As I was walking out of a recent screening of the entirely-enjoyable Star Trek: Into Darkness, a friend I was with said, “I’m so glad this time, the monster that chased Kirk didn’t look like a vagina” (see red alien above). If you think this friend has to be either a very lonely young man or a woman in the ninth year of writing her women’s studies PhD to make that kind of observation, you’re sadly mistaken.
As any avid viewer of sci-fi/fantasy movies can tell you, those made in the last twenty years especially often feature scary creatures that make you do a double take. My only reaction to my friend’s statement was that it would have been a nice counterbalance to the Fast & Furious 6 preview that showed a plane ejaculating a race car.
I take issue with this particular aesthetic choice, not for feminist reasons, but because, like many sci-fi fans, I am unwittingly hyper-aware of detail, and once you notice that every-other big bad monster has a sideways mouth filled with sharp teeth like some kind of anti-fertility totem made by an ancient island tribe hundreds of years ago, it’s hard to stop seeing it all the time and be taken out of the story. Here are a few recent, major monsters who can’t not be compared to lady parts.
The Biggest Reveal: Cloverfield
I admit that I didn’t even see Cloverfield. Too many people told me that, after all that build-up, the actual monster was pretty disappointing. The general consensus seemed to be that it was too much hype and not worth getting all the motion sickness to see New York get trampled by Vagzilla. I thought perhaps it just looked so vaginal because it had its mouth open all the time, but then, when it has its clamps its jaw, it looks like Joe Camel with fangs.
I don’t know whether the Cloverfield beast was supposed to have some sort of covert, equal-opportunity anti-genital message, but when your monster and its appearance/scariness factor become such a key part of your movie’s marketing, you’ve got make sure its face resembles scary junk, from either gender, as little as possible. Even if your expectations weren’t raised by having the monster hidden in the film’s ads, the rest of the film’s plot seems so typical (monster attacks New York, landmarks crumble, friends flee) that the monster should at least stand out, and not because it looks like an subliminal mascot for celibacy.
Emphasis Through Repetition: The Lord Of The Rings
Peter Jackson has done such a great job with all the Tolkien he’s touched so far, if only because so much of what he shows on the screen seems pulled directly from my childhood imagination—when Gollum first appeared, he didn’t just resemble the image in my head, but he sounded the way my father did when he read me the books as a child. That’s what makes Jackson’s slips into vaginal territory so jarring, because for every perfectly executed Ent, there’s a Shelob. And while the giant spider’s angry maw isn’t such glaring image, it does register. Especially given how the spider’s cave in such close proximity to Sauron’s Eye.
Despite the fact that The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies have fewer women in them than your average senate subcommittee, Peter Jackson has forever proved his cred as a director who’s skilled at telling women’s stories with Heavenly Creatures, his 1994 film based a real incident where an intensely close friendship between two teenaged girls leads to murder. Jackson also works closely with his wife, Fran Walsh, who used to be in a punk band, as well as Philippa Boyens. Maybe that’s why seeing evil vag of any kind in his films is so unexpected. The Hobbit has its fair share of spiders to worry about, but one of the worst beasts so far is the Goblin King, and at least we can all agree that his face looks like a scrotum.
When I used this bug mama monster as exhibit A with a friend who’d previously been oblivious to vaginal monster imagery, his response was, “well, it could be a butthole,” as if that was an acceptable defense (or even an original defense, since it’s the one most frequently used for the Star Wars Sarlacc Pit). This 1997 movie, based loosely on the Robert Heinlein novel, is best known for being a bomb and/or the failed comeback of Neil Patrick Harris (who would later return in earnest in Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle and endure a bunch of Starship Troopers jokes).
Paul Verhoeven directed, and if you’re familiar with his esteemed ‘90s canon—Basic Instinct (actual vagina), Showgirls (about vagina), and Total Recall (well, it had a lady with three boobs)—the vagmonster does make a lot more sense. In classic Verhoeven style, the tone and dialogue are so over the top that a movie which is ostensibly about the dangers of an overly-militarized society manages to reach an outer-space level of camp. I know lots of people who love Starship Troopers.
I know some people would argue that the presence of all these creatures that evoke vagina dentata in Sci-Fi/Fantasy is yet another way the genre excludes women, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Nor do you have to look that far for ways that the genre, at least done by Hollywood, shows its ineptitude with women, both by not casting them in lead roles or admitting that women are in the audience (hi). If Katniss Everdeen weren’t the only female lead character, then it wouldn’t matter if every scary beast was a labia-monstora. I don’t know when audiences will get to see more women on screen in sci-fi movies, but in the meantime, we’ll keep seeing vagmonsters, whether we want to or not.