Cherry’s Dance of Death: Feminism and Planet Terror

I’ve now watched Death Proof and Planet Terror, the two films making up Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double feature, which sparked a fair bit of feminist debate last year.  Personally, I liked both movies.  Both represent attempts to re-imagine X-rated 1970s exploitation films through the lens of feminism and both have plenty of interesting things to say about gender. Of the two, I preferred Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror so I’m going to focus on that one here.

Poster for Planet Terror

As a big fan of horror films, I really enjoyed the way this film played around with the conventions of the genre.  I think one problem with the response to Planet Terror was an inability to appreciate its place as a film made for horror fans packed full of intertextual references.  There were, for instance, really unhelpful descriptions of Cherry (Rose McGowan) with her machine-gun leg as an example of “torture porn” when any fan of the genre will recognise the image as a reference to Ash’s chainsaw arm in the earlier zombie horror comedies, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness :

Poster for Evil Dead 3, Army of Darkness

Because we know that Ash is the hero of those movies and that he benefits from the replacement of his severed hand with a chainsaw, the image actually positions Cherry as the hero of Planet Terror before we even see it and suggests that the machine-gun leg is going to give her an advantage.

But of course you can’t just replace a man with a woman because men and women are not positioned in the same way in our society.  Cherry’s machine-gun leg can’t signify exactly the same thing for her as Ash’s chainsaw arm, and this is what Planet Terror sets out to explore.

The film undermines expectations from the start.  We’re watching Cherry go-go dancing in a seedy club, but after a few minutes of sexy dancing, she sinks to the floor and sits there with tears rolling down her cheeks.  Rose McGowan is great at conveying pathos and our sympathies are engaged to Cherry from to beginning.  She’s an unhappy go-go dancer, her dreams are unfulfilled and she thinks her talents are “useless.”

Meanwhile, there’s scene at a chemical weapons plant with (Naveen Andrews) castrating a man who has failed him.  The fact that he generally likes castrating men and keeps a jar full of testicles, sets the scene for a film obsessed with phallic power and castration. Various macho military antics (Bruce Willis is appropriately involved), result in a group of army guys getting infected with a chemical that turns people into zombies.  The chemical is released into the atmosphere and people duly get a taste for fresh brains.

Cherry walks out on her go-go dancing job and meets up with her mysterious ex-boyfriend, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez).  While driving home, they are attacked by the zombies who promptly eat Cherry’s leg.   Wray rushes her to hospital where another initially misleading story is taking place.  Dr Block’s apparently cold and bitchy anaesthesiologist wife Dakota (Marley Shelton) seems to be cheating on him, but it turns out that she’s absolutely justified in her actions because he’s a violent psychopath.  One of the most disturbing and sadistic (rape?) scenes in the film is the one in which he paralyses her hands by stabbing them repeatedly with her own anaesthetic needles.

We now have two women disabled by “patriarchy” (male power). One has lost her leg thanks to macho posturing and militarism and the other has been semi-paralysed by her violent husband. When Zombies attack the hospital Wray attaches a stick to Cherry’s stump to help her walk and,  despite her paralysed hands, Dakota also takes the initiative, escapes and tries to rescue her son.

One of the interesting things about Dakota and Cherry is their repeated reference to their talents as “useless” – “useless talent number 300” etc.  But of course their talents are not inherently useless; it’s just that the world in which they live has no use for them.  What this suggests is that women’s talents are only interpreted as “useless” in a society that representationally disadvantages them.  In this context, Cherry’s strength and flexibility is only good for go-go dancing, and Dakota’s speed and accuracy for working under the thumb of her psycho husband.

From a psychoanalytic and gender-theory point of view, the really interesting stuff starts to happen when the survivors are captured by the infected soldiers who have found a way to suppress the zombie symptoms by breathing in the antidote, which unfortunately stops working as soon as you take your mask off.   Cherry and Dakota are trapped with two sexually aggressive soldiers, one played by Quentin Tarantino in the notorious role of ‘rapist # 1’.  The soldiers threaten the women in a lift, another very uncomfortable sadistic scene in which the audience is forced to identify with the women’s fear.

But when the would-be rapist attempts to attack Cherry, that which is already been implied about her leg (stick) is made apparent.  This replacement leg is a symbol of phallic power, the appropriation of which makes Cherry fair game for rape in the first place because it triggers the men’s desire to put her back in her place.  When rapist # 1 approaches Cherry, she whacks him in the face with her stick and once he’s down rams the end of it into his eye socket.  The potential penetrator has become the penetrated.  If we hadn’t already made the connection, rapist #1 gets up and says that since she’s given him her “wood,” he’ll give her some of his “wood”.   For a moment, we’re worried, but the film immediately undercuts expectations again, when the rapist drops his pants only to find that the symptoms have returned and his “wood” has become a squidgy, dripping mass of goo.  He has already been symbolically castrated.  Not be deterred, he lumbers towards Cherry, but we know now that he’s done for and the only thing to worry about is the possibly that he might drip on Cherry and infect her.  At this moment, Dakota whips out the handy syringes she has stored in her garter belt and takes out his other eye.  In psychoanalytic theory the eye is often seen as symbolic of the penis and this scene is clearly one of absolute castration. Rapist # 1 melts into a disgusting pile of pus, the irony of his role being that he never got to rape anyone and has instead been “raped,” castrated and representationally deconstructed.

As the survivors try and escape by reaching a helicopter base, Wray gives Cherry a replacement for her stick, a machine gun, and tells her he always believed in her.  Again the conventions of the genre are turned on their head as Wray, instead of trying to protect Cherry, unleashes her potential without showing any jealously or anxiety.  There may be some issues with the suggestion that a woman might need a man to unleash her power, but I’m not going to fuss about it too much, since the narrative seems to be trying to imagine the possibility of a different, mutually supportive relation between the sexes in which men don’t try and hold women back.

But with her machine-gun leg attached, Cherry is now positioned as a phallic woman, a woman who tries to appropriate male power and privilege.  In Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, “the phallus” stands for male power in the symbolic order:

‘The Symbolic order creates cultural intelligibility through the mutually exclusive positions of “having” the Phallus (the position of men) and “being” the Phallus (the paradoxical position of women)’ (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, 60).

In this economy women cannot have the phallus; only people positioned as men can have the Phallus.  The phallus is not the penis, although the penis has come to signify phallic power

In Lacanian terms, women have to be the phallus, which means they are to, ‘reflect the power of the phallus, to signify that power, to “embody” the Phallus, to supply the site to which it penetrates, and to signify the Phallus through being its Other, its absence, it’s lack, the diametrical confirmation of its identity’ (Butler, Gender, 59).

In terms of representation,  Phallic women who refuse the position of “lack,” of reflecting male power, and who attempt to take it for themselves,  generally come to very sticky ends, often being “raped” in some sense, but the rape of Cherry fails and she goes from strength to strength, becoming even more Phallic once the machine-gun leg is in place.  She saves the survivors by using her amazing physical flexibility to clear the way to the helicopters.  Wray is killed in the process, but Cherry survives and escapes; she loves Wray but she doesn’t need him to live.

We see her at the end, dressed in white, leading survivors from a ruined city to the haven by the sea which she and the other escapees have created.  The apocalyptic end of the world (and by implication male power) has turned the sad go-go dancer into a great leader because she no longer lives in a world that disadvantages her.

As they travel, a zombie emerges from the hedge and Cherry whips back her white dress, reveals a new, even more terrifying machine-gun attachment and blasts it away.  On her back is strapped her baby daughter.  Perhaps the film returns Cherry to the narrative of compulsory motherhood at the end, but perhaps it does something more subversive, suggesting that she can be a mother and keep the “Phallus” after all.

We realise at the end the zombies were always the least of Cherry and Dakota’s problems. In a sense, the zombies have done them a favour by doing away with the society that disadvantages them.  The positive note that the film ends on suggest that Cherry’s daughter will grow up in a “better” world.

Both Death Proof and Planet Terror consider the question, “how can women have power?”  Both come to extreme and uncompromising conclusions.  Death Proof suggests that women should fight male oppression with equal violence: “Don’t mess around, just kill him!,” seems to be the message of that film.  Death Proof also implies that men and women can never be friends.  Planet Terror goes even further, taking up the radical feminist notion that we need a total revolution (practically an apocalyptic change) in society, in order for women to have equal power with men and for the sexes to be able to work together.

Crossposted to Flaming Culture