The Hidden Meanings of Gattaca, 25 years later
A film that is most famous in genetics circles is also useful for broader discussions about discrimination, difference, and the future
A comment on: Ogbunugafor CB, Edge MD. Gattaca as a lens on contemporary genetics: Marking 25 years into the film’s “not-too-distant” future. Genetics. 2022 Oct 11:iyac142. doi: 10.1093/genetics/iyac142.
It was one of the many settings in Gatacca where the director (Andrew Niccol) manages to fold several substantive ideas into a routine interaction.
During a scene near the film’s climax involving a crime, a mission director (portrayed by Gore Vidal) scoffs at the notion that he might be a suspect:
“You won’t find a violent bone in my body. Take another look at my profile, Detective.”
The suggestion is that DNA is useful here, not only for identifying who did the crime and how (as in forensics), but for identifying who was likely to have committed the crime. The mission director is saying that we can eliminate suspects based on their proclivities, that what is likely to happen can be just as important as the actual happening.
So goes one of the main messages of the Gattaca, where our knowledge of genetics has come to do the labor of understanding, explaining, investigating, sorting, curating, and dreaming.
Yes, merit is a thing, but is a privilege afforded to those deemed genetically equipped.
Yes, hard work matters. But not if you’re born with the wrong genotype.
Yes, everyone can struggle. But some are born with a genetic haul that makes it a near guarantee.
25 years after its release, the central premise of Gattaca is still debatable. Even IMDB’s description of the film — “A genetically inferior man assumes the identity of a superior one in order to pursue his lifelong dream of space travel” — mostly misses the point: the film is not about inferior or superior people, but about the very definitions of inferiority and superiority, why we believe them, and what they do not mean.
The flexibility in the film’s message is part of the reason why it has, despite a disappointing box office run (just over 12 million US dollars during its theatrical release), remained in the public imagination for a quarter-of-a-century. It has been celebrated by most, criticized by many, and taught in biology classrooms across the world. It has been studied rigorously by film scholars and cultural critics, who have explored themes ranging from bioethics to disability to sexuality.
The film’s silver anniversary seems to have arrived right on time, as society needed a cultural relic to anchor contentious debates about the use of modern tools in genetics and genomics such as genetic-facial reconstruction, genetic-modification, polygenic embryo selection and many others (please see the latest manuscript, recently published, that examines some of these issues).
But more than these technological reflections, the legacy of Gattaca can also be framed in terms of how it captures common machinations underlying how discrimination works, whether based on genetics, race, gender identity, and other dimensions.
Passing and Police Profiling
Gattaca’s introduction tells the story of Vincent Anton Freeman, an “invalid,” someone born without the assistance of genetic technology that maximizes favorable traits. At the end of the film’s introduction, Freeman says “we now have discrimination down to a science.”
The crux of the story is about how he navigates this world through acquiring a false genetic identity (known as a “borrowed ladder”) that gives him access to institutions and spaces that his true identity would not allow him. In this way, Freeman is participating in an age-old practice formally referred in African-American culture as “passing,” where Black people had enough white-adjacent physical features to be accepted as a white person (with all of the associated privileges).
This analogy between Freeman’s experience and an aspect of the way race is lived in America is just one of many in the film. And it is here that the another message of Gattaca, one that has mostly gone under-explored through the years, can be amplified. The film is less a story about the powers of genetics than it is the pervasiveness of othering people, and how it often looks the same, whether we are talking about race, religion, or genetic identity.
This message was apparent to me during my first viewing of the film. I was 18-years-old, and a college student. And the reason the film landed was because I saw parallels between Freeman’s life and my own (and especially, my progenitors, who faced far worse discrimination than I ever have). More than that, aspects of the world of Gattaca resembled the one I lived in, but where the faces and instruments of discrimination were different.
To bring it back to the crime story in Gattaca that we began with: there is another (related) scene where detectives are searching for the culprit of a crime. Two detectives are walking outside, presumably in some neighborhood where the members of the genetic underclass (invalids) live. The viewer sees, in the background, individuals being lined up and screened by the police, in order to identify a presumptive match to the DNA of an invalid identified near the scene of the crime.
The parallel here was to racial profiling, defined by the ACLU as “discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual’s race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.” Race-driven police practices are still popular across the country and have been central in conversations about policing in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The genetic-profiling in Gattaca is clear — the invalids’ adjacency to crime is presumed based on traits they were born with. And this, is of course, the very story of racial profiling as formal police practice in the real world.
Borrowed Ladders and Black Exceptionalism
The Gattaca world’s fixation on what people are born with creates exploitable glitches for individuals like Vincent (and fodder for a good story). Part of the reason he’s able to fly under the radar is because his professional performance is so stellar. That is, no one in authority believes an invalid could ever achieve what he has.
This creates an irony: if the authority figures in Gattaca had a better grasp on how talent and performance actually worked — that there is, as one of the film’s taglines suggests, “no gene for the human spirit” — than they would be better at preventing people from borrowing the genetic identities of others. Of course, if the society acknowledged that genes were not fate, then the discrimination that it operates on would become indefensible.
In this way, the world of Gattaca is even more extreme than ours. In our world, the talented individuals among our equivalent invalids (e.g., BIPOC folks) are a valued commodity, even for racists. For example, racism requires that there be exceptional Black talents, and that these talents be acknowledged. Not only does this mesh well with the quasi-scientific-statistical picture that not *all* Black people are inferior/prone to violence/less intelligent, but the acknowledgment that some of us are special justifies discrimination against the remainder of the members of the outgroup.
This is a fuzzy concept for which there isn’t a lot of good literature. One term that captures this idea is “Black exceptionalism,” the notion that there are members of an outgroup (Black people in America, for example) who are endowed with magical-like gifts that make them a paragon of the race. This idea has personal gravity, as my own life story has been unsuccessfully invoked this way by others. People like me — alleged high performers from an outgroup, who are critical of the idea of Black exceptionalism — will tell you that exceptional people don’t quite work the way the trope hopes, with two-dimensional stories of “talent” or “grit.” The real stories of how select members of an outgroup succeed in realms where they are underrepresented are less intriguing for reductionists. They often include exceptional contexts, circumstances, mentors, and communities who loved and supported them.
But for those of us truly interested in why people find their talents, grow, learn, and do great things, this more pluralistic perspective is beautiful. And it becomes fun when we decide to give everyone a chance to succeed or fail, whatever their physical traits, gender identity, sexual preference, or genetic hand. This is, of course, the philosophy of Vincent Anton Freeman, trying to navigate a world that placed limits on his possibility.
Gattaca, an AfroFuturist Classic? (Well, no…but still)
I have joked in my nerdier circles that Gattaca is a work of AfroFuturism. I am allowed to do this because the definition of AfroFuturism is flexible enough that, if I am agile, I might make an interesting point or three. The AfroFuturist tradition, to which I am a self-proclaimed member, can be defined many ways. Alondra Nelson has offered a useful one, suggesting that AfroFuturism offers “visions of the future — including science, technology and its cultures in the laboratory, in social theory, and in aesthetics — through the experience and perspective of African diasporic communities.”
With this in mind, Gattaca can’t fit the bill, because race isn’t the dimension through which the discrimination takes place (in fact, the genetic discrimination supposedly transcends race in this fictional world).
But to return to an old quote from Junot Diaz (from an old podcast interview) regarding the relationship between science-fiction and real-world stories of race and colonialism:
“If it wasn’t for race, X-Men doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the history of breeding human beings through chattel slavery, Dune doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the extermination of so many indigenous First Nations, most of what we call science-fiction ‘first contact stories’ don’t make sense.”
That is, many popular science-fiction relics exist in part because of the experiences of the colonized and enslaved. And we need not say this cynically, or suggest that theses stories have been exploitative or extractive (they might be, but we need not dissect that here).
The point I intend to make is both louder and more subtle: Gattaca spoke to me for a reason. The 18-year-old version of myself, who saw Gattaca, had experienced racial profiling so often that it had become an expectation. While my privileges outweigh my gripes by many orders-of-magnitude today, I sure as hell know what it feels like for people to look one in the eye and see something other than the person who lives in the body, not unlike Vincent Anton Freeman and the invalids of his world.
Gattaca never slows down enough to examine subtleties of Vincent’s perspective: What does Vincent really think about this world? Does he find inspiration in his struggle? And would he want to change the world so that others like him had a different experience?
We don’t know this part of the story, but we can guess, based on millions of real-world analogues throughout human history. And the arc of the real story is better than fiction, and it goes something like this: people are denied their humanity, only to decide that enough-is-enough, and that its time to teach the world a lesson about the glorious pliability of human potential.
As I remain.
Big. Data. Kane.
October 24, 2022
Ogbunugafor CB, Edge MD. Gattaca as a lens on contemporary genetics: Marking 25 years into the film’s “not-too-distant” future. Genetics. 2022 Oct 11:iyac142. doi: 10.1093/genetics/iyac142. Open access, free and available for everyone here: https://academic.oup.com/genetics/advance-article/doi/10.1093/genetics/iyac142/6758250