Why We Need More Queer Feminism in Space Culture
Kat Deerfield, Gender, Sexuality, and Space Culture (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019)
can be purchased here or via the usual booksellers
In a related blogpost, I focused on the importance of addressing bias and pursuing equity in space research and innovation. I did so by referring to a few instances calling for the endorsement of inclusive practices and inclusive frameworks in support of meaningful access to space research and technologies for all. One of the examples I chose when talking about inclusivity and equity is the issue of spacesuits, because the absence of a suitably sized spacesuit delayed the all women space-walk, finally carried out by Jessica Meir and Christina Koch on 18 October 2019. Why does this issue matter when talking about equality in the space sector? Kat Deerfield’s book Gender, Sexuality, and Space Culture (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019) is a useful tool to help us think about how much the space industry, and space culture more generally, have contributed and effectively responded to social and cultural changes in gender roles from the 1960s till today.
I will refer here to a couple of points Deerfield makes very clearly in her book to demonstrate that the issue of spacesuits is a good entry point to call out the persisting systemic bias, which translates into an imaginary that is hard to change, privileging men as space explorers. First, a definition: Deerfield refers to ‘space culture’ as ‘the culture found within space science and space industry settings and the broader culture that surrounds this’ (p.4). I find this definition helpful because it focuses not only on what the space industry did and does, but on the cultural reverberations that follow in popular culture.
It is undeniable that Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon marked an iconic moment that lives on in the memories and imagination of most of the world population, and it is tempting to just note that no woman has yet set foot on that same lunar soil, thus being able to claim that same iconic imaginary. However, Deerfield notes, there are a number of ways in which women have reached the Moon. Literally, the first women that travelled to the Moon did so as artefacts: the Apollo 12 ground crew had hidden several photos of nude women among the checklists and supplies as a ‘surprise’ for the astronauts. The models on Playboy calendars were captioned with phrases such as ‘Map of a heavenly body’. Existing only in relation to heterosexual masculinity, the presence of these pictures and women’s bodies on the Moon is far from representing inclusion but speaks to ‘problematic constructions of gender and sexuality’ (p.2) that are pervasive in the culture of spaceflight.
I know what you are thinking: we have come a long way from there. Space programmes started to accept women in the ‘80s and since then many brave astronauts have redefined the male norm. That is certainly true, but the legacy of the same culture that put the Apollo 12 pin-ups on the spacecraft can be seen today. The iconography that links women to spaceflight often does so through sexualised images of beautiful bodies or highlighting women’s reproductive capacity. Two example come from Virgin Galactic, whose logo of the ‘Galactic Girl’ is nothing more than the image of a ‘redesigned’ modern pin-up and the name of their spacecraft – Eve – evokes the idea of the mothership, possibly leading to the establishment of new ‘colonies’ (more on my dislike for this ideal in a future post). Crucially, Deerfield writes: ‘Space culture reflects these values in its colonization narratives, which are characterised by heteronormative views of sexual reproduction and normative kinship as the way of accessing a spacefaring future’ (p. 118).
Sexism and heteronormativity are interlinked and space culture has often reproduced them – implicitly denying the revolutionary potential of outer space to be a queer space. Deerfield’s analysis though leaves room for optimism, as it incorporates reflections on how art has created contrapuntal narratives that sit alongside mainstream heteronormative narratives and question them. In this vein, the artworks of Aleksandra Mir and Frank Pietronigro respectively question the exclusivity of the Moon as a male space and posit the queer body as ‘uniquely suited’ (p.123) to extra-terrestrial experiences. No more spoilers – you will have to read the book for more on interstellar art.
As a summary, it suffices to say that ‘Gender, Sexuality and Space Culture’ is a really important book that reminds us of how scientific knowledge around and about space has posited and keeps on positing men as privileged explorers and the biological norm, which in turn means that women have appeared as deviance. The episode of the spacesuits built for men’s bodies and unavailable in two sizes fitting women astronauts is a recent reminder that we need more feminist and queer work to inform space culture.
The opinions expressed in these blogs posts are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization or anyone else.
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