Gender In Science Fiction Films, 1964-1979 by Bonnie Noonan (book review).

May 11, 2016 | By | 2 Replies More

I reviewed Bonnie Noonan’s previous 2005 book, ‘Women Scientists In Fifties Science Fiction Films’, last year. A decade later, she writes ‘Gender In Science Fiction Films, 1964-1979’, looking at how the roles of women changed in a few sparse decades. Reading into what she says, women have tended to be token characters in many of our films from this period as you rarely got more than one in starring roles and then they were mostly subservient to the male leads, even if they were also more qualified. This changed through the 1960s as Noonan compares the women’s roles in the 1950s genre films. The title is a bit of a misnomer as she does look at genre TV shows and covers ‘The Outer Limits’ quite extensively. I tend to disagree with her about the reasons for it only having two seasons and not having the lasting legacy of the latter ‘Star Trek’. ‘The Outer Limits’ was an anthology show with no recurring characters and it always had a tough time getting fresh new material and on budget. I do agree with her that it being filmed in black and white to show similar tonal value to the 1950s made some sense but it would have been doomed with those new colour TVs that were coming up. I wonder what happened to them?


I’m a little puzzled why ‘2001’ was included because there wasn’t any real significant female roles in it and even Margaret Tyzack’s role could have been played by a man. The same applies to ‘Robinson Crusoe On Mars’ (1964) where the female part is place by the woolly monkey Mona, although this has to be academic as no way would she have been desirable choice and hardly spoke in a language that made any sense.

The change in roles of women wasn’t done with a bang but a gradual change, matching the changes in real life. I suspect Hollywood was nervous which is hardly surprising considering the apparent sexism in the studios. Indeed, when it came to ‘The Andromeda Strain’ (1971), the studio didn’t actually believe there were female scientists and had to check with real scientists before agreeing to director Robert Wise to gender change from the original book. It was also a significant move away from treating the woman as a sex object.

Some errors I should point out. In ‘Fantastic Voyage’ (1966), the patient isn’t an important diplomat but a defecting scientist who happened to know how to prolong reduced size beyond the hour of the operation. The photograph from the film could be interpreted as shrinking as its essentially a studio still but is in fact the crew enlarging at the end. With ‘The Planet Of The Apes’ (1968), it wasn’t Zira who was described as ‘ugly’ but how she saw Taylor.

A little knowledge goes a long way. I do wonder what Noonan would have said had she known that HAL was originally going to be the female voiced Athena but was changed because Kubrick didn’t think it appropriate to the film. Think about the metaphors had it been Athena and it would have been even more disturbing. She also has a couple events the wrong way around as HAL didn’t kill the hibernauts while Bowman was on the Discovery. This scene changing does happen more than once which does make me question Noonan’s reliance on watching the films, memory, her notes or an assistant she mentions having. I really wish authors would use SF experts to check for errors such as these. It’s not as though there aren’t enough of us out here and such mistakes can undermind any of her intentions.

I have to confess I’m a little unsure about ‘Barbarella’ (1968) being here because it really is more a fantasy with a few SF tropes, as indeed was its original comicstrip. Noonan also notes lot of films that she does ignore for not being SF, so it’s hardly like she isn’t applying a criteria. With ‘A Boy And His Dog’ (1975), although Noonan points out the fate of Quilla June, ignores the fact that Vic joined Blood with the meal in the finale.

An odd fact about ‘The Omega Man’ (1971) that she missed is that when anyone is turned into a creature, that their skin becomes bleached white. Skin colour has no relevance to these vampires.

I was hoping that when she reached the 70s, Noonan would get on to the rise of the female leads in SF but although she mentions the right films, she promptly does a backswing to the 60s ‘B’ movies before pointing out that many of them are mixed media. She really should have read my article of a couple years ago pointing out the 13 sub-genres of SF and how all other genres have aspect in our genre. When she does look at 70s films, she gets waylaid from exploring the characters involved which is a shame as I’d have liked to know her opinion of the likes of the feisty Ellen Ripley and Leia Organa amongst others.

As with all of these kinds of books, it’s a shame that Noonan doesn’t go one more year as ‘The Final Countdown’ (1980) as Laura Scott (played by Katherine Ross) would certainly should have been included as she was certainly prepared to win in a man’s world of the 1940s.

I can’t help feel Noonan was rushing to reach a deadline when she has 27 pages padding giving credits and dialogue quotes from films from this period of time. More so when she includes films that don’t have any female characters like ‘Darkstar’ and ‘Silent Running’.

Considering the strength of the first three chapters, I think Noonan should have just covered SF films up to the end of the 60s and then did another book properly looking at SF films of the 70s and devote time properly to them. Considering how SF films have grown in the decades since, it would be the only way to examine them.

The roles of women characters have certainly changed in films and TV but most of it is a reflection of how the woman’s role has changed in western society and that affects all genres, not just SF. If anything, its proof that women are just as capable, if not better, in a variety of professions. Hollywood might have been slow to initiate the changes for all manner of reasons but the changes are evident today. Read but with caution.

GF Willmetts

May 2016

(pub: McFarland, 2015. 218 page indexed with a few illustrations large enlarged paperback. Price: £40.50 (UK), $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7864-5974-2)

check out websites: http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/ and www.eurospanbookstore.com

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Category: Books, Culture, Scifi

About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

Comments (2)

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  1. Ian says:

    “…With ‘A Boy And His Dog’ (1975), although Noonan points out the fate of Quilla June, ignores the fact that Vic joined Blood with the meal in the finale.”

    No he doesn’t. Not in the film and not in the original story. The ‘meat’ is solely used to keep Blood alive. In fact, the ending has no real logic – Vic must kill the girl _immediately_ and cut up her body so Blood can drink the blood/eat the meat? There was so little time that Vic couldn’t kill anyone else, and Blood was so weak but was nonetheless able to chew and digest meat? And he revives strongly enough to travel while the meat is still fresh? It’s an appalling film but fits well with the sex-is-death theme that is a given in so many American films.
    It’s ‘Dark Star’, not ‘Darkstar’.
    Her choice of films may seem weird, especially when there are ‘no women’ in them, but I think she’s working from films and TV which are available on the web and DVD, and couldn’t resist including them if one of the characters could vaguely be seen as having a female / woman role.
    HAL (a name utilised because each letter is one letter back from IBM) was also mildly planned as being female, but then Ripley in Alien was originally going to be male.
    As with all this stuff, I increasingly despair on how SF gets battered round the head with its depictions of gender, race, disability, etc – with no equivalent attack on _other_ genres (crime, westerns, what-have-you), as if SF was (or should have been) immune from social or commercial influence.

  2. UncleGeoff says:

    Hello Ian
    With the last scene in the film, just what was Vic eating?? I doubt it was prawn crackers. After seeing to Blood, he was also hungry.
    Presuming you read Noonan’s book, she does say she loves watching films, especially when young and this is pre-Net. Considering her focus was women in genre films, she passed no comment on films that didn’t have women in them hence the confusion as to why include them.
    The absence of comment on 70s films in her book considering the title is very noticeable. It isn’t as though women’s acting parts had a significant change.
    The reason why our genre gets more discussion about gender and other differences than other genres is we’re a crowd open to discussion on such changes. Are there fandoms in the other genres that can do such comment that I’ve missed?? Don’t confuse this with fandoms for particular authors, characters or realities, as we have those as well.

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