The Thunder Child

Science Fiction and Fantasy
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Vol 1, Issue #3
"Stand By For Mars!"
March 2006

Fiction Book Reviews
by Caroline Miniscule

Women Scientists in Fifties Science Fiction Movies
by Bonnie Noonan
McFarland Press

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Caroline Miniscule has traveled around the world. She now stays in one place and reads science fiction. She is a graduate of D'Illyria University (the university of the mind).

During World War II, so many men went off to fight that women, of necessity, were drawn into the workforce - both civilian and military. Women did these jobs well, and enjoyed a newfound sense of independence. Then the war ended. The status quo was expected to prevail without argument. Women would voluntarily return to hearth and home, and men would get their jobs back. Many women, indeed, were content to go back to being wives and mothers, but others wished to pursue a career. With great difficulty, in the face of opposition from men and women, they did so. (They were perhaps helped by the fact that, while many soldiers returned home, many soldiers also fell on the field of battle and their civilian positions were thus available).

In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, women struggled to maintain and even expand the independence they'd gained through the war years, and this struggle was reflected on the silver screen. In Women Scientists in Fifties Science Fiction Films, Bonnie Noonan explores "the tension between a woman's place in her home and her place in the work force, particularly in scientific fields," as depicted in the science fiction movies of the 1950s.

Noonan divides the 1950s science fiction film into three basic categories, and gives to each a feminist reading - which she then amplifies on in her text:

1. "Travel-into-space plots can be read as metaphors for travel into a new society. ...the hero or heroine returns to Earth, changed but alive, either more appreciative of humanity or more understanding of other life forms. These films ...conclude with a coupling of male and female protagonists. When they are not coupled, they are bereft."

2. "The arrival-of-aliens on earth plots can be read, again at least in part, as depicting post-World War II women and men themselves as alien, adapting to changing gender roles in a new society.

Table of Contents

1. Definitions and Histories
2. Constructing a Canon of 1950s B Science Fiction Films
3. Representation of Women Scientists
4. Professionalism and Femininity in the Giant Insect Films
5. Cinematically Representing a Heteroglot World
6. Dreaming, Analyzing and Joking in the Women-in-Power Films
Conclusion: Where to go from here

Appendix A: Female leads and their Father Figures
Appendix B: Female leads and their Love Interests

Specifically, these films express "a male fear of women's conquering society and warning that the new woman with her desire to lead an individualized life has destroyed the safety of her and her family's natural home."

3. "Unnatural creature plots can be variously read as manifestations of changed and therefore unnatural women, men and family structures."

Noonan explores these readings (as well a fourth, women-in-power and man's reaction to it) by focusing on ten specific films:

  • Rocketship X-M
  • It Came From Beneath the Sea
  • Them!
  • Tarantula
  • The Deadly Mantis
  • Beginning of the End
  • Kronos
  • Cat Women in the Moon
  • World Without End
  • Queen of Outer Space

Critics of 1950s science fiction film - for example Bill Warren in his classic Keep Watching the Skies - have dismissed the female characters as merely the stock 'love interest' or the stock 'damsel in distress.' Noonan disagrees. She believes that the women actually filled important roles in these films - but that they were used to reassert the male patriarchy and show the dangers of the emergence of the 'new woman.'

The major flaw in the book is its length. The book itself ends on page 162. We are then given 29 pages of filmography. Granted, for selected movies in the filmography we are also treated to some dialog that illustrates Noonan's readings...but why not move these movies into the body of the book, discuss them, and leave out this superfluous filmography altogether?

In her chapter on 'Constructing a science fiction canon' Noonan describes the methodology she used in choosing the 114 Fifties films which she viewed in order to compile her theories. But of these 114 films, Noonan only gives us detailed descriptions of 10! She simply leaves one wanting more.

Overall, I found this book an enjoyable read. I confess that I didn't agree with quite a few of the "readings" that Noonan puts on the incidents in specific films, for example, in Them!:

As Pat Medford rides through the Los Angeles sewers and reports via walkie-talkie from military vehicles just like the men, television news reports implore, "Stay in your homes. I repeat, stay in your homes. Your personal safety, the safety of the entire city, depends upon your full cooperation." The implication of this announcement linking home and safety is that if American women return to their homes, the family unit as we know it, as we needs it, will persevere.
But then Noonan goes on to say:

The paradox in the film is that if Pat Medford stays home, the beasts continue their reign of destruction all over the earth, because it is Pat Medford's knowledge and daring that significantly to their conquest.

And then there's the ants:

Moreover, the rescue of the boys and ultimate conquest of the mutant ants can be read as a rebirth process whose total success depends on the extermination of bad females. The lone surviving queen has established a new nest in the sewer system under Los Angeles - 'Seven hundred miles of tunnels under the city,' according to a city official, who admits, 'We don't know where they go,' evoking an image of interminable vaginal canals, unfathomable to men.

As with most academic theories on film, the author seems, to me, to be "reaching" - ascribing to a whole group of filmmakers: scriptwriters and producers as well as actors - motives and intentions, usually of a sexual nature (witness horror historian David Skal's contention that the scar on the forehead of Boris Karloff's Creature (Frankenstein, 1931) represents a vagina) that are more insidious than can be possible.

But, to be fair, just because a viewer sees something in a movie (or other work) that its creator did not intend to put there, does not necessarily mean that that "something" is not actually there. It's all in the eye of the beholder. And in that sense, whether you agree with Noonan's readings or not, they do give one cause to think.

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