Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Wall-E: Imitation and Replication

(This is also posted on my other blog, linked on the side of this page!)

So I think it's time for me to chime in on Wall-E. I've seen the film twice now in theaters, much to the dismay of my grad student wallet. I loved it from the moment "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" from Hello, Dolly echoed through the digitized streets of a desolate version of New York City. The recognition of the skyscrapers as no more than buildings made of compressed garbage and cultural remnants began a long series of stunning visual commentaries on our seeming direction. And, speaking from a geek's perspective, the allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey only made the movie that much better in the canon of sci-fi flicks.

But if I may, I'd like to explore the more subtle suggestions of the film when it comes to gender.

I should first say that I very much appreciate the creation of Wall-E and Eve as, for the most part, androgynous characters. Granted, Wall-E is noticeably mechanical and angular - traditionally masculine associations - while Eve is smooth and curvy. Also, Wall-E's electronic "voice" operates at a lower frequency than Eve's. Nonetheless, after carefully watching the film, the robots never use any gendered pronouns or language toward one another. The robots not only remain androgynous, but they also defy traditional gender stereotypes at various points. As The Pop Perspective points out, Eve was the one to carry a weapon and exhibit violence, while Wall-E was the (literally) starry-eyed dreamer and lover. In fact, we only read them as male or female because that is the first categorization our minds make upon encountering a new individual. We look for anything, any small attribute (like the ones I listed above) to give us a hint of sex. But these robots are without sex - we have assigned them an arbitrary sex in our minds. A queer couple, to say the least.

However, my favorite part about this film may in fact be that, in numerous ways, the actions of Wall-E and other characters only serve to confirm Judith Butler's suggestions that gender, and all the acts of coupling, friendship, and the very ways we relate interpersonally on any level, are imitative. The film presents us with a world devoid of humans, where Wall-E is the last remaining garbage compacting robot. Although he is without human companionship, he is not without human ritual. As the action progresses, we watch Wall-E discover the intricacies of humanity through various cultural remnants like Hello, Dolly. It is here, in societal representations of love stories and relationships, that Wall-E learns about holding hands, about companionship, about how "it only takes a moment to be loved your whole life long." When Eve comes along, Wall-E has a chance to imitate these devices. One wonders how Wall-E would have interacted with Eve had he not discovered these cultural productions that taught him, like all the rest of us, how men and women relate to each other and view the world.

Furthermore, Wall-E shows us that these imitative rituals are indeed perpetuated through society and media. This, of course, is not surprising. Most people (I hope) are aware of the power of media to simultaneously reflect and reproduce cultural values, thus creating the classic question, "Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life?" Wall-E inherits these romantic rituals through Hello, Dolly, just as the captain of the ship later learns how to live on Earth from pictures and writings stored in the ship's database. Our society and its values are continually replicated and passed down through these rituals and cultural productions.

This movie, when considering these points, leaves me wondering how we would recreate ourselves if given a blank slate. If we'd been in Wall-E's position, except without the Barbara Streisand and Michael Crawford, what brave new world could we invent?

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