Total Drek

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Deconstructing Playing with Snakes on a Plane: A Post-Modern Critique


The existence of gender as a social category is beyond doubt, and its relevance for determining life chances is impossible to overestimate. On a daily basis persons are assaulted, or not, hired, or not, respected, or not, entirely on the basis of their sex. Moreover, while men are granted the priviledges of power and authority, women are continually repressed.

In modern society, some authorities would claim that gains made by the so-called "Women's Movement" have helped to alleviate these conditions. They might claim that women enjoy increasing employment and pay equity, as well as improving working conditions. While some quantitative researchers might make such arguments, more valuable post-modern studies continually reveal the existence of subtle but devastating forms of sexism. The perpetuation and reproduction of these forms is facillitated not by "structure" but by culture. The ways that gender is constructed, reified, and interpolated inter-subjectively by cultural producers and consumers are highly revealing of the true sex-stratification. An illustrative example of the constant conflicts over gender and power has recently come to light: the film "Snakes on a Plane." Using the tools of critical, post-modern analysis, I will use this movie as a paradigmatic example of sex in an ex post facto world of declining U.S. global hegemonism. In the process I will demonstrate not simply the presence of gender stereotypes, but the superiority of post-modern techniques of social research.

Part I: Sex as higher level concept

In analyzing media and its reification of gender roles it is important to consider the substantial importance of gender itself. Given the extreme power of gender to define appropriate behavior, clothing, personal preferences, jobs, and so on, any story must, virtually by definition, be a gender story. That is to say, ipso facto, that symbols in a work of fiction always refer to gender relations even when they are not, ad hominem, intended to do so.

This simple truth is one that has often been overlooked by social scientists. Cultural sociologists have often analyzed various symbols in the hopes of finding their "meanings" or determining their "functions" not realizing that there is only one set of such functions. The rare exceptions to this general rule include the classical theorist Sigmund Freud, who recognized the central importance of all symbolism as referring to sexuality and sex roles, even if he took the flawed and patriarchical perspective that masculinity was, caveat emptor, superior to femininity. More recently, astute historian Dan Brown has provided a compelling account of the central role of the female, and female symbols, in western civilization in his "fictional" work "The DaVinci Code." However overlooked this reality may be, an understanding of the obvious truth of the centrality, indeed primacy, of gender allows all symbols to be used to understand gender relationships.

In the context of Snakes on a Plane we do not have far to look to find significant female/male symbols. They are, in fact, listed in the very title. Male symbols are the easiest to identify: the titular plane. In this case the word "plane" refers both to the technological artifact which, itself, represents maleness, and to the normative power given to masculinity. Something that is "plain" is "normal or common," as masculinity is constructed to be. The aircraft, on the other hand, is a long cylinder whose resemblance to an engorged male phallus is impossible to ignore. In fact, the plane used in this movie is a "747," which has a bulbous anterior segment that resembles the swollen glans of the male member. Even the number "747" has symbolic potency as adding all three numbers yields "18," the age at which a man gains his legal emancipation and is thought to be as his sexual peak. At a less obvious level, the aircraft is a product of engineering, science, and technology- patriarchical disciplines within which men are thought to exercise substantially more power than women.

The female symbolism is more subtle, as befits the forgotten or "subaltern" sex. While the plane is obvious and imposing, as a symbol of masculinity, the feminine iconography is relegated to the background. Yet, here too it is easy to discern in the titular "snakes." While a snake superficially resembles a phallus, an assumption that the snakes also represent males would be naive. In western civilization, so permeated with the story of "Adam and Eve," women are associated with serpents, usually in their untrustworthy and manipulative aspects. Snakes moreover move with an undulating rounded grace, not unlike the movements of a woman's hips when walking. Thus, the snakes themselves represent femininity in its simultaneously dangerous, and sexually desirable, respects. Finally, the venom of a snake and its fangs signifies the danger that femininity supposedly represents for men and, indeed, the "plain" normality that masculinity supposedly encapsulates. Woman's venom is construed as a danger.

In combination, the incongruity of snakes on a plane represents the impossibility of blending the male and the female. The movie turns on the single idea that boxes of venomous snakes do not belong in the cabin of a passenger aircraft. Yet, this is a ruse meant to conceal the obvious symbolism: that femininity is too dangerously unpredictable to be permitted entry into a masculine world. These things, male and female, are not meant to be mixed, and their mixing is seen as disastrous. Maleness is vulnerable to "disruption" and "being crashed" by the snakes, but the possible impact of maleness on femininity, of the plane on the snakes, is ignored. While we are treated to multiple scenes featuring snakes burning out controls or damaging components of the plane, we are never shown the snake who is badly injured by exposed wiring, or made uncomfortable by the airline peanuts it swallowed. This priviledging of the plane's perspective over the snakes' simply reflects the societal obsession with male concerns to the exclusion of female concerns.

In summary, then, the concepts "male" and "female" are represented by the plane and snakes respectively.

Part II: Enacting roles amidst gender concepts

While the symbolism for male and female is comparatively obvious, the snakes and plane do not exist in isolation. Instead, they mutually share the "interpretive space" with "people." Specifically, depictions of actual men and women who are shown sharing space with, and interacting with, these overarching concepts. However, by contacting these objects our "people" are living their lives amidst the clash of gendered "realities," much as they routinely would in "real life." Thus, we are treated to a realistic, if metaphorical, depiction of the world as it is, much like a winter scene contained within a "snowglobe."

Initially, the passengers exist within the plane in relative comfort. Their presence is regimented, their options limited, and their freedom of movement curtailed, but they have peace and a modicum of nourishment- the ubiquitous peanuts. This clearly represents the message that in an overall environment of maleness, surrounding, supporting, and constraining, humanity produces comfort and security. This safe environment is disrupted when the snakes erupt into this previosuly masculine territory. The introduction of the feminine into the masculine produces mayhem and carnage where, previously, there was only tranquility. Thus, while maleness is depicted as bringing stability, femaleness is shown producng discord and rancor.

This impression of femaleness as dangerous is reinforced by the "biting" of the passengers by the snakes. If the passengers represent real men and women, then this "biting" is simply the wounding of people by femininity itself. The feminine is cast as a dangeorus force to be repressed or contained, as the snakes are to be repressed or contained, rather than something to be cherished. We are treated to many scenes of passengers lashing out at snakes with tray tables, luggage, bottles and, in one case, a small dog, but are never shown a passenger trying to soothe or comfort a snake that is, doubtless, terrified. Snakes are only a force to be feared and destroyed, and not one to be cherished.

Several human/snake interactions in particular are noteworthy. First, the snakes first prey upon a man and a woman who are engaging in flagrante delecto in an aircraft lavatory. This may appear, to some, to have been a cheap attempt by the movie makers to depict breasts but, in actuality, is a pointed metaphor. The woman enters the lavatory first, enticing her partner to follow. Thus, the woman's sexuality has led both to their doom- ironically by femininity itself. A woman's sexuality is thus linked symbolically to danger and, thus, the message is sent that women must be repressed sexually lest one is to be overcome and killed by venomous reptiles while in the bathroom.

Similarly, the movie depicts a pair of newlyweds, one of whom (the man) is afraid of flying. When his wife asked why he agreed to go to Hawaii, he responds, "Because it's where you wanted to go." Later in the movie, both man and woman are bitten repeatedly by snakes- harmed not only by femininity itself, but by his willingness to allow women to make decisions. If he had asserted his masculinity, the couple would have steered clear of Hawaii and, by extension, the plane full of snakes. Thus, in two ways, this couple represents the danger of femininity to both men and women.

There are a number of flight attendants on the aircraft, one of whom is older, while the other two are young. One of these attendants (the youngest) employs her sexuality in a clear attempt to win the affection of a male passenger. He, at one point, rescues her from being struck by a loose beverage cart covered in snakes, implying that protection from runaway femininity can only come from men. In other words, men must shield women from their own perverse natures. Similarly, the other younger flight attendant develops a sort of partnership with the movie's main male protaganist, Samuel "L." Jackson, over the course of the movie growing more submissive to him. She also survives the encounter with madcap femininity. Only the third flight attendant, an older woman, succumbs to the serpents. She is bitten while attempting to rescue an infant from the snakes. This scene accomplishes two things: first, the snake menacing the child is obviosly a conservative gesture meant to represent the "threat" posed by the pro-choice movement to "children." In other words, runaway, selfish femininity is poised to murder the helpless. Second, by being bitten herself, the older flight attendant stands as an almost "Christlike" martyr representing mothers who are rejected by a dangerously radical femininity. In total, a highly conservative message about gender roles is depicted in these scenes.

Finally, one of the two pilots is depicted from the beginning as a chauvanist who is unpleasant for women to work with. As one might expect, this individual is bitten by a venomous snake and falls into a compartment under the cockpit. Yet, unlike virtually every other character, this pilot manages to fight his way back to his post and continue flying the aircraft for a significant period of time. While ultimately this individual meets a gruesome fate, the message of this sequence is clear: only unbridled masculinity- nay sexism- can resist the excesses of unrestrained womanhood.

In conclusion, it is apparent not merely in the symbols for masculinity and femininity, but in the interaction of actual men and women with each other and those symbols, that femininity is a force to be dreaded and contained, rather than embraced.

Part III: Subversion of the gendered paradigm

Though the movie is overwhelmingly conservative in its orientation, gender roles are roles of conflict, not cooperation. To expect that all messages contained within this "movie" would reflect the "dominant" view of the "producers" is, pro tem, absurd. Instead, contrasting conflictual messages also find their way in, combatting the dominant views even as they are dominated by them.

The most obvious example of this combat comes in the form of the provocation of the snakes. As we are shown early in the film, the snakes are not naturally homicidal but are, instead, provoked to become so by a "pheremone" sprayed on a number of flower wreathes given to the passengers. This set of facts produces an interesting tension within the movie. On the one hand, the feminine symbol of snakes are "responsible" for "destroying" the aircraft. On the other, they were made to do so by what are, semper fi, symbols for manhood and decorative femininity. The pheremone spray represents the perversion of feminine nature by masculine science and thus its use in driving the snakes wild represents a critique of the patriarchy. At the same time, flowers are often thought of as stereotypically feminine. A woman's virginity is even, from time to time, referred to as her "flower," and flower metaphors are most often used for female maturation (i.e. "she is flowering into womanhood"). The wreathes, in that they hang around the neck, represent a sort of yoke around the necks of men and women alike- the yoke of restrictive gender roles. In combination, the pheremones on the wreathes signify the rage that both constraining gender ideals, and rampant masculinization, engender in both males and females. Ironically, if the snakes had been released without such preparations, they would likely have remained docilely in the cargo compartment signifying the placidity of the feminine when not oppressed by masculinity.

Interestingly, the conclusion of the movie is itself a prescription for eliminating gender tension. On arriving at their destination the surviving passengers and crew do not disembark the aircraft through the jetway but, rather, depart via inflatable escape slides. These slides, agnus dei, resemble the feminine vagina much as the airplane itself represents the penis. Thus, we find two messages embedded in this scene. First, that within the most masculine there is also the feminine- that a true separation of the sexes is impossible. Second, that the way to escape from oppressive masculinity and violently conflictual gender roles is through the feminine. By embracing the female we can resist and, indeed, balance the male, returning to a more healthful mix.

Despite the strong inclination of the producers of this movie to support traditional gender ideas, the presence of these conflicting messages leaves us with some hope. We have both witnessed the conflictual nature of gender in action, and have seen ways that dominant gender paradigms are challenged even as they seek to reproduce themselves.


There are those who might argue that a detailed post-modern analysis of Snakes on a Plane is a waste of time. There are even those who might cite the confirmation bias, arguing that a determination to find support for gender theories makes actually finding such support less impressive. They might even use the familiar aphorism that, "When your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail." As my analysis has shown, these critics are, deus ex machina, wrong. The prevalence of gendered messages in Snakes on a Plane is fantastic. It is obvious that if such messages did not exist, I could not possibly have identified them with the rigorous post-modern analysis in this paper. One can only speculate on the sheer quantity of damage that this movie is inflicting on the vulnerable psyches of our children. To resist the patriarchy we must resist movies like this. We must not merely look at such movies as meaningless fluff, as a sort of adult "play," but rather as a serious business. To build a healthier society we must not merely play with snakes on a plane, we must take care to deconstruct playing with snakes on a plane.

Okay, so, by this point a number of people are likely getting ready to fire off some angry e-mails. That's fine- I'm more or less used to it at this point. Before you do so, however, I feel that I should make a few comments. You know... dig the hole a little deeper. First, to be honest, the idea for this post came to me while jogging one morning and I liked it so much I had to write it. As an exercise in creativity, writing a paper in the style of someone whom I would consider insane can't be beat. You should try it sometime just for fun. If the result of my whimsy seems like an over-the-top parody, that's because it was intended to be an over-the-top parody. Second, I'm frankly scornful of post-modern "analysis" and this style of argument rather than of feminist scholarship per se. If feminist work was the unfortunate substrate of my mockery then it is only because feminist work embraces post-modernism more than many other branches of the academy. Well, that and I got the idea from a magazine cover featuring a painting of Adam and Eve. Third, I feel the need to point out that I DO actually consider gender and gender inequality to be important realms of study. I'm also not what you might refer to as reactionary when it comes to gender, as I think I have shown several times before. So, in other words, if I mock it isn't because I don't think gender inequality needs to be addressed but, rather, because I DO think gender inequality needs to be addressed. Maybe I'm wrong, but I seriously doubt that very many articles with the word "deconstructing" in the title have ever contributed to that laudable goal.

And, that said, feel free to flame me to a crisp.


Blogger cruffler said...

Somehow, I didn't think you were serious. It didn't seem like your writing form either. I thought it was an exercise in writing from another point of view -- the Devil's Advocate type of thing. I wasn't totally sure until I got to the part about the snakes choking on the peanuts. The degeneration of the interspersed Latin was a particularly nice touch.

I bow down to your superior powers of ridicule.

Thursday, September 07, 2006 2:31:00 PM  
Blogger jeremy said...

I was moved by this.

Thursday, September 07, 2006 11:41:00 PM  
Blogger tina said...

Clearly, if you had read Judith Butler's theory carefully, you would see that the snakes represent not femininity, per se, but rather the twisting, writhing, and shape-changing properties of gender roles themselves. Thus, the plane is not being attacked by femininity, but by post-structural thought and critical analysis much like your own.

Your writing of this piece therefore represents a sublime subversion in its own right, thus becoming its own subject and simultaneously subverting the subject/object dichotomy.

Congratulations on doing your part to undermine the dominant paradigm.

Friday, September 08, 2006 7:06:00 AM  
Blogger Kim said...

This is brilliant. Send it off to a journal, and post the reviews for us.

(OK, so this would be just a tad unethical...)

Friday, September 08, 2006 9:13:00 AM  
Blogger Slag said...

Ooh, I finally get to flame you!

I think your wonderfully hilarious analysis is, alces alces, a useful and worthwhile effort. I've been subjected to lots of postmodern analysis, and it annoys me just as much as it annoys you. It's easy to fool oneself with the confirmation bias.

However, I think you're conflating postmodern analysis with the study of cultural mythologies and metanarratives in general. The two are not the same.

The stories that we tell ourselves are still around, and still playing an active role in oppressing women. The virgin whore is still with us, and she men still think about her when they don't take women seriously.

This actually occurred to me while watching Snakes on a Plane - the cultural stories were so prominent that I could predict, with about 75% accuracy, who was going to die by the end of the movie.

I had a blogpost in mind about this... stay tuned next week for more snakes on more planes!

Friday, September 08, 2006 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Cruffler: Oh, c'mon man, you've known me too long to have been taken in by this post! Still, I forgive you because of your gracious admission of my superiority.

Jeremy: I do my best.

Tina: Okay, now you're scaring me.

Kim: You know, I thought about doing that. I even got so far as to consider methods of concealing my identity during the submission process. Ultimately, however, in addition to the questionable ethics, there's the main issue: if I actually got it published it would probably annoy someone enough to provoke them to track down my real life self. I'm glad you liked it, though.

Slag: Eh. Maybe. Certainly I think there are ideas about men, women, and gender relations that remain harmful and those ideas are often encapsulated in narratives. The tendency for even "strong" women in movies to require rescuing from males, for example, does continually reinforce the idea that women are weak. That said, I seriously doubt that many individuals who study cultural mythologies would be all that pleased to see you associating their work with this post. I think I would say that any academic discipline that uses an analytic strategy as half-assed as this one is going to have a hard time getting me to take it seriously.

That said, however, I very much look forward to your post!

Friday, September 08, 2006 4:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You consistently misspell "privilege" in your posts, including this one.


Sunday, September 10, 2006 4:46:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey HTH,

That's because I am, at best, a poor speller and rarely spell check my posts. I suppose that's just the price you pay for the privilege of reading my work.

Monday, September 11, 2006 12:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, your spelling is pretty good, but I noticed that "privilege" was one word you consistently had trouble with. I used to do exactly the same thing - spell it as privil - edge. It wasn't until "Check Spelling as You Type" appeared in Mac OS X that I realised how many words I was consistently misspelling, despite considering myself a "good" speller.

HTH = Hope This Helps. HTH.

Monday, September 11, 2006 5:28:00 PM  

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