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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Deconstructing Playing with Snakes on a Plane: A Reply


In 2006 gender scholar Drek the Uninteresting "published" a paper entitled, "Deconstructing Playing with Snakes on a Plane: A Post-Modern Critique." Owing to certain deficiencies in that work, I explicate a response herein. Those who remember that early work will note certain similarities between it and this effort. Rest assured that these similarities decrease as the paper goes on and it is worth your time, annus horribilis, to read to the end.


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 a 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. Even when alternate interpretations exist, any narrative which contains within it an expression of gender roles must be viewed as being primarily a gender vehicle and, thus, any story which can be interpreted as sexist must, ab irato, be regarded as defined by its intrinsic sexism.

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: to preserve the gender order. This represents a shocking lack of awareness of the sexist nature of modern society. 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" (2003). 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. Female symbols are the easiest to identify: the titular plane. The aircraft contains passengers within it in warmth and comfort, much as a mother's womb contains her offspring. Indeed, planes are often associated with mother figures (i.e. flight attendants) whose purpose is to see to the well-being and comfort of their charges. Additionally, the plane, while warm and inviting within, is nevertheless a thin and fragile shell of aluminum, with little marking off the warm safety of the womb from the cold hostility of the outside. Thus, the womb is represented as fragile and in need of protection, much as women are seen in patriarchical society. The common word for "plane" is even relevant as it is a homonym for "plain" meaning "uninteresting or unremarkable," as femininity is constructed to be. The physical manifestation of the concept of plane used in this movie is a "747," which has a bulbous fuselage that resembles the swollen belly of a pregnant woman. Even the number "747" has symbolic potency as adding all three numbers yields "18," the age at which a girl symbolically transforms into a woman and becomes available for impregnation.

The male symbolism is present in the titular "snakes." Obviously, the snake resembles a phallus- long and tipped by a wider "head." Some snakes are even known to spit, thus strengthening the parallel with the male ejaculatory function. More importantly, snakes represent a compact lethality and sense of menace or threat that has long been associated with males rather than females. They are objects, indeed symbols, of violence and control thus befitting masculinity. Likewise, they are seen as cunning or smart, reflecting the historic view of men as more intelligent than women. Thus, the snakes represent the fullness of male potency- sexually in their resemblance to the phallus, physically in their possession of venom and striking fangs, and finally psychologically in their cunning role as hunters.

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 at the mercy of the more powerful masculine. These things, male and female, are not meant to be mixed, and their mixing is seen as disastrous. Moreover, the movie is a morality tale where femininity is meant to be subjugated by maleness. While the plane in a sense represents woman "taking wing" the movie serves to illustrate what happens when women seek to elevate themselves above men. Much as Icarus was brought down by the bright rays of his hubris, the feminine is crushed by the venom of the powerful masculine. Further, it is clear that only women can be harmed by this attempt to escape from their proscribed roles. 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 seeming invincibility of the snakes privileges the masculine might over feminine will.

In summary, then, the concepts "male" and "female" are represented by the snakes and plane 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 as we would expect from the womb. 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 femaleness, surrounding, supporting, and constraining, security can be had for the price of freedom. This safe environment is disrupted when the snakes erupt into this previously feminine territory. The introduction of masculinity in the feminine is, thus, the introduction of a desire for freedom at any price into the stifling regimentation of a woman's world. The masculine is therefore equated with freedom while the feminine becomes despotism.

This impression of femaleness as despotic 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 who have attempted to deny the superiority of the masculine by taking part in the elevation of the feminine. The female is depicted as something to be resisted, and this resistance generates conflict and pain. 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 their success is limited. While the female can be resisted by the male it would seem that masculinity itself cannot be stopped. Thus, the conflict of the snakes with the passengers represents the inevitable defeat of all those who would resist the patriarchical order.

Several human/snake interactions in particular are noteworthy. 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. A woman's sexuality is thus linked symbolically to both the promise of pleasure and the possibility of danger. The penetration of venomous reptiles into the bathroom and the subsequent carnage reflects the inevitable entry of true masculinity into any relationship and the necessary result of allowing women to be sexually aggressive. Had she remained proper and subservient to her male "partner" both would have been spared. The woman is punished by masculinity for rising beyond her station while the man is punished for permitting such latitude on the part of his woman.

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 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 symbol of femininity trying to elevate itself above the masculine (i.e. the plane). This couple reinforces the symbolic "content" of the lavatory: women who place themselves above men, and men who allow it, will both meet their end at the fangs of masculinity itself.

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 women must be rescued from their illusions of feminine might, and the reprisals of hegemonic masculinity, by 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, in the process growing more submissive to him. She also survives the encounter with madcap femininity, owing perhaps to this newfound subservience. 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 thus depicts a highly conservative social message that ultimate authority over children belongs to males, not females, and interfering in this "natural" order can only result in symbolic venomous reptilian death.

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 counterbalance masculinity. Only males can act as a restraint on the power of masculinity itself.

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 contained, rather than embraced, and masculinity an unstoppable juggernaut that must be satiated.

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 "pheromone" 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 masculine symbol of snakes are "responsible" for "destroying" the feminine aircraft. On the other, they were made to do so by what are, semper fi, symbols for rampant femininity. The pheremone spray represents the male vulnerability to the wiles of women. Similarly, 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 sexual desire. In combination, the pheremones on the wreathes signify the rage that both constraining gender ideals, and simultaneous sexual appetites, 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 masculine when not taunted by femininity.

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 womb. Thus, in order to escape the dangers of enraged masculinity, we must be in essence "born again" into a world where we are not surrounded and constrained by the feminine. Religious and gender messages fuse into one overarching narrative in support of the patriarchy.

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. Likewise, the messages of gender in this film are so obvious, so clear, so unavoidable, that anyone who claims that this is merely a stupid action movie is, accipe hoc, deluded by male privilege. And while some might accuse me of throwing rhetorical bombs, failing to acknowledge the possibility that I may be incorrect is one of the privileges I enjoy for being right.

One can only speculate on the sheer quantity of damage that "Snakes on a Plane" 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, this post really is a sort of "Part II" to a similar post from 2006. If you really want to get the full point, and joke, you have to go back and read that one as well. I promise it won't take too long. If you're wondering, I've been meaning to do this follow-up for some time (more than two years to be precise) but have just never gotten around to it. It is not meant as a response to recent events, however, and my official position on that remains unchanged.

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Blogger tina said...

No way. The snakes represent Darwinism (i.e., the devil) and the plane is the public school system (airlines and schools are both heavily regulated by the government). Samuel L. Jackson is Jesus and the pilot (obviously) is Noah.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009 8:35:00 PM  

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