In pop culture, one of the best ways for a female character to get some distance from gender clichés is to literally leave Earth. To wit: Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the Alien movies; the wide-ranging female characters on various Star Trek incarnations, on Battlestar Galactica, on Firefly. Last year, Sandra Bullock riveted audiences with basically a one-woman show in the astronaut-in-peril drama Gravity.
So I was eager to check out Halle Berry as a returning astronaut in Extant, premiering tonight on CBS. She hasn't had the best track record on film lately, considering The Call and Movie 43 and Cloud Atlas. But these days, TV's at least a somewhat more hospitable place for women over 40, so it strikes me as a smart move to sign on for a series, especially one with the experienced input of executive producer Steven Spielberg.
After watching the pilot, the handsome Extant looked to me like a fairly high-quality entry in the mainstream summer entertainment roster -- so many futuristic, Spielbergian touches, warming my raised-in-the-80s heart! -- but I'm still left with a lot of questions about the series' larger intentions.
Chief among them is one of the main plot points: Berry's character, Molly, is newly home after a 13-month solo mission on a space station. Her post-landing medical tests reveal a startling result: she's pregnant, despite the fact that she was ostensibly alone all that time, and despite the fact that she and her husband were unable to conceive a child before she left.
But as we discover in flashbacks, while on board the station, Molly was visited by a figure who appeared to be her long-dead husband. (And to whom she opens the door when he suddenly appears in the hatch, in regular civilian clothes no less, because she has clearly never seen a space movie ever.) We don't see them getting it on, but we do see Molly erasing some surveillance footage afterward, looking mighty shaken up.
So the question is: Who, or what, is responsible for Molly’s condition?
The "mystical pregnancy" is hardly a novel phenomenon; check out this handy guide to the trope from Feminist Frequency.
I worry that Berry's character, a space engineer accomplished and capable enough to have been running an entire station on her own for over a year, will now be reduced to a vessel containing some inevitable type of human-alien hybrid, in much the way that so many female characters' storylines are co-opted, dating back to Rosemary's Baby (and, as that video points out, the Virgin Mary, really).
Berry, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, confirms as much, adding (with a certain amount of pro-lifeyness that gave me pause), "I asked, 'I don’t kill it?' They said no. I said, 'Does anybody kill it?' They said no. I thought wow, okay. I’m in."
Perhaps she'd seen Prometheus, and didn't want to end up like Noomi Rapace's scientist, who had to self-terminate the alien growing inside her (warning: it's fascinating, but gross):
Here’s what I'm hoping doesn't happen, but I suspect will: Molly will go to extreme lengths to protect whatever is growing inside her, no matter how much damage it's doing, because of the all-encompassing, mythical maternal instinct. (See also: Kristen Stewart's character in Breaking Dawn.)
The maternal instinct has always been a reliable way of sidelining otherwise rational female characters, but in today's culture of tediously renewed debate about access to birth control and reproductive rights, it's an especially loaded plot device.
Another comment from Berry underscores the creepy idea that it's the alien fetus that will take center stage: "That's why this little baby is so important. It can be the birth of a new life form that is stronger than humans and stronger than the aliens. It can be this new hybrid."
Relatedly, another Extant plotline involves Molly's husband John and their son, Ethan -- the latter of whom is actually an android creation of John's. Molly is shown bonding with Ethan but also perplexed by him, unable, it appears, to feel the kind of love a mother would naturally sustain for a human (read: biological) child.
I'm willing to hope the show's aim is more to explore the notion of connecting with non-human life in the universe than it is to keep Berry hostage to her own womb, but it's hard not to be a little cynical. As nostalgic as I am for many of his early films, I have to acknowledge that Spielberg hasn't really had a hand in anything that could be considered feminist since 1985's The Color Purple. (Series creator Mickey Fisher is a relative newcomer, so his leanings are as yet unknown.)
So while the sci-fi geek in me will be looking forward to the bombastic revelations on Extant regarding extraterrestrial life and artificial intelligence, I'll be taking it all with a large grain of salt. The last thing we need is a new series putting forth the idea that women are important mostly because of their capacity for breeding.