Mothering the monsters

Maternity is both danger and salvation for 'mad' female scientists, says women's studies professor

By | September 1, 2006

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. J. Kasi Jackson is an assistant professor in the Center for Women's Studies at West Virginia University. She has written an article on female mad scientists that is under consideration for publication in the journal FemSpec. Her Ph.D. is in biology, focused on animal behavior, and she is currently working on a book about how assumptions of animal awareness affect representations of animals in different disciplines. J. Kasi Jackson Links within this article: S. Perkowitz, "Female scientists on the big screen," The Scientist, July 21, 2006. Young Frankenstein Stacy Alaimo Carnosaur Kingdom of the Spiders Humanoids from the Deep WVU Center for Women's Studies FemSpec


September 2, 2006

The article was very interesting and tries to explain the psyche of scientists (male or female) who are caught in the conflict of self interest v/s the larger interest of the society or humankind, or in this case Nature itself. \n\nAs may be noted, most of the examples quoted are related to biological phenomena, about the survival of one kind of species over another or a choice between two different worlds. It is difficult to fathom such a scenario for physicists or chemists since the application of these disciplines is usually universal and not gender or species specific. There are, however, exceptions to this scenario, a case in point being the film, "Contact" where Jodie Foster plays the role of a physicist trying to find intelligent life on other planets in the Universe. And when she does so, she shows the heart of a true scientist by accepting the truth, but also that of a mother who has blind faith in her child (in this case, again the truth she has discovered) and will go to any extent to protect it, risking her career and position in society in the process. She tries to unite science and (human) Nature and personally comes out trumps, but she cannot make a believer out of everybody, not even her fellow scientists.\n\nWhat drives scientists (male or female) 'mad' is the opposition they face from the society in general and their peers in particular for some of their pet theories or ideas, but more often than not, ideals. Every scientist has accepted the cold truths about science, but they often have their own set of principles that are applicable to thier work. It is the passion for science and Nature that makes competent scientists out of ordinary humans. And most of these scientists see the world as belonging equally to everyone. The decision to obliterate a species is hard to accept or justify for most of them. Let me explain this with an example-\n\nSome time ago it was decided NOT to destroy the remaining worldwide stocks of smallpox vaccine even though the disease has been eradicated. Though there was a gamut of political reasons provided to do so, as a biology scientist myself, I would have voted against the destruction simply because these were the last remaining samples of a very competent virus that has mutated over generations to acheive an evolutionary edge over its host. Politicians may get to decide which person can or cannot live, but they surely should not get to decide which species is allowed to survive. That is purely the ethos of the scientists. As always, the differences will remain amongst them, but it is important to understand that it is not always pure logic that decides such matters, the ideals about life and science and Nature are what drives the reasoning behind passionate scientists.

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