Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Cosmic Careers and Dead Children: Women Working in Space in Aliens, Gravity, Extant and the Cloverfield Paradox

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Cosmic Careers and Dead Children: Women Working in Space in Aliens, Gravity, Extant and the Cloverfield Paradox

Article excerpt

It wasn't just the baby they took from you. They took everything. Space. The stars.

- Extant, 'Incursion' (20 Aug 2014)

Time magazine recently noted that, despite a push for diversity of representation in sf film and television, 'textured female characters' are 'still the exception, not the rule' (Lansky 95-7). There has been a relative proliferation of female characters in recent sf, some of whom are astronauts: Rosa Dasque (Anamaria Marinca) and Katya Petrovna (Karolina Wydra) in Europa Report (Cordero US 2013), Dr Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) in Interstellar (Nolan US/UK 2014), Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) in The Martian (Scott US 2015), Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) in Passengers (Tyldum US 2017), Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery) in The Space Between Us (Chelsom US 2017), Commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dykhovichnaya) and Dr Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) in Life (Espinosa US 2017), and Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in Star Trek: Discovery (US 2017-). However, the astronaut mother with a family in space remains practically absent from contemporary sf, Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) in Lost in Space (US 2018-) being a rare exception. The astronaut mother in sf presents a site of confluence between the seemingly incompatible cultural ideals and archetypes of the astronaut and the mother. These two identities are perceived to exist on opposite ends of the continuum between traditional binary conceptions of science and nature, masculinity and femininity, rationality and irrationality, detachment and attachment, technology and biology, and space and the Earth. Merging these diametrically opposed concepts to conceivably coexist in one figure requires a feat of imagination that even contemporary sf stories struggle to achieve without 'breaking' the mother in the process of making her an astronaut.

In order to explore the complexities of the astronaut-mother figure, this article provides a close reading of four female astronaut characters in sf whose motherhood stories are constructed in strikingly similar ways: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in James Cameron's special edition of Aliens (US 1992), Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity (US 2013), Dr Molly Woods (Halle Berry) in the television series Extant (US 2014-15) and Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in The Cloverfield Paradox (Onah US 2018). Each of these narratives features a female protagonist who goes to space, whose job is the impetus for her space journey, and whose backstory features a dead child. Gravity, Extant and The Cloverfield Paradox are recent releases (within the past five years at the time of writing), and Aliens provides a classic example of a similar narrative phenomenon.

The trope of the child who is dead or otherwise lost plagues many a strong female character, especially in male-dominated genres: brothel madam Maeve Millay's (Thandie Newton) quest to locate the missing daughter who haunts her memories in Westworld (US 2016-); FBI Special Agent Dr Dana Scully's (Gillian Anderson) dead alien-hybrid daughter Emily and missing son William whom she gives up for adoption and ultimately believes dead in The X-Files (US 1993-2002, 2016-18); Dr Louise Banks's (Amy Adams) as yet unconceived baby who is destined to die as a juvenile of an incurable disease in Arrival (Villeneuve US 2016); and General Leia Organa's (Carrie Fisher) delinquent son who murders his father and is lost to the Dark Side in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams US 2015). Common across all these examples is the fact that the female characters are presented as extraordinary - highly intelligent and high achieving - suggesting that the narratives tend to link female exceptionality with trauma. Either traumatic experiences drive female characters towards exceptionality, like Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton; Emilia Clarke) in the Terminator films (Cameron US 1984 and 1991, Taylor US 2015), or it is the female character's exceptionality that exposes her to situations which have traumatic consequences, like Jane (Sarah Snook) in Predestination (Spierig brothers Australia 2014). …

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