The 1980s were a transitory time for both sexes. Women continued to ride out the Second Wave of feminism with continued pushes for independence and parity in the workplace and culture. The decade prior had seen the legal passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX, carving out protections and spaces for women in what was once a man’s world. The woman’s right to bodily autonomy in marriage was confirmed as marital rape laws were passed across the country. The landmark case of Roe v. Wade asserted the right of American women to choose whether or not to carry out a pregnancy.
As with any sort of social progress, a pendulum-swing of resistance gained momentum. A “backlash”, as Susan Faludi famously put it. A vocal subset of American society resented this new change as an emasculation of men. The 1980s ushered in an evolution in the portrayal of the masculine across the country, from the staunch throwback patriarchal values of Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, and the Republican party to the rise of the mesomorphic action star. The latter was embodied with zeal by Arnold Schwarzenegger in John McTiernan’s 1987 action classic Predator.
Marianne Kac-Vergne provided incisive commentary on Predator and all of the heavy-hitting sci-fi classics in her book Masculinity in Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema: Cyborgs, Troopers and Other Men of the Future. As Kac-Vergne points out, evaluating Predator and, by extension, any sci-fi film with an eye toward masculinity themes can unearth “a more complex and nuanced portrayal of masculinity than the more manichean and univocal hard body.” With Predator in particular, there is a comical element that indicates that McTiernan’s sci-fi action blockbuster is not such a straightforward celebration of masculinity. But first, some context.
Reagan’s 1980 election win was due in part to the backing of two powerful new Religious Right interest groups: the Moral Majority (founded by the late Jerry Falwell), and Concerned Women Of America (CWA). The MM and CWA happened to share a common creed, advocating old-school “family values” of the utopian Father-Knows-Best sort while vehemently opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, a woman’s right to choose, and anything that undermined a traditional family under the rule and guidance of a patriarch. The groups’ goals were varied but the Religious Right did have one common MAGA-like mission: to reinstate the dominant role of white men from sea to shining sea. For his own part, Reagan answered his presidential predecessor Jimmy Carter’s “weak” term of service and “soft” post-Vietnam diplomacy with a hawkish hard-on for swift force and military rearmament in an effort to establish America as the big kid on the block once again. He survived an attempt on his life in 1981 with manly wit and brevity, quipping to his wife that he “forgot to duck.” Shirtless bear-wrestling Putin had nothing on ol’ Ronnie, who was often photographed chopping wood and clearing the brush on his ranch. Both Reagan’s rise and run were fueled by virile masculinity, in display and principle.
While not necessarily a causation, The Gipper’s popular and prevalent image correlated with media representations of masculinity throughout the decade. Dutch. John McClane. Rambo. John Matrix. Indiana Jones. Mad Max. GI Joe. Strong. Courageous. Determined. White. Heterosexual. While some of the action/science-fiction films that feature these protagonists foreground hypermasculinity (defined by Kac-Vergne as, “…the extreme glorification of masculine attributes, including an emphasis on physical strength and aggression”) as a critique of its most toxic elements (what’s good, Robocop?), nearly all of them center on a muscular white manly man who loves brute force, aggressively seeks out danger, and merely tolerates women.
As early as 1981, Hollywood was reflecting the new ideal with films like The Road Warrior and Escape From New York, and audiences chugged that protein shake en masse. Hero and anti-hero alike took turns at the weight bench, flexing a cultural reassertion of the white male at the top of the totem pole in what Kac-Vergne called a “revalidated patriarchal system”.
Predator stars Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as US Army Major “Dutch” Schaefer, the leader of an elite special forces team (with future The Predator filmmaker Shane Black among them): Mac Elliot, Billy Sole, Blain Cooper, Jorge “Poncho” Ramírez, and Rick Hawkins, with CIA agent (and “sonofabitch”) Al Dillon as acting supervisor. During a hostage rescue mission in Central America’s Northern Triangle, Dutch and his team end up taking Anna, a woman guerilla, prisoner. As they trek further into the Latin American jungle, the mercenaries run into trouble in the form of an extra-terrestrial who is not only technologically advanced, but he’s on the hunt for worthy human game (he even collects spines as trophies). Sporting glistening muscles and hyper-phallic weaponry, Dutch and his men engage with the primitive-but-sportsmanlike hunter as he picks them off one-by-one in a battle to the death.
Dutch and Co. seem like the juiced-up realization of the Reagan-era alpha-male ideal. In 1984 (the same year that Reagan won his re-election bid in a landslide victory), Donald L. Mosher and Mark Sirkin oversaw a landmark study on hyper-masculinity, leading to their definition of the concept as containing three major components:
– A callous sexual attitude towards women
– The belief that violence is “manly”
– The experience of danger as exciting
The testosterone-fueled commandos check every box. En route to the drop-off point, they play lively music, tell lewd jokes, and share laughter in the helicopter, revealing an excitement at the potentially violent mission that lies before them. Even once the body count starts rising, they dismiss their guerrilla captive Anna’s claims of an unstoppable creature (Dillon calls her “a bullshit psych job”). They’re aggressive, full of bravado, and resist appeals to emotion from the one woman among them. Perfect models of the All-American Man.
But there remains plenty to satirize. McTiernan takes the rising visibility of the male body and heightens it to the point of spectacle. In keeping with the most visual aspect of 1980s Hollywood hyper-masculinity, the male bodies of Predator (and Dutch’s, in particular) are showcased as innate signs of masculine prowess. The camera lingers on the juiced-up biceps of Dutch and Dillon as they greet each other with a handshake. The team rocks open camo vests and Dutch goes shirtless for a good portion of the film, pecs-a-flexin’. Amid cantaloupe biceps and forearms the size of cricket bats, the muscles themselves are almost a caricature. That display of male muscle isn’t objectified the way a woman’s scantily-clad body would be onscreen. The men aren’t feminized for showing off skin, it’s fully the opposite: they are confirmed as active and naturally commanding, even in this souped-up machismo. It’s a punchline, a farcial fantasy of manhood applied with intent and purpose.
To the narrative’s potent advantage, the masculinity is played fairly straight. It allows for both a cheeky deconstruction of normative action films of the time, and a sincere camaraderie among its main players. Some analyses of Predator find a healthy dose of homo-eroticism injected into the mens’ interactions, but that’s another read for another day. It can be said now that the gun-as-penis trope is present and accounted for in the film as the team blasts a ridiculous amount of rounds into the tree line after another of their own is killed, weapon barrels thrusting toward an unseen target but ultimately impotent in their efforts to get penetration on him. Here, as in Robocop and The Terminator, the excesses of hyper-masculinity are presented as a built-in critique of the model itself. These are the same guys who tore through a fully-manned guerrilla operations base like it was made of tissue paper. But for all of their firepower, the commandos are useless in the face of a “primitive” opponent in the thick of the jungle (which is doubly potent in the context of the post-Vietnam American mentality). It came down to one man (a straight, muscular white man) who at long last leveled the playing field by stripping away those same excesses: covering his muscles with mud, tossing away the guns, and engaging in a battle of wits and brawn.
Taken at face value, Predator is a highly entertaining prowl through the jungle. But it becomes even more so when McTiernan’s funhouse mirror of hyper-masculinity shows how absurd the ‘80s American male ideal truly is. Today, Reagan is no longer president but times are volatile. Toxic masculinity has become a hot topic, coupled with the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. With Shane Black at the helm of a new take on the dreadlocked hunter, it will be interesting to see what commentary, if any, The Predator will provide on men and how they present themselves.
Anya Stanley is a California-based writer, columnist, and staunch Halloween 6 apologist. Her horror film analyses have appeared on Birth Movies Death, Blumhouse, Daily Grindhouse, and wherever they’ll let her talk about scary movies. See more of her work on anyawrites.com, and follow her shenanigans on Twitter @BookishPlinko.