Netflix’s Away is here to dismantle that tired “space wives” trope

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Netflix’s Away doesn’t just change the work-life balance conversation: it opens it up in unexpected ways, too. 

From 1998’s Armageddon to 2018’s First Man, sci-fi has long supplied us with close-up shots of patient (and often tearful) women awaiting news of their space-bound husbands and boyfriends.

These so-called “space wives” usually go largely unseen, although it’s made abundantly clear that they have remained on earth to care for the children, to keep house and watch the televised launch of their partner’s rocket or ship in breathless wonder.

Above all else, though, these passive women have given their men something to dream about in the dark depths of space. To hope for. And to strive to get home to, come hell or high water.

Once upon a time, this was an accurate reflection of the real-life space programme: when NASA announced its first team of astronauts, dubbed the Mercury 7, in 1959, their wives were portrayed as the ‘ideal housewife’ (aka doting, domestic, loyal, prim, proper, smiling) by the world’s press.

Nowadays, though, things have changed – and for the better. In 1983, America’s first woman, Sally Ride, went into space, and Mae Jemison became the first woman of colour in space in 1992.

NASA astronaut Kathleen Rubins became the 60th woman to fly in space when she launched to the International Space Station in 2016. In 2019, the first all-female spacewalk was conducted by Jessica Meir and Christina Koch. And the first woman to go to the moon, of course, is planned for 2024, as part of the Artemis program.

To quote Stylist’s Marisa Bate, these incredible women have proven wholeheartedly that “women can lead the adventure, not just be married to it.

So it makes sense, then, that Netflix’s Away has decided to gender-flip the tired old sci-fi narrative of the patient wife sat waiting on her astronaut husband.

Watch the trailer for Away below:

Starring Hilary Swank, the much-hyped series follows Emma Green, a US astronaut, as she embarks on a year-long mission to Mars with an international space crew. Leaving her husband and daughter behind on earth for the perilous mission, though, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a very strong chance that Emma has embarked upon a one-way trip.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is this idea of Emma putting her career above her wifely (and motherly) duties that’s proven a talking point among early viewers.

“There was a young woman from a woman’s magazine who said, ‘When I saw the pilot, I saw the decision that your character made, and I couldn’t believe it. My jaw dropped’” Swank recalled during an interview with the BBC.

“She was almost angry. And then she checked herself. She said, ‘And then I realised that I would have never thought that had your character been a male.’”

Swank continued: “It was such an enlightening moment for her, that the stereotypes that are put on gender or race or whatever made her come to that conclusion. But then it made her question it.

“And I love that about this TV show.”

Away on Netflix: stills from Hilary Swank’s new sci-fi drama
Netflix’s Away follows Emma Green, a US astronaut, as she embarks on a year-long mission to Mars with an international space crew.

Of course, this idea that a woman’s natural place is at home with her children, career be damned, is one which we see repeatedly peddled by certain media outlets.

Indeed, as Jennifer Garner once noted: “[Me and my ex-husband Ben Affleck] got home at night and we compared notes. And I told him every single person who interviewed me, I mean every single one… asked me, ‘How do you balance work and family?’ and he said the only thing that people asked him repeatedly was about the tits on the Blurred Lines girl [Emily Ratajkowski, Affleck’s co-star in Gone Girl].

“As for work-life balance, he said no one asked him about it that day. As a matter of fact, no one had ever asked him about it. And we do share the same family. 

“Isn’t it time to kinda change that conversation?”

Netflix’s Away doesn’t just change the conversation: it opens it up in unexpected ways, too. 

Early on in the series, Emma can be seen on the Moon waiting to blast off on to Mars, when a family emergency back on Earth presents a dilemma.

“You see the ramifications of [what she chooses to do in that moment] as the show continues to unfold,” Swank, when asked what she would have done if she had found herself in her character’s shoes (or astronaut boots).

Away on Netflix
Away on Netflix

Swank continues: “[You learn] what that decision has meant to her, and how deep in her marrow her family [is], and how important that dream [of going to Mars] is to her).

“So I think it depends on the circumstances which you’re under to make that decision.”

Well, quite. And that’s the big USP of Away, in our opinion: this rock-solid sci-fi drama dismantles that tired old trope which insists a woman’s place is in the home as a helpmeet to her husband. That her career should come second to that, always. And that the success of her family is based upon her hard work and sacrifice alone.

One small step for sci-fi, one giant leap for womankind, eh? 

Away is on Netflix from 4 September.

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Images: Netflix

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.