No Vagina in Sight: The Queer Case of Junior
Femininity, far from being nature, is the quality of the orgasmic force when it can be converted into merchandise,
into an object of economic exchange, into work.
–Beatriz Preciado, Testo Junkie (2013)
When Junior debuted in 1994, it was not the first time Arnold Schwarzenegger had played opposite Danny DeVito in a film about motherhood, reproduction, and experimental genetics. In Twins (1988), director Ivan Reitman had already relied on the humour of their disproportionate heights, accents, and heft, casting them as long-lost test-tube fraternal twins, separated at birth by scientists. Six years later, Reitman paired the odd couple up again, this time with Schwarzenegger as Dr. Alex Hesse, a gruff research geneticist, and DeVito in the role of Dr. Larry Arbogast, a putzy obstetrician. Together, the men develop and animal-test a drug—Expectane—that will prevent American women from miscarrying during pregnancy. When the doctors fail to get FDA approval for their experimental concoction, Larry insists they need data from human cells to prove Expectane’s potential and persuade both regulatory boards and foreign investors of the drug’s validity. Without much trouble, Larry coaxes Alex into heeding the call of scientific progress by illicitly testing the drug on himself. After implanting Alex’s own semen and a cryogenically frozen egg named Junior into his abdomen, male pregnancy (or what Larry refers to as “sort of a guest-host situation”) is miraculously conceived by these two men—no vagina in sight.
Despite the film’s apparent queerness—two men have a baby with no surrogate, no woman, and no state intervention—it is easy enough to gloss Junior as a conservative pro-life allegory. Schwarzenegger’s character is introduced as a callous, methodical scientist, but his pregnancy—supported in part by large doses of the female growth hormones in Expectane—turns him into an emotional, histrionic “woman” who refuses to abort the fetus as planned after the first trimester. Terminating the “experiment” before the baby comes to full term becomes unthinkable as Alex bonds with his unborn baby; and in Junior, much as in life, men arbitrate reproductive rights. But as Alex’s body gradually morphs from the iconic hard body of Schwarzenegger to the distended softness of a pregnant transsexual, any glib reading of the film gives way. If it is bodybuilding and steroids that are responsible for sculpting Schwarzenegger into Terminator, in Junior, it is estrogen that renders his body soft, feeling, and queer.
Alex’s stomach and appetite grow, and while his body becomes repulsive to him, it is a comedic site of cultural fascination for us. The chiselled and perfected Republican body of Mr. Universe—one of the most profitable box office spectacles of the 1980s—transitions into a cross-dressing, childbearing anomaly. As Susan Jeffords has argued, the era of Reagan’s presidency was “an era of bodies”[i] divided into “hard” (male, white, strong) and “soft” (female, non-white, homosexual) that found its visual analog in Hollywood’s leading men. The hard bodies of action-film heroes—like Stallone as Rambo or Mel Gibson as Riggs in Lethal Weapon—stood for the nation itself, visually reflecting the aggression, power, and masculinity of Reagan’s conservative agenda. I would argue that Schwarzenegger’s impossible physique was in some ways the pinnacle of this American fantasy of foreign and domestic impermeability, but with his distinctly Austrian accent, it was with machine—not nation—that his body became synonymous. In an essay on Terminator 2, David Foster Wallace once wrote, “Schwarzenegger—compared to whom Chuck Norris is an Olivier—is not an actor or even a performer. He is a body, a form—the closest thing to an actual machine in the history of the S.A.G.”[ii] So the draw of a film like Junior is to watch a process of radical inversion unfold—the cyborgian Schwarzenegger metamorphoses into a precarious body susceptible to failure. More radical, perhaps, is that with his representation of an estrogen-drinking, cross-dressing Schwarzenegger, Reitman queers one of the original hard bodies of a bygone Reagan era and unwittingly explores the politics of gender reassignment and transsexualism.
Unsurprisingly, the subversion of Hollywood hard-bodied masculinity is not sustained throughout Junior, and the film thwarts its own progressive potential at crucial moments. In particular, the fluid lines of gender are made rigid by anxieties surrounding cis-gendered motherhood and the nuclear family. The film begins with Alex anxiously dreaming of motherless babies; later, he dreams of an infant being lovingly handed to him, but to his horror, the child’s face is a transposition of his own—a diapered mini-Schwarzenegger uttering a piercing “mama!” This unconscious mommy anxiety is articulated again through Alex’s romantic relationship with the hapless Dr. Diana Reddin (Emma Thompson), who seems to be there solely as a heteronormative safeguard to the film’s queerness. (The egg that Larry implanted in Alex was stolen from Diana’s laboratory, an egg she had frozen for her own future reproductive plans. So while Junior is a test-tube baby, her parents fall fortuitously in love as she gestates.) Diana’s character serves to reiterate that though Alex’s body is in a liminal gender space between man and woman, his desire is voraciously heterosexual, and his experimentation with queerness will end as the conventional comedy prescribes—in holy (straight) matrimony. With a declarative speech act, Diana assuages any remaining doubts as to who the mommy will be. When Junior is finally born, Diana enters the frame and inaugurates herself into motherhood, saying right on cue, “I am the mother.” The film exhales a sigh of relief.
What is more, though Alex and Larry are supposedly performing this experiment of male pregnancy in the name and service of science, the importance of family and the sacredness of the child quickly supersede this narrative of medical discovery. Significantly, the intended demographic for this “cure”—the American woman—also recedes into the background of Alex’s pregnancy and Larry’s financial investment in the wonder drug. The primacy of male interest comes into focus when, as Larry’s pregnant ex-wife Angela (Pamela Reed) goes into labour at the same time as Alex, he is rushed into surgery while she is left writhing from contractions on the waiting room floor. And what of miscarriage, Expectane’s raison d’être? Is Alex’s successful pregnancy the drug’s achievement, or his? There is a cloying suggestion that it is Alex’s sheer willpower to carry his baby to term that is to thank for Junior’s birth, and that the near-sighted FDA and greedy research university should not interfere with a man’s right to experiment with an unconsenting woman’s egg.
In Junior, Alex’s immaculate conception is nourished by the unregulated consumption of large quantities of estrogen, and the actor’s iconic and transforming body becomes the unlikely testing ground for the film’s exploration of transexualism and queerness. But ultimately, the subversive potential of Schwarzenegger’s shifting form gives way to the conservative reflexes of the hard body, and Junior’s queer potential dissipates by the film’s predictable ending. (Yet, was anyone expecting an Ivan Reitman film to be the turning point for queer cinema?) Junior’s depiction of women is asinine, no doubt, and its valorization of the nuclear family is formulaic, but I wonder if the film allows—if only briefly—for the seeds of a new Hollywood masculinity to germinate? Reitman’s Junior doesn’t herald a new moment in film history, but as fleeting as the film’s subversive commentary may be, the image of a celebrated hulking body turned liminal, female, transsexual, and errant marks a shift in the mainstream’s conception of the masculine. After the previous decade’s hysteria and violent stigmas surrounding AIDS, the increased legislation of anti-abortion laws, and Reagan’s unrelenting focus on family values, Schwarzenegger’s pregnant belly suggests a much-needed queer departure.
[i] Susan Jeffords, Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in The Reagan Era (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994).
[ii] David Foster Wallace, “The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2,” in Both Flesh and Not(New York: Penguin Books, 2012). 183.