- Terminating the Postmodern: Masculinity and Pomophobia
“How can I be without border?”—Julia Kristeva
“[T]he body is synecdochal for the social system per se. . . .”—Judith Butler
Unsurprisingly, the anti-feminist backlash and virulent homophobia that have formed such pronounced strains in American culture of the last several years are closely related to (though not fully explained by) the economic troubles with which the United States has been struggling to cope. This relation operates on a number of different planes, some more immediately accessible than others. On the simplest level, resentment of women’s efforts to attain equality in the job market has risen as that market has “down-sized” in the shift from an industrial to an informational economy. In addition, homophobia has been exacerbated by the scapegoating tendency that in times of economic crisis so often displaces material anxieties into hatred of and violence against the marginalized. [End Page 5] Of the many recent avatars of this pathology, the skinhead phenomenon is perhaps the most spectacular, but the efforts of many states to prohibit ordinances protecting gay rights, as well as the (at times literally) violent reaction against attempts to ease prohibitions against homosexuals in the military, are equally symptomatic.
However, increased intensities of reaction in matters of the politics of gender and sexualities were not merely phenomena of the recession of the Bush years, nor are they likely to abate much even in a cycle of “recovery.” Rather, they represent a set of deep and persistent fears on the part of a formerly dominant order that has begun to recognize that it is becoming residual. Needless to say, anti-feminism and homophobia are, in part, reactions against progressive attempts to destabilize patriarchal heterosexual hegemony (attempts to which I hope my writing may contribute). But they are also condensations and displacements of popular anxiety, particularly masculine anxiety, over a whole complex of other destabilizations. These include both changes in the material and economic base (fears of which are neither unfounded nor necessarily retrograde) and the general collapse of master narratives. As Yvonne Tasker has pointed out: “Postmodernity . . . signals significant shifts in the definition [and, I would add, the availability] of work and the masculine identity that it proposes. Postmodernism also calls into question the production and status of knowledge and categories of truth. These developments help to situate and historicize . . . shifts in Hollywood’s representation of the male hero,” whose current struggles embody “anxieties about masculine identity and authority” (242–243). In what follows I will attempt, through an analysis of an immensely popular text, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, to show how feminism and homosexuality become tropes for these postmodern developments and foci for the disease caused by late capitalism—and thus how popular hostilities toward feminist and gay underminings of the traditional masculine subject are overdetermined and intensified by the anxieties of postmodernity.
1. Kissing Our Selves Goodbye
Ultimately what all these destabilizations—of base and superstructure, gender and sexual orientation—have in common is that they pose threats to the continued existence of the reified subject of bourgeois humanism and compulsory heterosexuality, as well as to the privileged [End Page 6] site of that subject’s being and security: the nuclear family. In short (as Tasker suggests), the traditional subject, particularly the masculine subject, is in the throes of an identity crisis. Moreover, this crisis is a particularly radical one—too radical, in fact, to be contained within traditional humanist boundaries. For it is not simply a matter of discovering or choosing for oneself a single, unified, coherent identity from a range of cultural possibilities. Nor is it only a matter of the subject’s dislocation or transition from an old place to a new one. Rather, the current crisis threatens to transform or even overthrow the whole concept of identity. This is the point of convergence of fears of late capitalism, fears of theory, fears of feminism, fears of any swerving from the path of “straight” sexuality: the fears that, together, constitute what I want to call “pomophobia.”
This crisis is also the latent content of Sarah Connor’s dream of nuclear “judgment day” in Terminator 2—a dream that propels...