The Incredible Shrinking Man: a Parody
One of my favourite movies. To view a trailer for it, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRzcFXyOHIw
The Incredible Shrinking Man has been referred to as director Jack Arnold’s “parable of diminished American Masculinity” (Dixon 197). Other critics, such as Barbara Creed, viewed it as an attack on the rising status of women in American society, “In the postwar 1950’s, a period when popular culture was emphatically repositioning women within domestic space” (2, 56). Such judgements of the film can certainly be supported, but there is another theme present that modifies the first view and contradicts the second. Science fiction films of the 1950’s were often concerned with threats to western society from “the other”, often assumed to be communism, McCarthyism, or feminism (Cunnaly 3, 4). In the popular movies The Thing from Another World (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), War of the Worlds (1953), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the enemy is corporeal and alien. The Incredible Shrinking Man parodies these scenarios by showing the real enemy to be much more intimate and psychological, and existing in our homes and relationships, rather than as a result as an attack from strange outside forces.
The relationship between “ordinary man” Scott Carey and his wife Louise is established in the first scene of the film, set on a sailboat as the couple sunbathe on a “very ordinary summer day”. Scott tells Louise he is thirsty, and she replies with a deadpan “interesting”. When he asks her to get him a beer, she suggests he get it himself. He points out he is on vacation, and she echoes the sentiment. So he negotiates with her: if she fetches him his drink, he will make dinner. He conducts this transaction without any fuss, raised voice or tone of resentment. This is not a household of master and maid. This seemingly minor exchange could be viewed as emblematic of the cause of Scott’s problems. He will physically shrink and lose his position in their household, while Louise will remain the same size and gain in status.
In the next scene, six months after the events on the sailboat, the couple are shown in a typical domestic household setting: Louise is fixing breakfast for Scott and trying to hurry him along so he will not be late for work. The couple have a cat, but no children, despite having been married for six years. Later, when he is being examined by his doctor, we discover that Scott was in the Navy, so there is a good chance that Louise served in the factories during WWII. Along with other women of her time, she has proven that women could be more than domestic workers. Yet she is still a middle-class supportive wife. When Scott suspects he is shrinking, Louise is engagingly compassionate. They next visit a doctor, who assures Scott that people do not shrink. Everything is normal, the narrative tells us; people do not change. This is a theme similar to the one in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, whereby initially no-one believes that anything malevolent is happening.
Yet Scott continues to shrink. They return to the doctor, who finally becomes convinced of the impossible and, completely mystified, sends Scott to a special clinic. It is notable that his doctor does not tell him that he is getting shorter, but smaller, a word with multiple connotations. At the clinic the doctors determine that the combination of a pesticide and a radioactive cloud has created his bizarre malady. So far the movie is following a standard plot line. Radioactivity is a typical convention of 1950’s science fiction, as fear of “the bomb” was manifest in cold war America. But it is here that the story diverges from the typical scenario. His shrinking is not a threat to the planet, or America, or anyone outside Scott’s family. It is a very intimate, personal threat — to his marriage, and his place in his home. Immediately after his fears have been scientifically confirmed, he tells Louise that: “You love Scott Carey. He has a size and a shape and a way of thinking. All that’s changing now.” She continues to assure him that nothing is changing.
But Scott’s safe world begins to crumble. How can his marriage survive when his wedding ring won’t stay on his dwindling finger (in a scene outside the clinic, right after Louise tells him that it is a sign of their eternal union)? Or when he loses his job because his brother’s business is also shrinking? When Scott becomes a celebrity by selling his story to the press in order to support his family, the new public attention makes him feel like a freak. While we are not told anything about his sex life, it is almost certain that he is no longer capable of having children, the ultimate symbol of family masculinity (Cunnaly 5). As he says, “Easy to talk of soul and spirit and essential worth, but not when you’re three feet tall”. He views his entire life in relationship to his physical size, because size matters to the outside world.
Even worse, his size is beginning to matter inside his home. Now the height of a small child, he takes out his shrinking self-esteem on his wife. “The child who looks like a man. Go on Louise, laugh like everyone else”. She has the job of getting them an unlisted number, as Scott self-pityingly wails in the background, “Use your influence Louise. I’m a big man, I’m famous!” They need police protection to keep the crowds away, further humiliating him. A lone human being, not aliens or mutated insects, is the attraction in this fantastic story.
Before he can shrink much further, Scott gets a reprieve when the doctors discover an antidote. Unfortunately it is not a cure, but simply a halting of the shrinking process. But then Scott meets a circus midget, who gives him new life. Clarice is beautiful, vivacious and cheerful, and she describes the world in a way Scott has not envisioned before. Just as importantly, she is a woman who is smaller than him, which comforts him and gives him back his manhood. In the second scene between them, she expresses her admiration for his writing, and there is a hint of a possible romantic relationship. But this lifeline lasts for only a few minutes, for he notices he is now shorter than her. Science, that great hope of 20th century America, cannot save him, any more than it could stop the Martians in War of the Worlds or the pod people in Body Snatchers. As soon as he realizes he is shrinking again, he runs away from Clarice. He cannot break free of his belief that size signifies self-worth, even though it does not matter to the women in his life. His inability to adapt is the issue here. The problem is not with the “other”, but rather the “inner”.
Scott goes through four stages of shrinking: from shorter man, to child, and in the third stage, doll size. At this point he is forced to confront life as a totally emasculated man living in a doll house — the ultimate humiliation. This is where he reaches the lowest point in his disappearing life. He becomes “more tyrannical, more monstrous in my domination of Louise … Only I had the power to release her, if I could find the courage to end my wretched existence.” Whereas he used to speak to her politely, he now barks, as if this could re-assert his manhood. Lying forlornly on his toy sofa, he contemplates suicide, but still clings to the slim chance that the doctors can save him. It is at this low point that he is involved in an incident that will kick-start his long, slow path back to self-esteem. His beloved house cat, a former companion, attacks him in his dollhouse. This is the monster viewers were used to seeing in other effects-laden films of the time: threatening, oversized, and uncontrollable; only of course to those viewers it is nothing more than a normal sized pet. Here is the parodying of another convention of horror/sf movies: the monsters of Scott’s world have not mutated … he has.
He narrowly escapes the carnivorous cat, but falls into the basement. He is saved by landing in a sewing basket — a woman’s toolbox. This is the first of many feminine items that will be invaluable to him as he tries to survive in this new wilderness. And the formerly benign basement is definitely a wilderness for him, where wooden boxes are cliffs and stairs are mountains. Formerly innocuous items from his past, in a world he once ruled, are now overwhelming to him.
Now that he is totally alone, he begins to revert back to a more primitive state out of necessity. Mark Jancovich sees Carey returning to a primordial state, shedding the trappings of modern comfort and security in a battle for survival. He sheds his modern clothing for what looks like caveman apparel (Jancovich 193-4). The basement is appropriately dark, in contrast to the film’s opening scene at sea on a sunny day. Scott’s house has lost all aspects of a refuge. It is now just another form of untamed nature, where a water heater causes a flood and nearly drowns him, and food must be foraged from a trap that was originally meant to capture a mouse. He must learn to adapt or die in this hostile environment. His brother and wife think him dead; he can no longer rely on them to keep him safe and fed. His final anguished calls to his wife cannot be heard; he is so small he has essentially disappeared from the world of humans. Bill Warren points out that this inverses the concerns expressed in the more paranoid movies of the time. Instead of everyone being out to get you, “… you don’t really matter at all” (Warren 352). He is now in the fourth stage of the shrinking process.
But Scott is soon invigorated. “My brain was a man’s brain, my intelligence still a man’s intelligence”. Unlike other 50’s films of survival, this will not be a group battle. There is no military to call on, no meetings to attend, no teammates to assist; Scott cannot influence anyone else. He must adapt to this new reality alone. This is not a societal change, but an individual one. In order to flourish in this new world, he fashions tools from the meagre materials he can scavenge: thread, scissors, and a pin. “With these bits of metal I was a man again”. The irony here is that these are his wife’s tools. To be a man again he must adopt feminine implements. A nail (a masculine article) is too heavy to be useful.
Now Scott confronts the second monster in his life, a tarantula. Much has been made of the symbolism of the spider. Ruthellen Cunnaly states, “It seems fitting that Carey must battle with a spider—in some species of which the female devours the male after mating—in order to regain his own masculinity” (6). According to Barbara Creed, “the archaic mother — constructed as a negative force — is represented … (as) the terrifying spider” (56). Seeing the battle this way, we come away with a very anti-feminist view of this most memorable scene.
But another way to look at the encounter is to see it as a confrontation with the “inner”. Scott fights something that has always existed in his world, but was never a threat to him before. Hidden in the basement of his mind, it has survived on pure instinct. In this basement, neither his wife or the “other” exist. Scott is only fighting his own prejudices and adapting to a new reality.
It takes him a little time to see this. Conquering (his word) the spider initially brings him no joy or elation. He is depressed again, because he cannot yet process this new reality. No one else knows about his victory in this battle. There are no navy comrades to slap his back and call him a hero. His battle is a lonely one, existing mainly in his psyche.
Mark Jancovich offers that, “Films such as … Shrinking Man … not only question conventional notions of sexuality and gender, but also suggest that alternatives can exist which may be more desirable” (90). Yet he sees the story less in terms of feminism or masculinity, but rather “It is presented as a tragic but heroic tale of the ‘human spirit’. Carey is rejecting development, knowledge and civilization for innocence, purity, and primitiveness” (193-4) and that Shrinking Man “presents the story as a regression from civilization to primitivism, and ends up with a clearly religious return to the blissful union of man with the cosmos prior to the ‘fall’ (191-2)”. But our tiny hero gives us a different take in his final soliloquy: “I was continuing to shrink, to become… what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? … I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance”. His final statement: “I still exist!” can also be understood as “I’m still a man!” — a man of the future.
In the final scene, Scott Carey — while viewing his existence within a larger framework — accepts his fate with calm resignation. His initial resistance to adapting to the new reality in his world sent him to the depths of despair, but he morphs his “inner” into something new, realizing that shrinking does not diminish him as either a man or a human being. The monstrous “other” was never the issue for him, and, unlike other films of the era that dealt with threats to the western status quo, The Incredible Shrinking Man ends on an optimistic note.
Creed, Barbara. Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection. Ed. Barry Keith. The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. Print.
Cunnaly, Ruthellen. (2013) Mind Over Matter: Mental Evolution and Physical Devolution in The Incredible Shrinking Man, Journal of Popular Film and Television, 41:1, 2-9 D01:10:1080/01956051.2012.674070.
Dixon, Wheeler. A Short History of Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013. Print.
Jancovich, Mark. Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950’s. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996. Print.
Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties Vol.1. 1950-57 Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Inc., 1982. Print.