Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Fan Service in Space Movies: An Evolving Artform

In his work on Smut, the American poet and philosopher Tom Lehrer once said

    All books can be indecent books
    Though recent books are bolder
    For filth, I'm glad to say, is in
    The mind of the beholder

                  (Lehrer, 1-4)

The sexual exploitation of women in film is a much misunderstood tradition that goes back to the very origins of the filmmaking craft.  What is not normally acknowledged however is the rich variety and subtle nuance of sexist exploitation, from mere "fan service" to plot-motivated actresses in skimpy outfits.  In this post we propose to review some of the details of the myriad forms that cheesy exploitation of women can assume, in particular with reference to movies that take place in what we used to call Outer Space.

One important distinction between the greater and lesser uses of exploitation is whether having scantily clad women (and in a very few cases, men) is whether there is even the most shallow excuse for the exploitation in the story.  Just like in American musical theatre any song is supposed to advance the story, the same should be true for the exploitation of women.  The lowest form of exploitation is that which has no possible reason or justification.

The Japanese term-of-art for the gratuitous insertion of scantily clad women, or men, or aliens, in order to stimulate the viewer is "fan service" which simply provides without reason whatever viewer stimulation the intended audience prefers.

On the higher and more refined part of town, though, one can work elements consisting of women in spandex into the raison d'etre of the film and thus reinforce the important ideas that underlie the film experience.  One film in particular that did this well was Roger Vadim's Barbarella (1968) in which the sexually active lead, a woman ahead of her time, played by Jane Fonda, causes the Orgasmatron-like Excessive machine to expire after a sex marathon with Ms. Fonda thus demonstrating her superior capacity for pleasure.  No cheap exploitation of women here.

And certainly we can say that the casting and costuming of Ms. Jovavitch in Luc Besson's Fifth Element (1997) was motivated by the highest ideals of the motion picture industry.

Milo Jovovitch from the Fifth Element (1997), above, and an unknown actress from Planet of the Vampires (1965).  

The cinema must move on from these brilliant yet analog expressions of cheesy exploitation and find new ways to demean themselves.  Directors and producers struggle to find appropriate and stylistically valid ways to exploit women of both genders in order to increase the appeal and the box office of their creative works.

We are less than a month away from the release of The Martian (2015) and the material released so far seems to give very little opportunity to exploit women.   This has left many scholars and fans of the cinematic arts worried that Ridley Scott may let down the side.

This film has unusual conventions for a space movie.  Most movies set in space will generally make use of a giant robot or a superhero or two, perhaps an alien race of Amazon Women, or other sophisticated plot elements that naturally provide opportunities for the filmmaker in collaboration with their costume designer

But things are not so easy in The Martian as the various female leads are supposed to be serious working professionals, and thus diving into the gutter to pander to the adolescent male of all ages requires some sophistication and sophistication has never been known as a motion-picture industry strong point.  If this were a James Bond movie, it would be straightforward to simply introduce one of the female leads in a scuba outfit, but this is space, the final frontier, sans superheroes, or even Uhura, or other Star Trek rebooted characters, so what is a filmmaker to do?

As you can see from several of the recent Star Treks, the role of women in space cinema has come a long way

Not only is the The Martian a hardcore, mostly scientific man-vs-nature adventure film about an astronaut marooned on Mars, but it is a Mars very explicitly without any Martian Princesses lounging around. At first glance its hard to see where exactly the sexist exploitation of women can be derived.

Nevertheless, a few stills from a viral marketing promo about this upcoming film gives us hope. Its subtle, true, but it makes us optimistic for the future.

Good posture, don't you think?

I want to encourage Ridley Scott and his filmmaking team to grasp this opportunity with both hands and supply the fan service for which he is known.  It is small things like this that can cheer up the otherwise pointless and dreary lives of their audience.



1. Tom Lehrer. Smut can be found at

2. Those interested in reading further should check out the Wikipedia page on
Catsuits and Jumpsuits in Popular Media.

3. The Martian(2015) on IMDB  

4. Barbarella (1968) on IMDB  

5. Planet of the Vampires (1965) on IMDB

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