By Karen Asp
“Genders in Space: Science Fiction, Cyborgs, and Alien Pleasures” was the intriguing name given to one of the panels at a trans-disciplinary, public conference hosted last month by the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry (ICI Berlin). The panel speakers, Silvia Casalino, James Burton, and Hania Siebenpfeiffer discussed gender relations in specific off-world sci-fi narratives: The Female Man (J. Russ 1975); Planet of the Apes (film adaptations); and the German novels None of You on Earth (R. Jirgl 2013), and The Future of Mars (G. Klein 2013).
As I outline below in a summary of the talks by Casalino and Burton, the speakers’ cross-disciplinary perspectives on the theme illuminated how the category “Man” functions as a law-like principle legitimating gendered, ethno-racist, and planetary-scale exploitation. The session thereby shed a little light on the current fixation among some techno-utopian superstars, notably Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, with “leaving Earth” and colonizing Mars. That escape-oriented, Mars-destined discourse follows on the concern that “humanity” needs to be rescued from impending annihilation wrought by “rogue” A.I. super-computers, climate change, and/or other “crises” arising from the pursuit of “progress”. Rather than analyze the societal contradictions producing these existential crises, for techno-utopians such as Hawking and Musk, the solution lies in advancing more of the same. Consider this recent statement by Hawking: “When we have reached similar [existential] crises there has usually been somewhere else to colonize … But there is no new world, no utopia around the corner” […] “We are running out of space, and the only places to go to are other worlds” (quoted in Barclay 2017). To this I want to respond, “citizens of Mars beware: bipedal marauders are coming to take your land and enslave your people because ‘humanity’ is ‘running out of space’ on Earth!” The ICI Berlin session on “Genders in Space” illuminated the hegemonic presupposition of a certain “we” — “humanity,” “Man” – for the sake of whom progress must be pursued across the galaxy.
Silvia Casalino is an aeronautical engineer in the European “space industry,” one whose lifelong dream was to become an astronaut. Her discussion of the classic feminist sci-fi novel, The Female Man, turned out to be the entry point for explaining how, as a queer scientist/space dreamer in what I’ll call the space-Man industry, she came to make the documentary film, No Gravity (2013). The film was screened after the panel so my comments here are based on Casalino’s brief talk and my first impression of her fascinating documentary. The catalyst for Casalino’s story was her 21st Century personal encounter with the “glass ceiling”– the architectonic ceiling, the vault of the sky, beyond which few women have travelled regardless of their qualifications for gravity-free exploits. The law-like principle of Man, one might say, operates as a countervailing force on women in the ostensibly gravity-busting business of the space-Man industry.
The idea for the documentary arose from the nadir of career disappointment, and drew on the work of feminist/scientist Donna Haraway (featured in the documentary) for inspiration and guidance. Casalino set out to connect her (broken) childhood dream to the Cold War origins of the space industry, and the stories of those women who strove to be among the “first in space.” As suggested by the structure of The Female Man, Casalino’s documentary revealed parallel realities for women-in-space. Most pointedly, while the USSR ventured to send women into space early on, the US NASA program excluded that possibility for two decades, even though a group of American women passed the physical tests in 1959 (see the story of the “Mercury 13”). Hence the USSR’s Valentina Tereshkova bears the honorific of “first woman in space,” solo-piloting the Vostok 6 in 1963 (two years after Yuri Gagarin became the primal space-Man). In contrast, the first American, Sally Ride, gained orbit in 1983, while the first non-Russian European, France’s Claudie Haigneré, flew just 21 years ago, in 1996. Casalino’s juxtaposition of the Soviet, American and Western European space initiatives thus exposed a gender-based dogmatic exceptionalism structuring the then “Free World’s” pursuit of progress.
Yet the film’s portrayal of spatio-temporal variations in female astronaut’s experiences over the past 50+ years raised more questions than it answered, at least for those like me who are unfamiliar with the history of space travel. The emancipatory promise that emanated from the “first woman in space” story turns out to have been transitory, at best a utopic flash. To date, women comprise just 13% of human space travelers (60 of 556), and only four women from the Soviet/post-Soviet Russian program have left Earth. The US space program has sent the majority of astronauts into space (60%), and despite not being “first,” it has sent the majority of women (45 of 60) into orbit. The issue of Cold-War manufacture (west and east) of space-travel imaginaries thus haunts the framing of “first” and casts doubt on the originariness of gendered claims to “space.” Casalino’s film suggests that her own career ambitions were composed, in part, from fragments of Cold War ideology, fragments that only came to appear as myth when the realization of her dream was shattered. In this light, the recent news that 50% of NASA’s 2016 class of astronauts are women (and supposedly heading to Mars) is a complicated, and by no means assured, triumph.
For those familiar with Donna Haraway’s work, shifting from Casalino’s reflections on women-in-space to James Burton’s analysis of the Planet of the Apes movie franchise would be no great hardship. First because Haraway carved a path for critical cultural analysis on scientific and popular representations of animals, notably regarding primates (monkeys, apes). Her book, Primate Visions (1990) defined primatology as the science par excellence for prosecuting capitalism’s war against biological natures — a knowledge/power that operates through the discursive production of the simian Other. Moreover, her figure of the bio-technical amalgam called the “Cyborg” sheds light on the conditions of possibility for space travel by terrestrial organisms: not only the possibility for “HAM,” the first chimpanzee-astronaut, but equally for Valentina and Sally, among other “first” humans. No wonder, perhaps, that Eric Greene (1998) draws on Primate Visions in his influential book Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture.
With all of this for background, it thus was striking that Burton, author of The Philosophy of Science Fiction (2015), did not pick up the Haraway thread for his analysis. Instead, he took issue with the prevalent interpretive thesis for the Apes films, in which these stories are viewed as a critical “allegory” on race and gender relations. Briefly, in the first of the original five-film series, released in 1968, a 20th-Century crew of US astronauts travels for hundreds of Earth-years to a distant planet. The planet turns out to be ruled by an intelligent species of ape, which have subjugated a human population now regressed to unmanly mute acquiescence. The crux of the film occurs when the protagonist, played by Charlton Heston, sees a broken piece of the Statue of Liberty lying in the sand, thus realizing that the planet he had ventured to was actually a post-apocalyptic Earth. The “reversal” of the human and ape relations of power in a dystopian future America is the basis for viewing the film as a sharp commentary on race and gender relations during the Cold War, according to Burton. But this criticality, he maintained, is only a surface effect, a performance built into the story which gives it a sense of critical potential that is not borne out in the narrative.
Indeed, he argued that the film was not designed to stimulate progressive reflection on the state of society. To the contrary, he considered it to be one of a host of films produced since the 1960s in reaction to the new social movements. These films, which he grouped under the heading “criti-tainment,” present as progressive, yet they serve to re-entrench the hegemonic metaphysics of gender and race-based power, represented through the category “Man.” Rather than turn to Haraway, Burton drew on Jamaican essayist and scholar Sylvia Wynter, referencing her essay, “Unsettling the Colonality of Being/Truth/Power/Freedom: Towards the Human After Man, It’s Overrepresentation—An Argument” (Wynter 2003). Following that argument, according to Burton, the first real societal attack on the ruling “ethno-class” represented by the category “Man” comes during the 1960s; however, those activist movements were and continue to be re-absorbed by the dominant institutions. “Criti-tainment” is thus a mechanism for hegemonic re-absorption. Burton argued that numerous contemporary film and TV productions perform this hegemonic function, such as Ex Machina, Gravity, Arrival, Wonder Woman, and Amazon TV’s portrayal of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle.
As proof, Burton highlighted aspects of gender relations in the Planet of the Apes films. In the first scene of the first film, as the spaceship approaches the unknown planet, the captain engages in a monologue while his crew sleep. One of the crew, we learn, is a woman, the only woman. But she dies during the landing. While most commentators construe her elimination, according to Burton, as run-of-the-mill 1960s sexism, he implied that it was an intentional, aggressive, re-assertion of the representation of male dominance in the context of an emergent feminism. Moreover, Burton maintained that the roles for female ape characters in the most recent “reboot,” Dawn of the Planet of Apes (2014), were diminished relative to the original film, a diminishment corresponding to the representation of ape family structure in terms of a nuclear, stay-at-home Mom model. That’s not an accidental projection, on Burton’s account, but a strategic re-entrenchment of the “ethno-class” that calls itself “Man.”
People of Mars beware!