Before the recent advances in Hollywood due to the #metoo and #timesup movements, there were science fiction films that showed strong women. Characters like Ripley in Alien and Sarah Conner from the Terminator franchise showed women that were smart and capable without turning into damsels in distress at the sign of the first man who could help them. While women in sci-fi films of the past were often just eye candy, some films are so misogynistic that it is either painful or hilarious to watch them (often both).
In the 1950s, as the feminist movement gained traction, some films seemed intent in showing strong women that were only waiting for a man to come along and melt their cold hearts. Others showed that when women had power they became either crazy, violent, or both.
These movies all felt feminist to viewers when they were released but to the modern eye they really support the patriarchy of the times. Here are the most egregious examples.
Cat-women of the Moon (1953)
Using a spaceship furnished with wooden tables and rolling chairs, a “scientific expedition” to the Moon encounters a race of Cat-Women, the last eight survivors of a two-million-year-old civilization. Residing deep within a cave, where they have managed to maintain not only the remnants of a breathable atmosphere and Earth-like gravity but also a pair of gigantic spiders, the Cat-Women sport black unitards, beehive hairstyles, and elaborate eye makeup.
Realizing that the remaining air in their cave will soon be gone, the Cat-Women plan to steal the expedition’s spaceship, migrate to Earth, and in the words of Alpha (Carol Brewster), the Cat-Women’s queen, “We will get their women under our power, and soon we will rule the whole world”!
Through the use of their telepathic ability, the Cat-Women have been subliminally controlling Helen Salinger (Marie Windsor the queen of the B Movies), the mission navigator and only female member of the expedition. Once the expedition arrives on the Moon, the Cat-Women take complete control of Helen’s mind, after which she leads the entire crew (clad in heavy spacesuits and equipped with matches, cigarettes, and a gun) to the Cat-Women’s lair. Although unable to control the male minds, the Cat-Women are nevertheless able to influence the male crew through the mind-controlled Helen, their own superior intellectual abilities, and feminine wiles. As explained to Helen by the Cat-Woman named Beta (Suzanne Alexander), “Show us their weak points. We’ll take care of the rest.”
The Cat-women try to get the men to reveal the secrets of their ship, so they can go to Earth and begin their conquest. But Kip (Victor Jory) has been suspicious of them from the start. He watches as the other men seem to fall under the spell of the alien women. When Laird (Sonny Tufts) the mission commander, doesn’t give up his information, Helen is their tool to get it from him. Beta convinces the engineer (Douglas Fowley) to show her the ship in exchange for revealing a large gold deposit. However, she kills him while he lets his avarice consume him.
The only other Cat-woman named on screen is Lambda (Susan Morrow) who falls in love with the communication officer, Doug (William Phipps). She falls for him and reveals the plan to kill the men and take the ship. She manages to slow down the other women’s escape before being killed just long enough for Kip to arrive and shoot them, freeing Helen from their influence. With all the named Cat-women dead the crew return to the ship and return to Earth.
This film shows Helen to be the standard screaming, swooning woman that the era loved to have in films. However, she does get to arch her eyebrow as she outwits the men on the expedition. The Cat-women, however, are not shrinking violets. They are crafty, intelligent, and focused on continuing their race by using Earth men as breeding stock. This addresses a very real fear that men had in that era. If women gained power, would they need men anymore? The answer given here is not for long.
Project Moonbase (1953)
The film is unusual for its time in both attempting to portray space travel in a “realistic” manner, and for depicting a future in which women hold positions of authority and responsibility equal to men; in the film the President of the United States is a woman
Set in a future 1970, the United States is considering building bases on the Moon. Colonel Briteis (Donna Martell), Major Bill Moore (Ross Ford), and Doctor Wernher (Larry Johns) are sent to orbit the Moon to survey landing sites for future lunar missions. However, Dr. Wernher is a Russian spy, whose mission is to destroy the US’s Earth-orbiting space station, which he plans to do by colliding the rocket with the station on the way back from the Moon.
While on the way out, however, Wernher inadvertently gives his identity away. In the ensuing struggle for the control of the rocket, Col. Briteis has to make an emergency landing on the Moon. With them all marooned, Dr. Wernher redeems himself by helping establish communications with Earth, although an accident results in his untimely death. In response to the unexpected turn of events, the US authorities decide to make the immobilized spaceship the core of a new moon base. To avoid a scandal, their commander, General Greene (Hayden Rorke known for playing Major Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie), cajoles Major Moore into proposing to Colonel Briteis (so as not to have an unmarried male and female astronaut alone in close quarters for weeks). Briteis accepts, but requests that Major Moore be promoted to Brigadier General after they are married so that he will outrank her.
Compared to later science fiction movies and TV shows, where women are full-fledged professionals, this film portrays the main female protagonist, Col. Briteis, as a nice but incompetent female who is easily frightened and turns to Major Moore as soon as things become dangerous. It starts off with the woman in charge but she not only capitulates to her betrothed, she requests he be given command over her.
Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956)
Considered by many as a strong contender for the worst movie ever made, this film made its way onto a 1992 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The discovery of signs of life on the 13th moon of Jupiter leads to the sending of a crew of five chain-smoking male astronauts, armed with handguns, to investigate. On the moon, they rescue Hestia (Susan Shaw), a beautiful girl, who is being attacked by a monster. They subsequently discover New Atlantis, a dying civilization, a colony of the original Atlantis. There are only seventeen people left, all women save for a single middle-aged man, Prasus (Owen Berry), the girls’ “father” (presumably adoptive). Prasus hopes the spacemen will stay and help him destroy the monster, “the man with the head of a beast”.
Duessa (Jacqueline Curtis), the leader of the women, determines to hold them captive to use as mates. After watching their dance, that doesn’t seem like so horrible a fate.
The monster lurks outside the city’s walls, but breaks into the city and kills Prasus along with several of the women, including Duessa. It is killed by the earthmen, and the remaining women decide to let them return to earth. Hestia returns with them, and the astronauts promise to send spaceships back with husbands for the rest.
The monster only appears for a few minutes of the film and really isn’t that scary. The true horror is the script and acting.
But the important point is that we have another film of feminine authority and the male fantasy of being the only men on a planet of women. It is unclear why women on a planet all their own would dress in sexy outfits and dance provocatively. There is a weird moment where only the captain has partnered up (with Hestia) but each man walks out with a woman on his arm.
Queen of Outer Space (1958)
Queen of Outer Space is a science fiction film that envisions the planet Venus being run by women. It stars Zsa Zsa Gabor not as the title character but as her main antagonist.
The story follows a team of astronauts tasked with taking a scientist to the space station he helped create. After they take off in what is a fairly well-done rocket launch for a 1950s film, they are nearing the station when it is suddenly destroyed by some kind of beam.
Their ship is struck by the beam, as well, and they find themselves hurtling through space at incredible speeds only to crash on Venus. The planet is aptly named because it is populated by beautiful women.
The film seems like a feminist piece until you watch it. The titular queen is pretty much your standard male hating feminist, until the captain of the ship uses his manly charms on her. Turns out the reason she is such a cold fish is that she was disfigured by radiation that has led to her wearing a mask at all times. When war was killing all their men she led a revolt and now that she knows Earth has men she wants to destroy it as well. He tries to seduce her, but when he manages to remove her mask and her irradiated visage is revealed he suddenly needs to be somewhere else.
The men make comments about how the women can’t possibly be able to run complicated equipment and one of them keeps calling all the women “baby.” Fans of Star Trek can’t miss the fact that the women’s dresses look like a familiar velour fabric in the same three colors used on the show just a decade later.
The queen’s plan to destroy the Earth is foiled and this time the men stay behind with the women, implying that while the women will run the planet they will be “partners” with their chosen mates.
The subtext of all these films seems to be that if men were real men, their women wouldn’t want to have equality or independence. At the time, men seemed to believe that a firm hand would keep them under control. They are all so funny that they end up being sad.
Seeing how the women are treated does show that we have come a long way since the fabulous fifties. But based on the constant news of new allegations against Hollywood producers and actors, there is still a long way to go.