Gravity is one more way to keep women in their place

December 21, 2001

To challenge traditional interpretations of gender, we need to follow women into outer space, argues Marie Lathers.

At the close of the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien , Ripley dons an astronaut's suit as she prepares for her escape in a space shuttle from the cargo craft Nostromo and, she believes, the alien. But before dressing, she must undress. As Ripley removes her clothes, the camera zooms in on her backside and the viewer catches a glimpse of her panties and, as she leans over away from us, the crack between her buttocks. Someone else is watching too: the alien, hidden in the control panels of the shuttle. The spectator's gaze is thus aligned with that of the alien as both participate in a voyeuristic scene that returns gender to the world of space. Until this final scene, Ripley has been degendered to a large extent, although there are hints at her feminine self to be found before the end of the film - in particular her bond with a domestic cat. It is only, however, at the end that this strong and intelligent sole survivor of the alien's violent rampage is clearly labelled as a woman.

Over the past 15 years, feminist theory has pondered the category "women" - how it has been constructed in history, how it may be salvaged from a seemingly intractable essentialism, and how it may be expanded to include previously neglected or marginalised groups, such as African-American, lesbian, transgender, working-class and third-world women. The relationship of the category to the western notion of universalism is a continuing and vexing problem. Can "women" be a universal, or is this category a spurious, even pernicious one that requires our continual vigilance?

Cultural critics have done much to expand our categories of being to include species other than humans. Indeed, both ecofeminism and what we might call feminist primatology propose the interrelation of the human and animal, especially the special bond of primates, great apes in particular, and humans. Speciesism has been identified as an "ism" with ties to sexism, racism and heterosexism. The environment, the Earth, is viewed as the stage on which these oppressions occur - the stage on which gender and race are constructed. A next step for feminism might be to extend the categories of identity to outer space, to leave the Earth and consider how speciesism (in the form of "extraterrestrialism"), sexism, racism, and heterosexism might function in outer space.

Is gender a "universal" category in that it is found throughout the universe? Can it be reshaped by the presence of women in space, as real-life, literary or cinematic astronauts and aliens, or will sex in space inevitably involve the reinscription of the same earthly stereotypes? Scientists tell us that the universe is constantly expanding; will the category "women" do likewise and will it be a positive force for feminist theory? Can extraterrestrials "have" a gender? Upon hearing of Nasa's decision in 1998 to return senator John Glenn, a former astronaut, to space, Jerrie Cobb, the Nasa-trained female astronaut who was denied her place in space in the early 1960s, asked: "If Glenn can fly, why can't I?" A Nasa official, Chris Kraft, explained why Cobb was not originally chosen. "Had we lost a woman back then because we decided to fly a woman rather than a man, we would have been castrated."

The answer to Cobb's question lies beyond a fear of castration, however. Analyses of female astronauts' lack of or only partial access suggest that the concept of women in space is almost unthinkable in the West. Women must remain aligned with the Earth, the material, the body (witness Ripley's striptease), nature, the domestic and the maternal ("mother Earth"). Were women to go into space, the neat binaries aligning women with these notions and men with their opposites (space, the rational, the mind, culture, science and technology, the paternal/patriarchal) would be collapsed or deformed, as in a black hole. Although some breaching of these boundaries has occurred as women such as Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, and Eileen Collins have gone into space, still Cobb's complaint resounds, for women are but a small percentage of Nasa's staff.

In popular culture, when women do gain access to space, a curious slippage operates - the astronaut becomes alien. By Alien 3 , Ripley is announcing her identification with the alien - "I'm one of the family now" - and in the fourth instalment on her return to Earth she states: "I'm a stranger here."

There are many television and cinematic depictions of women who either go haywire or regress to the simpleness of childhood when they go into or emerge from space, from the 1950s British film Devil Girl from Mars - she's from Mars, she's a girl and she's a man-hating feminist - to Contact 's female astronaut, who finally goes into space (or does she?) only to find her long-lost father.

Another subgenre of television shows and feature films has promoted the image of women as safely attached to the home, often glued to the TV, while their men boldly go where no man has gone before: in The Right Stuff , Apollo 13 and Space Cowboys wives and girlfriends occupy kitchens, bedrooms and backyards while their men risk their lives in space. In Apollo 13 , astronaut Jim Lovell's wife informs him: "When you were on the far side, I didn't sleep at all, I just vacuumed." Lovell replies: "I want to go back there."

Dreams of space are not only colonised by earthly understandings of gender, but also of race, as the popular TV series I Dream of Jeannie shows . Jeannie, a blonde genie from Saudi Arabia, is the "wife/slave" while "her master", astronaut Tony Nelson, goes into space and, despite her magic powers, is able to control her movements.

There are multiple variations on the theme, so many in fact that brief discussion risks sweeping generalisations. But the overall message is clear: western (in particular American) popular culture displays an insatiable attraction to the idea of women in space, but at the same time it proclaims repulsion at this scenario. Ripley is a prime example: she is the superstar alien-fighter, the ultimate heroine in space, but she is in the end gendered as a woman, most obviously through being impregnated by the alien.

Popular culture representations of women in space reveal a need to "ground" women by keeping them bound to Earth. Woman grounded is woman subjected to the weight of gravity; bodies in space defy gravity. Feminist theory needs to assess the possibilities that rethinking women in space affords. "Extraterrestrial" feminism may provide a way out of the essentialism that bottles us up.

Marie Lathers is professor in humanities and French at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. The "Sex and aliens" panel is at 8.30am on December 28 at the New Orleans Sheraton Hotel.

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