Tuesday, February 3, 2015

UNEXPECTEDLY FEMINIST HORROR FILMS: JOHN CARPENTER'S 'THE THING' (1982)

John Carpenter arguably created his masterpiece with THE THING. Although it remains within the science fiction subgenre, THE THING also falls within the same realm as a monster movie or a body-horror film. Considering the main antagonist of THE THING, is non-human and the rest of the characters are male, many people forget that THE THING is also a great example of feminism.  By definition, feminism the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.  Emphasis on EQUALITY.  The patriarchy (or a male-dominated society) doesn't just hurt women, it hurts men.  John Carpenter's THE THING is an excellent film to analyze masculinity in a patriarchal society.

The story of John Carpenter's THE THING follows a group of Americans studying in the Arctic tundra that come across a group of Norwegian soldiers chasing after a dog.  After the Norwegian helicopter traveling to destroy the dog explodes, the Americans take the dog as their own without any explanation as to why the Norwegian’s were chasing the dog in the first place.  Shortly after, the Americans investigate the Norwegian’s base camp only to discover the mutated remains of what appears to be two individuals.  Simultaneously, the dog they have brought to their camp mutates, attacks the other dogs, and attacks the crew coming to destroy it.  The Americans find themselves in the midst of an invasion from an alien capable of imitating other life forms and attacking anything that attempts to stop it.

The men in THE THING can safely be assumed to be very masculine characters.  As many of them are soldiers or working for the military, their livelihoods alone give the impression that all of these men would identify as masculine.  However, not all of the men in John Carpenter’s THE THING are completely devoid of feminine qualities.  In the original screenplay, Bill Lancaster’s character descriptions note that many of the male characters aren’t completely alpha-males.  An alpha-male is defined as the individual in the community with the highest rank.  In order for there to be a hierarchy, there must be a system of classification. For instance, the character Blair is described as “sensitive”, Palmer is said to have “slight sixties acid damage” and Norris is suffering from “an incipient heart condition”.  With Lancaster choosing to showcase these men as imperfect and vulnerable, it allowed for a ranking system.  To contrast from the vulnerable men, the character Childs was described as “Six-Four. Two-fifty. Black. A mechanic. Can be jolly. But don’t mess.”  These words clearly showcase Childs as the epitome of an alpha-male character, leading the audience to immediately associate him as a leader, and a force to be reckoned with.

RJ MacReady, the undisputed leader of the film is originally seen isolated from the rest of the group in a shack.  This action shows that MacReady is the lone wolf separating him from the rest of the pack, establishing his dominance through distance.  Speaking ethnologically, alphas may achieve their status by means of superior physical prowess and/or by way of social efforts and building alliances within the group.  This sort of classification would lead Childs towards being the alpha-male, but as MacReady doesn’t follow through the traditional norms, it allows him the potential for achieving alpha-male status.  At this point of the film, the exposition alone has already set a hierarchy that would normally remain unchallenged if it were not for the intrusion of the “thing”.  The male community remains unfazed after interacting with the Norwegians, as the American male community was associating with a Norwegian male community.  This further emphasizes the sociological definition that masculinity is not barred by cultural differences.  The men are comfortably living in their hierarchical stasis with no real need to try and change their positions.  Once the “thing” is presented into their environment, the hierarchical positions begin to change drastically.  As previously stated, many times alpha-males will attempt to gain status by violent means.  The question remains, why would the “thing” act as such an impacting variable?  If masculinity is a direct response to femininity, and the struggle for alpha-male status is a power struggle for men when their positions are questioned, it would only be assumed that the “thing” is of a female species.  The male gender is a control in this environment, and only violent responses in an attempt to gain alpha-male status occurs once the presence of a female is known.  At the very beginning of the film, the first sign of aggression shown in the film is from MacReady, after he loses a game of digital chess, voiced by a woman.

The alien “thing” is a shape-shifting creature capable of absorbing the body and creating a perfect imitation of whatever it has absorbed.  This is clearly an attempt to showcase the idea that women are a constant threat to the male status quo.  Women can "absorb" an aspect of a male, and produce a similar life force.  Simply put, it's a giant metaphor for childbirth.  Without this invasion from the female alien, the men at the camp would be living in nothing more than a monotonous lifestyle in the frozen tundra.  It takes a woman to threaten the very livelihood of these men and cause a rift into their common activities.  As the men struggle to determine who remains human and who is nothing more than an alien imitation, violence is used almost as a currency.  For example, when MacReady is accused of being the “thing”, he secludes himself (yet again) in a room filled with explosive devices and a brightly lit flame.  He threatens to blow up the entire base camp if anyone tries to kill him or hurt him.  MacReady is not only defending his status as a human, but also maintaining his role as alpha-male by use of ultimate force.  The threat of extreme action through violence is enough to force the rest of the men to accept defeat, and back down.  In a patriarchal society, brawn is almost always valued higher than brains, which keeps MacReady at the top of the totem pole, and the rest scrambling to align themselves under his leadership.
Once MacReady has gained control of the men and established himself as the alpha-male, it is only a matter of time before the rest of the men begin to battle for higher power positions.  In the infamous “blood test” scene, MacReady has tied all of the men to a couch and has taken samples of their blood, to which he will apply heat in an attempt to force a reaction from the “thing”.  The character Clark resists and tries to use violence to take down MacReady, only to be shot and killed in defense by MacReady.   With his authority established over the other male characters, MacReady then asserts his male authority over the female “thing.”  Before testing the blood he says, “When a man bleeds, it’s just tissue; but blood from one of you things won’t obey.”  This statement can be argued as MacReady drawing a parallel to the menstrual cycle of a woman, in that women are able to bleed consistently for days at a time while menstruating without dying.  To put it simply, the blood doesn’t obey the “laws” of nature.  This female alien is showing its variability with its blood, forcing the hostile response of the male counterparts.  While the remaining men sit on the couch, they begin to use different tactics to assert their masculinity in the hopes that MacReady will release them.  Childs uses a guilt tactic by calling MacReady a murderer, in a sense, emasculating him by pointing out his inability to use reasoning behind his actions.  Alas, his efforts are useless as MacReady fails to remove any of the men unless their blood is proven to be "right."  Again, his ability to withstand ridicule keeps him in the powerful male position.
Towards the end of the film, the final battle between MacReady and the alien occurs.  Once the alien transformation of Blair rises from the ground, as if being “birthed” by Mother Nature, MacReady fights back with a phallic object, a stick of dynamite, to destroy the beast.  His overtly masculine role is confirmed by this action, showcasing that his successful means to destroy a female creature, was by inserting something in her that resembled the male genitalia. Throughout the film, the assertion of male dominance between the characters is done through violent measures.  In a constant battle for alpha-male status only to be taken by MacReady, John Carpenter’s THE THING delivers a startling look at the way men behave when within the confines of other men, and the struggle for power between men in a patriarchal society during times of crises in response to a threat of a feminine nature.  Examining the expected gender roles of men and the disastrous results it causes makes THE THING an unexpectedly feminist movie.  Had both the men and the female "thing" been presented as equals, we wouldn't have had a conflict...or a movie.

6 comment(s):

Brennan said...

I'm not sure I'm personally sold on the entirety of this analysis, but you've clearly thought out your side thoroughly and I respect your work. Positive comment power!

I know things suck sometimes, even a lot of the time. But your blog doesn't. And please don't ever feel disheartened by the terrible people. They might seem more prevalent but they just shout louder than the rest.

Joe said...

I second Brennan's comment & this is why I like reading movie reviews and commentary -- the good ones look beyond the basics for some good insight.

Al Bruno III said...

Excellent!

Wendell Ottley said...

Wow. What an amazing read. Not sure I agree with everything here, but you certainly have given me plenty of food for thought. This definitely makes me reevaluate the movie. Love that.

Stacy Livitsanis said...

Fascinating and amusing, in a good way. I've seen The Thing many, many times but never thought about it in these terms. Your analysis was invigorating reading, and makes me want to watch it again with these ideas in mind. I wonder how a film with an all-female cast would play out with a similar set-up? (If any film like that has been made and I just don't know about it, someone please tell me!)

Adrian Horrocks said...

Very interesting, really great stuff, although I thought there was a lot more still to say. The scene where the mouth appears in the man's stomach, and then bites the Doctor's hands off, seems like an obvious example of the Thing's aggressive femininity, corrupting a man with a vagina dentata. The influence of Alien, and the birth metaphors in that film, are also worth a mention.

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