Dr. Strangelove: The Cold War as Sexual Tension

Last week, I made the claim that Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was one long sexual metaphor for the Cold War. While this occurred to me unbidden, I'm sure I'm not the first to say so. Still, with the most common discussions of the film taking the political route, with Fascism getting its legs back thanks to the Military Complex, etc., it may be worth exploring the idea on this blog. I've wanted to write more pieces on movies anyway.

One of the keys to the assertion that Strangelove develops an onscreen sexual relationship between two countries is the opening credits sequence. Right from the start, Kubrick is juxtaposing stock footage of a plane refueling, with its back and forth rocking motion and phallic fuel hose, with romantic music. At the very least, it looks and sounds like an educational film on the birds and the bees. Similar music will return at the film's climax, which we'll get to in due time.The other major component is the bizarre rantings of General Jack D. Ripper about the communists wanting our "bodily fluids". This very famous WTF Moment eventually gets explained. Ripper talks about how this mad idea came into his head - during the act of love. After losing his "essence" inside a woman, he returned to an impotent state. He resolved never to waste his precious fluids ever again, denying women his essence.
He has now applied this motivation to an illegal preemptive strike on the USSR. Ripper equates the concepts "World" and "Man" because both are 70% water. As communists want our fluids, their country is thematically linked to "Woman". The USA, by opposition, must be "Man", and as the images of phallic airplanes penetrating "Mother Russia" and dropping their "loads", it's looking like Uncle Sam is going to get some.

Men on the American side are basically separated into two types in the film. First, there are the military types who chomp on phallic cigars, are caught in compromising sexual situations, and desperately want to drop the bomb. They are the sexual frustration that a Cold War must represent to the military. Soldiers are built to fight, and men are built to have sex (and women too, this is implied by the very concept of gender). Sometimes a cigar isn't just a cigar.
While Ripper's rampant (if restrained) sexuality is obvious, the same holds true of other military types. Our first contact with the ebullient General Buck Turgidson is through his secretary Miss Scott, the only female character in the film, in her bikini and rather familiarly talking with a Colonel suggesting that she's slept her way to the top.
(She also appears as a Playboy centerfold with a book on Foreign Affairs on her fanny, linking her with Russia.) Turgidson's entire demeanor in the film is one of adolescent energy, talking to his girlfriend on the phone while in the war room and getting excited at both sex and bomb talk. Like the Cold War's hold on fighting, his tryst with Miss Scott must also be put on hold during the crisis, the release of sexual energies described as a "countdown".
Last, but not least, we have Major Kong aboard the bomber, which is the delivery system for the bomb, indelicately put, the penis of our story. Is it a coincidence that while setting the com system's prefix code to OPE, it lingers on letters that spell out GOD?
The military characters in Strangelove are universally potent and powerful. The bomber crew's survival kit contains some strange items: condoms, lipstick, nylon stockings. Items that recall transvestism, but as Kong puts it, we should equate the invasion of Russia as a sexual escapade:
Keep in mind that the mission's original target is at Laputa, i.e. "the Whore".

The other type of male character is the impotent one, exclusively played by Peter Sellers. All but Strangelove (which we'll get to later) want to stop the bombs from falling, and so aren't just depicted as the "reason" to the military's "passion", but as weak and powerless. Closest to Jack D. Ripper (remember that Jack the Ripper's murders were committed on prostitutes) is the RAF officer, Captain Mandrake. The English have a reputation for sexual repression and stuffiness that makes him a natural voice for restraint and the prolonged holding off of sexual release. As a representative of the Impotence Principle, Mandrake is continually ineffective at stopping the bomb from dropping. Nothing he says makes a dent in Ripper's opinion, he has trouble convincing Guano (who thinks of him as a "prevert"), difficulty calling the President, etc. He's also presented as "inexperienced" with (phallic) weapons and physically lame:
Next is the stuffy-nosed (again, physically impaired) President who rejects any and all military points of view. In the President, we may find a reason for the sexual dry spell that has hold of the world. If he is Man and the Russian Prime Minister is Woman, as heads of each of their "political bodies", their communications can be seen as those of an old fighting couple. Throughout, the President is awkward and ineffective.
The only other Russian is the Ambassador, who despite boasting about his leader's virility, is also "female" in the language of the film, as intimated by this embrace with the truly virile Buck (a potent name).
More signs of Russia's femaleness: Its people are hungry for nylons and washing machines, and of course, the idea that the bombardiers would have to disguise themselves as women if stranded on Soviet ground. If dropping the bomb is akin to an orgasm, shouldn't the doomsday device be the emasculating threat of Woman's "multiple orgasm" (i.e. revealing of women's greater, and thus threatening, sexual potency)?

Now let me open some parentheses here about a parallel symbol, i.e. what's with all the chewing gum? It appears frequently. The bomber's survival kits each have seven packs. Turgidson chews almost constantly. And Mandrake fiddles nervously with a stick, but never pops it in his mouth.
Gum, I believe, is a cigar substitute in the film. When characters cannot smoke (aboard a plane, in the War Room), they chew gum. In a sense, it is a delaying tactic for coitus, or perhaps a symbol of masturbation. Turgidson is without a doubt a cigar smoker like all the other generals, but his true climax is denied him both in terms of war and love (with Miss Scott still waiting for him in bed). For Mandrake, even masturbation is off-limits due to sexual repression.

Masturbation by an uncontrollable hand may also feature in the character of Dr. Srangelove. Here is a character of both described worlds. Like Sellers' other impotent characters, he is physically lame. But unlike them, he is a man of war. He smokes (though smaller cigarettes) and is a proponent of weapons. His right hand has a mind of its own that translates his particular sexual frustration into physical action. It wants to hold his cigarette (phallus), it wants to kill him (death as sexual release), it wants to salute in a fascist way (a warlike, and thus sexual, way).
Strangelove goes on to map out the postapocalyptic (postcoital) future of the human race, hiding down mine shafts, 10 women to each man, apparently screwing like rabbits. In this context, the Cold War takes the bent of the most primal sexual frustration, that of the virgin male. The first sexual act is preceded by an equal dole of anticipation and fear, and followed by sexual awakening (and for some the multiplicity of potential conquests delineated by Strangelove).

The film builds this anticipation in many ways, most notably the military march underscoring the bombing run, but also frequent double-entendres, both verbal and visual, that keep the audience's mind on sex.
The net effect is to make the audience want to see that bomb dropped. True climax comes when it is, with Kong riding it. His mind far from fear or doubt, he is exhilarated. Making ass-slapping motions, the angle gives him the biggest erection on record.
The bombs, by the way, have graffiti on them (an air force tradition) that are tied to man-woman relationships. "Hi there" being an opening line, and "Dear John" a reference to letters used to leave a relationship. In this case, and appropriately so, "Hi there" will be used, the other no doubt reserved for "goodbye sex".
In the postcoital world, Strangelove is sexually awakened and regains the ability to walk. Awkward at first, in a parody of sexual release's "limp legs" phenomenon, but nonetheless made potent with sexual energy again.
The final end, a montage of nuclear explosions, is set to the opening, romantic music, taking us back to the initial symbol of copulation. How then can we not understand these explosions in sexual terms, as the orgasms they necessarily represent?

An alternate ending, shot but not used, was a little less subtle than this, featuring a massive cream pie fight. I'm glad we were spared this ejaculatory frenzy.
Finally, and it's ridiculous not to see it from the word go, it's all right there in the title. Dr. Strangelove is too minor a character to reasonably inspire the movie's title. The "strange love" is actually the love for the bomb, or as this essay has attempted to show, the lust of one country for the other. Watch it again and tell me I'm wrong.


Sea-of-Green said...

Yep, Dr. Strangelove IS full of sexual symbolism, but you've written one of the best analyses I've seen of the film, Siskoid.:-) You also might find Roger Ebert's essay on the film interesting. It's listed under Great Movies on his Web site.

Believe it or not, chewing gum, in dream symbolism, represents an inability to digest or process information or dilemmas. It's also a sign of childlike behavior and/or feelings of vulnerability or powerlessness.

(I edited a book on dream symbolism a few years ago.) ;-)

Siskoid said...

Wow. Not necessarily tied to libidinous pursuits, but it fits in that context.

What does it say about me that I don't chew gum?

I'll check that "second opinion" when I get the chance.

Anonymous said...

Really, I looked for something like this a lot. Thank you. All I could find were mentions of the little blatant gag names, never making any connection or articulation to the overall themes, how the scenes or gags articulate and so on. I never found any mention of how the entire film is about the sexual frustration and war as its surrogate. Just the little bits and occasional insights ("Kong on the bomb as the phallus as both fucker and fuckeed" etc -- never for instance on why his name is Kong and how it relates to King Kong's phallus-embracing ending and how those articulate throughout each scene).

I never saw anyone mentioning how the humour in Mandrake's reaction to Ripper's mention of Mandrake's body being water ("that's what I'm getting into: water!" he says while hugging him) is about the weird sexual (almost flirtatious) undertones that Ripper can't see properly (except concerning that one night of "loss of essence").

Or the ways the many Others overlap ("Other" fitting for both women/men and countries -- the book on the only-woman-of-the-film's ass being "Foreign Affairs" not just being a very crude anal joke, but also this one of many notes of the overall musical opera of this 2 hour long sex joke about penetrating the unknown Other -- even more taking in consideration the role of women to these men's POV). Or that when we see Miss Scott splayed in bed like the in the playboy magazine (/territory that Kong should be familiar with so he can drop his load -- or maybe that's what he's doing really) is paralleled to Buck droping his own load in the bathroom (but a different sort of release -- a bat guano if he was a bat, but considering the other meaning for the word bat, a fitting juxtaposition of the two sorts of loads). Or how Ripper's closing of his window is very much like the films of those times' "fade out" sex scenes (the sex scene being everything we're about to see).

Man, there's way too much to even begin to list. Kennedy being paralleled by the "not macho enough" president (even if he was a very aggressive president -- but pushed by the military, the news and the culture for not being texan-like -- which I'm sure Sellers could not satirize as well as Slim Pickens' sad real deal did), the ways Sellers satirizes the roles (Mandrake as a joke on the stuffy brit, or joking on how some could see it: effeminate; Strangelove as the joke on the german figures in hollywood films, also the death-sex central representation in the allure of technocratic destruction when dead from the waist down), the way the russian guy is a satire on the America's obsession with the big strong monstruous bear-like russian (and the homoerotic undertones of that anxiety), the big cumshot at the alternate ending (as well as the final ending, the "petit mort", following Strangelove's erection). Jesus, people rarely even mention why Strangelove has that name. The way the cover jokes on an anxiety about the russian scoring over us (but a different "scoring") contrasted to how Ripper's machine gun phallus is on a golf bag. How the Coke machine is not just a slapstick joke (or not even just a capitalism joke). etc etc

It's really an endless stream of jokes on the authoritarian/ fascist/ bellic-based culture of coitus interruptus. I really can't believe there aren't a thousand essays mixing Freud with Reich (charlatan, yeah, but there was some point about those impulses being surrogates for sexual frustration) about this movie.

But what really strikes me the most was the control in language Kubrick and others had. Goddamn, I wish Alan Moore would watch this film more often (I could have enjoyed Lost Girls more if he had).

Anonymous said...

PS: the music of the credits isn't the same of the ending (but I agree that it basically has the same function). Believe it or not, the title is something to the effect of "Try a little tenderness" (very fit for the overall role women are given in that society as objects for homosocial dynamics, those circles and the film).

Siskoid said...

Thanks for all that Mick. You've added even more onto the pile.

Anonymous said...

No, thank you.

I think a person could list every second in the two hours as evidence, but ultimately the point seems to be to just get it from where the film is coming from, and enjoy all of those throughout all moments of the film.

Anonymous said...

Gum is a metaphor for rubber, the slang for condom. Gum used to be made from rubber gum.

Siskoid said...

Pile it on, friend. Pile it on.

Anonymous said...

I've seen this movie over and over and the gum never clicked until I read this blog, which I found from googling Dr. Strangelove and gum. Then it hit me. I used to work on ICBMs, and to see one of those babies coming out of the 'hole' is an awesome sight. Flames blasting in pulses, the screaming engines, the size of a 8 mega ton tipped Titan II. Knowing what total destruction they contain can make the strongest man cry. The pain of birth and death at the same time.

If you ever get the chance, try to fine any information on the OBLSS project which I worked on. Operation Base Launch Safety System. It was designed to circumvent the fail safes during the final year of Nixon because he wanted to Nuke Hanoi and win the war in Viet Nam and stay on as president. It would have easily started WW3. Some day I'll write a book about it and maybe someone will make it into a movie just as implausible as Strangelove and it's sister movie "Fail Safe". The World was one P-Plug away from annihilation. The P-Plug on an ICBM ties the launch control complex with a missile in a silo and a target to deliver the 'package' to. Sometimes sabotage to save the world is a good thing.

I worked in a building with a big sign that said "Warning Access Restricted" (WAR) at the end of a road called "Reentry Road" (The road to war).

Tesera Tetrad said...

Strangelove. Oddbedfellows. Twototango. Mutuallyassureddestruction.

Daedalos said...

You guys seem to enjoy interpreting movies.. Give Brazil from 1985 a watch.. there's meaning behind almost every scene.. genius.

Siskoid said...

That's a great one. Could make a good article, I agree.

Anonymous said...

Just a clarification. The nylon stockings are not for evading capture by dressing as a woman! That had me rotflmao! The nylon stockings reference is about giving nylons to women during WWII in order to get laid. There was a shortage of nylon as well as most things at that time. It all went to the war effort. So women had no stockings. Cross dressing?! That's one of the funniest mistakes I've ever heard.

Siskoid said...

I understand that, but I believe it to be a double-entendre.


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