Gender in Dr. Strangelove
Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove portrays the implications of a rampant military patriarchy by including varying degrees of masculinity amongst its characters, including the lone, objectified female character. The military men all express a kind of raging masculinity threatened by some form of impotence or sexual frustration, and the film makes the implicit argument that this threat to masculinity is the ultimate root of brinkmanship and eventually, destruction. Thus, examining the characters of General Ripper, General Turgidson, and Major Kong reveals the different ways in which the film implicitly and explicitly argues that the destructive impulses of a patriarchal society are ultimately rooted in sexual frustration born out of a violent masculine ideal.
Before examining the three central military characters in more depth, it is neccesary to briefly discuss the film’s only female character, Miss Scott. She is immediately and entirely displayed as a sexual object for the male characters, because even before her actual speaking role, “the well-spoken Pentagon secretary under the sunlamp displaying (for the time) ample navel, also pops up as the centerfold in the Playboy magazine being admired by Major Kong in the cockpit,” demonstrating one in a long line of “women […] consistently posed as the objects of male looks and language” (Stillman 491. Bingham 3). Miss Scott actually manages to serve as the sexual object for two of the three major military characters responsible for the eventual destruction of the world, because she is visually consumed by Kong at the beginning of the film and serves as the object of Turgidson’s unfulfilled sexual desire for the remainder.
Thus, while Dr. Strangelove’s lone female ostensibly fits in with a long line of female characters designed to objectify and ultimately dis-empower women, in this case Miss Scott’s objectification serves as a means of demonstrating the male character’s inability to escape their libidinal drive to the point that the only alternative, it seems, is the extinction of all life on earth. Therefore, even as one may view Dr. Strangelove as “the first open critique of the bomb in popular culture,” the truly critical work done by the film is its implicit critique of a patriarchal system dictated by the whims of a destructive masculinity (Van Ells 109).
The names of the three male characters discussed here reveals how their masculinity influences their behavior, and this is nowhere more clear than with the case of General Jack D. Ripper, named after Jack the Ripper, the famous serial killer who murdered and sexually mutilated a string of prostitutes in the 1890s. The original Ripper’s sexual violence seemed to demonstrate a frustration and hatred with the female body, and the violence committed by Strangelove’s Ripper is born out of a similar sexual frustration. In the midst of the Army’s assault on Burpelson Air Force base, Ripper explains how he first “discovered” that Communists were planning on destroying America by fluoridating water (a paranoid belief that ultimately lead Ripper to order a nuclear strike) by claiming that he “first became aware of it [â€¦] during the physical act of love.” Sometime before the start of the film, during sex Ripper felt “a profound sense of fatigue” followed by “a feeling of emptiness,” which Ripper interpreted as a “loss of essence.” That he is referring to some kind of sexual frustration such as impotence or an inability to orgasm is revealed later, when Ripper claims that “women sense [his] power and they seek the life essence,” so that although Ripper does “not avoid women,” he does “deny them [his] essence.” The delivery of these latter lines leads one to believe that Ripper is attempting to cover up his embarrassment, and that he is still experiencing the sexual frustration which initially gave birth to his theory regarding fluoridation. Thus, in a fairly direct way, sexual frustration and the threat it poses to traditional conceptions of masculinity is the reason for the subsequent nuclear holocaust, because Ripper would rather destroy millions of people than admit that he was having sexual issues as a result of some physiological problem.
General Turgidson demonstrates a somewhat different kind of sexual frustration, again as evidenced by his name, which at once alludes to a swollen member and the kind of bloated, huffing-and-puffing actions of a middle-aged man in the act of coitus. Turgidson, rather than committing explicit acts of violence as the result of a sexual dysfunction, merely channels the pent-up sexual desire hinted at in the beginning of the film into his frequently excited outbursts advocating a complete nuclear genocide of the Soviets. Turgidson’s sexual objectification of Miss Scott and subsequent frustration does not generate the same kind of sociopathic masculinity seen in the case of Ripper, but he does nonetheless seem to revel in the thought of widespread violence. Thus, whereas Ripper’s sexual frustration engenders a desire to actively engage in horrific, violent acts, Turgidson’s sexual frustration merely leads him to cheer on the violence already instigated by Ripper, akin to someone who enjoys violent pornography but does not engage in that kind of sexual violence himself. Turgidson’s numerous entreaties to the president regarding everything from hidden cameras to a “mine shaft gap” are essentially a way for him to replace sexual fantasy with fantasies of war, such that his sexual frustration leads him to repeatedly and fruitlessly argue for a full-scale nuclear attack against “Russkies,” who are not considered “members of the same human family” as Americans in much the same way that women are treated as fundamentally lower class human beings in a patriarchal society (Cardullo 255).
Major Kong is the least overtly violent of the three hyper-masculine characters in the film, and thus his sexual frustration is more or less conveyed through the use of symbolism rather than explicit mention, as in the case of Ripper and Turgidson. Even his name alludes to a kind of tragic masculinity, because the giant ape he gets his name from, although obsessed with a particular woman, is driven to violence by external forces. Furthermore, Kong is partially exonerated for the effects of his masculinity due to the fact that he is much further down the chain of command than the other characters, demonstrated explicitly by his rank but implicitly by the fact that he only has a picture of a scantily clad woman, whereas Turgidson has the real thing. However, this does not mean that Kong’s masculinity is somehow less destructive than that of the other men, because he is ultimately the one responsible for dropping the bomb. Instead, Kong’s lack of an explicitly sexual motivation is actually what allows him to finish the job, producing the orgasmic destruction of the earth unattainable by either Ripper or Turgidson. Ripper’s plot is foiled by cooperation between the American president, Captain Mandrake, and the Soviet Union, but Kong still manages continue on towards his target. He is confronted with malfunctioning bomb bay doors, which serve as a stand-in for Ripper and Turgidson’s sexual frustration, and finally overcomes this frustration by riding the bomb out of the plane and towards its target.
That the film’s central argument revolves around the destructive potential of a patriarchy guided by violent masculinity is evidenced by the final scene of the film, in which the titular Strangelove proposes a system of eugenics whereby every male is granted sexual domination over ten females while living underground in abandoned mine shafts. This plan ultimately only leads to more bickering and Turgidson’s further fantasies regarding the endless Soviet threat, but the scene serves to demonstrate not only how fully sexuality characterized by masculine dominance serves as the root of all of the violence in the film, but also how the release of this sexual potential does not dissipate this desire for dominance, but rather amplifies it. Thus, where the film had only one female character to serve as the sexual object for multiple men, the next proposed phase is numerous females serving as the sexual objects for each individual man.
The film does not provide a generous view of the masculinity on display, because it proposes that this desire for sexual domination ultimately has only one of two endings; if it cannot be fulfilled, as in the case of Ripper, this destructive impulse is turned inwards, resulting in suicide. If it is fulfilled, however, it only leads to an amplified desire and the eventual destruction of everyone, including the self and the desired sexual object(s). While one might hesitate to accept that sexual frustration is the root cause of all violence perpetrated in the service of a masculine ideal, the film helps to demonstrate how fully sexual potency remains a crucial aspect of any masculinity that defines itself against women and femininity, because the only way of establishing masculine dominance over the other sex is through a glorification and fetishization of the male member itself. Thus, this glorification entails within it the most potent threat to masculinity and a patriarchal power structure, because by making the male sexual organ the defining feature of power, any problem with that organ means a subsequent loss of social and political power.
The 1964 film Dr. Strangelove uses the context of Cold War brinksmanship in order to uncover a more fundamental problem with patriarchy and the maintenance of a destructive masculinity. This masculinity is under threat as a result of sexual frustration, and the characters of Ripper, Turgidson, and Kong embody three different kinds of this frustration. Ripper’s sexual frustration is the most explicit, and leads to the most overtly violent reaction. Turgidson’s sexual frustration is not the result of a physiological problem but rather due to pent-up energy, and thus his reaction is to cheer on the violence perpetrated by Ripper, even if he cannot engage in it himself. Finally, Kong, who is denied the kind of sexual immediacy granted Turgidson, nonetheless is able to overcome the frustration experienced by the other two men when he finally succeeds in dropping a nuclear bomb. Thus, the film suggests that the true threat to the future of humanity is not necessarily the weapons of war themselves, but rather the violent masculinity embraced and reinforced in a patriarchal society.
Bingham, Dennis. “I do Want to Live!”: Female Voices, Male Discourse, and Hollywood
Biopics.” Cinema Journal 38.3 (1999): 3,3-26
Cardullo, Bert. “Why we Fight, Or Men, War, the Movies, and Metaphor.” The Midwest
Quarterly 52.3 (2011): 239,239-255.
Kubrick, Stanley, Dir. Dr. Strangelove. Perf. Peter Sellers, . Columbia Pictures, 1964. Film.
Stillman, Grant B. “Two of the MADdest Scientists: Where Strangelove Meets Dr. no; Or,
Unexpected Roots for Kubrick’s Cold War Classic.” Film History 20.4 (2008): 487,487-
Van Ells, Mark, D. “Dr. Strangelove’s America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age.” The
Journal of American Culture 23.1 (2000): 109-
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