Cronenberg on Sex and Gender: Videodrome (1983)
I sat down fully intending to write about another one of Cronenberg’s films I had recently seen but I finally felt the urge and confidence to write about the film that got me started on this whole crazy Cronenberg adventure, his 1983 classic Videodrome. Maybe this is because I have seen enough of his work that I can revisit my earlier thoughts about this and solidify them or maybe it is because had a dream I met one of the lead actors at a movie convention and he was a normal human being who gave me more insight into the film, either way I am here and I’m glad to unpack the jumble of thoughts and ideas that have been bouncing around in my head.
When my partner and I decided to sit down and watch Videodromea few months ago I didn’t really know what to expect and I was just excited to cross this one off of my movie shame list, I did not expect it to be a film that truly and profoundly affected me. It made me realize that Cronenberg had a lot more going on than just insane practical effects. As I have gone through and watched his earlier films it felt like this was one of Cronenberg’s first films that combined many of the ideas and anxieties which had been peppered through his earlier work. Perhaps one of the most impressive parts about this is that in 89 minutes it synthesizes several themes and elements, where he previously spent whole movies just trying to unpack them individually. Although the overarching theme is technology’s effects on society and one’s individual body, I was struck by the gender elements of the film and how technology affects sex and relations to others. As I unpacked the film after my first watch I felt like these were not the most poignant themes for others I talked to but I felt like I was really on to something. As I made my way through The Brood, Shivers, and Rabid I was more convinced in his obsession with sex and gender.
So far, this is one of my favorite Cronenberg films, so when I did some research I was really shocked to find out that it was not seen by a lot of people and many of them did not like it. Much like John Carpenter’s The Thing it took time for, Videodrome to get the respect and notoriety it deserves. Similar to Carpenter, Cronenberg was devastated by its reception and reading interviews about it is heartbreaking, especially when he discusses the issues with editing and censorship around this film. It is shocking for me as well because I was entranced for the entire 89 minutes. The film stars James Woods as Max Ren, who runs a television station known for its programs showing anything from porn to extreme violence. He is shown a program called Videodrome, which he is told has been picked up from one of their satellite feeds. He is immediately obsessed with this program which is just pure torture, acted out on different victims and his exposure begins to change him mentally and physically.
Max is immediately introduced as a sleazy misogynist, not much of a stretch for the actor who, when Googled, most recently came up in the news for supporting the boycott of Captain Marvel. In the first scene Max wakes up in a robe smearing his pizza grease covered hands all over pictures from a pornographic film. The stills are from a porn film called Samurai Dreams which we see a scene from later in the film and it depicts Asian women pleasuring themselves with dildos. When showing Samurai Dreams to his partners their criticisms range from “It’s soft” to “Oriental sex in unnatural” to “not tacky enough to turn me on, too much class is bad for sex”. Not only are these comments racist and sexist but the notion of a woman enjoying sex or taking control over their own pleasure is an immediate turn off to these men and don’t think it has a place on their network.
Being the person that he is and the profession he decides to work in, you get a chance to see how Max treats and relates to the women in his own life. He meets Debbie Harry’s character on a talk show where they are invited to talk about sex, violence, and television. Harry plays Nicki Brand, a host of a radio show and they are joined on the show by Dr. O’Blivion, played by Jack Creley. When Max is questioned by the show’s host about his station he defends it simply by saying that he is giving people a “harmless outlet for fantasy” and insinuates this is benefiting society. He is blasé and does not even seem to care how he presents himself on the program and feels no responsibility for how he runs his network. When given the chance to speak Nicki Brand comments that “stimulation for its own sake” is bad. She does not get a chance to explain her intellectual opinions in much detail after that because she is immediately objectified by Max who comments on the fact that she is wearing a bright red dress insinuating that this means she is sexualizing herself, and would not wear it unless she wanted male attention.
Nicki is self-assured and open about her sexual exploration, and although Woods is immediately attracted to this, it is obvious that an assertive woman who wants sex on her terms is frightening to him. He is frightened when she shows an interest in Videodromeand tells her that “it isn’t exactly sex” to which she responds “says who”. Although he is intrigued by the program the idea of a woman having that same interest comes off as repulsive. He tries to control her especially since she doesn’t act like the other women in his life. She shows him cuts she has received from other sexual partners, burns herself with a cigarette, and even gets him to stick pins in her ear while they have sex. It seems that although this is the type of programming he wants to show on his station; engaging in it in real life with a consenting partner is not as much of a turn on. When Nicki tells him she is going to seek out Videodrome he is enraged and tries to forbid her from going. Max’s obsession with Nicki really only seems to go one way, although she enjoys him as a sexual partner she will not let him control her. The moments when Nicki is present in Max’s hallucinates are the moments when she seems most interested in him.
While Max deals with his new relationship with Nicki he is also working hard to find out where the Videodrome signal is coming from and trying to find how to obtain more for his network. His research eventually leads him to seek out Dr. O’ Blivion but instead he finds his daughter, Bianca O’Blivion, and he has a very different reaction to Bianca than he does Nicki. I was fascinated by Bianca and how she and Max interact with each other. She is the only woman who Max does not sexualize and is not at all receptive to his treatment of women. She is able to see what Max is all about even in their first encounter. Bianca also has a very masculine way of dressing that you do not see in the other female characters in this movie. Bianca acts as an extension of her father which makes her seem less sexual in Max’s eyes. Towards the end of the film she is the one who successfully “reprograms” Max and asserts control over him to get rid of the men producing theVideodromesignal.
Another important character to mention is Masha played by Lynne Gorman, she is an older woman who has a friendly working relationship with Max. She is first introduced when she is pitching her softcore porn set during Grecian times. Max turns it down immediately for the same basic reasons he rejects Samurai Dreams, saying it is too “soft, and naive”. He flirts with her to try to get her help in learning more about Videodromeand says she can “watch him shower” if she helps him, she is quick to respond saying he is too old for her and eyes a cute and obviously very young waiter serving them. Max even reacts with a jealous look, the idea of him not being able to control her with his sexuality and it appears to be another infuriating moment for him. She is smart and clearly understands the issues with Max and the hardcore material they would like to show. She also is connected and figures out very quickly how dangerous Videodrome is. When Max says that Videodrome is the way of the future she replies “God help us”.
As the film progresses, Max’s hallucinations become much more intense and reality and fantasy start to become hard to distinguish. Through his fantasies Max is forced to deal with violence in his life. Max begins fantasizing about committing acts of violence against most of the women he knows. He believes he is whipping Nicki in the room in which Videodromeis filmed. His receptionist Bridey comes to take care of him and make sure he is okay and he hallucinates himself smacking her (as she becomes Nicki right in front of his eyes). Later on he believes he wakes up next to Maisha’s dead body in his bed. Cronenberg’s use of incredible practical effects really highlighted in these scenes, and help him facilitate the points he is trying to make. Max picks up a videotape that begins to breathe and moan and start to resemble breasts, he becomes sucked into the television when he believes Nicki is talking to him through it asking him to “come to her”. One of the most interesting scenes which eventually plays an important part in the story is when Max is sitting on the couch and notices a large slit in the middle of his chest which he begins to mindlessly rub with the gun in his hand. He eventually forces the gun into himself, which of course the phallic imagery moment is very important to the sexual commentary of the film. Cronenberg’s blending of amazing visual effects and a complicated social commentary are really amazing in these moments.
It is not until towards the end of the movie that many women around Max are gone and the scary corporation behind Videodrome is revealed. Convex is introduced as a company run by Barry Convex, which is producing the Videodrome signal. We learn that the signal is what is making Max hallucinate and also progressively become more vulnerable to Harlan, the seemingly innocent employee who is revealed to have purposefully showed Max Videodrome to force him through these changes, and Barry Convex. A slit begins to develop on Max’s chest obviously meant to look like female genitalia. There is a very memorable moment when Max starts to scratch it with the gun that is in his hand and forces it inside of himself. Convex wants to use Max as their vessel to destroy those who want to stop sharing the Videodrome signal.
Harlan has an incredible moment when he reveals the intentions of Convex to Max:
North America's getting soft, patrón, and the rest of the world is getting tough. Very, very tough. We're entering savage new times, and we're going to have to be pure and direct and strong, if we're going to survive them. Now, you and this cesspool you call a television station and your people who wallow around in it, your viewers who watch you do it, they're rotting us away from the inside. We intend to stop that rot.
He and Convex force Max to realize why he is attracted to this content he tries to say it’s for business reasons and they force him to grapple with the fact that he “gets his kicks from watching torture and violence” just another one of these people “rotting” society away. Barry picks up a tape that he forces into the “slit” Max had grown earlier in the film. This makes him vulnerable to violation by Convex and others, much like a woman being violated. Convex forces a videotape into the slit, at this point Max is completely violated and is now an object to be used for whatever Convex wants. Max’s arm eventually grows around the gun he had placed earlier in the movie and he is fully objectified and not much more than a weapon. When he goes to kill Bianca O’Blivion she is able to reprogram him by telling him what we assume is the truth about Convex and how they used the image of Nicki to seduce him.
Cronenberg’s movies are often so complex that it is hard to pull the most interesting or relevant points from them. Technology, society, sex, violence, corporate control, etc. But there are many parts of Videodrome that connect with his other works. Sex and violence are always portrayed as being separate in this film. The Videodrome episodes are just pure acts of violence acted out against both men and women. Even the scene where Max is supposed to be hallucinating whipping Nicki the camera pulls out and you see he is whipping a TV with Nicki’s face on it. When he wakes up next to Maisha she is already dead and you don’t see her being harmed. The film purposefully separates these things showing that sex is not inherently bad but there is a corruption that can happen. Even when Nicki shows cuts and burns from sex those seem much more normalized because they were done in a consensual way.
The Criterion Collection edition has a commentary with Cronenberg who gives some insight into the actors behind the scenes with the practical effects. The slit was supposedly very heavy and James Woods had to carry it around the set in a conversation with Debbie Harry he told her that he was the “bearer of the slit now” to which Harry responded “Now you know how it feels”.
Woods is of course a controversial figure now and I am not sure I have seen much of his work but this is one of the first films of Cronenberg’s that I have written about where I felt like he found a leading man who was not flat, boring, or pale next to his female counterparts. Although the women in this film are amazing and fascinating characters it felt that Cronenberg found someone who could hold their own and that might be a combination of the acting and writing (Max Renn feels like a bizzaro Cronenberg), but either way it has been interesting to see him building up his male characters.
Like some of Cronenberg’s other films that delve into sex it does not seem that sex is supposed to be inherently bad, however like anything else that is weaponized or like Masha says, has a “ideology” it can be corrupted and made to be bad. Max potentially does this by curating a channel of what sex “should be” and only showing male pleasure, or violence acted out against women. Bianca O’Blivion and Barry Convex also have certain ideologies and they use sex, television, and eventually Max to get what they want, even further showing that there do not seem to be “good” sides in this film those weaponizing something or trying to control it are inherently bad for trying to have power over it.
One of the most intriguing parts of this movie for me is the separation of sex and acts of violence. Videodrome is pure torture, there is no rape or sexual assault shown within it and the other depictions of sex are over all much more tender and overall consensual. I have to assume Cronenberg did this on purpose because so many other movies use depictions of rape, and for a film about a sleazy TV studio, the fact that he shows them as separate very different acts is important. Also the fact that there is not much violence against women shown in general. This stuck out to me the first time I saw Videodrome and continued to go on as a watched films like Shiversand Rabid. It is unfortunate that this film did not get the reception it deserved right away but at the same time it gave Cronenberg a chance to work on a book adaptation with The Dead Zone starring Christopher Walken, which Cronenberg himself describes as a very sexually repressed film. Which I think brought back some of his confidence when he eventually made The Fly a few years later which was another adaptation but has so much of Cronenberg present within it already. I think this helped him to bring us even more works that delve into this interesting themes and give us more stories of male and female dynamics.