Attack of the Nuclear Woman: Deviant Women in Atomic Age Science Fiction

I’ve always been deeply fascinated by Cold War era cinema, by its fantastical rubber monsters, dinner-plate flying saucers and its odd, disconcerting ability to give form to the fears and anxieties of the Atomic Age. Clad in unconvincing foam costumes with zippers still visible at the back, these mid-century monsters enacted shadowy puppet shows, miniature theatres of destruction wherein the apocalyptic fears of the Cold War period could be represented and imagined through to their cataclysmic finales. While many of the most well-known films from this period, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) are key examples, project large scale fantasies of global peril, I’ve recently found myself entranced by other, smaller films that explore a wholly different set of anxieties.

Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World: the apex of terrible rubber monsters

Indeed, while we may associate the Cold War era with endless “Duck-and-Cover” drills and nightmarish fantasies of mushroom clouds blooming like poisonous flowers above ruined cities, the 1950s also occupied its frantic imagination with other fears, ones closer to home and intimately bound up with post-war misgivings about the changing role of women in American society. Despite the omnipresent terror of nuclear annihilation, America was, in the decades after the Second World War, equally gripped by anxieties about female sexuality and the potential disintegration of conservative values.

A representative, if somewhat disconcerting, example of such post-war obsessions with sexual transgression can be seen in the writing of Harvard physician Charles Walter Clarke who claimed in a 1951 article for The Journal of Social Hygiene that a nuclear attack on the United States could potentially result in a wide-scale disintegration of traditional social and family units. Appearing simultaneously apocalyptic and prudish, Clarke wrote that

following an atomic bomb explosion,… supports of normal family and community life would be broken down…(qtd. in Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, pp. 92)

Under such conditions, Clarke hypothesised that “moral standards would relax and promiscuity would increase”. Although this emphasis on the erosion of traditional sexual mores amidst the abject annihilation of nuclear war appears both incongruous and misguided, Clarke’s admonition does not represent an isolated position, but is instead embedded within a much larger web of Cold War discourse which figured America’s survival in the nuclear age as contingent upon the promulgation of traditional values and the maintenance of strong family units whose continued endurance hinged upon strict adherence to rigidly defined gender roles.
Indeed, in the tumultuous decades following the Second World War, as the acceleration of atomic technology heralded the dawn of a new age and the continued expansion of Soviet communism ushered in a uniquely precarious global political balance, it was widely imagined that the continued endurance and ultimate triumph of the American way of life was dependent upon the fortification of family structures. Within in this tentative new world, the family unit was viewed not merely as what Elaine Tyler May terms “a secure private nest removed from the dangers of the outside world”, a refuge from the immense political and social upheaval of the period, but also as a means of constructing a solid foundation upon which to build a stronger America and thus to secure the future of humankind in the tumultuous decades to come. This conception of the family as the cornerstone upon which a revitalised American future could be established served to foster a strong domestic ideology—with both the marriage rate and the birth rate increasingly dramatically in the years following the Second World War—and, consequently, generated a profoundly utopian post-war ideal consisting of “‘replenished’ families with male providers ‘secure in their careers’ and female ‘housewives’ in comfortable homes ‘who would raise perfect children’” (qtd in May, pp 58).


“a secure private nest removed from the dangers of the outside world

However, while male sexuality was conceived of as the shaping force of this utopian future, female sexuality was viewed as a volatile power which, unregulated, had the potential to disrupt and perhaps even eviscerate this burgeoning domestic Arcadia. Reflecting the broader social unease which surrounded the displacement of traditional gender roles during the Second World War, female sexual agency took on a uniquely terrifying potency as it was positioned as an explosive force which, if unrestrained by the regulating structures of marriage and domesticity, could utterly annihilate the American way of life. In this way, female sexuality was absorbed into the broader discourse of uncertainty and anxiety which would come to define the post-war period, accruing an aura of violence and destruction analogous to that which exemplified the era’s preoccupation with the omnipresent threat of nuclear apocalypse.

Note: monster on poster may appear cooler than anything in movie

Unsurprisingly, considering the centrality of cinema and youth culture during the post-war period, such anxieties were invariably absorbed into the celluloid fabric of some of the era’s most popular science-fiction films. Two exceptional examples of post-war fears about female sexuality fusing with broader concerns about the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation can be observed in the 1958 B-movie classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and Roger Corman’s 1959 low-budget curiosity The Wasp Woman. While these films were clearly intended to function as little more than disposable consumer diversions, ephemeral scraps of celluloid produced to lure restless suburban adolescents to the cinemas and drive-ins of mid-century America, they ultimately succeed in capturing the socio-sexual anxieties that defined the post-war era. Situating themselves at the intersection of Cold War concerns regarding the war-time fluidity of gender roles and the emerging fear of atomic apocalypse, these films construct parallel narrative structures in which their respective female protagonists, both avatars of problematic womanhood, are transformed via patently absurd, quasi-scientific machinations into grotesque, sexually-charged perversions of archetypal femininity. Positioning their thematic preoccupations at the nexus of cold-war era nuclear anxiety and the burgeoning proclivity towards the reinforcement of traditional gender roles that emerged in the wake of the Second World War, these films adapt a recurrent science-fiction trope by allowing pseudo-scientific contagions to permeate the corporeal boundaries of their respective heroines, transmuting them into grotesque avatars of unrestricted sexual licence. In this way, both films represent what Susan A. George terms a reimagining of the ubiquitous figure of the cinematic vamp, the perennial Hollywood seductress whose unfettered sexuality had, since the inception of the medium, functioned to delineate the “”proper” role for women in the public and private spheres” by producing a glut of “cautionary tales regarding what could happen if female sexuality and ambition were not contained”. However, by infusing their depictions of sexual transgression with the grotesque imagery of mutation and contagion so common in atomic-age cinema and explicitly linking its manifestation to scientific experimentation and radioactive contamination, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and The Wasp Woman align this monstrous sexual corruption with the corrosive power of the atom and, in doing so, reconfigure the moral function of the cinematic vamp as a parable for the atomic age: a warning not only against the corrosive potential of unrestricted female sexuality, but also an admonition to those who would tamper with the mysterious power of the atom.

Janice Starlin: working woman

Opening on the image of a stultifying corporate board-room, the threat of unrestrained female agency looms large over Corman’s The Wasp Woman, as the camera pans out from the immobile faces of a series of male executives to reveal that the meeting is being led, not by another be-suited businessman, but by a middle-aged woman named Janice Starlin, who the subsequent expository dialogue informs us has been the company’s founder and director for almost twenty years. Given the late fifties setting of the film, it is therefore possible for the viewer to extrapolate that Janice was, at one time, amongst the millions of women who entered the work force during the Second World War in order to bolster the war-time economy, but who, in the years following the denouement of the global conflict, were viewed with suspicion and contempt, and hastily relegated to the more appropriate private sphere of domesticity and motherhood. As such, because she represents an enduring vestige of the war-time subversion of gender roles, Janice Starlin is immediately presented as both a social deviant and an inherently threatening figure from the perspective of her male subordinates. Indeed, Janice’s unconventional social position and the attendant perception that her presence in the public sphere of business and economics represents a dangerous social aberration forms part of a much broader Cold War discourse in which women who worked outside of the family home were seen, in the words of one contemporary textbook, as possessing a “freedom which strikes as the heart of family stability”, an abhorrent ambition which would drive them not only to seek equal wages and opportunities, but to embark upon a quest for socio-sexual equivalence that would result in “the decay of established moralities” (May, pp. 69). In this way, Starlin’s very presence at heart of the corporate monolith is instantly aligned with the potential for sexual subversion and moral atrophy.

Drawing upon the aesthetic and thematic lexicon of post-war science fiction, the subversive power represented by Janice Starlin’s economic and social autonomy manifests, rather absurdly, as her concern with her fading looks drives her to seek assistance from an eccentric European scientist—a figure whose émigré status, incidentally, reveals a coded link with the numerous immigrant intellectuals who established America’s nuclear programme during the Second World War. Under his care she is transformed into a human-insect hybrid: the eponymous Wasp Woman. Functioning as a very literal reinterpretation of the classic cinematic vamp, Janice is thus compelled to drain and imbibe the bodily fluids of a series of unsuspecting victims in order to maintain her existence. The sexual connotations of her transformation are readily apparent as the predatory female monster appears to feed primarily on her almost exclusively male subordinates in a manner suggestive of seduction and physical intimacy. Indeed, one of Janice’s subordinates makes this connection between the wasp’s feeding habits and destructive sexuality explicit when he warns:

“I’d stay away from wasps if I were you Miss Starlin. Socially the queen wasp is on a level with the black widow spider. They are both carnivorous. They paralyse their victims, then take their time devouring them alive. They kill their mates in the same way too—strictly a one-sided romance.”

The wasp woman attacks her prey

As such, Janice’s desire to preserve her youth and consequently to retain her role as head of her company at a time when the emancipated women who bolstered the war-time economy were being relegated to subservient domesticity results in her transformation into a grotesque manifestation of the post-war fear of unrestrained female sexuality. Her monstrosity is thus reflective of the fact that, as Susan A. George notes, Janice Starlin, as a 41-year-old single woman, unconcerned with “the family and the values attached to it during the 1950s”, disrupts deeply-held post-war “notions of the proper arena for women, the sanctity of the male role of breadwinner, and [defies] the new U.S. project to revive family values and traditional gender roles.”

Moreover, because this monstrosity is unleashed by the hubris of scientific enquiry, the core moral framework of the film acquires a second allegorical aspect, as the narrative emphasises the need for responsibility on the part of the scientific community and underscores the need to contain the dangerous new forces that were at play at the dawn of the atomic age. Indeed, it is pertinent to note that Janice Starlin, in order to preserve her economic and social autonomy, willingly becomes the supplicant test subject of a male scientist and allows her physicality to be manipulated in accordance within his needs. This conception of a female subject offering herself as (or perhaps unwittingly becoming) part of the nefarious experimental machinations of a male scientist is, of course, a recurrent theme in post-war science-fiction cinema, appearing in such cinematic oddities as The Atomic Brain, The Leech Woman and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, and seems to carry with it the message that it is the duty of the male scientific professional to contain the destructive potential of female agency. For, as these films conflate the dual ideological preoccupations of the Cold War period, sexuality and atomic power, gruesomely expounding upon the dangers of unrestricted sexual licence as well as of the reckless pursuit of scientific knowledge, the admonition they carry is that the American male, whether in a professional or personal capacity, must subjugate and contain these dangerous forces in order to preserve social order*

In this way, The Wasp Woman and analogous films of the period, by equating unrestricted sexual agency with the destructive power of the atom, conveyed the message that female sexual licence, if directed outward rather than channelled into the productive nation-building enterprises of child-rearing and domesticity, could ultimately destroy the American way of life. Consequently, these films are embedded in a much broader Cold War discourse which figured female sexuality as a force so dangerous and destructive that it was eagerly assimilated into the language of violence and apocalypse that permeated the American discursive arena at the dawn of the atomic age. Within this new lexicon of explosive sexuality, the rhetorical connections between the disruptive force of female sexuality and the profound cultural anxiety that accrued around the image of the atomic bomb were rendered explicit as attractive, sexually-alluring women were referred to in the common parlance of the period as “bombshells” or “dynamite” women, while the recently invented two-piece swim suit was considered to be so sexually potent that it was named for the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands – infamous site of America’s first Hydrogen bomb test in 1954.

The explosive bikini

Moreover, while films such as The Wasp Woman chose to represent such anxieties via a visual language of bodily corruption and parasitic seduction, numerous science-fiction films of this period portray an analogous, but fundamentally more explicit incarnation of the Cold War cinematic seductress, one rooted more in the violence of mass destruction than in the gradual abasement of bodily integrity. As such, similar artefacts of the Atomic Age preoccupation with deviant femininity, such as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, literalise the Cold War fear of destructive female sexuality through an almost absurd equation of the socially subversive potential of the feminine body with the apocalyptic power of the atom. Like The Wasp Woman, Attack of the 50ft Woman explicitly links the corrupting potential of unregulated sexuality not just to Atomic Age fears of contamination and mutation, but also to violence, death, and wide scale destruction. Indeed, after the Second World War, America’s national obsession with containment, the direction of sexual energies into the productive outlet of home and family life, manifested overtly in an aesthetic shift that saw the androgynous fashions of 1920s and intentionally masculine clothing designs of the 1930s and early ‘40s yield to “exaggerated bustlines and curves that created the aura of untouchable eroticism” as “female sexuality was, once again, contained in stays and girdles that pinched waists and [elaborately] padded brassieres” (May, pp. 122.

Masculine women’s fashions from the 1940s

Excessively feminine style of the 1950s was embodied by Dior’s “New Look”

In contrast, Attack of the 50ft Foot Woman overtly foregrounds the visibility of the female body, and associates this visibility with the destruction not only of the physical infrastructure of post-war America, but also with the evisceration of its moral structures. Thus, as the heroine is transformed by her exposure to a mysterious, extra-terrestrial radiation (itself a coded Cold War analogy for the various Nuclear Age anxieties surrounding the as yet unknown side-effects of radiation) into the eponymous giantess, her exposed body and unrestrained sexual potency becomes the destructive force which, in typical B-movie fashion, rampages through an unsuspecting, all-American town. She therefore functions as a grotesque embodiment of post-war bombshell – a volatile, overtly sexual force literally capable of causing immeasurable destruction.

In this way, the symbolic connection forged and reinforced throughout the immediate post-war period was one which positioned female sexuality as fundamentally intertwined with the potential horrors of the atomic age, as both the atom and sexual agency were viewed as volatile forces capable of corrupting or perhaps even annihilating the burgeoning post-war American Arcadia. Returning to the earlier discussion of post-war socio-sexual ideology, female sexual agency was thus conflated with the language of awe and terror that surrounded atomic energy. Indeed, within the ideological lexicon of Cold War America, sexuality and atomic power were conceived of as equally dichotomous entities, both possessing the potential to replenish and renew American society if channelled through the appropriate conduit – peacetime technological ventures, in the case of atomic energy, and the ostensibly patriotic task of rebuilding and fortifying the family unit, in the case of sexuality. Yet, at the same time both were viewed as unstable, potentially destructive forces capable of unleashing untold devastation if not properly controlled. By portraying the nightmarish manner in which unregulated scientific exploration and insidious radioactive agents function to unleash monstrous perversions of femininity, these films epitomise the way in which the two central anxieties of the post-war period, the dual preoccupation with sexual and nuclear containment, merged in the collective consciousness of mid-century America.

The overtly sexual 50 ft woman
*Again, see Susan George’s amazing book Gendering Science Fiction Films: Invaders from the Suburbs for more on this.

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