I was wasting time on Facebook when a female friend of mine messaged me to look at the most recent photo of a male friend posing with his family by the Christmas tree.
– Look at his face, she wrote. It’s like he said: “Gather around, family, it’s time for a Christmas photo. Snap! Alright, all done!” After this he resumes the rest of activities demanded by life, executing them with this same face that expresses determination as well as readiness for engaging in conflict if needed.
I looked at my friends face in the photo again. I was astonished by what she said. Yes, there was an incredible expression in there that somehow managed to emanate an immediate readiness for conflict while exerting the obligatory holiday spirit enthusiasm at the same time. I felt like I was just given the best description of why things are plain bad.
Staring at that facial expression was like I was making eye contact with the main reason for countless catastrophic outcomes throughout the history of man-to-man interaction. I saw a memorial to all missed opportunities for peaceful resolution which would have contributed greatly to our species’ well being. If only the dominant male type walking on this planet did not feel so obliged to respond to the hormonal call to prove his manliness through conflict, because, you know, otherwise his genitalia will magically fall off.
– Yes, we are an evolved species that does not know what to do with our dicks and balls, my friend noted peacefully as she was getting back to work on her doctoral thesis in physics.
Not being engaged in such (or any) academic preoccupations, this conversation brought me an answer to a question that is now the title of this article and that was hanging in my head ever since I saw Denis Villeneuve’s latest film. It is obvious why female characters make first contact for all man-kind in three of the greatest first contact movies. It’s because when trying to imagine such a story sensibly, no one better comes to our gender-wired minds. As if only with a woman lead can we justify a first contact film as a realistic drama and not as an explosion-packed action flick.
This brilliant first contact gem from 1989 that is also a thrilling suspense film, envisions a woman building the bridge of communication between paranoid males in charge of a nuclear bomb and a highly-advanced alien species hiding in the depths of our oceans. Writer/director James Cameron based Dr. Lindsey Brigman’s character on the film’s producer and his wife at the time, Gale Anne Hurd. In the early versions of The Abyss story, Cameron had imagined the entire underwater team as scientists, but later decided this was not commercial enough and replaced them with a group of blue-collar workers. He kept Brigman’s character an engineer and rig designer, though. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio did an excellent job playing a curious, gentle and brave woman that possessed enough of both sense and good faith to save humanity from itself.
Based on Ted Chiang’s short story, Arrival has basically the same thing set up. So much so, that we could call this a trope. Once again, it’s a woman scientist among a group of hormone-crazed men. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist and a compassionate human brought into a tent full of aggressive, trigger-happy soldiers that are having difficulty communicating with a couple of hissing aliens, with some of them well on their way to blow these suspicious-looking, squid salad-resembling Heptapods up. Scholar Banks teaches the conflict-ready males patience, reason and to ask questions first, shoot only if needed. We see a woman going against the stereotypical male, one testosterone erected obstacle after another and winning the day for all humanity (A critical take from a different angle on this in my Arrival review here).
Another opportunity to be inducted to the “grandeur of the universe” that men almost completely destroy and then it is handed over to a woman, takes place in my favorite film on the subject matter. In Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 science fiction Contact, the cliché is also turned on its head and it is not women being controlled by their emotions but men, and a woman takes humanity into its new era by being completely sensible. Carl Sagan based the character of Dr. Eleanor Arroway, a SETI scientist, on Dr. Jill Tarter, a real life astronomer at the institute. Couple this with Jodie Foster’s passionate performance and you get a healthy balance of emotion and reason and your best chance of making progress in world that looses its wits all too easily.
When crafting their stories, it seems Cameron, Chiang and Sagan each on their own came to the same conclusion – a female scientist is the best pick to represent what is best of humanity. Top thinkers have said that making first contact may well end in our total and, I would add, well-deserved obliteration. A woman should lead the greeting party, just in case.
Maelzel’s Chess Player
– a fraudulent automaton from the 19th century that watches movies to fill the void.