War of the Worlds as a Reflection for Anxiety
Ostensibly an alien invasion movie, Independence Day is a movie that best exemplifies the gender politics of the 1990s, where feminism scared men into fearing for their masculinity. In the 1990s, Hilary Clinton was vilified, books like The Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right became bestsellers to push traditional gender roles and Robert Bly started the Men’s Movement in order to reclaim masculinity. “We no longer have images of ‘real men,’ Bly says, as the men continue the drum beat. Stereotypical sissies have replaced macho men.” (Faludi, 317) In many ways, Independence Day is the hero’s journey from emasculated sissy, running away from aliens to macho men willing to fight back to regain their masculinity. Genre
The genre of the alien invasion began with H.G. Wells’ book The War of the Worlds, in which Martians invade Earth, destroy many landmarks and are ultimately destroyed by germs. There are many interpretations of War of the Worlds. One of the more interesting ones is that the book is a critique of British Imperialism where the invaders give the earth a taste of their own medicine. In the beginning of the book H.G. Wells’ narrator points out that “in spite of their human likeness [the Tasmanians] were swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants.” (5) In light of the British Imperialism, one should note that one of the major problems that British colonialists faced in distant lands were diseases, which is reflected in the happy ending where the aliens die of the cold.
Wartime produces different interpretations of alien invasions. Orson Welles’ radio play for War of the Worlds took place on October 30, 1938, less than a year before Germany invaded Poland, thereby starting World War II. The possibility of war was increasing throughout the 1930s as Germany built up its military, invaded nations and increased the war rhetoric. The interpretation of War of the Worlds wasn’t as important as the panic that the radio show caused. News stories were increasingly giving the impression that war could begin at any time; a radio show stating that it was happening between humans and aliens hit the zeitgeist.
In the 1950s, there were several movies about aliens invading the earth and causing war. Since America was in a post-war prosperity and settling into a Cold War, the alien invasion movies would be very positive. The 1950s War of the Worlds saw many landmarks being destroyed and the nuclear bomb being deployed. It ends with the disease killing all the ships in the last moment before the end. The positivism of the time is reflected in the contemporary review of the film: “Does our side win despite these odds? Of course. But it would be unfair, even to a Martian, to divulge the climax.” (A.W.)
By contrast, Spielberg’s adaptation of War of the Worlds doubled as a post-9/11 therapy with the civilian viewpoint being emphasized. Many of the images of 9/11 were transposed to the movie including dead bodies, missing person notices and mountains of ash. Spielberg purposefully skewed away from alien invasion tropes like generals sitting around tables discussing strategy and landmarks being destroyed. Cloverfield took the alien invasion trope to even more claustrophobic extremes by following four friends through Manhattan as they try to figure out what’s going on and survive.
The discourse of the 90s was not always as blatantly sexist as the following passage from a rightwing blog: “Today, nearly 60 percent of the students enrolled at U.S. colleges are women. And of course it has become much more difficult for men to find good jobs. In fact, less than 65 percent of all men have a job right now” (Snyder). However, that contingent of worry over the amount of women in colleges and working careers was endemic to the culture, even among people who did not overtly worry about men losing their control. When Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1995, one of the major news stories began: “The mother of incoming House speaker Newt Gingrich said in a television interview that her son thinks first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is ‘a bitch.’” (Reuters)
Even as women were making strides, there was a serious hostility towards feminism. Susan Faludi’s book Backlash was published in the same era as Camille Paglia’s Sexual Persona, which made many sales from the author’s personality and eagerness to fight with feminists. There were many movies that reflected this fear of emasculation including Disclosure, The Big Lebowski and Fight Club, where the heroes needed to regain their manhood. Independence Day Emasculation
Independence Day begins with several male characters in various stages of emasculation. Jeff Goldblum is introduced as an MIT graduate who is caught in a dead end job in a cable company. His co-worker is played by Harvey Keitel who is a flaming homosexual, which is the quintessential sissy character. When the aliens show up over several major cities, the president of the United States only acts because he is warned by Constance Spano, a woman that serves as a functionary between Jeff Goldblum’s emasculated genius and Bill T. Pullman’s emasculated president. Will Smith is the only outright masculine character and yet his girlfriend is an exotic dancer which means that he is not the only man that gets to see her naked. He also trips over toys as he’s walking out of the house.
Once the aliens attack, the movie becomes downright Freudian as the alien spaceships open up in flower like configurations above tall towers including the tallest skyscraper in Los Angeles and the Empire State Building. As the flowery spaceships open up like vaginas, they release an energy that destroys the phallic buildings. Besides the symbolic castration, the destruction scenes also feature the death of Harvey Keitel’s sissy character, a dog that somehow manages to outrun oncoming fire and the president running away on Air Force One as the White House is destroyed. Once Will Smith and Harry Connick jr. try to fight the space ships, they are entirely impervious to attack. The ships will only open for symbolic phalluses in order to destroy them. Other symbolic phalluses will crash against the ships in a vain attempt at getting inside. The only successful attempt to destroy the ships happens when Will Smith lures an attacker into the Grand Canyon, thus reversing the symbols with the earth acting as the killer vagina.
Once the spaceships have thoroughly emasculated the planet, the second act sees the heroes exploring their loss of masculinity. The president discovers that his advisors have been keeping the aliens from him. Once he meets the alien, he attempts to broker a feminine peace treaty with it, only to be rebuffed. He reacts with a speech about fighting and killing them all. Randy Quaid plays a pilot who was anally probed by the aliens. This violation is passed off as a joke and a key to his entire character arc. Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith are both heroic Others whose outsider status allows them to come up with the plot of infecting the alien spaceships with a computer virus. This kind of subterfuge is not necessarily something that more masculine characters would engage in; however, these characters – being Jewish and black – are free to engaging in cunning plans. They are also engaged in the relationship story lines of either reuniting with ex-wives or marrying stripper girlfriends.
The third act is initiated by a presidential speech in which the president claims that they will win a great victory on Independence Day. This plays into the American belief of being the policemen of the world, who maintain all order and stability and successfully repel all nefarious evil doers. In a movie that is decidedly unsubtle, this is the least subtle speech possible. The president has overcome all of his waffling and his feminine beliefs in peace and compromise and has emerged as the warrior that he had once been.
The final fight is a reversal of the destruction at the beginning where phallic aircraft fly up to the spaceship and ejaculate bullets at it. Since the two heroes have installed a virus into the system, the small phallic symbols are capable of doing what the large phallic symbols were unable to do at the beginning of the movie and ravish the spaceships. This is the symbolic equivalent of “size doesn’t matter” and “it’s the motion of the ocean, not the size of the both.” The final victory comes when Randy Quaid symbolically rapes the spaceship by yelling “Up yours, asshole,” (or up your asshole) and thus announcing his victory over the vagina, even at the loss of his own life. In the final montage, the crashed spaceships are shown throughout the planet including a ship that is in the background of spear waving Africans. This part is particularly egregious since the Africans have no technology to destroy the spaceship beyond their spears. Presumably they waved their sharp phallic objects at the spaceship (vaginal symbol) and it fell down from pure fear.
Thus the journey has been made whereby castration and emasculation has been imposed upon the men and they have responded by regaining their manhood through symbolic sexual violence. In the weltanschauung of Independence Day, masculinity is a zero sum game where manhood must be protected at all costs, lest the feminine – depicted as evil alien beings – is allowed to destroy it through independence, domination and emasculation.
A.W. “The Screen in Review: New Martian Invasion is seen in War of the Worlds which bows at Mayfair.” The New York Times. Movie Review. August 14, 1953. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1953/08/14/archives/the-screen-in-review-new-martian-invasion-is-seen-in-war-of-the.html
Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Broadway Books. 2006.
Reuters. “What Newt Called Hillary Clinton.” SFGate. January 4, 1995. Retrieved from https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/What-Newt-Called-Hillary-Clinton-In-interview-3049641.php
Snyder, Michael. ”32 Facts that show how Men are being Systematically Emasculated in America Today.” The Economic Collapse. Retrieved from http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/32-Facts-That-Show-How-Men-Are-Being-Systematically-Emasculated-In-America-Today.png
Wells, H.G. The War of the Worlds. 1898. New York: Tom Doherty Associate Books. 1988.
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