Annihilation and symbolism of genders (movie review)
We live in an interesting time. Unparalleled growth and wealth, the Scientific, Industrial and Computer Revolutions have changed the way we live in just the last 500 years or 0.25% of our 200,000 year existence as a species. Consequently, the stories our ancestors told no longer seem to fit. Less people believe the stories religion tells us. So we look for something new to guide us. Movies are a major story telling channel, increasingly asking “Does the story of masculine and feminine no longer fit?”
In Annihilation, Natalie Portman, the childless wife of a military man has to go out and find him. After cheating on him, evidence that something is not right in her own psyche, she must find new life and understand the world again.
Natalie Portman is a scientist and goes out with an all female band. The writers have one woman note that the gun is too heavy. Well, yes, it’s made for a man. The women in the band take on the responsibilities of men: they have the guns, they are scientists (reason and logic are symbols of the masculine). The writers go out of their way to show that none of the women have children and have lost themselves; they are damaged goods looking to find… something.
For millennia, we have been successful as a species by respecting the masculine and feminine. Women have the most important role in our species—to have children. Men have a supporting role to make sure the children stay safe so that they can become successful mothers and fathers and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.
“All successful societies respect the mother because all societies that don’t die.” -Jordan Peterson
But in Annihilation, the women haven’t taken on the most sacred female role—becoming mothers. Instead they have taken on the man’s role, which begs the question, what is the man’s role now? In the movie, the writers highlight that all previous expeditions have failed and all previous expeditions were composed of men.
Annihilation, while not obviously about gender roles, uses gender symbolism throughout. Movies are art and art is at the forefront of culture. Artists are ahead of the politicians and scientists and general public, exploring. What stories resonate with people? What are we up to, as a species?
Moana is another movie where the writers try to grapple with the masculine and feminine. Moana takes the masculine role of leading her tribe to order and even returns the seed to the mother, which, literally, is the man’s role: to put the seed in the mother. Further, as you see in the great video by Jonathan Pageau below, the masculine can only be masculine by the permission of the feminine.
The female taking on the male role is increasingly seen in movies. The movie business, being capitalist, makes movies that people want to see and putting women in masculine roles seems to be a financially successful strategy. Remember Pirates of the Caribbean? Elizabeth Swann (played by Kira Knightly) gloriously and hilariously takes on the masculine role. I’m sure you smiled when you watched it: a proper, english woman putting rowdy pirates in their place.
Pirates explores women taking on a man’s role. If you think I am looking for symbolism where it doesn’t exist, consider this. Elizabeth Swann, named after the majestic bird, becomes Elizabeth Turner, a French last name, meaning starling, that noisy, common bird. Perhaps Pirates is a movie aimed at the masses, but the writers were very aware of symbolism.
We left the movie saying “that movie was good.” Good is shorthand way of saying something is functional and successful. Good, in the moral sense, is a heuristic for what works. Helping people is good and killing people is bad because one leads to successful societies and the other does not. The movie was good, it worked for us. But does it work for our society?
Annihilation poses the question of our times, as we grapple with our future roles in the world. What is good? The masculine and feminine have made us successful for hundreds of thousands of years. But do we live in a special time, where that is no longer true?
Like, Fight Club, the protagonist has to deal with her shadow. Everything she does, the creature does back to her. The Serpent eatings its tail tattoo slowly grows on her. This is an ancient symbol of chaos, and chaos is the feminine side of the Order/Chaos duality. Maybe she becomes more feminine and deals with why she cheated on her husband. Maybe they can now have a good family, a functional family, one that works.
I wonder what we Millennials will do. Increasingly, our generation is confused about what we should do. What career should we take? Where should we live? Should we stay in this relationship or find someone else on Tinder?
One answer is right in front of us. When social conservatives say family values are “good” what they are really saying, whether they know it or not, is “family values are functional and lead to successful societies.” Which has been true.
Maybe that’s the answer. Take responsibility for our roles. Today, more women are married to the state receiving welfare, men are increasingly let off the hook. Today women try to get a degree, have a career and have children all before they turn 30. Something seems off.
Do we live in a special time where gender is no longer important? Maybe. But humans have the bias to believe we are somehow special. Our accomplishments in the Industrial, Scientific and Computer revolutions make us exceptions to the rules of the past. But usually we aren’t special. The last 0.25% of human existence does not make us immune to the requirement that men and women join together to make the next generation. Annihilation — the name is no coincidence — is a thought experiment in a world without children. A world where men and women don’t take their traditional roles might be an evolutionary dead end.