Women in Science Fiction: Teaching Gender and Genre

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From the January to March 2019 I ran a course on WOMEN IN SCIENCE FICTION CINEMA at HOME (an independent venue for contemporary theatre, visual art and film in Manchester, UK) as part of their wonderful 2019 season Celebrating Women in Global Cinema. The course recruited quite a diverse group of participants who helped me to work through some important and emerging ideas about the place of women in science fiction.

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When I put the outline of the course together, I purposely buried the expected lead: Ellen Ripley and her Alien(s). As soon as I mentioned to anyone that I would be doing a cinema course on Women in Science Fiction the first thing they would say would be ‘Ripley’. Of course she is an important figure but I wanted to use this course as an opportunity to explore some of the examples that I wasn’t so familiar with.

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Boyse (Mia Goth) in High Life

I was given the chance to select two films to screen at HOME as part of the course. Claire Denis’ High Life came out a few months after the course concluded, and Alien was already due to be shown as part of the cinema’s International Women’s Day weekender that coincided with Alien‘s 30th anniversary. Alien would have been an obvious choice, and I considered whether I should show classic examples like Metropolis or Terminator 2, or try to use the opportunity to screen films that the class might not be able to access.

I also wanted to try to include a woman director of science fiction – a challenge in itself as there is rather a limited set of options. I wanted to screen Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days – a fascinating  film about literally experiencing the world from an another person’s perspective (the film in many ways subverts the male and white gaze through the exploration of a near-future technology). But we couldn’t get the rights to screen the film. I had also wanted to screen Annihilation (2018) – a film about a group of diverse women scientists – but Netflix wouldn’t give us the rights.

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A disappointed Mace (Bassett) in Strange Days.

I had been working with a brilliant undergraduate on their final year project (originally about black women in British science fiction) and we found Welcome II the Terrordome (1995) directed by British-Nigerian direct Ngozi Onwurah who had received some of her education at Manchester School of Art. Welcome II the Terrordome is currently the only black woman-directed British science fiction and it is not available for purchase. Very much on the edges of what might be considered science fiction and with a low budget style that many viewers might find difficult to connect with, it is an important piece of British cinema that captures the zeitgeist and the perspective of a British-raised young black woman in the 1990s.198685-welcome-ii-the-terrordome-0-230-0-345-crop

Despite its age, Welcome II the Terrordome is still alarmingly relevant and this has been recognised as several festivals and cinemas have been screening the film recently. I was delighted when we were given the rights to show this, and I found out that HOME had already planned to screen a series of her short films as part of the Celebration of Women in Global cinema.

Originally I had wanted to have Barbarella as the first film to be screened as part of the course, but after all the issues with getting screening rights it ended up as my second film close to the end of the course. This actually worked out well, and I was glad to have the opportunity to show films that sparked strong responses rather than showing the expected.

Below you can find a full outline of the course I taught with the materials I presented in class. If you would like any more information about the unit just send me a message.



 

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Women in Science Fiction

This is the outline of the course with links to the presentation given each week – the presentation (free to access online) gives the slides for my interventions, clips from relevant films, and also the discussion questions offered in class:

Week ONE: Introduction to Women in Science Fiction: Defining science fiction and women’s historical representation [week one presentation].

screen-shot-2019-06-10-at-21.30.53.pngDuring week one we talked about the definitions of science fiction and the class’ general knowledge of the genre and how women are found and represented within it. We looked at some early cinema examples with the Soviet silent science fiction Aelita: Queen of Mars (Yakov Protazanov, 1924) and the German film Frau im Mond (Fritz Lang, 1929) the latter of which was directed by the same director as the classic Metropolis (1927). These films were quite groundbreaking as they featured women as titular characters. 


Week TWO: Where no black woman has gone before? Race and gender in Science Fiction [week two presentation]

Screen Shot 2019-06-10 at 21.34.58This week was in senses a primer for the first screening on the course in week three. Much of the theory was taken from the work of race and science fiction scholar Diane Adesola Mafe who argues that there have been some overlooked subversive representations of black women in science fiction but that examples are limited and black women are often Othered and/or doubly absent as both raced and gendered subjects. We discussed images of black women of science fiction and how race, gender, and science fiction have intersected in the genre both literally and symbolically. I also got to introduce the majority of the class to the wonder that is Janelle Monáe.

Suggested viewing: Omega Man (1971); Born in Flames (1983); Strange Days (1995); Blade (1998); AVP: Alien vs Predator (2004); Pumzi (2009); Afronauts (2014); Black Panther (2016); The Cloverfield Paradox (2018); Annihilation (2018); Star Trek: Discovery (2017- ).


Week THREE: Screening of Welcome II the Terrordome (Onwurah, 1995)

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In 1995, Onwurah directed one of the first authentically independent Black British feature films. Welcome II the Terrordome is a dystopic political action thriller – a speculative fiction that imagines the worst future extrapolated from, what Ngozi Onwurah explains as the ‘pure anger of 24-year-old black woman in Britain’ in 1980s and 1990s.

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You can read my full introduction to the film here.

HOME podcast: In Conversation: Director Ngozi Onwurah


WEEK FOUR: Discussing Welcome II the Terrordome and women filmmakers in the science fiction genre [week four presentation].

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Although the majority of the class did not really enjoy Welcome II the Terrordome and many had issues with its definition as science fiction, the film generated lots of interesting discussions. We debated what speculative fiction can do and how different voices (beyond white, male, and straight) can expand our understanding of the genre. We also talked about the issues facing women directors in a genre that has been historically white and male both in front of, and behind the camera.

Suggested viewing: 

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WEEK FIVE: Screening women of science: The burden of representation and why representation matters [week five presentation]

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This week is the one mostly closely aligned to my research specialism in women scientists’ representation in entertainment media.  I talked through the stereotypes of women scientists that have been identified by key scholars including Eva Flicker and Jocelyn Steinke. We discussed why it is important to have lots of examples of women scientists on screen and how shows like Star Trek: Discovery have started to disrupt the stereotype by having many women of science who are defined by their expertise rather than their race, gender, or sexuality.

Suggested viewing: Planet of the Apes (1968); The Andromeda Strain (1970);  The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997); Contact (1997); eXistenZ (1999); The Matrix (1999); Orphan Black (2013-17); Interstellar (2014); Arrival (2016).


WEEK SIX: Monstrous Mothers and Alien Queens: Procreation, sex, and space [week six presentation]

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Although Ripley had inevitably come up in previous discussions of women in science fiction this was the first week to focus on her as a character and consider framing of the woman action hero in science fiction. Ripley is the most famous gender-switch character – the gender of the character was changed late in the production process. As director Ridley Scott explains: “I just had a thought. What would you think if Ripley was a woman? She would be the last one you would think would survive – she’s beautiful.” We considered whether reversing traditional gender roles allowed for a progressive portrayal. We also talked about sex and science fiction and why there have been several films to imagine sexless futures. This led into discussions of motherhood and how science fiction imagines motherless and monstrous mother futures. I admit that I was over ambitious with how much content I could cover in a 2-hour class…

Suggested viewing: THX1138 (1971); Alien (1979); The Brood (1979); Aliens (1986); Cherry 2000 (1987); Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991); Jurassic Park (1993); GATTACA (1997); Prometheus (2012); Alien Covenant (2017).


WEEK SEVEN: Screening Barbarella (Vadim, 1968)

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Barbarella is a satire of golden age science fiction that follows the titular Barbarella (Jane Fonda) who is an adventurous agent from a seemingly utopian Earth where war has been eradicated. She travels across the galaxy to track down the scientist Durand-Durand and a superweapon called the Positronic Ray.

Noah Berlatsky, Fire up the Orgasmatron: Why we can’t let Barbarella GoThe Guardian (5 Oct 2016).


WEEK EIGHT: Discussing Barbarella: From symbolic annihilation and sexy space sirens to putting women on and behind the screen [week seven presentation]

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The screening of Barbarella at HOME was a great success as we sold out our original cinema and got an upgrade to the larger screen. But I was a little concerned about how the class would respond after one of my younger women participants shook her head as me as she left the cinema. It turned out however that her frustration was at how much she had enjoyed the film despite its reputation as sexploitation and outmoded gender representation.

Although more popular than Welcome II the Terrordome, Barbarella still split opinion and generated interesting discussions concerning gender representation. Barbarella is the first popular image of a woman astronaut and the Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg) is a lesbian character who actually survives the film (yes, her lesbianism is aligned with her villainy she survives and this is something that contemporary science fiction often fails to do). Although I had intended to have Barbarella as the first screened film it worked well to go back one of the earlier, more controversial, and thought-provoking examples of how women are seen in science fiction.

 



 

 

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