TCS Daily


Why Not Women From Mars?

By James Pinkerton - August 28, 2001 12:00 AM

The Fourth Planet has starred in three movies released in the last year. Unfortunately, none of them were much good. Yet Mars is interesting enough such that even the worst of the trio-"Ghosts of Mars," the one in theaters now, though not for long-has a point worth pondering. And what is that point? Namely: whether or not a space-future offers women more empowerment than the earthbound present.

The previous offerings served up the standard fare for sci-fi flicks. "Mission to Mars," released in 2000, starring Gary Sinise, was a plausible-enough forecast of what might happen on a voyage to the fourth rock from the sun, although its ending was a bit of happy-galacticism that seemed borrowed, if not ripped off, from "2001," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and "Contact." And as for "Red Planet," also released last year, the highlight-and it's pretty low-was Val Kilmer fighting off man-killing firebugs.

But if you'd rather see Ice Cube and Natasha Henstridge fighting off man-killing zombies, then "Ghosts of Mars" is for you. That's right. Although the film, directed by John Carpenter, is set at a Martian mining site in 2176, it can best be described as a zombie Western, with a little kung fu fighting thrown in. But it's the critics who are applying the chopsocky: the headline above Rita Kempley's review in The Washington Post read, "'Mars': No Intelligent Life Here." "Lost in Space" jibed the header over John Foreman's one-star evaluation in The New York Post. The Los Angeles Times' Kevin Thomas called it "lackluster," while The Dallas Morning News' Gary Dowell dismissed it as "distressingly amateurish and hackneyed to the point of absurdity."

The critics' kicks are being felt; according to Boxofficeguru.com, "Ghosts," which opened Friday, took in just $3.8 million over the weekend. Budgeted at $28 million, plus promotion costs, the film "looks to disappear fast," the site prophesies.

Yet there's that thought-provoking aspect of this production. It's this: the government of Mars, we are told, is a "matriarchy." Unfortunately, that intriguing premise seems to be simply an excuse for jokes and slurs at the expense of lesbians. In a more positive light, various feminist sci-fi writers have dealt with a "femutopia" of one kind or another; notable works include Pamela Sargent's The Shore of Women (1986) and Sheri Tepper's The Gate to Woman's Country (1988).

Yet as Ursula LeGuin has said, "Science fiction is not predicting the future, it's describing the present." The idea might make one think about whether or not a "matronage"-a term coined in "Ghosts of Mars"-could ever occur in the real world(s). So we might just as easily look around Earth for here-and-now seeds of feminist activity that might someday flower into an astromatriarchy.

The August 11 edition of The Financial Times featured one such glimpse, a report on the matriarchal society of Mosuo, China, a "Kingdom of Daughters" high up in the Himalayan foothills. As reporter Justin Wintle explained, in this isolated place, there are no marriages, and no real role for men, other than as progenitors:

The linchpins of Mosuo society are the mother and the sister. They are the
decision-makers, the business managers, just as they are the inheritors of
property, and controllers of the family purse. Courtships among the young
are free-and-easy, but thereafter males are dependent on the distaff. For
them, to belong to a clan is to belong on sufferance. What little they may
earn is handed over.

Wintle observes that the Mosuo matriarchy is potentially fragile, that globalization could undo this anomalous social arrangement. On the other hand, if the Mosuo matriarchs could survive such male-power-oriented ideologies as Confucianism and Maoism, maybe their brand of culture could spread as more people learn of it.

If it works for the Mosuo, why shouldn't matriarchs be in charge of Mars, as "Ghosts" imagines? After all, in the long run, there's not much difference between the right-tilting concept of "liberty" and the left-leaning concept of "diversity." That is, if you have liberty, you'll have diversity-because free people do different things. And if you don't have liberty, you won't have diversity-because oppressed people have all the same, squashed sameness.

So, why shouldn't more women explore outer space? Science has been a male bastion for eons. And other groups with a grudge against the status quo always have seen the need to travel in order to construct worlds after themselves. If women look into the sky and see that they could build a whole fortress on some high and distant pavilion, they could realize that they, too, have an interest in space mobility. Maybe even men could visit them on Mars.

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