Monday, October 26, 2009

Autogenesis: The Terminator and the Art of Self-Conception

I feel like this could still use some tweaking. I was limited to about 4 pages, so I couldn't cover everything I wanted to say. If it seems like I leave a point shy of fully explored, I apologize. If you can think of ways to change it without changing its length, I'm all ears. The last sentence is sort of in place-holder status right now--I haven't fully settled.
It takes no great act of intellectual gymnastics to draw a reasonable connection between the elements of James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator and what can be euphemistically called a woman’s technology of choice. In the film, a machine disguised by a biological human exterior travels into the past in order to “terminate” Sarah Connor’s unborn child, John Connor, who happens to grow up to lead a post-apocalyptic resistance against the robot overlords: a job he can use to pad his resume at Kinkos once the mechanical-ragnarok settles down. Apparently, freedom fighting is a tough to market skill set, but nobody deals with a broken copier like John Connor. Now, an attempt to justify that tangent: John’s mother is the copier, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is the ultra-buff cyborg sent from the future to blast her toner cartridge apart with a shotgun. The Terminator’s globally scaled technophobic nightmare centers on the control of one working class woman’s reproductive equipment, a narrative which on the surface appears to present a heroine breaking away from a life of mediocrity to overcome impossible odds and seize mastery of her genitive processes away from a terrifying embodiment of an oppressive patriarchy. Closer examination of the gendering of the film’s characters reveals a far less liberating subtext, one which puts to question how our culture chooses to frame reproductive technologies and the evolution of gender roles in the modern world.

The unseen driving force behind the Terminator’s hunt for Sarah Connor is the enigmatic Skynet, the artificial intelligence responsible for the future near-extermination of humanity. Skynet itself is a non-gendered entity; its apparatus of interaction in the film is a hulking visually imposing male figure. Of course, the maleness of the Terminator itself can be called into question: is gender defined by appearance or motivation? As a machine, the Terminator does not possess a “male” mind, but rather a gender neutral mind. It seems unlikely that the cyborg’s appearance bears any relation to Skynet’s sense of self; rather, it draws on a cultural understanding of what is intimidating. This could be a formulation on the part of the artificial intelligence, but the decision to mold a cyborg specifically designed to infiltrate the tattered remains of humanity in the shape of a looming six-foot-two bodybuilder appears a bit conspicuous and as such seems to be a somewhat impractical decision for a super computer to make, pointing instead to a preference of human origin: that of the film makers. So, ignoring the aesthetic display of masculinity—a mask really—Skynet and its Terminator ultimately exist as a technology with a singular purpose in the film: to usurp authority over Sarah’s baby-maker and stop it.

If the Terminator is an instrument of abortion and Sarah Connor the film’s everywoman, then one of the implications presented is that abortion is harmful to every woman; a point driven home by the cyborg’s murder of Sarah’s mother and all the Sarah Connors in the phone directory. All these women, by virtue of their alikeness, are essentially unidentified casualties of a conflict surrounding motherhood and reproductive decisions being waged by forces situated beyond the periphery of knowable existence.

Time travel in The Terminator aside from being a practical method of naked transportation between two points, provided those points are separated by time instead of space, also works as a form of what Petchesky describes as womb surveillance. The characters from the future possess special knowledge of Sarah’s unborn child. The importance attached to this knowledge upon delivery, that she must save her own life and secure her role as mother, anchors her to a destiny which she has had no part in devising. The case presented by the male hero, Kyle, mirrors the function, argued by both advocates and opponents of abortion, of a sonogram in that it is meant to bond the woman to her progeny through the anthropomorphizing of the fetus, even going a step further by assigning the unborn child a name and purpose. Kyle is also represented as a human opposite to the machine hunting Sarah down, a rescuer, but his mission is no more liberating than the Terminator’s, both present the same binary option: embrace motherhood or face catastrophe. If Sarah does not have a reasonable opportunity to self-assign gender roles, then with whom does the power actually rest and whose power is threatened by the cyborg? At the start of the film, Sarah is merely another Sarah Connor, one of many on a list, and only through embracing the goals of a traditional patriarchy, a cultural institution built largely on the management of the female genitive process, can she be fully realized in the fictional world of The Terminator. Cameron’s narrative establishes an illustrative, if paradoxical, cycle of womb administration as a reproductive custody passing from father to son to father, the mother first surrendering to the ambitions of the father and then deferring to the son’s wishes. John Connor’s implied manipulation of his own conception breaths vivid life into the sometimes tired and overly-speculative art of diagnosing an oedipal complex.

John and Sarah, when judged in terms of free agency, make for more interesting foils than Kyle and the Terminator, who act only on behalf of another’s will utilizing imperfect knowledge of Sarah’s womb-destiny to steer events. Sarah is by far the least powerful figure in the film, acted upon by agents of entities not yet existent, devoid of special intimate awareness of her body, and forcibly assigned the role of motherhood. John, on the other hand, is the most powerful character in the story, having all but defeated Skynet—the only other entity capable of orchestrating actions based on knowledge of events situated in Sarah’s future—and having self-defined to what should be an impossible degree of specificity. John Connor is his own maker whereas Sarah is made, defined by a family line over which she has no authority.

The Terminator presents itself as a cautionary tale of technology gone awry, claiming free agency for women and trumpeting the defeat of a masculine archetype. Instead, it makes a case for what every woman should want: a benevolent patriarchy which bestows upon her a precious baby boy to maintain the continuity of human existence. John Connor is, through his own paradoxical origins, an immaculately conceived savior with no clear beginnings; when he looks back over his own history he does not see the agency of others but rather the workings of his own hand. He is a sort of modern divinity reasserting the power of men over life and death, invoking a mythical tradition of male parthenogenesis to defeat technologies which threaten patriarchal order. The film recasts gender neutral forces, giving technology a sinister goal and appropriating the feminist understanding of the enemy as a hyper-masculine bogeyman in order to achieve a pseudo-feminization of the womb-management of the classical patriarchy by presenting a female character as being strong in the face of an invented mutual enemy. The Terminator generates an argument against reproductive technologies that it cannot possibly lose, because who sides with killer robots?