See to Believe: Women’s Stories in Science Fiction

Julie Ann Ward

In both film and television, sci-fi has lately reimagined the female victim of domestic abuse. After millennia of social norms that cast victims of abuse as liars, sci-fi film and television appear to be teaching viewers to instead trust in these women and the veracity of their stories. While sci-fi has always required the willful suspension of disbelief for engaging with content about extraterrestrial beings, mad scientists’ destructive creations, or time travel, it now uses this practiced credulity to explore the nuances of partner violence.  

Badass women like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor are familiar figures in the history of sci-fi, but stories like The Invisible Man, Made for Love, and Tenet include a contemporary element that makes the old seem new: futuristic technology that renders an abuser omnipresent and seemingly omniscient. Whether it’s through optics breakthroughs that allow for invisibility suits, Star Trek holodeck-style compounds, brain implants that enable constant and complete surveillance, or inverting time, these abusers’ methods are fantastical enough to make the story seem futuristic. The intimate relationships at the heart of these stories, however, are familiar; it’s the technology that makes the abuse possible that offers a new way of contemplating what it means to be a victim.

Leigh Wannell’s revisioning of H.G. Wells’ classic story in The Invisible Man (2020) is an excellent example of this extension of the suspension of disbelief to include its female protagonist’s story. While the film may have more in common with George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944) than its own 1933 namesake, it differs in an important way: unlike Paula (Ingrid Bergman) in Gaslight, The Invisible Man’s Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) never believes herself to be insane. This fact combines with camerawork that clearly communicates to the viewer that there is, in fact, some invisible person harassing Cecilia—in various scenes, she exits the shot, and viewers are left with the stationary camera to witness a knife dancing in midair, the gas burner turning up on its own, or curtains rustling. When it is revealed that her ex-partner, billionaire tech mogul Adrian (Oliver Jackson Cohen), has successfully created an invisibility suit and, after faking his death, conspired with his brother to use it to terrorize Cecilia, the viewer is not surprised; rather, they are relieved that things can finally be put right. The Invisible Man never lets viewers doubt Cecilia; instead, it uses futuristic tech works to show that she is right about Adrian faking his death and harassing her.

The existence of incredibly advanced technology primes viewers to believe in the unbelievable and opens up the possibility for believing the (traditionally disbelieved) figure of a woman complaining of abuse. Despite police officers who doubt Cecilia’s sanity and references to the luxurious life she shared with Adrian, viewers are never under the illusion that Cecilia’s life in his cliffside mansion was ever comfortable, nor that she is unreliable. Rather, the film’s technical effects convince viewers to believe in both Adrian’s tech breakthroughs and in Cecilia. Through thoughtful sound design, like the sizzling that can be heard any time the invisible suit is in the picture and extreme wide shots with plenty of negative space that leave viewers searching for Adrian—just like Cecilia does—viewers are encouraged to identify with Cecilia’s experience.

Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) fights an invisible attacker. Still from The Invisible Man

Just as tech in The Invisible Man is one step ahead of real scientific advances, the HBO series Made for Love (Christina Lee, 2021) is centered upon a brain control chip similar to AI applications currently in development. While Made for Love relies on comedy rather than horror conventions to tell its story of a woman leaving her husband, its more light-hearted tone belies its sinister and cynical premise: the chip serves as both a literal control and a metaphor for the insidious domination in abusive relationships.

Made for Love opens with Hazel Green (Cristin Milioti) seeking refuge from her billionaire tech husband Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen) and his new product, “Made For Love,” with its matching computer chips that romantic partners can implant into their brains to completely merge their thoughts and experiences. Byron has the chip inserted into Hazel’s brain without her permission, thereby watching her every move, and refuses to have it removed even after the scientists he employs assure him it will kill her. But Byron’s abuse doesn’t begin with the chip; through a series of flashbacks, one can see how he created a golden prison for his wife.

In flashbacks from Hazel’s decade in the Hub (the virtual-reality environment where she and Byron live) and her childhood, it becomes clear that the Made For Love chip is only the latest technological tool that Byron has used to dominate his wife. There’s also, for example, an orgasm control panel that measures her brain response and heart rate during sex, later comparing her “orgasm rating” to the data to question her honesty.

Hazel’s (Cristin Milioti) orgasm review.

The show does not need to present Byron as a stereotypical abuser who punches, hits, and insults: his use of technology to control and surveil reveals the insidious, tiny humiliations that build up to a miserable relationship.

Though The Invisible Man ends with a win for Cecilia, who outsmarts her attacker and gets revenge, Made for Love ends on a hopeless note that betrays the comedy’s dark interior. In all of the examples here, the tech mogul-abuser is wealthy beyond imagination. In The Invisible Man and Made for Love, this material fact underlies the seeming impossibility of ever escaping the abusive relationship. Made for Love highlights the economic aspects of partner violence when it ends with Hazel choosing to go back to Byron, not because she loves him, but because she is dependent on him. Her father is ill, and Byron holds out the cure to his cancer like a tantalizing poisoned apple.

The heart-sinking finale answers the commonly asked question: Why would anyone choose to stay in or return to an abusive situation? This question is rightfully linked to the practice of victim blaming. In Hazel’s case, the viewer sees that it is because she has no other choice; she is dependent on Byron for her family’s survival. The people she cares about, whether they deserve it or not, depend on the stability her relationship provides, regardless of the cost that stability exacts from her.

A look at Christopher Nolan’s 2020 time-travel thriller Tenet reveals another important aspect of sci-fi’s foray into portraying credible women: the role of the protagonist. While The Invisible Man and Made For Love both focus on female protagonists who are (trying to) leave an abusive partner, Tenet’s “Protagonist” (John David Washington) is a man attempting to rescue a woman from an abusive husband as he also works to save the world. The focus on the man saving the world relegates the intimate partner violence to a subplot, and the portrayed relationship is much more along the lines of traditional, damsel-in-distress narratives. This distinction between the portrayals of women in The Invisible Man and Made for Love versus Tenet highlights the importance of audience identification with the victim as part of this new ethos of female credibility.

In Tenet, the focus on the “Protagonist” requires a much more traditionally villainous abuser (Andrei, a Russian arms dealer, saved from caricature by Kenneth Branagh’s acting skills) to establish the reality of Kat’s (Elizabeth Debicki) situation. The use of futuristic technology here involves reversing entropy to create inverted weapons that move backwards through time; again, it is used to shine a light on the woman’s horrific situation. However, the extreme difficulty of grasping the mechanisms of time inversion combine with the fact that Kat is not the protagonist of Tenet to make it a missed opportunity to use viewers’ suspended disbelief to include a woman victim.

Instead, Nolan chooses to portray graphic violence against Kat, convincing the viewer of the reality of the abuse via brute force. What Tenet does have in common with The Invisible Man and Made for Love, however, is the parallel it draws between a man’s desire to dominate his partner and his desire to dominate the world via technology. Andrei, Kat’s husband, explicitly tells his wife that if he can’t have her no one can; he uses the same phrase to threaten the fate of the entire planet: because he has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, he will end humanity using inverted weapons.

The weakness of Tenet’s emotional storyline highlights the innovation of the sci-fi escapes provided by The Invisible Man and Made For Love: namely, female credibility. Cecilia gets revenge because she never doubts what she knows, even if she can’t see it. And when Hazel goes back to the Hub, it feels inevitable precisely because the viewer has come to truly understand the challenge of disentangling herself from Byron. In Tenet, Kat’s predicament carries the weight of the world—believing her story is prerequisite to saving the future of humanity from her vengeful husband.

Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) confronts her husband.

There is a dark side to this interpretation, of course: it’s evidently considered easier to convince an audience to believe in a brain-merging chip, an invisibility suit, or bullets that fly backwards through time than to just believe a woman who is decrying domestic violence. Science fiction has always been tasked with working out the implications of technology that today’s viewer can only dream of. Its new frontier may well be exploring a new society in which believing women doesn’t require time travel or a billionaire’s laboratory, but merely putting women and their stories front and center.

Julie Ann Ward is a writer, translator, and Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Oklahoma. Her work has appeared in Latin American Literature Today, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and World Literature Today. 

Header image: Made for Love.

This entry was posted in: Quorum