“Gentlemen, You Can’t Fight in Here!”: Gender Symbolism and the End of the World in Dr Strangelove and Melancholia

Book Chapter, Conference Paper

There is no denying the phallic symbolism in the final scene of Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) as Major Kong rides the hydrogen bomb towards the earth. Conversely the arresting scene of Justine appearing to magically harness the power of the vast circular, dark planet careering towards the earth in Melancholia (2011) is inherently feminine. Both scenes depict the moments before global annihilation using gender specific tropes as symbols for our demise.

Kubrick creates a vision of an absurdly masculine world, where the only female character, Major Turgidson’s secretary, appears briefly and wearing a bikini as she tans under a sun lamp. The film is littered with phallic imagery and the dialogue is heavy with overt male posturing. The sexual innuendo throughout the film frequently compares military invasion with sexual domination. Kubrick’s depiction of war and masculinity can also be related to his later work Full Metal Jacket (1987).

In Von Trier’s scenario the women are the focus, the relationship between Justine and her sister Claire is at the centre. To accentuate this focus the film is split into two acts: Act I – Justine and Act II – Claire. The men in the film play (un)supporting roles to these strong female characters, maleness represented by the feckless father and the two cowardly husbands. Justine’s almost mystical knowledge and clairvoyant predictions of the impending cataclysm suggest a connection with the universe and elemental forces. Melancholia’s visions of the destructive forces of nature and femininity recalls Von Trier’s earlier film Antichrist (2009).

What do these images represent? How is the role of men and women in the end of the world depicted by these films? What were the directors’ motives? How do they relate to our fears? Where do these fears come from? By drawing on evidence from The Stanley Kubrick Archive, Zentropa’s online resources, interpretations of the films and psychoanalytic, cultural and critical theory, this paper explores the role of gender representation in these end of days scenarios and investigates how they reflect society’s fears and anxieties in an historical context.

In our patriachial society these films could represent two imagined possibilities for the end of the world; masculine, calculated violence, greed and destruction in Dr Strangelove or feminine, uncontrollable, elemental annihilation in Melancholia. Global crises, historical events, religion, folklore and conspiracy theories can provide the context for the translated anxieties depicted. Academic theory related to fear, death, narcissism and castration from Freud, Jung, Becker, Lacan, Horney, Neumann, Fromm, Maslow, Chakravorty Spivak and others can indicate the possible meaning and cultural and social relevance of these films.

Both directors have been accused of misogyny, but I would argue that these films equally demonstrate a feminist take on the catastrophic future scenario. Dr Strangelove warns us of the dangers of a world where men wield too much power. Melancholia shows us the women both in and out of control, but ultimately they hold the power and strength to accept their fate.

“Melancholia: Imaging the End of the World” 2013 International Conference at Philipps University, Marburg, Germany.

5-7 June, 2013

The Apocalypse in Film. Eds. Karen Ritzenhoff and Angela Krewani. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Publication 2015

Catriona McAvoy

 Link to book details on publisher’s website



Losing Yourself in the Archive: A Cautionary Tale
Machines, Mirrors, Martyrs and Money: Prostitutes and Promiscuity in Shame and Eyes Wide Shut