The other evening I watched the 1953 version of War of the Worlds, directed by Byron Haskin and starring a long list of B movie stalwarts. The original story is, of course, by H.G. Wells and deals with the fear of an apocalypse brought on by hostile extraterrestrials. The characters in this version are pretty much as you would expect; gung ho military leaders, louche professor of everything to do with ‘out there’, trusting priest, female science graduate……whoa *rewinds*. Female science graduate? In 1953? Great! Well, yes you’d think that wouldn’t you? Said female though fails to arrest 1953 expectations and spends the entire film screaming, clinging onto professor, simpering or handing out coffee to military men. The message is reassuringly predictable; man save planet, woman look purty and keep man happy.
But it is more complex than that. Sylvia, as the only female character, serves as a conduit for our fears. We see the male characters being brave and fearless or brave and stupid (as with the three fisherman who attempt to initiate a conversation with the alien), but we don’t see fear. That is reserved for the face of the pretty, young Sylvia. We see her fear writ large, in close-up as her face contorts. Her emotion, if unchecked by the manly professor, is excessive, incontinent, out of control. We fear the unknown of this excessive emotion just as we fear the unknown of the alien. Where will it end? Can someone please shut that woman up?
The message is pretty straight forward; emotional responses, especially fear, are feminised. We channel our collective fears through the feminine, not only women but those considered ‘other’ to to masculine norm – children, gay men, the elderly, the infirm. Indeed, in the 2005 remake of War of the Worlds (dir. Steven Spielberg) Dakota Fanning’s child character (Rachel) displays all the fear and horror while her father (played by Tom Cruise) progresses the narrative with gritty determination. Her brother, Robbie (played by Justin Chatwin) displays the emotional range typical of a teenage boy and spends a lot of time staring incredulously around him) while Rachel sobs, screams, cries and shouts. Even when Cruise’s character beats to death a man out of shot, it is on the face of the girl child (removing the safety of the blindfold) that we see and experience the full horror of what is happening behind the locked door.
So, in the fifty years between these two films what has changed? Well, there is no leading lady to make coffee and scream a lot (although there are plenty of examples of films where that still happens) but the female is still doing the fear thing. Woman or girl, she channels our horror and fear and expresses it across her beautiful face. She is a foil for the dynamism of the male characters and she progresses the narrative through her paralysed inaction and the need to be rescued.
It isn’t really news that emotions and the display of them are perceived as feminine, in fact it is one of the stereotypical constraints of gender that harms both men and women. We can carry this theme further and ask what red-blooded male wouldn’t fight aliens to save a woman or child? But I think there is something else going on here….something much darker, and I will go into that next time. In the meantime, here is a visual clue…