We Are All Part of the Patriarchy: ‘Space Sirens, Scientists and Princesses’

In Conrad's significant project of tracking the representations of women in sci-fi cinema, he's mindful of his subjectivity.
Space Sirens, Scientists and Princesses: The Portrayal of Women in Science Fiction Cinema
Dean Conrad
Jun 2018

In the preface to Space Sirens, Scientists and Princesses, Dean Conrad writes apologetically:

“I try not to let being a man affect my analysis, but it will. Science fiction cinema has been skewed by more than a century of patriarchal perspective, so there is no reason to think that I’m immune.”

Truth is, we are all part of the patriarchy. Men and women alike model the norms of the dominant culture, and the way to begin resisting it is to be mindful of one’s own subjective position. In Conrad’s significant project of tracking the representations of women in science fiction cinema, he is not only mindful of his subjectivity but, somewhat unfortunately, his self-consciousness can interrupt the flow of his writing.

The book’s title outlines the chronology that Conrad follows, as the dominant roles for women move from sirens to scientists to princesses. As the narrative demonstrates, these changes also track transitions in the place of women in US culture over time. Conrad’s study begins with a discussion of a one-minute long, silent film produced by the Lumière Brothers in 1895. He notes that there are no women in this “first” science fiction film, yet it is the text he chooses to set the stage for the role of women in silent films. His enthusiasm and determination for thoroughness are admirable. Yet I would argue that a reader needs some familiarity with the broad scope of sci-fi films in order to keep up with the arguments developed throughout the book.

A film aficionado who shares Conrad’s deep familiarity with the genre may not be distracted by the broad strokes he uses to set the stage for his chapters. To introduce the growing dominance of color film, he notes, “Elvis Presley’s serious acting career ended when his films shifted from black and white to color. He did not appear in any science fiction movies, but there are parallels.” The introduction of Elvis feels even more intrusive than the Lumière Brothers entry.

Indeed, Conrad’s ambitions don’t always serve him well. His desire to craft a comprehensive study of women in science fiction films, along with his aspiration to continually engage the work of other film critics, demands a reader who knows both the genre and its cultural commentary. The back cover blurb notes that Conrad’s study surveys more than 650 films spanning 120 years — a task that exceeds the scope of around 250 pages. Tying together plot descriptions, relating films to one another to show their historical relevance, and developing arguments about the significance of how women are cast in science fiction films would be an ambitious undertaking for a book twice its length.

The insertion of references to the existing literature often doesn’t serve the reader other than to assure that the author has a panoply of other scholars who agree with his assertions. This kind of checking the boxes is familiar in academic work like a journal article or dissertation but can be mediated more effectively in a book for a mainstream audience. The deeply devoted science fiction fan will likely find those digressions more tolerable because the film texts and criticism may be familiar.

Along with deep dives into obscure texts (although relevant to his arguments), Conrad effectively covers and contextualizes well-known terrain. Science fiction is typically about the future, and posits either a utopian or dystopian view, drawn from the circumstances of the present moment. The ’50s mark one of the genre’s high points. Produced in the aftermath of World War II, these films take into account Cold War tensions along with the added uncertainty of scientific advancements. Space travel, intergalactic combat, giant bugs, and a strong, apocalyptic end-of-the-world narrative dominate sci-fi cinema of the ’50s. Conrad notes that although female scientists are featured in films like Gordon Douglas’s Them! (1954) and Jack Arnold’s Tarantula (1955), they remain peripheral outcasts in the “boys’ club” and are subject to sexist remarks and behaviors. The realities of women working in STEM programs today demonstrate that little progress has been made in changing gender disparity in the hard sciences.

Moving forward into the ’60s, Conrad devotes space to familiar fare including Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968), Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), each of which has assumed a certain bit of cult status in the intervening years. In organizing his chronology, Conrad considers the ’60s as an “intermission” between the main features of the ’50s and the emergence of Star Wars’ Princess Leia character in 1977. He begins the discussion with this assertion: “If 1968 changed science fiction movies, 1977 changed the movie industry.”

Leia may be what Conrad calls an “accidental feminist”, and indeed as the Star Wars universe has expanded, Leia has become much more than a mere princess. She is, in fact, an iconic war hero and role model for millions of science fiction fans. Despite Conrad’s concerns with the patriarchy coloring his perspective, the chapter on “the golden era” of women in science fiction cinema is a strong feminist reading of Star Wars, Alien and Aliens, and Terminator, among many other films of the ’70s and ’80s that he brings into the conversation. He effectively creates a context for these films within the women’s rights movement, drawing connections between social change and the strong women presented in science fiction cinema.

Space Sirens, Scientists and Princesses is a deliberately ambitious project. The concluding chapter is devoted to sketching out a framework to discuss the future of female characters in science fiction films. Following literary critic Marleen S. Barr, Conrad uses a three-step structure to trace the development of feminist thought: stating the problem, contemplating radical feminist solutions and then considering moderate womanist solutions. Rather than affirming his own arguments, Conrad returns to the literature to compile the opinions of other critics. For the reader seeking an encyclopedic study, this chapter will serve well. Others may find themselves wishing for a more streamlined and definitive conclusion.

RATING 5 / 10