From Science Fiction To Future Noir: The Voyage Begins.
Once society has begun to fiddle around with people, there’s no turning back.
Nili in Body of Glass.1
One of the most important thematic concerns in Marge Piercy’s Body of Glass is the questioning of the status of a human being.The interface between machine and human in this novel (and other novels of its type) has directly affected the way human beings think about their own body, signalling and reflecting the deconstruction of the dynamic of western dualism. While the ‘anthropomorphizing’ (p.95) cyborg, Yod, struggles to be more characteristically human with his developing consciousness about humans’ feelings and emotions, human beings work in the opposite way, that is, by investing more in ‘engineering’ their bodies; in consequence, they not only blur the distinction between themselves and machines, but also call intoquestion what constitutes a human. The novel envisions that the extension of technology into a human body, whether biological or mechanical, is inevitable.
As exemplified by Body of Glass, the interface between human and machine signifies the curious blurring of one of the important polarities in Western thinking. This section aims to investigate the possible links between human beings and machines, and the effects of such links on the status of female characters in relation to their transgressiveness, in the hybrid of science fiction and the noir thriller genre known as ‘future noir’. Examination of these linksmay hopefully reveal the varying degrees of interface that can be liberatory and influential to these female characters. As I consider the human and machine interface as another demarcation that helps to define transgressive female characters, it can therefore be taken as a critical category apart from theperformative gender roles discussed in the earlier chapter. This categorization is an effort to demonstrate that the blurring of the binary of human and machine causes the collapse of human identity and reality, including the traditional understanding of gender division and classification, forming the bleak future of the noir world. Especially with the incorporation of noir moods and conventions, and the influence of postmodernist culture, this category traces and investigates a variety of ‘female’ characters in a different array of science fiction texts ranging from the ‘hard’ science fiction genre (a.k.a science fiction proper) to the ‘future noir’, often embodied in the cyberpunk sub-genre.
This method is germane to the nature of genre developments and studies considering the concept of hybridisation offered by Mark Jancovich,2 who looks at the overlap between genres. Helen Carr has analysed the importance of a genre study, as she believes that ‘since the norms and expectations of each genre are enmeshed with the norms and expectations of society as a whole, they seem a particularly fruitful point to focus upon - how gender enters into and is constructed by the form of the genre, and how and perhaps why those constructionsmay change’.3 Carr’s argument highlights the idea that the nature of a genre is influential in determining how gender is represented or constructed, drawing attention to the need to understand the working of this representation within a certain genre. With the concept of hybridisation at work, this section also sets out to discover how and why the amalgamation of genres affects such representation, in this case in the ‘future noir’ sub-genre that originates in science fiction and the noir thriller genre. The affinity between science fiction and future noir is the result of the first’s evolution and expansion, and the latter’s association with noir’s structure, mood and convention. For that reason, future noir amalgamates both science fiction and canonical noir’s extrapolative traits to form its own symbiosis, adding a social and critical edge to it. In embryo, this section will investigate the transgressive female characters in the hybrid of science fiction and noir thriller texts that can be categorized as ‘future noir’ to demonstrate how the mood and conventions inherent in noir texts can further complicate the binary opposite of human and machine, which has resulted in the interface.This section of my research poses the question of gender relevancy, problematized by the postmodernist conception of a fragmented self, to arrive at its conclusion that transgressive females in future noir texts benefit from such fragmentation to overcome their oppressive portrayal or representation.
Technology and Gender Divisions: From Science Fiction to Future Noir
What is important about science fiction, even crucial, is the very thing that gave it birth- the perception of change through technology. It is not that science fiction predicts this particular change or that that makes it important; it is that it predicts change.
- Isaac Asimov in the foreword for Encyclopedia of Science fiction
The proliferation and popularity of the science fiction genre is generally attributed to its speculative4, prophetic, extrapolative and allegorical narrative of imagining the past, future or an alternative/parallel world. Its flexible spatial and temporal significance creates possibilities for exploration of disparate themes and characterization ranging from speculation about Armageddon, the invasion of aliens from other planets, the discovery and exploration of the universe, to travelling through time to the future or past. These varied themes are also the result of science fiction’s enthusiasm for highlighting and criticising contemporary social, political and economic concerns, using the imagined world as a mirror of the present. The imagined or fantasised world, while often creating a thrilling atmosphere and mood, hence the genre’s palpable popularity, is not too far-fetched for the audience to accept and comprehend its very tenet.
Sometimes, science fiction’s varied and disparate themes are fully explored at the expense of the development of the characters, a characteristic that is more prominent in the earlier science fiction texts. The claim of science fiction as agenre, as pointed out by some critics like Kingsley Amis, ‘has always been that it is a literature of ideas. A fiction in which the idea rather than the individual is the protagonist’.5 This statement is echoed by Hazel Beasley Pierce’s claim in A Literary Symbiosis that ‘science fiction/fantasy is idea-based’6 and that it is a genre in which ‘the social imperatives take precedence over the individual’.7 Both claims may refer to the Golden Age of English language science fiction, from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, when adventure into outer space was undertaken and achieved by a group, rather than an individual. In Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) and Werner von Braun’s screenplay of Life on Mars, which was filmed in 1955, as an illustration, the stories are narrated in the third person, focusing on teamwork rather than an individual’s adventure. One of the effects of Amis’s observation, which indirectly points to the genre’s adaptability that feminist science fiction writers talk about, is the allowance that the ‘group versus individual achievement’ theme implicitlymadeit possible for female writers to subvert and appropriate the conventions by focusing on the female characters’ personal development, creating a rounded character that the audience can relate to. The adaptability and malleability of the genre’s form and its protean themes, in effect, explain not only the genre’s popularity but also its ability to be ‘hybridised’.
Historically, as science fiction has previously been associated with ayoung adolescent male readership as its primary commercial target, it is logical to conclude that the adventures undertaken are conspicuously suitable for men only. In Rocket Ship Galileo adapted into a film in 1950 called Destination Moon8(Irving Pitchel)) and Life on Mars all the crewmembers are male, making it easier for the male audience to identify with the protagonists’ heroic adventure. In a film like Planet of the Apes (1968), the only female crewmember dies on the spaceship while travelling back to earth, leaving all male crewmembers to venture into the ‘new’ world. In certain cases, the male heroes are also seen as the vehicle for the fulfilment or excitement of male fans’ desire or of theirdream to explore the universe, a way of experiencing their rites of passage in the world ‘created’ for them. In effect, the male hero provides an oneiric view of the myth-making process of the ‘world’ in science fiction, in which the success of the hero’s adventure provides an illusion of or analogy for the coming-of-age of these adolescent male readers. This myth-making process, as illustrated by Planet of the Apes, involves the need to rescue not only the turbulent ‘world’ but also the ‘endangered’ female species.
In that vein, Eric S. Rabkin’s survey on the female characters in science fiction reveals that:
A further telling index of the present expansion and maturity of science fiction is the fact that even male writers are paying more attention to their female characters, often to quite good effect, sometimes using them even as that rare bird, the female protagonist.9
Rabkin’s survey describes the way women are commonly treated in science fiction. It suggests that, though women are liberated by the genre, they are still considered to be men’s sexual objects, despite the proliferation of the portrayal of physically strong female characters. Women in science fiction proper in effect exist in relation to men. This assumption perhaps stems from the genre’s long association with male readers or audience. One clear example of this kind of treatment can be seen in the film adaptation of Jean-Claude Forest’s comic book, the highly eroticised and camp Barbarella,10 with Jane Fonda as the eponymous heroine, carrying out a mission to find and capture a mad scientist called Durand Durand in the 41st century. Even at the outset of the film, Barbarella’s body is eroticised as she floats in her spaceship, undressing bit by bit. Indeed, in the course of her adventure, she literally makes love to almost all the men (including a blind angel) that she comes across and gets undressed on more than one occasion. She is a strong character, but also a sex object tailor-made for the pleasure of the male audience, the assumed spectator of science fiction. A character like Barbarella reveals that at the level of ideological symbolism, the representation of a woman in science fiction can sometimes be reactionary rather than progressive.
Though science fiction’s readership has previously been associated with male adventure and fantasy, some feminist critics on science fiction believe that the world imagined by the genre is not always misogynistic in nature.Indeed,Joanna Russ strongly suggests that:
Perhaps one place to look for myths that escape from the equation Culture = Male is in those genres that already employ plots not limited to one sex- i.e., myths that have nothing to do with our accepted gender roles […][one of the] three places one can look: […] Science fiction […][which ignores] gender roles […] [and] [… is] not culture-bound.11
Arguably, Russ is somewhat optimistic in her view of gender division in science fiction: her optimism can be problematic in our understanding of thescience fiction genre itself. In that vein, Constance Penley argues that ‘[i]ronically, it is science fiction film – our hoarest and seemingly most sexless / genre that alone remains capable of supplying the configurations of sexual difference required by the classical cinema’.12 I would argue that even in the alternative or alien world in which gender is ostensibly free from cultural construction or influence, the genre cannot totally and completely divorce itself from the cultural background of its author. Authors are gendered and culturally informed, therefore, their works are ‘in response’ to what they observe or perceive in their daily lives. In a great many cases, as science fiction authors are mainly men, the female characters are consigned to their traditional roles of providing the romantic interest for the male protagonists, from Maria in Metropolis to Lara Anderton in Minority Report. In short, these women exist in relation to men. Russ’s conception of isolating the female characters from their cultural context can be problematic in liberating them; such a text may well be high in critical edge but low in comprehension/reception, defeating the feminist’s aim of criticising and promulgating the genre itself. Her novel, The Female Man, is the reflection of this phenomenon, high in quality, but not an easy read at all.
Russ’s equation, that is, Culture=Male, however, helps usto understand one of the major concerns among feminist critics of science fiction, that is, the prominent association of men with technology, excluding the female from its grand narrative. One of the most important ways of investigating the possible evolution in the portrayal of the female characters is, therefore, by looking at the inherently common binary oppositions in science fiction texts. This can be achieved in three ways: by looking at the alternative world; by looking at the association between women and nature; and by investigating the different attitude that science fiction has towards technology itself. In the first instance, I find Geoff King and Tanya Kryzwinska’s suggestion very illuminating:
One way of exploring the thematic oppositions established in science fiction cinema in more detail is to look at the kind of futures or alternatives that are imagined.13
Even though King and Kryzwinska’s suggestion focuses on science fiction cinema, it is also relevant to other forms of science fiction. The future or the alternative world that is imagined in sci-fi texts reflects both its allegorical and extrapolative strategy and formulation, functioning as a mirror of the present and window to the different interpretations. In other words, science fiction often employs binary oppositions to heighten its thematic oppositions or variations, whose clues and motifs can actually be obtained from the alternative world imagined and presented. Wells’sdystopian world in The Time Machine, for instance, provides a binary opposite of the passive and the active, suggesting that passivity is subordinate to activity, signifying the latter’s oppression of the first. In other words, passivity, which is often associated with femininity and literalised by the genteel nature of Eloi, is considered subordinate to masculinity/activity, which is personified by the barbaric Morlocks. Binary opposition is used in science fiction texts for several reasons, such as: (i) in the film Blade Runner, the binary opposition presented by the imagined world questions the status of a human as opposed to a replicant; (ii), in Demolition Man, two contrasting worlds comprising of the blissful but mundane utopian world of San Angeles inhabited by Lelina Huxley (Sandra Bullock), and with the rebellious and famished underworld lead by Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary), are juxtaposed to show the superficiality or elusiveness of utopian vision.
In addition to signifying Western dualism, Edward James argues that,
[…] you might see that sf (SF, and to a lesser extent, fantasy), because they deal with imaginative alternatives to the real world, also frequently offer a criticism of that world - and thus may, in short, be much more subversive than anything else that is marketed as ‘popular fiction’.14
For instance, in the future world visited by the protagonist of The Time Machine, the social structure is divided into two: the passive Eloi who live in an Edenic world on the surface; and, the barbaric Morlocks who live in the dark, and highly technological and mechanical underground. These two different worlds are used by H.G. Wells, among others, as a metaphor for his socialist view of his society by tackling the issue of the apparent gap between the rich and the poor. The use of two disparate worlds divided by roles and functions has some affinity with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in which the proletarians live in the underground working for the elite society on the surface. The Metropolis’ dual-world sets a precedent for many other films in terms of the division of society, such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner15, Marco Brambilla’s Demolition Man (1983), and the post-apocalyptic landscape and society in the sci-fi fantasy adventure of George Miller’s Mad Max16 trilogy. This criticism is prevalent in The Terminator in which the origin of the apocalyptic future is located in the present, showing that the future, in a postmodern paradox, can come back to haunt the present.
One of the most effective ways of treating science fiction as a genre is by looking at its function as a cautionary tale, foregrounding thesocial commentaryby usingalternative or parallel worlds as a warning, sign, or mirror of what is to come due to certain cultural or political attitudes. This is an affinity, as argued by Constance Penley, that reflects ‘American science fiction’s continuity for the dystopian rather than the utopian’.17Oftentimes, this condition places the female characters at the centre of the conflict. As a mirror, the link between the imagined world and the real one is often embodied in the analogy that can be drawn from the narrative itself. Hazel Beasley Pierce argues that ‘in the subsequent solution of the problem the narrative [of science fiction] can sensitise a reader to analogous problems in contemporary society’.18 Franklin J. Schaffner’sPlanet of the Apes(1968),for instance,tackles issues such as racism and social division, as the apes are hierarchically divided into three: the chimpanzees as scientists and thinkers, the orang-utans as politicians, and the gorillas as soldiers. However, the film continues to marginalize the main female character, Nova, who is used as part of the experiment to understand the male protagonist, especially his mating and communicating habits. Hence, she becomes not only his love interest, but also his responsibility. Some science fiction texts can also be viewed as political parables that extrapolate, for instance, Stalinism in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Curiously, the film also situates the main female character within the male protagonist’s conflict, functioning as the nemesis of his struggle for freedom by luring him into the promise of the utopian world, resulting in his physical punishment and torture. In a British Sci-fi film directed by a French director, Francois Truffaut, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), which is based on the novel by Ray Bradbury, the portrayal of the future as bleak is heightened by its dystopian vision, which is represented less in the state-of-the-art technology and more in the attitude of the oppressive government towards written words. Truffaut’s film is relevant to its contemporary anxieties as the atmospheric details of the film’s retro-futuristic mise-en-scene such as the 60s fashion and suburban houses are maintained throughout, functioning as some sort of a reminder of the affinity it has with its contemporary world. Despite all that, the real crisis in Montag’s life is realised when he meets Clarisse, who shares the same interest in books (which are banned by the government) with him, culminating in him being a fugitive.
One of the main roles of Feminist science fiction writers involves subverting and challenging the putative assumptions that hard science fiction and its sub-genre make about female characters, that is, that women are to be rescued by male protagonists. Feminist science fiction writers then manipulate the alternative world to give these characters the chance to live without the constraint of their gender identity. One popular approach, according to Kaveney, ‘is simply to tackle those assumptions in earlier work which happen to matter to them, often those assumptions which degrade and insult women’.19 In Naomi Mitchinson’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman, the protagonist is a woman, Mary, whose inter-planetary adventure celebrates her femaleness whilst enabling her to work professionally around the universe. Mitchinson incorporates a diary writing style into her narration, validating female emotion as a scientific record. Meanwhile, Floating World by Cecilia Holland, chronicles the life and adventures of an anarchist female protagonist who crosses the boundary of race and gender, as she is both black and a woman, trying to create peace in the galactic. The message of this story is obvious, that is, if a man can get sexually or professionally involved with an alien, so can a woman. Both novels promote women’s freedom to choose: while the female protagonist in Floating World chooses to keep her pregnancy by an alien leader (Saba), the female protagonist in Memoirs of a Spacewoman allows a scientific experiment to be carried out on her body. This is a sign of transgression in which, though gender identity is important in raising gender issues, traditional gender roles are increasingly irrelevant.
The second way of understanding the portrayal of female characters in the evolution of the science fiction genre is by looking at the association of women with nature, a recurrent theme that is responsible for subjugating the female characters. A great body of feminist criticism picks up the way and the reason why the representation of women in science fiction is often associated with nature by looking at the dynamic of the binary system that dictates a lot of Western thinking and ideas. In the case of science fiction, much criticism focuses on the opposition between culture/masculine and nature/feminine; which explains why a woman is represented as such in hard science fiction. In both The Time Machine and Metropolis, for instance, which are considered seminal works in the science fiction genre, the binary opposition is highlighted with help from the mise-en-scene and the atmosphere of the world the female characters inhabit. The Time Machine, as an illustration, although acknowledged by some critics to reflect Wells’s interest in Darwinism, is also about associating women or the feminine with nature. The Eloi aresoft and gentle natured, and Wells paints the world that the Eloi inhabit asnot only havingan edenic feel and atmosphere, but also a feminine one. Likewise, in Metropolis, the organic and non-organic Maria provides a thematic opposition relating to the association between women and nature. When the robot Maria is invented and eventually runs amok, it signifies the idea that a mechanical and robotic lifestyle is not conducive to female beings. What the less radical feminist science fiction critics often do is to show how the thematic oppositions, especially the nature and culture divide in relation to female characters, can be viewed and discussed without any hostility towards the male gender. Feminist utopian science fiction writers also tackle the divide by actually celebrating and essentialising women’s harmony with nature by showing how these women can be super-productive and progressive, if they work effectively with nature. Not rejecting technology in its totality, feminist science fiction writers are more interested in showing the choices that the female characters have in their life, not confining these characters to the use of technology alone to achieve their goal. This choice is prominent in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man in which the characters have the choice to either use science and technology or not, and most of them choose not to. The idea of celebrating woman’s association with nature runs true for feminist ecologists, who usually represent the alien world as an ecologically friendly environment - green and rich with interesting fauna to be explored. In Memoir of a Spacewoman, the female protagonist’s duty, as an agent of communication, is to communicate with the aliens from other planets and study possible living organisms that she finds, including fauna and butterfly-like creatures.
As women are often associated with nature, the apparent consequence of this is that they are seen as emotional rather than rational beings, a stark contrast to what science and technology is all about. The idea that science’s apotheosis is the rational rather than the emotional has clear implications for the treatment of woman in science fiction: she is an emotional being and closely associated to nature, hence her dismissive ‘damsel in distress’20 role. Scott Sanders argues that:
Women and nature bear the same features: both are mysterious, irrational, instinctive; both are fertile and mindless; both inspire wonder and dread in the hero; both are objects of male conquest. Just as men in SF embody consciousness, the agency through which nature knows itself, so women embody fertility, the agency by which nature reproduces itself. Men belong to the realm of mind; women and nature, to no-mind. Women are the bearers of life; men are life interpreters and masters.21
Sanders, however, concedes that this analogy or binary opposition ‘does not hold for all SF by any means’,22 though it is common enough to draw a conclusion from. Science and technology are often cited as the epitome of rationality because they rely heavily on empirical data or scientific explanation to put forth their interpretations and arguments. By using scientific evidence and explanation, it is easier for science fiction writers to put their meaning across. Probably because of its origin in the early form of ‘science fiction texts’ which, according to Roz Kaveney, ‘were essentially not very dramatised lectures on the future of technology and technocracy’,23 the traditional science fiction narrative therefore, according to Russ, ‘avoidsoffending against what is known to be known’.24 In hard science fiction, women are thought to be less clever than men, so their main role is often subordinated by both the male protagonist and the narrative itself, consigning her to providing the love interest for the male protagonist. In the film adaptation of The Time Machine,25 the male protagonist is a scientist who invents a time machine that makes his journey through time possible; subsequently resulting in him trying to save the female protagonist from being the victim of the barbaric Morlocks. In Roger Christian’s Battlefield Earth, the male protagonist is the one who is able to break the alien’s, Psychlos, language and code by understanding a universal language represented by mathematical symbols. He then makes the effort to explain it to the other male prisoners, and leads them towards their liberation. In Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember For You Wholesale (which was filmed as Total Recall (1990) by Paul Verhoeven) and Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man (1992), the wives, Kirsten and Caroline Angelo (Colleen Coffey), respectively, are portrayed as emotional beings, and therefore they cannot understand the importance of science and technology. Exasperated by their husbands’ interest in science, they both decide to leave their beleaguered husbands. Caroline, for instance, argues, ‘It may be the future for you, Larry. But it’s the same old shit for me’.
The third way of understanding the evolution of female characters in science fiction is through the representation of technology itself. Science and technology receive a varied treatment in science fiction,26acting as an analogy forthe varied treatment of the female characters in science fiction. In general terms, science fiction often deals with either the blessing or the curse of technological advancement. Though not all science fiction stories are hostile towards technological intervention into human lives, the more popular ones, like Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man and the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix, undeniably manipulate the audience’s technologically driven anxiety and paranoia rather overwhelmingly. The different attitude towards and perception of science and technology indeed providenot only a premise for thematic oppositions, but also a variety of narrative trajectories, enabling the texts to explore domains not explored in other genres, such as in The Matrix in which the human world is taken over by machines. Science fiction’s discrete approach to technology reflects its ontological concerns over the effect of technology on human identities and lives, as illustrated by novels (like Marge Piercy’s Body of Glass and William Gibson’s Neuromancer) and films (like Steven Spielberg’s A.I: Artificial Intelligence and David Cronenberg’s Existenz). For in this very ontological question lies the need to reconcile technological advancement with human dignity, to take control over the machine. Films like The Matrix and The Terminator are the epitome of this very quest. In future noir, with its close affinity with dystopian narrative, the machine, according to Jane Donawerth, is ‘ a symbol for the dangers and possibilities of women’s freedoms’.27 The female characters in these films represent the different types of female characters found in science fiction and explore the way they are treated, forming an ideological basis for the understanding their transgressiveness.
Feminist science fiction writers manipulate technological advancement to provide opportunities for female characters to cross the boundary of traditional gender roles and definitions.In both Mitchison’s Memoir of a Spacewomanand Cecillia Holland’s Floating World, the journey across the universe undertaken by the female protagonists is made possible by space technology. Films like Contact (1997) and Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) show how technology can assist human beings in conflict. In Contact, it helps Ellie to not only explore the alien world but also to understand herself better, allowing her to come to terms with her father’s death. Feminist science fiction novels like Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Marge Piercy’s Body of Glass signify the importance of technology in the female characters’ lives. Even though some characters in The FemaleMan prefer not to use technology, this is a matter of choice. On the other hand, the female characters in Body of Glass are valuable to the society that they live in due to their knowledge of technology, a knowledge that is crucial in protecting their free city.
Some science fiction stories do suffer from the Frankenstein Complex, an anxiety that many dystopian texts are imbued with, especially as a metaphor for the threat the female body and sexuality represent. In this vein, the effort to create technology in our own image is seen as having very terrible consequences for human lives. In the early history ofscience fiction, the figure of a robot represents the anxiety that one day technological invention will render human functions obsolete. Isaac Asimov’s Robbie as well as other stories in the I, Robot collection capture this kind of anxiety, using a robot to replace the female role as a child minder. With the invention of computer technology, the anxiety is transferred or expanded to the over reliance on computers to solve humanity’s problems, as it becomes clear that these computers are more intelligent and efficient than humanbeings themselves. The theme of technology running amok can be found in, for instance, Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey,which is adopted from C. Arthur Clark’s Sentinel of Eternity,inwhich a sentient supercomputer called HAL is both maniacal and homicidal, killing a few astronauts who are still hibernating; the computer called Alfred in Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed imprisons and impregnates its owner, Susan, so that it can be considered ‘good, to be of assistance, useful and productive’ (p.3); and in The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), the threat of technology to human beings is so great that technology itself tries to change human history by exterminating them in a nuclear holocaust. The idea that machines can in future take over human civilization is also one of the prominent themes in The Matrix in which human beings are used as batteries to generate the machine. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) as the leader of the group comments on this, ‘Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.’
Another variation of the Frankenstein Complex is often found in the narrative of conspiracy in some science fictions that reveal the subversive nature of scientific experimentation. Commonly embedded in investigative frameworks, the impetus is to unravel the conspiracy involving scientific experimentation, creating an anxiety and paranoia that are commonly associated with a bleak and gloomy noir mood. This variation is relevant to my analysis because it is related to the iconic and discrete level analysed by Tom Moylan, which will be discussed later, regarding the levels at which the text subverts the original genre conventions.In the film The X-Files(1998), in an effort to clear their names, Agents Mulder and Scully discover that some of the cases assigned to them prior to their ‘disgrace’ are probably related to the clandestine scientific projects organized by the American government itself. The ubiquitous ‘The Truth Is Out There’ maxim in the television version signifies their mistrust of the government’s policy, which could lead to possible revelation of the government’s secret. In this case, the fear and anxiety stem from the putative assumption that the American government itself is sometimes complicit in allowing aliens to infiltrate the human race. The X-Files is more concerned about the conspiracy of the covering up, rather than the exposing of the invasion itself, foregrounding the complicity faced by both protagonists. To a greater extent, The X-Files uses noir conventions to fashion the narrative in the way that allows the theme of conspiracy to suck the male protagonist into the world of duplicity and double-crossing, reminiscent of noir’s underworld. The theme of conspiracy and of the paranoia that ensues is also prominent in Enemy of the State (1998) in which the paranoiaabout the use or abuse of surveillance technology to intrude into one’s personal life and space is one of the film’s major themes. The male protagonist’s, Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), life gradually disintegrates due to a conspiracy by the government agents who misuse this very technology. Dean is involved in the conspiracy by accident, and has to find his way out by manipulating technology itself. The film uses the enigmatic figure of Brill (Gene Hackman) to validate its premise, that is, it is not possible to escape the loop of the abuse of technology that the protagonist is paranoid about.
Our understanding of the evolving representationof female characters in science fiction can be clarified by grouping these charactersinto three main categories which, although this classification is not exhaustive, it gives us a stronger sense of how female figures function in different kinds of narratives.First, we can identifythe type of character who isa victim of her own characterization as well as of anarration in which they are subsumed or usurped by the male characters (verbal-less Nova for instance). These tend to benarratives that prioritise the male characters, especially, say, by making a male character the narrator, centring the narrative with his consciousness. The victim narrative normally requires the female characters to be rescued by the male protagonists either literally or symbolically as exemplified by Weena in the film version of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine,Nova (Linda Harrison) in Planet of the Apes(1968)and Rachel (Sean Young) in Blade Runner. Some female characters are also usurped by a narrative that makes their appearance perfunctory. In Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2000), there are ostensibly three prominent female characters - Terri (Connie Nielson), Renee Cote (Jill Teed) and Maggie (Kim Delaney) - as they are female astronauts who seem to be intelligent and brave. As an illustration, Maggie, though inspirational to her husband, Jim (Gary Sinise), and responsible for his motivation to go to Mars, appears only in flashbacks; thus confirming her absence from the main narrative. When Renee’s character gets killed in the beginning of the adventure, the only female crew member that survives, Terri, is shown to be more emotional and less intelligent vis-à-vis her male counterparts. On several occasions, her response to abizarre discovery, that is, ‘that’s impossible’, reflects her incompetence. Indeed, the three female characters in the film are somewhat ‘absent’ from the adventure, centring male consciousness at least as the prima facie evidence of male supremacy.
Second, the woman can be figuredas an initiator of an event who crosses the boundaries of gender roles, which in turn signifies her agency. In Metropolis, Maria is the initiator who protests against the oppressive structure of the government. In Fahrenheit 451, Clarisse is an initiator who breaks the rules set by the oppressive government. As an initiator, Clarisse signifies agency, with the ability to change and work with the male protagonist, Montag, as opposed to the male protagonist’s wife, Linda, who is passive and addicted to the drug sanctioned by the government, a victim of the government (but one whorefuses help from her husband). Other transgressive characters can be found in Mad Max The Thunderdome with Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) who writes the law used in Thunderdome; Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) and the female oracle (Gloria Foster) in The Matrix, who propel the narrative of the story, the first with her kinetic strength and the latter with her ability to prophesy; Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie-Ann Moss) as the leader of the first manned mission to Mars in Red Planet (2000) who leads an all-male mission to Mars.
The third category, is a female figure who begins as a victim but turns into an initiator, which is a transformation that signifies not only science fiction’s schizophrenic representation of a female character but also her appropriation of agency. The category in which a victim turns into an initiator is also an indication or a sign of transgression, especially due to the character’s opposing mentality. The character’s transformation from a victim to a fighter can also be seen as an effort to reject subjectivity. The roles also do overlap, for instance, in Roger Christian’s Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 (2000) in which the female character, Chrissy (Sabine Karsenti), having been taken hostage, fights back upon her rescue. InHollow Man, the male character, Matthew (Josh Brolin), complacently says to Linda (Elizabeth Shue), ‘I save you for a change’, trying to reclaim themale supremacy that Linda has been denying him. In Walter Hill’s Supernova (2000), Kaela Evers (Angela Bassett) evinces science fiction’s schizophrenic representation of women in a more literal way, especially with the casting of thephysically strong Basset, who is a no-nonsense chief medical officer on board an emergency medical vessel called Nightingale, that responds to a distress signal. Her encounter with the victim-cum-villain, Karl (Peter Facinelli) ends up in a cat and mouse chase in which Karl eventually claims that ‘The distress signal is not for you to help me, but for me to help you.’ Notwithstanding her ownfight for survival, her life is savedonly with the help of Nick (James Spader), reaffirming the film’s romance narrative in a typical Hollywood fashion. With the more varied and disparate types of female character available in more recent science fiction, especially in thecinema(and often as the protagonist), this can be seen as a genre shift that offersfemale characters some degree of liberation and freedom.
These two last categories of female characters in science fiction owe a lot to the interest of female science fiction writers in reinventing and appropriating the genre. This is an argument that has been developed, for example, by Raffaella Baccolini, whoasserts that the contributions of female science fiction writers to the genre have ‘contributed to the breakdown of certainties and universalist assumptions about gendered identities […] [which] […] have all been tackled, explored, and re-appropriated’.28 A preponderance of female science fiction writers in the 60s and 70s, like Joanna Russ, Naomi Mitchison, Ursula K. Le Guin and Marge Piercy, wrote within generic conventions to highlight and simultaneously torework the stark assumptions about female characters often found in the genre. In effect, their work in general provides an oppositional take on classical science fiction by offering transgressive female characters, who often contest and at same time celebrate their gender differences. Summarizing Tom Moylan’s analysis of these oppositional texts, Raffaella Baccolini notes that Moylan identifies three levels at which texts of this sort reverse or diverge from the parent genre: ‘the iconic level, or the way in which the alternative society is presented; the discrete level, or the way in which the protagonist is presented; and the level of generic form, or the way the text becomes self-aware and self-critical’.29 Moylan’s conception, especially the third level, is useful for my analysis because it provides a framework for the understanding of the hybrid of science fiction and noir, which can be labelled as future noir; a vision or retake into the past, future and present rolled into one. As science fiction has evolved and expanded tremendously, developing a relationship withother genres and sub-genres (particularly noir) and responding to the critical and creative involvement of feminist/female science fiction writers, it is important to investigate the contemporary female characters available and to assess the extent to which these female characters have actually changed.
In conclusion, the relationship between science fiction and science and technology reflects the way the female characters are depicted. It must also be noted, however, that the genre’s treatment of the female characters is rather schizophrenic, creating room for the appropriation of the genre by female writers and for its re-visioning fromfeminist writers’ perspectives. That said, the binary opposition embedded in the narrative of science fiction provides the necessary platform for staging the gender dichotomy. The association of women with nature reinforces this division further, even in the case of feminist or women writers whose strategy is to celebratea harmonious relationship between the female and the natural, rather than pitting a female protagonist against a hostile natural world.
The major concern of the next section is to look at what happens to these female characters and all the binary oppositions that they represent, as gender roles and identity become confused and boundaries are crossed. Science fiction and its sub-genres are chosen here because of their adaptability and because of the huge variety of issues that they encompass.Science fiction is also of central interest in bringing this study to a close because, in confronting the vision of an inevitable human-machine interface, it conceptualises this not only as a by-product of technological advancement, but as the context within which we can pose fundamental questions about the definition of the human. The intention in the next section is to explore another level of demarcation involving (female) transgressors, and to focus especially on the intersection of machine and human body.
Science Fiction and the Transgressive Female Characters
“I mean, my TV guide interview was six paragraphs about my boobs and how they fit into my suit”.
- Communication Officer Lieutenant Tawny Madison (Sigourney Weaver) in Dean Parisot’s Galaxy Quest (1999).
It may be a bit strange to quote a spoof sci-fi film to represent the more serious texts of the genre. However, Madison’s statement can be seen as magnifying some aspects of science fiction films in relation to their representation of the female characters. If the science fiction genre invests a lot of its narrative on speculation, what such films show is that their prediction about women is reactionary rather than progressive. In charting the history of science fiction Roz Kaveney has pointed out that the role of women in early science fiction is ‘restricted to standing around having things explained to them by the hero and saying “Gosh. Wow. How terrific”’.30 In other words, science fiction can be considered lucidly misogynistic. Women are sometimes still considered as the object of desire and often used to provide a love interest for the male protagonist (as Madison eventually falls in love with Commander Taggart played by Tim Allen).
For Joanna Russ, the genre’s concern with the exploration of a new or imaginative alternative world and society is liberating for women, referring to the genre’s ability to create a character detached from patriarchal imaginations. This opportunity provides a catalogue of female characters who simply deal with putative assumptions in the canon.‘One of the things which feminist SF writers have done,’ argues Roz Kavaney, ‘is simply to tackle those assumptions in earlier work which happen to matter to them, often those assumptions which degrade and insult women’.31 Science fiction’s ability to free the characters from their cultural and gender constructions explains why women are not largely ignored. Feminist science fiction writers proliferated in America in the 1970s contemporaneous with women’s movements; thus this association led female science fiction writers to focus on ‘feminist’ utopian landscapes to create alternative or parallel worlds that served feminist political purposes. Indeed, Eric S. Rabkin concludes that ‘science fiction has been bolder in imagining alternative roles for women than has any other formula literature’.32
‘Science fiction’, argue Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska, ‘links visions of science and the unknown to speculations about human evolution and destiny’.33King and Krzywinska’s observation hints towards the inevitable interface between man and machine. In that vein, Joanna Russ asserts that science fiction ‘is the only modern literature that attempts to assimilate imaginatively scientific knowledge about reality and the scientific method, as distinct from the merely practical changes science has made in our lives.’34 As highlighted by Russ, the concerns displayed by feminist science fiction writers are also changing, reflecting the genre’s compatibility with the current issues affecting the debate surrounding the writers’ knowledge or understanding of reality. Science fiction is capable of capturing and underlining the anxiety of the present in its speculation about the future or its invention of an alternative world. In effect, the main interest is in creating another reality, an option in which women can have their views. In this new or alternative reality, women’s issues are now human issues, demonstrating the irrelevance of gender divisions in the genre. This can be attributed to the fact that the representation of women also changes due to the genre’s adaptability. Eric S. Rabkin asserts that the genre’s ‘speculation on ethics and religion has, like speculation on society and politics, often created a full range of female characters unbounded by convention’.35 Likewise, Jane Donawerth in her effort to compare the 1970s and 1980s feminist utopian texts with the 1990s dystopias suggests that
Women in feminist dystopias of the 1990s are pictured in partial alliance with technology. They embrace self-fabrication and its lack of innocence, [and] breach the boundary between human and machine [...]36
Constance Penley, in her analysis of The Terminator, argues that ‘the majority of science fiction films work to dissipate that fear of the same, to ensure that there is a difference’.37 Postmodernist culture has destabilized our sense of identity and simultaneously and paradoxically brought back into question the relevancy of gender differences. Penley also quotes Raymond Bellour who ‘maintains that in the nineteenth century men looked at women and feared they were different but in the twentieth century men look at women and fear they are the same’.38 This evinces the idea that the anxiety that men have been facing in relation to women is still the same, though the fear is grounded on the sameness rather than difference. Science fictions often liberate women by putting them alongside the male characters regularly found in films like Terminator Two: Judgement Day and the Alien trilogy. As mentioned earlier, the female characters are no longer willing to wait to be rescued by the male protagonists. Rather, they are willing to participate in the action and sometimes save the male protagonists; like Jane (Dina Meyer) in Johnny Mnemonic (1995) who plays an important role in saving Johnny (Keanu Reaves) from dying due to the overloading of data in his head.
Sometimes, gender differences are celebrated as in the instance of romantic love, which can be one of the reasons why these female characters are willing to take action; turning them into an agent of the actions and marking their status as a transgressor. The female character’s status as a transgressor that crosses the boundary of human/nonhuman and real/unreal can be found in films like The Thirteenth Floor (1999). Natasha/Jane (Gretchen Mol) in The Thirteenth Floorjacks herself into the virtual world and saves the male protagonist Douglas Hall/ John Ferguson from her maniac husband, David (all played by Craig Bierko) and turns him from a virtual being into a real human. The role of a saviour can be seen as an inversion of the canonical science fiction texts in which the male heroes are almost always the rescuers. This inversion can be seen, as an illustration, in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report(2002), in which Lara (Kathryn Morris) saves her husband, Detective John Anderton (Tom Cruise), from being ‘imprisoned’ eternally by breaking into the prison. In Strange Days (1995) directed by a female director, Kathryn Bigelow (and written by her erstwhile husband James Cameron), the inversion appears at both ‘psychological’ and physical levels, culminating in a romance. Despite Mace (Angela Bassett) repeatedly saying that she is helping Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) because she cares about him as a friend and the fact that he was there to console her traumatised son sometime in the past, the intimate kiss at the end of the film is a ‘give away’ that their feelings towards each other are more than platonic. In Strange Days, Mace provides the energy that Lenny lacks. Indeed, she is the one who physically fights for Lenny’s safety, making her a transgressive character, transgressing gender roles.
Though some science fictions still lucidly uphold romantic love, patriarchy is left at stake. This issue is largely relevant to science fictions that touch on the idea that men’s crucial role in human reproduction is becoming obsolete, signalling the fact that the ‘phallus is becoming irrelevant’ and the arrival of ‘post-phallic culture, […] a place for men who accept the fact that size doesn’t matter’.39 Often in feminist utopias like Joanna Russ’s Female Man and Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman, women have the ability to achieve the ultimate reproductive freedom. In Mitchison’s Memoirs the reproductive technology is called ‘grafting’ and the female protagonist volunteers to be the first human host to be experimented on with the science of grafting. Though it is not a complete success, as the ‘entity’ which she calls Ariel eventually dies, she is aware ‘that it was also an exciting and novel piece of research’ (p.52). Marlene S. Barr laconically claims that ‘cloning is exceedingly threatening- to patriarchy. Cloning can change the penis’s reproductive role’.40 In some science fiction films, masculinity is rendered obsolete and in need of reassertion. In Roger Spottiswoode’s The 6th Day (2000), the reassertion of masculinity is put to the extreme, as cloning affects the way men function in their family and familiar setting. In The 6th Day, masculinity is depicted in two-fold at its iconic level, that is, in the form of hyper-masculinity embodied in the iconic images of Arnold Schwarzenegger (Adam) and his clone. In the film, human cloning is illegal under The Sixth Day Law (derived from the Biblical phrase, ‘On the sixth day God created man’), so the antagonist’s, Drucker (Tony Goldwyn), clandestine cloning project is at risk when it accidentally clones Adam while he is still alive. As leverage, Drucker and his ruthless cloned henchmen capture Adam’s wife and daughter, but Adam and his doppelganger clone eventually agree to work together to save Adam’s family. The 6th Day inserts its patriarchal values by restoring Adam’s family and making his clone another responsible father.
As I will discuss later, science fiction shares the same lineage with the noir thriller in the gothic tradition. Especially for that reason, the modes of both genres are still apparent in ‘future noir’, which is the hybrid product of both genres. While the gothic’s frequent association with women highlights the emotional aspect of the genre, science fiction is often associated with (scientific) reason due to its association with male characters. In the film Minority Report, for instance, whereas Agatha represents the occult - an affinity with the gothic, Detective John Anderton represents the practical – the rational or scientific. ‘Here [in science fiction]’, as observed by Pierce, ‘reason battles with emotion’.41 Anderson’s reliance on the occult represents a typical noir protagonist conflict, trapped within an irrational system and in dire need of a way to get out of the entrapment. In the film, elements of science are manipulated both as a means of expressing the technological anxiety inherent in the film, and as a way in which the anxiety can be dealt with. Gothic trappings are also prominent in Ridley Scott’s Alien whose memorable tag line, ‘In space, no one can hear you scream’, evoking fear of the unknown, a gothic dictum. Therefore, the landscape of the space vessel, Nostromo, contains loaded gothic images that hark back to images of the haunted house in the gothic horror tradition.
Future noir’s shared history with the gothic and science fiction allows the expression of the female self and desire to take place beyond the boundary of human beings. Informed by postmodern culture, the noir genre inevitably ventures further into the domain of cyberpunk in which science fiction is given a darker mood of entropy and chaos. The next section will look at the relationship between postmodernism and future noir, focusing on the depictions of female characters as transgressors. Besides, it will also look at some elements of science fiction, noir thriller and the gothic fantasy to illuminate the process in which the transgression of the female characters takes place.I will also look at noir mood and convention to see how they affect the representation of female characters in future noir texts.
Future Noir and Postmodernism : The Irony Begins.
The term ‘future noir’ encapsulates a postmodern encounter with generic persistence, creating a mixture of irony, pessimism, prediction, extrapolation, bleakness and nostalgia. This mixture of thematic concerns finds its cause in the hybridity of future noir itself - a product of postmodern consumer culture that is ‘consuming the consumer’42, creating a new breed of noir thriller that is continuously and consciously at play with its own generic expectations. When dealing with future noir, there are two prominent feelings involved: one, there is a sense of belonging to the nostalgic past embodied in ‘the protagonist’s violence, paranoia and fragmented psyche’43; two, there is a sense that you have been taken for a devious ride, not of your own free will but dictated by exposure to the inescapable trappings of the narrative of the near future. It is like experiencing deja vu, or a postmodern ‘old is new’44 moment - a moment when you are overwhelmed by a sudden rush awareness that the familiar conventions are suddenly being attacked by arsenals of ambiguous futuristic imageries and symbolisms. Future noir is persistent in keeping its generic pessimism of urban or modern nightmare, but it also allusively exploits the ‘seventies revisionism’, ‘eighties pastiche’ and ‘nineties irony’45 (also known as neo-noir), to create a new protagonist who is both ‘dark’ and playful like the characters in Gibson’s Neuromancer. In future noir, the shadow of Philip Marlow lingers on and intermingles with a character as superficially human as Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic. Noir realism is also fragmented, evidence of the conflation of elements of science fiction and gothic fantasy in its narrative.
At the centre of the fusion that is future noir is its postmodern reference to a hybrid subject, evoking noir’s shared origin with science fiction and the Gothic genre.The thematic concern of the trio finds its point of confluence in the representation of the body, foregrounding gender issues, sexual, and body politics. Let’s consider briefly the issue of gender representation in the three aforementioned genres, concentrating on the possible differences or similarities in the portrayal of the male protagonist. The canonical noir protagonist is usually trapped in a psychological warfare of ‘alienation and despair’, that is, ‘the existential trap which the “forces” around the noir characters have set, with or without their assistance, there often seems to be no way out’.46 This compels his critics to see him not only as a mechanism of social and cultural subversion but also as a mirror of the breakdown of the societal value system. Noir is a vision of nightmare, whose visual style is ‘a translation of both character emotions and narrative, [forming a recurrent] pattern of visual usage’47 to reflect the male protagonist’s ‘existentially bitter attitude’48, providing no sense of narrative closure. In the science fiction genre, the male protagonist is usually an adventurous individual, possessing a heroic quality that, once upon a time, reflected the ambition and inspiration of the American Founding Fathers. To a certain extent, a science fiction text also provokes an ontological question of the constitution of a human (What is a human?), constructed not only through a romantic encounter with a female figure (like Nova in Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes) but also antagonistic figures of ‘frontier myth’ (like Apes in Planet of the Apes). Brian McHale, for instance, argues that the science fiction genre is ‘the ontological genre par excellence’ [original italics],49 which in turn reaffirms Joanna Russ’s claim that the genre is effectively ‘making what is usually a literary metaphor into a literal identity’.50 Science fiction’s ontological quest also reveals its epistemological juxtaposition between a human and non-human to in turn define the constitution of a human.
In a great many examples, science fiction films often use horror figures as a means of evoking and literalising the evil in the alien or antagonistic forces.These films, like Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars51 and Paul Anderson (III)’s Event Horizon,52 according to King and Krzywinska, ‘figure the future in terms of the gothic’ [original italics].53 In Event Horizon, the horror figure is the embodiment of ‘hell’ visited by the eponymous deep space research vessel through the ‘gravity drive’ invented by Dr. William Weir (Sam Neil). Event Horizon can be interpreted as a modern reworking of a haunted house as Dr. Weir himself, after becoming the ‘ghost’ from hell, repeatedly calls the vessel ‘home’. Dr. Weir is therefore a loaded image of evil reincarnated – a characteristic of the gothic horror-fantasy that shows the world in/of excessiveness, creating an environment that influences the way the male protagonist is seen and treated. Gothic excess is often expressed through a sense of alienation, the grotesque, and the abjection, thus disrupting normalcy. These are elements shared in the noir genre, which as Lee Horsley observes, ‘this pull towards excess which gives noir its unsettling power, its savage intensity and its haunting sense of irreversible fate’54 - the sense of fatality with which the noir protagonist has to deal. The heterogeneous catalogues of science fiction, the noir thriller and Gothic fantasy are calibrated in future noir, creating a sense of ambivalence as described by McHale:
Intractable epistemological uncertainty becomes at a certain point ontological plurality or instability: push epistemological questions far enough and they ‘tip over’ into ontological questions. By the same token, push ontological questions far enough and they tip over into epistemological questions – the sequence is not linear and unidirectional, but bidirectional and reversible.55
Postmodernism, anyway, is a ‘discursive construct’.56
Whereas the male protagonist in canonical noir is defined by his existential despair or angst - an inward questioning of being, and is shaped by the criminal milieu that he is drawn into, the male ‘heroic’ figure in the science fiction genre is the epitome of masculine chivalry, referring to an outward questioning of being, creating the discourse of the ‘other’, the non-I. Therefore, science fiction often relies on the ‘literalisation’ of the antagonistic force that a male protagonist encounters, such as alien beings from outer space, in an effort to define what constitutes a human being. The gothic genre, on the other hand, usually literalises the antagonistic forces in sinister, mythical and horror figures (like Medusa, dragon and monster, angel and the undead, and other metaphysical beings) a metaphor for mass anxieties, fear, disgust or taboo. The gothic genre is therefore seen as a display of abject essence, the literality of Kristeva’s ‘neither subject nor object’ of the ‘other’, that is ‘one of those violent, dark revolts being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable’.57 For that reason, the gothic fantasy is commonly about the cosmic struggle of ‘good versus evil’, and the good must prevail over the evil as ‘[t]he solution must lie in a stronger force than the disruptive or threatening one: the force of logic and reason, a vital personality, or even a counterforce existing on the suprahuman level’.58 Of course in some cases these categorisations do overlap, but science fiction proper in general represents the Other as a source of fear, and not as abjection in Kristeva’s sense of the term. In future noir, the destabilisation of the Other signifies the displacement of sexual difference, signalling the idea that it is no longer ‘politically correct’ to have sexual difference self-evidently shown on the screen. It none the less points to what Constance Penley terms as trying to ‘reactivate infantile sexual investigation’.59
In future noir, these characteristics are encroaching inside the visual style and narrative content, creating a new type of male romantic character who is increasingly dubious, alienated and fragmented. The ontological uncertainty in science fiction coalesces with the ‘downbeat existential dilemma’60 intrinsic in a noir protagonist, coupled with the gothic’s excess, is epitomised in future noir protagonists who, like James Cole (Bruce Willis) in Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys and John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) in Alex Proyas’s Dark City, are alienated, hunted and fragmented. These noir elements are so vivid that you can almost feel and smell the collision and the collapse of generic boundaries in these films, as the narrative and visual images crochet their ontological and epistemological impulses, obfuscated by postmodernism that seems to hinder any easy reading. Helen Carr concurs that ‘[p]ostmodernism is about fragmented images, and its manifestations are so diverse that often it’s hard to read what the fragments say’.61 But as I have argued earlier, building from Brian McHale’s apprehension of the concept of postmodernism, it is also a discursive construct that helps us in ‘constructing its reference,’62 making it a useful theoretical and critical framework for the analysis of future noir texts.
Referring to Twelve Monkeys and Dark City, the ontological instability of the male protagonists permits an alternative reading of the female characters. The narrative of both films is fuelled by the underlying romantic encounters with the main female characters, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and Emma Murdoch/Anna (Jennifer Connelly), respectively. These romantic encounters are primitive, perhaps suggesting a certain primal journey into the paranoid world, reflecting the danger that these female characters exude to the male protagonists, reaffirming their status as desiring mothers and eventually as castrated figures.63 This is an element of romance narrative that while it re-establishes the future noir hero as a romantic figure, it concurrently silences the woman. Dubious, alienated, and fragmented, this future noir protagonist remains ‘the last action hero’ none the less. Quite interestingly though, these women do not provide a direct threat to the male protagonists, at least, they are as oblivious to their own destructiveness as the male protagonists themselves. In that sense, they are also sympathetic figures. The image of a whore and an angel collapses together, as epitomised by Emma Murdoch/Anna whose evanescent identity renders life ephemeral, forming a hybrid that nullifies division of gender roles. Gender is still at the heart of the debate, but gender roles have significantly been disrupted, a postmodern paradox that is inherent in future noir, providing alternatives to the reading of the female characters.
Postmodernism is useful for oppositional texts like the ones produced by feminist/female writers because it challenges the binary opposition that is often a defining feature of science fiction, the gothic fantasy, and the noir thriller. Raffaella Baccoline, for instance, opines that:
It is the very notion of an impure science fiction genre, with permeable borders that allow contamination from other genres, that represents resistance to hegemonic ideology and renovates the resisting nature of science fiction and makes the new science fiction genre also multi-oppositional. 64
This is, in other words, the hybridisation of a genre, a postmodern strategy for attacking a homogenous category. The hybridisation of a genre in effect affects the ideological dominant of the text, engaging it with deeper and perhaps more complex issues that foreground the shift from an epistemological (modernist) to an ontological (postmodern) reconstruction of the narrative. Therefore, it is easy to accept the idea that Twelve Monkeys is a future noir and not a science fiction proper text, not because of its visual and narrative style, but because of the film’s organisation of its ‘ontological dominant [as the] principle of systematicity’ that clusters the film’s ‘otherwise heterogeneous catalogues’.65 There is an epistemological ‘hesitation’66 here, formed by the investigative structure of the narrative or the epistemological quest of the text; but its ontological uncertainty forms the ‘ideological dominant’, which originated in the instability of the male protagonist that is exacerbated by postmodern paradox of the time travel narrative, making this film a future noir text. This arguably depends on which or what way we are looking at the text, which in either case points to the instability or fragmentation of the text itself. What this offers feminist/female writers is an alternative interpretation of the genre, allowing them to centralize the female characters who are normally marginalized in a standard modernist narrative.
If as a genre, noir’s affinity with detective fiction’s modernist ideological basis foregrounds the female character as the subject of the male protagonist’s investigation, future noir exposes an ideological instability to give this female character her own voice. Subduing patriarchal oppression is not what future noir aims to do, at least not at the syntactical level (hence, the main female character can sometimes be seen ‘playing’ a very traditional role, like Emma Murdoch/Anna in Dark City (a wife and a nightclub singer, reminiscent of the canonical femme fatale), Rachel in Blade Runner (a ‘damsel in distress’) and Lara Clarke/Anderton in Minority Report (a wife or redeeming figure)). Instead it happens because of the competing ontological and epistemological focus within the narrative itself, allowing the female character, especially the female protagonist, to dominate the narrative. In other words, it would be facile to assume that this is achieved via role-reversal, as it is at the ideological level rather than structural that female/feminist writers try to undermine patriarchy. In the film Blade Runner, the ideological uncertainty is highlighted when the ontological status of the Blade Runner himself, Rick Deckard, is destabilised and fragmented, marking the shift of the film’s principle narrative from ‘her to him’. He is now the subject of the investigation, revealing his ontological uncertainty and vagaries. This turns him into the hunted, the same fate often enough faced by the male protagonists in Twelve Monkey, Dark City and Minority Report.
The next section of this chapter will look at the human/machine interface. The difference in literary and cinematic representation of the ‘female’ characters will also be discussed, where necessary. The section will also try to demonstrate how spatial clues can be useful in determining gender roles and identity in future noir texts. Some major questions arise from this enquiry: How is this space represented in relation to the female characters? Are their roles changing? In future noir world of frequent boundary crossing between human and machine, how do I arrive at the definition of a female character? The next section sets out to answer these questions.
Men/Machine Interface: The Body Snatched - The Paranoia Begins?
The body has in recent years been one of the most prominent subjects in the science fiction genre.The representation of the body as a metaphor for the paranoia, horror and to some extent the conspiracy within American government provides an apparent rhetoric of alienation, contamination and infiltration science fiction texts. The body is thus central in the popular discourse of an American culture engulfed in the obsessive fear of both the known and unknown, culminating in the scapegoating of the Other. For instance, in the classical science fiction texts of the 50s, the body is figuratively used to represent the fear of the McCarthy years when America was battling against the ‘enemy within’, i.e., ‘the myth of Communism as total dehumanisation’.67 Some science fiction films during that period like Kurt Neumann’s The Fly (1958) and Don Siegal’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) capture some of the paranoia associated with the body, marking the beginning of the body culture and politics in Western popular imagination. While The Fly indulges in the fear of contamination, Invasion of the Body Snatchers tackles the danger of the subconscious conformity, which is responsible for creating zombie-like citizens.
The figurative uses of the body in the classical texts get a literal treatment from the 1980s onwards. Western popular culture is gradually getting less obsessed with the representation of a human form, allowing an increasing opportunity to dissect human body and soul, reinforcing the Western binary system. The horror of bodily invasion is reflected by external/alien infiltration and replicated in the discourse of alien abduction, creating a rhetoric commonly associated with contemporary anxieties such as AIDS epidermic, drug abuse and addiction, disconcerting scientific experimentation by the American government and weird or distressing war syndromes. The rhetoric of paranoia, contamination, transformation, and infiltration re-emerges with the remaking of films such as David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) and Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1994). The major difference between these latest remakes and their progenitors lies not only in the treatment of the body, the images of which are presently portrayed more intimately on the screen, but also is characterised by the emergence of emotional intensity that was absent in the previous films. Whereas in Neumann’s The Fly, the protagonist is transformed into the shape and size of a real fly, Cronenberg’s Bundlefly’s shape and size is the replica of a human facsimile, giving it a more direct association and affinity with a human body. Likewise, Ferrara’s Body Snatchers creates a visceral effect by showing the most graphically gory and queasy details of a human body being snatched by the aliens, especially with the use of close up shots vis-à-vis the first two earlier versions68. This resemblance to a human body is attributable to the contemporary body culture and politics that dissect not only the body, but also the mind, foregrounding the old Western binary system.
The remakes of these films exemplify and magnify the continuing interest Western culture has in the human body or sexuality.In the case of the science fiction genre, it is a matter of the endurance of the existing generic convention. It has always been interested in the human form or body, especially a female body, which is often traditionally reflected by the way science fiction creates the Other, signifying the antithetical traits associated with women. Helen Haste argues that ‘the metaphor of dualism which maps on to masculinity and femininity logically requires that one pole is the negation of the other’.69 In this case, femininity is the negated and masculinity is the negator, establishing a well-defined territory in which gender traits and divisions seem to presuppose the treatment of the character. In other words, science fiction’s preoccupation with the body, coupled with noir’s ontological imperative, calls into being an antagonistic figure, often embodied in a female character whose subjectivity within the narrative is often displaced as the Other. However, with the shifting of the scapegoated Other from the outside to the inside of a human body, foregrounding the formation of a hybrid or fragmented subject, the future noir text inevitably poses a very different ontological question. For that reason, one may argue that the human body itself is now the enemy that betrays the humanist sense of identity, which the interface usually represents. Others, like feminist critics on future noir and science fiction, would argue that the hybrid and fragmented identity is a chrysalis from which the liberation of the female characters in the genre and sub-genre can be found. This is shown by the kind of question that future noir now asks. There is no denying that future noir texts remain interested in the ontological question of whether a human body can be the major defining characteristic of a human being or not. Its primary question now is: what if the human body itself betrays the definition or constitution of a human being? The answers lie in future noir’s inherent poetic of postmodernism that often digs uncompromisingly beneath the surface to reveal the genre’s tendency not only to give prominence to its concern with destabilizing hegemonic categories like gender and genre themselves, but also, as discussed earlier, to ‘construct […] its reference’,70 amid future noir’s ontological uncertainty.
Traditionally in science fiction proper, invasion narrative hinges on aliens and spaceships as its major iconographies, which in effect place the origin of the threat outside the human body. With the concern shifting from the ‘outward-ness’/external into the ‘inwardness’/internal, a new kind of interest in the human body reached its heyday in the 1980s, especially when the paranoia about AIDS started to envelop the world. The human body was suddenly a threat and an abject essence, originating from the fear of AIDS that is commonly associated with any bodily secretion, as epitomised by the narrative of ‘body horror’ that mushroomed around that period. This paranoia is paralleled by the development in the body culture that turns a human body into a ‘spatialised’ subject within the narrative, constructing a landscape that harks back to the ‘inner space/outer space’ schism. Talking about the concept of ‘Inner Space’71 in relation to the New Wave movement of Science fiction in the 1960s, Edward James argues that:
Sf should no longer be an exploration of the possibilities for humanity and science in the future or an educational introduction to aspects of science wrapped in the sugar coating of plot and adventure. Sf should not be an exploration of a hypothetical external reality, because objective reality is, […], a dubious concept. Sf should be a means to explore our own subjective perceptions of the universe and our fellow human beings. 72
James’s view signifies the changing of interest and direction in the thematic consideration of the science fiction genre, focusing on the ‘inwardness’ of the human being’s world, in an effort to comprehend the human’s reality. This has been achieved by turning to biological sciences to provide new landscapes for exploration vis-à-vis the ‘outside world’ or outer space. I would concur with James, arguing that the shift to future noir also lies in the destabilising of science fiction’s epistemological quest; one that is often embodied in its ontological uncertainty, and reflected in future noir’s disinterested view of taxonomy. This means, as a human body is centralized, essentialised and ultimately fragmented, the narrative in the science fiction genre therefore gives rise to a new question concerning the ontological status of the body, requiring and appropriating a different type of discourse to deal with the body’s complicated manoeuvring in the space investigated. Often, the discourse of inner space is used sensuously, and this time rather more intimately within the scope of human physique and mind, drawing attention to a new reality that is being driven by the need to cross the boundary of human skin.
Although the human body has become the central landscape in which the investigation, speculation and extrapolation of the new human reality takes place in both science fiction and future noir, the genres’ themes do not necessarily change. In both science fiction and future noir, technological invention and scientific experimentation are used less as the means to cross the boundary set by human skin, than they are as a metaphor for the anxiety originating in the interface itself, as if revisiting the themes of infiltration, transformation, contamination and invasion. The watershed lies, I would argue, in the way science fiction and future noir form and dramatise the Other and the hybrid subject, respectively, demonstrating their association with the Gothic. Whereas the Other in science fiction can be seen as a ‘superego figure, avenging itself on liberated female sexuality […] an identification […] with punishment’, the hybrid subject is ‘a creature from the id, not merely a product of repression but a protest against it, an identification with the return of the repressed’.73 The implication of this is that, on one hand, science fiction texts usually produce heroic male protagonists who save the female characters by defeating the antagonistic force. Or in the case of Mimic,74 the genetically engineered insects called ‘Judas Breed’ created by a team led by an entomologist, Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino), finally come back to haunt and hunt her, representing her link with the Other. On the other hand, future noir is inhabited by complexly constructed protagonists whose hybridity mirrors the collapse in societal values and systems. The relevant questions now are: Is human identity still at stake? Does it matter now more than it used to? How does it affect the representation of the female character and the meaning of being a female? This section tries to answer these questions by looking at the human/machine interface in order to find liberatory voices for these ‘female’ characters.
David Cronenberg’s allegiance to body culture is useful in illustrating how the man/machine interface affects the way female characters are portrayed in popular culture or cinema.For the purpose of this study, two of his films that I consider of paramount importance in investigating the representation or the treatment of women in science fiction and future noir texts, as they capture the paranoia about the insertion or invasion of machine/scientific experimentation into a human body, are The Fly and Crash. I would argue that whereas The Fly falls into the category of science fiction/horror hybrid, Crash is a future noir film. Famously (or notoriously?) dubbed as ‘ “King of Venereal Horror”, “the Baron of Blood”, and “Dave ‘Deprave’ Cronenberg’”,75 Cronenberg’s fascination with the human body is regularly epitomised by his films like Shivers, Videodrome, Rabid, The Fly and Crash. Critics of these films label him the master of body rupture and transformation, observing that he creates images that are truly the ‘most shocking, perverse, disgusting and truly inventive scenes of horror and bodily mayhem ever conceived for the cinema’.76 Indisputably an auteur, Cronenberg’s oeuvre is tied together by his interest in dissecting a human body that has been torn asunder, investigated and sometimes contaminated: in the case of Shivers, by excretory-like parasites. The genres’ different ideological frames consequently affect the meanings attached to the representation of the female characters especially at the level of ideological symbolism, which are vividly dramatised by these films – The Fly and Crash. I will be using them to demonstrate how the fundamental difference in ontological uncertainties moves the latter into the future noir territory. These uncertainties indeed are their most potent forces.
Whereas The Fly falls within the realm of the science fiction/horror hybrid, Crash is a future noir text in which the atmospherically bleak world is chaotic; ‘human beings’ struggle to find new meanings in their relationships with machines, culminating in the inescapable human/machine interface. What this suggests is that, unlike The Fly’s ending that is subliminally cathartic, Crash is sombre and cold throughout, sans peur et sans reproche, denying any purgation of the (audience and characters’) emotions. Likewise, although their interests in the interception of the machine by/in the human body are somewhat similar, the watershed lies in the ontological uncertainty of future noir that focuses on the interest in the way the female characters are represented. The films’ ontological instabilities, moreover, are drawn from the different metaphor that the interface represents, influenced in turn by the hybridity of the genres themselves. The fusion of science fiction and the gothic horror in The Fly is characteristically prevalent in the making of a tragic and melancholic hero (Although Cronenberg himself claims that The Fly is a metaphor for the ageing process and denies the idea that it is intended as an AIDS metaphor77), the film’s romantic angle is a chrysalis from which the treatment of the female character can be divulged, whereby, according to Chris Rodley, we see the film’s ‘triumph of love story over special effects’.78 Arguably, Crash, which is adopted into a film from one of J.G. Ballard’s novels, retains the future noir elements of the original text by combining science fiction elements with noir pessimism and inescapable fatalism – a postmodern hybrid. This bleakness may be a result of two authorial visions: Martin Barker, Jane Arthurs and Ramaswati Harindranath argue that Crash ‘is a very self-conscious film […] very evidently formed out of a combination of the visions of J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg’.79 This is concurred with by Cronenberg who observes that ‘the sci-fi-ness [of Crash], comes from [J.G.] Ballard anticipating a future pathological psychology’,80 a vision that he himself tries to accomplish. This shared bleak vision of the future world engendered by psychopathology is the embodiment of noir’s vision of postmodern nightmare. Therefore, embedded in both films’ ideological differences are their ontological conflicts that offer different ways of reading the female characters. In other words, the portrayal of the female characters in The Fly and Crash as ‘hopeless romantic’ is also emblematic of the genres’ reaction towards Western culture’s interest in investigating a female body, sexuality, and subjectivity; and this is referred analogously to the human/machine interface.
One of the strategies employed in The Fly involves locating the metaphor of the interface in the ‘spatialisation’ of a female body. As an exploitable space, it is both intriguing and threatening, signifying the films’ inherent curiosity about the female body; thus, treating it like an object of investigation. There is no denying that the ‘spatialisation’ of a female body marks a new cultural attitude towards the human body itself; it is, however, mostly characterised by the pejorative representation of a female body as a landscape to be explored, manipulated, and ‘tamed’, but ultimately replaceable or dispensable. In David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) declares to Ronnie (Geena Davis), “What I am working on? I am working on something that will change the world and human life as we know it”. The ideological significance of Brundle’s experiment is embodied in the womb-like teleports, which in turn carry a bifurcate metaphor: In one sense, the teleports’ role, notwithstanding the fact that the fly’s being trapped in one of the teleports is purely an accidental circumstance, is to ‘reproduce’, taking away a woman’s unique ability to reproduce. When the teleports turn into a ‘gene splicer’, it creates a new breed of being - Brundlefly. The teleports in effect function as a mother’s womb and Brundlefly is its progeny. At one stage of the film, in encouraging Ronnie to experiment with the teleports, Brundle claims that ‘It makes you feel sexy’. It is sexy because the teleports ‘are’, for him, a female body that can be penetrated and analysed, the centre of his unique invention and exploration. Therefore, to a certain extent, Cronenberg’s The Fly can be seen as the modern reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in which the ‘scientific request is described in terms of sexual aggression against (female) nature’.81 The teleports in effect represent everything that is associated with a female body or a castrated mother: a symbol of fertility, fatal, evil, and mysteriously seductive; hence is required by patriarchy to be annihilated or controlled.
The Fly also manifests the paranoia of technological invention gone wrong, whilst simultaneously placing the female body at the centre of the chaos. ‘Locating horror in the body’, argues John Costello, ‘is therefore logical, with no spiritual battleground of “good” versus “evil”, and no promise of afterlife’.82 Costello’s argument is rather problematic, partly due to him eschewing a human body as a cultural site, making it a gradual yet incessant construct. Notwithstanding that, his view of the body as a site for horror gives prominence to the body as an abject essence, a site where ‘cultural abomination’ is finally personified. To a great extent, this is explained by Mike Merrin, who quoted Cronenberg’s talking about ‘the AIDS epidemic […] and asked the interviewer to see it from the point of view of the virus’,83 highlighting his tendency to dig deep beneath the surface of representation. Apparently, for Brundle, ‘I wasn’t just talking about sex and penetration. I am talking about penetration beyond the veil of flesh’, signaling his epistemological quest that directly puts the female character at the centre of his personal conflict with technology. This conflict is a construct, in which, Cronenberg, through his male protagonist, has moved the body out of the realm of the representational, making allowance for the protagonist’s flawed judgement to snowball. Technology is the enabler of the bodily transformation, but Ronnie’s body that raises Brundle’s curiousity is the catalyst, hence her role as his nemesis.
Misogynistic, the film is a strict revision of the Fall narrative, blaming the female character for the male protagonist’s downfall.The Fall narrative constructs the interest in Brundle’s experiment around the need to put fundamental blame on the central female character, alluding to her role as his nemesis.Though Brundle’s ultimate goal is to experiment with an animate object, his jealousy of Ronnie’s relationship with her boss precipitates the experimentation on his own body. Following the tradition of a romantic hero, Brundle is ready to cross the boundary of human possibilities by using his own body as the guinea pig in order to prove his heroism, taking the risk to change Mother Nature. If in the Fall narrative ‘what simultaneously subverted and energized the subject of Western culture was not desire per se [Original italic], but transgressive desire haunted by the death which it brought into being’,84 the transgressive desire in the film leads less to the invention of his project, and more to his own tragic death. His status as a tragic hero is due to the flaws in his own judgement, turning him into a sympathetic figure as his human body gradually disintegrates while the ‘fly’ concurrently takes shape. The film does not ‘let go’ of Ronnie that easily, complicating her in the loop of Brundle-fly’s desire to resist his dehumanisation, as he pleads with her to get into the teleports with him so that they can form ‘a family of three … more human than I ever long for’. When Brundle is transformed into a horror figure (or what Robin Wood classifies as ‘superego figure’ discussed earlier), the strategy of the rest of the narrative is to build around the conviction to complicate or punish her. Ronnie’s ultimate punishment is not only to carry the burden of her unwanted pregnancy, but also to be forced to ‘kill’ Brundle. The narrative strategically places Brundle as a tragic hero by demonstrating how his humanity supersedes his fly/machine side. In the end when Brundlefly pleads with Ronnie to shoot ‘him’, his heroism is again centralised, turning Ronnie into la belle dame sans merci instead. This narrative impulse can be cathartic, an element of science fiction that severs it from the future noir territory.
Crash, which according to Ian Sinclair is ‘the posthumous dream of a book that no longer exists’,85 is the manifestation of Cronenberg’s curiosity and vision about the interface of human and machine. It unashamedly investigates female desire, sexuality, and body, reminiscent of canonical noir’s treatment of women. This interface signifies the bleak collapse of the future into the present (“Vaughan: It’s the future, Ballard, you’re already part of it”), combining the physical fusion of a human with technology, which therefore undermines the Western binary system. The film’s ontological uncertainty originates in the conflicts between its spatial-temporal and ideological framework, culminating in the creation of a catalogue of characters who are blasé about their surroundings and are brought together by the obsessive desire for pleasure. The sexual act, as the narrative trajectory of the film itself, is an expression of the characters’ actions to transgress theological-cultural (the main characters are married) and physical boundaries. The result is a tremendous blurring of identity and sexuality, while consigning the female characters in the narrative of becoming the Other, who are usurped by hedonistic ‘epicurean’ ethics. These hedonistic ‘epicurean’ ethics are reminiscent of the portrayal of women as the embodiment of male fantasy, shaping them into bona fide femmes fatales. One may ask: are the female characters in Crash liberated? My analysis tries to prove that this is possible, especially by looking at noir elements available in the film.
Crash relies heavily on its visual86 style to articulate the basic premise of the story. The stream of light created by moving cars is resonant of the ‘running’ light in Chandler’s mean street or the neon lights of ‘techno noir’ in James Cameron’s Terminator, thus creating an atmospheric feast of noir darkness and a double-edged world that is not what it seems. The film’s tendency to invest a lot of its visual focus on both the body of a human and a car underlines the voyeuristic desire at play. The voyeuristic camera angle that focuses on a naked female body, scarred male and female body, and a wrecked car in equal measure creates a series of visceral images in an effort to unbalance and destabilize any moral judgement attached to the sexual body, resulting in the fragmentation of the ‘humanist’ self. These catalogues of conflicting images, coupled with some raw sex scenes, give the idea that all of entities in the film are penetrated bodies or perhaps penetrable, as body eroticism and car crashes are intertwined. Cronenberg’s characters are transgressors that reflect the insanity of society and challenge the spectators’ moral ground, as they are often covertly placed within a voyeuristic distance, the very essence of what constitutes noir disorientation of the audience. The antagonistic force that the inhabitants of this noir world have to face is no longer the gangster underworld but their own bodies and uncontrollable, ungratified sexual desire, which can only be satiated with mechanical invention and intervention. Cars are eroticised, as illustrated by the way Vaughan sensuously describes his James Dean look-alike’s car in great detail and with pleasure, before re-enacting some famous crashes involving celebrities like James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. The association that is made between car crashes and celebrities (who cash in on their public images) is also a sign that ‘auto-eroticism’ is related to obsession with images - in this case injured and scarred images of humans and automobiles. The characters in the film are to a certain extent eroticised, but they are fundamentally flat and ‘lifeless’, highlighting the sense that Crash is a film about visual fascination and not character development.
The central question that arises from this apprehension is: What is Cronenberg’s primary vision? I would argue that the film is misogynistic, characterised by the film’s effort to fuse desire of/for a woman with technology, which results in both the eroticism of technology and the castration of the female body. Technology, in effect, is the new expression of desire itself. The discourse of the encounter is gradually becoming the palimpsest of the interface, which is achieved not in stages but through the nullifying of female subjectivity. For instance, the use of the controversial three successive sex scenes at the outset of the film heralds and demonstrates Cronenberg’s vision of the Oedipal journey to reaffirm masculinity as normalcy, and femininity as its perversion. The first sex scene foregrounds the idea of a woman imitating technology. In the opening scene of the film:
As we float past the planes we notice a woman leaning against the wing of a Piper Cub, her chest against the wing’s trailing edge, her arms spread out to each side, as though flying herself. As we get closer we see her jacket is pulled open to expose one of her breasts, which rests on the metal of the wing.87
In this camera cue, Cronenberg creates a fusion with an image of a woman (Catherine) imitating technology while having sex; dehumanising her while simultaneously eroticising technology. Technology is aggrandised and has increasingly incorporated with the sexual scene, a strategy employed by Cronenberg to gradually fuse and eventually denounce the female body in sexual acts. In the second sex scene between James Ballard and his camera assistant, ‘[s]he is draped across a table strewn with camera parts’,88 signifying not only the curious blurring of technology, desire and the human body but also the fragmentation of the female body itself. Female identity and sexuality are constantly destabilized, the result of the inevitable fusion with technology. The third sexual scene finally demonstrates the detachment of desire for/from the female body, while foregrounding the theme of remoteness or alienation:
Their sex-making is disconnected, passionless, as though it would disappear if they noticed it. An urgent, uninterrupted flow of cars streams below them.89
The anal sex performed by the couple is designed by Cronenberg to show the distancing of desire from the female body and the lack of intimacy between them. A conventional female body, Cronenberg decided, is no longer attractive without the intrusion of technology, signifying a literal attack of culture on nature. The shift of desire from animate to inanimate objects signifies the vision of a neo-body as a masculine construct, enabling Cronenberg to create a mise-en-scene in which ‘passion’ is contextualised within the image of moving and crashed cars, apotheosising and eroticising technology as a result.
If Cronenberg himself admits to using sex as the plot,90 the characters are then reduced to being mere plot devices, which in turns helps to explain thecharacters’ ontological uncertainty, buttressed by their sexual practices that create not intimacy, but distance. The film centres on a protagonist couple (Jim and Catherine played by James Spader and Deborah Unger, respectively) who instead of exchanging everyday ‘husband-wife’ news, ask about each other’s sexual conquests (“Did you come?” and “Did she come?”). The couple’s quest for sexual gratification galvanizes the basic premise of the narrative, forming noir deterministic encounters with a series of other ‘damaged’ characters. Technology in the form of crashed automobiles is the bridge that brings them together, but never connects them at any level other than sexual gratification. Cronenberg creates characters who are both existentially detached (noir alienation) and suicidal/damaged (noir pessimism). When Jim is involved in a head-on crash, the line between physical pleasure and machine is inevitably crossed. Sexual pleasure and the crashed car are intertwining, marked by Dr. Helen Remington’s, the wife of the dead driver, accidental breast exposure at the accident spot. This intertwine eventually forms a knot of sexual gratification, when during a hospital visit, Catherine and Jim indulge in mutual masturbation whilst she is describing to him the condition of his wrecked car. Eventually, the couple (Jim and Catherine) meet Vaughan (Elias Koteas) who tempts them into the subterranean culture with a project that involves ‘something we are intimately involved in … the reshaping of human body with modern technology’, ‘the new flesh’ that the male protagonist, Max, in Cronenberg’s Videodrome is ‘forced’ to accept.
When conventional female bodies are no longer desirable and intimate, the film sets out to fuse them with technology in an effort to establish their status as the Other. In the third sex scene of the film, Catherine stands facing the outside of her apartment, exposing her buttocks to James. This act of mooning, according to Ian Sinclair, is ‘a metaphor of otherness’. 91 In addition to the sexual encounters, the scarification of the female body by machine is what Cronenberg does in order to dislocate intimacy of the female body, not gradually but with urgency, as embodied in the automobile crash itself. In other words, Cronenberg places desire within the context of crashed automobiles, which in turns associates women with cuts and bruises, a metaphor for castrated woman and her monstrous vagina. In the first car crash involving James Ballard and Dr. Helen Remington, Ballard sees her as ‘the other woman in the other crashed car [who] inadvertently jerks open her blouse and exposes her breast to James […] / In the strange, desperate privacy of this moment, the breast’s erect nipple seems somehow, impossibly, a deliberate provocation’.92 The breast is metonymical of the nurturing female body, foregrounding the ontological quest of the characters’ ultimate existential experience (Vaughan: […] the car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event, a liberation of sexual energy). However, this very act of sexual liberation is placed within the metaphor of the Other. Therefore, the accident that Ballard was involved with is used by Cronenberg to decentre female subjectivity, causing it to function as a catalyst of his Oedipal journey into manhood. Cronenberg creates the visual language for Ballard to start seeing the women – Catherine and Helen – as ‘a bizarre mirror image’,93 ‘watches her (Catherine) microscopically […] as though, perhaps, she isn’t human’,94 or ‘Helen […] straightening her skirt around her hips like a department-store window-dresser jerking a garment on to a mannequin’.95 As a result, Ian Sinclair observed:
The ‘existential romance’ is between James Ballard and Robert Vaughan, that is the thrust of the narrative: a psychosexual alliance between the passive, voyeuristic Ballard and the deranged and driven Vaughan, with his prophetic tattoo and his programme of assassination/suicide.96
Women are hence castrated, and therefore disengaged from the narrative of quasi-homosexuality, consigning them to the role of the Other. In another instance, when Vaughan has sex with Catherine, the act is ‘like two semi-metallic human beings of the future making love in a chromium bower’, not only literally bruising Catherine’s breasts, ‘the marks forming a pattern like car crash injuries’, 97 but also symbolically marking the narrative’s usurpation of her subjectivity. Having relinquished a conventional female sex organ, bruises and cuts on the female body are important in Cronenberg’s oneiric visions, a masculinist effort to construct a ‘neo-sex organ’.98
As an oneiric vision, Cronenberg’s noir world is a mirage which alludes to the Oedipal dream itself, that is, a dream of castrating the mother in the Symbolic in order to identify with the Father. The man/machine interface in the form of cuts, bruises and the visceral, in Cronenberg’s vision, refers to the archaic - the primitive desire to blame the woman for the male’s downfall. In theoriginal script of the film, Cronenberg vividly demonstrates the dissolving of technology with human body, while at the same time putting the blame on the female character.
James There’s still a patch of blood there on the road. Did you see
Renata I saw the blood. It looks like motor oil.
James You were the last one I saw just before the accident. Do you
remember? We made love.
Renata Are you still involving me in the crash?
The film’s lack of moral foundation is increased by the visceral effect of watching the characters struggling to gain pleasure from car crashes. The more the couple associate themselves with Vaughan, the deeper they are sucked into the dark world of ‘psychopathology’ where ‘auto-eroticism’ and self-destructiveness are the order of the day, thus ‘redefining our relationship to the automobile in radical, psychosexual ways’.99 The crossing of the boundary between bodily pleasure and machinic intervention culminates in the death of Vaughan - but this is also the ultimate (sexual) goal of his ‘project’, rendering it a success (in the noir sense of the word). Forsythe in Cronenberg’s Shiver summarizes this sentiment, professing that ‘even dying is an act of eroticism’.100 The idea that the ultimate quest for pleasure has not yet been achieved ( Maybe the next one darling…Maybe the next one…”) leaves the film with a strong sense of determinism in which the characters are designed to be doomed and hopeless, that is, noir fatalism at its own zenith.
Noir fatalism is expressed through the characters’ obsessive relationship with death.For that reason, the film curiously explores the relationship between the sexual dissident and the death wish in an effort to feminise the desire for death itself. Jonathan Dollimore theorizes that
The sexually dissident have known that the strange dynamic which, in Western culture, binds death into desire is not the product of a marginal pathological imagination, but crucial in the formatation of that culture.101
When Colin Seagrave (Peter McNeill) - Vaughan’s stunt partner - dies in a road accident, that is, as the result of re-enacting Jayne Mansfield’s auto crash, he is found cross-dressed, and he has all the props needed to make it similar to Mansfield’s, including her pet dog. Since Seagrave’s ultimate goal is to die in the re-enactment of Jayne Mansfield’s ( a female) fatal car crash, it signals the importance of associating desire for death with femininity. Whereas Cronenberg aligns Seagrave’s death wish with femininity, in Vaughan’s case, the feminisation of the death wish is achieved by feminising his body and desire. Cronenberg feminises Vaughan’s desire by establishing him as a ‘feminine’ character, the one that is obsessed with being penetrated by both machine and another man. Dollimore argues that:
The Western preoccupation with death, desire and loss is also significantly gendered […] It was or is a narrative in which woman is held responsible for bringing death and mutability into the world […] there is no dearth of psychoanalytic explanations for this association of women with death, ranging from chronic unconscious male fear of engulfment or even castration during sexual intercourse, to the difficulty of the boy child leaving the mother for another woman.102
The extent to which his body and desire are feminised is later revealed as the personification of Catherine’s desire. Catherine, while having sex with her husband, Ballard, asks questions about Vaughan’s body and what Ballard would like to do with it, setting the sexual scenario subsequently implemented by Ballard. By being penetrated by Ballard, Vaughan’s body, as Cronenberg intends, is feminised. Therefore, his desire for death is not due to the castration complex, but due to his over-identification with the Mother. As the embodiment of an over-identification with the mother, Vaughan represents perverse sexuality, and in this case, he suffers from psychopathology.
Despite Cronenberg’s treatment of desire as feminine, which is conspicuously misogynistic, the film’s future noir elements allow the female characters to have their fair share of liberation. Catherine, as a wife in an open marriage, is in search for sexual gratification, to the extent that she is willing to cross the boundary between life and death. To a great degree, her quest for pleasure controls the narrative thrust of the film. It is her sexual fantasy about Vaughan that Ballard eventually experiences. She is therefore more than a wife, but also the controller of the narrative of ‘the next one’. Helen as a widow of the victim of the car accident caused by Ballard, also challenges the notion of a victim, having been ‘turned on’ by it. Her newly found pleasure resulting from the accident develops into a fetish that, like the protagonist couple, lures her into a world of obsession with the penetrated and injured body. She is a post-feminist figure whose principle in life is better explained by the popular adage of ‘been there, done that, bought the t-shirt’. Gabrielle’s (Rosanna Arquette) body sexily clad in an ‘S&M’ metal-and-leather outfit challenges the essence of scopophilia by stressing her vulnerability as an individual damaged by the flaw in her character. The effect is sickening voyeurism that challenges the viewers’ identification with the characters, disorientating them as noir texts usually do. In the original script, ‘it is obvious that they (Helen and Gabrielle) have become lovers’, a female bonding that signifies strength where everything else around them is falling apart.
Following noir tradition, the investigation of the female characters also exposes the instability and insecurity of the male characters. While having sex with her husband, Catherine vividly shows her interest in a scarred male body, asking her husband about Vaughan’s penis. She imagines and questions about the penis, creating a descriptive language that nullifies its symbolic power and displaces it in the realm of the real as a form of perversion or psychopathology, which is ‘suffered’ by Vaughan. Catherine’s line of questioning, ‘Is he circumcised? Can you imagine what his anus is like? Describe it to me’, is emblematic of Foucault’s philosophical understanding of ‘knowledge is power’. Her wanting to know, as illustrated by the questions, puts her in the position of the determiner of knowledge, the holder of the truth. That is why, at one point, she suggests to her husband, ‘I’d like to go back James …’, knowing what is ahead of her. In that vein, suddenly, the narrative engenders the idea that while scarification is associated with the vagina, it also generates interests that mystify a male body.
In conclusion, though the thrust of both films is towards scrutinizing female subjectivity, sexuality, and body, Crash’s bleakness sets it apart from The Fly as a future noir text. While the male protagonist in The Fly is resonant of the tragic hero whose greatness determines and informs how tragic his ending is later considered to be, it lacks both atmospheric anxiety and moral ambivalence which are two of the major defining criteria of a film noir. The Fly’s dark mood is raw gothic fear of the Other, or the personification of the evil and abject essence within a human body, as manifested by the Bundlefly itself. The protagonist’s disintegration, which culminates in his incarceration in a well-like prison, provides a closure and sympathy, giving a rather monolithic moral dimension to his fate, causing ‘him’ to function as a tragic figure in a cautionary tale rather than a transgressor in a noir world. On the other hand, the ending of Crash leaves the audience disorientated and to a greater extent disillusioned. The characters, in pursuit of the ultimate sexual pleasure, culminating in a fatal ending, i.e., death itself, are devoid of any moral standing or foundation. Their struggle represents a dormant anxiety that runs amok when triggered, leaving no space for moral speculation or anticipation. Knowing that the characters’ pursuit of the ultimate pleasure of death disregards their human dimension, the audience is left disconcerted. When their bodies are snatched by machines, the paranoia of ‘Maybe the next one’, which is embedded in future noir, begins.
Sections: 2 3
1 Marge Piercy, p. 558.
2 Rational Fears, 1996.
3 From My Guy to Sci-Fi, 1989, p.7
4 In distinguishing fantasy fiction from science fiction, Joanna Russ explains that fantasy ‘embodies a “negative subjunctivity”…[i.e.]…what cannot happen, what cannot exist’. Science fiction, on the other hand, is about ‘what has not happened’ in To Write Like A Woman, 1995, p.16.
5 cited in Roz Kaveney, ‘The Science Fictiveness of Women’s Science Fiction’, in From My Guy to Sci-Fi, Helen Carr, ed., 1989, p.80.
6 1983, p.4
7 ibid., p.10
8 Heinlein writes the screenplay for Destination Moon based on his novel Rocket Ship Galileo (1947).
9 ‘Science Fiction Women Before Liberation’, in Future Females, Marleen S. Barr, ed., 1981, p.11.
10 Dir. Roger Vadim, 1968.
11To Write Like a Woman, 1995, pp.90-91.
12 ‘Time Travel, Primal Scene and the Critical Dystopia’, Camera Obscura, 1986, pp. 75-76.
13 Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska, Science Fiction Cinema: From Outer Space to Cyberspace, 2000, p.13
14 Science Fiction in the 20th Century, 1994, p.3
15 The elite of the society live in penthouses in skyscrapers in which the leader of the replicant, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) visit to kill his inventor.
16 In Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome (1985), the division is reversed. In Bartertown, the Master of the town lives in the underground, working to provide the energy/power for the town people on the surface.
17 ‘Time Travel, Primal Scene and the Critical Dystopia’, Camera Obscura, 1986, p.67
18 A Literary Symbiosis, 1983, p.10.
19 ‘The Science Fictiveness of Women’s Science Fiction’, in From My Guy To Sci-Fi, Helen Carr, ed., 1989, p. 81.
20 According to Scott Sander, the ‘damsel in distress’ is ‘the humblest of all’ categories of female characters ‘who frequently endanger men in SF’,1981, p.49.
21 ‘Women as Nature in Science Fiction’, in Future Females, Marleen S. Barr, ed., 1981, p.42
22 ibid., p.43
23 ‘The Science Fictiveness of Women’s Science Fiction’, in From My Guy to Sci-Fi, Helen Carr, ed., 1989, p. 79.
24 To Write Like a Woman, 1995, p.22.
25 Dir. George Pal, 1960.
26 Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska, Science Fiction Cinema, 2000, p.52
27 ‘The Feminist Dystopia of the 1990s: Record of Failure, Midwife of Hope’, in Future Females, the Next Generation, Marleen S. Barr, ed., 2000, p.49.
28 ‘Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katherine Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler’, in Future Females: the Next Generation, Marleen S. Barr, ed., 2000, p.16.
29 ibid., p. 17.
30 ‘The Science Fictiveness of Women’s Science Fiction’, in From My Guy to Sci-Fi, Helen Carr, ed., 1989, p.79.
31 ibid., p.81
32 ‘Science Fiction Women Before Liberation’, in Future Females, Marleen S. Barr, ed., 1981, p. 25.
33 Science Fiction Cinema, 2000, p. 2.
34 To Write Like A Woman, 1995, p. 11.
35 ‘Science Fiction Before Liberation’, in Future Females, Marleen S. Barr, ed., 1981, p.23.
36 ‘The Feminist Dystopia of the 1990s: Record of Failure, Midwife of Hope’, in Future Females, The Next Generation, Marleen S. Barr, ed., 2000, p.53.
37 ‘Time Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia’, Camera Obscura, 1986, p.76.
39 Marleen S. Barr, ‘Post-phallic Culture: Reality Now Resembles Utopian Feminist Science Fiction’, in Future Females, The Next Generation, Marleen S. Barr, ed., 2000, pp. 80-81.
40 Ibid., p.76.
41 A literary Symbiosis, 1983, p.205.
42 Lee Horsley, The Noir Thriller, 2001, p. 190.
43 Richard Martin, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls, 1997, p.7
44 This is a phrase used by James Naremore in his analysis of noir and neo-noir films. In James Naremore, More Than Night, 1998, p.167.
45 These are some of the organisational chapters of Richard Martin’s Mean Streets and Raging Bulls.
46 Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, eds. An Encyclopaedia of Reference to the American Style: Film Noir, 1992, p. 387.
47 Alain Silver, ‘Introduction’, in Alain Silver and James Ursini, eds., Film Noir: Reader, 1998, p.3.
48 Todd Erickson, ‘Kill Me Again: Movement becomes Genre’, in Alain Silver and James Ursini, eds., Film Noir: Reader, 1998, p.308.
49 Postmodernist Fiction, 1987, p. 59
50 To Write Like a Woman, 1995, p. xv.
53 Science Fiction Cinema, 2000, p.79.
54 The Noir Thriller, 2001, p. 229.
55 Postmodernist Fiction, 1987, p. 11.
56 Ibid. , p. 5.
57 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 1982, p.
58 Hazel B. Pierce, A literary Symbiosis, 1983, pp. 6-7.
59 ‘Time Travel, Primal Fear, and the Critical Dystopia’, Camera Obscura, 1986, p. 76.
60 James Nick, ‘An Eye for an Eye’, Sight and Sound, 2002, p. 14.
61 From My Guy To Sci-Fi, 1989, p.11.
62 Postmodernist Fiction, 1987, p. 5.
63 Constance Penley relates the desire in the time travel story with that of Freud’s primal scene fantasy, the fantasy of seeing or being at ‘one’s own conception’, Time Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia, Camera Obscura, 1986, p. 72.
64 ‘Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katherine Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler’, in Future Females: The Next Generation, Marleen S. Barr, ed., 2000, p. 18.
65 Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 1987, p. 10.
66 Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 1987, p.12.
67 Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, 1986, p.192.
68 All the three films are adapted from John Finney’s novel. The second version bears the same title as the first and was directed by Philip Kaufman in 1978. The locations in all three films are also different with Siegel’s location a small American town, Kaufman’s is a big city, and Ferrara’s in an army camp. These discrete locations offer different metaphors in the reading of the film.
69 The Sexual Metaphor, 1993, p.5.
70 Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 1987, p. 5
71 According to Edward James, the term ‘Inner Space’ had been invented in 1953 by J.B. Priestley. Science Fiction in the 20th Century, 1994, p. 170
73 Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, 1986, p.195.
74 Dir. Guillermo del Toro. 1997.
75 Chris Rodley, ‘Introduction’, Cronenberg on Cronenberg, Chris Rodley, ed., 1997, p. xv
77 John Costello (David Cronenberg, 2000, p. 64) and Chris Rodley (Cronenberg on Cronenberg, ed., 1997, p. 125-127 ) both quote Cronenberg on this matter.
78 ‘Introduction’, Cronenberg on Cronenberg, in Chris Rodley, ed., 1997, p.xvi.
79 The Crash Controversy, 2001, p.5
80 Cronenberg on Cronenberg, in Chris Rodley, ed., 1997, p.194
81 ‘The Monster We Create: Woman on the Edge of Time and Frankenstein’, Critique, 2001, p.139.
82 David Cronenberg, 2000, p.32.
83 ‘The Fly (1986)’, p.2, <http://us.imdb.com/Reviews/218/21847>. John Costello, however, reported that Cronenberg ‘took great pains to distance the film from being read as an Aids allegory’, in David Cronenberg, 2000, p. 64.
84 Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture, 1999, p.91
85 Crash, 1999, p.19.
86 Martin Barker in his study on the controversies surrounding the film (hence its poor reception in the U.K., stresses on a film as a powerful form of culture due to its reliance on visual representation) also concedes that most film academia scorn the film based on their current presumptions that ‘our visual relationship to films simultaneously positions us and enmeshes us’ (p.76). This in a way supports my point that Crash relies heavily on its visual as part of the narrative structure. In ‘Crashing Out’, Screen, 2002.
87 Chris Rodley, Crash, 1996, p.3
88 Chris Rodley, Crash, 1996, p.4
89 Chris Rodley, Crash, 1996, p.5
90 Cronenberg, in a press conference, defends his use of three succession of sex scenes at the beginning of the film as the plot of the film (in Martin Barker, et al, The Crash Controversy, 2001, p. 5)
91 Crash, 1999, p. 52.
92 Chris Rodley, Crash, 1996, pp.8-9
93 Ian Sinclair, Crash, 1999, p. 8.
94 Ibid., p.36.
95 Ibid., p. 38
96 Ian Sinclair, Crash, 1999, p.21
97 Chris Rodley, Crash, 1996, p.50
98 Chris Rodley, Crash, 1996, p.53
99 Chris Rodley, ‘Introduction’, Cronenberg on Cronenberg, in Chris Rodley, ed., 1997, p.xxiii.
100 John Costello, David Cronenberg, 2000, p.30.
101 Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture, 1999, p. XII.
102 Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture, 1999, p. xxii.