Noah Berlatsky, editor of cultural criticism site The Hooded Utilitarian, compares the new prequel movie The Thing to the 1982 version of the John Carpenter film starring Kurt Russell. He argues that the new version of the film with Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the starring role eliminates a homoerotic sexual subtext by adding women characters and consequently the film becomes more of a conventional slasher flick.
Berlatsky relies for his interpretation on queer literary theorist Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, a book in which she deconstructs the West’s binary opposition of homosexual and heterosexual. He writes:
Basically, for Sedgwick, male identity always inevitably collapses into an agonized, shapeless horror. Strong, manly men who are male-focused and uninterested in femininity are in danger of becoming homosexual not-men. On the other hand, men who are too women-identified are also in danger of becoming not-men—a.k.a. things.
Thus, women in The Thing would be out of place, as would male-female love. This is because The Thing can be read as being obsessed with the fear of failing to be a man—and, concurrently, with homosexual panic.
The men in the original are constantly examining each other for evidence of the Thing, the spreading contagion that may make them not-men The Thing of the title is an alien protoplasm that devours and mimics other organisms—it passes, if you will, as human. One by one, the men on the base are devoured and replaced. That replacement often has a queasy sexual component; one of the researchers, for example, is covered with slithery, bondage-like tentacles. In the film’s most spectacular scene, another scientist reveals his Thingness when a replica of his own head bursts from his stomach in a twisted all-male mockery of birth.
The men in The Thing are constantly examining each other for evidence of the Thing, the spreading contagion that may make them not-men. The hero, MacReady (Russell), is heroic precisely because he is the most paranoid and the least subject to emotional attachments. To give him a female love interest would both undermine the source of his strength and ruin the apocalyptic, eroticized, male hot-house orgy of Thingness.
However, Berlatsky says, the new flick exchanges an atmosphere of rampant male-on-male paranoia with one in which all the film’s interpersonal tensions are funneled through Kate, the new female lead. Her star presence “works to undo the aura of paranoia—or at least, to de-eroticize it.” Her lack of sexual interest itself puts her in a good spot for capturing a role traditionally given to female protagonists in horror films. Consequently, there’s something distinctive about the old film that’s lost and something about the new film that’s depressingly conventional.
An integral theory of gender arises from a matrix of underlying patterns
As much as I appreciate Sedgwick’s seminal contribution to literary theory — encouraging a new generation of students to consider the homoerotic subtexts of writers such as Henry James, for example — it’s worth observing that she only attends to socially constructed erotic desires and their supposedly oppressive effects on women and men. The notion that erotic desire arises from a matrix of subtle underlying energy patterns (agency and communion, homophilia and heterophilia) whose admixture generates effects paradoxically simultaneously oppressive and liberating is foreign to her hermeneutic.
An integral reading of John Carpenter’s The Thing includes Sedgwick’s understanding of “homosociality” to help us understand the film’s intense paranoia, but transcends it to include a wider framework (as I explored in Soulfully Gay which employs a “cross” concept of human nature with agency and communion as the horizontal axis of evolution and heterophilia and homophilia as the vertical axis of evolution).
As homosociality predicts, men confined to an all-male environment over an extended period of time are under pressure to conform to gender norms or be constructed as an Other, a thing. But it would go to far, I think, to claim as Berlatsky does, that the film is obsessed with homosexual panic. An Integral hermeneutic does not force us to understand art through the lens of gender, but allows for a variety of perspectives. It would be just as valid to say that The Thing is obsessed with, say, the perils of self-immanence in a heterotrophic system … or, say, with the limits of human species-centrism brushing against a cosmic invader.
In The Thing, confined homosociality contributes to a atmosphere of terror and homoeroticism. But within the constricted environment, there are possibilities for liberation as well as oppression. Liberation from fear of self-immanence is as nearby as the conquest of a violent other. The 1982 movie’s all-male world creates an environment of intense self-immanence caught between hetero-phobia (fear of The Thing) and homo-phobia (fear of other men), a battlefield drawn not only in gross bodies but in the subtle bodies of us all.