“I have said that the sole effect of my somewhat childish experiment – that of looking down within the tarn – had been to deepen the first singular impression. There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition – for why should I not so term it? – served mainly to accelerate the increase itself.” – Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”
* * *
“Having terror as its basis.” Edgar Allan Poe had it figured out. Poe’s narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher” says it as he tries to figure out what is happening to him, why creeping hysteria is taking over, despite efforts to control his fear. He is as scientific and detached as he can be, because he is losing control, and fighting back. Like a scientist, he observes that fear incites fear. If you are afraid – and cannot stop being afraid, despite efforts to stop it – you become more afraid. You become more afraid because the fear is stronger than you are – you can’t control the fear. Thus, like Poe’s narrator, you are losing control because you are losing control. The narrator calls this process “consciousness of the rapid increase of . . . superstition.” Crazy thinking – what he calls “superstition” – is really loss of control. You cannot understand what is confronting you – you cannot control the fear intellectually. As the feeling accelerates, it is not loss of control, exactly – it is loss of self-control. It is a fear that becomes panic that becomes hysteria, as your feelings take control of you and you become, in the process, someone different, someone out of control, capable of anything. Sheer survival is now in question.
Moviemakers are not unfamiliar with this logic of terror, this logic of hysteria. They understand the language of images, which is the basis of film reality. They know the metaphors. For example, hit movies such as Iron Man (2008) reminded us how intensely men are associated with metal, specifically steel and iron. Men are hard. As such they are not affected by feelings such as fear. To speak of hardness in connection with men is to draw attention, inevitably, to another aspect of male identity, which is in many ways the central experience of a man’s life. But setting erection aside, it is impossible not to notice the tight psychological bonding between, on the one hand, steel and metal – and on the other, the male body, male identity. There is hardness in a man’s personality. Hardness undergirds the entire macho ethic. A man, a real man, is not soft, like a woman. Softness is widely understood as a feminine attribute. Women are soft and, as such, define male identity by contrast. A man is hard in his identity generally, in his thinking and behaving, as well as in his body. According to this logic, the ideal male is physically hard and mentally hard, as well. Metaphorically mentally hard. He is unbending, like metal; he is strong, like steel; he lasts, like iron; he is tough, like stiff wire. And so on – the metal metaphors can be multiplied endlessly. A man is an iron man. A real man, that is.1
The hardness of the ideal male body is a theme everywhere in movies today, and the hard body is demanded now more than in earlier film history. When Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934) takes of his shirt, or John Gavin in Psycho (1960), it’s obvious that they are muscular and in good shape. But they are not hard, not in the way that men are expected to be hard in movies today when they take off their shirt. The hardness metaphor for movie men seems to be more and more the ideal, as time passes – not less. Metallic identity is much more than hardness, therefore: it refers to even deeper assumptions. If men are, as it were, metal, they are made out of metal, and something that is made out of metal is a machine. The machine metaphor is critical: the machine is what metal is made into – what metal is for. Metal exists for making machines; machines are trained metal – formed metal.
In a society dependent on machines, the mechanical becomes a metaphor for essential – for indispensable. Since a man is essential by definition, as opposed to women, in sexist culture, then a man must be mechanical – he is designed to be a machine. His special body part, usually soft, the member that gets hard, is a “tool,” in common parlance, a “machine,” as Cleland’s Fanny Hill calls it, over 200 years ago. The metaphor is familiar: his special parts are “equipment,” which must “perform” to standards. The male body is a machine, the male special member is a machine, the male identity is a mechanical one. The association of men with cars, guns, and other machines enacts this identification and ritualizes it. Under normal conditions, machines operate independent of circumstances, unaffected by what is around. Machines do not have feelings – and do not care about the feelings of others. What defines a machine is that it is automatic: it works by coercion. Coercion – control – is its heart. Press a button and it works. The heart of male identity is thus control, what a machine displays. The ultimate control-machine is of course a weapon, that which controls others. In a culture that has long regarded the definition of a male as an aggressor, a force-wielder or warrior, weapons become body dextensions, body expressions.
This is a subject too complicated for a brief exploration: the only features that can be dealt with here are those that bear upon male hysteria in classic television. The three terms in my title – “male,” “hysteria,” and “classic television” – need explanation. By “classic television,” I mean American TV of the 1950s-60s; I focus on The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, because of their familiarity and influence, as well as the originality they demonstrate and televisual skill. Both shows are male oriented. The cast is mostly men. Men are usually the protagonist, and sexism is plentifully on display, bringing us to my third term: “hysteria.” Typical symptoms of hysteria include tears, fainting, screaming, irrational anxiety: in short, emotional urges that manifest as loss of control, a loss of control that accelerates, that gets worse, like a child’s tantrum.
Hysteria is a peculiar term and a peculiar concept. It derives from the Greek for “uterus” “hyster” (“ὑστέρα”) as in “hysterectomy,” and is a condition attributed to women, as the word indicates.2 That is, hysteria is emotional disorder caused, ultimately, by the womb, by female reproductive organs. There is a long cultural history of believing that women’s reproductive organs somehow are inherently diseased – or if not actually diseased, yet a cause of aberration and weakness. While plainly absurd – no responsible medical practitioner today gives a diagnosis of “hysteria” – this kind of belief was essential to the demotion of women in society. They were weird, and did weird things, like weird bleeding, and therefore they had to be quarantined, as it were. The feminist revolt of the 1960s was a revolt against this kind of irrational and oppressive belief – a rebellion that coincided closely with the period of television that is the focus here.
In the context of that long cultural history of identifying “female” with “hysterical,” “male hysteria” is, therefore, an oxymoron. Men do not have wombs, do not have female reproductive parts, and therefore cannot have “hysteria,” even though they certainly have hysteria – hysteria in the sense of extreme emotional disturbances, that is. But in this logic a man by definition cannot be hysterical, any more than he can be pregnant. Or perhaps, a real man cannot be hysterical. If you are hysterical, you are not a (real) man. You cease to be who you are if you are a man and hysterical – an anxiety that itself amounts to hysteria, as in the form of what Freud called “castration anxiety” (Kastrationsangst). This contradictory anxiety – suffering hysterical symptoms yet being a man – gives us the shocking spectacle of a man losing control – a man going crazy, in short. The dangers of such male hysteria can be great – for example, in the Star Trek episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” one man’s hysteria pushes The Enterprise and its crew literally beyond the galaxy, where literally no man has gone before. Dangerous as male hysteria is, it is a very popular spectacle in Star Trek and in The Twilight Zone before it.
The Twilight Zone is full of male hysteria, and calls for special attention, simply because it is arguably the most impressive television series in the 1950-60s period. Apart from Star Trek (of which more in a moment), it is hard to think of any TV show that has had the kind of influence that Twilight Zone has had. The series features a variety of story types as well as remarkable actors, including stars and actors about to be stars, like William Shatner, soon to be centre stage of Trek. But despite all its varied talent, there is a typical story in The Twilight Zone. By “typical story,” I mean a scenario that recurs in the series, a story that turns up again and again, with, of course, variants on a basic structure. It has variants, but more importantly, the parts of this scenario recur, even if the whole scenario does not. That is, what are technically known as “plot-motifs” recur as well as the larger story – familiar story-actions and images and character types.
This typical plot may be summed up as follows. By some means, a man is isolated from his community – excluded, lost, withdrawn. He now faces a terrible threat, alone. He goes into a phase of hysteria, of loss of control – often total loss of control. During this phase, he screams, cries, runs around or moves in uncontrolled ways, even panics. Emotional equilibrium is shattered. Hysteria, in short, even if, as a man, he doesn’t have a uterus but a different piece of equipment. The protagonist may be rescued or find his way to safety, but very often he lapses into an even worse condition, marked by paralysis, continuing entrapment, or, in some cases, a realization that is too shocking to be borne, like the Burgess Meredith character in “Time Enough at Last,” who survives a nuclear holocaust but is now blind without his glasses. He got the isolation he wanted – but is now far worse off for having got it.
The basic story of The Twilight Zone appears in the very first show in the series (October 1959), perhaps not surprisingly, since it preoccupied so much of the series. The title of this episode, “Where Is Everybody?” is a rhetorical question. There is nobody there, except one person. “Everybody” is gone – absent. The title expresses isolation, with an undertone of panic or anger – or some equally strong emotion. In “Where Is Everybody?” a man is seen wandering in a normal American town – normal in every way, except one thing. There are no people. The town is empty. The man searches for someone – anyone – but while there may not be any people, there is nevertheless a feeling, an eerie feeling, of being watched, in fact observed, by hostile eyes, as if someone was mocking him. The feeling is that someone is there, all right. But that someone is hidden – someone not willing to reveal him or herself, with the power to watch without being watched. The man is not actually attacked by these invisible observers, but that itself suggests the sinister possibility that he is being played with, cat-and-mouse style.
Finally, to his relief – and ours – the man spots a woman sitting in a truck. He calls and runs to her, only to discover she is a mannequin! not a human being at all. Why a mannequin is sitting in the front seat of a truck is not explained. It is not explained but its function clearly is to shock or frighten him into the male hysteria that he displays with mounting intensity. The figure of the mannequin, the non-man, seated in the truck is surreal, and recalls the paintings of Salvador Dali or de Chirico: disquieting imagery, eerie and bizarre, like images in a disturbing dream. Now desperate, the protagonist presses the panic button, almost literally, for he finds a police call button and compulsively presses it over and over again, like a man mechanically trying and trying to make a machine work that isn’t working – or like a little boy screaming for his mother.
The show then goes through a narrative vortex. The scene changes completely. The viewer is shown that there is indeed something behind the scene – literally scene, as in a movie set. We are now on the other side of the machine. The man is being watched all right – but by a group of male scientist-observers. Authoritative men – men who are evaluating the panicky man in the town of emptiness. We are instructed that the man is being tested: he is undergoing an isolation experiment. The question is, is he man enough to handle the isolation of a mission to outer space, for which he is a candidate? He has been drugged and is in fact hallucinating the empty town and the eerie mannequin in the truck. He is all on his own.
What goes with the hysterical male is another figure: a male who is watching – watching and evaluating – the hysterical male. This secondary figure is often in or behind a machine, as if the machine were controlling the man losing control, as in the prototype “Where Is Everybody?” The episode has an upbeat ending, as the prospective astronaut, now freed from his hysteria, gazes up at the moon and declares his readiness to achieve the stars. But what the audience is left with is not this upbeat ending (an ending Serling himself came to dislike3): it is the spectacle of a town of ghosts, the spectacle of a woman intimately placed in a man’s truck who turns out to be made of wood or plastic. And, oh yes, a young, healthy American male – the ideal United States military man, no less – totally freaking out. And under the control of other men.
The series opener, “Where Is Everybody?” presents the basic scenario of the series that is to follow. As a prototype, it presents this scenario in a very naked form, especially the primary motif within that scenario, namely: isolation. The isolation of the protagonist appears to be the point of the series, the narrative preoccupation of The Twilight Zone. Thus, again and again, an individual is separated from others, and in this state of separation, he (usually he) confronts a disintegration of identity. Isolation is thus not merely being alone – it unfolds as loss of control; loss of control, in turn, unfolds as emotional chaos – accelerating emotional chaos, that is. Hysteria, in short. The twists of the plot serve to increase the isolation until the man totally loses control. The resolution of the episode may be rescue, as in “Where Is Everybody?” – or it may be a situation even worse, in the manner of frying pans and fires.
What stands out in this scenario is the spectacle of male hysteria: it has a commanding importance. The function of the episode, as it were, is to show us this spectacle, to lead us to this spectacle and then lead us away from it – or leave us there, in it, with him. I use male references deliberately, because The Twilight Zone focuses on men; but there is another reason for men being in this situation. For a woman to become hysterical – well, we expect that, in the culture of the 1950s-60s (certainly earlier, even later, too). Women are, as it were, naturally hysterical. In earlier movies, a hysterical woman is a familiar spectacle and is often “cured” by being slapped around by a man. Nothing like a good smack to calm her down, is the formula, so as to restore discipline and control. The great Dan Duryea made a career out of slapping women around, giving perhaps his most polished slapping scenes in the quintessential film noir Scarlet Street.4
But in this case, the case of male hysteria, merely slapping the man around might help, as when Abbott slaps Costello around, but it does not apply when we are dealing with an isolated male. Here we observe the man’s hysteria and loss of control and do so with a certain sense of superiority, as well as of horror. This is how a man should not be. As Scotty insists in the last episode of Star Trek: “I’ve seen Captain Kirk in many ways – but NEVER red-faced with hysteria!”5 The very idea is unthinkable, unthinkable not just in the sense of being unintelligible, but unthinkable in the sense of breaking up and disordering thought itself. Because there is a lurking sense of superiority in viewing a man losing it and freaking out, viewer identification with the protagonist may in fact weaken and turn into the opposite: ridicule. With a twist, the action of male hysteria could even become comic, as indeed happens in some episodes of The Twilight Zone. We should note in passing that Scotty is wrong about James T. Kirk – the Captain of the Enterprise is hysterical in a number of episodes, of which more in a moment.
Curiously, it is isolation that causes hysteria. Curiously, because isolation is an ideal of male identity: a man, a real man, is isolated in the sense of never needing anybody else, of being able to stand alone on his own, while at the same time competing with and dominating over others. In this logic, male identity is winning, especially winning alone, with nobody to help you, still less to do it for you. A winner is alone, because he is at the top. There are plenty of losers below, but there is, ideally, only one winner, invincible, self-sufficient. I don’t need anybody.
If we look at The Twilight Zone in terms of its genre, its approach to story construction, the affinity with film noir is obvious.6 The link is important for many reasons, but in particular because film noir shows the same fascination with male hysteria. By the late 1950s, when The Twilight Zone was conceived, film noir had petered out. Film noir did not disappear, of course, and whether we consider it a style or a genre, it can be found up to the present day in movies. But, crucially, as a cultural force, what film noir did was to migrate from the big screen to the little screen, from cinema to television, where its most conspicuous representative was indeed The Twilight Zone, along with its successor show The Outer Limits (some would also add Alfred Hitchcock Presents to this group, given its noir proclivities and its fascination with ironic actions). The migration to TV was a successful one; indeed, television is a congenial location for film noir. The small size of the screen (certainly in the 1950s-60s) suits the claustrophobia of the genre, with its emphasis on interiors, especially claustrophobic interiors and claustrophobic buildings and street scenes generally. Also congenial to film noir is television’s capacity for close-ups and details of facial expression. Given its small screen size, television had a kind of inbuilt claustrophobia that makes it a logical site for the sort of plot that the genre favored. Film noir continued to influence movies, but nowhere was its genre, its type of plot-construction, so carefully reproduced and adapted as in The Twilight Zone, showing what television was good at.
Film noir has a common type of plot construction, a type of construction that the literary critic Northrop Frye termed “irony” (or “an ironic action”). Irony is a complicated matter, but in this sense it is a term for a specific way of putting a story together. Essentially, that construction is circular: an ironic action is a circular action. In that plot, the protagonist ends up where he or she started. The protagonist ends up where he/she started – only worse off – not dead, usually, but degraded or further trapped. Thus the circularity of the plot is typically a spiral downward, returning to an earlier situation but even more constricted than the situation the protagonist was in at the beginning.7 A simple example from The Twilight Zone is “Shadow Play.” In “Shadow Play,” a man on death row (played by Dennis Weaver) is sent off to the electric chair. The switch is pulled, blackness follows – then he finds that he is back at the beginning of the same action, an action that repeats perhaps forever. As an actor, Dennis Weaver is particularly good at doing hysteria, and his rage and distress and panic at this endless repetition are all on view. One recalls his similar performance in Touch of Evil, a performance that Weaver repeated in important ways in Spielberg’s early film Duel (where his hysteria has definite gender anxieties for its root).8 His hysterical reaction in “Shadow Play,” his panic and desperate attempts to communicate with others, indicate the horror that an ironic action can pose.9
As a type of plot construction, irony likes to degrade its protagonist, to leave him or her alive at the end, but deprived of meaningful existence. What takes the protagonist to this dismal situation is typically some accident or absurd slip-up. Vicious or self-deluded motives help, of course. Film noir is full of this kind of ironic action. For example, in Hollow Triumph (1948, aka The Scar), the protagonist cleverly takes the place of a dead man whom he resembles, switching identities in order to steal his property. Identity theft is commonplace in story-telling, especially in ironic actions. He accomplishes this switch of identity by putting a scar on his face to match the distinguishing scar that marks his victim. Unfortunately, confused by working with a mirror, he puts the scar on the wrong side of his face, an unusually silly error. It is a silly error that, in true noir fashion, proves fatal. This type of plot construction is common in The Twilight Zone. The action isolates the protagonist, then leaves him in his isolation. Even the Hollow Triumph change-of-face motif was used in an episode of the first season of The Twilight Zone, and it is a motif that turns up in movies of the film noir type – Whirlpool, Dark Passage, and A Woman’s Face readily come to mind. In the ironic actions of Twilight Zone, a foolish slip-up, even a minor error, costs the protagonist everything.10 Hence the feeling of being assaulted by mischievous invisible enemies is implied again and again. Indeed, a disturbing impulse to laugh at the victim-protagonist in an ironic action is noticeable, to treat him (more rarely her) with contempt for his folly. Thus in “The Fever” the one-arm bandit appears to be laughing at the self-righteous Franklin Gibbs who is driven to suicide by his attempt to control the machine (played by Everett Sloane, a key member of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre group before his Hollywood career).11 The battle with the machine turns out to be a battle with/in the self – the male self.
Noir motifs such as The Scar’s identity theft stand out, simply because film noir stakes its reputation on gritty realism, on displaying realities that society either denies or disapproves, whereas Zone is without exception “fantastic” – fantastic in the technical sense of impossible, not just bizarre or strange. The distinction is important but in unexpected ways. That is, the fantasy element of Zone has the same function as the unlikely events of film noir, with its idiotic mistakes, its coincidences – unlikely but fatal coincidences – its surprises that overwhelm and shock, its nightmare bafflements. As the direct inheritor of film noir, The Twilight Zone absorbed and adapted noir techniques and developed them; it even showed the comic possibilities in the genre’s conventions. This works the other way, too, because even the comic episodes of The Twilight Zone, with a slight adjustment, would be as dark as the darker episodes in the series that display isolation in all its panic. Film noir originated in the horrors of World War II and the nightmare lead-up to the war, but The Twilight Zone, while it implies national PTSD from World War II, has a different socioeconomic subtext. This subtext is the alienation of the 1950s, the sense that the normal life of capitalist, rich America is a mask for pathological irrationality and psychological denial; that there is something profoundly anti-human about the culture of the 1950s. The launch of the Cold War confused and compounded this anxiety, with attendant witch hunts, conspiracy anxiety, and even terror, colonial wars, and the increasing horror of nuclear catastrophe.
Coming later, the male hysteria of The Twilight Zone has a different context from film noir, where male hysteria is also featured prominently. One of the most passionately loved motifs in popular American culture is the happy small town, an image extremely popular in the postwar 1950s period. The image of the happy small town, deeply embedded in the national imagination, has long been a reference for political metaphors. “Main Street” as opposed to “Wall Street” is a universally recognized dichotomy, where “Main Street” refers to a small town – not the big city. (Occasionally, “Main Street” implies the extension of the town into a small city that operates like a small town, as in Shadow of a Doubt, where the traffic cop knows everybody, the banker’s wife stops at the bank to get shopping money from her husband, and the librarian is an authority figure to respect.) Main Street is a metaphor for average, working, middle-class people, the majority of the population. But it refers to more than that.
For it refers to certain ideals and values – democracy, yes, but democracy conceived in a form like the Town Hall meeting of olden days – a rejection of extremes of wealth and poverty, on the assumption that in the world of the Happy Small Town, everybody has enough, but nobody has enough to waste or misuse. Everybody, in short, is a neighbor, and neighbors help neighbors. Fair play is a value taken for granted, as is the Happy Small Town festival – social occasions where everybody turns out to enjoy him/herself in the company of neighbors. People are conscientious and dutiful. The Father who knows best lives here. It is the first thing you see when you enter the original Disneyland: “Mainstreet U.S.A.” The Happy Small Town is projected as the ideal community: it has an invincible hold over popular consciousness, appearing in variant form over and over, and not confined to any particular stratum of society. Highbrow culture draws on this motif, and even those who rebel against it tend to do so by recreating it in a form they prefer, like the ’60s generation rejecting the 1950s by seeking utopian social arrangements that turn out to be the Happy Small Town all over again, but with different music, better sex, more inclusiveness, and colorful clothes.
The Twilight Zone – and especially its creator, Rod Serling – show a deep commitment to the Happy Small Town motif. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of this allegiance to the motif is “Walking Distance,” one of the first episodes to appear. In “Walking Distance,” the protagonist returns to his own Happy Small Town, only to discover that it is now a nostalgic refuge where he no longer belongs, and so he returns sadly to his present. But that does not mean that the Happy Small Town ideal is a charade, as another episode, also in the first season, makes clear: “A Stop at Willoughby.” In “Willoughby” a harried businessman leaves the present behind and does indeed achieve the “nostalgic refuge” denied to a similar businessman in “Walking Distance.”
These episodes, however, appear side by side with episodes that have a different attitude toward the Happy Small Town in Zone. For The Zone also subverts – indeed it parodies and demolishes – the motif of the Happy Small Town. Hence the first episode. The Happy Small Town here is a sinister shell, with untold, eerie, possibly alien, others, watching from behind blank windows and in control. The individual is alone, alienated, not in control. It is a total reversal of conventions, but typical in The Zone. Clearly, a threat to the validity of the motif of the Happy Small Town causes male hysteria. The cause of male hysteria is not, therefore, isolation – or not exactly; rather, the cause of male hysteria is the breakdown of the Happy Small Town motif, the subversion or dis-illusioning of the image and all that it stands for. Now that is threatening.
In one episode late in the series, “Stopover in a Quiet Town” (1964), a normal young couple find themselves in a strange neighborhood, outwardly the very epitome of the Happy Small Town. Everything is neat and houses and buildings well maintained. Then they discover that everything in it is shoddy and phony. Also, as in episode #1, “Where Is Everybody?” there is nobody else around: the town appears to be completely empty. In a shocking finale, the beautiful normal couple discover that they are in a model train set, a model of the Happy Small Town built by giant aliens as a toy for their daughter! A daughter who looks, in turn, exactly like the perfect ’50s young American girl, complete with blonde hair and no doubt blue eyes – except for one thing: she is a couple hundred feet high. The parody of the Happy Small Town motif is savage.
The Happy Small Town is extremely popular in the imagination of American culture. But there is a story that is at least as important – what may be termed American Story #1 – which has a simple but powerful plot. In that plot, an individual with some distinct characteristic or quality is alienated or expelled from the community, because of that unusual characteristic or quality. Then, after a time of ordeal, of questioning, of testing struggle, the individual returns to triumph over that community. Examples range from classic novels like The Scarlet Letter to classic movies like Norma Rae. But it is everywhere: the victory of the individual over the community. It is a plot that Americans hunger for, and tell themselves again and again. This plot plays often in The Twilight Zone, as in American culture generally, but, again, with a devilish ironic twist. In “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville,” a rich businessman, bored of having money instead of making it, does a deal with the devil to put him back in time in his old Happy Small Town, what he knew as a youth, so that he can do it all over again – make a killing. But this time, he will know things denied to competitors and townsfolk alike – a big advantage. As a result of his karmic rashness, he ends up back in the present, but now he is the janitor. The janitor that he condescends to in the opening of the show now sits in the rich man’s chair. The Happy Small Town is a trap; instead of triumphing over his community, he winds up at the bottom of it – the town has devilishly triumphed over him, and the ironic action of isolation has put him in his place.
In the self-satisfied culture of the 1950s-early ’60s, the spectacle of male hysteria was not welcome. It marks the hysteric: he is a loser, an example to shun: what we do not want. The spectacle of male hysteria not only permits the viewer to demonize it, but showing it is a way to contain hysteria, instead of releasing it. That is, the aim is to release hysteria in order to show it being contained. A man suffers a temporary lapse, losing control and thus identity; then order is restored. He gets a grip on himself. This is a common strategy: male hysteria is shown; then it is shown being controlled, in effect neutered. It displays hysteria only to conquer and contain hysteria. A famous movie example from the Twilight Zone period is The Manchurian Candidate (1962), where a male hysteric (Raymond, played by Laurence Harvey) contrasts with the determined control and self-control of Marco (Frank Sinatra). If you are hysterical, as a man, there is Something Wrong with you. You are quite possibly brainwashed by aliens – Communists – or worse, have gender confusion caused by a (shudder) “clinging, demanding mother,” a fatal problem in the pop psychology of the 1950s-60s (Raymond suffers both).12 The spectacle of male hysteria thus calls for men in control of men in control – the enwalling and neutralizing of hysteria and hysterical men. At all costs, avoid the kind of spectacle crystallized by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her famous story “The Yellow Wall Paper.” In “Yellow,” the man of the house is so disabled by his unruly wife that he literally faints on his own doorstep. Never!
But The Twilight Zone resolutely shows the spectacle of male hysteria without always resolving it – hysteria wins. The result of this exposure is some of the most gripping television ever. We are fascinated by men losing control and freaking out. It is a spectacle utterly mesmerizing. It makes visible a scary truth about men: they are not machines. The entire metal model of masculinity is a phony. At the heart of The Twilight Zone is a deep repudiation of the metal-man version of male identity. That is why the series is so preoccupied with male hysteria. Male hysteria is not evil: it is not anything; it cannot be simply proscribed. It has a function – showing it has a function, that is. Male hysteria shatters delusional values of control, coercion, and domination that have been so irresistible a turn-on for conventional male identity. The triumph of hysteria reveals that society itself is a structure of alienation. The individual is crushed and does not triumph over the social order that isolates and rejects him.
Another popular and influential television series came a bit later than The Twilight Zone, Star Trek (the first series), with William Shatner. Shatner had starred in two of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. Star Trek regularly presents the spectacle of male hysteria, and from early in the series. For example, in one of the first episodes, “The Naked Time,” even Spock loses his famed control and goes crazy, as does almost everyone on board the ship, and Kirk too is nearly disabled by the madness. One expects minor characters, as in “Dagger of the Mind,” to lapse into hysterical behaviour, but the major characters fall too, including Kirk. This is one of the most important facts about Star Trek: Captain Kirk, strong as he is, is an emotional man, exhibiting every emotion, including fear, and every sort of loss of emotional control. He has a posture very different in this respect from the actor originally chosen to play the part, and whose demeanor conforms to the lack of emotion action heroes are expected to demonstrate (apart, of course, from anger, which is allowed, anger being a means of aggression – in effect a weapon).13
Like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek regularly presents the spectacle of male hysteria, but again with a twist. For unlike The Twilight Zone, male hysteria in Star Trek is regularly contained. Star Trek came later than The Twilight Zone, corresponding closely with the social upheaval known as “the sixties,” and there are numerous references to the events and concerns of “the sixties.” The timing indicates a different grasp of male hysteria, too. Although not treated ironically, male hysteria is not exactly resolved, either. That is, it is not simply contained and order restored, as one might think. It is expressed in order to acknowledge it, rather than simply negate or deny it.
Instead of the Happy Small Town motif, we have the space ship with its community of differences, rather than a homogenous standard, as is so often the case in the Happy Small Town convention.14 Nor does Star Trek use the accompanying plot construction of an individual’s expulsion from community, followed by return and triumph over it. In fact, Star Trek, while frequently presenting the spectacle of male hysteria, avoids a basic characteristic of The Twilight Zone, namely isolation. The plot construction increasingly requires the opposite, a fusion of protagonists represented by the grouping of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. The use of three here is interesting. Protagonist and sidekick – two – make a congenial and familiar arrangement, found again and again in film and TV – easily recognized and accepted by audiences. But having three male characters acting in tandem, almost as parts of a single character, is rare. But as its popularity shows, it works. None of the Star Trek successor series has the same configuration or attempts it.
Hence Star Trek takes the motif of male hysteria found in The Twilight Zone and transforms it. The Twilight Zone uses male hysteria to repudiate the construction of male identity as mechanism. But Star Trek is more subversive. There is no doubt that sexism is very visible in Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry’s view of females in the show was largely a matter of “short skirts and lots of cleavage.”15 A recent article by Ina Rae Hark is particularly incisive on the sexist themes in Star Trek.16 But the sexist analysis is incomplete without acknowledging the way that the show subverts the male stereotype. The sexism interacts with anti-sexism. Contradictory? Yes, but it is not a surprising contradiction, for it reflects the contradictory currents in the period when the show was made, a period when oppressive beliefs jostle with experimental, progressive impulses. That is what male hysteria signifies. Star Trek displays the motif of male hysteria to present an alternative view of male identity: identity not as isolation or as domination of others, but male identity as a fusion in which difference is vital. Inclusion and co-operation replace isolation and domination – a far more sane conception of male identity, and of society itself.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s great story “Descent into the Maelström,” a fishing boat falls into the ultimate whirlpool. One of the three brothers on board is swept away, another becomes hysterical and fights with the third brother in a mad struggle for domination – and perishes. The third brother does something different. He does not cling to the old way, as his hysterical brother clings. He allows the hysteria to pass by him, because he begins to see things in a new way. He boldly goes beyond metal man mythology. And he survives. That is the lesson of male hysteria in classic television. Men can change – they can boldly go where men have not gone before – and they can survive. Survive – and live more abundantly.
Barr, Marlene S., ed. Future Females. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981.
Barrett, Michèle, and Duncan Barrett. Star Trek: The Human Frontier. Cambridge: Polity, 2001.
Booker, M. Keith. Strange TV: Innovative Television Series from The Twilight Zone to The X-Files. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.
Dickinson, Melissa. “Alexander for the Modern Age: How Star Trek’s Female Fans Reinvented Romance and Heroic Myth.” In Gerrold and Sawyer, eds. 169-84.
Eberl, Jason T., and Kevin S. Decker. Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant. Chicago: Open Court, 2008.
Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women, 2nd ed. New York: Anchor, 2005.
Fontana, D. C. “I Remember Star Trek . . .” In Gerrold and Sawyer, eds. 33-39.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.
Geraghty, Lincoln. “Eight Days That Changed American Television: Kirk’s Opening Narration.” In Geraghty, ed. 11-21.
Geraghty, Lincoln, ed. The Influence of Star Trek on Television, Film and Culture. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2008.
Gerrold, David, and Robert J. Sawyer, eds. Boarding the Enterprise. Dallas: Ben Bella Books, 2006.
Hark, Ina Rae. “Decaying Orbits: Men, Women, and Fears of Extinction in Star Trek,” in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Eds. Doug Brode and Shea T. Brode. Lanham, MD: Rowman, 2015. 87-98.
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Helford, Elyce R. “A Part of Myself No Man Should Ever See”: Reading Captain Kirk’s Multiple Personalities.” In Harrison, et al., eds. 10-32.
Henderson, Mary. “Professional Women in Star Trek, 1964-1969.” Film and History 24.1-2 (Feb-May 1994): 47-59.
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Kanzler, Katja. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations: The Multicultural Evolution of Star Trek. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter. 2004.
Nicholson, Mervyn. Male Envy: The Logic of Malice. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 1999.
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Relke, Diana M. A. Drones, Clones and Alpha Babes: Retrofitting Star Trek’s Humanism, Post 9-11. Calgary, Alberta: University of Calgary Press, 2006.
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- There are many cultural illustrations of the metallic nature of the body (see Mervyn Nicholson, Male Envy: The Logic of Malice). A revealing manifesto of this belief is Iron John: A Book About Men (1990), by the poet Robert Bly, a book that had a big impact when it was published. Bly elaborates the metaphorical “hardness” of a (real) man – a man who has fulfilled his anatomical destiny as a true man, unlike “soft males,” men who fail their calling as men. The contrast between “iron” and “soft” men – superior and inferior men – is basic to the argument. The assumption is that “soft” men, in Bly’s term, are “really” female; or more precisely, they are not completely male. [↩]
- Wikipedia notes that “Hysteria, in the colloquial use of the term, means ungovernable emotional excess. Generally, modern medical professionals have abandoned using the term ‘hysteria’ to denote a diagnostic category” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hysteria): the notion that the uterus causes what is called “hysteria” has long been a target of feminist analysis. [↩]
- Serling was a perfectionist who studied his own work, always seeking to improve it. Marc Zicree discusses Serling’s later reaction to the opening episode, particularly his dissatisfaction with its conclusion. Zicree has a record of work on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep-Space Nine. [↩]
- Dan Duryea migrated easily from film noir to television. He even starred in one of the earliest episodes of The Twilight Zone (“Mr. Denton on Doomsday”). The interconnections between film noir, The Twilight Zone, and Star Trek are frequent and sometimes surprising. [↩]
- “Turnabout Intruder,” the last episode, is a deeply interesting confrontation with the anxieties of gender and gender roles – and male hysteria. [↩]
- Many critics have noted the connection with film noir. See Booker 55. Booker also makes what sounds at first like an odd claim, that “The Twilight Zone is primarily a work of satire” (53). Whether it is “primarily” satire or not, its ironic plot-construction lends itself to satire. [↩]
- This is a simplified version of Frye’s account, which develops the circularity of irony in an ingenious and useful way in his path-breaking study of literary form Anatomy of Criticism. [↩]
- Duel, Spielberg’s first full-length film as director, is as much about masculinity anxiety – is the protagonist a real man after all? – as it is about being chased by a monster truck. Is he as real a “man” as his last name, “Mann,” demands? Duel appeared in 1971, during the full surge of the “women’s liberation” movement and counterculture energies – also the period of the horrors of the never-ending Vietnam War, with its conscript army, napalm, and “fragging.” [↩]
- By contrast, Groundhog Day (1993), starring Bill Murray, illustrates a repetition that becomes a transformation that frees the protagonist from repetition. In this (comic/satiric) movie, the protagonist wakes up every morning at the same time, and the events of the day exactly repeat the events of before. Eventually, the protagonist finds a way to free himself from repetition: he finds a way out, precisely what the characters in an ironic action do not find. The Christmas classic, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), has a similar rhythm, and features both film noir elements and male hysteria. [↩]
- Hence, as Booker puts it, The Twilight Zone uses “a reversal of the normal and the abnormal . . . the terrors of enforced conformity for individuals who can’t conform even if they try” (61): a profoundly ironic plot construction of the type perfected by Franz Kafka. The Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder” is a clever twist on the face-switching theme. [↩]
- In a disturbing irony, Everett Sloane committed suicide himself. [↩]
- The psychiatrist who wraps up the show in Psycho explains Norman’s problem is caused by Norman’s mother – “a clinging, demanding woman.” A similar diagnosis explains the bizarre Bruno Anthony in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (see Mervyn Nicholson, “Stranger and Stranger: Male Envy in Hitchcock”). [↩]
- The actor originally chosen for the role of Captain, Jeffrey Hunter, is visually the opposite of Shatner; he portrays a standard-issue tough-guy-leader image. For details on the visuals, see my “Minimalist Magic: The Star Trek Look.” [↩]
- The consensus view of Star Trek is that it presents “stories of disparate, distrustful, culturally alienated and emotionally wounded people who somehow come together for the common good when the chips are down” (Hark, Star Trek 7) – “the program’s affirmation of and optimism about multiculturalism generally occupies a central place” (Kanzler 66). Thomas Richards even goes so far as to say “Star Trek is the only science fiction to have successfully created a comic universe in which contact leads to conflict, resolution, peace, and laughter” (56). Not all agree, of course. As Diana Relke notes, “Fans tend to read Roddenberry’s enlightened humanism as hope for the future, while many academic critics see it as business as usual” (xiv). [↩]
- “Gene Roddenberry . . . wanted the actresses in the show to be visual sex objects . . . short skirts and lots of cleavage” (Solow and Justman 216). Female figures are often more complex than this eye-candy formulation – especially later on, as the series evolved. [↩]
- See “Decaying Orbits: Men, Women, and Fears of Extinction in Star Trek.” [↩]