Size Matters: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

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Please note that this post contains spoilers.

Through the years, the science fiction film has been seen to comment on events in the “real” world. For example, in 1918, the Danish film Himmelskibet (Holger-Madsen) was a thinly veiled call for peace and an end to the first world war. Likewise, Things To Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936) speaks “to the political and social unrest of (its) time” (Cornea, 2007: 19). Many of the movies in the cycle of science fiction films produced in America in the 1950s have been seen as commentaries on the McCarthy communist witchhunts that took place from 1949 until 1954 and, more generally, the threat from Russia during the first decade of the Cold War. By the end of the 1950s, however, a number of films, most notably The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957), began reflecting issues arising from the so-called masculinity crisis that was sweeping America.

In his book, Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties, Steven Cohan writes that, in 1958, Look magazine published “a series analyzing what it called “The Decline of the American male” …Each piece in the series concentrated on a different symptom of the nation’s masculinity crisis: that men let themselves be dominated by women, that they worked too hard for their own physical and spiritual good, and that they conformed to the values of the crowd much too readily” (Cohan, 1997: 6).

With such articles appearing in popular magazines, it is hardly surprising that such issues would find themselves reflected in films of the period. Cohan goes on to suggest that this masculinity crisis was the result of events that took place following World War II:  “Demobilization required restoration of the gender relations that World War II had disturbed both in the home and in the workplace. After the war, too, the first Kinsey report on men, published in 1948, challenged many traditional assumptions regarding the normality of male sexual practises” (Cohan, 1997: xi-xii).”

Cyndy Hendershot states that The Incredible Shrinking Man “focuses on the stress placed upon men in the Atomic age. Radiation and insecticide cause Scott to devolve physically … but his anxieties about living up to the 1950s masculine ideal are present prior to his physical devolution” (Hendershot, 1999, p. 86). The opening scene of the film is a telling one in this respect. Scott Carey and his wife, Louise, are spending a day on a boat owned by Scott’s brother. Scott, dressed only in shorts, is (outwardly at least) an archetypal 1950s male with his toned body, blonde hair and tanned skin. However, when he asks his wife to fetch him a beer, she refuses, unwilling to move from her place sunning herself next to her husband. It is only when Scott offers to cook dinner if she gets him the beer from the fridge that she agrees to get the drink. Louise even reminds him that the boat they are on is not his but his brother’s, showing that “Scott’s inability to be a good provider plagues him prior to the genetic mutation he undergoes” (Hendershot, 1999: 86). The exchange between Scott and his wife clearly shows that Louise has as much power in their relationship as Scott does, even before he begins shrinking and his physical masculinity comes under attack.

It is directly after this dialogue with his wife (and while she is getting him the beer) that a strange mist passes over Scott, which we later discover is a radioactive matter and the cause of his shrinking. Once the mist has passed, it leaves a residue on Scott’s skin which is similar to glitter, something which he tries desperately to brush off when it is pointed out to him by Louise. It appears that Scott is as much appalled by the idea of being seen by his wife with glitter on his chest as he is by the fear of what the residue really is.   It is telling that it is this part of his body inparticular which has been covered with the substance. Up until this point, his bronzed chest was one of the key components of his physical masculinity, but within seconds it has been compromised and feminised by the radioactive residue. It is only some months later that Scott realises that all is not right, and he finds that his clothes are too big for him. Shawn Rosenheim writes that “his disease first manifests itself in his literal inability to wear the pants in his family, which hang down over his shoes” (Rosenheim, 1995: 18). Almost at once, therefore, Scott can be seen to have had his masculinity eroded as he starts to shrink.

Once his shrinking is confirmed by his doctor, Scott has to undergo a number of tests in order for the doctors and scientists to ascertain the cause of his condition. It is at this point in the film that Scott begins to lose control of his life and has to allow himself to be dictated to both by his condition and other people. Scott’s voiceover at this point in the film is telling:  “Then began a series of intensive tests. I drank a barium solution, stood behind a fluroscope screen. They gave me radioactive iodine and an examination with a geiger counter. I had electrodes fastened to my head, water restriction tests, protein bond tests, eye tests, x-rays and more x-rays. Tests. Endless tests.”

Scott is being violated by the people around him, with it clear that the tests are being carried out not only in order to help him, but also to satisfy scientific curiosity. It is at this point that “from the conventionally normal status of masculine head of household, Scott descends to one in which he is dependent upon his wife for survival” (Hendershot, 1999: 86). In the next scene, Scott is shown to be just over three feet tall, and unable to lead a normal life any longer. Rosenheim argues that he is not only losing his masculinity but also his adult status: “Carey grows more childish as he shrinks – an infantilization represented by his dwarfed occupation of a chair” (Rosenheim, 1995: 18). It might be fairer to say that Carey becomes more physically child-like than childish as he gets smaller; after all, his mind is still that of an adult and he can still see the world from an adult perspective.

His masculinity crisis now becomes sudden and severe. He has to give up his job and is therefore no longer the breadwinner of the family. In order to make enough money to survive, he sells his story to the tabloids, and these and other media sensationalise his story and Scott becomes a prisoner in his own home due to the journalists literally camping outside his front door, hoping for him to make an appearance. He has gone from the head of the household to a circus-style freak in just a few short weeks.

When Scott finally does leave the house, it is only after doctors have injected him with a solution designed to halt his shrinking, although they are unable to tell him if he will start to grow again. Unable to cope, Scott goes out into the night and finds himself in a cheap cafe in the company of a young woman of his own size, who is in town with a travelling carnival. The two begin to meet regularly, although it is not disclosed if the pair have become romantically involved. What is made clear, however, is that Scott is no longer in a sexual relationship with his wife: “One evening, Scott mentions to Louise his desperate need for her, but she rejects him, going to bed with their pet cat, Butch, instead. Butch’s name is a reminder of what Scott should be…and his inability to be the butch man of the house is underscored as Butch the cat replaces him in Louise’s bed” (Hendershot, 1999: 87).

What Cyndy Hendershot fails to spell out clearly is that Scott is unable to satisfy his wife sexually for that most dreaded of reasons: he is too small. The fact that Louise takes Butch to bed is to remind us that Scott can no longer satisfy her in this capacity, and that she needs a real man.

At one point in the film, Scott is living in a dolls house and wearing clothes made for a male doll or toy. It is while his wife goes out and leaves him in the dolls house that he is attacked by Butch the cat and falls into the basement area of the house. Hendershot writes that the “film works with the notion of Scott’s fall into matriachy by making the basement a feminine space” (Hendershot, 1999: 87), but it is clear that the dolls house in which Scott is living directly prior to this is also a feminine environment. What’s more, it is a continuation of the theme of how a crisis in masculinity can also be viewed as a crisis of adulthood that was seen earlier in the film.

Once he falls into the basement of the house, his fall from masculinity becomes complete. This is demonstrated immediately by the fact that he lands in a box of sewing equipment, with the activity of sewing being a traditionally female activity. What is more, he has to depend on this equipment in order to survive, using it to gain food such as the cheese from a mousetrap, to explore and get around his environment and, finally, to kill a spider.

The famous sequence with the spider is key to Scott’s fall from masculinity within the film. Despite it being bigger than he is, Scott knows that he has to kill the spider in order to get to the piece of cake that his wife left in the basement which is his only source of food. Although it can be argued that the spider is a metaphor for “the monstrous feminine”, I suggest that it is actually used as another example of how Scott’s masculinity has been eroded. In films of this period, we would expect it to be the woman who is scared of the spider and the man who would “rescue” her. Here, however, this role is reversed. It is the man of the house who is scared of the insect, and it is a sewing implement, a needle (an object associated with the feminine) that saves him from the creature.

Following the altercation with the cat, Scott’s clothes have become torn and so he returns to the needle once again for help. He makes himself a new garment, a kind of tunic, out of what materials he has available to him. Once again, the making of clothes can be seen as a “feminine activity”, and the clothing he makes can also hardly be regarded as masculine as the bottom of the tunic resembles more of a skirt than a pair of trousers.

When he has fallen into the basement and is crying out for help, Louise never sees or hear him, instead she is more preoccupied with the broken boiler and with Scott’s brother who seems just a little too keen to pronounce Scott dead and move Louise out of the house, despite the fact that there is no real evidence that Scott was killed by the cat. The presence of Scott’s brother is an interesting one. Louise reminds Scott at the beginning of the film that it is his brother’s boat that they are on, then it is he who suggests that Scott sells his story to the newspapers in order to be financially secure and then, as we have seen, it is he who persuades Louise that Scott is dead. This brings us to the suspicion that Louise may have already decided to reject Scott in favour of his brother even before he starts to grow smaller.   By the point in the film when Scott is in the basement, Louise can see that his brother is wealthier than Scott, able to look after her, and satisfy her in the bedroom.

The film can therefore be seen as a (less than subtle) reflection of the masculinity crisis of the time. In the second world war, women had gone to work doing jobs traditionally associated with men. Even those that stopped working after the war found themselves in charge of new technologies within the home such as refrigerators and washing machines that, until that time, had been appliances only found in places of work. Men, therefore, had two choices on how to cope with this new way of life – they could either turn their backs on all their responsibilities or adapt to the world in which they were now living, in the same way that Scott does in The Incredible Shrinking Man.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Berenstein, R. J., 1996. “It Will Thrill You, It May Shock You, It Might Even Terrify You”: Gender, Reception and Classic Horror Cinema. In B. K. Grant, The Dread Of Difference: Gender And The Horror Film (pp. 117-142). Austin: University Of Texas Press.

Cohan, S., 1997. Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Cornea, C., 2007. Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Hendershot, C., 2001. I Was A Cold War Monster. Horror Films, Eroticism and The Cold War Imagination. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Hendershot, C., 1999. Paranoia, the Bomb and the 1950s Science Fiction Films. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Rosenheim, S., 1995. Extraterrestrial: Science Fictions in “A Brief History of Time” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man”. Film Quarterly , 48 (4), 15-21.

Skal, D. J., 1998. Screams Of Reason. Mad Science and Modern Culture. New York: W W Norton.

Skal, D. J., 1993. The Monster Show. A Cultural History Of Horror. London: Plexus.

Sobchack, V., 1987. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (2nd edition). New York: Ungar.

Trice, A. D., & Holland, S. A., 2001. Heroes, Antiheroes and Dolts: Portrayals of Masculinity in American Popular Films, 1921-1999. Jefferson: McFarland and Company.

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