When The Cloverfield Paradox dropped without warning on Netflix after a mysterious trailer aired during the Super Bowl, it wasn't just intriguing because of its unconventional release. As director Ava DuVernay pointed out on Twitter, the sci-fi film is revolutionary for being a led by a woman of color, having a black director, and featuring a diverse cast. It's incredibly encouraging to see that the Hollywood machine is changing to be more inclusive. But as much as The Cloverfield Paradox is a game-changer on those fronts, it still includes a frustrating trope about women needing personal tragedy as motivations for taking on risky missions.
Spoilers ahead. The new movie tells the story of a near-future team of astronauts who attempt to jumpstart a particle accelerator as an energy source in space because the Earth is going through a massive energy crisis. Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Ava Hamilton, a woman who's left her husband behind on Earth so she can try and save the world. But throughout the course of the film, the audience learns that Ava also used to have two children and that they died in a horrible accident. Ava's dead children and how she handles her grief seem to have greatly informed her choice to venture into space.
In fact, when the ship's crew realizes they've been thrown into an alternate dimension, and that that universe's Ava stayed down on Earth, we also learn that, in that dimension, her children are still alive. In other words, the film is basically saying that in order for Ava to have taken this assignment, her children had to die, because otherwise, why would she ever want to do something so bold and frightening?
It's disappointing that Cloverfield Paradox, an otherwise smart film, resorts to a trope like this. All too frequently, movies think that a woman who goes into outer space has to have lost her children or be childless in order to be "brave" enough to take on such an important mission, and that a woman in a stable emotional state would never decide to take on a dangerous assignment. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock stars as a space engineer who loses her young daughter in a freak accident, and as part of her grief process, takes on the intense assignment to help fix the Hubble space telescope. A dead child of Ripley's was also in the original Aliens script, though it didn't make the theatrical cut. Recently, in Arrival, much of Amy Adams' character's emotional development and personal motivation for a risky science mission has to do with the memories of her future child's death becoming implanted in her head.
It's as if a dead child or the threat of a dead child is the female equivalent of what's known as "fridging." In comics, the term fridging, or more specifically the "Women in Refrigerators" trope, occurs when a woman or girl is killed off in order to advance the plot or change the emotional growth of a male character. It began in a storyline in a Green Lantern comic, and has since been explored by comics writer Gail Simone, who coined the term and created a list of all of the instances where women have been fridged. It happens in movies, too; just look at Se7en, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Dark Knight, and many others.
Fridging is a lame, sexist plot device, and the female equivalent is heading in the same direction. In order to fix this, we need to see sci-fi movies featuring brave female characters who don't have tragic backstories involving their children. And we also need to see less movies about female astronauts without kids, as that's also an overused and connected trope. Contact's Ellie Arroway was childless and unpartnered, while The Martian had two women on its Mars crew, both without offspring, for instance. This suggests that women with children aren't allowed to take on dangerous explorations into the galaxy — despite the fact that there are plenty of men in space movies with children back on Earth, from true stories like Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff, to fiction like The Martian and Interstellar.
It's a terrible and dated idea to expect that women are too emotionally connected to their kids to undertake important space explorations, and it's also not reflective of actual space travel. NASA has had a number of female astronauts with children fly into outer space, while China even requires that its female Taikonauts already be mothers (which is a whole other sexist issue, but that's a different story). What science fiction films need to realize is that women are allowed to be in outer space without having some kind of traumatic kid backstory, or no family at all. There are other ways to provide for emotional heft in a movie than resorting to the female version of "fridging."