George Méliès’ early twentieth century classic, A Trip to the Moon, is a more complex film than it appears. On the one hand, it is a film of wonder, an artwork that embraces scientific modernity through the vehicle of humor and fantastic imagery. It is a film that cannot be constrained to any one set of generic boundaries, for its frequent use of slapstick, pervasive interest in astronomy, and the famous scene depicting a space craft plunging into the eye of the anthropomorphic moon make the film simultaneously a work of comedy, science fiction, fantasy, and adventure fiction. All in all, as a piece of art, it’s regarded to be progressive. But when dealing with the portrayal of gender roles, the film tends to be far from progressive, or as Victoria Duckett puts it, the film is “humorously regressive” (Duckett, 2011 p. 162). The film, in its portrayal of gender roles, is regressive because despite early twentieth century efforts of gender equality during the French labor movement, Méliès in A Trip to the Moon affirms specifically that men, and men only, make an event as spectacular as a voyage to the moon possible. This pro-masculine arrangement of power that Méliès portrays in A Trip to the Moon defines men to be active characters, thinkers, and hard-workers, and women to be decorative characters of one-dimensionality. George Méliès, through the vehicle of physical humor, replicates a gender hierarchy that attempts to reclaim masculinity, disempower women, and ultimately make fun of the same issues of gender that early twentieth century Feminist efforts were trying to alter.
Now, you might be thinking: But doesn’t that kind of gender arrangement accurately reflect the times?
Well, not really.
To fully understand how the rigidity of A Trip to the Moon‘s established gender hierarchy might be read as resisting social progress, it is essential to situate the film within its larger historical context. George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon was released in 1902, during the Belle Epoque, a time of cultural revival, scientific advances, rampant colonialism, and social change. While the film overtly engages with ideas of scientific progress and colonialism, it also grapples, perhaps more subtly, with another strain of the era which involves tensions regarding gender inequality, specifically in regards to the workplace. Elinor Ann Accampo, in her article Integrating Women and Gender into the Teaching of French History, 1789 to the Present elaborates on this tension, explaining it to be a “crisis of masculinity” resulting from the advancing power of Feminism, and the birth of the “New Woman” (Accampo, 2004, p.283). However, what really challenged preconceived notions of masculinity was that women were becoming increasingly participatory in the workforce, the number working women in France rising over 10% from 1866 to 1901 (Frader, 1996, p. 148), just one year prior to the release of A Trip to the Moon. Working men resisted this shift by attempting to reassert what it means to be masculine within the context of the workforce and the family. Many French working men and reformers wishing to clearly define gender roles in the labor sphere wanted to domesticate women.
This desire to exclude female workers kindled political discourse, and ideas such as a “family wage” were discussed in the French political arena. In her book Gender and Class in Modern Europe, Laura Frader explains the idea of a “family wage” as a demand by working family men to be “paid a wage sufficient to support their wives and children,” which of course would make men exclusively the earners of the family, and consequently result in the domestication of women. When examining A Trip to the Moon through a critical lens that considers the “crisis of masculinity”, the exclusion of women in the labor force, and the notion of “family wage”, we see that the narrative reasserts traditional constructions of masculinity, under a climate of social change.
From the very first scene of A Trip to the Moon, a gender imbalance is represented. The opening scene shows a congregation of male scientists planning a trip to the moon and three female secretaries seated to the viewer’s left. A group of women then enter the scene in flashy dress, hand men stools, and promptly exit in unison. The first way in which this scene contrasts men and women is in regards to individuality. The men of the scene have different outfits, and they interact with one another in a way that indicates that they have individual personalities. The women of the scene however are devoid of individuality; they dress alike and act only in unison. The two groups of women (the secretaries and the women in flashy attire) function as a one dimensional, cohesive entity in their respective groups as opposed to a combination of individuals. Secondly, this scene develops the male characters to have intellectual and creative depth, for they alone are the thinkers making the the trip to the moon possible. The women of the scene in turn sit idly to the side, represented to have no visible hint of intellectualism or creativity, advancing the narrative of the voyage in no way. Finally, aside from the aspects of character and narrative development, this opening scene demonstrates an imbalance of power though the positioning of the actors. The only women who are present throughout the scene, the secretaries, are unmoving, located on the periphery of the shot, and positioned lower than the men through the duration of the scene. In this way they are presented as objects of scenery rather than characters with agency.
This gender imbalance is continued into the next scene of the film, but represented with greater historical specificity, for it particularly engages with the early twentieth century French labor movement and issues surrounding gender equality in the workplace. Roughly three minutes into the film, this second scene shows the space ship that is to be sent to the moon being constructed. The crew of workers building the ship consists entirely of men, a clear reassertion that men are to make up the workforce, and women are to remain “domestic” and belong outside of the workplace. This scene–however overtly political it may seem is quite humorous–reflects Victoria Duckett’s observation that the film is a less of a scathing polemic and more of a “comedic reflection upon social change and gendered difference” (Duckett, 2011 p. 162). This scene is comedic by laughing at the worker’s ineptitude. The actors are in no way ideal as manual workers: they fall, wildly gesticulate, and they lack grace. Tthis scene perpetuates notions of masculinity that run contrary to Feminist efforts of the early twentieth century, but it does so through the vehicle of physical comedy. However, my question is: why wasn’t the joke pushed further? The best instances of comedy are the quickest to the truth-punch, so why then, if women in the workforce increased by 10%, was that not even hinted at?
In other words: the comedy of the scene does nothing to challenge power. It fails at the kind of humor perfected by satirists like Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and Jane Austen, who used humor that challenges power, and seeks to speak for the societally disempowered.
But don’t worry, because it gets worse.
The scene that perhaps most obviously objectifies women is the scene just after the lunar landing, in which the voyagers fall asleep on the moon and Méliès applies visual effects to make visible the dreams of the sleeping voyagers. The first part of this dream shows stars in the formation of the Big Dipper constellation, each star containing the face of a woman. Then as the stars fade out, in fades a man inside of a planet resembling Saturn to the right, a woman located dead centre perched upon a crescent moon, and two women erecting a star slowly to the left of the shot. To analyze the first part of this shot of women appearing as parts of the Big Dipper within the context of early twentieth century gender disparity, we see that this as another attempt to portray women as something simply to observe, a component of mere scenery. Also, considering the attempts to exclude women from the workplace, it is worth noting that the women are organized in the formation of the Big ‘Dipper’, synonymous with Big “ladle” or Big “spoon.” Am I reading too much into this short movie to note find it to be disturbing that, of all the constellations that exist, the women are arranged into the shape of a ladle, a plausible symbol of the domestic?
Perhaps I’ve gone too far.
Anyway, by the time A Trip to the Moon reaches its final scene showing the voyagers being chased away by moon natives and forced to plunge into the ocean, it is clear that what George Méliès has created is primarily a work of science fiction, for the entire narrative directly engages with the theme of scientific advance. However, the comedic nature of the film is also ever-present, and rather than satirizing the power structures responsible for colonial efforts and the oppression of women, the comedy mystifies the more problematic constructions of gender. The narrative laughs at a gender hierarchy that objectifies women and excludes them as participatory in fields of manual labor and scientific study, yet it remains evident that George Méliès is not, at his highest aspiration, a political filmmaker. Duckett is accurate in calling the film “humorously regressive” because though the film constructs a gender hierarchy to regress the position of women seeking equality in the French workforce, it does so in a way that is flamboyantly ignorant, and humorously unenlightened.
- Accampo, E. (2004) ‘Integrating Women and Gender into the Teaching of French History, 1789 to the Present’, French Historical Studies, vol. 27, no. 2 Spring, pp. 282-285.
- Frader, L. and Rose, S. (1996) Gender and Class in Modern Europe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
- Soloman, M. and Duckett, V. (2011) Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination. Albany, NY, USA: SUNY Press.
Greg Letellier is a Pushcart Prize nominated fiction writer, book reviewer, and teacher from Biddeford, Maine. He is the author of the chapbook Paper Heart (2015, Thought Catalog), a collection of stories, as well as the limited run of a self-published book entitled Vacationland. His poems, essays, and stories have been featured in array of places, such as The Bicycle Review, Extract(s), HOUSEFIRE, Ray’s Road Review, and on The Flexible Persona Podcast.