Friday, September 01, 2006

Monsters and Motherly Mad (and Bad) Scientists

In mad science films, maternity is both danger and salvation, according to an article in the Scientist by J. Kasi Jackson, an assistant professor in the Center for Women's Studies at West Virginia University:

In my work on female scientists in B-movies, I explore the way that such films deal with our inclination to view science as masculine and nature as feminine. When men are doing the science, this isn't a contradiction; in these films, masculine, rational science dominates and controls irrational, feminine nature. Sometimes, the pattern is obvious, such as when a wild-haired, wild-eyed Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) from Young Frankenstein (1974) shouts that he will use science to "penetrate into the very womb of impervious nature herself."

But what happens when the mad scientist is a woman?

Instead of being portrayed as madly evil in the Young Frankenstein, messy-haired sense, B-movie female scientists are capable and feminine -- but with a bizarre twist: an emotional, intuitive and maternal drive channeled toward nature. Or as Stacy Alaimo puts it, she is "unfaithful" to those who trained her, "allying herself with the nature she is supposed to control."

A great example is Carnosaur (1993), in which Jane Tiptree (Dianne Ladd), fed up with humans messing up the environment, decides to wipe them off the face of the planet by genetically engineering a virus that causes women to give birth to dinosaur eggs. Although Tiptree is decidedly mad, she is also very feminine -- she alone sports manicured nails, plucked brows, and makeup. She is a maternal (not sexy) female figure, a vengeful Mother Nature who will destroy humanity to save the world. The dinosaurs are her children, literally -- she willingly sacrifices herself to her own virus and dies when a Carnosaur digs its way through her abdomen.

A theme I have noticed in B-movies is that, to escape madness such as Tiptree's, the female scientist must redirect maternal impulses she has about nature towards human children or a romantic partner. In Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), she does both. Scientist Dianne Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) and veterinarian Robert 'Rack' Hansen (played by a typically macho William Shatner) fight human-eating tarantulas. Ashley starts the film on nature's side -- she argues that the spiders kill large animals because pesticides have destroyed their prey, and her preferred solution is to let nature attain a new balance.

In one strikingly classy scene, Ashley, clad in a towel, finds a spider in her dresser drawer. As we wait in delicious suspense for the inevitable shrieks of fear, she instead picks it up and croons: "Well, hello there." But Ashley eventually abandons her inhuman alliance with nature and, along with it, her scientific role; she spends the last part of the film protecting and consoling Hansen's young niece -- and forgetting her initial objection to hooking up with Hansen.

Susan Drake (Ann Turkel) from Humanoids from the Deep (1980) is not so fortunate. Drake genetically engineers fast-growing salmon to replenish a depleted fishery. However, native coelacanths eat the salmon and mutate into half-man/half-fish monsters which are driven to mate with human women and kill all the men. As the voiceover in the trailer aptly summarizes, it's "a battle over the survival of the fittest -- where man is the endangered species and woman the ultimate prize." Drake helps the local people defeat the humanoids, but afterwards she helps the last remaining impregnated woman give birth to one of the mutant monsters, which kills the mother in the process and leaves sequels open to further madness.

In mad science films, maternity is both danger and salvation. If her maternal feelings are linked with nature, the female scientist will create monstrosities that will destroy mankind. The woman scientist who redirects her instincts to people, however, saves people from nature's wild ways, but she must sacrifice practicing science to achieve this. Either way, the choice to mother, and if so, what to mother, will define her.


Kathryn Hinsch said...

Linda, Excellent blog - very insightful look at how our culture shapes our ideas about science, scientists, and gender dynamics. Have I recently told you how much we all appreciate your wonderful commentary.

kathryn said...

Science fiction is one of my passions. I've written several papers detailing how some SF stories should be used to teach, philosophy and ethics as humans confront new technology and environments. Or our "children of the future," who may not be Homo sapiens. These are lessons we don't have to learn the hard way, if we can learn the explanations, promises, and warnings in literature, including SF.

I'll enjoy thinking about the women in SF with this information in mind - I just several anthologies of SF by women.

(Now that I think about it, I'm surprised there aren't more stories about mad women scientists.)

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