Masculinity in Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema
Cyborgs, Troopers and Other Men of the Future
Library of Gender and Popular Culture, vol. 2
London: I.B. Tauris, 2018
Hardcover. x + 246 pages. ISBN 978-1780767482. £69
Reviewed by Sébastien Lefait
Université Paris 8
After reading this thought-provoking, innovative and stimulating book, I realised how much I would have lost had I not gone past its title. Looking back, the book’s only problem is indeed its title, which does not pay fair tribute to the work’s content. Indeed, Marianne Kac-Vergne’s study offers a lot more than the analysis of masculinity in contemporary science-fiction advertised on the first page. In fact, the study all but limits itself to the topic of masculinity in science-fiction (had it been the case, the book could have seemed a rehash). Nor does it limit its scope to soldiers, cyborgs, or men of the future, as the subtitle indicates—in order to offer a teaser addressed to the general public rather than to an academic readership? Finally, the “contemporary” in the title does in fact start at the beginning of the eighties, with films such as Blade Runner (1982), The Fly (1986), Predator (1987), or The Terminator (1984).
The topics covered exceed by far what the title announces. Where the volume’s designation suggests it merely offers descriptive analyses of character-types in science-fiction films, the book stands out for the way it goes beyond past studies on similar topics. Most studies of the same type and/or on similar themes are devoted to depicting overbearing supermen, trans-humanist or man-machine hybrids. Unlike her scholarly predecessors, Marianne Kac-Vergne delves into the way cyborgs and hypermasculine figures interact with other character-types. More importantly, she also offers a diachronic study of the cultural evolution she describes. The evolution under scrutiny is in keeping with that of American politics, or with that some would call the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the times. In fact, this extremely well-written book, which is based on a huge fund of primary material (the corpus counts no less than 34 films, with an extra 46 films in the secondary corpus), is a very valuable contribution to both the field of film studies and to that of American cultural studies. Marianne Kac-Vergne distinguishes herself by developing and implementing a methodology for analysing popular culture that enables her to draw innovative conclusions from the films analysed in her study. Crucially, the book takes account of the way the films are necessarily embedded in cultural, social, historical and political contexts. In this respect, the methodology that is used here may be as important as the subject matter itself. The book’s innovative methodology serves to demonstrate the weight of cultural productions. It also manages to confirm that they are worth studying not just for themselves, but also because there is a lot more to learn from their study than may at first seem.
First and foremost, Marianne Kac-Vergne’s diachronic approach is pioneering for the way it depicts how representations of masculinity have evolved from the eighties until today. Such a research perspective purports to systematically account for observable changes at the level of representations by delving into various contexts. The richness of the approach is correlated to what the term “context” encompasses here, from the political to the social, and from the cultural to the ideological. As a result, the book goes very far beyond accumulating masculine vignettes, as its title seems to advertise. On the contrary, Marianne Kac-Vergne addresses in its full scope, and by using a full array of methodological tools, the ins and outs of proverbially hegemonic masculinity, all the while paying attention to the way it has morphed over time, be it ever so slightly, as it swayed under the weight of widespread ideological trends and political and/or social change. The causes of changing representations of masculinity are particularly well identified and analysed, which is where the author goes beyond the work of scholars who previously wrote on similar topics, such as Brian Baker (2006; 2015), Barry Keith Grant (2011) or, more recently, Rocío Carrasco Carrasco (2018).
Moreover, as the author explains very convincingly in her introduction after establishing the theoretical and methodological background of the study, the point is not to consider masculinity in and of itself, but to see it as a dynamic notion that is necessarily defined and redefined as it becomes entangled with other notions that are no less fundamental. Those complementary key concepts are all studied in the book alongside the overarching issue of hyper-masculinity. Indeed, Marianne Kac-Vergne devotes stimulating pages to explain how masculinity means nothing if it does not interact with femininity, class, racial identity, among other topics.
Masculinity, so the study proves, appears to be flexing under the weight of external parameters that play such a huge role in fashioning it as to seem to form part of the concept of masculinity itself. In chapter 1, “Vulnerable Hypermasculinity”, hypermasculinity is presented as exposed, in an apparent oxymoron that in fact structures a critical perspective. In chapter 2, “Dystopia and Class War”, the dystopian aspect of science-fiction comes under study, as the urban decay of dystopia places masculinity in the context of class warfare, where inhuman elites confront marginalised heroes. The aim of the dichotomy is to defuse class warfare through film. Chapter 3, “Sidelining Women”, resorts to a contrapuntal perspective by emphasising how the flipside of hypermasculinity has for a long time been the sidelining of women, with female characters being treated as sidekicks or marginalised onlookers, despite fleeting moments of (illusory) empowerment. Chapter 4, “‘White Folks Ain’t Planning for Us to Be Here’”, brings in key elements of intersectionality by adding the race angle to the problem of hypermasculinity in science-fiction, to show that in many cases, intersectionality is little more than a screen used to promote masculinity through interracial alliances. The case of the Will Smith persona is treated through its uniqueness, to provide a very convincing illustration of the chapter’s main argument. Chapter 5, “Redefining Masculinity in Times of ‘Crisis’”, shows that masculinity has traditionally been redefined in chaotic periods of time, especially during the 1990s, when a different model was produced with passive heroes, some of whom sought refuge with strong women, while others turned to fatherhood. In the end, the dangers of hypermasculinity were thus foregrounded, but also sometimes reinforced, even though less explicitly than in the previous decade, through the presentation of the patriarchal pattern as the ultimate guarantee of stability.
Kac-Vergne’s clever analytical angle is so productive in subtle, well-phrased conclusions that the reader is bound to finally assess and acknowledge the key importance of mainstream film representations, and particularly of the minor or major changes to which they are submitted. In the same way, the book helps realise how mainstream those productions are in a global media context, with a direct effect on their potential impact and influence. When, for instance, the hard bodies of eighties science-fiction become more feminine, or endorse some features attached to the representation of the working class, or when they fall under the gaze of a female maternal character that turns them into human beings again, or when diversity on screen is superimposed upon masculine representations, or finally when intelligence proves its worth over strength, it becomes obvious that the book is far from dealing only with epi-phenomena.
The book’s epilogue, which is also its conclusion, is the best possible testimony of the potential results of further research that would resort to similar methodology. The afterword, entitled “The Gender Politics of Science-Fiction Blockbusters”, brings additional evidence that the back-and-forth study of film representations and their social / historical context yields convincing observations of facts, events and culture. In many ways, it does so even more convincingly than the conclusions featured at the end of each chapter. Indeed, the epilogue / conclusion introduces the question of strong female characters to round up the author’s study of questions of hyper-masculinity, as understood in the widest possible sense. This is far from being off the point. Quite the contrary, in fact, since the strong female characters dealt with in the concluding chapter of the book, some of whom have already been addressed earlier in the volume, are now considered as the plausible cause of the resentment felt by a share of American citizens and voters that, whether male or female, is likely to convey white supremacist, reactionary and male chauvinist ideology. In one of the book’s brilliant final arguments, strong female characters on screen appear to have displeased or even annoyed potential Trump voters, perhaps even to such an extent as to prompt them to use the ballot where the said female characters use the bullet. Trump’s election thus appears to be, among other potential attributes, a revenge on “Hollywood liberal” representations with which some voters took offence.
With a book that is far more topical than may seem, then, Marianne Kac-Vergne reminds her readers in the most consistent way that there is a thin line between film and political representation. In addition, there is one short step from science-fiction to fact, as new cinematic depictions, if used as warnings in the progressive context of science-fiction film, may have the opposite impact to that apparently sought for, when they lead to the election of a president who conceals neither his sexist opinions nor his racist ideology.
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