The Flesh Turned Inside-Out: The Abjection of Interior Masculinity Made Visible in The Fly (1986)
David Cronenberg is known to be one of the pioneers of the body horror genre, which typically evokes horror through the grotesque transformation and transgression of the human body. In The Fly (1986), the grotesque transformation of Seth Brundle’s male body serves as the site of abjection. This essay would borrow on Kristeva’s conception of abjection as the threatened breakdown of meaning caused by the disintegration of borders between subject and object or between self and other, and Creed’s conception of male monstrosity, to discuss the borders broken down in the male body, and to contend that male monstrosity arises from the feminisation of the male body.
The Fly details the transformation of Seth Brundle into a hybrid fly-man, after an accidental fusion with a fly. His transformation is witnessed by his girlfriend and reporter Veronica Quaife, and her ex-boyfriend Stathis Borans. The transformation of Seth is marked by his increased exhibition of ‘fly-like’ characteristics. By the end of the film, Brundlefly attempts to fuse with Ronnie, but Stathis rescues Ronnie. Brundlefly is fused with the machine, and killed by Ronnie out of pity.
Barbara Creed draws on Kristeva in discussing abjection in relation to the male body. The abject is recognised by the clear definition of the borders: “The abject exists on the other side of a border which separates out the subject from all that threatens its existence.” (Creed 122). For Creed, the border distinctly separates between the dichotomies of human/beast, male/female, or “between the body which is clean and proper and the body which is aligned with nature and abject wastes” (122). The feminine, maternal body lies on the other side of the border, the semiotic realm; the abject body of the feminine lies in “its link with the natural world signified in its lack of “corporeal integrity”: it secretes (blood, milk); it changes size, grows, swells; it gives birth in ‘a violent act of expulsion through which the nascent body tears itself away from the matter of maternal insides’” (Kristeva 101). The boundary of the skin, which should remain “smooth, taut and unblemished”, is violated (Creed 122). Creed thus posits that male monstrosity arises from the encounter with the feminine, within the male body. The border that is transgressed here is that of the male body itself – the feminine maternal repudiates any possibility of distinction, of borders separating inside and outside, for it is both. While Kristeva relates “all experiences of bodily horror” (Creed 122) as the “infant’s experience with the maternal identity” (Creed 122), I would argue that the basis of body horror is the abject that arises from the compromised “corporeal integrity” (Williams 35) separating the interior and exterior of the body: the horror “when the inside turns out, when difference is exposed, and when one slips into the other.” (Williams 35). Hence, the feminisation of Seth’s Brundle’s male body is horrifying in that it prevents the recognition of borders separating and defining him as the pure and proper subject with his distinct male, human, inside/outside, living characteristics, thus reducing him to a “permeable membrane, the membrane here constructed out of the man’s own flesh” (Williams 37).
Brundlefly’s transformation begins in a gradual disintegration of his body, that is marked by growths, swelling, loss of human and male parts. Coarse fly-hairs emerge from the microchip wound on his back, and gradually develop on his face, even as the skin on his face erupt with splotches, sores and lumps. Towards the end of the film, Brundlefly’s complexion is akin to burnt skin with white pus-like substance excreted at its surface. The surface of his skin becomes reddish, crater-like and swollen, while his body expands to the extent that he can no longer wear clothing. His fingers have swollen to bulbous-looking growths. When his teeth drop, he licks his bloodied gums and pouts his lips: his mouth now looks like a gaping reddish hole, a toothless vagina detenta. There is a then full-length body-shot that centres Brundlefly in the frame, emphasizing his entire grotesque body, where he puts his teeth in the bathroom cabinet, the “Brundle museum of natural history”. Here, we get a close-up of organ and body-parts, “a display of the inside on the outside” (Williams 36) – we see the ear and penis which are “boundary organs, partly defining the border” (Williams 37). What is presumed to be left in Seth’s body are “gaping holes” (Williams 37), signifying an exposure of his interior body.
The Fly’s fusion with Seth and its consequent conception of Brundlefly is essentially Seth’s appropriation of the maternal reproductive capacity through the telepods and his impregnation. Going back to the conception of Brundlefly, is to recall “lingering shots of [Seth]’s naked fetal crouch in the transmitter pods and his triumphant naked emergence from the receiver pod… an attempt to give birth to himself” (Robbins 137). Here, we see Seth as both the parent and child of his mating, though the fly remains un-gendered, Brundle’s successful conception nonetheless has rendered the successful appropriation of the maternal reproductive function, thus it “unmans” him (Williams 36).
The film further undoes Brundle’s symbolic masculinity, when Brundle experiences a moment of abjection within, where his body is aligned with nature and abject wastes which he is unable to fully expel. Looking at the mirror, Brundle bites his nails and is shocked when he can pull out the nails to reveal the flesh underneath. Out of curiosity, he presses on his swollen finger, and milky white liquid squirts out, recalling associations with ejaculation. In response, Brundle registers curiosity, gratification of masochism but also shame and disgust. Brundle’s moment of disgust is the experience of his abject, material body, “the shame of compromise” (Kristeva 2) even as it “beseeches, worries and fascinates desire” (Kristeva 1). Helen Robbins reads the image as suggestive of the two “the two furtive adolescent rites of masturbation and pimple squeezing” (140); while I can see the visual associations, Brundle’s anxiety that arises from the experience runs much deeper – he begins to question the materiality of his flesh and mortality: “What’s happening to me? Am I dying? Is this how it starts? Am I dying?” He asks this aloud after he easily peels the second fingernail off, and his fingers drip continuously with sickly white-pus. This is Brundle’s first experience of his body disintegration, his body expelling itself. To encapsulate his existential fear, it is the experience of dying and its abject condition: “The ultimate in abjection is the corpse. The body expels its waste so that it might continue to live… The corpse is the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled” (Kristeva 3-4). Defilement persists in its lack of recognition of borders separating waste and food. Food loathing, “spasms and vomiting protect” (Kristeva 2), but Brundlefly is no longer unable to distinguish between clean and proper food, against abject body fluids, which are expelled and not to be re-consumed. Instead, he now eats by vomiting a stream of corrosive enzyme onto the food, the externalisation of digestion, that in its proper form is internally contained. When Ronnie responds with shock and disgust, Brundle remembers shamefully, “Oh that’s… that’s disgusting”, but it is already for him a habitual way of eating.
Brundlefly’s successful conception is one that is horrifying in its similarity to feminine pregnancy and its abject associations. Kristeva describes pregnancy as such: “Cells fuse, split, and proliferate; volumes grow, tissues stretch…Within the body, growing as a graft, indomitable, there is an other… It happens but I’m not there” (303). All too similarly, Seth does not realise his fusion with the fly until he experiences unwelcome body changes, prompting him to check the computer’s teleportation sequence. The monitor displays the constituent parts of the teleported subject to show that a “secondary element” that is “not-Brundle”. The analysis of the secondary element zooms out from a molecular level to reveal a housefly – Seth in a state of disbelieving recognition, “looks at the computer’s graphic presentation of his own essential innermost self and sees something horrific and alien. He himself is Other at the most primary integral level.” (Beard 216). Here, we grasp the true body horror of Brundlefly, that the Other has completely defiled the proper and clean Self, for the self is not inseparable from what is impure – the horror at the loss of these borders hence giving rise to the abject self. The loss of internal integrity is also what negates the body’s ability to reject the impurity. For Seth, the horror of his impurity lies in the impossibility to define himself, as he tells Ronnie: “Every day there are changes.
Every time I look in the mirror, I’m someone different, repulsive. I’m not Seth Brundle anymore.” Brundle experiences an encapsulating alienation from his body; what exacerbates the fear is that even Brundle’s new state as Brundlefly is not stable and complete, but is instead an endless metamorphosis towards the fly. The constant transformation of his body and loss of control is also one that recalls the pregnant body.
Brundlefly’s body serves as an interim pregnancy, whose body gestates the fly until it emerges, fully developed, shedding the remnants of Seth’s body and skin. Brundlefly’s final transformation parallels the act of parturition with its abject associations of a “violent, clumsy breaking away” (Kristeva 13). The full-Brundlefly emerges: “shedding skin and revealing even more horrifically, the exoskeletal insect within” (Beard 227), completely shedding any recognisable human markers of Seth, “of our Seth, of his own Seth, there is no trace remaining” (Beard 219). Finally, the internal monstrosity of Brundlefly is exteriorised, for the lack of exteriority or borders separating both. Ultimately, as depicted by Cronenberg, the breakdown of borders defining and separating the whole and pure male body results in the feminisation of Seth Brundle’s symbolic male body in The Fly.
Beard, William. The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. Toronto University Press. 2001.
Creed, Barbara. “Dark Desires: Male Masochism in the Horror Film” Screening The Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, eds. Routledge, 1993.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. Routledge, 1993.
—. “Stabat Mater” The Kristeva Reader. Edited by Toril Moi. Blackwell, 1991.
Robbins, Helen W. “More Human Than I am Alone: Womb Envy in David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Dead Rangers.” Screening The Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, eds. Routledge, 1993.
The Fly. Directed by David Cronenberg, performances by Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz, 20th Century Fox, 1986.
Williams, Ruth Linda. “The Inside-out of Masculinity: David Cronenberg’s Visceral Pleasures”. The Body’s Perilous Pleasures: Dangerous Desires and Contemporary Culture, edited by Michael Aaron. Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
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