The White Male Fantasy of Total Recall

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The White Male Fantasy of Total Recall

   After saving the planet from a ruthless dictator and barely avoiding death on the hills of Mars, Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) puts a final spin on Total Recall with his final lines: "I just had a terrible thought. What if this is all a dream?" This last statement by Quaid leaves the audience pondering the question of reality, wondering what truly was 'real.' By the end of the film, one could easily argue a whole realm of possibilities: The events were all real; they were all a dream; they were the Recall implant fantasy played out; or they were the Recall fantasy gone haywire. In addition, the film seems to reject imperialism and the domination of white males, also rather postmodern in ideology. What is most ironic about this apparent postmodernism of resistance that we see at the surface of the film is undermined by high modernist ideology that recalls metanarratives of a patriarchal past. Thus we actually get the high modernist ideology that the film appears to reject. For every progressive step that Total Recall takes forward, then, it takes two steps back, and by the end of the film we see not a progressive victory, but rather a white male fantasy of the return of the patriarchal world in which the white man is on top.


According to Andreas Huyssen, "The postmodern harbored the promise of a 'post-white,' 'post-male,' 'post-humanist,' and 'post-Puritan' world" (194). While I am not purporting to predict the future, one would assume that if postmodern ideology continued on, then the future would continue the gender and racial role deconstruction that began in the mid to late 1960's. But Total Recall does not keep this promise, as there is nothing post-white, post-male, post-humanist or post-Puritan about it, and racial and gender codes, rather than being deconstructed, are actually reconstructed. In fact, Total Recall's world, produced in 1990, written in 1975, and representing 2084, looks much more like George Orwell's 1949 depiction of the world 1984 than any futuristic postmodern world. When Orwell created his future, it was based on projections of the present, and so whites and males still ruled the earth, and communist-like governments ruled the earth. In Total Recall, though, we do not see a projected future based on trends of our present, but rather one that reconstructs the past cultural dominant of white patriarchy, and seems to want to project from the early 1900's.

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"The White Male Fantasy of Total Recall." 22 May 2018
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The film, then, is not only ideologically in conflict with the postmodern, but also is a conservative response to the role-confusing realm of the postmodern in which women and minorities strive for equality. Through this effort, women and minorities are intentionally cast out of this Recalling.


In the world of patriarchy, women represent a "seen but not heard" resemblance to children. While they are viewed both by characters within the movie and by the audience with a great deal of pleasure (seen), they serve no real purpose other than to serve as objects of that gaze (voice not heard). Postmodern ideology would suggest that "... all groups have a right to speak for themselves in their own voices, and have that voice accepted as legitimate" (Harvey, 48). This film, though, does not empower all groups with their own legitimate voice. Indeed, any time women or minorities' needs are addressed in the film, they are addressed by a white male (Quaid) who speaks for them (but more on this later). In the film, we only see two women with any regularity: Lori Quaid (Sharon Stone) and Melina (Rachel Ticotin), who compose a tale of two opposing women. As if in a storybook of the old west, we see Doug leave his evil domesticating blonde wife, and ending up with the exotic dark woman who just so happens to be a prostitute. Let's look first at Lori.


It would appear at first glance that Lori would be the perfect wife in a patriarchal world. She is beautiful, likes to please her man in bed, and stays at home all day and practices tennis. This woman seems to present no threat to the patriarchy or the male gender roles that come with it. So is this woman really a threat? Is she really a secret agent trying to keep Doug from the rebel cause? Whether all of this is supposed to be real or fantasy is actually not of concern here, for what is important in the context of the film is that Doug perceives them to be real, and we--as the audience--also see the events. Thus Doug Quaid of the film and Doug Schutte of the audience have each had a visual experience with these events, and believe them to have happened. True, in reality, Lori may have simply been a somewhat overbearing wife who would not allow her husband to go to Mars or, as Doug Quaid puts it, "to be somebody." Whether she is truly an evil Agency operative is not of concern; rather, what matters is that in either case she domesticates and attempts to do the thinking for both her and her husband. Thus either she is an overbearing wife and has her evil projected on her by a resentful husband, or she is an agency operative who has tricked Doug into domestication. As a woman attempting to think both for herself and her husband (she repeatedly tells Doug what he would and would not like, what he is feeling, and what he should do), she stands as a threat to white male patriarchy, and portrays this threat by repeatedly (I believe on at least three separate occasions) kicking Doug (played by the hyper-masculine Schwarzenegger) in the groin. With each kick she symbolically threatens the phallus, the patriarchal symbol of power embodied in the penis. As a threat to patriarchy and the phallus, Lori must be killed. What is most interesting about her murder is that it occurs at the first moment that Lori and Melina occupy the same screen space. Thus Lori is replaced immediately by the exotic Melina, marking the transferal of male affection, and reinforcing the fact that the world revolves around the white male. For while these women do serve other purposes in the film, their essential roles are as love interests for Quaid.


While Lori symbolizes a great threat to patriarchal society, Melina serves as its greatest ally--of only for the fact that she never kicks Quaid in the groin. It seems a little ironic that she would be an ally to patriarchy, for she is definitely not the domestic type (at least at first). Indeed, she not only thinks for herself, but also for the rebellion, as she seems to be a major player in the cause. So how can she be such a wonderful ally for patriarchy? While this does partly have to do with her appearance, it also has to do with the fact that by the end of the movie she has become the perfect woman. Yes, Melina is the dark haired, dark skinned exotic prostitute, and she serves as a nice juxtaposition for the blond wife Lori, but the juxtaposition goes farther than looks. While Lori represents the real present (and nightmarish future) woman who has her own voice, Melina represents the real past of a certain kind of woman. Melina lives on Mars, a colonized planet, and is essentially considered a native--or at least treated as one. She thus serves as all dark native women did in the colonial periods of the last 5 centuries--as the exotic mistress who serves as no threat. Just as Mexican, Brazilian, Caribbean, and Indian women did in the past, Melina functions as the ideal women of this fantasy future: mysterious, dark, and dominated. This line of thinking, though, is broken a bit by the fact that when we first see her on Mars, she is not simply a sexual object; rather, she is gun- toting revolutionary who can certainly take care of herself. But how independent is Melina, really?


As I stated a moment ago, there is something more than looks that makes Melina even more desirable: She is completely created and controlled by men. In Total Recall, the character Melina is created on four separate occasions. First, Quaid creates her in the dream that opens the movie. She is then literally created as Quaid tells the doctors at Recall what his favorite qualities are in a woman, and her face shows up on the screen. Next, the supposedly real Melina is created on Mars (as a 'real' movie character). Finally Melina is molded once more in Cohegan's mind burning machine. This is perhaps the most telling of the creations, for here Melina and Doug have been strapped down into mind burning machines. Quaid is to become Howser once more, and Melina is to be made into a 'good woman.' Indeed, Cohegan says to her just before he turns on the machines, "We're having you fixed. You're going to be respectful, compliant, and appreciative--the way a woman should be." And while Quaid escapes before Howser can be re-placed, Melina remains locked in the machine a few seconds longer. When Quaid asks her if she is all right, Melina answers, "I'm not sure dear. What do you think?" Then she kisses him. Granted, the perpetrator of this act is also the villain of the movie, and Quaid fights to get both himself and her out of the machines, but without that machine intervention she would not be the perfect woman. Up until the mind altering, Melina had been relatively cold to Quaid. Simply from reading her statement, though we can see that Melina has been altered to some extent. While she is still the exotic prostitute, and she can still tote a gun and shoot bag guys, she now needs Quaid's assistance to make decisions--exactly the relationship power that patriarchy longs for. Over the course of the film she has been constructed and reconstructed until she had become the perfect woman.


While women are patriarchal "children" who are seen but not heard, minorities are "children" who are neither seen nor heard. Yes, the film does at first glance appear pro-minority, but what we must realize here is who exactly comprises that class of minorities. Strangely, the minority class here consists essentially of white mutants. The only non-whites represented total about six-- Melina, Benny the cab driver, one agency officer (the first to be shot), one secretary, and a couple of others in the margins of scenes that could possibly be non-white. It seems okay for Melina to be there, for she is a beautiful, promiscuous woman, molded by white males to serve a sexual purpose. Benny sticks out in the amount of screen time he receives, but he is unveiled as an evil traitor when he kills Kuato, and is executed soon after. The only other references to non-whites in the film are billboards on earth that advertise Sony and other Japanese products. Thus in Total Recall we get the best of the racist patriarchal world: the technological advances of Japanese products without the Japanese. As the film tries to erase racial difference based on appearance, then, issues of race and nationality become more and more apparent, and seem that much more critical to the ideology of the film.


As Doug Quaid sits in his home and watches the news with his then wife Lori, we learn a few things important to the construction of the story behind the film. For one, the government is called "The Agency," and the United States is now a part of what is referred to as "The Northern Bloc." We also learn that Mars was colonized by the Northern Bloc "at tremendous expense" due to its abundant wealth of Tiberium, an ore helping the Northern Bloc conduct some great war on Earth. Once more, we have the year 2084 looking like Orwell's 1949 version of 1984. For one thing, "The Agency" is almost entirely too reminiscent of "Big Brother." Secondly, both stories mention a major war that is apparently going on, but seems to have absolutely no effect on any of the characters in the story. While the similarities with Orwell's 1984 do deserve mention, there is I believe a bigger implication that can be derived from these tidbits. With the complete absence of most all non-whites, it seems that one could assume that the Northern Bloc consists of the United States and Canada, and that this Bloc is at war with some Southern or Eastern Bloc, which most likely is comprised of China and other non-white countries. Still, however, one finds it hard to believe that the absence of blacks and Hispanics would as great as it is (even in the Northern Bloc) considering the recent rise in the population percentage of those two groups, and the decline in the Caucasian percentage. What's more, current world population projections show that 93% of the world's population growth will likely come from developing countries (i.e. non-white countries), and so I am left wondering how powerful a United States/Canada union would be (see Nygaard). One would have to assume, then, that the Northern Bloc would have to be fully integrated with non-white subjects. So where are they? One might assume that they left Earth and the (former) United States to pursue a better life on Mars, but even Mars is dominated by Caucasians. And if in no other place, one would expect at least to see a non-white driving the stereotypical taxicab, but even these non-whites have been expelled, replaced by computerized white dummies.


As I have said, the film only shows a small handful of non-whites on Mars. In the film, Mars recalls and represents a historically great period for white males--the Colonial period. But as great as this Imperial period may have been for white males, they learned the tough lesson that once the Colonial period ended, they would have to actually co-exist with the subjects they once dominated. The postmodern and postcolonial movements brought with them marginal individuals who wanted to break from their confining social roles. The modernists' "rational organization of everyday social life" broke down, as minorities were going to college, women were working, and suddenly the white man was not all that powerful (Habermas, 103). Thus what was once a structured modern world becomes a chaotic postmodern world for patriarchy. So why would the makers of Total Recall want to reproduce this Colonial period? I am not sure that they necessarily did, for the colonizing forces in the film (Cohegan and his troops) are also the villains of the film. As I stated earlier, the film actually looks rather anti-Imperial, for the rebels defeat the evil colonizing forces, and we as audience deem this as a positive outcome. And this makes sense. What I argue, though, is that Total Recall does not reject Imperialism necessarily due to how evil it is, but partly due to the fact that it realizes the repercussions of a postcolonial world. But let's not give Total Recall the award for best anti-Imperial film just yet, for as I said in my introduction, each step forward results in two steps in the opposite direction.


While the film does act out anti-imperialist tendencies, it also places the world in an Imperial period, one in which the white male is privileged, and one in which the white male is in a position to save the world. Also, the film completely eliminates the non-white colonial subjects and creates new ones out of undesirable whites. Thus they seem to be taking the position that an undesirable white is at least better than an undesirable African, Indian, or Jamaican. What the makers of the film have done is to recall the past, plant it in future, and maintain patriarchal power while relieving themselves of the failed aspects of colonialism. They see what postcolonial periods have done to the once knowable gender and racial roles, and they want to avoid a recurrence. Their answer, then, is to replace one white male with another, and in doing so to simply hand over the power to speak for women and minorities from the bad guy to the hero. What this does, then, is transform the ideological battle against patriarchy into a battle between two types of patriarchal males--one of whom happens to be labeled "good." Thus, as we will see, the marginal subjects are simply a token piece in the struggle.


On Mars, many white colonists were transformed into mutants due to poor domes in Mars' harsh atmosphere. With the absence of any other racial groups, these mutants essentially become the racial "other." So as I stated, while Mars will have to deal with a post-colonial period, it will do so with subjects that are at least at their foundation 'white,' which seems in this film to be a major genetic difference. So now we have the evil Imperial leader, the hero, and the helpless subjects, and they are all white. Now race has taken on a new form, and white mutants become the helpless "natives" who need the saving grace of some heroic white male. Enter Quaid.


With Douglas Quaid, we have essentially a heroic, hyper-masculine Western cowboy. He is from head to toe a modern hero. Granted, it seems that we are asked to question reality and identity, for Quaid is often unsure of whether the world that he is in really exists, and if it does, what identity he has in that world. Is he the good Quaid, or the evil Howser? This all seems rather postmodern, as we can see it as what Hutcheon calls "...a questioning of what reality can mean and how we can come to know it" (34). These questions are seemingly never answered, and seem to reinforce the postmodern ideology. But in a way the questions are answered. During the course of the film, Quaid takes the weight of the world (two worlds, really) upon his shoulders, and through great struggle not only finds himself, but also saves the helpless mutants in their dying moments--a white man's burden, if you will. I argue the story of Doug Quaid is not about constructed identity at all, but rather about a man going through a struggle in which he finds out who his true self is. This is no new story line by any means; rather, it is the story of the modern hero. Thus there are not multiple realities; rather, there is one eternal truth and a lot of false worlds. As the modern hero then, we expect Doug to have an inward struggle, find himself, and win. Not surprisingly, he does.


And so we have the struggle between good and evil, with both representing some form of patriarchy. The difference between the good and evil seems mostly to be appearance, with the evil looking old (Cohegan) and bald (Richter), representing the dying patriarchal system and a weak phallus. The embodiment of the renewed patriarchy is the good looking, hyper-masculine Quaid, whose phallic power can even withstand repeated kicks to the phallic palace. Thus as we see patriarchy crumble with Quaid's victory, we also see a new patriarchy born in which a white male still speaks for women and minorities. The new patriarchy is even stronger, for we like this patriarchal figure--he is strong, hyper-masculine, and most importantly a hero. And so we see Quaid, in control of his woman, and acting as savior of the helpless, and we can see the Total Recall of the white male patriarchy.



Works Cited and Consulted


Habermas, Jurgen. "Modernity-An Incomplete Project."  Postmodernism: A Reader.

 Thomas Docherty, ed. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. 98-109.

Harvey, David.  The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of

 Cultural Change.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.  39-65.

Hutcheon, Linda.  "Postmodernist Representation."  The Politics of Postmodernism.

 New Accents.  London: Routledge, 1989.  31-61.

Huyssen, Andreas.  After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture,

 Postmodernism.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.  181-221.

 Nygaard, David F. "World Population Projections, 2020."  2020 Vision Brief 5,

 October 1994.  Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research.

November 18, 1999. <>



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