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Project Moonbase scene
Scene from the 1953 movie Project Moonbase. This B-grade science fiction movie was written by Robert Heinlein and Jack Seaman.

Sex and rockets

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After being shown in theaters in 1953, Project Moonbase appears to have been largely forgotten and, unlike its predecessor Destination Moon, was not widely distributed or shown on television in the decades that followed, although it was eventually released on DVD.

The film contains an inherent contradiction, if not simple hypocrisy: it puts women in positions of authority—a military colonel in charge of a space mission, and the President of the United States—and then treats them in a sexist manner.

Nevertheless, Project Moonbase is still noteworthy. As Westfahl observed in his 1995 article, the film was apparently the first screen appearance of a space station. The depiction was awkward—the frisbee-shaped space station did not spin for artificial gravity, and the actors were never shown in true weightlessness. The movie depicted an idea that would become common in other movies over the next several years—that a space station was the logical staging base for a lunar mission. In fact, the classic 1955 Disney documentary Man and the Moon in many ways depicts what an actual, less-dramatized, version of the Project Moonbase story would look like. The parallels between the two films are worth further exploration.

The movie is clearly aimed at a younger audience than either Destination Moon or The Day the Earth Stood Still. The romance in the movie never rises above the level of teenagers, and the movie lacks the ideology of Destination Moon or the central social message of The Day the Earth Stood Still. The movie did strive for a higher level of technical accuracy than many of its contemporaries, however. Except for the fact that the moonship lands intact on its own, the film commits few technical gaffes. A line of dialogue about magnetic boots explains why nobody is floating, but the movie never ventures into fantasy.

But the thing that makes Project Moonbase most interesting and also puzzling is its unusual message about gender. The film contains an inherent contradiction, if not simple hypocrisy: it puts women in positions of authority—a military colonel in charge of a space mission, and the President of the United States—and then treats them in a sexist manner. The military colonel is a “spoiled brat” who demonstrates no leadership abilities, screams in the face of danger, and complains of being “lonely” when sent to another room of the spaceship. For contradicting a superior officer she is threatened with a spanking—a punishment that is notably not mentioned for her male counterpart. Eventually the natural societal order is restored and her husband outranks her. The President is only on-screen for a short period of time, but the primary impression she makes is of a grandmother-figure. Neither female character is threatening to male supremacy.

Although the movie reveals a female colonel and female president as a surprise, the studio actually used these facts in its promotional materials for the film, without any commentary about their competence. The fact that these female characters even made it to the screen is noteworthy, even if their ultimate depiction is sexist. Consider the fact that the first Star Trek pilot, in 1966, featured a female first officer, and this was considered so provocative by NBC executives that they made Gene Roddenberry eliminate her for the actual series (as a consolation prize, he married the actress). Thus, a television show that was often hailed for its bold multicultural crew could only go so far as to depict a woman on the bridge answering the phone—in a tight skirt. Nor did this sexism disappear anytime soon. For instance, the 1979 television show Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century initially featured a tough female colonel in the pilot movie. But by the time the show became a series—also on NBC—the tough colonel was reduced to a more typical role of weak woman in need of rescue. It was not until Lieutenant Ripley in the 1979 movie Alien (and its equally stunning 1986 sequel Aliens), that a strong female lead emerged in a science fiction film. Only Sarah Connor, from the 1983 film Terminator (and its even better 1991 sequel) came close. Clearly, strong depictions of women in filmed science fiction have been rare and relatively recent.

Therefore, the existence of Project Moonbase’s female characters in 1953 presents a dilemma. Name another movie from the 1950s or even the 1960s or 1970s that depicted a female military colonel giving orders to men. Similarly, name another movie from any era depicting a female President of the United States, something that we still have not had over thirty years after the period depicted in the movie. Project Moonbase therefore stands out as an oddity.

Project Moonbase was a flawed movie, but still a minor movie. It raises some bold ideas, but never rises to the challenge they require.

But what does it mean? One possible explanation is that the contradiction is deliberate and malicious: the movie sets up these strong female characters in order to shoot them down, proving that women cannot serve in leadership roles. The military colonel is incompetent, and the female President is matronly and unthreatening. But the problem with this interpretation is that it lacks a foundation. Admittedly, sometimes provocative (even sexist) messages can be incompetently delivered, but if the writers wanted to send a message about the incompetence of women, the sudden reveal of a female president at the end of the film diminished the message. Although she is more grandmotherly than authoritative, the mere existence of her character makes a point.

Heinlein biographer Bill Patterson offers another explanation based upon Heinlein’s works: Robert Anson Heinlein was a feminist who went as far as he could depicting women within the constraints of American society. He wrote the characters as women, but the larger forces at work—the director, the studio, and his fellow scriptwriter—prevented these women in authority from being depicted as strong personalities.

The problem with this interpretation is that there are other examples of Heinlein’s work where he was similarly inept at writing female characters. For instance, in his 1979 novel The Number of the Beast, although he depicts the female characters as intelligent, they—and everyone else—are obsessed with their breasts. Was this an example of an aging author who had degenerated into a dirty old man, or does it share characteristics with Project Moonbase from twenty-six years earlier?

Unless Project Moonbase’s contradictory approach to gender is explained by the fact that the movie had two scriptwriters, the answer may be better explained by Heinlein’s own internal contradictions about women. There may be no conclusive answer. Project Moonbase was a flawed movie, but still a minor movie. It raises some bold ideas, but never rises to the challenge they require.

Acknowledgement: The author wishes to thank Bill Patterson, Mike Cassutt, and Nick Watkins for their comments on this article, which was prepared before the Heinlein Centennial symposium in Kansas City this past weekend. Patterson and Cassutt both spoke at the symposium and their talks will be discussed in a future issue of The Space Review.