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What ‘Lucy in the Sky’ and ‘Ad Astra’ Reveal About Gender Roles

In James Gray’s movie, Brad Pitt plays an astronaut who gains new perspective after a trip to outer space. In Noah Hawley’s film, Natalie Portman can’t quite see from those heights.

A24/20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

For the past few months, the internet has been in a tizzy over astronaut diapers. Scan the reviews of—even the headlines about—Noah Hawley’s new movie Lucy in the Sky and you’d be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t mention the d-word, and its conspicuous absence from the plotline. “If You’re Expecting Diapers in the Astronaut Story ‘Lucy in the Sky,’” warned the L.A. Times, “Think Again.” “Give Us Diapers in Natalie Portman’s Diaper Astronaut Movie, You Cowards,” Vice demanded, in an article that Photoshopped Portman floating in zero gravity alongside a box of Huggies. Heather Schwedel, a writer at Slate, went so far as to propose a boycott (albeit tongue-in-cheek) of the diaper-less film. “Without diapers, I am frankly not sure why this movie exists,” she wrote. “It’s like they made a Fast and the Furious movie without the cars.”

The fabled diaper was, of course, the most salacious detail in the story of Lisa Nowak, the former NASA astronaut on whom Lucy in the Sky is loosely based. In February 2007, less than a year after she returned from a mission on the space shuttle Discovery, Nowak drove 900 miles from Houston to Orlando, allegedly to seek revenge on the new girlfriend of her former lover, NASA astronaut William Oefelein. Nowak confronted the woman, Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman, in her parked car at the Orlando International Airport, and pepper-sprayed her in the eyes before Shipman was able to get away. Nowak eventually pleaded guilty to a felony burglary charge and a misdemeanor battery charge, spent two days in jail, and was eventually discharged from the military with “other than honorable conditions.” It was a harrowing, tabloid-ready tale, but the part everyone seems to remember is the one Nowak disputed in her testimony in front of the Naval Board: that she wore a NASA-grade adult diaper on her drive, so she wouldn’t have to stop to go to the bathroom.

Hawley—a first-time film director best known for helming artistically ambitious TV shows like Fargo and Legion—has framed his decision not to include the diaper as a concession to his character’s dignity. “[W]hat is it that makes you want this detail, that makes you want to reduce her to a punch line again?” he said a few days ago at the movie’s premiere, responding to the whither-the-diaper backlash. “The goal of the film is to rehumanize her and to build empathy for her, to show you that she had an emotional and existential crisis and that’s part of becoming an adult.”

In the opening moments of the movie, the frame fills with Portman’s face, awestruck behind the fishbowl of her space helmet. “We’re going home,” a disembodied male voice tells her. She answers like a kid on a playground at dusk: “Just a few more minutes.” She likes the air up there. In space she’s light-years away from her more earthly domestic concerns, which we soon learn include redoing the guest-room wallpaper, taking care of her teenage niece, and deciding whether or not she wants to fulfill her doting husband’s request to have a baby.

In the movie’s press materials, Lucy Cola is described as “a strong woman whose determination and drive as an astronaut take her to space, where she’s deeply moved by the transcendent experience of seeing her life from afar.” Instead of this experience giving her more insight about the fleeting, interconnected nature of existence, though, Lucy becomes obsessed by smaller, pettier concerns. She starts sleeping with one of her astronaut colleagues, the rugged if emotionally unavailable Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm; good for her) and spirals out of control when she finds out that their affair is not as serious or exclusive as she’d hoped it was. Says her no-bullshit grandmother, played by a refreshingly tart Ellen Burstyn, “All that astronaut dick has made you soft.”

Lucy in the Sky is dizzyingly overdirected; Hawley’s camera constantly dollies in and out, shifts aspect ratios, and indulges in a number of other antic tricks that make the story seem grander than it actually is. In keeping with its branding of Lucy as a “strong woman,” too, Lucy in the Sky makes sure to hit a few heavy-handed notes of #femaleempowerment. In one scene, when Lucy’s niece is crying over her absent father, Portman offers up a pep talk in her molasses-thick Southern accent: “[Men] make the mess, we’re the ones to clean it up.” (Never mind that the gender roles seem more nuanced in the Cola household, where since her return Lucy’s husband has taken over her housework and wallpapering project with relish.) Later, when she’s taken off a mission she’s been training for at work, her male boss chides, “You let yourself get too emotional.” This comment is presented as the final straw, sending Lucy over the edge. The film wants us to believe the rage she feels is righteous, fueled by justifiable feminist anger. Go stick it to the man, Lucy! And don’t stop for a bathroom break until you get there!

When Lucy in the Sky was still in development two years ago, and Reese Witherspoon was in talks to play the starring role, the former astronaut Marsha Ivins wrote an op-ed for Time taking issue with the movie’s stated premise. “The article about the movie suggested that ‘for arguably the first time, audiences will get to see what happens to female astronauts once they are back home and resume their normal lives,’” the five-time spaceflight veteran wrote. “It made me wonder: Were women returning from spaceflights supposed to be different in some way from men returning from similar spaceflights? Another office memo I apparently never read.”

Space may be the final frontier, but in the movies it’s still one reached almost exclusively by men. The list of canonical space flicks featuring all-male crews is too long to detail in its entirety, but 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Right Stuff, and Armageddon feels like a start. Particularly in fictionalized depictions of cosmic travel—say, Stanley Kubrick dreaming all the way back in 1968 of an astronaut video-phoning his wife and child back home—the gadgetry often feels more imaginative than the gender roles. The rare times spacewomen are seen on screen, they often have a tragic backstory that makes their exploration more about something domestic they’re running away from at home, like the grieving mother played by Sandra Bullock in Gravity. It does not feel like a coincidence that one of cinema’s most enduring space-feminists, Ripley from Ridley Scott’s masterful Alien, was written in the original script as a man.

When Ad Astra—the introspective director James Gray’s first foray into the great beyond—premiered earlier this year at the Venice Film Festival, the movie’s star, Brad Pitt, said that what he and Gray were “really digging at … was this definition of masculinity.” He went on, “Having grown up in an era where we were taught to be strong, not show weakness, don’t be disrespected, and so on and so forth … you’re denying, to a sense, those pains or the things [that make] you feel shame, whether real or imagined, the regrets in one’s life.”

The astronaut Pitt plays seems at first blush to be Lucy Cola’s opposite: Roy McBride is so even-keeled, his colleagues marvel, that his pulse has never once been clocked above 80 beats per minute. No higher-up has ever told him to quit being so emotional. Still, McBride has always had some imposing moonshoes to fill: His father, Clifford McBride, was the most decorated astronaut in the history of the space program, first man to Jupiter and Saturn, and the commander of the pioneering Lima Project, an exploratory group that took off when Roy was 16 and went missing when he was in his late 20s. “It’s a dangerous business,” Roy says, when explaining why he does not have children of his own. “Best not subject it to others.”

Back on earth where he is presumed dead, Clifford McBride’s name has the ubiquity of Neil Armstrong and the reverence of a Challenger victim. When Roy hitches a ride to Mars on a top-secret mission, the crew marvels at his last name: “Looks like we’ve got ourselves the son of a legend on board.” But Roy slowly realizes—with a heaviness that gradually comes to bear on the warm, lunar landscape of Brad Pitt’s face—that the truth about his father was more complicated than that. What we call heroism so often comes at the expense of hidden, unspoken violence.

Though visually breathtaking, Ad Astra’s reliance on voice-over detracts some from its majesty. Roy McBride’s on-the-nose musings feel less akin to Terrence Malick’s poeticism than they do to the notorious theatrical cut of Blade Runner. “In the end, the son suffers from the sins of the father,” McBride tells us, as tidily as a thesis statement, as though we weren’t already clocking this from Pitt’s nuanced performance. McBride’s insights have a first-six-months-in-therapy air about them: Talking about your feelings is healthy, he realizes by the end. Living in the moment is grounding. Sometimes you just have to let go of your past.

While it’s not always particularly deep, what feels new, even radical, about Ad Astra as a space flick is its conclusion that “being a man” is something smaller, stranger, and more malleable than the default expectation of American culture. What McBride gains in space isn’t another badge for his lapel, but a sense of perspective. And this at least appears to be a more common experience than Lucy’s crack-up: Marsha Ivins, in her op-ed, pointed to a study on the “positive psychological outcomes of spaceflight,” which found that upon returning to earth many respondents “reported changes in both attitudes and behaviors.” To McBride, everything looks a little arbitrary from up there—masculinity included.

Lucy in the Sky can’t quite see from those heights. The tale it ultimately tells—of a jilted woman who snaps because of professional ambition, unchecked horniness, or some combination of both—is deadeningly familiar at the movies. You can set Fatal Attraction on the moon without necessarily making it a missive from the future. Lucy’s fatal flaw is to think Nowak’s story had some inherent gravitas and nobility just because she’s a woman. And anyway, the tone of the movie is already all over the place: You do not get to have Ellen Burstyn utter the phrase “astronaut dick” and then act too high and mighty for a nod to the space diaper.

I default to the wisdom of the one person quoted in this article who’s been to space, Marsha Ivins. “Astronauts are, at the end of the day, just regular people, subject to the same personal, family, and work-related issues everyone faces,” she writes. “All I can conclude is that perhaps an astronaut who loses his or her grip on reality after spending time in space wasn’t holding on too tightly to begin with.” The mission, cinematically speaking, is not as simple as putting more actresses in space. It’s to tell new stories that question gender stereotypes from all angles. For all the times Hollywood has traversed the cosmos, that’s a frontier still left underexplored.