It is interesting that a wide range of films related to science share a common element; namely, sexism is evident in the narratives, and sexism encouraged by the realities of the patriarchal cultures and corporate entities consistently demeaning and/or objectifying women. Moreover, this is by no means an overt theme. In Europa Report, Gattaca, Madame Curie, and the first three Alien movies, women figure prominently in the storylines, and even occupy hero roles. Certainly, Alien’s Ripley and the eponymous Madame Curie impact on their worlds in extreme ways, just as Ripley continually behaves with intelligence and bravery absent in most of the males. Nonetheless, and as the following comparisons reveal, sexism exists even in these presentations, just as the films themselves tend to support traditional and stereotypical ideas of female inferiority, and/or masculine behavior as ultimately and correctly in authority.
The influence of sexism in these films, to varying degrees, is best appreciated by noting how it exists in specific and relatively ways within the narratives. In Alien, for example, the crew boasts two women: Third Officer Ripley and navigator Lambert. Overtly, the women command some respect, or at least interact as equals with the men. At the same time, scenes reveal underlying sexist ideologies. At dinner, for example, Lambert is the object of an obscene sexual joke from Parker, the engineer/mechanic. Rank means little, then; he is empowered to be vulgar because she is a woman. Then, Ripley’s correct insistence that Kane be quarantined is ignored by both captain and science officer. There are agendas with the latter, but the captain’s dismissal of Ripley strongly suggests a male impatience with what he perceives as feminine weakness. This same quality of sexist dismissal is seen in the other Alien films.
In the first sequel, Ripley is recruited to inform the marines of the realities they will encounter. Those marines interrupt her repeatedly, which is remarkable given the circumstances of the imminent and dangerous mission. Interestingly, also, two female marines are equally contemptuous of Ripley. They represent a kind of masculinized presence; they dismiss her as do the men because they have earned the status of being “like” men. All of this indirectly reflects the ways in which Madame Curie is seen by the men of her culture. Pierre recognizes her credibility as a scientist, but both understand that she requires his support if the research is to continue. This is powerfully evident in the scene when they argue for funding and a laboratory space. Pierre dominates the discussion, but, and ironically, it is her gentle passivity that allows them to go on.
With Alien 3, a different kind of sexism is seen, and this connects to the broader reality of the patriarchal foundations of the other narratives. Here, Ripley, the sole female, is consistently doubted by the authorities, no matter her experiences with the aliens and her knowledge. Like Ripley, Madame Curie also must continually prove herself in the face of male bias. More importantly, there is no real recognition of the abilities of either character by the men, until events leave no alternative. Certainly, Curie achieves fame, but the implication is that her pioneering ideas and work rely on her husband’s efforts. Then, both Ripley and Curie essentially can rely only on their accomplishments as validation, as in Ripley’s taking command only after she survives the encounter with the alien. Had men achieved what they achieve, hero status would be awarded. Ripley would have been honored as courageous by the company and the culture, rather than as a female employee who defied company protocols.
Equally meaningful is that the Curie film concludes by emphasizing her “womanly” role as wife and mother. Gattaca also presents traditional ideas of the female gender within its futuristic story, and for the same, emotive effect. For example, in the scene with Vincent desperately trying to affirm his identity and innocence to Irene, he appeals to her as a kind of maternal figure. He insists that she is, “the authority of what is possible,” just as he scolds her for having been too obsessed with finding flaws. In plain terms, this is not an appeal a man would make to another man. Vincent’s desperation relies on emotionally moving Irene and, her austere demeanor aside, she is moved. In all of these settings, then, and with the past of the Curies as well as the science fiction future, women behave and are responded to as women within structures of patriarchal power.
At the same time, it is important to recognize where sexism does not exist. The Madame Curie scene in which she and Pierre labor over the pitch blend, for example, presents real equality in effort and dedication. Then, and sexist dismissal notwithstanding, Ripley invariably triumphs as few men could. Katya in Europa Report also very much reflects Ripley’s urgency and power, and the remarkable aspect of this character lies in an absence of sexism in the film itself. Much of this is due to the almost documentary style of the movie. Interactions are seen from a distanced perspective, and there is no indication of Katya as a target of any sexism. In fact, her pivotal scene in which she encounters the blue light and alien life has the same quality of Ripley’s success at the conclusions of Alien and Aliens. In these moments and with both characters, gender is meaningless because an individual is confronting extremes of terror and danger, and capably. Ultimately, then, the movies discussed more than uphold sexism, yet there are as well variations presenting the female characters is radically non-traditional ways.