What 'The Thing' Loses by Adding Women

The 1982, all-male John Carpenter monster film came with a sexual subtext. The new prequel features females—and ends up playing like a more-conventional slasher flick.

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Above, Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 2011's The Thing. Below, Kurt Russell in 1982's The Thing (Universal/JohnCarpenter.com)

John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) is famous for oozily gruesome special effects, impressively tight plotting, and for one of Kurt Russell's most iconic paranoid-tough-guy performances. What truly distinguishes it from the toothy horror film horde, though, is something it lacks: women. The film is set on a research base in Antarctica, and the entire cast is male.

Scriptwriter Bill Lancaster explained the lack of women in The Thing like this:

In reality there aren't any women in these kinds of situations. I remember thinking as a kid that the obligatory love scenes in horror movies interrupted the action.

Fair enough, but there's a reason that all those other films have those obligatory love scenes and, indeed, those women. The Thing is basically a sci-fi slasher, and an important part of the appeal of slasher films (as Halloween director John Carpenter well knew) was that the R rating gave the (mostly) male audience a chance to see some T and some A. For that matter, The Thing's most direct precursor was surely Alien—a film that suggested strongly that slasher/sci-fi audiences would pay good money to see a hot female protagonist kicking alien ass. Horror films aren't about reality in the first place, they're about genre requirements. And the genre requirements for slashers generally include women not just as love interests, but as the main protagonists (a la Halloween, Friday the 13th, and on and on.) So why write them out?

Part of the answer is John Carpenter, a director who, in Christine, They Live, and many other films, has been particularly interested in male-male relationships. And part of the answer, perhaps, is provided by queer theorist Eve Sedgwick. In Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick argued that Western culture is "structured—indeed fractured—by a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition." Basically, for Sedgwick, male identity always inevitably collapses into an agonized, shapeless horror. Strong, manly men who are male-focused and uninterested in femininity are in danger of becoming homosexual not-men. On the other hand, men who are too women-identified are also in danger of becoming not-men—a.k.a. things.

Thus, women in The Thing would be out of place, as would male-female love. This is because The Thing can be read as being obsessed with the fear of failing to be a man—and, concurrently, with homosexual panic.

The men in the original are constantly examining each other for evidence of the Thing, the spreading contagion that may make them not-men

The Thing of the title is an alien protoplasm that devours and mimics other organisms—it passes, if you will, as human. One by one, the men on the base are devoured and replaced. That replacement often has a queasy sexual component; one of the researchers, for example, is covered with slithery, bondage-like tentacles. In the film's most spectacular scene, another scientist reveals his Thingness when a replica of his own head bursts from his stomach in a twisted all-male mockery of birth.

The men in The Thing are constantly examining each other for evidence of the Thing, the spreading contagion that may make them not-men. The hero, MacReady (Russell), is heroic precisely because he is the most paranoid and the least subject to emotional attachments. To give him a female love interest would both undermine the source of his strength and ruin the apocalyptic, eroticized, male hot-house orgy of Thingness.

In the new The Thing, a prequel to the 1982 version, director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr., jettisons this dynamic quickly and thoroughly. Not only are there two women in the film, but one of them Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is the hero.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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