By Hannah Tyler
Spoiler alert for a whole lot of space movies.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been having what I insist on calling Space Lady Season: watching films that involve female scientists in space (or near aliens).
I managed to get through Arrival, Interstellar, Contact, and Proxima before I decided to ruin something I was doing purely for fun by interrogating why I was so interested in this topic right now.
Not many women are allowed to be in space in films generally. This is better than for trans and nonbinary people, who have apparently not been allowed into the film version of space at all. On TV, especially in Sci-fi, definitions of race and gender have been bent and blurred. But somehow in film they have remained rigid. The Black women of Hidden Figures are not allowed to be astronauts in space, only scientists on earth.
All of these women are defined by their relationships—for most, that means having children. But for others it’s their role as a child and their relationship to their fathers. It’s never the mother who is an intellectual inspiration in these movies.
Women aren’t allowed to be in space in movies unless they have kids, because being in space is about being alone in the universe, and only men are allowed to have existential crises.
In Arrival Amy Adams loses her 12-year-old child to a rare disease, then she meets her child’s father. On a mission to communicate with aliens who have landed at 12 sites around earth, the Heptapods (the cutest seven-legged squid-like faceless aliens you will ever see). It’s a gorgeous film even without its central conceit, subtle and beautifully shot by Bradford Young with a haunting score by Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Which is very much untrue. It’s very easy to follow. Arrival should not have the same criticisms levelled at it that, say, Gravity does (which I did not watch in Space Lady Season, because I found it boring the first time). Famously, Alfonso Cuarón was asked to write in a child as motivation for Sandra Bullock’s character by producers. Why else would a lady be in space? Arrival doesn’t use its child as motivation, rather it uses her as a symbol for time passing, and therefore, how one might perceive time in a way that isn’t linear. And thus, Arrival bucks the trend of Space Lady films because pregnancy is about being locked into linear time.
About 500 of my friends are currently pregnant or have just had kids. It’s a good time to do it as you can spend your down time/global catastrophe doing something useful. Me and Taylor Swift are doing something similar in that if we complete enough art projects, we will get a free pass from death.
In the same way that our parents and grandparents link us to the past, babies link us to the future. This sounds obvious. But it’s weird to see it. In holding a newborn baby you are struck with the feeling that this was you at one point, that you were this small. That once, you were nothing, and then you were born and now you are here, at this very point in time. And that this tiny being is a whole person, who will grow up to have a complex inner life, and then have more tiny beings, and then it just speeds up and keeps going and going and going. It’s deeply beautiful. But also, it’s deeply anxiety inducing. It just keeps going and going in an everlasting cycle that you are trapped in. Like a really intricately designed fairground ride you can’t get off. Similarly, in Moon, the Duncan Jones film, Sam Rockwell has multiple clones of himself instead of children.
In Interstellar two women go into space at various points in their lives. Jessica Chastain plays Matthew McConaughey’s daughter, Murph, and Anne Hathaway plays Michael Caine’s daughter. They are defined by their relationships to their scientist fathers. It’s always struck me as off that it’s never the mother who is an intellectual inspiration in these movies. While Anne Hathaway’s plea of love being the way through the emptiness of the universe is ultimately endorsed by the film, she is still defined by her relationship to her father and her role as a mother. The ship is carrying frozen embryos that she’s in charge of using to start a new colony on a far-off planet—a literal mother to the future human race. When she visits a planet near a black hole, her few hours is 17 years for the rest of the universe. This is a tragedy for her. It’s a major hiccup in her route to becoming the mother of humanity.
Contact came out in the ’90s, at a time when people cared about whether or not God exists. Written by the great, gentle, and humane science communicator Carl Sagan along with Ann Druyan, it tells the story of Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, who listens to signals in space at the Very Large Array in New Mexico. When the aliens do make contact, they send us blueprints for a device that will be able to take a person to them. Ellie goes through a wormhole where the aliens appear in the form of her dead scientist father on a beach she remembers from her childhood, so as not to freak her out. The rest of humanity don’t believe her story, as her 18 hours of wormhole travel have taken an instant on earth. For a minute, she gets to defy linear time. But that very experience is still defined by her relationship to her father.
Having a child isn’t necessarily about biology. Someone has to birth the kid I guess, but you don’t personally need to do it to be a parent. Most fathers don’t. In the same way being a woman has nothing to do with biology. But, space films are obsessed with biology and that’s because our tiny little bodies quake in the silence of space.
Space changes biology. Astronauts are exposed to space radiation outside the earth’s cosy, protective atmosphere. You grow taller in space. You lose muscle mass. You lose bone density. It was not known how microgravity would affect periods. Scientists were worried the blood would not flow out of the womb, or flow into the fallopian tube and become a problem. These fears turned out to be unfounded, but the only way that they could test it was by having a woman menstruate in space. Menstruation has been connected to space for millennia. It’s an interesting coincidence that both the moon and the average cycle of people who menstruate are at 29.53 and 28 days respectively, and we haven’t been able to find any reason for it.
Most of Proxima’s action takes place on the ground, in astronaut training school. Eva Green’s single mother shows the burden of being the expected provider of childcare, and shouldering greater judgement than her male colleagues when leaving her daughter to go to space for a year. At one point, she’s asked if she wants to take the pill continuously or use tampons, and when she confirms the tampons, she is told they will come out of her incredibly small luggage allowance. This references the famous story about NASA asking Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, if 100 tampons would be enough.
I always thought the lack of female existential crises in film was down to men (the ones usually making the films) not being able to see women’s interior lives. But maybe it’s actually because many women have the ability to produce a whole human and not be alone in the endless void. Women’s connections to earth’s endless cycles—of birth and death, of summer and winter, of emptiness and renewal—do not trap us in those cycles. Do not trap us in time, we own the void.