering problem (in terms of waste disposal) and an unmentionable embarrassment.
This focus on the female body and its problematic functions has contributed to what Lathers calls grounding women. By that she means the process by which "women are encouraged to stay grounded: on earth, in the home, in the kitchen". Underpinning this process, she suggests, are entrenched notions in western culture that have traditionally "aligned men with the cerebral and the spiritual", with women "pegged as necessary to the very concept of earth as home, as site of birth and death, of growth and decay - as site of the body".
But one 1960s phenomenon married the character of the grounded woman with the realms of space and fantasy: namely, what Lynn Spigel has called the fantastic family sitcom. Shows such as My Favourite Martian, Bewitched and even Mr Ed articulated a facade of suburban banality behind which teemed a secret world of witchcraft-practising housewives and fantasist males who took refuge in sheds and barns and conversed with talking horses.
Most pertinent of all such sitcoms was I Dream of Jeannie, in which Barbara Eden's Jeannie (an ancient Persian genie) lives with a Nasa astronaut, Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman). Jeannie is simultaneously an extreme spin on the figure of the subservient wife (she refers to Nelson as Master) and a being of almost limitless power. She is both grounded in Tony's suburban home and capable of voyaging into space in the blink of an eye. As Lathers says, I Dream of Jeannie was "an ingenious expression of two dreams cherished by American post-war culture: the dream of going boldly into space and the dream of staying safely at home". It was, she adds, unsurprising "that these dreams were divided along gender lines".
Staying very safely at home were the astronauts' wives of nostalgic 1980s and 1990s films such as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. These grounded women were, as Lathers puts it, "Jeannie without the powers". Although fictional representations of them have tended to focus on their faith and faithfulness, on how they functioned as earthbound anchors dragging their men back from space through force of love and will, the reality of their lives was often quite different. The pressure to be perfect frequently led, Lather shows, to anxiety and depression born out of the realisation that their chief role was to be bland and supportive, and not to get divorced (knowing divorce would harm their husbands' chances of space travel).
While recent years have seen the rise of more progressive depictions of "space women", in shows such as the reimagined Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, the full separation of fictional or futuristic women from the restrictive pull of traditional realities remains, in Lathers words, "a problem deferred".
Star gender wars: What sci-fi tells us about parenthood
'Alien' and 'Aliens'
Ridley Scott's landmark 1979 film Alien has been rightfully celebrated for its depiction of a female astronaut who was largely unrestricted by traditional ideologies of gender.
Critics have, of course, also had a field day dissecting HR Giger's phallic and vaginal designs, not to mention the horror of male pregnancy.
In James Cameron's 1986 sequel, however, the human/alien conflict has become a symbolic fight between two mothers, Ripley and the Alien queen.
Ripley's grief for her lost daughter (a scene cut from the film's theatrical release) makes her battle for the orphaned Newt a quest to reclaim her own motherhood.
It is a move that either develops the character or regressively burdens her with traditional gender expectations, depending on your point of view.
Robert Zemeckis's 1997 adaptation of Carl Sagan's 1985 novel is as far removed from the universe of Alien and Aliens as one could imagine. Though a woman, Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster), is chosen to pilot an experimental spacecraft, based on
designs extracted from an intercepted alien signal, it remains unclear whether she has actually left Earth and made contact with alien life.
Has she met an alien who takes the form of her dead father? Was the experience spiritual or actual? Can female astronauts ever be allowed to unproblematically leave Earth?
Such complexities rarely trouble their male counterparts in cinematic science fiction.