What kind of world-building is NASA’s white, suburban, nuclear family propaganda of exoplanet travel establishing exactly?
Can we expect social progress from today's creative futurists?
“...this special and by no means numerous class of matrons, the mothers of the moon-world, large and stately beings beautifully fitted to bear the larval Selenite... they are absolutely incapable of cherishing the young they bring into the moon; periods of foolish indulgence alternate with moods of aggressive violence, and as soon as possible the little creatures, who are quite soft and flabby and pale coloured, are transferred to the charge of celibate females, women 'workers' as it were, who in some cases possess brains of almost masculine dimensions."
-- H. G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon
While the scientific ideas and technical aspirations behind such posters might hold water, the inability of the series to infuse contemporary demographics or social commentary into what need be only an aesthetically retro choice is disappointing at best. A product of institutional culture probably not unrelated to more serious diversity and pay problems across STEM fields and innovation, the NASA posters somehow manage to make the popular culture video game Bioshock (set in the same time period, and featuring a cautionary biopunk tale on human eugenics and gene modification) appear a great deal more ethically minded towards the social impact and purposes of scientific ‘progress’. What kind of world-building is NASA’s white, suburban, nuclear family propaganda of exoplanet travel establishing exactly? You mean I get to be June Cleaver… ON MARS? No, thank you, NASA. You keep that.
“Librarians were stunned to find that science-fiction books were not only being borrowed in the tens of thousands, but stolen and never returned! ‘Where have we been”’ the librarians and teachers asked each other, as the Prince kissed them awake.”
-- Ray Bradbury, “On the Shoulders of Giants”
Perhaps more troubling, this socially uncritical nostalgia for the Golden Age of science fiction offered up by The Exoplanet Travel Bureau posters recalls the original '30s diversity problems (and institutional racism, sexism, and xenophobia) inherent in government-sanctioned speculative futures of mass culture. For example, the 1939 World’s Fair in New York -- the first with an exclusively futurist focus on building “the world of tomorrow” -- highlighted the theme of technologized middle class growth through a fictional publicity family named The Middleton Family.
Almost two decades before Leave it to Beaver, The Middleton Family featured a similarly wholesome white, middle-class, nuclear family -- give or take the 19th century vestiges of the extended family live-in granny and, yes, a black mamie maidservant. The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair became a meta film both shot and screened at the 1939 fair, a propaganda piece for white (only) America at the cusp of the technocratic-minded national corporation’s arrival to save United States labor from the ubiquity of “staked out” small town businesses under the Great Depression.
“Was there not a young woman out there who might enjoy sitting up late over cups of coffee, talking about dreams of space?”
-- William Forstchen, Pillar to the Sky
Using the futurist 1939 fair as a film set for a didactic overarching plot of the ample jobs, leisure, and safety to be provided by technologized corporate capitalism, The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair played America’s speculative stock market troubles to a matter of contracted R&D and middle class American values at a time when the Rural Electrification Act (REA) was still working to unify national electrification against anti-socialist resistance. The film waged its propagandistic battle between ignorant anti-capitalist ideals and industrious economic facts through the characters of an optimistic, pro-American engineer for Westinghouse and a cynical, individualist (and very anti-semitically Jewish) painter-Communist (an ironic choice for its mocking of the ignored abstract art that adorned the 1939 fairgrounds under the auspices of the WPA).
This ideological tussel, of course, was waged on the battleground of who would get to marry the Middleton’s only daughter, a “pretty” young woman who naively thinks her husband won’t want her to cook and clean (sure, winks grandmother, as the nuclear '50s already starts to gel). Poor daughter Middleton is not much for science and spends most of her time in a lovers’ quarrel, while the multi-generational “boys” club tours the harder scientific exhibits of the fair. The family matriarchs attend dishwasher demonstrations, of course.
“...read a paper while her dishes are being washed! She’ll look young when she’s 100!”
-- Grandma Middleton
The heternormative gender roles and class and racial obscurities of The Middleton Family film were equally matched at the 1939 World’s Fair by a “Typical American Family” competition and a robot named the Elektro the Westinghouse Moto-Man, who scripted hard-boiled and mildly sexist jokes during public demonstrations (which make more sense when you discover that the pretty young woman who showroomed him in photos was replaced by a male presenter for the The Middleton Family film). Then there was the popular display of reproductive health models -- a collaboration between gynecologist R. L. Dickenson and sculptor Abram Belskie -- that reinforced Americanness in the healthy, white, childbearing heteosexual couple (Anna G. Creadick, Perfectly Average: The Pursuit of Normality in Postwar America).
The eugenic futures inherent in such health spectacles would tour the country after the fair under the institutional auspices of the Cleveland Health Museum, the Dickenson-Belskie models under their care now including two nude sculptures titled “The Average American Boy and Girl” and affectionately called “Normman” and “Norma” by the press (Julian B. Carter, The Heart of Whiteness: Normal Sexuality and Race in America, 1880-1940). The statues of clearly Caucasian origin were claimed to be based on the measurements of thousands of young Americans and reflect scientific advancements in average health and nutrition. Today they might look eerily similar to the Aryan ideals of Third Reich figural sculpture.
Scholar Julian B. Carter noted that Normman and Norma, as a couple, reflected interwar discussions of “normality” as a naturalized and invisible way of talking about “the ideal of specifically heterosexual whiteness.” In this way, concepts of the normal became part of powerful “‘race-evasive’ codes... during the 1920s and 30s” that masked the creation and instruction of white racial difference. Carter’s research also shows us how concepts policing heterosexual gender roles can be bound up in norms of race and middle-class standards of living just ripe for economically-frustrated cultural fascisms.
Consider the cultural pedestal reserved for elective middle class housewives in comparison to the general ‘welfare queen’ disdain for poor women, who wish to be with young and vulnerable children at home, often without the added choice of affordable healthcare. As Futurists continue to prophesize the technological obsolesence of entire industries of viable employment and non-contingent labor, as well as layers of technological innovation and environmental quality of life available only to the paying elite, we should at least be using history to remind ourselves to ask what happens when scientific advancement (anywhere) is not also social progress. Retro is cool, but uncritical retro can be… history repeating itself.
“It is not through the physical exhibits alone that this gesture has manifested itself. The magic of modern communications makes possible a continuing participation by word of mouth itself.”
-- F. D. R., opening ceremony of the 1939 World’s Fair
If NASA’s Exoplanet Travel Bureau posters operate from the nostalgic pretense that gender roles and the invisiblities of institutional racism never change(d), we should at least take comfort in the fact that creative futurists have been wrong before, making predictive imaginaries based on social hierarchies that soon became outmoded as well. Long before Wired was writing about "The Future of Wearable Tech", a 1930s Pathetone Weekly newsreel on speculative fashion design of the future was embedding communications technology in couture clothing. Despite the title, Eve, A.D. 2000, it is the lone man in the black and white newsreel who is outfitted (awkwardly) with a rotary dial desk telephone on his chest, a curious thing considering that by the '40s the telephone had become a feminized technology so dominated by housewives, secretaries, and Ma Bell telephone operators as to inspire a famous film noir in which the overbearing wife who uses it to spy on her downtown husband is punitively murdered.
Making the impossible growth of the city skyscraper, the distance of the domestic suburb practically and physically possible, the “unseen link” of the telephone in Sorry Wrong Number (1948) was brought under a gendered industry of cheap, male-dominated female labor and increased home work outsourced to ‘chatty’ housewives by their husbands (Lana F. Rakow, Gender on the Line: Women, the Telephone, and Community Life). As the film suggests, telephone communications also shadowed a network of socializing suburban women learning to use it to transgress under pretenses of chatter, breaching illusory modern boundaries between public and private, commercial and residential, male and female roles, inner and outer life, gossip and agency against male control.
As you can imagine, NASA’s exoplanet future is not my future, but perhaps a cultural product of male-dominated institutions that envisions me inevitably frosting cupcakes full time for PTA meetings in outerspace (or maybe just as double-duty after my lesser paying job), oblivious to the fact that my invisible black neighbors have crappier space-schools. It’s time to remember that male executives sunk Hugo Gernsback’s technological imaginary of interactive television into a shopping network to stoke impulse shopping in homebound women. As communications scholar Lana Rakow points out, it is institutionalized constructions of “social order” that limit the ability of “space-adjusting” technological advancements to transcend them. Let us instead imagine improving our connections between each other in space, not just our means to it. We can get started right here on Earth.
Elektro the Westinghouse Moto-Man
Jennifer Seaman Cook is a published American Studies scholar, creative essayist, arts journalist, and cultural media consultant. Her most recently published essay in Heide Hatry’s book, Not A Rose, launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair and MoMA PS1. Jennifer teaches regularly at the State University of New York at Buffalo.