Junior: social crisis & cycles of history
Author: Piers Hunt
Observe how all things are continually born of change; teach yourself to see that Nature’s highest happiness lies in changing the things that are, and forming new things after their kind. Whatever is, is in some sense the seed of what is to emerge from it. Nothing can become a philosopher less than to imagine that seed can only be something that is planted in the earth or in the womb.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The aim of this essay is to prove that the film Junior (1994) marks a turning point in history at least as important as the sacking of Rome in 410 AD by Gothic barbarians lead by Alaric. It will also draw the obvious comparison between Alaric the Goth and the character of Dr. Hesse in the film, played by Arnold Schwarznegger, as agents of change forcing revolution on civilisation as a whole.
Arnold Schwarznegger first rose to film prominence with the lead role in Conan the Barbarian (1981), in which he plays a barbarian warrior who battles evil through his strength and skill with a sword. His subsequent films were action movies continuing in the same violent, masculine vein, notably Terminator (1984), Commando (1985) and Predator (1987). Twins (1988) marked a departure from the action hero format, and showed both Schwarznegger’s versatility as a comic actor and his interest in scientific change as a catalyst in society as a whole. Twins saw Schwarznegger teamed for the first time with Danny Devito, and the pair went on to star again in the classic satire Junior.
Junior is the story of two doctors, Alexander Hesse (Schwarznegger) and Larry Arbogast (Devito) who have discovered a new fertility drug that reduces the risk of miscarriage. Their project is shut down just as they are ready to start testing the drug on a human. Arbogast then convinces Hesse that he should be impregnated with a fertilised embryo for the purposes of the trial. However, “maternal” feelings stir Dr. Hesse’s breast, and he decides to carry the baby until birth, with truly hilarious consequences. Schwarznegger made his career on playing muscular action heroes, celebrating the destructive, barbarian part of the male psyche, while the mild Dr. Hesse is far from a masculine character. As the pregnancy continues, Dr. Hesse exhibits more and more stereotypically female attributes, finally spending the last quarter of the film wearing a dress. And yet is Dr. Hesse really so opposite a character, or is this the barbarian come in a different guise? It can be argued that Schwarznegger’s role in the film Junior represents the destroyer of the old world and the agent of revolution.
The characters move through flat, beige, unchanging world, a timeless America. The society the film portrays is bland, safe and complacent in its permanence. It is the status quo. Even the musical score, composed by James Newton Howard, is carefully crafted to be bland, forgettable, and eternal. The significance of the scientists work is not immediately apparent, but when Dr. Hesse decides to carry his child to term it is clear that this has far reaching consequences for their entire world. By this decision he has quietly rendered gender roles obsolete. The film serves as an ironical prophecy of the huge changes our society must go through, and soon. The human genome has been mapped, animal cloning has become commonplace, how long before the first human clone? Meanwhile computer science is fast approaching the time when a truly artificial intelligence is no longer the realm of science fiction. It is clear that soon it will not take a man and a woman to make a life in quite the same way, with huge consequences for our family structures, our relationships within society, even the way we view ourselves. The implications in terms of personal freedom and the control an individual has over their body are vast and unpredictable. Entirely new notions of what it means to be male or female will be required. We are facing what is arguably the greatest change that the culture of Western hemisphere has seen since the fall of the Roman Empire.
By the 5th century AD the Roman Empire was hard pressed by both civil war and by waves of barbarians migrating from the north and east, but there was no reason to think that the Roman world would not survive, in fact there was no reason to think that the empire which had lasted for more than half a millennium would not continue indefinitely. However, by the end of the century the empire was gone. When the last emperor of the west, Augustus Romulus, abdicated in 476 AD, he was little more than a figurehead, ruling an ever-shrinking territory in northern Italy. The medieval period had begun, bringing with it the pattern of nations, languages and identities that we see in Europe today. For the last generation of imperial citizens, the turning point that they would look back on as a bygone golden era and the day the rot set in, was the sack of the city of Rome itself by Alaric the Goth in 410 AD.
By this period Rome was neither the richest nor the most strategically important city in the Empire. The capital had moved to the fortress of Ravenna in northern Italy, while the great and ancient cities of the Asian provinces, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria eclipsed Rome’s wealth. It is clear that Rome’s fall would not signal the physical end of empire. The vast majority of Roman citizens had never even seen the Eternal City. What then made the sack of Rome so important? What prompted St. Jerome to write of Alaric’s triumph: “The Roman Empire is beheaded; in the one City, the whole world dies” . The Romans’ social status, their cultural identity, and their very sense of selves flowed from citizenship in the eternal city. To see it sacked by a barbarian horde was an attack on their understanding of who they were. When Alaric defiled the symbolic centre of the empire the ties binding the population into the common imperial identity were loosened. It was time for change.
What has all this to do with us, the collapse of an empire a millennium and a half ago? The histories of all the nations of the west begin with the end of Rome. And Rome is still here. It is no coincidence that every would-be conqueror of Europe has done so under a Roman eagle banner, from Napoleon to Hitler. Nor that in the USA the seat of government is a Senate House on a Capitol Hill, as it was in Rome. The multifarious pressures acting on the Late Empire may help us understand the stresses on our current civilisation. Many reasons contributed to Rome’s eventual collapse, from civil strife, the pressure of barbarian invaders, and the sheer logistics of administering a vast empire. Thomas Malthus said that there is a tendency for populations to increase at a geometric rate whilst food supply can only increase at an arithmetic rate. As a prosperous society tends towards overpopulation it can no longer feed itself. Or, as Gibbon put it more poetically,
“Prosperity ripened the principle of decay…. And as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric [of the Roman empire] yielded to the pressure of its own weight.”
There is no doubt that we are living in the most prosperous era of our civilisation, and that the pressures on our society are huge and diverse, from overpopulation and food supply to our impact on the environment and global warming. Meanwhile our ever-increasing level of technological advancement promises to alternatively save or damn us. What are our artificial supports, the major symbols of our society? Junior homes in on perhaps the most potent and primal of them all, the relationship between child and parent.
As Alaric attacked the symbolic heart of the empire then, so does the character of Dr. Hesse shake the foundations of our society now, in a strange echo of the Roman era. While satirical nature of the film is interesting as satire was the only literary art the Romans claimed for themselves , Junior alsoserves as a warning. Schwarznegger is telling us that our civilisation can no longer continue under its current guise. The catalysts are often unseen, but dramatic changes are coming for society, in the biggest upheaval the west has seen since the fall of the Roman Empire. The significance of this monumental film is absolutely staggering.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Penguin Classics, 2004
Edward Gibbon, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, abridged and illustrated, PRC Publishing ltd, 2000
Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, Flamingo, 2003
Tom Holland, Rubicon, Abacus, 2004
S Hornblower & A Spawforth, Oxford Companion to Classical Civilisation, Oxford University Press, 1998
John Morris, The Age of Arthur, Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1973
David Jary & Julia Jary, Dictionary of Sociology, 2nd Ed, Harper Collins, 1995
Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Penguin Classics, 1985
John Pym ed., Time Out Film Guide, 14th Ed, Time Out, 2006
Conan the Barbarian, John Milius, 1981
The Terminator, James Cameron, 1984
Commando, Mark Lester, 1985
Predator, John McTiernan, 1987
Twins, Ivan Reitman, 1988
Junior, Ivan Reitman, 1994
Marcus Aurelius, book 4, verse 36
Tom Holland, preface, page xxii
Hornblower & Spawforth, page 636