Though sometimes accused of misogyny, we at Ruthless will happily march arm-in-arm with our sisters when the cause is just–whether it be for more nudity in JCVD films or against reactionary, sexist propaganda, such as Gremlins. We have always opposed criticism that over-thinks or politicizes films to meet the agenda of the reviewer. Yet, the patriarchal propaganda that is Gremlins is too transparent to ignore. With a little analysis, we can see that the message of Gremlins is that society cannot function without a rigid patriarchy that produces obedient women. Given free reign, female behavior will land somewhere between that of animals and children and society will descend into anarchy.
The central figure in Gremlins is, of course, Gizmo, a mogwai. Mogwai represent women in a neutral state. The superficial similarities are obvious. Gizmo is cute, seemingly harmless and vulnerable and calls upon our protective instincts. We want to take Gizmo in, provide for him and snuggle up in bed with him. To grouchier feminists, this initial presentation of Gizmo/woman might seem condescending, but it is not so far from the reality of many male/female relationships. At worst, this depiction is conventional or conservative, but it is the starting point of a deeply reactionary fable.
The extreme, patriarchal expression begins with the three rules of “owning” a Mogwai/woman.
1) Don’t get them wet. Water, a classic symbol of fecundity, is taken a step further and is also a symbol for actual semen. The well-trained Gizmo avoids water. This is because Gizmo has been raised in a firmly patriarchal society (China) and both literally and figuratively kept in a box. But freed from control and supervision in the decadent West and left in the care of an immature man who lacks a firm hand, even virtuous Gizmo can’t avoid coming into contact with water. He goes into an accelerated labor, and painfully ejects his offspring. One minor slip up, and Billy suddenly finds himself with several more mouths to feed. The poorly managed woman, even if virtuous, is portrayed as a source of ever-increasing burdens.
Gizmo’s offspring lack his strict upbringing and revert to their natural, insatiable desire for water/semen and offspring. Each poorly raised mogwai is governed by a mad desire to reproduce, but the most burning urge belongs to Stripe, who is a stand in for Reagan’s mythical “welfare queen.” Stripe reproduces indiscriminately, seeking water from any source available, including a public pool (bathhouse). He cares little for his offspring and even abuses them, but he expects the rest of society to provide for them. As Stripe’s spawn absorb the town of Kingston Fall’s resources, the remainder trickles up to Stripe who helps himself to the best of it. A rigid patriarchy is essential. A single generation without it leads to a cycle of reckless breeding as one batch of valueless baby factories passes it’s behavior to still larger broods in the next, dragging society into economic collapse, then chaos.
2) No bright lights, especially sunlight. The metaphor here is more subtle but again, sunlight is a common enough metaphor for openness and exposure. This rule is more patriarchal than misogynistic, as mogwai, and even gremlins, must be kept from exposure to light for their own protection. The analogous duty is protecting your women by not allowing them excessive exposure to the outside world. According to the worldview of Spielberg, writer Chris Columbus and director, Joe Dante, women left to their own devices will invariably dress like prostitutes, literally exposing their skin to sunlight or worse, the pulsating lights of “da club.” Of course, the immediate danger is not sunlight itself (though decadent women quickly become obsessed with “tanning,” and risk skin cancer), but the fact that men are entitled to rape women who dress in such a way. Even if such a woman is somehow not raped, a man like Spielberg or Dante will assume she has been violated and is therefore soiled and useless, effectively ending her life. Also note that one of the most common ways gremlins are killed by light exposure is with flash cameras, which is analogous to a woman appearing in pornography or (in 2009) posting shameful pictures of herself on the internet. While camera flashes and significant sunlight are lethal to the mogwai, women who are allowed excessive freedom will immediately demean themselves for sexual attention, couple with shady men or, less commonly, grow intellectually curious and absorb dangerous ideas. Any of these things can render them useless as daughters, sisters or wives. As the keeper of a mogwai/woman, it is your responsibly to rigidly control their exposure to harmful elements so that they might maintain their virtue and purpose.
3) Do not feed after midnight. The lesson here is not to overindulge your woman and spoil her. Women who are allowed to live modestly are grateful to their breadwinners for sustaining and sometimes even treating them, as Gizmo is to Billy. We see this in Billy’s mom as well, as she remains grateful and respectful towards Billy’s dad, even though he is a poor provider and the family lives modestly. Billy’s mom is the uncritical representation of the homemaker portrayed by Friedan. She is fully occupied maintaining the home, excels at it and is a force for order. As though cleaning up after her husband’s destructive inventions was not enough, she is able to use her household appliances–most memorably a blender and microwave–to dispatch some of the first gremlins. Only Billy, however, is allowed to wield the sword against the gremlins, in his first step towards authentic manhood.
Though women’s willing contributions are essential to maintaining the patriarchal order, boundaries must be drawn. Once overindulged, women become insatiable, greedy and entitled. Because the patriarchy is ultimately victorious in the film, most human women are prevented from reaching the gremlin stage, but a human woman who is “fed after midnight” would turn out like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian. Sustenance is not only taken for granted, but becomes a vehicle for aimless ostentation and excess. This is exacerbated by the fact that women care little for practical or intellectual gifts, favoring hallow expressions of exclusivity, wealth and idleness (We get a glimpse of this in the movie with Mrs. Deagle’s motorized chair up her stairs), in accordance with Veblen’s account of conspicuous consumption in women. When they become spoiled, their desires easily spin out of control. As their wants become impossible to satisfy, they become unhappy no matter what they are given. For example, a diamond ring has no purpose other than conspicuously displaying of the expenditure of resources. Perhaps one or two such items can be given to a woman to mark special occasions, but if there are no limits the display becomes increasingly meaningless, and therefore increasingly gross and unsatisfying until the woman is adorning her dog with expensive jewelry to show her total disdain for the labor and resources that have gone into it. So, indulged without limit, the woman has moved from a contented being, grateful for sustenance to a monster of consumption and waste–from Gizmo to a gremlin. Just as the overindulged woman will buy expensive clothes to wear once, or often not at all, gremlins destroy as much as they consume, smashing glasses after they drink from them, then demanding more. The gremlin/spoiled woman would neither dream of working for the resources they consume, nor pay the slightest respect or consideration to the effort of those who do work to provide those resources
Women with money, mistaking their luck for superiority and consumed by status, are notoriously callous and cruel to service and others they deem beneath them. This is demonstrated in the film by the relentless and shortsighted abuse dished out by the greedy heiress, Mrs. Deagle. Deagle, clad in ridiculous furs, is clearly unhappy herself and abuses her power at the bank. By hastily foreclosing local businesses and being inflexible with borrowers, she is a threat to the long term survival of the local economy and ultimately the bank itself. We see similar behavior as the gremlins torment Kate (Phoebe Cates) as she tries her best to serve them in the local bar which they destroy in a shortsighted display of power and excess. Kate has emerged as a virtuous woman in a corrupt society. This is only because Kingston Falls is an idealistic depiction of 1950s nostalgia: a representation of what is being lost. In any case, the Gremlins take special joy in harassing a modest and contented woman, just as they do her analog: Gizmo. Of course women who have been “fed after midnight” tend to express similar disdain for, say, housewives or working women.
So we can see the collision between the patriarchy and the liberation of women on a few fronts. First there is Kingston Falls itself: small, almost magically anachronistic town, not yet soiled by the general “progress” of American society and the 1960s in particular. Even the music played on the radio in Kingston Falls is pre-Woodstock. The town teeters between the traditional, patriarchal society represented by China, and the corruption of post-feminist America. It is no coincidence that Gizmo is brought in from Chinatown in New York City.
The faces of patriarchal order are Mr. Wing, the revered father figure who is ignored at first, then vindicated and acquiesced to and Gizmo, the figure of the woman who is content and happy to literally live in the box created by the patriarch. Billy represents the weakened male who no longer knows how to control the new generation of mogwai/women. So they become gremlins: ungoverned women who erode society, almost to the breaking point, never realizing that their uncontrolled desires are ultimately self-destructive. In reigning in the anarchy created by the gremlins, Billy becomes a real man. Importantly, Billy needs the help of Gizmo and Kate, female figures who understand their place and therefore are as much a part of the patriarchy as he is. Only then, is Billy able to both restore order and begin a relationship with Kate, who intimidated him when he was in his weak state. Also important is that part of Billy’s maturation is realizing that he must take a secondary position in the patriarchal structure, in deference to Mr. Wing and hope that Wing is right in saying, “perhaps someday, you may be ready.”