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Independence Day and the Renationalization of America

Despite the rantings of right-wing talk show hosts, most Republicans are unable to differentiate their own policies from those of the Clinton administration.
Scott Thill

Issue #31, March 1997

Mandrake: Tell me Jack, when did you first develop this, this [theory of fluoridation]?
Ripper: Well, I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love. Yes, a, a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily, I was able to interpret these feelings correctly: Loss of essence. Women sense my power and they seek the life-essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence. — Dr Strangelove

These are strange times in American politics. Government is dominated by politicians who pragmatically opt for the middle of the road, while talking tough about their opponents. Despite the rantings of right-wing talk show hosts, most Republicans are unable to differentiate their own policies from those of the Clinton administration. In fact, during the 1996 election campaign, one of the biggest complaints Republican lawmakers lodged against Clinton was that he was running on a Republican platform. If you look at the insider politics of Washington D.C., you would have to conclude that there is a lot of consensus about the nation's problems and potential. However, if you only look at Washington, you will overlook the political tensions dividing the United States. And you will be unable to explain why attacks on the Clinton presidency and Congress have been so extreme. The United States has reached a point of critical mass where the hegemony of the straight male, his power to rule without question, is under serious cultural and legislative attack from all sides. The intensity of the backlash against this attack on the hegemony of the straight male is a tribute to the attack's significance.

This is the political climate in which Americans find themselves. Affirmative action is slowly being dismantled; sexual politics have reached a boiling point with the public debate over issues like rape and harassment that were kept under the table (and in the military, of all places!); the subalterns are speaking (like it or not) all over the world, especially in the Middle East; drugs are becoming, gasp!, legal (our own president has inhaled); homosexuals want to be recognized as legally married; a million black men march into the capital to listen to an anti-semite (who also had an alleged hand in the murder of one of his own, Malcolm X); the list goes on and on. This is a period in American history when the repressed remainder of American imperialism creeps back into the sociopolitical discourse demanding to be heard and seen. Not everyone is happy about this, particularly those straight white males who enjoyed the privilege of unquestioned power.

The 1996 film Independence Day (also known as ID4) reveals a great deal about this conflict between the old and the new. Heavily hyped, it became the most successful blockbuster of the summer season, a summer in which the build-up to the American presidential elections dominated the news. I will argue in this article that the film advocates the remasculinization of the United States by high-tech weaponry against an enemy which it regards as a destructive feminizing (and feminist) force. But before I go into greater detail about the film itself, I need to talk about the cultural context from which it emerged. In her seminal book Hard Bodies, cultural critic Susan Jeffords offers a thorough examination of Reagan-era cinematic masculinity. Although the Clinton era is different from the Reagan and Bush eras in important ways, her comments about masculinity are every bit an illuminating about Independence Day as they are about a film like Rambo. In fact, it makes sense to read Independence Day as a return to the sort of Reagan-era filmmaking that Jeffords analyzes. Her argument is based on a fundamental opposition between what she calls "soft" and "hard" bodies. In unravelling the stereotypes that underpin this opposition, she writes that the "soft" body is an "errant body containing sexually transmitted diseases, immorality, illegal chemicals, "laziness," and endangered fetuses." The "hard" body, by contrast, is "the normative body that enveloped strength, labor determination, loyalty and courage," the body that came to be "the emblem of the Reagan philosophies, politics and economies." Jeffords goes on to add that "in this system of thought marked by race and gender, the soft body invariably belonged to the female and/or a person of color, whereas the hard body was, like Reagan' own, male and white."

Independence Day is a film about restoring the "male essence" Ripper talks about in Dr. Strangelove. Like many of the action films of the Reagan era, it is a throwback to a time when men knew it was important to make war, not love. What is so startling about Independence Day is its refusal to glorify the sensitive male. In fact, as far as Independence Day is concerned, a sensitive male is still a boy. The film's narrative centers on the transformation of well-meaning, mild-mannered "boys" into hard-bodied American heroes. How is this transformation brought about? It is directly linked to the destruction or demotion of various feminizing agents in the film. This is Independence Day's figurative solution to the problems facing a United States that has "gone soft."

It's a (Wo)Man's World

Boys, of course, are dependent on their mothers. The "independence" to which the film's title refers is what boys get when they turn in to men. The movie thematically structures itself around the denigration of American masculinity. July 2, the day the aliens arrive, offers the audience a panoply of feminized males-President Whitmore, David Levinson, Stevie Hiller, Russell Case and Stevie's father-and the women-dead or alive-who influence them, the First Lady, Connie Levinson, Jasmine, and the absent wives of Russell and Stevie's father. Prefacing the threat from the sky, then, is the rampant femininity on Earth, which is interrupted by various shots of traditional American icons, most of which are either explicitly phallic or associated with bastions of male power. The Iwo Jima Memorial is a particularly illuminating example, because it commemorates an American victory over a particularly "un-American" power, Japan, with a sculpture of American servicemen patriotically and firmly penetrating foreign soil with a flagpole. As the aliens begin to darken the landscape, these icons — the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building — are compromised or outright destroyed. This film shows us the threat to an American nationhood inextricably bound up with masculinity, then deploys what I call "phallopatriotic" imagery to rally our support for the war against the alien invaders.

The film's opening sequence give a perfect example of how this works. It starts with a shot of the moon. A firmly planted American flag reminds us of its rightful owners. We then see a plaque stating "We the Men of Planet Earth" who "Came in Peace for all Mankind" (my emphases). After this comes, in a shot ripped straight out of the beginning of Star Wars, the mothership's penumbra engulfing the moonbound monument, foreshadowing the imminent threat approaching the masculine certainty of American civilization. Indeed, in the very next scene, in which the invaders sonic traces are intercepted, a S.E.T.I honcho who's awakened by his stereotypical Asian science geek underling, warns, "If this isn't an insanely beautiful woman, I'm hanging up." He is more accurate than he could imagine. The scene cuts back to S.E.T.I. where a decontextualized, pornographic "Come on, baby, come on, baby" suspiciously wafts in from the only woman in the room. The audience is never told what exactly she's doing so her words hang there without meaning. Once again, the phallopatriotic Iwo Jima memorial bookends both this overtly sexual close encounter and the introduction of the soft American President Whitmore (played by Bill Pullman), whose transformation, like other similarly feminized males, into Jeffords' emblematic hard body becomes the dominant trajectory of the movie.

One can better understand President Whitmore's administration if one considers the assessments of the last soft commander-in-chief, Jimmy Carter that Jeffords describes. She writes that "Reagan's public relations workers" characterized the Carter era as "weakened-some even said 'feminine' years," in which "the United States government was brought to a standstill by a Third World nation." By contrast, Reagan was portrayed as the type of leader who would transform the United States back into the kind of nation "capable of confronting enemies rather than submitting to them, of battling 'evil empires' rather than allowing them to flourish, of using its hardened body-its renewed techno-military network-to impose its will on others rather than allow itself to be dictated to." The Whitmore administration in the movie is strikingly to similar to this estimation of the Carter Administration: once a tough flyboy (like Dole) himself, the comparatively young (like Clinton) president finds himself in a position where it is not always easy to know, as it was in the Gulf War in which he fought, "what to do." He has become, like Clinton, a nineties figurehead who defers some of his authority to women, in his personal life and his appointments, to the horror of the American people. This activity leads to an assessment of Whitmore, confirmed by the media (represented here by the inane McLaughlin Group) as a political weakling, who really hasn't been tested (one pundit, a woman, of course, slams him, saying "They elected a warrior and got a wimp!"). Introduced in a phone conversation with his wife, who is fulfilling some business duty on the opposite coast, he implores her to return home soon, joking that he's in bed next to a "beautiful brunette," his daughter. This request for his wife, which becomes emphatic as the aliens arrive, signals his unfortunate dependence on the females in his life. She is eventually sacrificed by the movie, to free him up to jump into a plane and head up the resistance, but only after apologizing for disobeying him ("I'm so sorry I didn't come home when you told me to," she says, then croaks).

The First Lady, played by Mary McDonnell, is reminiscent of the independent, career-focused female who places equal emphasis on her labor and family and ends up demoted and/or dead, central to many of the male backlash films of the eighties and nineties, including Fatal Attraction, The Big Chill and the date-rape reversal fantasy Disclosure (all of which are more than figuratively associated with the current, unfounded persecution of independent, career-focused female, Hilary Rodham Clinton). The interesting thing is that the audience is never told what exactly is so important that she cannot obey her husband and run home. Another woman responsible for the softening of the President is Connie, his adviser. Connie is also the surrogate First Lady, a mother presence for the president's daughter, who takes care of her while more important business beckons. Connie is an even more blatant example than the First Lady of the power-suited female careerist who must be dethroned. Her handling of the television pundits, her unmasking of the corruption of American politics and her ability to neglect and reject men all imply an invasion of political space that was once exclusively male, a figurative parallel to the literal threat coming out of the sky. Surrounding the President with strong women and a dependent daughter may seem like an equal opportunity gesture on the part of Hollywood, but within the terms of Independence Day's narrative this abundance of femininity is actually coded as a blasphemous assault on masculine privilege, one which anticipates the literal threat of extermination signified by the alien invaders.

After making it clear that this President has gone soft, the film introduces us to more "fallen men" who will be put to the same tests as our political figurehead. Predictably, these scenes are prefaced by another shot of the Statue of Liberty. We meet David, played by Jeff Goldblum, a well-meaning Green who is failing to live up to his intellectual potential, and his father, played by Judd Hirsch. Both of them have problems with their wives. David's wife has left him; his mother is dead. It turns out that David's wife is none other than Connie, who has chosen to pursue her career at the White House rather than deal with David's neuroses. The film makes it pretty clear that both of these men are suffering because they depended too heavily on the women in their lives. They relied on feminine support instead of supporting themselves. The consequences for men who do this are made explicit by the next fallen man that the film shows us. Marty, an "obvious" homosexual played by Harvey Feierstein, is a stereotype of the male who is so thoroughly feminized that he is outright repellent. A perpetually hysterical figure, Marty prances around, bleating about the aliens, as David settles down to — what else — water his plant. Marty's behavior is not repellent in and of itself, but rather as a result of how it is deployed within the conservative structure of the movie. Marty's obvious "softness" necessitates, first his crime (his obvious incongruity with masculinity as it is proposed in the film) and, second his punishment (he is the first male character with a speaking part to die). It is this panicked character who fully signifies the depths to which American masculinity can be dragged and it is not a pretty sight.

It is interesting to note that during the Cold War, this display of Jeffords' soft body (the so-called "immoral" abnormal self, which is one label homosexuality has been hard pressed to shake) was taken as a sign of a greater national weakness. In his study,"The Cold War System of Emotion Management: Mobilizing the Home Front for the Third World War," Guy Oakes notes that "American national security planners had grave doubts that their fellow citizens would pass the test for world leadership in the nuclear age." According to this pessimistic line of thinking, "Americans were frivolous, superficial, and selfish" people who, "because of their addiction to pleasure," had become soft, weak, and irresponsible." The moral corruption and decadence of Americans (signified by the character of Marty) contrasts sharply with Jeffords's normative hard body, that which, specifically coded as straight male, is the model of strength, labor and courage. In fact, before the ships attack, Marty is found crouching beneath his desk, claiming "there's no shame in hiding," on the phone with, who else, his mother. His absolute softness is signified through this hysterical display, which displaces him from the allowed "routine roles and "responsibilities" proscribed by the conservative sociopolitical arena. His personal transgression of this boundary represents in microcosm a greater breakdown of what Oakes calls the "norms that underpin the social order."

Russell Case, played by Randy Quaid, is a lot like Marty at the beginning of the film. Unlike Marty, however, he is given the opportunity to undergo a metamorphosis of character. Like President Whitmore, Russell is a former fighter pilot who appears to have gone soft. But whereas the President holds a position of power and prestige, Russell has become one of society's outcasts. Not only does he believe in aliens, he believes that he has been abducted by them. It is important to note that this belief causes Russell to be grouped with "deviants" like Marty. Farmers tease him unmercilessly about his experiences, asking him whether he has been "sexually abused" by aliens. The difference between Marty and Russell is that, while Marty actually appears to embrace his stereotypical femininity, Russell has it thrust on him from the outside. First introduced, albeit with jaunty musical accompaniment, as a bumbling drunk, he is further denounced as a raving lunatic once the aliens do show up, and is jailed. His Cassandra cries of imminent doom (like those of Goldblum to his ex-wife) are shrugged off as symptoms of the last "feminizing" American event, the Vietnam War, from which he contracted Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; in this way, the alien invasion is once again conflated with a campaign to emasculate America. Like the Iran hostage crisis, the Vietnam War was a time when a Third World country brought the United States to its knees, a time when the softness that national security planners had detected in the American character had been the nation's undoing. Both of these traumatic events are thereby linked to the alien invasion in the film, in which the aliens appear to negate Ripper's male "essence," the simple primacy of masculine violence where it is always clear "what to do."

Will Smith's chest-thumping flyboy Stevie Hiller is more subtly and problematically at the mercy of the feminine. Because of his relationship to a stripper, the aptly named Jasmine, Stevie 's professional goal of getting to fly the space shuttle is in serious danger. Implicitly, his affiliation with and dependency on a gorgeous but socially undesirable woman gives the government all the rationale it needs to keep Stevie, an African-American, from getting what he wants. Stevie is a fallen man involved with a fallen woman. Stevie must marry Jasmine to make his relationship legitimate. But that is not enough. She must undergo a transformation herself, giving up her disreputable position for something more socially acceptable. Like Marty, Jasmine is an abnormal body, whose immorality is sanctioned by the narrative only so it can be fully replaced with its moral inverse, heterosexual marriage. It is upon the subject of Jasmine that Independence Day engages most fully in its misogyny: her labor, "exotic" dancing, is allowable because it "pays the bills" but must be neutralized once it makes itself visible to the higher echelons that codify normative behavior. Stereotypes regarding race can be found in both characters; Jasmine, of course, is an African-American single mother reduced to sexual depravity to raise her only son (whose father, of course, abandoned him) while Stevie, although trying to simultaneously provide for the two and negotiate his way into the elite, is rejected by the establishment because of his association with someone of lower social and socioeconomic status. Jasmine's visible sexual energy dooms Stevie to a life of professional purgatory. This point is confirmed in the destruction of the first recognizable character of the movie, Jasmine's female stripper friend who goes to welcome the aliens. As she stands atop a towering structure in Los Angeles, she is the first to be met by the destructive power of the invaders.


Who's the Man!?

Independence Day reinforces the notion that femininity is a threat to American society in its depiction of the actual alien invasion. When the alien spaceships go into attack mode, they present the viewer with the image of a vagina dentata, an age-old cultural icon which locates destruction (teeth) within the site of heterosexual masculine pleasure (the vagina). This is the sort of image Barbara Creed talks about in her book The Monstrous-Feminine, which analyzes threats to masculinity in the context of science-fiction and horror cinema. Independence Day's alien ships align themselves perfectly with her conceptualizations of the destructive feminine threat to male ideology. After parking itself conspicuously and directly over the point of the Capitol Building in Los Angeles, one of theseships opens at the underbelly to reveal, between its jagged metal teeth, a weapon extending down from it which releases its destructive rays, incinerating the skyscrapers on impact. According to Creed, the horror of science fiction's alien exterminators has, at its base, the idea that "phallocentric ideology" is "terrified at the thought that women might desire the phallus." The weapon on the alien ships is depicted as a feminine phallus. It is not Planet Earth that is under attack, but the male perogative. The aliens' attack is merely the culmination of a war that was underway long before their arrival, a war on the masculinity of the film's protagonists. President Whitmore's enervating reliance upon and care for women, Stevie Hiller's affiliation with degenerate female sexuality, Russell's emasculation at the hands of the castrating aliens/Vietnam War, and David's subjugation to the career and domestic demands of his powerful wife have all placed them, on July 2, at the feet of this awesome and unavoidable feminine power.

In charting the remasculinization of its fallen male heroes, Independence Day makes it clear that they are underdogs in their struggle. They are not able to compete with the invaders in terms of sheer firepower. Instead, they must use their minds and will to overcome an opponent who has overhwhelming force and numbers at its disposal. All the forces from Earth need, it turns out, are the services of a few good men-American men. Suffice it to say that the greatest hero of the film's climactic battle is drunkard Russell Case, who reconfigures his consciousness in combat (which is, like the Rambo and Chuck Norris films, a symbolic return to and victory over Vietnam, in which his manhood is restored), in a suicide run into the vagina dentata of the ship. His prophetic last words, "In the words of my generation, 'up yours!,'" are a blatant cry of restored sexual dominance. The key to victory is a computer virus David invents. In fact, two men in a tiny spaceship are all it takes to spread the virus throughout entire alien fleet. This is where masculine primacy and foreign policy most clearly intersect with Freud. Journeying through the vaginal opening of the mothership and into the similarly constructed "dark, dank and mysterious" symbolic uterus of what Creed calls the "phallic mother," Steve and David fly a captured alien spaceship into the inner sanctum of the alien mothership, impregnating it with the seeds of its own undoing. To emphasize the point they penetrate the walls of the alien surveillance module with two nuclear missiles, whose phallic power is fully presented in their passage through several obstacles, including their ship's own cargo hold and the head of the watchful alien. These actions, designed to counter the threat, according to Creed, of the "Mother Alien [who] is primarily a terrifying figure not because she is castrated but because she castrates," are, like Russell's cry, an affirmation of restored phallic power. When David states, "The virus is in," so, finally, is the penis.

Like Russell says, "Payback's a bitch," but only because it was a bitch, typical male (or female, depending on who you ask) slang for the strong, independent woman (remember -this is what Newt Gingrich's mother called Hilary), who allegedly started it in the first place. In predictable fashion, a narrative which claims as its central focus the masculine national transformation from soft policy to hard hits, must dethrone the various bitches that are responsible for having softened their men. By the end of the movie, power-suited Connie is in flannels and khakis, symbolically demoted and remarried; the First Lady is dead for disobeying her husband; Jasmine is married, fully clothed and has been reimagined as a sort of post-nuclear Mother Teresa who trucks around the country resuscitating almost-dead blast victims; Jasmine's slut friend is toast; David's father has gotten over his wife's death; and the President's daughter is not really worse for the wear, considering the death of her mother (the most she can muster is a weak, "Is Mommy asleep?"). The men, of course, are all heroes, proving that, as that guru of the men's movement Robert Bly says, "only men can change the boy into a man." The easiest way to do this is to return back to the "simple" stage of existence where it is always clear "what do:" assert your masculinity by striking first, keeping your women in their place, and keeping your house in order. A seemingly obscure remark that David's father makes about John Lennon suddenly seems to make sense in this light. "Lennon" was "shot in the back" because he said "All you need is love." Love is not all you need. You need a penis, and you better have been born with it.

Scott Thill is a graduate student at San Francisco State University. He recently got to meet David Lynch. You can contact him via e-mail at the following address:

Copyright © 1997 by Scott Thill. All rights reserved.