By: Sophie-Marie Prime
Sometimes, science fiction cinema is extreme not because of its special effects or futurism, but because it can represent the most grotesque reflections on culture of any cinematic genre. We’ve seen it with the Alien franchise not-so-subtly evoking monstrous feminine bodies, John Carpenter’s The Thing creating a dialogue on the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s, and The Hunger Games reflecting present anxieties about dystopic capitalism. John McTiernan’s Predator from 1987 is no exception to this pattern, with its unbelievably obscene dialogues on race, gender, and sexuality. At the start of the film, characters are discussing an American military crew being sent on a mission to a South American island. One character says to another, “Once we cross that border, we’re on our own,” as if there are no other inhabitants of lands as foreign as Guatemala. After the mission has been introduced, Dutch – a white protagonist – is told that, upon arrival at their destination, Dillon – a Black protagonist – will be taking over as lead on the mission. Upon seeing each other, the two share a kind of queer moment when they link hands to arm wrestle, pulling each other in closely as sweat builds on their faces. This is the first of many queer moments in the film – all of which are over-compensated for by excessively heterosexual dialogue and imagery.
Phallic symbols and references abound in Predator. In The Black Body: Figures of Distortion, Adilifu Nama recognizes cigars and firearms as recurring phallic symbols throughout the film. Nama specifically addresses a moment in which one crew member says to another, “Strap this on your sore ass.” Nama reads this as a racially-charged moment, as it is one Latino crew member speaker to a white comrade, and brushes over its significance as homoerotic hyperbole. As an isolated line of dialogue, it would be fair to ignore the queer notion of this exclamation – but because homo-erotica is everywhere in the film, it should definitely be recognized as both a racialized and sexualized remark. For example, when the crew first arrives at their destination, one of the men is seen drinking from the branch of a vine. He drinks by wrapping his lips around the branch and when he turns away, the liquid sprays all over him – signifying a homoerotic oral-ejaculation image. Nama leaves this, as well as the Dillon-Dutch arm wrestling out of his analysis. Homosexual imagery and dialogue are equally as present as excessively heterosexual ones, that manifest as hyperbolic masculinity.
Crew members make jokes about their sexual experiences with women that read as overcompensation for the enormous length of time they spend surrounded by men. For example, Hawkins makes the same joke about the size of his female partner’s genitalia twice. First, he says, “Hers was as big as a house,” which follows a myth that the more a woman has sex, the more her genitalia grows. In this case, Hawkins’ comment communicates that he has had sex with this woman may times. Later, he says, “Jeez you got a big pussy,” twice to give the impression that she is so ‘big,’ there’s an echo inside of her. His comments are vulgar and clearly intended to signify his excessive heterosexuality. Later, Eliot makes a comment about the jungle that reads as another pointed comment on female genitalia signifying his sexuality. His line, “I’ve seen some big bush before,” connotes a colloquial term for female genital hair and therefore his super-straightness. Ironically, both of these remarks can be read as connoting excessive masculinity, or the opposite – a small phallus – which would emasculate him.Perhaps the most poignant image of hyper-masculine heterosexuality is when Poncho stands above Anna, with his legs spread apart and his phallic gun pointed directly at her. He then tells Poncho, “Put her on a leash.” This is not only a comment on domesticity of women, but also a racialized comment on Mexican immigration, despite the fact that it is the Americans who are in Latin land. It should also be noted that Anna is the only female character in Predator and that she was kidnapped from the camp that the American crew obliterated.
To understand Anna as the only female character in the film is to assume that The Predator is male, which leads to a specific reading for the motivation of his violence. Anna and Dutch are the only two survivors of the film – Dutch because he escapes the self-destructive wrath of The Predator, and Anna because The Predator never attacks her. The Predator targets every male character in the film, killing them one by one – except Dutch, of course. Despite the fact that Anna comes face to face with The Predator, he never attacks her. Therefore, because he appears to target only men, in conjunction with the film’s many other homosexual layers, the predator becomes a fearsome symbol of Black homosexuality. In keeping with the problematic but common portrayal of Black male sexuality as violent, The Predator’s homosexuality is antagonistic and aggressive.
Though Nama negated the threat of The Predator’s homosexuality, he addresses the threat of his blackness in great detail. Nama argues that The Predator’s physical characteristics code him as Black: dreadlocks, fangs that resemble tribal piercings, and African drumming that evokes his looming presence. There is also a dichotomy between the representation of The Predator being Black and the means of killing his victims. The fact that The Predator skins and hangs his victims is left out of Nama’s analysis. This display of violence on behalf of The Predator reflects imagery of lynching, which creates a complicated, even problematic, representation of blackness as both violator and violated. Nama notes that Dillon’s death – he is symbolically castrated via the amputation of his arm, then hung up by The Predator – reflects imagery of lynching. At one point, Anna describes The Predator as “The demon who makes trophies of men,” which linguistically calls lynching to mind. The skinning of the victims is significant because brings race to the forefront. After being killed and skinned, victims are hung by their feet – signifying that these lynchings turning history on its head, as if that were possible. This representation of the Black character as lyncher, with the historical lynching of Blacks, is complicated and problematic in the way that it inflects violent racism back onto the group which was victimized by it.
The Predator’s queerness is revealed most clearly in the final scenes of the film, in which Dutch, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and The Predator confront each other in epic battle. Before the brawl begins, The Predator pins Dutch against a tree and leans in, examining his face, as if the two are about to kiss. Then, he removes his metal garb – a mask and body suit – as he stands before Dutch, effectively undressing for him. After a roar from The Predator, what follows is hand-to-claw combat as the pair thrash and roll around. Much of what we see is from The Predator’s point of view, which is blurred thermal-imaging, but we hear Dutch’s pants and sexual winces, further indicating the homosexual tones of the scene. The fight ends with The Predator covered in his own bodily fluid – which, throughout the film is read as blood, but could just as easily be read as semen. This scene easily lends itself to a queer reading, which is portrayed as frightful because of the violence between them, particularly on the part of The Predator.
Predator masks its threat to men’s survival as a cybernetic beast, when in fact its mise- en-scène indicates that the real danger is Black male homosexuality. The film overcompensates for this threat with hyper-masculinity and excessive heterosexuality. Though this portrayal is arguably homophobic and racist, it speaks volumes to the cultural context of the 1980s – the period in which AIDS was first officially identified. According to the AIDS charity AVERT, in 1987 – the year Predator was released – the World Health Organization had finally begun contributing resources to AIDS awareness and there was much speculation as to how the AIDS/ HIV was spread. Just five years earlier, AIDS was still referred to as “GRID,” or “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.” Perhaps the unnamed bodily fluid coming from The Predator, which could be read as blood or semen, actually indicates both, since AIDS can be transmitted through blood- contaminated bodily fluids. It could be contested that this film, and other science fiction cinema that emerged during this period, communicated reactions to the a biological unknown that seemed as much a threat to (heterosexual) culture as it did to health and safety. Thus, the film’s hysteria surrounding The Predator as a racialized threat to men’s lives can be read as a thinly- veiled façade for cultural anxieties surrounding queerness in the United States during the 1980’s.
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“History of HIV and AIDS: Overview.” History of HIV and AIDS AVERT, 26 Jan. 2016. Web. 25 Apr. 2016. <http://www.avert.org/professionals/history-hiv-aids/overview>.
Nama, Adilifu. “The Black Body: Figures of Distortion.” Black Space. Austin, TX: U of Texas, 2008. 70-95. Print.
Predator. Dir. John McTiernan. Perf. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Kevin Peter Hall. 20th Century Fox, 1987. Film.