Balls? Check. Ovaries? Not anymore...
March 6, 2008 1:53 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand the methaphor/mythology behind female sci-fi characters losing their ovaries (slightly spoilery for Alias, X-Files, and S2 of Battlestar Galactica).

I just watched the Battlestar Galactica episode "The Farm," in which Starbuck awakens during her recovery from a gunshot wound to discover a mysterious scar over one of her ovaries. It reminded me of a similar scar Sydney Bristow received in S3 of Alias, as well as the fertility saga of Dana Scully in the X-Files.

Strong, ass-kicking female character has her ovaries stolen by an unknown but powerful group because she is somehow "special" or "chosen." Further plot developments usually include the discovery of hybrid "children" created from the harvested eggs, and the emergence of powerful maternal feelings that had previously been dormant/repressed. Both Dana Scully and Sydney Bristow were ultimately able to conceive and bear children of their own, although Scully gave hers up while Sydney got to live happily ever after. Not sure what will happen to Starbuck's ovaries, but no further spoilers, please.

As a woman with ovaries of my own, I have ambivalent feelings about this storyline, especially now that I'm about to watch it play out for the 3rd time. I think I'm bothered by how it subtly reinforces the idea that women who carry guns and fight bad guys must be disconnected from their maternal side (their ovaries), and that the only way they can develop as characters is to discover their repressed maternal instincts, recover their stolen ovaries and bear children of their own.*

So: are there essays or books (fan-produced okay, if they're quality) analyzing the lost-ovaries storyline and the different ways it works metaphorically? Can the Hive Mind offer a different viewpoint on why strong women in sci-fi keep misplacing their reproductive parts? Bonus points if you or your resource can identify the original lost ovaries in sci-fi or earlier mythology.

* I was a huge X-Files fan, and I'm confident that Battlestar Galactica will do something awesome with Starbuck's storyline. Not trying to pick on these shows, just trying to better understand what they're doing with these characters.
posted by junkbox to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
There's actually an interesting Wikipedia article that addresses this. It has some good references as well.
posted by nedpwolf at 2:11 PM on March 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'll pause here only to note that Starbuck is not the only strong female character in BSG and that maternity issues for some of those other characters figures into several plots. To say anymore would reveal spoilers.

Also, to BSG fans and no fans, there's a neat, 8 minute, recap of everything that's happened so far, in time for the April 4th premier of Season 4. VERY amusing.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:52 PM on March 6, 2008

One of the earliest uses of the "loss of ovaries" plot I can think of is in Robert Silverbergs chilly 1967 novel "Thorns". From this review:
Lona's situation is more psychologically devastating. The subject of a strange fertility experiment in which hundreds of eggs were harvested from her body and artificially gestated, she finds herself in the unique position of being the mother of literally a hundred virgin births. Denied access to any of her offspring (bad for the experiment, they say), she is scarred so deeply by her feelings of uselessness and loneliness she becomes a suicidal basket case.
Lona isn't a particularly aggressive character though, so she may not fit too well with your question.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 3:08 PM on March 6, 2008

I would add that in the BSG context, the whole series is about reproduction, in the sense that the the humans' diminished numbers make them susceptible to being destroyed completely as a race, and the Cylons want to create human-like reproduction in order to avoid plague, be more human, etc etc.
posted by YoungAmerican at 3:24 PM on March 6, 2008

I am just wildly speculating, but the most obvious reason I can think of is to invoke the horror of losing control of your ability to have children; not specifically that has been taken away from you (though there is that as well) but someone could be making children out of your DNA and someone else's without your consent.

Kind of like the device used in sci-fi where someone is cloned without their permission.

To further that line of thinking, that someone could be doing this, and then indoctrinating these children to do things that are antithetical to your beliefs, and even beyond that, that these offspring could eventually be your enemy.

It's a pretty base instinct that drives the fear that our children may one day try and hurt or kill us, and this could just be an attempt to tap into that.
posted by quin at 3:46 PM on March 6, 2008

i don't know how many of the writers of these shows are male, but i imagine that it gives the writer (and for that matter, the viewer) the opportunity to explore the uniquely feminine aspects of these characters--to show that they are more than tough guys with boobs.

in the egalitarian world of these tv shows, that basically brings you to two things: reproduction, and whether or not you pee standing up. i can imagine why the second option might be less narratively compelling.

as for the idea of stealing or molesting ovaries, well, i would imagine it's kind of a substitute for rape (and yet, strangely, you would never see a man getting his balls cut off--although you do have the character angel from "buffy the vampire slayer" who can't make love to his beloved without risking the loss of his soul, so that's close). but anyway, it's the ultimate betrayal--it plays a similar function as a strong man being tortured and/or wounded and/or disabled.

also, it's an interesting way to explore what differentiates these women from their male counterparts. even if childbearing is decades away on their radar, being robbed of the ability would be thought-provoking. maybe someone will be brave enough to create a character who is ultimately liberated by the experience, but in any case, it would be a very deeply-felt experience.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:58 PM on March 6, 2008

I think it's a lot about violating these characters, along the lines of rape. I assume the writers are trying to highlight the character's vulnerability, and such tough women don't usually reveal their vulnerabilities.

A standard rape is easier for the victim to identify who assaulted her, and seek justice or vengeance. I think the stolen ovaries thing is taking standard rape themes and cranking them up a few notches. Not only do you have the initial assault, there are long term consequences - perhaps the character's ability to reproduce is at risk (allows the character to explore repressed maternal feelings as mentioned previously), longer term health issues (didn't the X-Files have story line about cancer relating to Scully's ovarian ordeal?), psychological effects of being violated by nameless secret organisation and what their secret plans are, threat of what hybrid beastie may harm you in the future? Going back to the X-Files, they used lots of creepy cloned kids didn't they, and I think they ended up with story lines about cloned super soldiers?

There seems to be a primal instinct to protect one's reproductive bits and most humans are quite protective of their genes.

I'm sure I've seen story lines in the past related to stealing of semen for nefarious purposes. (While not having the effect of removing organs and denying the victim later use, many of the other consequences apply.) Succubi? Didn't Morgan La Fey trick Arthur into sex so she could conceive Mordred? Also, I saw Beowoulf 3D a few months ago and Grendle's mother springs to mind.

Anyway, the results of messing with a character's reproductive bits seems to make them both deeply self-reflective and want to serioulsy kick someone's arse, which means lots of story fodder.
posted by goshling at 5:44 PM on March 6, 2008

I would just add to YoungAmerican's post above that the human's created the Cylon's which in BSG and that parent/ child relationship is also part of the web. In fact there is much talk among both races about not repeating the sins of one fore bearers. There is also the incest theme running through the serious if you look at the various Cyclon/human relationships and their associated taboo. Mythologies around the world are rich with these very same conflicts.
posted by pazoozoo at 7:07 PM on March 6, 2008

All three of your examples are serial dramas.

There are limitations to what you can do to a character in a serial drama: You can hurt a character as badly as you want, but unless you want their injury to take over the show it has to be something that they can eventually move on from.

Nobody is going to buy a man moving on from his testicles being cut off. Furthermore, he has lost his "manhood" and the audience is going to have trouble relating to an asexual person.

Ovaries are different: they represent a woman's reproductive ability but not her sexuality -- the character remains sympathetic, and eventually the ovaries are either forgotten or their reproductive ability is repaired by [insert plot device here].

Men don't have a biological equivalent, but they do have their own special plot device: the old war buddy. Male characters have an unlimited number of buddies-they-owe-their-lives-to, all of whom have very short expected life span when they appear on screen.

Either way the pattern is the same: establish something of value for the character, rip it from them, watch the fallout.

This doesn't answer your question about the mythology of ovaries specifically, but hopefully it will give you some idea of why the trope repeats itself.
posted by tkolar at 11:15 PM on March 6, 2008

Quite apart from any symbolic meaning, in order to harvest a woman character's ova it would generally be far more practical to take the whole ovary, wouldn't it? You wouldn't need a whole testicle to get similar numbers from a male subject. Eggs are scarce; sperm are plentiful.
posted by Coaticass at 2:30 AM on March 7, 2008

xfiles spoilers below...

Can't say for the other two series but I know in The X-Files there is a very strong (and deliberate) corrolation between bodily, and terrestrial invasion. Thus the way in which the aliens wanted to colonise the planet is mirrored by what they do to people's bodies - adding alien DNA, giving them cancer, taking away their ovaries, making them pregnant. In fact, pretty much every story line is about a body being infested in some way or other.

There's an aspect of the castration complex in some of the storylines (eg the Russians cutting off their own arms to avoid becoming hybrids) but it's clear that most of the bodily invasion is against women. I imagine this is to make the aliens more scary and unsettling and increase the sense of helplessness of the humans. No doubt there are Freudian readings there too.

What Scully in particular goes through is fascinating and horrible and some fans say that this is due to Chris Carter's desire to rid her of her female sexuality piece by piece - not allowing her to have a sexual relationship, ridding her of her ovaries, taking away various children - turning her into a bone fide Virgin Mary. This is a controversial idea of course but could apply in some way to the other characters you mention.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 6:29 AM on March 7, 2008

Men can always have this idea "I wonder if I have a child out there that I don't know about." If women's ovaries are being harvested for use by others, this gives female characters the opportunity to have the same doubts and concerns. I don't know what that adds to the show, other than an interesting twist.
posted by srah at 6:54 AM on March 12, 2008

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