Rattled by the Rush: Secrets and Lies on For All Mankind’s Mars
The Martian sunrise reveals not only exquisite views, but also secrets and lies.
Author’s note: This piece contains spoilers for For All Mankind Season 3.
In his 1981 book 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future, futurist and pioneer of space settlements Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill wrote, “Here is my advice as we begin the century that will lead to 2081. First, guard the freedom of ideas at all costs. Be alert that dictators have always played on the natural human tendency to blame others and to oversimplify. And don’t regard yourself as a guardian of freedom unless you respect and preserve the rights of people you disagree with to free, public, unhampered expression.” While this quote has often been taken out of context, O’Neill discussed how the human tendency to downplay social issues inhibits societal and cultural growth, partly because political figures frequently play on our emotions to assign blame. And almost no groups were assigned more blame during the next decade than gays and women.
The decade that preceded the new century O’Neill was referring to was full of game-changing music, technological innovations, fashion trends that have stuck around through the present time, and moves toward gender and sexual equality that appeared to move society closer to the optimistic time depicted in 2081. Those of us who grew up during the 1990s and viewed that decade through rose-colored lenses believed we could change the world, if we tried hard enough. That generation — born during the 1970s and early 1980s — absorbed the movements our parents’ generation created that changed the cultural and societal landscape, such as the gay rights and civil rights movements, and second-wave feminism. Many of us earnestly believed things had changed for the better. Now, everyone could enjoy equality during the decade when Nirvana, a band led by a self-proclaimed male feminist, toppled an increasingly odd, out-of-touch Michael Jackson right off the pop charts.
Or so we thought. In reality, the 1990s leading to the early 2000s ushered in a period of discrimination and sexism like none other. Celebrities who were “outed” as LGBTQ — often entirely against their will — lost sponsorships, popularity, and even jobs. One example is Ellen DeGeneres, who famously “came out” in a People magazine article, only to see her once-popular sitcom canceled shortly after. (In an encouraging coda, she later had a successful TV talk show for 19 seasons.)
The late 1990s ushered in a wave of teen pop led by Britney Spears, a bubbly blonde with big brown eyes and even bigger talent from Louisiana. A disturbing 1999 Rolling Stone photoshoot depicted the still-teenaged Spears as a tantalizing child-whore, complete with baby dolls. The following decade would see her being relentlessly stalked by paparazzi and vilified in the press for her every perceived “wrong” move, which arguably led to her public breakdown and ensuing conservatorship. Spears symbolized what was done to young women — even non-celebrity young women — during the 1990s and early 2000s: you were infantilized, and if you didn’t play by some invisible rule book, every move you made was scrutinized at every turn. Let me revise that: a rule book didn’t matter because every move you made would be examined at every turn. During the 1990s, the LGBTQ population and women seemed to be the biggest targets of the blame-shifting that O’Neill referenced in 2081.
So, it’s not surprising that Season 3 of AppleTV+’s For All Mankind deftly explores the societal themes that shaped and plagued the 1990s. The latest episode explores the fallout that troubles NASA and Washington, D.C. after an astronaut on Mars reveals the truth about his sexuality. In addition, the women characters strain at the limits enforced upon them as a victory on the Red Planet serves only to divide, not unite. The harsh Martian sunrise revealed not just reddish, rugged panoramic views, but the secrets and lies the characters in For All Mankind’s universe told others — and themselves.
In Episode 6 of For All Mankind’s Season 3, American astronaut Will Tyler (played by Robert Bailey Jr.) reveals during a candid “live cast” from Mars that he is gay and faced difficulties because of his sexuality during his upbringing in Detroit. During For All Mankind’s 1994 and real-life 1994, progress in LGBTQ rights was still moving at a glacial pace despite some gains during the 1970s. The reaction to Will’s admission, plus the fact he is an active-duty military member during a time when “out” military members weren’t a thing, shocks the United States and the world.
The ripple effect transcends Mars and leads to Washington, D.C., where President Ellen Wilson (played by Jodi Balfour) — herself in a “lavender marriage” with Larry Wilson — is alternately distressed by the news but more worried for Will; her sexuality has been long stifled due to her career ambitions, which undoubtedly would’ve been scuttled by a similar public admission. As a result, she and Larry came up with a version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy instituted for military members during the real-life tenure of President Bill Clinton.
The irony that a closeted lesbian president devised “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the For All Mankind universe speaks to the bizarreness of the actual 1990s. As we know, the 1990s alternately celebrated and hushed up any mentions of sexuality; who can forget the breathless headlines associated with the real-life presidential sex scandal of 1998, when President Clinton was alternately the subject of jokes and celebrated for his in-office impropriety? By the way, by the end of Episode 6, President Wilson’s past is about to come to light in a very Linda Tripp manner, further echoing the actual decade.
More about Will Tyler: his presence within the cadre of Mars’ astronauts itself became threatening to his crewmembers, very similar to what would’ve likely happened if there was an “out” astronaut during the 1990s, a decade that still (wrongly) associated “queerness” with HIV and AIDS. There is one somber, hard-to-watch scene inside NASA’s Mars habitat, where previously thoughtful U.S. mission commander Danielle Poole (played by Krys Marshall) lights into Will for telling his truth.
Actress Krys Marshall did not like this scene when she first read Episode 6’s script and tried to fight it. In a recent Decider interview, Marshall stated, “When I first read it, I really hated it. It made me angry that Danielle didn’t have his back, and it also didn’t seem to ring true to who I knew her to be. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, she’s Black. He’s Black. She’s an advocate for the little guy and the underdog. I can’t understand why Danielle would come against him, why she’d reprimand him, this doesn’t seem true to who she is.’”
Similarly, on the Space and Things podcast, Marshall expressed she particularly disliked some of Danielle’s actions during Season 3 (providing no spoilers, of course). She emailed co-showrunner Ben Nedivi about her dissatisfaction with this scene. Again, from the Decider article: “I wrote a very passionate email and was like, ‘We need to change this.’ And he got back to me and said, ‘No, we don’t. Because Danielle’s a human being, and even though at the beginning of Season 1, she is the sort of pinnacle of progression — she’s Black, she’s a woman, it’s 1969 — now, 20 some odd years later, she’s the definition of the old guard.’”
Marshall’s words touch on a common theme of the 1990s. During the 1970s — particularly during For All Mankind’s 1970s, which saw the Equal Rights Amendment ratified — the gay rights, civil rights, and second-wave feminist movements did raise awareness and made sweeping root changes. These campaigns raised the profile and visibility of marginalized groups, and even NASA started hiring more women and minorities in visible roles. But there were no openly gay astronauts. The first U.S. woman in space, Sally Ride, who was in a relationship with her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy for 27 years, was only “outed” after her 2012 death. While the 1990s were feted as “progressive,” this adjective did not apply to the highest place one could go: space.
Moreover, Kelly Baldwin (played by Cynthy Wu) enters what appears to be a satisfying sexual relationship on Mars — with a sexy male cosmonaut. It’s the 1990s, and women should have had the freedom to pursue sexual relationships as they liked, but the fact that she’s sleeping with the enemy forces her to keep her relationship under wraps. Who could blame her; during the real-life 1990s, Monica Lewinsky’s life was pretty much destroyed by the abovementioned presidential sex scandal, even though her affair with President Clinton occurred when she was an admittedly naïve 22-year-old intern. In the press, Lewinsky was depicted as a “jezebel” out to snag a powerful man, when the story’s truth was far more complicated.
Keeping with the 1990s theme, women’s relationships — whether well-intentioned or not — wired them to receive blame. During 1994, it’s entirely believable that a woman scientist-astronaut’s dalliance with a hot Russian cosmonaut coming to light would’ve been anathema to pretty much, well, everybody. She would’ve received the brunt of the negative public attention and been painted as a “seductress.” It doesn’t hurt that Kelly’s daddy, veteran Apollo astronaut Ed Baldwin (played increasingly with old man crotchetiness by Joel Kinnaman), would probably kill the guy if he found out. Kelly, too, is a victim of the decade, just as Will is; while they have access to the most remarkable advances technology offers, societal mores conspire to keep their true desires under lock and key.
Women and LGBTQ characters keeping their relationships and true loves under wraps in deference to their careers is a common motif during all three seasons of For All Mankind. But the fictitious 1990s, even with its technological triumphs (Mars, for God’s sake!), prove to be as restrictive as the actual decade. During the 1970s, our parents’ generation believed they solved many of the abovementioned problems, and we saw a more diverse crowd enter STEM (and other previously off-limits) fields. But For All Mankind, as “pretend” as it is, reflects the actual truth of the 1990s: the elder generation believed they solved the problems, so they stopped trying to advance equality further.
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