by Joanna Russ
Cut, no. 12-13, 1976, pp. 14-17
The Denver area is full of male feminists. Two of them, both science-fiction writers, urged me to see A BOY AND HIS DOG, the feature-length film made from Harlan Ellison’s science-fiction story of the same name. Both men are friends of mine, and Harlan Ellison is a friend of mine also; yet must I proclaim publicly right here that sending a woman to see A BOY AND HIS DOG is like sending a Jew to a movie that glorifies Dachau; you need not be a feminist to loathe this film. I don't know whether Ellison supervised the making of the film or whether he approves of it, so this review will deal entirely with the film and not with Ellison’s story. (1) Kate Millett called Norman Mailer’s An American Dream a novel about how to kill your wife and live happily ever after; A BOY AND HIS DOG is about how to feed your girl friend to your dog and live happily ever after.
This film is in the direct line of descent of hundreds of Hollywood movies in which a designing and dangerous woman tries to part loyal male buddies. BOY has essentially the same ending as CASABLANCA, although in the latter film getting rid of the woman is romantically glossed over—i.e., she is renounced, not chopped into dog food. Samuel Delany, an excellent science fiction writer and critic, has invented the word “homosexist” to describe films like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, in which the woman is a dim tagalong, brought in to placate the audience, which might be expected to grow uneasy at a film in which the main emotional entanglements between men and women are either secondary or rejected. (2)
In this sense, BOY is a homosexist film. It is not a homosexual film—I want to make that clear. If there are constant jokes made about the “fuzzy butt” of the telepathic dog, Blood, and if the dog is pictured as immensely appealing, this is not because the dog rouses erotic feelings in either Vic (the hero) or anybody else; it is because he doesn't, and it is therefore safe to love him. BOY is affectionate towards the dog, who is asexual. It is the woman, Quilla June, corrupt, dangerous, but powerfully attractive, that the film finds evil and menacing. Stories in which the world’s evil is attributed to women or women’s sexual attractiveness are hardly new in western culture, and there are times you'd swear BOY was a remake of SAMSON AGONISTES or even the story of the Garden of Eden, although the garden here (a world devastated by World War Three) is a pretty bleak and minimal one.
Stories which portray a noble, talented, or sympathetic man done in by an evil temptress depend heavily on the plausibility of the temptress, and it’s here that BOY falls down—it’s a good film until the utter impossibility of Quilla June, Vic’s girlfriend, destroys it. Among other good things the movie has a splendid performance by the dog—pieced together by the director, one assumes, but at times one wonders; the dog’s a better actor than many human ones. And the film has that rare science fiction virtue one might call Not Shoving Your Nose In It. Remember those films in which somebody says,
Well, nobody in BOY ever talks like this. The film does not painfully belabor the obvious but gives you the science fiction background and details you need quickly, dramatically, and above all, obliquely. But you buy the considerable virtues of the movie by having to endure (once again) a story whose main point is that women are no damned good and men are better off without us, even when it means killing us.
Vic, the boy, survives (with the help of his telepathic dog, Blood) in a ruined, sterile, war-devastated America in which rape and murder are commonplaces. He attempts to rape Quilla June, only to be unexpectedly trapped by love. She tempts him down to the underground world of “Topeka,”(3) a 1905-ish midwestern smalltown world like a Ray Bradbury story gone totalitarian, and he finds himself a prisoner. Quilla sets him free, wishing him to kill the leaders of this ghastly place, but the leaders’ robot executioner is all but unkillable (although Vic manages to short out one of them, there are plenty more in the warehouse) and the lovers flee above ground. A wounded, weakened Blood, waiting above ground for Vic, has waited too long: Vic is forced to choose between Blood’s life and Quilla June’s, and he chooses his real friend, the dog.
From the above synopsis (if you hadn't seen the film) you might guess that both societies are intolerable, that both characters are driven, and that any course of action taken by anybody will, of necessity, be tragic. This is not the case. For example, the film presents the judicial executions in “Topeka” as horrifying, while casual murders above ground are a grim sort of fun—Vic’s and Quilla’s reactions give the audience its cue in both cases. The murders are also paced differently and shown differently. A key line in the film—Vic shouts that he wants to go back to the dirt above ground so that he can feel clean—characterizes her form of Hell as infinitely worse than his. He is a loser below ground and a winner above ground, but the film translates this difference into a moral difference between the two societies. (I might add that the line itself is television-ghastly. Vic has been carefully created as someone who would not give a damn about feeling morally clean and to whom such a self-conscious fatuity as the line would be impossible.)
Above all, Vic and Blood are lovable and good, and Quilla June is manipulative and bad, so Vic’s final choice is a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, the foregoneness of the conclusion destroys its drama. Since feeding your girlfriend to your dog is neither suspenseful nor tragic—it’s necessary and she deserves nothing better—the end dwindles to a sour joke, exactly as the audience took it. It isn't hard to see in this film another repetition of the common American idea that if only men could get away from civilization (i.e. women) and civilization’s troublesome insistence that one actually interact with others, life (men’s lives) would be much better. Even though Vic’s life, after Quilla, will be lived in a bleak and ruined world, he will be free; BOY is surprisingly like Huckleberry Finn, with Blood as the undemanding and loving companion who isn't quite human, like Nigger Jim. The movie, however, goes farther than Twain did; civilization (“Topeka”) is totally corrupt. And woman is not simply avoided but wiped out, a necessity if man (who has now seen through her bitchery and is no longer a slave to his gonads) is to go off with his real friend, the dog.
BOY presents its woman as corrupt and produced by a corrupt society; only by murdering her can man avoid her dangerous fascinations. A sexless relationship is better, “love” is rotten, and Vic’s becoming disillusioned with “love” and returning to his old friend (the dog) is the plot of the film. Quilla June is therefore an important character, and the film’s judgment of her is the linchpin of the plot.
Quilla June at first looks like a brave woman. By coming above ground she risks death, not to mention rape. She is also surprisingly competent; she knows how to shoot. However, we soon find that her escapade is neither patriotic nor curious but fueled by greedy ambition, for the elders of “Topeka” have sent her up with the promise of reward. Later she braves the rulers of “Topeka” (including her own father) by freeing Vic, but this action is not undertaken because she likes him or repents of having trapped him; instead, she wishes him to kill—for her—the “Committee” which rules this underground society. Why she can't do this herself is something of a puzzle, for she apparently knows how to shoot and guns are available, but perhaps the film wants to characterize her as simultaneously dangerous and helpless. She has persuaded other teenagers to rebel against the rulers of “Topeka,” an accomplishment which you might think would show her as something of a political mastermind, but no, they are all boys—there are no girls in Quilla’s rebellion—so it is probable that she has seduced them into submission, as she did Vic. She is no Joan of Arc (or even Evita Peron), but only Mata Hari. The government of “Topeka” is viciously conformist, but no credit accrues to Quilla for wanting to destroy such a set-up; for what she really wants, as she makes plain to Vic, is to replace those currently in power with herself. The film simultaneously presents her as enormously dangerous and powerful (because of her sexuality) and totally helpless (although she must know about the robot executioner, all she does is scream for Vic to protect her, though earlier she was daring enough to bash in heads). Back on the surface (in her wedding dress, a good touch) she reveals that she is not only helpless but stupid; she whines unpleasantly and “manages” Vic badly—and this is fatal, because he is now her only protector.
According to Samuel Delany,(4) a literary characterization proceeds by means of three kinds of actions: gratuitous, purposeful, and habitual, and well-written characters perform all three. (This classification certainly applies to realistic fiction, and I suspect it applies to all fiction, however stylized.) Sexist literature produces two kinds of female characters, both imperfect: the Heroine, whose actions are all gratuitious, (5) and the Villainess, whose actions are all purposeful. Neither performs habitual actions.
Now Quilla June perfectly fits this formula for a Villainess—she is all calculation. She has no habits, and what a difference it would make if she did—bit her fingernails, for example. or wince uncontrollably whenever her dreadful Daddy comes too close! But aside from a few clumsy betrayals of hatred, Quilla never does anything spontaneously (that is, gratuitously) any more than she does anything out of habit; she is all outside, all mask, and the few revelations of her feelings are simply revelations that Quilla is hateful. The inner life that makes Blood and Vic so lovable is withheld from Quilla June; she is a grotesque enormity, a totally manipulative Bitch. We are shown that she is “ambitious,” but it’s hard to know what ambition is supposed to mean here (it seems to be only another word for hate) since what she wants is neither flattery, glory, nor self-importance, but only revenge.
In addition to repeating the theme of Love Between Buddies, the film strongly resembles those 1950s films in which the Good Girl is bait, used to bind the Bad Boy to the Conformist System—except that the 1950s films I'm thinking of are on the side of the System (of which the Good Girl is an artifact), and this film most emphatically is not. Clearly, BOY intends to attack the Conformist System (a remarkably nasty one in this film); judgment is pronounced upon it by Vic, and its representative. Quilla June, is destroyed by him.
What is odd is that Quilla June, far from representing “Topeka,” is in fact trying to destroy it, and that “Topeka,” far from being hurt by Quilla June’s death, is protected by it. One might begin to suspect that “Topeka” has an interest in having Quilla destroyed and that far from being its representative, she is its scapegoat—expendable, unnecessary, but useful at times for containing the rage of punks like Vic.
That is, thinking you are attacking society when you condemn or ravage the hypothetical Nice Girl Next Door is the exact equivalent of thinking that stealing from the local supermarket makes you a Communist.
The Nice Girl Next Door, although she is often perceived as the most protected and most valuable citizen in a sexist society, is neither. She isn't even really in the society at all. She’s a figurine, a possession. a commercial product, something the film recognizes at one point when it shows a long line of girls in bridal dresses (same uniform, different faces) waiting in a hospital corridor to be led in and “married” to Vic. (“Topeka” is taking semen samples from him as he lies wired to a machine that stimulates his brain in order to induce orgasm; each girl in turn stands under a horseshoe of flowers in her white gown, a minister solemnly reads the marriage service, the machine is turned on, and the resulting semen is neatly labeled, presumably with the name of the “wife.”) The Nice Girl is socially powerless, useful at best for the minor policing of teenage boys, useful as a reward or a “responsibility” but hardly a citizen in her own right—after all, the major policing in a sexist society is done by others, overwhelmingly by adult males. When Vic destroys Quilla he is destroying a victim, a quasi-slave, a piece of useful property. He is certainly not harming “Topeka.” And the film does not present Quilla’s destruction as Quilla’s tragedy; on the contrary, it is she who is the real menace; it is she who must be punished.
This is scapegoating.
The movie hates “Topeka,” but it executes Quilla June. Are the two identical? To think they are is comparable to the theories which maintained that the only flaw in antebellum Southern slavery was the wretched character and corrupting influence of the slaves themselves. This logic is a form of Philip Wylie’s Momism, in which women are “society” and a man escapes from “society” and its obligations by avoiding women; the usual American form of this illusion is the concept of marriage as a trap into which men are tricked by women. But if society is really constituted by other men (as “Topeka” certainly seems to be), then no escape is possible; avoiding women leaves a man just as open to intimidation by other men, i.e., by “society.” BOY avoids the problem of society-as-other-men by splitting the world into two: in underground “Topeka” there are relatively free women (that is, young people and members of the lower classes are oppressed regardless of sex), while above ground women are prostitutes, drudges, or rape victims, and hence powerless.
The real ruler of “Topeka” is clearly Quilla’s daddy, but the fight with him is never joined at all. Indeed, the film doesn't even seem interested in him. This is especially odd since the role (a very brief one) is played by Jason Robards. Jr., and you'd think that out of sheer dramatic expediency the movie would give him more to do. I might add that the rulers of the underground society are presented as quite straightforwardly cynical and callous. which seems to me a bad mistake; “Topeka,” in its enforced imitation of Kansas 1905 (or a.daydream thereof) is a mind-bendingly surreal place. I don't believe the leaders would be exempt from the general craziness; quite the contrary (1984, q.v.). This aspect of “Topeka” is well conveyed in the film, for example, by the white face makeup and the misty, purplish sky—so close that it gives you instant claustrophobia.
It is nonsense to insist that the real danger in a tyrannical, self-hating, hypocritical, piously horrible society is pretty, scheming, little girls. The Nice Girl looks like the most sacred and the most privileged citizen of this ghastly commonality, but in reality her rights (as opposed to the rights of her owners) are nonexistent. In D. W. Griffith’s ORPHANS OF THE STORM, for example, to lay a finger on Lillian Gish looks like a desecration, but she is far from being society or even a citizen of it; she has been invented, constructed, meant, put there in the film either to be raped or saved from rape—what other purpose can there possibly be for her unhuman helplessness and childishness? The Victorian gentlemen who so assiduously protected their daughters’ maiden purity were not hypocrites when they visited whorehouses stocked with 12-year-old girls; they were simply acting on the identical assumption about the high value of maiden purity. In such a setup, pretty girls are about as much privileged citizens as a diamond ring is a privileged citizen. Like money or jewels, women are counters for use in business or warfare between men.
Punk loners (who are much more part of “society” than Vic is part of “Topeka” in BOY) can go on terrifying or killing waitresses or cheerleaders forever under the impression that they're heroically attacking society; this is what happens in both BOY and THE WILD ONES, a movie whose anger (and evasions) thrilled a whole generation.
Confusing Nelson Rockefeller with his car is a useful delusion to inculcate in punks; this way they attack the car instead of the man. After all, if the punks ever found out the car was only a possession, there might be real trouble. But as long as movies assume that the use of women to bind men to respectability is an instinct or a scheme by women (who must act through men in order to attain any power or safety), and not a circumstance set up by powerful men, rebels can expend their emotion on reincarnations of the Bitch Goddess forever.
The war between fathers and sons is as chronic a conflict in patriarchy as the war between classes (that is, between upperclass and lowerclass men), though not nearly as revolutionary in its potential. In both conflicts women are useful scapegoats, blamable and punishable for everything. After all, Son will eventually make it to the state of Father and will have his own Daughter/Wife he can own (“protect”) from other Fathers, a Daughter he can give to another Son as payment for containing the status quo. Son can be counted on to punish Daughter if Daughter gets out of hand. Thus a real alliance between Daughter and Son is made eternally impossible, and luckily so, for such an alliance would be almost as dangerous for patriarchy as one between Daughter and Mother. Between classes, scapegoats are even more useful: Lowerclass Man is not going to make it at all, i.e., he will never replace Upperclass Man; so using Lower/Upperclass Woman as scapegoat both distracts him from the real situation and bribes hire to endure it.
The evils of female sexuality and the obligatory punishment of its carriers is the grand, eternally useful scapegoat of Western patriarchy. It is the one topic on which Fathers and Sons, Upperclass Men and Lowerclass Men can heartily agree. And they can agree (and collude) while enjoying the comforting illusion that they are engaged in dangerous, revolutionary activities. I believe the makers of BOY really thought they were violating a sacred taboo when they fed Quilla June to Blood, but there is certainly no such taboo extant now in fiction or film.
In fact, I doubt there ever was one. For quite a while 20th century literature and films have specialized in exploitation, self-aggrandizement, and violence directed against women; writers who use such devices can congratulate themselves on being daring while taking almost no risks. This violence didn't start with FRENZY, either; Griffith could show Lillian Gish in various threatening situations time after time, Gloria Swanson could be carried half-naked out of the surf (this in 1919), and DeMille could elevate orgy to a shlock art. How much freedom had any of them to violate real taboos—for example, to attack free enterprise? The sacredness of the Nice Girl is important only when it gives one group of Sons or Fathers a reason to wallop another; otherwise nobody cares. The one taboo is highly ambivalent and strongly titillating (the treatment of Mom in American movies, with its mingling of exploitation, adulation, and venom, is an even plainer case), but the second taboo is absolute.
Naked ladies in bathtubs or rape (a subject surprisingly present in late 19th century European theater) don't get you into trouble with the censors, certainly not persistently. If you are Mae West and you try to demystify sex, removing both pruriency and sentimentality from the subject, you get into trouble with the Hays Office. If you are Charlie Chaplin, you end up in much worse trouble, and not with the Hays Office, either.
If you look carefully at the structural (though not sexual) position of Blood in the triangle dog-boy-girl, you find that he is really Vic’s other woman. in fact, Vic’s wife. Blood, presented as a better person than Quilla June, nonetheless controls his relationship with Vic through identical manipulativeness of the traditional feminine sort: he is by far the more dependent, he is smaller, he cannot handle firearms, and he depends on Vic for food. Suavely dignified as the dog is, his pretensions are always at (very comic) odds with his behavior. He’s a mooch, a coaxer, a charmer, a wheedler, a jealous sulk, a self-dramatizer who gets his way by ostentatiously parading his wounded feelings. He even fulfills the common American wifely function (remember Maggie and Jiggs?) of trying to make Vic cultured. In short, he acts very like a wife, even to the traditional parallel that when Blood wants something, like going Over the Hill, and Vic doesn't, Blood has to do without. It might be objected that Blood works for his keep as a sort of assistant to Vic, but then so do wives; child care, shopping, cooking, and cleaning are hardly female hobbies. One example of the film’s virulent misogyny is the presentation of Quilla June as strictly a luxury article. Another evidence of loading the deck (very striking, too) is the scene in with Quilla calls Blood “cute”—the audience roars with scorn, but of course the talking dog is cute, and this cuteness is precisely what the audience has been relishing all evening. Moreover, Blood’s will and Tic’s will usually run in the same channels; pets (which is what the dog is, even if he can speak) are less demanding and more loyal than human friends. I suspect the reason the film does not present a friendship between Vic and Quilla is not only that throwing over your girlfriend for a boy would suggest homosexuality, but also that a friendship between two men could not possibly be as harmonious as one between a boy and a dog.
If Quilla June is seen as evil by the film, I suspect the main reason is because she’s not Vic’s dog. The horrid surprise waiting for the lover of this silky, pettable creature is that she has her own will, that it is not at all like his, and that sex, gives her power over him. Her dependency is a parody of the dog’s, it ought to render her loyal and unthreatening, and yet it only makes her scheming and deceptive. (That dependency makes women devious is a state of affairs patriarchy has been complaining about for centuries.)
There are extraordinarily good moments in this film, like Vic’s stupid-sly grin when he’s told that he’s about to act out the ultimate punk sexual fantasy, or the echo of fairytale in Vic’s staying underground “too long” because of the wicked enchantress, just as if “Topeka” were Elf Hill. But I can no longer buy fine moments at the price of colluding in my own murder.
A reader might object at this point that Quilla June is not all women but only one, and that a film which presents her as a bitch who deserves to be killed is not attacking all women but only one. My answer to this is threefold: first, the film replicates a pattern that is very common in Western culture, if not elsewhere; second, the film shows nothing of Quilla except her sexual power and her bitchiness; third, the film doesn't present any alternative to Quilla. Who else is there? The dirty, worn-out drudges we see topside? The faceless prostitute glimpsed in one scene? Miss Ms. (what a name’), that older Quilla? The sad, obedient schoolgirls of “Topeka,” totally controlled by their parents? Many Hollywood films used to present us with two alternatives: a woman could be a Bitch or she could be the June Allysonian Nice Girl. I suppose it’s an advance of sorts to stop holding out the June Allyson type as an ideal, but all BOY does is combine the two and insist that the Nice Girl is the Bitch.
Early in BOY Vic finds a woman raped and murdered by a roverpack and comments on what a waste the murder was; she might've been good for a few more times. But by the end of the film the only logical attitude he (or we) can adopt—the whole film has been devoted to proving this point—is that Vic was wrong: the only good woman is a dead woman and the only way a man can have sex with a woman safely is to kill her afterwards. This morality is the morality of King Shahriyar, and while The Thousand and One Nights presents this morality as insane, BOY presents it as exemplary, perhaps even heroic.(6)
Here is a conversation a friend of mine had recently with a 12-year-old, omnivorous reader:
He asked her what books she liked to read.
“Oh, you know, books about people,” was the not very clear answer.
He asked her if she read any books with women as the central characters.
“Oh,” she said with scorn, “I don't read books about women.”(7) And no wonder. Perhaps some day she'll stop reading books, as I may stop going to the movies.
I'm going to pull a flip-flop on the makers of A BOY AND HIS DOG. I'm going to send them to see a marvelously entertaining, absolutely profound, great science fiction film that’s just come out. I am especially going to recommend it to Harlan Ellison, the author of the story on which A BOY AND HIS DOG is based (he is a Jew, as I am), and director of A BOY AND HIS DOG (who is, I believe, Black).
The movie is called THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, and it’s about this great hero and chucklesome charmer called Adolf Hitler who had the perfect solution to all the ills of society.
He murdered you, boys.
1. The story is, to my mind, somewhat different from the film; no one in the story is totally sympathetic or totally evil, and in particular the events surrounding the two main cnaracters’ escape from the story’s underground society—he’s an intruder and she’s a native, but both are misfits—are such as to preclude choosing one character as morally better than another. The story’s point seems to be that both the societies, above ground and under ground, are rotten. Furthemore, the story is told from the male character’s point of view, a technique that admits both his relative ignorance of the other people in the tale-and-his natural bias in favor of himself. Films do not have a narrator, and what is seen through the subjective point of view in the story becomes the objective truth of the film.
2. Samuel Delany, in correspondence, April 20. 1975.
3. Named so by the inhabitants. It appears to be located somewhere under the Pacific slope, which is now desert.
4. In “Women and Science Fiction: A Symposium,” in Khatru, Nos. 3 and 4 (Spring 1975). The symposium will be published as a booklet by Mirage Press sometime in 1976.
5. A good example of the gratuitous Heroine is the help and comfort accorded the two male characters by the lady of BUTCH CASSIDY. Pauline Kael has made sufficient comment on her supposed motivations: spinsterhood, boredom, and being “at the bottom of the heap as a pioneer schoolteacher out West.
6. Shahriyar’s attitude is possessive, due to the wound given his sens of propriety (adultery); Vic’s attitude is self defense. This may represent some kind of progres but hardly the conscious kind.
7. Samuel Delaney again, in Women and Science Fiction: A Symposium. He is one of the few male feminists I know who truly deserves the name, and he is a first-rate theoretical critic. His new novel Triton! (New York: Bantam, 1976) deals with male sexism, women as an oppressed class, and a genuinely nonsexist society.