We’re going a little deeper into the archives of science fiction this week, to pull out the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The black-and-white visuals and Cold War imagery give the movie a dated effect, but I’m realizing how distressingly relevant the underlying message still is.
At the top level, the movie is a satire of mutually assured destruction and nuclear war. A rogue American general named Jack D. Ripper, consumed with paranoia, orders an unprovoked nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, and a fleet of bombers take to the air.
When news of the strike reaches President Merkin Muffley, he descends to the underground War Room, joined by the maniacal General Buck Turgidson, the Soviet ambassador Alexei de Sadeski, and the title character, a nuclear scientist from Nazi Germany now serving the United States. De Sadeski reveals the existence of a Soviet Doomsday Device, which will automatically destroy all life on Earth with a cloud of radioactive gas if an atomic strike on the USSR is detected. The Americans and the Russians work together to recall the bombers, but one, piloted by Major T.J. “King” Kong, has been damaged and cannot receive the radio signal, and prepares to deliver its payload.
Earth’s last hope is the failure of Kong’s bomb, spray-painted with the name “Hi There!”—which jams in the bay. But the dedicated pilot climbs on top of it, and jumps up and down on it until it deploys. Kong rides the bomb to the end of the world, gleefully whooping and waving a cowboy hat in the film’s most famous scene.
The Americans pause for a moment of silence, before planning to resume the Cold War after the apocalypse when they emerge from their bunkers. The credits roll with a montage of mushroom clouds set to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”.
The fundamental idea—that humanity will eagerly push itself over the edge to total annihilation—has re-emerged in recent years, particularly with the rise of dystopian literature like The Hunger Games or the omnipotence of dragons and wildfire on Game of Thrones. Further, the seamless integration of Nazi ideology into the American military-industrial complex fits neatly into the world of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where HYDRA infiltrators seem to outnumber Nick Fury’s loyalists. Paranoia reminiscent of Ripper’s rules the day as conspiracy theories remain in vogue, either from the aliens of the revived X-Files or the relative mundanity of Scandal or House of Cards. Orphan Black recalls the bunker eugenics proposed by Strangelove himself, and the generals’ good cheer at imagining a world rebuilt in their image.
Dr. Strangelove plays with these themes, and teases out the fundamentally human logic that could push a society past the brink, with resonances both in modern fiction and, terrifyingly, the politics that produced Donald Trump.
The film heavily leans on the confluence of hypermasculinity and misogyny, connecting them to the politics of warfare and destruction in a way that was prescient for 1964. The characters’ names do the immediate work: the pornographic “Buck Turgidson,” the chest-beating “Major ‘King’ Kong”, the serial killer “Jack D. Ripper”, the lurid “de Sadeski”. The first is simply phallic, the other three all specifically connote violence against women.
Women themselves are almost entirely missing in Dr. Strangelove, but for a brief appearance by Turgidson’s mistress, and Strangelove’s conclusion that the post-apocalyptic bunkers will require ten women for each man, all chosen exclusively for their sexual characteristics. This is part of the film’s satire, and points to the gendered nation of its apocalypse. Turgidson makes no effort to hide his glee at abandoning monogamous standards—which he never practiced anyway—for the national interest in the bunker. The political reunification of sex and reproduction after the End is a boon for traditional masculinity; it is no coincidence that the movie was released shortly after the Pill came onto the market.
The apocalypse as a place for this sort of masculine sexual liberation resonates in its modern tellings. Hunger Games repeatedly alludes to the depravity and sexual violence in Panem in general and the Capital in particular, often inflicted on winning tributes. Orphan Black focuses on sexual and reproductive autonomy, as its various villains manipulate both fecundity and sterility while questing for human perfection. Dollhouse introduces mind control technology that is immediately monetized for a brothel.
The same sensibility—without the moral objection—motivates the alt-right movement which has seized control of the Republican Party. It is suffused with men’s rights activists, who constantly fantasize about the end of civilized society in some act of violence, with the accompanying vision of dominating women in the world to come. Donald Trump, who constantly performs the kind of hypermasculinity they love, is a harbinger.
Turgidson and Strangelove do not offer sexual fulfillment to all men; rather, they implicitly provide it only to the correct men. This, too, is a fever dream of the alt-right, which bubbles over with racism and xenophobia. Their motivations are laid bare in their favored insult, “cuck”, short for cuckold, with the usual implication that the target’s sexual position has been usurped, particularly by men of color (typically African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, or immigrants). These men would not be allowed in Strangelove’s bunkers, and in parallel, feature in the sexual fears of alt-right militants. They fantasize about genocidal warfare with the same glee as Buck Turgidson, because it offers the same promise of sexual power on the other side.
Dr. Strangelove features a Nazi scientist as its title character, but cleverly avoids the conclusion that its apocalypse is a Nazi conspiracy. Rather, it shows that a mere whiff of national socialism in the room is enough to convert Americans to genocide. Major Kong is a cog in the American military machine, unaware of its Nazi inspirations, so his eagerness to kill is entirely American. If the cowboy nuke act wasn’t enough, his scenes are introduced with a hummed version of Battle Hymn of the Republic. There’s no master plan to revive the Third Reich, it simply emerges from the American spirit.
HYDRA plays a similar role in the MCU. Red Skull may have been a member of the Nazi party and HYDRA bigwigs, but they have little to do with its takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Daniel Whitehall spends most of the 20th century in prison. The infiltration is largely an operation of red-blooded Americans: Gideon Malick, Grant Ward, and John Garrett, the latter a dead ringer for Major Kong. Armin Zola, like Strangelove himself, was eagerly accepted by his former enemies when he offered new weapons.
Likewise, the Nazi elements of the alt-right and Trump’s Republican party are not the work of long-dormant espionage. Instead, they capture existing bigotries and amplify them within their own echo chamber, pouncing on existing racism, militarism, and hyperpatriotism to end up with a new ideology that feels awfully familiar. Nazis aren’t an outside force that infiltrated the American right; they’re just the head that grows back every time it’s cut off, whether the fight is Communism, integration, immigration, or policing.
Finally, below it all, is the unwavering sense of paranoia. Jack Ripper’s motivation is a belief that the USSR is engaging in mind control via water fluoridation, ranting about the purity of his essence—specifically bodily fluids. The end of the world comes from this laughable conspiracy theory, not only because of the power of one believer, but because of a society where such beliefs are a path to power.
In a departure from the above critiques, pop culture largely indulges and endorses these conspiracy theories, depicting believers as brave mavericks, speaking truth to power. Most obviously, this pattern is seen in The X-Files, where Fox Mulder’s outlandish claims about government conspiracies and aliens is right on the money, every single time. The Matrix essentially endorses the same theories; you always have to look behind the curtain to find the hostile nature of reality. Ditto Orphan Black, ditto Dollhouse. Never mind The Da Vinci Code. The universal message is denial of reality in favor of a grand, demonic conspiracy. Which implies, of course, that anyone who denies it is a fool, or in on it.
This same premise motivates the most dangerous elements of the far right, all of them aspiring General Rippers. Many share his fear of water fluoridation, others seize on chemtrails, aliens, or subliminal media. MRAs pull their rhetoric directly from The Matrix, naming their subreddit after its Red Pill. This kind of conspiratorial thinking requires imagining a class of co-conspirators, which almost immediately grabs onto existing bigotries. 4chan swarms with anti-Semitism, MRAs go after women, Trump seizes on all of Islam, talk radio imagines Black activists rigging elections, and Fox News puts them all on air. They all imagine themselves to be pulling back the curtain, with the proof of their beliefs expressed in the resistance of their opponents.
The ultimate result is that Dr. Strangelove emerges fifty years later in full color and 3-D. The specifics may seem remote, but the elements of the American character it reveals resonate through the years. The sarcastic subtitle demands the opposite action: Keep worrying. Hate the Bomb.
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Don’t forget the implications of the name “Merkin Muffley” (i.e. a “merkin” is a pubic wig, and a “muff” is specifically a reference to women’s pubic hair…so, by suggestion, the president is not only a “pussy,” he’s a fake one at that)…
Also, if you really want to see some conspiracy nut stuff, look up “the Mandela effect.” The fact that this phenomenon has been named after something that I think is a racist wish of its own–that Mandela died in the 1980s, but someone went and changed the timeline or moved us into an alternate universe where that didn’t happen (sadly, I kid you not!)–is interesting and frightening in itself.
Yes! I couldn’t quite work in the more feminized names – Merkin Muffley, Premier Kissoff, and arguably, Dr. Strangelove himself. I’m not quite sure where Kubrick is going with those.
And the Mandela Effect was bizarre. When I first heard about it, I assumed it was just people talking about the finicky nature of memory, like the Berenstein/Berenstain Bears. But…no.