1950s B-films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958), or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), might seem to be pure fantasy, just mindless fun. Coming out during the heyday of McCarthyism and Hollywood blacklisting of suspected communists, you might assume these movies would never get too close to real political issues.
But as Susan A. George points out in her new book Gendering Science Fiction Films: Invaders from the Suburbs, “It is because of their strictly entertainment, low-budget, Saturday matinée status that they became one of the rare sites where cultural, political, and social issues were examined, promoted, or challenged” (3).
George, a lecturer in the Karen Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced, goes through several 1950s alien invasion films and draws on political theory, psychoanalysis, and literary theories in her analysis of how they present gender roles for both men and women, and how those presentations relate to the politics and culture of the era.
George argues that the Cold War produced pressure on the American middle-class to conform, work as part of a team, and trust authority, in order to more effectively resist communism. In 1947 President Truman required federal employees to take a loyalty oath and over 200 federal employees were fired as potential risks to national security. When McCarthy’s hearings began, suspected communists were subject to harassment, blacklisting, and guilt-by-association. McCarthy’s messages were spread far and wide in the media and many Americans became convinced communists were actively working in America and had to be rooted out.
If you wanted to avoid suspicion, you had to conform. A man had to be focused and prove himself through career success and providing for his family. He had to provide a strong paternal role model to his children, but there were limits. There was danger in becoming too much of a maverick, in taking matters into one’s own hands, because challenging authority could raise suspicions about one’s loyalties. Likewise, a woman had to support her husband, take care of her children, and not distract her family with her own ambitions or desires. Of course, conforming was easier if you were white, straight and middle-class.
In this way, George says the U.S. approach to “containment” of communism abroad also meant containing Americans at home (12):
“In the domestic sphere, containment was accomplished through marriage and the establishment of a ‘nuclear’ family residing in the suburbs with a husband as breadwinner and commuter and a woman as housewife and mother.”
The most common roles George identified in 1950s sci-fi movies were the “mystique model” for women and the “team player” for men. (more…)