Harper is aware of that and one can easily justify some of his more imaginative choices, such as having one of the characters dramatically scale the frozen exterior of the hydrogen balloon to release an escape valve, something that never happened in real life.
But more significantly, the film makes a radical departure from the historical record: a gender swap. Glaisher is still around, played by an anxious and way-too-young Redmayne (Glaisher was 52 when the ascent happened). But Coxwell is replaced by Amelia Wren, a charismatic, acrobatic aeronaut played by Jones. While there is no cliched romantic entanglement between the two, they do fall into the facile archetypes of the bookish male scientist and the free-spirited artistic woman. Far more importantly, turning one of the men in this real story into a woman makes light of the very real structural inequality that pervaded the world of science in the past and that continues today.
Women did play a role in the 19th-century world of aeronautics. The French Montgolfier brothers invented the balloon in 1783 (or, at the very least, they were the first to make a public demonstration of the technology), and initially men dominated the art of ballooning. But things started changing in the early 1800s, and from 1803 to 1848, 20 of the 50 professional aeronauts entering the scene were women.
Much like the circus, ballooning became a family affair — the business of dynasties. This fusion of family and profession enabled aeronauts to pursue an itinerant lifestyle while maintaining their family structures and to protect their savoir faire to pass it on to both men and women in their families. Some of the most famous aeronauts during this period were women: Margaret Graham, Jeanne and Élisa Garnerin, Louise Poitevin and Sophie Blanchard. They traveled around Europe with their husbands making all kinds of spectacular ascents.
Graham was the first British woman to make a solo flight, the Garnerins became famous for their parachuting antics, Poitevin and her husband made a name for themselves with animal ascents and Blanchard was fond of releasing fireworks from high altitudes. Harper claims that Amelia Wren is a composite character that draws from these early pioneers, especially Blanchard, who, like Wren, became a widow after her husband died in 1809 from injuries sustained from a fall caused by a heart attack during a flight.
But there is a problem with “The Aeronauts.”
The movie takes place in the 1860s when ballooning was undergoing a critical shift. If for much of the 19th century scientific institutions like the Royal Society shunned the balloon as an artifact for the vulgar entertainment of unruly crowds, less elitist organizations like the British Association for the Advancement of Science had begun to believe that the technology could actually be useful to contribute to the emerging field of meteorological science. As Jennifer Tucker has convincingly explained, Glaisher’s major struggle was to “legitimate the balloon as a ‘philosophical instrument’ for field work in the new science of the Earth’s atmosphere.” And Harper’s movie faithfully reproduces this effort, using it to provide drama.
But this push to make ballooning scientific also required making it gendered. And this is where “The Aeronauts” runs amok.
Scientific pursuits in the 19th century, especially those involving exploration, were understood as the prerogative of white men. The suffering required by scientific exploration — guided by Victorian values of self-discipline and hard work — was historically considered to be the privilege of those who were understood to have a free willful self, therefore excluding women and people of color. This was especially the case during Glaisher’s time, when the sciences were beginning to professionalize to establish their legitimacy as independent fields of authority.
That meant that for ballooning to become seen as a scientific endeavor, it needed to be male. As such, aeronauts specifically constructed an identity for their craft as disciplined and skilled that was in opposition to the imagined traits of women.
As a French military aeronaut put it as late as 1905, women did not make ascents because the “native timidity that increases with the kind of education they receive while piously protected under the maternal wing did not predispose them to taking bold initiatives.” He also speculated that their “nervous system” could not deal with the excitement.
This history means that Glaisher would have never been caught in a gondola with a woman, since, as it were, he already had enough trouble legitimizing ballooning as a scientific practice. Though women were central to the rise of ballooning, when it made the critical shift to legitimate science they were eliminated — at least in the most visible, prominent roles.
Women actually remained involved in ballooning, but mainly behind the scenes. The construction of a balloon was no easy task. It required agile hands to sew together the envelope, which at its highest quality was made of silk, an expensive and mercurial fabric. In Paris, the then-ballooning capital of the world, that task was allocated to talented women who constituted spillover labor from the city’s thriving clothing industry. To Harper’s credit, we see a brief glimpse of this labor.
At the turn of the 20th century, women cannily worked their way to more prominence in aeronautic pursuits and made record-breaking ascents of their own. However, they remained marginalized from the scientific committees in the newly formed Aero Clubs, whose leaders conceived of female participation serving a supporting role in the hopes that feminine social skills and maternal instincts would help cultivate a new generation of male aeronauts. In short, they were critical in matters of organization but excluded from positions of leadership — a pattern that is all too familiar.
Harper has justified the decision to transform Henry Coxwell into Amelia Wren as a political act of representation. As he told Time magazine: “I think we need more strong, brilliant, interesting female characters. And science, like the film industry, has long been subject to gender bias. We need to be active in our pursuit to redress that.”
And Harper is right about this. But the quality and accuracy of that representation is just as important. Harper’s decision to transform Coxwell into Wren is well-intentioned (and, with Jones taking on the role, financially savvy), but it also risks erasing the complex structural forces that prevented a character like her from existing in real life in the first place. The modern sciences were built on exclusionary mechanisms that could not be breached by a plucky disposition and a “lean-in” attitude. Obscuring that makes it harder to tackle the very real gender gap that remains in STEM today. We can only reform the exclusionary, gendered culture by understanding its roots and their legacy.