I have a much longer post in me about the Transformers series of films and what they mean, but I’m waiting until the third movie comes out to unleash that. Instead, here’s a paper I wrote last week about the first film.
Change Into a Man: Transformers and the Masculine
There is no text that speaks to more people than a summer blockbuster. In the summer of 2007, Michael Bay’s Transformers hit screens across the nation, garnering rave reviews from most critics and creating a huge number of fans. Over the course of an opening weekend, a new saga of films was born. However, in all those rave reviews, very few people spoke about how men and women were represented in the film. The construction of gender is found in every single media artifact that human beings produce. It moves over everything, sending both encoded and blatant messages to the viewers, influencing the ways that they fundamentally experience the world. Transformers is no different in that respect, and in looking at the film it becomes apparent that the film constructs gender in a destructive way. The narrative relies on a cinematic formula of the masculine savior, and while it attempts to hide this under protagonist Sam Witwicky’s (Shia LaBeouf ) bumbling nature, the entire focus of the film is reifying masculinity while eliminating, or hiding, difference from that standard.
The first scene in Transformers involves four men sitting in a helicopter. They proceed to have a conversation with one another about the virtues of home. Though we know nothing about these men, it immediately becomes apparent that they are “masculine” men. The military outfits immediately type them as “rugged” men, and this is strengthened by the fact that they are all covered in dirt, grime, and sweat. These men, the film tells us, are men who are not afraid to go out and get dirty. As the scene goes on, they all express their various reasons for wanting to go home. All of these reasons are masculine fantasies of home life: a mother’s cooking, baseball, and beer. The last speaker, Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel), expresses his desire to hold his daughter for the first time, causing him to be chided by the three other men. They call him “adorable” in soft voices, calling his masculinity into question for his desire for immaterial, care-based actions. The joking harassment by the other members of his team is not a real indictment of his masculinity, however, because of his immediate demand to “shut up,” which the film itself responds to by cutting away to an exterior shot of the helicopter landing on the ground. The Captain’s position of power effectively limits conversation about masculinity, and in the moment where it could be questioned, his power comes into action, limiting the viewer’s ability to see the rest of the harassment and conversation.
By hiding a question of his power, the film hides any real emotion that Lennox could have for his daughter. The film is asserting that in the strict masculine space of the military there is no room for so-called feminine emotions like care. In another scene shortly after, Lennox is able to speak with his wife and daughter via internet video chat, and in this one-on-one moment, Lennox becomes a different person. His squinted eyes open wide, almost uncannily so, and he becomes animated and excited, a strict contrast to his relaxed, aloof demeanor on the helicopter a few minutes earlier. In this moment, absent his military peers, Lennox is a wholly different person.
However, that positive aspect admitted, the film is incredibly problematic here. In a minor detail, the film really solidifies its ideology. When told that his daughter has laughed for the first time, Lennox asks “Are you sure she didn’t fart?” to which his wife replies, “No, she’s a lady.” In that one small comedic line, the film outlines its real goals as far as gender is concerned: there are things that real men do and things that real women do and we are not meant to question that.
Further along in the film, we are introduced to the main protagonist, Sam Witwicky, the character that the audience is intended to empathize with. Sam, a high schooler obsessed with owning a car because he perceives that to be the key to attracting women. In several plot developments, and zany comedy moments from Witwicky, the viewer is finally introduced to the main female lead of the film, Mikaela (Megan Fox). In several scenes we are shown how these two main characters are different. Sam is goofy, unsure of himself, and semi-attractive. In one scene, he is forced to flee a car on a pink bicycle while clutching his dog and screaming in a high-pitched voice. Mikaela is self-assured, intelligent, and incredibly attractive, and at one point tells her verbally abusive boyfriend that she is “not his bunny” before setting off down the highway on foot. Sam, unable to start his protesting car, full-out panics, while Mikaela gets out of the car, puts her hair up, and cracks the hood, spewing mechanic lingo the entire time. Both of these characters seem to invert stereotypes of men and women in films. Sam lacks any traditional male action movie trait, and Mikaela seems to have them all. She is smart, attractive, and has a practical intelligence that overshadows Sam for the first two thirds of the movie. However, this changes, and that change is fostered by the appearance of the Transformers themselves.
The transition toward a more masculine Sam comes after the first battle of the Transformers. Bumblebee, Sam’s car, fights a Decepticon, and after winning the fight, Sam and Mikaela get into Bumblebee and ride away. Mikaela, not wanting to sit in the driver’s seat of a car that drives itself, is coerced by Sam into sitting on his lap. Mikaela, already sexualized in the film, becomes an object for Sam to manipulate into sexual positions in this scene, and though her sexuality is largely self-propelled earlier in the film, this marks a turning point. For the rest of the film, she is fundamentally attached to Sam. Her sexuality becomes so attached to him, in fact, that it works in service to both Sam and the plot. To delay his parent’s possible discovery of the Transformers, Mikaela has to reveal that she was alone with Sam in his room, a fact that his parents take to mean that they were doing more than they were. In fact, when Mikaela is revealed, Sam’s mother remarks that “she’s gorgeous” and his father fist bumps him.
The further Mikaela’s life is combined with Sam’s, the more she loses her superiority to him. In a scene toward the end of the film, Mikaela stands behind Sam as he explains the Transformers reason for being on Earth. He argues with the secret agents that have kidnapped him, mirroring the intelligence the Mikaela has at the beginning of the film. Mikaela, however, provides none of this information, and stands quietly behind Sam for the entirety of the scene. All of her positive attributes have transferred over to Sam, “transforming” him into a traditionally masculine character who is smarter and more capable for the situation at hand than any other character in the film.
The last twenty minutes of the film are dedicated to a large battle between the Autobots, the “good” robots, and the Decepticons, the “bad” robots. Two of the military men from the first scene are there, too, along with a large number of military personnel, all fighting on the side of the Autobots. The Autobots are made up of only male robots, which makes the final battle a strange thing; in a fantasy world with alien robots, where anything can happen, a giant twenty-minute battle can happen that features only two women, one laying on the ground, and the other screaming. The gender politics here are amazingly one-sided, and the subservience of the plot to Sam’s masculinity is cemented when, after an air strike that knocks them to the ground, Mikaela reaches for Sam’s hand to pull her up. In the beginning of the film, Mikaela would have certainly stood up on her own. That seems to be the totalizing message of the film. The masculinity of the military combined with the all-male Autobot squadron all add together to create a space where Sam can “become a man,” essentially asserting himself over the woman in his life.
The ideology of the film comes down on the side that the only way to achieve victory is by relying on these traditional notions of masculinity in order to overcome adversity. When Sam shows the barest sign of weakness during the final battle, Captain Lennox grabs him by the shirt and says that “[Sam’s] a soldier now!” Lennox demands the same things of Sam that traditional masculinity demands of himself and all other “man’s men”: no signs of weakness. In the end, sadly, the film enforces that to the point where it is the all-encompassing goal. Underneath this masculinity, buried under piles of dead robots, is Mikaela’s strength, now hidden forever.