Last updated on: August 16, 2019
(adapted from prospectus and fellowship statements; please do not disseminate or re-publish without written permission)
A Future for Hopeful Monsters: Gender, Disability, Race, and Embodiment in Science Fiction
The title of my dissertation project is “A Future for Hopeful Monsters: Gender, Disability, Race, and Embodiment in Science Fiction.” Each chapter explores intersections of identity and representation as portrayed in science fiction literature and media, a genre that is characterized by what science fiction studies scholar Darko Suvin calls “cognitive estrangement”—in which objects, situations, and societies are made unfamiliar or uncanny—yet which presciently comments on issues of the current moment. Beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), I analyze shifting conceptions of monstrosity, from the monster’s status in the medieval era as an omen demonstrating a societal ill, to its usage in early anatomy—when genetically “deformed” babies were diagnosed “monsters” in scientific texts—to one of its most famous incarnations in the form of Frankenstein’s creature. In this first chapter, I analyze the ways that the creature’s monstrosity parallels contemporary rhetoric surrounding disability, and the harmful ways that such narratives marginalize “abnormal” bodies.
In the second chapter, I explore variations on the female monster. Although the female monster in Frankenstein never breathes life, her science fiction daughters inspire fascination and fear in such forms as the gynoid—a female-appearing robot—and the female clone. I analyze how representations of such female creatures illuminate the ways in which patriarchal constructions of “women” have historically marginalized and othered females, allowing men to declare women “monsters.” And yet, there is power in that status of monster, and depictions of the gynoid in the film Ex Machina (2014, dir. Alex Garland) and female clone in the television show Orphan Black (2013-2017, created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett) illuminate male anxieties about being left behind and surpassed by these frightening female-like yet superhuman fictional characters.
The third chapter centers on disability and technology, in the form of what I term the “crip cyborg.” Although the cyborg has been theorized and fetishized in both science fiction and academic texts, I see the cyborgs of William Gibson’s cyberpunk short stories as characters who do demonstrate the ways that visibly aberrant bodies are stigmatized and derided within normative discourse. In his short stories “The Winter Market” (1986) and “Burning Chrome” (1982), Gibson offers up two main characters whom I term “crip cyborgs.” The crip cyborg embodies technologically-mediated ways of being and deploys such technologies in “stigmaphilic” ways (a term borrowed from Robert McRuer’s Crip Theory). At the same time, figurations of the crip cyborg incite a wariness of transhumanist promises of transcendent, technological cure. These crip cyborgs exist along a spectrum, deploying various coping mechanisms in shifting environmental and social contexts. Some configurations align more closely with the transhumanist mode of techno-optimism, while others revel in the contingent nature—even messiness—of disabled experience. Even—perhaps especially—in moments of failure, these cyborg characters demonstrate something about the disabled condition and highlight exclusionary considerations of space—outerspace, physical space, and cyberspace—and of socio-economic systems of power.
In the fourth chapter, I will explore race and technology in contemporary science fiction and speculative fiction media, focusing on the ways that technology is always already embedded in societal power structures. Technology thus becomes a tool used to maintain white patriarchal dominance. In the cases of Get Out (2017, dir. Jordan Peele) and Transfer (2010, dir. Damir Lukacevic), speculative scientific technologies enable white characters to gain total, physical, control over black bodies. In both media texts we see the deployment of scientific innovations to trap African American and African-diasporic people within their own bodies, which are then controlled by the white people who own these bodies as property. In Get Out and Transfer, visually-arresting scenes depict the main protagonists literally trapped within their own bodies, unable to “get out,” until their own ingenuity and bodies provide them with the tools to free themselves.
In the conclusion I build upon the arguments of the preceding dissertation chapters, as exemplified by the television episode “Black Museum” from Season 4 of Black Mirror (Episode 6; 2017, dir. Colm McCarthy). In “Black Museum,” a collector of curiosities—Rolo Haynes, a white man—buys the rights to a black man’s post-death consciousness. This television episode tells a story of enslavement and incarceration updated for the modern digital age and, like Orphan Black, Ex Machina, and Gibson’s cyberpunk stories, explores how new technologies shape considerations of already-existing issues in society. The Black Mirror episode plays out the fears of those like Dr. Frankenstein—who destroyed the female creature in fear of her ability to propagate “monstrous progeny” unbound by the laws of man—and replaces the “mad scientist” figure with a mad collector, Rolo Haynes. Ultimately, “Black Museum” provides an ounce of hope within a history of dystopian oppression; the monstrous progeny comes back to end the cycle of trauma, embodied in the form of a black woman who outwits—but also out-empathizes—her ancestral oppressor.