Masculinity, Femininity & the Military-Industrial Complex in the Films of James Cameron

A Film Analyst Examines Avatar, the Terminator, Terminator 2, the Abyss, and Aliens

Have you ever watched a film and saw something in it completely different than anyone else you know? Did you notice an underlying theme that was obvious to you, but when you told your friends and family about it, they rolled their eyes and told you to stop watching excessive amounts of TV? Let’s say you were suddenly considered the pre-eminent film aficionado of 2016 and it was your job to find a links and common themes between films by the same director. Sure, you’ve developed your skillset to the point of Film-stradamus. You are no stranger to the art of film analysis. You’ve read up on the skills and know-how of the art of film analysis - the process in which a film is read in terms of mise-en-scene, cinematography, sound, and editing, as well as iconic analysis, which deals with image or picture, and trying to understand how different pictorial elements convey the meaning of the film, or semiotic analysis, which can be applied to media texts and to the practices involved in producing and interpreting those texts.

A recent NYT article explored how movies can change our minds, and how they can affect our view of government, citing a study by which suggests that films can act as an influence. Researchers asked undergraduates at a private Midwestern college to fill out a questionnaire regarding their views on government before and after watching “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” After watching the films, 25 percent of the participants changed their opinion on questions about government - their trust in government increasing, as well as optimism about U.S. foreign policy. In the previous article of this series, we looked at how military and weapons manufacturing corporations advertisements are short microfilms of sorts, containing messages, symbolism, and storylines - promoting the company’s image and urging action.

Film critics evaluate films by using criteria such as the believability of a story, innovative techniques, and notable performances, comparing the current work to other films by the same director. “Any viewer’s ability to find meaning in a film is based on knowledge, cultural experiences, preferences, formal training, and expectations,” Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis explain in Film: A Critical Introduction. “But the significance a viewer derives from a film also depends upon the choices a filmmaker has made. For example, a director may rely on genre conventions or she may revise them, introducing unexpected characters or situations. The more a spectator knows about the pattern, and the significance of deviating from it, the more he will understand and appreciate the film.”

This week, we’ll take a look at a thought provoking example of deep film analysis by Vincent Gaine, who dissected five popular films by James Cameron: ‘The Terminator’, ‘Terminator 2’, ‘Avatar’, ‘The Abyss’, and ‘Aliens’, and made some interesting observations. In his article, “The Emergence of Feminine Humanity from a Technologised Masculinity in the Films of James Cameron” which appeared in the Journal of Technology, Theology, and Religion in 2011.

Film analyst Vincent Gaine argued that Cameron’s films valorise natural femininity over technologised masculinity, constituting a criticism of the military-industrial complex and a utopian desire for an egalitarian, pre-industrial society of equality and humanity. An in depth read, the paper boasts a mixture of gender studies, an evaluation of Marxist ideals, and an analysis of science fiction as a genre. As Gaine explains, it’s important to understand that both natural femininity and technologised masculinity are power structures in these films:

While technologised masculinity of the military-industrial complex pursues the alienating endeavours of manufacturing and exploitation, natural femininity maintains distinctiveness by advocating and embodying non-indenture and engagement with others. The terms are important here – masculinity has become technologised whereas femininity remains, or attempts to re-acquire, a natural, original state, free from the demands of capitalism, which are ultimately indenture.  The masculine goal is to “transcend nature – biology, mortality – by allotting nature to the side of women,” and also to further masculine domination over the environment through the military-industrial complex. The feminine, I will argue, is more engaged with the natural environment and the people with whom the environment is shared – the feminine is free humanity in contrast to the indentured masculinity of technology.

In Cameron’s science fiction worlds, the military-industrial complex must be overcome for things to become good again. Characters are presented as “fallen” or defeated against technology, the manifestation of the MIC, an enemy to all mankind. Each film features a prominent military contractor embedded in the framework of a society, for example, in ‘The Terminator’, the super-computer Skynet, the Weyland-Yutani company in ‘Aliens’, and the RDA in ‘Avatar’.

Power Structures on the Big Screen

How does each film project the underlying concepts of technologised masculinity, natural feminity, and the military-industrial complex? Below are excerpts from Gaine’s interpretations.

The Terminator

Technologised masculinity:

  1. The figure of the Terminator, a man-machine cyborg, the Cyberdyne Systems 800 series, model 101, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator is indestructible and single-minded, the ideal capitalist doing his job no matter the obstacle.

Natural femininity:

  1. Sarah, for whose life Kyle sacrifices his own. The feminine body is presented as worth dying for.
  2. Sarah is pregnant with John, the future leader of the human resistance in the war against the machines. What she carries represents the freedom of humanity.

Military-industrial complex:

  1. Even though the Terminator has been destroyed, the military industrial complex remains dominant and dominating.
  2. The freedom that Sarah represents is only the freedom to fight, and fighting must be done when the military industrial complex of capitalism remains active.

Aliens

Technologised masculinity:

  1. Throughout Aliens, Ripley is the one who can utilise technology rather than be subsumed by it, as over-reliance and overconfidence in machines leads to one's demise. This over-reliance is technologised masculinity. The attitude of the Marines is one of stereotypical machismo, their confidence based upon their equipment, from the atmospheric condensers which make habitation on alien planets possible to the computers which monitor the Marines and their surroundings.

Natural femininity:

  1. Constance Penley notes that in Aliens, “Ripley 'develops' a maternal instinct,” leading to an eventual “conservative moral lesson about maternity … mothers will be mothers, and they will always be women.”
  2. [Ripley] achieves victory by blowing the Queen and the loader into space. The loader is the tool for her victory and a source of delight for the viewer, but like all technology, it is only retained for a specific purpose and then can and should be discarded. As Ripley clambers out of the loader and up the ladder, femininity literally emerges from technology, to embrace the child who affirms the maternal aspect of Ripley with the word “Mommy!”
  3. Ripley's femininity is more than an indication of gender difference and she is more than an “acceptable form and shape of woman” because she demonstrates humanity through her engagement with others such as Newt and Hicks, and through her creative thinking rather than the procedures of the Company and, initially, the Marines. She is distinct from the capitalists because she simply utilises technological tools for her human endeavours, rather than becoming indentured to capitalism like Burke, and therefore her being-in-the-world is distinctive.

Military industrial complex:

  1. It is the capitalist ideology of profiteering, a single-mindedness like that of the Terminator, which is the enemy in Aliens – the alien creatures themselves serve as a manifestation of the dehumanisation and alienation at the heart of the military-industrial complex.
  2. The men who represent the military-industrial complex show more concern for their capital than for human lives. The Marines receive the same lack of regard as the colonists from the Company, their class effectively separating them from the military-industrial complex despite their enlistment – for Burke, the “bio-weapons division” is a larger concern than the lives of the soldiers who serve the Company.  The Marines have been following company orders, and their dependence on company technology led to the deaths of most of them.
  3. The Queen is perhaps a mother protecting her brood, but she could equally be a corporate executive protecting her stock, as executives such as Burke are shown to be murderously invested in their products. This investment puts humans in the position of being worse than the aliens, as Ripley points out “you don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”
  4. Burke has as much feeling for the colonists, Ripley, Newt and the Marines as the Queen does; the alienating effect of capitalist technologised masculinity has isolated him from empathy and engagement with others. It also indentures him, making him as much a slave to the demands of profiteering and production as the Terminator. If humanity continues in this direction, it will likely end up like the aliens.

The Abyss

Technologised masculinity:

  1. Lindsey Brigman is immediately presented in the film in unflattering terms. Upon her introduction, she is described as “queen bitch of the world,” and after her first conversation with her estranged husband Bud, he comments “I hate that bitch.” Indeed, “bitch” is the general description of Lindsey throughout the film, even used by herself. She is a skilled engineer, able to manage the rig and work with the rest of the drilling team without any concerns over her competence, but her “bitch” personality suggests that in order to be successful in the technologised masculinity of capitalism, a woman must be a bitch.

Natural femininity:

  1. Cameron's normal interest in strong women is lost to an extent in this film, as the capable male goes through little change and the woman becomes a much weaker figure, there to welcome the hero when he (literally) emerges from the deep-sea city of non-terrestrial intelligence.
  2. When Lindsey mourns for Bud, her husband whom she believes is dead, Lindsey therefore displays an empathetic humanity as much as an emotional femininity (it may be worth considering if a person weeping for the death of a loved one is necessarily a conservative female role or simply a realistic reaction), an emergence from the bitch persona she used in the technologised masculine environment. Her reincorporation into the working class is the emergence of an empathetic, feminine humanity, out of the technologised masculinity in which she had been operating. Bud's encounter with the NTs is strongly indicative of re-birth, a re-birth of the feminine in place of technologised masculinity.  When Bud first dons the suit, he is advised by Ensign Monk that his body will remember how to breathe liquid oxygen as that is how a fetus breathes. When the NTs rescue Bud and take him to their submerged city, the image of the city resembles female genitalia, the hero in an embryonic state being taken back into the female body so as to be re-born.
  3. The aquatic non-terrestrials represent a unified and peaceful society integrated with their environment, a society that is coded as feminine through their harmonious relationship with their environment, which contrasts with the technologised masculinity of the military-industrial complex. Their message to the human nations is to cease their conflicts, i.e. end the military-industrial complex and “grow out of our infancy.”

Military industrial complex:

  1. In common with Cameron's general ideology, technologised masculinity in The Abyss is problematic and dangerous. The Abyss explicitly links this concern to the military-industrial complex and the threat of global annihilation. Studies of science fiction have explained the relation between the preoccupations of science fiction films and the social events and concerns at the time of production; and The Abyss as well as Aliens and Terminator are preoccupied by the possibility of nuclear war, The Abyss making direct reference to the SALT talks of the 1980s. Coffey aims to detonate a nuclear weapon at the site of the settlement of the non-terrestrial (NT) intelligence, and Bud and the rest of his team must avert this disaster. However, the oil-drilling endeavour is itself problematic, as an instance of technology being used by humans in an attempt to dominate the environment. The endeavour is coded as masculine, since the people in charge such as Kirkhill and the Navy commanders are all male, as well as the masculinised Lindsey.
  2. Nuclear weaponry is a great threat, the criticism of this technological terror apparent as the increasingly psychotic Coffey aims to attack the non-terrestrial intelligence that he believes to be hostile, against the advice of his fellow SEALs.
  3. Bud's re-birth suggests a re-birth for all humanity, as the NTs threaten to engulf the land with massive tidal waves, but relent because of Bud's sacrifice. Their message to the human race is to “put away childish things,” which certainly refers to weapons of mass destruction but perhaps also industrial tools like the rig.
  4. The philosophy of integration, rather than construction, is the approach and the form of the NTs, contrasted with the “clunky” machinery of the humans. Rather than the “horrifying otherness” of the creatures in Aliens, the NTs represent a state better than that of humanity, or perhaps a better state for humanity than the technologised masculinity of the military-industrial complex.

Terminator 2

Technologised masculinity:

  1. It is instructive to examine the sequence of Sarah's attempted act of termination. Her

military shirt exposes her muscular arms and shoulders, black sunglasses obscure her eyes and, in a direct re-working of the original film, she aims at Dyson with a laser sight.  By all appearances, she has become a terminator, technologised through the transformation of her body into a masculine form, the association emphasised by the extra-textual contrast between Linda Hamilton and her co-star Schwarzenegger, whose character, paradoxically, becomes more maternal. She is well muscled, her body transformed into a weapon that is further supplemented by the various firearms she sports during the film.

  1. Rather than being consigned to a conservative female role of “just a mother,” Sarah's acceptance of her maternal role is a rejection of her technologisation, which, with the masculinity associated with muscles and guns, is also a masculinisation.

Natural femininity:

  1. Her attempt at being a terminator fails because of empathy: when she sees the wounded and terrified Dyson and his screaming and sobbing family; she experiences empathetic engagement, the film suggesting that if one empathises, one will not kill. It is a recognition of distinctive being-in-the-world, Sarah unable and unwilling to become an inhuman killing machine like that which hunts her son.
  1. Sarah's redemption through the emergence of her feminine humanity from her technologised masculinity, combined with the rejection of technology that would supersede humanity, demonstrates that there is an alternative to the military-industrial complex.

Military-industrial complex:

  1. The artificial intelligence portrayed in Terminator presents humanity as obsolete, this obsolescence our own termination.
  2. For the Terminator, a technologised masculine mechanical form, to learn empathy and ethics is for it to supersede humanity altogether. As always, technology is to be discarded – the Terminator declares that the chip in his head “must be destroyed also.” There is double meaning here – not only must he be destroyed to ensure that Skynet is never built, but he must also be destroyed because his very existence, his physical superiority combined with what he has learned – “nothing less than genuine human subjectivity”55 – makes him the nightmare of human obsolescence. Here is the nightmare that Pyle does not mention: if the distinction between human and cyborg is lost, what place is there for humanity?

Avatar

Technologized masculinity:

  1. The company executive Parker Selfridge explains the reason for the human presence on Pandora, that the mineral unobtanium “sells for 40 million a kilo.” Exactly why unobtanium is so valuable is never explained – the value is an abstract concept as are the driving forces behind the mining operation: shareholders hate “a bad quarterly statement.” These exploitative forces have ravaged Earth to such an extent that Jake explains “there's no green there”; capitalist forces are so divorced from their environment that it has been completely destroyed.  This alienation is more apparent on Pandora, as humans cannot breathe the atmosphere of the planet at all and so are dependent on breathing masks to survive. Combined with the machines used to move through the forest, Earthlings are presented as physically alienated from their surrounding environment by a carapace of technology, technology which, as always, is masculine due to its burly, stocky shape and aggressive, dominating purpose.
  2. The technologised masculinity of the military industrial complex receives its most blatant display in Avatar: a rapacious, ruthless exploitation of the natural environment for the purposes of high numbers on quarterly statements. This is the logical conclusion of the technologised masculinity of the military-industrial complex.

Natural femininity:

  1. The Na'Vi are a pre-industrial, egalitarian community, engaged with its environment and its members with each other in a way that the Earthlings cannot be because of the alienation of the technologised masculinity of the military-industrial complex. The Na'Vi use the term “see” to denote an understanding of one's place within the environment and within society, and are scornful of humans' inability to see. The journey of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) over the course of Avatar is to learn to see with new eyes, and in doing so he undergoes a re-birth into a more integrated and therefore natural state of being, a state that is coded as feminine.
  2. Jake's awakening is similar to Bud's re-birth in the alien complex in The Abyss.  Both men emerge into a natural feminine state in contrast to technologised masculinity. Partly this is by default – the machinery of the humans on Pandora is similar to the “clunky steel can” described by Lindsey, including space craft, gyrocopters and mechanical suits, the last being very similar to the loader in Aliens (Sigourney Weaver's presence echoes the earlier film as well).  By contrast and like the NTs of The Abyss, the Na'Vi are graceful, lithe and integrated with their environment.  Although the Na'Vi are not human, they represent humanity in a more naturally attuned form, likened by some to indigenous people such as the Native Americas who were decimated by European colonisation. Therefore, the Na'Vi represent humanity in tune with nature, rather than the humans who encase themselves in technological shells.
  3. The Na'Vi’s engagement with nature is coded as feminine, especially because of the cultural connection between nature and the female. The Na'Vi's grace and engagement with their environment may be a stereotypical version of femininity but it is not restricted to “New Age-y, hippy-dippy language,” as they are also fierce warriors, skilled hunters and creative healers, who display genuine insight toward the humans.
  4. The mother's presence, in this case Eywa, provides stability and identity, rather than the indistinct industrial production that threatens to replace humanity.

Military-industrial complex:

  1. The significance of Jake's crippled body is not that it is disabled, rather that it is a product of the military-industrial complex. Jake's paralysis is caused by his military service; he moves with the aid of a machine, other Marines disparage him as “meals on wheels,” and Quaritch promises him that further technological procedures will repair his spine.

Interview with Vincent Gaine

Dr. Vincent M. Gaine is a film and television researcher. His first book, Existentialism and Social Engagement in the Films of Michael Mann was published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2011.  His work on film and media has been published in Cinema Journal and The Journal of Technology, Theology and Religion, as well as edited collections including The 21st Century Superhero and The Directory of World Cinema. Vincent is married and lives in Norwich, England.

BFP: Hi Vincent, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. Of all the films you studied in your article, which was your favorite to watch and scrutinize in detail?

VG: If I have a favourite to watch and scrutinize, it would be 'The Terminator' and 'Terminator 2' equally. This is because I have known these films the longest and have watched them the most, so revisiting them has a long-established pleasure. Plus I keep finding meaning and pleasure in individual shots and cuts, making the pleasure even deeper and allowing me to develop my arguments all the more.

BFP: Do any films come to mind that are in support of the defense industrial base and push some of that masculine imagery and ideology onto viewers?

VG: I think a great many films support and valorize the military industrial complex, but not entirely. 'Transformers' is a good example, as are other films that endorse American might and righteousness. However, it is important to not consider these things simplistically or in isolation. Some analyses argue that superhero cinema endorses fascism, but in their valorization of the exceptional individual, such films as 'Batman V Superman' also expose the inadequacy of state machinery. Then again, if these figures are representations of American individual exceptionality, perhaps they are also supporting the MIC. Tough call.

I'm sure statistics for military recruitment in particular years are available. There was certainly a spike in recruitment in late 2001.

BFP: How long did it take for you to research your sources for your article? How much time did it take to write in general?

VG: The research was very piecemeal since I have limited time during the working week. The overall time frame was probably about six to eight months.

BFP: Is James Cameron is aware of this conceptual framework in his films, or is it the job of the critical evaluator to discover linkages and underlying meanings, a trail of breadcrumbs, so to speak?

VG: Yes and yes. The consistency of theme in Cameron's films suggest an interest in these concepts, and in the case of 'Avatar' he has spoken publicly of his belief in films having a moral message and his environmental activism. That said, the particular critical readings that academics and critics make need not be limited to the filmmakers' words or what we perceive may be their intention. If you have a reading and can support it with evidence from the text and related critical theory, that is your job as a reader.

BFP: How much influence does the U.S. government have on the movie industry?

VG: That will vary widely, I doubt there is any general pattern. Some films like 'Transformers', 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Zero Dark Thirty' emphasise their relationships with military consultants and liaisons, but I don't know enough to advise on the extent of this influence. There is a very interesting book 'The CIA and Hollywood' by Tricia Jenkins, which I recommend, and the bibliography will have other useful resources.

BFP: Is the current world system leaning more towards masculinization or feminization, and what are the causes of this shift?

VG: Again, I am not qualified to make that assessment, you would need to research cultural scholars with an interest in gender. I recommend Diane Negra in this field, her work is remarkable. In my unqualified opinion, there are some significant female figures such as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Theresa May and Angela Merkel, but these are exceptions to the rule. Patriarchal hegemony is a very strong and prominent force and I do not believe this is a shift towards masculinization, but simply a continuation of a centuries' old institution. Misogyny and sexism are just as prevalent and ingrained as racism and other forms of prejudice, and this is nothing new.

BFP: Can the movie industry affect this trend in any way?

VG: All these sectors and systems interrelate, and therefore all can influence each other. If more films utilised gender like Cameron does, and enjoyed the commercial success that he has, it would demonstrate the commercial viability of films that valorise the female. Another good example is Paul Feig, who is steadily injecting women into previously male roles. See here for more: https://vincentmgaine.wordpress.com/2016/08/07/ghostbusters/

BFP: If you could sit down at a coffee shop and have a casual conversation with James Cameron, what might you ask him concerning some of the issues you brought up?

VG: After I got past the fanboy gushing, what would I say? I would ask him about his views on feminism and if he believes it is an important movement that he sees his films as illustrating. I would ask him about the tension between his films' technophobia and his own innovation and constant use of technology. I would ask him about his method on set and in the editing room, what guides him and influences his creative decisions. And I would ask him to reminisce about his experiences and simply listen to him talk.

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Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, is an independent writer who resides in Northern Virginia. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013. His writings focus on technology, weapons of war, and futurism. He's currently studying Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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