What 1950s Sci-Fi Movies Can Tell Us About Gender Roles Then and Now

by | August 10, 2014
filed under Books, Pop Culture

Cover of Gendering Science Fiction Films by Susan A. George1950s B-films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, or The Pod People, might seem to be pure fantasy, just mindless fun. Coming out during the heyday of McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklisting of suspected communists, you might assume these movies would never get too close to real political issues.

But as Susan A. George points out in her new book Gendering Science Fiction Films: Invaders from the Suburbs, “It is because of their strictly entertainment, low-budget, Saturday matinee status that they became one of the rare sites where cultural, political, and social issues were examined, promoted, or challenged.”

George, a lecturer in the Karen Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced, goes through several 1950s alien invasion films and draws on political theory, psychoanaysis, and literary theories in her analysis of how they present gender roles for both men and women, and how those presentations relate to the politics and culture of the era.

George argues that the Cold War meant pressure on the American middle-class to conform, work as part of a team, and trust authority, in order to more effectively resist communism. A man had to be focused and prove himself, but within limits. He still had to provide a strong paternal role model to his children, and there was danger in becoming too much of a maverick, in taking matters into one’s own hands. A woman had to support her husband, take care of her children, and not distract her family with her own ambitions or desires.

In this way, George says the U.S. approach to “containment” of communism abroad also meant containing Americans at home (12):

“In the domestic sphere, containment was accomplished through marriage and the establishment of a ‘nuclear’ family residing in the suburbs with a husband as breadwinner and commuter and a woman as housewife and mother.”

The most common roles George identified in 1950s sci-fi movies were the “mystique model” for women and the “team player” for men.

The “mystique model” is a woman who is largely inactive, who needs a man to care for and protect her. She is fulfilled by becoming a wife and mother. Against the backdrop of the alien invasion, she is united romantically with the “team player.”

The “team player” is valued for his technical skill, which secures his place in the group. George says characters like Dr. Tom Nesbit in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) “impl[y] that while the individual may be right and offers the best plan for ‘repelling the invader,’ he can no longer simply strap on a six shooter and declare war on the savage (alien) as the Frontier hero once did” (39).

At the end, “mystique models” and “team players” are shown being rewarded, usually through heterosexual marriage. By contrast, a “vamp” or “Promethean scientist” (gifted doctor or scientist whose “adherence to individualism…make him and the products of his research a danger to society” [48]) transgressed 1950s gender roles. Their punishment in the film lets them serve as a cautionary tale, though George emphasizes that “even the most ‘mad’ of the Prometheus variation invasion film men are painted more sympathetically than any of the science fiction vamps” (69). For example, sci-fi vamps often turn into literal monsters, such as in The Wasp Women (1959) or Them! (1954), and are then “dispatched without mercy” (84).

In these films, “modern working women” and single women were also at times a site of anxiety, which makes sense when you consider the era’s social anxiety around women exercising economic power.

But George is careful to point out the films often have internal contradictions and at times even challenge conventional gender roles and U.S. Cold war ideologies outright.

For example, characters like Stephanie Clayton from Tarantula (1955) and Leigh Hunter from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms show if a “good working woman” doesn’t pose too much threat to the gendered order of things, she “does not have to choose between career and love, but can manage to have both. She can, and in some cases does, remain sexy and in control of her sexuality without transforming into a vamp. She breaks some of the mystique model rules, but remains a ‘good’ woman” (108).

Rarely, a woman could even be a film’s hero, by herself or along with a man. One of the classic examples George cites is the character of Helen Benson, from my favourite 1950s sci-fi movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). In the same film, Klaatu is set up as an “attractive alternative” model of masculinity against Tom’s “paternalistic and offensive behavior” towards Helen and her son (p. 140).

The biggest weakness in Gendering Science Fiction Films is the inconsistent and incomplete  analysis of race. George does talk about racial dynamics in the Creature from the Black Lagoon films, but at other times she misses what seem to be obvious opportunities for analysis. For example, in The Leech Woman (1960), “an ancient African-American woman and ex-slave, Malla” (p. 57) tempts a couple with a powder she says can extend life. The couple go on “safari” to Malla’s village and arrive as captives, along with their guide. There they witness Malla rejuvenating herself and becoming young and beautiful by extracting fluid from a man’s pineal gland. But George never gets into the implications of race in this film, so I was left with a ton of questions.

However, George does a good job highlighting how these films had to reinforce heterosexuality,  because homosexuality was directly connected with communism in the public consciousness at the time.

Feminist geeks will get a lot out of Gendering Science Fiction Films. George explains each film and character in such a way that you don’t have to have seen all the movies to understand what she’s talking about, but you wouldn’t be bored if you had. And her conclusion gives grounding and foundation for analysis of contemporary genre films by drawing connections between 1950s archetypes and modern characters. Through this lens we can start to see The Borg Queen and Mystique in the first X-Men trilogy as modern vamps; Alien‘s Ripley and The Terminator‘s Sarah Connor as distant relatives of Helen Benson and other early female heroes.

George’s analysis helps us begin to explore what these contemporary sci-fi films say about gender, but also about “U.S. culture, its myths, and its anxieties about and hopes for the future” (p. 169) in the post-9/11 context.

Photo of UFO by P199 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons