How Queer is Dr. Strangelove?

In what sense can the film, Dr. Strangelove, be discussed as queer cinema?  Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy about nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviets that ends in Armageddon contains several moments ripe for critique through Foucault and other queer theoretical readings from this week.  In order to put these theoretical concepts into practice, I want to delineate what definition of “queer” I plan to employ.  David Eng, Judith Halberstam, and José Muñoz write that “queer has no political fixed referent,” and therefore is the subject-less practice of destabilizing mechanisms and institutions (3).  Within Dr. Strangelove, there are institutions and socially constructed norms questioned, satirized, and ultimately made absurd.  The institution of the monogamous heterosexual relationship is satirized and rejected in favor of state-sanctioned heterosexual rape.  The character of Dr. Strangelove is himself a representation of the queered engineer-hero paradigm featured in pre-cold war science fiction pulps.  The concept of strange-love appears in the film’s depiction of the erotic satisfaction of destruction and apocalypse.  Kubrick is “queering” the military-industrial complex before the vocabulary existed to do so.

The first of these institutions, the monogamous heterosexual relationship, is rejected and made absurd near the end of the film.  When nuclear holocaust becomes immanent, the president (Peter Sellers), Dr. Strangelove (also Peter Sellers) and the president’s cabinet members decide how to save humanity.  By selecting certain people to take shelter in abandoned mineshafts, they can save themselves and others of their choosing.  Dr. Strangelove suggests that in order to rebuild the nation, women will have to bear many children and as quickly as they can.  “With the proper breeding techniques and a ratio of say, ten females to each male, I would guess that they could then work their way back to the present Gross National Product within say, twenty years” (Kubrick).  Because the men will be “required to do prodigious service” the women will be selected “for their sexual characteristics” that must be of “a highly stimulating nature” (Kubrick).

The mineshaft ratio suggestion, meant as a satiric sexist joke, makes absurd the cultural value of monogamy without a gesture to the value of heterosexuality also inherent in the joke.  The number of sexual partners is problematic (or “regrettable” as Dr. Strangelove attests) but the gender of sexual partners is altogether ignored.  This moment of the film also relates to Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s article, “Sex in Public.”  Berlant and Warner write that “sex…is mediated by publics…like official national culture, which depends on a notion of privacy to cloak its sexualization of national membership” (547).  They argue that privacy acts as a shield to hide how more public acts are actually determined by sexual culture.  Paying taxes, disposing of a corpse, celebrating a holiday, and other public acts exemplify how sexual culture is made very public indeed.  The men in the war room in Dr. Strangelove discussing their ideal mineshaft national rebuilding plan is not as funny as it seems when considered alongside the reality of sexual culture as it is dictated through legislation under the guise of privacy.

This scene from Dr. Strangelove also illustrates how power has historically shifted from imposing death to dictating life.  In The History of Sexuality Volume I, Foucault argues that “this formidable power of death…now presents itself as the counterpart of a power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations” (137).  The men in the war room decide who will live in the mineshaft and how they will live.  As Foucault continues, this turn to regimenting and managing life has reached a new level in the atomic age:  “the power to expose a whole population to death is the underside of the power to guarantee an individual’s continued existence” (137).  Because the whole population is exposed to death in Dr. Strangelove, their power to administer, optimize, and multiply life seems all the more beneficent.

Another example of Kubrick’s destabilizing of cultural norms is his main character.  The character of Dr. Strangelove presents a challenge to the image of the scientist as he appears in pre-cold war science fiction pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s.  Roger Luckhurst traces the historical emergence and heyday of this engineer paradigm in Young Edison stories through later pulps in his historical survey of science fiction in both the American and British strains in Science Fiction (50-8).  The engineer is a white, handsome, heterosexual male with a significantly scientific mind, technical prowess, and demonstrates the Protestant work ethic to escape a poor home (55-6).  Dr. Strangelove, on the other hand, speaks in a shrill high-pitched voice, wears dark sunglasses inside a dimly lit room, has a strange way of speaking through a toothy grin, is a German or Austrian ex-patriot, navigates his wheelchair recklessly, and tries to stifle his prosthetic arm from saluting Hitler (unsuccessfully) through awkward twitches and self-restraining gestures.  The satiric appearance of Dr. Strangelove elicits a laugh because it is so unexpected and countered so dynamically by Sellers’ portrayal of President Muffley, the conservative straight-laced bureaucrat.  Their back-and-forth dialogue emphasizes the queerness of the “other” in Dr. Strangelove as opposed to the quintessential heterosexual white male American in President Muffley.  Interestingly, Dr. Strangelove is the one with the knowledge of the Doomsday Machine which will cause Armageddon, not the powerful bureaucrat.  The character on the margins illustrates Foucault’s concept of power as capillary and diffuse, exercising his ability to influence others.

The over-arching concept of strange-love that dominates the film aligns sexual desire with world destruction.  Critics of the film have called it a “sex allegory” or called such desires “erotic displacement,” but such descriptions merely scratch the surface.  Kubrick’s use of a variety of both explicit sex scenes and references, like General Buck Turgidson and his secretary, and implicit ones, like the aircraft refueling during the credits, reinforce the strange love for nuclear destruction, culminating in the mushroom cloud montage accompanied by a love song that is strangely reminiscent of male ejaculation.  Is this concept of strange-love queer?  Does the presence of erotic desire for death and destruction destabilize the paralyzing fear by which the cold war is typically characterized?  Or are these desires a part of the pleasure of cinema, and not necessarily real?  The erotic nature of watching Major T.J. “King” Kong ride the nuclear warhead like a cowboy and the proceeding mushroom clouds feels satisfying to an audience culturally trained to be horrified by such an event.  In this way I think Dr. Strangelove offers an examination of desire and nuclear warfare that unsettles the normative desire for life and survival.


Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren and Warner, Michael.  “Sex in Public.” Critical Inquiry. 24.2 (1998):  547-566.

Eng, D., Halberstam, J., and Muñoz, J.  “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?”  Social Text 84-85. Vol. 23.3-4. Duke University Press, 2005.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume I:  Introduction.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1990.

Kubrick, Stanley (dir.) Dr. Strangelove:  Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  Perf. Peter Sellers.  Columbia Pictures, 1964.

Luckhurst, R. Science Fiction.  Malden, MA:  Polity Press, 2005.

One thought on “How Queer is Dr. Strangelove?

  1. alexislothian

    I enjoyed this connection from your paper last semester into this course! As you say, there has to be something queer about “strange-love” itself, and this film is so very obsessed with the relationship between (male) sexuality and destruction. The image of the pilot astride the nuclear missile was in my mind the whole time I was reading your synthesis.

    Your analysis here is in many ways reminiscent of Lee Edelman’s claims in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, which you might find interesting to pick up. At the least, he is also concerned with sexual desire and its relationship to the destruction of worlds and futures. I tend to find that the question of gender is sorely missing from Edelman, and your discussion of the women’s role in the post-apocalyptic mineshaft scenario (an aside: The Mineshaft was a legendary gay male sex club…) begins to incorporate that element. It might be interesting to think about some feminist science fiction (Suzy McKee Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World in particular, which is effectively about what the world might be like a few generations after the end of Dr Strangelove) in this context as well.


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