What does a midlife crisis look like in the 21st century?
Frittering away your life savings on a red sports car is so last century. Instead, today’s man who is grappling with the limitations of his mortality spends $90 million on a rocket to launch a $100,000 electric car, helmed by a robot by the name of “Starman,” into space.
“We want a new space race,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in a press conference shortly after the launch of his company’s Falcon Heavy rocket — and his Tesla Roadster — into space earlier in February. Like a child, he gleefully continued, “Space races are exciting.”
And Musk isn’t the only billionaire looking to enter the space race. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has his private aerospace company, Blue Origin, while Virgin’s Richard Branson, a prominent adventurer, created Virgin Galactic back in 2004.
These men, particularly Musk, are not only heavily invested in who can get their rocket into space first, but in colonizing Mars. The desire to colonize — to have unquestioned, unchallenged and automatic access to something, to any type of body, and to use it at will — is a patriarchal one. Indeed, there is no ethical consideration among these billionaires about whether this should be done; rather, the conversation is when it will be done. Because, in the eyes of these intrepid explorers, this is the only way to save humanity.
It is the same instinctual and cultural force that teaches men that everything — and everyone — in their line of vision is theirs for the taking. You know, just like walking up to a woman and grabbing her by the pussy.
It’s there, so just grab it because you can.
The desire to colonize — to have unquestioned, unchallenged and automatic access to something — is a patriarchal one.
“I want to be clear, I think we should be a multi-planet species, not a single planet species on another planet,” Musk said at the 2015 Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit. “What kind of future do you want to have? Do you want to have a future where we are forever confined to one planet…or…one where we are on many planets?”
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This Columbusing attitude — a strident business acumen laced with an imperialist ethos — comes with an air of benevolence: Musk doesn’t just want to colonize Mars to satisfy his ego. No, he wants to colonize Mars to help his fellow humans. “I really think there are two fundamental paths [for humans]: One path is we stay on Earth forever, and some eventual extinction event wipes us out,” he said.
In this way, colonizing Mars is a “collective life insurance policy.” Although considering the last 500 years of colonization on this planet alone, one could wonder whose lives, according to Musk and other rich white men like himself, are worth being insured.
But again, this impulse to enter the “space race” isn’t simply the embodiment of the American spirit of invention or forward-thinking entrepreneurship. Neither is it driven by the kind of nationalist Cold War fervor that inspired the creation of America’s space program in the 1950s.
Rather, the impulse to colonize — to colonize lands, to colonize peoples, and, now that we may soon be technologically capable of doing so, colonizing space — has its origins in gendered power structures. Entitlement to power, control, domination and ownership. The presumed right to use and abuse something and then walk away to conquer and colonize something new.
The Friday before SpaceX’s launch, legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin reiterated to me over lunch that it is imperative that we talk about space exploration in terms of “migration,” rather than using words like “colonize” or “settle” when talking about going to Mars.
Through a feminist lens, Aldrin’s deliberate word choice revealed an important reality of the space race: This 21st century form of imperialism is the direct result of men giving up on the planet they have all but destroyed.
As if history hasn’t proven that men go from one land to the next, drunk on megalomania and the privilege of indifference.
The raping and pillaging of the Earth, and the environmental chaos that doing so has unleashed, are integral to the process of colonization. And the connection of the treatment of Mother Earth to women is more than symbolic: Study after study has shown that climate change globally affects women more than men.
“Women in developing countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they are highly dependent on local natural resources for their livelihood,” a 2013 United Nations report noted. “Women charged with securing water, food and fuel for cooking and heating face the greatest challenges. Women experience unequal access to resources and decision-making processes, with limited mobility in rural areas.”
While men compete over whose rocket is the biggest, women are fighting to stay alive against assaults on their personhood — and their planet.
This means that while men compete with each other over whose rocket is the biggest, fastest, and best, and send playthings off to become flashy space junk, women around the world are fighting to stay alive against violent assaults on their personhood — and their planet. As reported by Marc Bain for Quartz, in seven separate studies “researchers found evidence that people perceive consumers who behave in eco-friendly ways as ‘more feminine,’ and that those consumers “‘perceive themselves as more feminine.’
Not only, according to researchers, do women generally have a greater environmental conscience when it comes to the planet we currently live on, but the same researchers have found a connection between men’s insecurity about their masculinity and their lack of environmental conscience. Apparently, caring for the planet is perceived to be a “feminine” quality and concern; the psychology of toxic masculinity spills over into the unethical disregard for the environment.
This masculine insecurity is everywhere in American culture and, increasingly, American politics. Trump himself has spoken about making sure our nuclear bomb is “bigger and more powerful and can often be found “bragging about building a “beautiful,” “great, great wall.”
Right now, there is a robot dummy propped up in the driver’s seat of a red Tesla convertible, flying through space, away from the manmade garbage fires devouring Earth.
Houston, we have a problem.
And it’s the patriarchy.
Marcie Bianco is a writer and the Editorial and Communications Manager of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.
CORRECTION (Feb. 21, 2018, 12:00 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a mannequin recently launched into space by SpaceX. The mannequin is called Starman, not Spaceman.
Marcie Bianco is a writer and an editor living in California. She is columnist at the Women’s Media Center, and her writing can be found both online and in print at outlets like NBC Think, Pacific Standard, Quartz, Rolling Stone, Salon, Vanity Fair, and Vox.