Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Mistrusting the Female Experience
by Julie Hugonny
Abstract: [page 96] In Philip Kaufman’s 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, women are presented as educated, sensible, independent, and sexually liberated. Yet, when they speak up, denouncing a sudden change of behavior in their companions, the men they confide in dismiss their concerns as emotional and irrational. This article highlights and analyzes the gender relations in the film, focusing on men’s silencing of women to prevent them from questioning the current relations of power and authority. Their knee-jerk reaction of discrediting women precipitates the threat to humanity, as their warnings go unheeded. More importantly, it reveals men’s own inadequacies, as they navigate a changing world in which women now have knowledge, self-awareness, expectations, and a voice to articulate them.
Keywords: abuse, body snatchers, desire, experience, gender relations, science fiction
I can’t understand why you’ve become so emotional
about a little flower. (Kaufman)1
Though the story and its adaptations have attained the cult status of a modern myth, the plot of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, bears reminding: in a sleepy California town, Miles Bennell, a local doctor, witnesses what he first takes for a phenomenon of mass hysteria. His patients claim that their loved ones have been replaced by exact replicas who walk, talk, and behave like them, but lack all emotion. Where the spark of love and caring once was, there is a now a blank. With the help of his old flame, Becky Driscoll, and that of Jack and Theodora Bellicec, Miles investigates the matter and discovers the truth: seeds from outer space have fallen to Earth in an unexpected and improbable invasion. They survive by replicating people via “pods” in their sleep and living as parasites in their new bodies. Sounding in vain [page 97] the alarm on this silent takeover, Miles and his friends face the disbelief of the local authorities and a hostile and growing population of pod-people, but eventually fight them off.
The fear of an alien entity depriving us of our autonomy and taking control of our society is so prevalent that the novel and its several movie adaptations have become a sort of literary Rorschach test—the stranger among us who looks like us, but works to undermine us, has been seen as illustrating all our concerns and fears. As protean as its eponymous figure, Finney’s tale lends itself to endless retellings and mirrors perfectly contemporary anxieties. In the original novel and Don Siegel’s 1956 film adaptation, the pod-people embody the threat of communism, capitalism, McCarthyism, the disquieting conformism of the suburban middle-class, and the uniformization of culture. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version, according to Marty Roth, is in very much the same way an indictment of the ills of its own decade: “contemporary bureaucracy, law and order conservatism, […] the apathy of the 1980s [and] the breakdown of the nuclear family” (236).2 More recently, Abel Ferrara’s 1993 Body Snatchers features an Environmental Protection (EPA) agent in charge of assessing the containment of chemicals on a military base and draws our attention both to the domestic cost of chemical warfare and to the dehumanization already at work on military personnel. As the movie unfolds, the main characters encounter ever-growing numbers of impassive soldiers, but it’s hard to tell whether those soldiers have turned into pods or are just following protocol. Lastly, in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 Invasion, the fight against what has become a contagious virus activated by sleep is set against a backdrop of rampant overmedication and an epidemic of antibiotic-resistant flu.3
In more recent readings of the myth, feminist scholars have underlined the shadow of laws written by men and designed to curtail women’s access to reproductive care, another form of control over their bodily autonomy. In December 2015, a New York Times opinion page asks, “What science fiction movie or novel is most prescient today?” Lizz Winstead, a comedian and co-creator of The Daily Show, responded with Finney’s The Body Snatchers. In her piece, “The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney,” she denounces the [page 98] recent tightening of abortion laws, which dramatically decreased the number of clinics allowed to offer such procedures. She writes: “modern day ‘body snatchers’ in state legislatures and Congress are trying to take over women’s bodies and insinuate themselves into our most personal decision making.” In 2015, women represented only 24.4% of state legislators and 19.4% of Congress, making these new cuts to abortion laws the work of people they would never affect directly.
Moreover, we stand today in the wake of the #MeToo movement, an unprecedented4 mobilization of women who came forward to denounce the sexual, social, and professional abuse that they have undergone at the hands of powerful men. This movement and their testimonies have brought into light the prevalent strategies and practices of abusers over their victims, such as silencing and infantilization, isolation from people who could listen to them or support their claims (especially from other women sharing the same experience), and, last but not least, gaslighting.5 All those strategies and more are present and systematically used against women in Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Consequently, this version of the tale, more than any other, calls for a reading emphasizing women’s mistreatment at the hands of men.
Much like victims of spousal abuse, the female characters in Kaufman’s film witness a turn for the worse in their life companions’ behavior, a change manifest in the intimate interactions of the couple but imperceptible to the outward world. The (male) authorities they try to alert quickly dismiss their concerns as an overreaction, and the women’s warning words prove ineffective against the status quo. By refusing to take action, the men surrounding them thus become accomplices to the psychological violence enacted at home.
These motifs of unrelenting male-to-female abuse being absent from the earlier versions of the tale, this paper intends to highlight their consistency in the 1978 film, addressing three points: “Women Know” underlines women’s actual experience, knowledge, and rationality presented throughout the film, which renders their going unheeded all the more significant; “Women Speak” highlights men’s constant downplaying of that experience through tactics of abuse; and “Women Want” analyzes men’s [page 99] overreliance on masculine authority, a consequence of their own insecurities born of the threat of women’s newly found understanding of their own sexuality.
Women Know—Experience, Rationality, Insight
In the 1955 novel as well as in the 1956 film, its most faithful adaptation, the narrative point of view is that of a doctor, Miles Bennell, who tries to understand why so many of his patients suffer from what he originally thinks is a delusion. It all starts with Wilma, who thinks— knows—that her Uncle Ira isn’t her Uncle Ira, despite all evidence to the contrary. Indeed, to the casual observer, Ira behaves like his normal self in every way, but Wilma, who knows him intimately, never relents in her suspicion. This delusion, the idea that close  relatives aren’t what they seem anymore, seems to spread to the general population, deceptively subsiding once all of the whistleblowers have turned into pod-people. As the town turns, its inhabitants, a hostile and silent crowd, try to prevent Miles and Becky from discovering the truth.
The 1978 film centers on Elizabeth, a samples analyst at the Department of Public Health, who witnesses firsthand the change in her fiancé Geoff and decides to investigate. Like Miles, Elizabeth is a scientist and a main character of the story, but whereas the male-focused narrative presents itself as a mystery—one that Miles unravels, clue by clue, until the final reveal—the female-centered film version only illustrates the extreme difficulties that Elizabeth encounters trying to tell her story. Miles is a doctor, a dependable local figure, and since he is not himself an early victim of the bout of mass hysteria sweeping the town, his colleagues and friends trust his words without hesitation. As for Elizabeth, her clearly established scientific knowledge and no-nonsense behavior do seemingly nothing to ensure her credibility, as even her own closest friend, Matthew, refuses to hear her.
Yet, as a woman of science and an inquisitive mind, she is, at the opening of the movie, already poring over her own little enigma, as she tries to discover the origin of the new strain of flowers that has been blooming all over town. She tries to interest her indifferent fiancé in her findings: “This plant. I think it’s a grex. [page 100] G-R-E-X. That’s when two species cross-pollinate and produce a third completely unique one. And listen to this: Epilobic, from the Greek epi: upon, and lobos: a pod. […] Many of the species are dangerous weeds and should be avoided” (Kaufman). As it turns out, the two anomalies—the new flower and Geoff’s sudden and disquieting change of behavior—are related. Thus, from the very first lines of the film, Elizabeth puts her finger on the heart of the matter, and the definition of the grex itself foreshadows the subsequent plot twists: the new flower is dangerous, it is going to swoop down upon humanity to form a third, entirely new species, the pod-people, and the only way to be spared from the transformation is to actively avoid it. Despite her enthusiastic discovery, Geoff, obviously the less intellectual of the two, doesn’t even humor her curiosity and switches on the TV to watch football.
The other character showing interest in plants is Nancy Bellicec (a modern version of Finney’s Theodora). As classical music plays in her bath establishment, she muses: “It’s fascinating. This type of music stimulates the growth of the plants. They’ve done tons of experiments on it. […] Plants have feelings, you know, just like people” (Kaufman). In her naïve way, she shows a modest amount of knowledge and defends her plants’ well-being, refusing to switch off the music for a whiny customer.
This is probably why the group only starts touching on the truth when the two women are in the same room and allowed to interact. Sharing their presentiments and findings, they bring together the two seemingly unrelated mysteries of people turning emotionless and of the new grex in town. The scene takes place right after the four main characters (Elizabeth, Matthew, Jack, and Nancy) have seen the immature pod slowly morph into a Jack lookalike. Brainstorming together, and ignoring the men’s unconvinced disapproval, the two women cross-check all the recent suspicious happenings in town, and conclude that the culprit is the new flower that they’ve seen blooming all over town. It still remains to figure out where the seed originated:
ELIZABETH. Where are they coming from?
NANCY. Outer space?
JACK. They’re not coming from outer space.
NANCY. Why not, Jack? [page 101]
JACK. What are you talking about? A space flower?
NANCY. Well, why not a space flower? Why do we always expect metal ships?
JACK. I’ve never expected metal ships. (Kaufman; emphasis added)
Despite Jack’s dismissive reaction, the women are right: the pods are duplicating humans, they are from outer space, and they did fall to earth under the guise of flowers –of “pink flowers,” as Jack points out himself later, as if to dismiss their harmful potential. As it turns out, the aliens chose well: by taking a shape and a color strongly associated with the feminine, they picked the most deceptive looks of all. The pattern at work in the cited exchange—a woman expressing an opinion, the fruit of observation and deduction, only to be immediately and unfoundedly dismissed by a man—is the template of every male-female interaction in the film. This pattern is all the more salient since the audience knows that the women are right; the film opens on the space-seeds disseminating on Earth and the body-snatchers trope is, by the late 1970s, a well-established one. It is also a disquieting one, since it didn’t exist in former versions of the story and has not reappeared since in its more recent retellings.
In fact, despite being a product of the conservative 1950s, Finney’s novel shows the two main couples, Miles and Becky on one side, Jack and Theodora on the other, as two teams of equals. When Miles and Becky meet again after a hiatus of fifteen years, the former high school sweethearts are both single, recently divorced, and financially independent. The camaraderie they share from being old friends, compounded by their near-pariah status as divorcés in a small town, brings them closer together, but on equal footing. As a first example, Miles routinely seeks Becky’s opinion; every time he ponders an idea and feels the need for validation, he relies on her discernment: “I turned to look at her—’What do you think?’” (Finney 35). Secondly, Miles gives Becky credit for good ideas, more particularly for her winning fighting strategy, which is not usually a domain associated with women. He explains their stratagem to attack the pod-people with the words “then—this was Becky’s plan—each hand held a loaded hypodermic syringe” (171). Lastly, he validates her insights at every turn: “she was right, very [page 102] accurate, in fact,” he points out (167). In her article “Women and the Inner Game of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Nancy Steffen-Fluhr describes Finney’s Becky as “a full-fledged heroine. She not only saves Miles’s life, literally and emotionally; she saves the whole of mankind. In her will to prevail and in her ingenuity, she is every bit Miles’s equal, and then some” (148). Jack Finney is extremely aware of the necessity to emphasize Becky’s agency and ingenuity in order for the reader to see her as Miles’ equal. In the book, Becky herself denounces the assumption of the “natural” inequality of sexes, so that she can better subvert it. As they try to escape from Miles’ office and think about attacking their four pod-wardens, Miles admits to not being able to fight them alone. Becky points out that he’s misrepresenting the situation to himself: “Miles, what am I doing in that scene in your mind? You’re seeing me cowering against a wall, eyes wide and frightened, my hands raised to my face in horror, aren’t you? […] And that’s how they’ll think: the stereotype of a woman’s role in that kind of situation. And it’s exactly what I will do – until I know they’ve seen and noticed me. Then I can do exactly what you did; why not?” (Finney 167). Using the cliché of the damsel in distress, the helpless female, frozen in horror at the sight of physical violence like a deer in headlights, Becky ensures that she looks harmless to the guards and takes them down as they focus on Miles, the only human they assume is capable of fighting back. Through Becky’s keen awareness of the misogyny of the time, and her clever use of it to her own ends, Finney casts her in an active role, underlined by the deserved admiration that she elicits in Miles.
The second team of equals is composed of Jack and Theodora. They have been happily married for a long time, they know each other and care for each other with patience and devotion, and Jack values his wife for her discernment and her independence of thought. In the critical scene in which the group discovers a developing pod-person, Miles remarks that, despite having the dimensions of a full-grown human being, its body and face look immature and blank: not a single blemish, line, wrinkle, or scar, no trace of a physical experience of the world. Jack concurs, and brings up Theodora’s opinion as well: “That’s exactly what I think, and so does Theodora. And the thing is, I didn’t tell her anything about my impressions. I let her look at that thing, and form her [page 103] own opinion, just like I did with you, Miles” (Finney 35). For her part, Theodora looks after Jack as he sleeps, all the while keeping an eye on the shapeless thing in their basement as it slowly metamorphoses into her husband. Miles confesses that, had he been in her position, he might not have had the courage to go through such a disturbing ordeal himself.
Of course, the Don Siegel film does away with several of those traits, relegating the female parts to weaker elements –for instance, one notable change is that Becky does succumb to sleep and turn into a pod in the end, betraying Miles and humanity in the process. But the 1978 retelling breaks with the spirit of the original novel when the men’s abusive behavior turns truly alarming as they begin to back their dismissive words with actions, putting the women at risk physically. In no other version of the story are the women so knowledgeable, so outspoken, so decisive, and yet so silenced. Kaufman’s film takes the belittling of women much further than any other telling of the story, and ultimately displays males’ contempt for females to a greater degree than any of the 1950s versions.6
Women Speak—Into Deaf Ears
From the opening scenes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, women express their unease, their fear, and the constant threat that they experience at home. They are convinced that their husbands are not what they seem. So they speak up with a calm attitude of certainty, as well as enough lucidity to know that their story is hardly believable. Yet men refuse to listen to them, and flatly contradict them with no explanation or justification for doing so. This knee-jerk reaction to women’s speaking up, this immediate opposition to their suggestions and opinions, this instinctive mistrust of their feelings, emotions, and even sensations, undercuts the women’s agency and makes them question the experience of their own senses.7 This is an abuse strategy commonly known as “gaslighting.”
When Elizabeth confides in Matthew, her closest friend, and asks him earnestly if he thinks that she’s crazy for believing that Geoff has turned into something nonhuman, his answer is [page 104] contradictory: “No. Do you want to go see my friend David Kibner?” (Kaufman). His supportive answer is immediately canceled out by his referring her to a psychiatrist in the same breath. As she recoils at the suggestion, he advises her to “just think of him as a very intelligent man.” Matthew continues, “He would eliminate whether Geoffrey was having an affair, or had become gay. Whether he had a social disease, or had become a Republican. All the things that could have happened to have made you feel he had changed” (emphasis added). In Matthew’s mind, Elizabeth feels her fiancé has changed—the problem is her faulty perception, and the only thing that needs fixing is her attitude. Of course, he mentions possible character-altering circumstances  that might explain Geoff’s sudden change of behavior, but he presents them as already dismissed, implausible explanations that the good doctor would “eliminate” first. Ultimately, Matthew does not seriously entertain the idea that Geoff might have actually changed. Elizabeth’s word alone is not enough for him to even look into the question.
The same phrasing reappears later in the film from none other than David Kibner’s mouth. Though he now faces three different people with the same story, he remains skeptical: “You all thought you saw a body at the baths. You thought it was dead. You didn’t know what it was” (Kaufman; emphasis added). This response is miles away from the same character’s reaction in the corresponding scene in the novel: “Mannie smiled, nodding quickly. ‘I believe you; Jack; you all saw it’” (Finney 58).8
The most astonishing side to these remarks is, as Mannie’s quote demonstrates, that such gaslighting and mistrust toward women are absent from the 1955 novel and from the 1956 film.9 When Becky describes her cousin Wilma’s delusion, her absolute conviction that Uncle Ira has changed, she instinctively takes her side: “Wilma is so positive!” she says, not needing much more than her friend’s solemn word to be alarmed (Finney 12). As a proof of her absolute faith in her cousin, she asks Miles to come have a look at the uncle, and despite his initial surprise, Miles admits that Wilma is “tough-minded and bright” and “knows what’s what” (Finney 10). He meets with Ira and sees nothing out of the ordinary, but doesn’t revise his opinion of Wilma. Mannie, the psychologist to whom he has referred her (and others), is equally [page 105] stumped:
I’d say she doesn’t belong in my office, that her worry is external and real. I’d say—just judging from the patient, of course—that she’s right and that her uncle actually is not her uncle. Except that that’s impossible.
[…] But it’s equally impossible for a total of nine people in Santa Mira to suddenly and simultaneously acquire a virtually identical delusion. (Finney 23-24)10
With her integrity as character reference, Wilma secures the trust of everyone who takes the time to listen to her. They all see the calm, rational woman and her apparent delusion as incompatible, an inconsistency of character and circumstances to be investigated. In no instance is Wilma seen as a woman to be controlled.
If the 1978 version of the film underlines like no other the constant silencing of women, and the need to limit their agency, it is only in 2007 with The Invasion that the link between body-snatchers and abusive husbands is made explicit. In The Invasion, Carol Bennell,11 a San Francisco psychologist, meets with one of her patients, Wendy, the new incarnation of Wilma,12 acting, just like in the book, as a whistleblower and a modern-day Cassandra. Wendy tells Dr. Bennell that her husband, a regularly abusive man and the reason for her frequent consultations, isn’t her husband. As she distraughtly scoffs at her own unbelievable story, Dr. Bennell tells her: “Nothing you say in this office is stupid or crazy. All of it is important, all of it matters” (Hirschbiegel). Those words remind Wendy that she is in a safe place, and give her confidence to open up more. Dr. Bennell encourages her to elaborate:
DR. BENNELL. What makes you say that [your husband isn’t your husband]?
WENDY. The way he acts, the way he looks at me. [...] I yelled at him last night, he didn’t yell back. I threw my glass at him, and he didn’t do anything.
DR. BENNELL. I know you and your husband have a volatile relationship.
WENDY. We did, but not anymore! Yes, when he would get mad, I would be afraid of him, but at least when he [page 106] kissed me I knew he loved
me. Now when he kisses me […] it’s just different! (Hirschbiegel)
Presenting a victim of domestic violence as a first witness of her husband’s turning is an apt storytelling strategy. Abusive relationships tend to be very emotionally and physically intense (and in that respect, Wendy’s comment on physical threat offset by the feeling of “real” love is typical); therefore, a woman whose husband’s new emotional spectrum now languishes in the apathetic range would likely be the first to notice. Once again, her opening up to speak her incredible truth is only possible in an exchange protected by professional secrecy, fostered by trust (Wendy has been coming to see Dr. Bennell for four years), and delivered in a female-only, judgment-free environment. The scene ends, sadly, with Dr. Bennell taking the easy way out, changing Wendy’s medication and scheduling a new appointment. This is a troubling trend present in all aspects Dr. Bennell’s life, as she also gives her son Clozapine for his nightmares (though professing hating having to do it), and she later swallows whatever pill she finds to stay awake.13 But Carol makes up for her initial inadequate response in a later scene, by calling Wendy a few minutes before her appointment to warn her that her husband is staking her out in the waiting room. “I didn’t know if I could trust you. Thank you,” says Wendy before turning around and disappearing in the city (Hirschbiegel). Solidarity among women is a staple of the Invasion series, and never more poignantly enacted than in this short scene.
In Kaufman’s movie, women speak up against their fiancés, husbands, and the men who share their lives. Yet they get silenced, rebuked, admonished, shamed for their embarrassing allegations, and, once cowed, handed back to their husbands. In stark contrast to the women’s plight, Dr. Kibner, a figure of professional authority, expresses no doubt and no qualms about his unformed opinions. And unlike the novel’s male characters, he shows no curiosity for the phenomenon: “I’ve heard the same damn story this week from six patients,” he announces, irritated (Kaufman). Instead of thinking about the implications of several patients displaying the same symptoms, like Miles and Mannie do, Kibner does not seek answers so much as imposes them on his patients. At his own book-launch party, he physically and verbally restrains a [page 107] woman named Katherine, and puts her back into her husband’s hands as well as into harm’s way:
KATHERINE. But he isn’t my husband! It’s someone who looks like him. He’s an impostor!
KIBNER. Now, Katherine, he’s your husband. You know him and I know him.
ELIZABETH. Excuse me; can I just say one thing?
KIBNER. [to Elizabeth] Please. [To Katherine] He’s still your husband Ted.
ELIZABETH. But I know something.
KIBNER. [to Elizabeth]: Please!
ELIZABETH. Could I just say one thing?
KIBNER. [to Elizabeth] Please!
KATHERINE. I’m afraid!
KIBNER. I understand, I know. I understand. Let me have your hand. Katherine, just trust me. Reuniting her with her husband. Come on. There. That’s not so bad, is it? Who’s this?
KATHERINE. It’s Ted. (Kaufman)
The scene displays several abuse strategies. It opens on a woman’s clear statement of fear, of unease at being near her husband. Taking her by the hand and speaking in a soothing voice, as if addressing a child, Kibner tells her to trust him, to trust his authority, then immediately betrays that trust by transferring her hand into her husband’s, putting her back in the situation that she was trying to escape. Adding insult to injury, he makes her recant publicly: he coaxes her into admitting that the man she is presented with is visibly Ted, when the very point she was trying to make was that the thing looked like her husband. Dr. Kibner’s immediate disavowal of his patient’s claim is designed to elicit shame, a strong feeling of public embarrassment aimed at taking over her fear.14 Katherine gives in so that she doesn’t have to face the contempt of the party following what Kibner just framed as an irrational outburst. Kibner’s is a callous response –the opposite of Miles’ trust in Wilma. Faced with the same outlandish premise, Miles does not show impatience or irritation at Wilma, but understanding and [page 108] care. Actually, he carefully avoids confrontational or dismissive words and places himself on her side: “Let’s take this a little at a time. After all, you could hardly be fooled; you’ve lived with him for years. How do you know he isn’t Uncle Ira, Wilma? How is he different?” (Finney 15; emphasis added). This simple and human method of relating to one’s patient is echoed and amplified, fifty years later, by Dr. Carol Bennell’s consideration for Wendy.
During the taming of Katherine, Elizabeth tries to interject and share her own experience and knowledge on the subject. She does this on three occasions and gets dismissed three times, while Kibner’s irritation increasingly flares at her interruptions. She is then physically pushed away, relegated to the background of the shot and the sidelines of the action, as Kibner works his magic and embraces the couple in an all-forgiving gesture. Silenced and physically distanced from the action, Elizabeth becomes a helpless witness of the scene and is compelled to watch as Kibner’s clever feat of legerdemain results in a forced reconciliation. As with magic, people around them coo their awe, and one lady distinctly utters, “Isn’t he wonderful?” (Kaufman).
Kibner then turns his hypnotic charm to Elizabeth, with the exact same modus operandi but with the help of Matthew, his misguided sidekick. Jack Bellicec, the only male to ever take Elizabeth’s side, tries to help her, but Kibner forcefully silences him:
JACK. David, you’re not listening to her.
KIBNER. Stay out of this! […] Bellicec, for the last time, stop! […] Stand still, be quiet, and shut up! […]
MATTHEW. He’s treating her. […] Go home and leave us alone for a bit. (Kaufman)
Then Kibner, the father figure with the reassuring certainties, makes Elizabeth doubt herself:
KIBNER. You’re jumping to a bizarre conclusion, that this man you live with has been replaced by somebody else. Isn’t it more likely you want to believe he’s changed because you’re really looking for an excuse to get out?
ELIZABETH. I don’t know. (Kaufman)
By admitting a modicum of hesitation and acknowledging the fundamental complexity of human relationships, Elizabeth finds [page 109] herself neutralized. The rest of the scene is spent between Kibner and Matthew, talking about her as she sits in the car a few feet away, mulling over Kibner’s words. The good doctor’s last words are, “Take her home to her boyfriend, Matthew” (Kaufman). He thus passes her on to Matthew, to be passed on to Geoff. Handled, monitored, infantilized, and stripped of her agency and of her bodily autonomy, Elizabeth experiences what an honest, measured answer (“I don’t know”) can do when faced with an unflinching adversary. This malicious act of isolating women from potential allies, the unrelenting attempts at silencing and disparaging them, take the film into a new direction, absent from the novel and the Siegel film.
Women Want—The Threat of Female Sexuality
In her reading of the 1956 film, Nancy Steffen-Fluhr already sees the traces of a tremendous male insecurity, particularly in the character of Miles upon his reunion with Becky. This insecurity goes so far as to see Becky as a similar creature to the pods: “she is the familiar stranger, alien flesh to which [Miles] is about to bond himself, and he is worried that this merger may entail some loss of freedom and identity” (Steffen-Fluhr 140). She describes the ‘50s as marked by a return to obsolete pre-war gender relations after the foray of women into the job market during WW2. By the late 70s, and thanks to second-wave feminism, women had decidedly conquered the right to work as well as the right to plan their lives as they saw fit. Elizabeth has chosen a career in science, as a biological analyst, and she lives with Geoff with no explicit plans to get married or to have children. She’s financially independent and takes an equal part in the household decision-making with her life partner.
Facing this strong woman, the film shows men who seem to have lost their masculine power. Matthew is desperately in love with Elizabeth, a physical attraction constantly betrayed by his body language. The first scene showing them together is in a professional setting: they walk and talk about lab results. He opens a door for her and stays in the doorframe as she goes through; engrossed in her findings, she ignores his odd stance and doesn’t [page 110] make eye contact, literally passing right under his nose. Elizabeth is committed to Geoff, a tall, large man whose sole purpose in life seems to be watching football and initiating sex. Matthew has to stay on the sidelines, a position poignantly epitomized by his awkward, yearning stance in the doorframe, watching her pass by. Tellingly, the only moment when Matthew refuses to look Elizabeth in the eye is when she goes to his house, recounts her story, and asks him to trust her. Hiding his reluctance to hear her out behind a zeal for cooking, he refuses to engage: “pass me the ginger,” he responds (Kaufman). When the time comes to step up, to treat Elizabeth like a person, an equal, Matthew does not deliver.
Jack, the other insecure male, is a writer, a poet longing for recognition while financially supported by his wife. Contrary to Matthew, who surrenders entirely to Kibner’s masculine authority, Jack rebels against it. At the book signing, surrounding by Kibner’s adoring fans, he fumes, “The book is awful. Kibner’s book is awful. […] He dashes a book off every six months. It takes me six months to write one line. […] Because I pick each word individually” (Kaufman). Jack’s writer’s block, his difficulties in expressing himself, in being heard and valued, make him a character touched by femininity. Case in point: at the book party, once Kibner turns his hypnotic act from Katherine to Elizabeth, Jack tries to shield her from the psychologist, in a display of solidarity that mirrors Elizabeth’s own. He is in turn kept away from the soon-to-be victim of Kibner’s trick, but in a slightly different way: while Kibner shushed Elizabeth into submission, he distracts Jack with the promise of what he has and Jack does not—literary recognition. He takes him aside and whispers, “Listen, there’s a lady up top—red hair, blue dress. She’s interested in your work” (Kaufman). This distracts Jack for a minute and keeps him away long enough for Kibner and Matthew to usher Elizabeth outside, isolating her from the rest of the party. Jack, played by Jeff Goldblum, a taller and stronger than average man, is nonetheless depicted as an emotional character, someone who senses that something is wrong with Kibner and expresses it in a typically masculine way, through bouts of anger. Like the women in the film, he has difficulties convincing the other men and is subjected to the same treatment.
In Finney’s novel, intuition is valued positively, as it is a trait in [page 111] complete opposition to the unfeeling, unemotional pod-people. In the now-classic scene of people gathering in the marketplace to each receive a pod and contaminate their own families, Miles admits there is nothing visibly out of the ordinary but can’t shake the feeling that something is nevertheless wrong: “I knew, or at least sensed, that there was more to it than that. There was an atmosphere of… something about to happen” (Finney 137). Later, upon discovering the truth, he simply throws rationality out of the window: “I knew it was true, possible or impossible” (152). Lastly, despite the absolute certainty of defeat, he decides to fight on, as absurd as it seems at the time: “We weren’t going to get out; that was certain, and I understood it. We could only take every least chance we could give ourselves, not giving up, yielding nothing, fighting to the very last instant of time we had left” (184). These impossible realizations and irrational decisions are framed as the most human of reactions: fighting against all odds and hoping in the face of despair are the true expression of Miles and Becky’s humanity, that is, of tendencies universal to all of mankind. Once the pods are defeated, Miles realizes that he and Becky were a lot less alone that they had initially thought: “there’d been others, of course, individuals, and little groups, who had done what we had—who had fought, struggled, and simply refused to give up” (184).
In Kaufman’s film, both Matthew and Jack eventually give up and defer to Kibner, for he presents a successful embodiment –not of humanity, but of masculinity. He is a published author and a charismatic doctor; he never wavers or doubts himself and seems to have all the answers. Nancy, Jack’s wife, is the only one to question Kibner’s motives: “You are trying to make us believe that we are seeing things. Why?”—a question that Kibner evades all too easily (Kaufman).15 The men’s trust in Kibner over their own female companions is misplaced, as the film later reveals Dr. Kibner to be a pod-person. It is unclear when exactly he turned –some viewers have read Leonard Nimoy’s character as being an alien from the start and the leader of the pods, like Mannie in the novel; some are more cautious and assume that he turned sometime during the events of the film. This ambiguity essentially serves our point: the simple fact that the film’s audience, today as in the late ‘70s, cannot tell the difference between a stern [page 112] psychologist and an unfeeling alien is in itself an indictment of a certain male behavior, marked by overconfidence and the inability to listen to other people—especially women.
This core mistrust at the heart of gender relationships as they are depicted in the 1978 film stems from men’s newfound inadequacies in a changing world: in the article “Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Pods Here and Now,” Sumiko Higashi called Kaufman’s film a “comment about the changing and uncertain nature of contemporary sex roles.” Trapped between an obsolete male model, exemplified by Geoff’s physical stature and by Kibner’s social status, and the unfamiliar threat of independent women actively changing the male-female paradigm, Matthew (and to a lesser degree Jack) is powerless. Single, pining for an unavailable woman, he withdraws for most of the film into the emasculating role of best friend and never musters the courage to tell Elizabeth how he really feels until it’s too late. Tellingly, he does so when Elizabeth is wounded and exhausted, overwhelmed by the enemy and fast losing hope. “What are we going to do? There are so many! […] A factory. They’re growing them!” she says, crying and clinging to him for physical as well as moral support (Kaufman). His response is to confess his love for her. Her answer, “I can’t, I can’t,” is ambiguous: it’s unclear whether she means “I can’t love you” or “I can’t go on.”
We’ve already mentioned Elizabeth as the embodiment of the ‘70s feminist; she represents, for Matthew, the dangers of modern female sexuality. Elizabeth has agency over her own life: she discriminates and chooses (Geoff over Matthew, as it happens), and her sexuality thrives outside of traditional marriage. Maybe this is why he bides his time and waits until she is at her most vulnerable to tell her that he loves her. Injured and desperate, her spirit broken and her emotional guard down, she is at that time a diminished woman; so Matthew sees his chance and takes it. Moreover, his revelation doesn’t come as a promise of better tomorrows (“I love you… therefore we will survive”), but as an unburdening, the laying bare of a transgression and the confession of a secret he has carried for too long. This bombshell might be a relief for him, but it leaves Elizabeth to bear its burden.
More frustrating for Matthew, Elizabeth betrays humanity and turns into a pod, abandoning sexual reproduction for an asexual [page 113] process, the very second he becomes her partner. Elizabeth indeed transforms a few minutes after they kiss: she falls asleep in the bushes while he investigates the surrounding area for a way out. He returns in time to hold a disintegrating Elizabeth in his arms, just as her naked double rises behind him. Higashi notes that “curiously, Elizabeth is the only pod to emerge fully naked in her human form. […] The image of woman as betrayer cannot be separated from her sexuality even though pods are asexual.” Weakened for a second to the point of passively accepting Matthew’s advances, Elizabeth (already a betrayer of her gender for choosing a lifestyle free of traditional constraints) reemerges naked and steady-gazed, more sexually powerful and inaccessible than ever before. In a way, the Elizabeth who decomposes in Matthew’s arms brutally and traumatically forces him to let go of his idealized version of her—the one who needs him. Ironically, she ends up melting into his arms, just not the way he had hoped she would. Instead of getting the usual female reward for winning against the foe, or at least for escaping it, he has to face a sexually baffling woman (she is asexual but naked), a demanding and thus terrifying version of the woman he was tacitly promised. “It’s painless. It’s good. Come. Sleep,” says pod-Elizabeth (Kaufman).
In the 1956 film, Miles realizes that Becky has turned when he kisses her and she fails to respond. In Don Siegel’s mind, “she’s a limp fish and he knows immediately that she is a pod” (qtd. in Mann 62). As Barry Keith Grant points out in his analysis of the Siegel film, “what could be more horrifying to a red-blooded American man, which is how Miles earlier describes himself, than a beautiful and alluring woman staring back indifferently after his intimate expression of desire?” (88-89). That statement might have been true in the 1950s, when American men still defined themselves as “red-blooded,” but in 1978, the most horrifying sight for a man who seems unable to find his place in the new paradigm brought on by women’s liberation is that of an alluring naked woman making demands on him.
Here, Mann’s analysis of the modern woman as a threat to white male hegemony brings perspicacious insights into the Kaufman film. About the main character, she says:
It is patently clear that his seed […] simply cannot [page 114] compete with the seeds of the pods for speed and efficiency of reproduction. […]
Another ‘sleeps with her,’ as it were, possessing her body and implanting in it (that the threat is from seed pods is no accident) an other life, a life of which Miles [or Matthew] is neither father nor master. The protagonist has lost control both of the woman’s sexual allegiance and of the reproductive process. (62)
Mann reads Miles’s subsequent panicked flight as “impotence,” “unmanning,” and “emasculation,” as he is reduced to a sobbing mess, a puddle of emotions and the humiliating image of the hysteria that he once looked upon with such patronizing placidity (62). For Matthew, the effect is the opposite: he flees the scene but, at last delivered of the hold that Elizabeth had on him, he springs into action and torches the pod factory. Immobilized by the conflicting feelings of desire and inadequacy that Elizabeth awakens in him, Matthew simply cannot function in a world where she exists.
Despite this last-minute feat of heroism, the end of Kaufman’s film remains bleak, for only Nancy Bellicec remains human. Far from the easily emotional character of former versions, she displays an exceptional strength of spirit. She strays from the main storyline, the one featuring Matthew and Elizabeth, but doesn’t turn into a pod, as cinematic conventions would have us think. She steadfastly looks for her husband, her only mission summarized in her only leitmotiv: “let’s find Jack!” (Kaufman). And in one scene, as a dog with a human face pops up from the crowd and makes Elizabeth scream in horror, outing her to the nearby pod-people as a human, Nancy remains silent (if not unshaken). Nancy makes it until the end of the film, only for Matthew, now a pod, to betray her. As the camera zooms into actor Donald Sutherland’s open, screeching mouth, her fate remains uncertain.
More than the terrifying experience of seeing one’s fiancé replaced by a pod-person, Kaufman’s film shows us a more prosaic horror: the instinctive mistrust that women have to overcome every day, the Sisyphean task of convincing their husbands and friends of their every word.16 The #MeToo movement has recently shed light on how pervasive ordinary misogyny is in our society: [page 115] sexual harassment,17 workplace intimidation, medical neglect,18 professional discrimination,19 and domestic violence.20
In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, men distrust women for the same reasons that the pods take over the human race: for their capacity to feel emotions. Succumbing to the lure of masculinity—or at least its outward appearance of cold, unwavering certainty embodied by Kibner—the men in the story reject the emotional value of the human experience.
As the de facto main character of the film, Matthew is trapped between a traditional take on masculinity that he admires but fails to emulate, and the more frightening unknown of a liberated female sexuality. Unsurprisingly, he falls back on trusting the patriarchal structures, endangering Elizabeth and Nancy, the women who are close to him, in the process. The message for women is clear—they will get no help from men, for men are already true strangers to them, or as Marty Roth puts it, “the monstrous [here] is all too ordinary” (227).
1. The idea that women are overly emotional is a trope of horror films, and nowhere more chillingly stated than in The Invasion (2007). When Carol realizes her husband is a pod-person and tries to escape, he tells her: “You’re very emotional right now. All you have to do is nothing.” It is true; all anyone has to do to turn into a pod is precisely to do nothing, to let it happen, to give up.
2. Kaufman himself, quoted by Sumiko Higashi in “Pods Then and Now,” deplores the general indifference of his generation, a lethargy he compares to sleep: “We were all asleep in a lot of ways in the fifties: living, conforming, other-directed types of lives. [sic] Maybe we woke up a little in the sixties, but now we’ve gone back to sleep again.”
3. The Invasion was filmed during an epidemic of avian flu, and joins the ranks of virus-triggered zombie movies such as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002).
4. Unprecedented in its worldwide scope and coverage by the media, precursors to the #MeToo movement are numerous and well documented by Jane Marcellus’ Washington Post article “#MeToo Has Been Almost 200 Years in the Making.” [page 116]
5. “Gaslighting” is the practice of making victims of abuse doubt their own experiences. For Stephanie Sarkis in Psychology Today, “Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality.”
6. The other witnesses of the transformation of humans into pod-people, both in the book and the films, are a child, a Chinese immigrant, and a frantic old man – all considered lesser members of society and inherently untrustworthy.
7. A few examples, my own emphasis added:
ELIZABETH. I’m not hungry.
MATTHEW. Have some celery.
ELIZABETH. I’m not...
MATTHEW. Eat, eat, eat.
ELIZABETH. You think I’m nuts.
MATTHEW. No, I don’t.
ELIZABETH. Nobody’s helping her.
KIBNER. That’s not true. Somebody’s helping her.
ELIZABETH. It’s a conspiracy, I know it.
MATTHEW. There can’t be a conspiracy!
ELIZABETH. Matthew, we’re never going to be able to stop them!
MATTHEW. Yes we will!
8. Of course, Mannie is already a pod at that time, and might be placating the group to better change its mind afterward. But the effect on the characters and on the reader/audience of immediate trust or immediate mistrust remains.
9. The trope of endangering females by mistrusting their experience is very present in science fiction and horror movies of the time. But films such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Bryan Forbes’ Stepford Wives (1975) tend to denounce this state of affairs. In Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the women’s speaking up is an easily overcome obstacle to what the film truly focuses on: the pod takeover (as evidenced by the long, uncomfortably sexual scene of pods ripening to explosion). The [page 117] dismissive treatment of women is never questioned and the film never hints at any wrongdoing on the men’s part.
10. Again, Mannie is already a pod at that time, but still has the intellectual integrity to concede there’s nothing wrong with Wilma – he’s in best position to know that she’s not delusional.
11. Played by Nicole Kidman, who, in a welcome gender reversal, takes on Miles’ last name. Her male counterpart, Ben Driscoll, also a doctor (and named after Becky Driscoll) is played by Daniel Craig.
12. Fun fact: she is played by Veronika Cartwright, who was Nancy from the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
13. The recourse to medication present in all versions of the story but treated differently: in the 1950s versions, Miles carefully measures stimulating drugs for him and Becky, making sure to use it only when absolutely necessary. In Kaufman’s film, Elizabeth finds drugs for her and Matthew to stay awake, and he tells her to take five times the recommended dose, despite admittedly knowing nothing about it:
ELIZABETH. It’s speed.
MATTHEW. How many are you supposed to take?
ELIZABETH. It says ‘Take one.’
MATTHEW. Take five.
14. Harvey Weinstein tried to use a similar strategy on a model who was publicly refusing to follow him to his hotel room. “Now you’re embarrassing me,” he told her in an attempt to make her take responsibility for his felt embarrassment and compensate for it. Jia Tolentino, who recounts the incident in her article “Harvey Weinstein and the Impunity of Powerful Men,” points out that “men who routinely humiliate women are easily embarrassed.”
15. This questioning of the motives of men in power is also present in The Invasion: as Carol Bennell comes forward to witness an accident, the policeman tries to ward her off, telling her that he will contact her if needed. “I took down your plates,” he says in conciliating tones. She bristles at this unwarranted invasion of privacy: “Well, hold on. Why did you take down my plates? Why did you take down my plates?” (Hirschbiegel) Here again, the officer offers no valid response. [page 118]
16. For a recent glimpse into a man’s epiphany on this subject, read Damon Young’s edifying article “Men Just Don’t Trust Women and It’s a Huge Problem.”
17. According to a study led by the nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment, “81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime” (Stop Street Harassment Collective).
18. In “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously,” Joe Fassler recounts his wife’s 14-hour ordeal, sitting ignored at the ER, the symptoms of her life-threatening ovarian torsion dismissed by the medical personnel as oversensitivity or overacting.
19. At the time of writing, the gender wage gap in the US is still alive and kicking. “Women in the United States make $0.80 on the dollar compared to their male counterparts” (Calfas).
20. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline website, citing United States Department of Labor statistics, “Nearly 3 in 10 women (29%) and 1 in 10 men (10%) in the US have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by a partner and report a related impact on their functioning” (“Statistics”).
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Body Snatchers. Directed by Abel Ferrara. Performances by Terry Kinney and Meg Tilly. Warner Bros, 1993.
Calfas, Jennifer. “Women Have Pushed for Equal Pay for Decades. It’s Sad How Little Progress We’ve Made.” Time, 10 Apr. 10, 2018, time.com/money/5225986/equal-pay-day-2018-gender-wage-gap/.
Fassler, Joe. “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously.” The Atlantic, 15 Oct. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/health/ archive/2015/10/emergency-room-wait-times-sexism/ 410515/.
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Garber, Megan. “The Weaponization of Awkwardness.” The Atlantic, 15 Dec. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/ entertainment/archive/2017/12/the-weaponization-of-awkwardness/548291/.
Grant, Barry Keith. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Film Classics, Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.
Higashi, Sumiko. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Pods Here and Now.” Jump [page 119] Cut, no. 24-25, 1981, pp. 3-4. Jump Cut, 2005, www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC24-25folder/InvasionBodySntch.html.
Hirschbiegel, Oliver. The Invasion. 2007. Springfield! Springfield! www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/movie_script.php?movie=invasion-the.
The Invasion. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Performances by Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Warner Bros, 2007.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Directed by Don Siegel. Performances by Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. Walter Wanger Productions, 1956.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Directed by Philip Kaufman. Performances by Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy and Veronika Cartwright. United Artists, 1978.
Kaufman, Philip. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Film script. 1978. Drew’s Script-O-Rama, www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/ i/invasion-of-the-body-snatchers-script.html.
Mann, Katrina. “‘You’re Next!’: Postwar Hegemony Besieged in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Cinema Journal, vol. 44, no. 1, 2004, pp. 49-68.
Marcellus, Jane. “#MeToo Has Been Almost 200 Years in the Making.” The Washington Post, 9 Jan. 2018, www.washington post.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2018/ 01/09/metoo-has-been-almost-200-years-in-the-making/.
Roth, Marty. “Twice Two: The Fly and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice, edited by Leonard R. Koos and Jennifer Forrest, State University of New York Press, 2001, pp. 225-242.
Sarkis, Stephanie. “Eleven Warning Signs of Gaslighting.” Psychology Today, 11 Jan. 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-warning-signs-gaslighting.
“Statistics.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline, www.thehotline. org/resources/statistics/.
Steffen-Fluhr, Nancy. “Women and the Inner Game of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 11, no. 2, 1984, pp. 139-153.
Stop Street Harassment Collective. “The Facts behind the #MeToo movement: a National Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault.” Stop Street Harassment, 21 Feb. 2018, www.stopstreetharassment.org/wp-content/uploads/ 2018/01/Full-Report-2018-National-Study-on-Sexual-Harassment-and-Assault.pdf.
Tolentino, Jia. “Harvey Weinstein and the Impunity of Powerful Men.” The New Yorker, 30 Oct. 2017, [page 120] www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/30/harvey-weinstein-and-the-impunity-of-powerful-men.
Winstead, Lizz. “The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney.” The New York Times, 29 Dec. 2015, www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/ 2015/12/29/what-science-fiction-movie-or-novel-is-most-prescient-today/the-body-snatchers-by-jack-finney.
Young, Damon. “Men Just Don’t Trust Women and It’s a Huge Problem.” Huffington Post, 6 Dec. 2017, www.huffingtonpost. com/damon-young/men-just-dont-trust-women_b_6714280. html.
MLA citation (print):
Hugonny, Julie. "Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Mistrusting the Female Experience." Supernatural Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 2018, pp. 96-120.