‘Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb’ – An Excerpt From Feminist Flicker


My 80th Feminist Flicker column, on Channillo, takes an in-depth look at Stanley Kubrick’s award-winning 1964 movie, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. Here’s an excerpt:

“…Great satire takes a thorny subject and highlights its absurdities, but it can also be used as a tool by which one subject allows for the highlighting of absurdity in many other issues, creating constructive social criticism. Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb achieves this with aplomb. Yes, it is about Cold War fears, but it is also about male toxicity, and the insidious nature of patriarchy. It is about the intersections between outwardly oppressive regimes, and those that bury their oppression in the illusion of freedom. Most importantly, it is about the universal nature of misogyny and sexism.

The film starts with a silent, scrolling disclaimer.

“It is the stated position of the U.S Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.”

Then, an opening narration.

“For more than a year, ominous rumours had been privately circulating among high level western leaders that the Soviet Union had been at work on what was darkly hinted to be the ultimate weapon. A Doomsday Device. Intelligence sources traced the site of the top secret Russian project to the perpetually fog-shrouded wasteland below the Arctic peaks of the Zokoff Islands. What they were building, or why it should be located in such a remote and desolate place, no one could say.”

The image of clouds around mountain peaks fades into one of an aircraft nosecone – particularly phallic in nature – and the gentle notes of the song Try A Little Tenderness accompany footage of a B-52 bomber being fuelled mid-air. The romantic music laid over this scene, depicting one aircraft sliding its nozzle into the open fuel cap of another – rhythmically jostling to get it just right – leave us in no doubt as to what Stanley Kubrick is getting at here: Sex and war are inextricably linked.

We’re plunged straight into the action, as it were. We see Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) in an Air Force Communications Room, taking a call from Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden). Ripper confirms with Mandrake that the “Wing” (the fleet of B-52 bombers, armed with hydrogen bombs, constantly in the air during the height of the Cold War) have “reached their fail-safe points” and then informs Mandrake that their base is being put on Red Alert. Confirming that it is not an exercise, Ripper tells Mandrake that “it looks like we’re in a shooting war,” and that the base is to be sealed tight. He then instructs Mandrake to transmit Plan R to the Wing, and to impound all privately owned radios, lest they be used by enemy combatants to communicate orders to saboteurs.

We are then introduced to the second setting: The inside of one of the B-52 bombers. A narration reminds us that these war planes patrol the airspace – always 2 hours from their targets inside Russia – ready to deploy a nuclear strike, quickly and efficiently, as part of the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction. Our first view inside the plane is of Major T.J Kong (Slim Pickens) at the controls, quietly studying a Playboy centrefold. The image is of Tracy Reed, naked except for the January 1963 issue of Foreign Affairs, strategically draped across her buttocks. All is quiet, until the code for Wing Attack Plan R is received by the crew. There are initial moments of disbelief, a great deal of double-checking, but finding no evidence of error, the crew swings into action.

Lieutenant Lothar Zogg (James Earl Jones) questions whether it might be an exercise to test the willingness of crews to carry out such orders. Major Kong states his firm belief that, “ain’t nobody had the ‘go’ code yet,” and that Ripper wouldn’t issue it unless the Russians had taken out American cities in a sneak attack. Having then received verbal confirmation from base, Major Kong dons his cowboy hat, and addresses his crew.

“Well boys, I reckon this is it. Nuclear combat, toe-to-toe with the Ruskies.”

As Major Kong’s B-52 bomber heads off to carry out Attack Plan R, we are introduced to the third setting: the political arena. The scene opens with a woman in a bikini and black stilettos, laying on her front under a tanning lamp. The telephone rings, and she sits up.

She calls out, “Buck, should I get it?” To which a gruff voice replies, “Well, you have to!”

The woman (Tracy Reed) answers the phone, says that General Turgidson is unavailable, and that she is his secretary, Miss Scott. The call is being made to inform General Turgidson (George C. Scott) of the situation, and his response is to head to the War Room. Miss Scott protests flirtatiously, wanting General Turgidson to stay, to which he replies, “You start your countdown, and I’ll be back before you can say, BLAST OFF!”

With the three settings established, the events that have been set in motion play out in a relentless, perfectly paced manner. At Burpelson Air Force Base, Mandrake becomes increasingly suspicious, and concludes that Brigadier General Ripper has maliciously initiated a first strike. Ripper, at the same time, reveals through his behaviour that he is increasingly disturbed. As the wider Air Force try to gain access to the base to retrieve the call-back code from Ripper, Burpelson forces fight back, believing them to be Russian. Mandrake becomes increasingly desperate and engages Ripper himself, only for Ripper to take his own life in a bathroom.

In the War Room, a great many military and political officials gather with President Merkin Muffley (also Peter Sellers) to deal with the situation. Also present, in an advisory capacity as Director of Weapons Research and Development, is Dr Strangelove (also Peter Sellers), who is a former Nazi scientist who presumably defected to the U.S during Operation Paperclip. As the chaos unfolds, the stakes are made clear by the Russian Ambassador, Alexei de Sadeski (Peter Bull). The Russians have built a Doomsday Device and, in the event that their country comes under nuclear attack, they will detonate it and render the whole planet uninhabitable for 93 years. Such is the competition to have the biggest, most destructive weapon.

In their attempts to stave off disaster and recall the bombers, the assembled dignitaries discuss many options, and President Muffley speaks with his Russian counterpart by telephone. It is eventually agreed that the U.S will help the Russian military find and shoot down the B-52 bombers before they have a chance to reach their targets. Major Kong’s plane manages to get through, however, and, when the bomb dispersal system fails, Major Kong manually releases it – riding it like a mechanical bull all the way down to Russian soil. The film, having begun with the suggestive re-fuelling of a bomber, now brings us the explosive, orgasmic conclusion for that warplane.

The key to the whole narrative lies in the final scene, though. Faced with the reality of nuclear winter, President Muffley is bereft. It is at this point that Dr Strangelove seizes his opportunity. Punctuated by involuntary Nazi salutes, caused by his apparent alien hand syndrome, he makes his suggestion to the Leader of the Free World.

“I would not rule out the chance to preserve a nucleus of human specimens. It would be quite easy. At the bottom of one of our deeper mine shafts. The radioactivity would never penetrate a mine some thousands of feet deep. And in a matter of weeks, sufficient improvements in dwelling space could easily be provided.”

The President listens carefully, then balks at the idea of having to decide who gets to go down into the safety of the mine shaft. Dr Strangelove goes for the hard sell.

“Well, that would not be necessary, Mr President. It could easily be accomplished with a computer. And the computer could be set and programmed to accept factors of youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross-section of necessary skills. Of course, it would be absolutely vital that our top government and military men be included, to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition. Naturally, they would breed prodigiously, eh? There would be much time, and little to do. With the proper breeding techniques and a ratio of, say, 10 females to each male, I would guess that they could then work their way back to the present Gross National Product within, say, 20 years.”

The interest of Turgidson is aroused at the central idea buried within Strangelove’s suggestion.

“Doctor, you mentioned a ratio of 10 women to each man. Wouldn’t that necessitate the abandonment of the so-called monogamous sexual relationship – I mean, as far as men were concerned?”

Now that he has their attention, Dr Strangelove rams his point home.

“Regrettably, yes. But it is a sacrifice required for the future of the human race. I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics – which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.”

At this point, the Russian Ambassador concurs, saying, “I must confess, you have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor…”

The satirical point made here is that war serves only patriarchal interests and that, even in the event of nuclear apocalypse, men will find a way to subjugate women under the auspice of ‘duty,’ and ‘service.’ It is a point reflected throughout the entire narrative, with this final scene being all that work brought to fruition – to a climax.

It is always the case – without exception – that everything in a Stanley Kubrick movie is there for a reason. This meticulous filmmaker leaves nothing to chance or coincidence. Ensuring that the Playboy centrefold being leered at by Major Kong in the cockpit of his B-52 bomber is the same woman as plays Miss Scott – the bikini-clad secretary and mistress of General Buck Turgidson – is entirely deliberate. Ensuring that, when a crew member opens the lock box containing Attack Plan R, a collage of headless female bodies is seen stuck to the inside of the door, is entirely deliberate. Ensuring that each military facility is covered in signs featuring phrases such as, ‘Peace Is Our Profession,’ is entirely deliberate.

But, it is also the detail about the motivation of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper that bookends the sucker punch of that final scene. Mandrake comes to realise that Ripper is experiencing some kind of chronic paranoid delusion when Ripper explains firstly, that he wants to strike against Russia, because Russia is already attacking America through fluoridation of the water supplies, which is polluting the “precious bodily fluids” of U.S citizens; and secondly, how he came to develop this conspiracy theory:

“[Clemenceau] said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to the politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids…

“…It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? Foreign substances introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual? Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works… I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love. A profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness fell over me. Luckily, I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence. I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence.”

Ripper talks of toxicity – of being steeped in toxicity without consent. But he also equates this scenario with his experiences of intimacy with women. He talks of women as though they are succubi, and pose a threat to his personal power. With Ripper being the character that sets the entire thing in motion, it becomes clear that this story is about male toxicity, and its relationship to patriarchal structures. As a seasoned, life-long military man, Ripper has absorbed a great deal of Cold War propaganda, as well as the indoctrination of male-dominated warfare. Having been fed a steady diet of messages about how white men are the heroes, and everyone else – including women and the Russians – are a threat to the power and status held by white men, Ripper finally decides to go rogue, and take action of his own. He is both the product and the tool of patriarchy.

He unleashes a series of unavoidable events that lead directly to that final scene in the War Room, where Dr Strangelove describes the only viable future of the human race as being the enslavement of women, as nothing more than sexual objects with which men are duty-bound to breed – such language stripping women of the right to pleasure, while enshrining the pleasure of men in the foundation of a new society. As we move through the story, we are shown the myriad of ways in which patriarchy and male toxicity have created the world in which we live – bound by warped, corrupted, and male-driven morality and ethics, and driven by the persistent male urge to dominate.

There is deep hypocrisy in the fact that Ripper is triggered into action and conspiracy theories by a sense of a lack of control and his inability to consent to what is happening to him, because that is what his actions condemn all women to deal with. There is deep irony in the fact that this fictional Cold War catastrophe of his making paves the way to enslave women as sexual objects at a time (the early 1960s) when women were in reality embracing a sexual revolution, precipitated by the availability of oral contraceptives (The Pill). Indeed, throughout the movie (and particularly during Ripper’s explanatory monologue), if we replace the term ‘Communism’ with ‘feminism’ then the allegory is truly unveiled. This is not to say that Kubrick is equating feminism with Communism, of course, he is simply employing satire to highlight absurdity, and build constructive social criticism – all of which is made possible by utilising the ridiculous male-dominated arena of Cold War America.

The ‘Peace Is Our Profession’ signage, highlighting both the hypocrisy of nations capitalising on the waging of war in the name of freedom, and the patriarchal strategy of claiming something is innocuous when it is, in fact, deeply harmful; the sanctity of precious bodily fluids, juxtaposed with male toxicity and the idea of each man being sexually gratified by many enslaved women; the constant comparing of weaponry and military might, contrasted with the clear and abject terror of the loss of power, status and control. Make no mistake, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb is a thorough and comprehensive satirical skewering of both the American military-industrial complex, and the tangible harms that patriarchal social structures do to both men and women.

Acquiescence is baked right in to that title; the idea of abandoning previous morality to embrace a more problematic philosophy, for an undefined, mythical notion of a greater good; being worn down and brow-beaten into submission by a larger, more effective power. But, in Kubrick’s masterpiece, it is not women, or the Russians, or some other perceived threat that is brought low by these male toxicity manoeuvres. It is men.

Each of the three settings features a range of micro-aggressions against women – with men sexualising and objectifying them as a matter of course, in their daily lives. Ultimately, Dr Strangelove wields this against them, bringing to bear his Nazi-inspired future vision of a genetically manipulated new society, in which women are enslaved and privileged men are in charge. In their blinkered attempt to compare arsenal sizes, the Americans and the Russians inadvertently open the door for Nazis to conquer the world – two decades after the end of World War II. In highlighting the ways in which patriarchy harms the individual man while furthering general male dominance, Kubrick delivers a story in which men are defeated by their own pursuit of sex, while the patriarchal ideology is preserved.

If the measure of a classic is its continued relevance to society, then Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb easily meets that criteria. Beyond the obvious – the renewed and current conflict between Russia and the west – all of the sexism-based satire still applies. The conduct and behaviour of Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (named for the infamous killer of women) can be compared to the modern-day ‘Incel,’ for example. He and Dr Strangelove are both extremists but, while Ripper appears to be disturbed and operates in isolation, Strangelove has infiltrated the upper echelons of power, and seduces with calm rationality and articulate, cold calculations. In this way, Strangelove can be compared to the most extreme right-wing government officials of today’s western nations.

The striking thing about applying this story to contemporary society, though, is the extent to which the sexualisation and objectification of women has not changed. The final scene of this 1964 film, in which Dr Strangelove proposes that the enslavement of women is the only way to secure the future of the human race, is uncomfortably close to being entirely possible. We know all too well that our governments remain dominated by men, and that men remain steeped in the male toxicity that is created by patriarchy. We know all too well how easy it is for a person with a specific agenda to infiltrate the upper echelons of power, and influence policies that destroy lives, and oppress millions…”

Read the rest here: Sarah Myles on Channillo

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