By Johanna Isaacson
In 1977 Klaus Theweleit explored what he called “proto-fascist consciousness” by investigating the desires and values that lurked in the literature produced by members of the anti-communist, fascistic German paramilitary Freikorps of the Weimar era, whose brutal “male fantasies” lead up to the full blown Nazi culture of the 1930s. In this literature Theweleit finds a type who values, above all, his own masculine solidity and strength and lives to exorcise his buried desires for dissolution, which he externalizes as a feminine deluge that threatens to disintegrate his entire identity. Theweleit calls this type “the soldier male.” His work suggests that this consciousness was not exclusive to the Freikorps, but is shared by traditional masculinity seen in civilians.
This type of masculinity has never gone away, but we now see a pronounced resurgence in the visibility and activities of “soldier males.” The characteristics of the soldier male converge with contemporary diagnoses of “toxic masculinity” which, as Bryant W. Sculos argues, include:
hyper-competitiveness, individualistic self-sufficiency,…tendency towards or glorification of violence,… chauvinism…, misogyny…, rigid conceptions of sexual and gender identity and roles, heteronormativity,… entitlement to (sexual) attention from women, …objectification of women, and the infantilization of women.
Much of the violence aimed at vulnerable people in our society can be traced back to this type of consciousness. Mass shootings and car homicides have consistently been linked to the activities and ideologies of Men’s Rights Activists. Openly fascist and pro-racist demonstrations of such groups as the Proud Boys are hopelessly entangled with the overtly misogynist ideology of these same groups. And these extremists are part of a logic that extends far beyond their insular milieus through the manosphere of “interconnected organizations, blogs, forums, communities, and subcultures.”
The new soldier male retains many of the subjective qualities outlined by Theweleit, but he must be seen in relation to the current socio-economic context in which the fear of an encroaching “feminine deluge” is tied to a contemporary logic of capital in which, as Nancy Fraser argues, feminized labor is increasingly essential and necessary, while at the same time devalued. What’s more, the feminization of labor and the threat of becoming surplus can in no way be contained within a distinct sphere belonging to women and femmes. With the rise of austerity and precarity and the fall of industrialization and the “male wage,” men are increasingly enlisted into performing feminized labor or cast out into feminized abjection.
The fantasy of a discrete, masculine, productive, sphere associated with solidity and rationality, that can be contrasted to the feminine sphere of reproduction, pliability, and madness has become unsustainable. And this posits an intensified threat to the fantasy lives of new soldier males. Whereas this erosion of boundaries posed by current economic realities should lead to solidarity among precarious workers, instead, a reactive logic has been fortified. Following Alex Williams, Jason Read argues that “negative solidarity” arises among those who feel this threat. Masculine rigidity is intwined with an attachment to austere discipline, which leads to a detestation of those perceived to escape or elude this constraint, such as single black mothers, migrants, and care workers. Negative solidarity, which shades into fascist consciousness, provides an insidious capitalist solution to white male dissatisfaction in the sense that, as Max Horkheimer argues, the “psychic apparatus” of a large contingent of people is made to serve “only to interiorize or at least rationalize and supplement physical coercion.”[i]
With the logic of negative solidarity, wounded masculinity can vent its anger on the most vulnerable. Rather than giving himself to what Theweleit calls “the red tide” of the feminized sphere, the new soldier male doubles down on his quest to dominate feminine forces within and without.
The new soldier male not only renounces the category of woman and her perceived weaknesses and chaos, but also feminized activity. Specifically, the new soldier male rejects reproductive labor, work that feminist theorists of social reproduction such as Maya Gonzales and Jeanne Neton have tied to the concept of “abjection.” For Gonzalez and Neton, abjection is work that no one cares about, work that leads to a lack of self-worth, internalized by feminized and racialized people who have no choice but to pick up the slack. In fact, Gonzalez and Neton have argued that rather than divide labor into productive and reproductive spheres, these forms of work should be described as belonging to the “directly market-mediated sphere” (DMM) and “indirectly market-mediated sphere” (IMM) because the key differences between these two spheres is not what is done or where it is done, but the relationship of activities “to exchange, the market, and the accumulation of capital.” As capitalist crisis escalates, they argue, the state will abandon social reproduction or IMM, and yet these tasks will still need to be done. They will become unwaged and “abject,” done for free or done for private parties at low wages.
There is nothing objectively abject about the work that it takes to reproduce the bodies and emotions of those who engage in waged productive work, but historically this work has been made abject by capitalism to preserve hierarchies that divide workers and to create categories of labor which can be naturalized, devalued and purchased for cheap or gotten for free. Connecting abjection with feminized labor gives a new spin to the work psychoanalytic feminist scholars like Barbara Creed have done to explore the concept of abjection in relation to horror films.
Creed ties abjection in horror to the representation of patriarchal repulsion towards female bodies and excretions, including reproductive functions such as menstruation, childbirth, and menopause. Horror films are useful to feminists in diagnosing cultural and psychoanalytic fears of women’s bodies and the dissolution that comes with the pre-oedipal desire for an encompassing maternal connection. But Gonzalez and Neton’s work on abjection extends this definition of feminized, abject reproduction beyond the female body and psyche, to forms of care, labor, and activity that characterize the landscape of contemporary capitalist accumulation. Here, I want to argue that representations of feminized “madness” and excess in contemporary horror films takes on this extra weight, channeling male fears of merging with feminized abjection and precarity, and the desire for release from masculine strictures and isolation.
In sum, it has long been acknowledged that the figures of female monstrosity that populate horror films reveal the abjection of the feminine, but we can see in current horror films that depict “toxic masculinity” a turn to exploring the new soldier male as a monster formed in reaction to this feminine abjection. In films such as The Lighthouse, Burning, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Midsommar, The Invisible Man, Assassination Nation, and many others, we see the horrific damage that results when the new soldier male reacts violently to his fears of dissolution.
The 2019 film Daniel Isn’t Real, which depicts the disintegration of a gentle young man, Luke, who is possessed by his toxic alter-ego, Daniel, is an example of a film that illustrates horrific misogynist violence arising from a close connection to and desire for spaces and traits that have been assigned to the “feminine.” The film begins in a coffee shop, a space of feminized service labor, where a cute female barrista is praising another woman’s nails, demonstrating the feminine “frivolity” and “shallowness” that is targeted by Men’s Rights Activists and other contemporary misogynists. This scene of feminized service work and consumerism is disrupted and destroyed by a now all-too-familiar explosion of male violence, a mass shooting. The killer is only fleetingly shown, and has no seeming connection to the film’s protagonist.
While this anonymous slaughter is occurring, young Luke is in his home, watching his parents argue. The fight concerns Luke’s mother’s mental illness, and his father’s inability to live with her because of it. Luke’s mother, Claire, is immediately depicted as an abject figure familiar to the horror genre. She is the archetype of “the mad woman,” throwing dishes across the room and defending her right to her own neuro-atypicality. Her husband is threatening to leave but she still will not take her medication because, as she says, “I’m not me anymore when I take the medicine.” In feminist themed films we will see this maternal claim to autonomy as a cry of liberation. But Luke will inherit from his father the notion that his mother’s abject madness is something to be feared.
Throughout the film, Luke will be afraid that he has inherited his mother’s mental illness. Instead, I want to argue, his aberrant behavior is the result of his absorption of the current repulsion at female excess and abjection. His fantasy life, in the form of his imaginary friend, appears just as his father disappears. Daniel, then, is not a manifestation of his mother’s madness, but of his father’s rejection. And in this sense, the violence against women that we see throughout the film is a reaction to feminized madness and abjection rather than a symptom of it. This perhaps relates to Theodor Adorno’s argument that at the core of fascist subjectivity lies the figure of a “primal father.”[ii] In other words, the lens of “mental illness” as a category is not useful in thinking about the film. Instead, we must see that there is a war of consciousnesses, both of which are reacting to normative forms of assimilation to capitalist realities. Claire’s feminized madness is the abjection of those who are given no place in the system. Luke’s fantasy life is the irrational fascistoid hallucination of the soldier male, reacting to the perceived feminized forces that seek to invade and dissolve him.
The flight of his father coincides with Luke’s first encounter with violence against women. Running from his arguing parents, he stumbles onto the site of the mass shooting. On the steps of the coffee house, he sees the bloody body of a murdered woman. Just as this occurs, an older, bigger boy appears beside him and asks him if he wants to play. He agrees, and Daniel becomes his inseparable, imaginary friend.
With Daniel, a new kind of play is introduced into Luke’s life. We gather that previously Luke was drawn to feminized activities of care and creativity. He loves his grandmother’s dollhouse and he enjoys crafts. At one point, he makes an origami tea set and brings it to his depressed mother to comfort her. In short, at his core Luke desires the intimacy and care that are intwined with activities deemed “feminine.” With Daniel, though, play is always combat. Implements of household reproductive labor, such as brooms, become weapons, as Luke engages in endless swordplay with his imaginary friend.
Yet, despite Daniel’s efforts to “make a man” out of him, Luke, now the child of a single mother, is constantly in proximity to his desires for care and creativity. With the ebbing of such institutions as industrialization and the male family wage and the growth of single-motherhood, the barriers between masculine and feminine spheres are ebbing away, which, according to capitalist logic, is why the psychic walls between men and feminized behaviors must be fortified. Daniel is created to ensure that the desire for creativity and care can only manifest as a toxic parody that obliterates those same qualities. Daniel’s presence is the embodiment of a capitalist interdiction. Taboo identification with the mother must be bound tightly with self-hatred and self-immolation, figurative violence against the self as well as literal violence against women. The imaginary sword that replaces Luke’s feminized games is actually a broom, but is also a means to erase that broom and the domestic care that comes with it.
The imaginary friend that takes over Luke’s life appears to others as madness, but it is actually a means to disavow feminized mental illness. This maternal excess signals both vulnerability that the soldier male wishes to avoid and the prospect of overcoming isolation that he secretly desires. This contradiction plays out in Luke’s first act of violence against a woman. Daniel encourages Luke to “help” Claire by pouring all of her psychiatric medications into a smoothy that he prepares in the kitchen blender. With this act, Luke’s desire to be a nurturing caretaker, that is- to enter the realm of the feminized, is transformed into an act of violence. The pills that help his mother are turned into a means of hurting her, the domestic equipment meant to reproduce life is converted into a weapon.
Following this murder attempt, Claire and Luke manage to banish Daniel into a dollhouse that had belonged to Luke’s grandmother, a symbol of feminized safety and domesticity. But when Luke enters his college years, the contradictions of prescribed masculine behavior re-emerge, and so does his false friend. He is stuck in a dorm room with a conventionally toxic roommate who talks about women as sluts or virgins. He is expected to and wants to approach women, but the thought of it dizzies him. At a party he spots an attractive woman across the room, but as he approaches her, he faints, envisioning the people leaning over to care for him as x-rayed monsters.
In response to Luke’s fears, his psychiatrist, Dr. Braun, suggests that perhaps he should embrace his creativity and visions. He says, “maybe you shouldn’t be afraid of your imagination.” In other words, Luke should integrate himself, and accept his feminine side. However, Dr. Braun doesn’t realize that Luke’s madness, if that’s what it is, has adapted to the requisites of the new soldier male. Luke’s schizoid consciousness is not a sign of imagination, but a defense against it. It is a form of armor, a sword and shield developed to fortify the boundaries between masculine and feminine spheres in uncertain times.
Luke’s alter-ego does not embrace creativity and sensitivity, but uses it to manipulate women. He does not fulfill Luke’s innate need for friendship and intimacy, but contorts this vulnerability into a brutal personification of invulnerability. When Luke tells Dr. Braun about a redacted version of his childhood “play” with Daniel, the doctor is sympathetic to his need for friendship. Luke responds, “Well, I must have had some pretty sick needs.” The soldier male does not rid himself of desire, but rather estranges and externalizes those desires, projecting them as a sickness that must be combatted.
The appearance of Daniel makes the qualities of the new soldier male palpable. His stylization as a slick, handsome, but sneering, dead-eyed yuppie seems to cite the serial killer Patrick Bateman who drives the themes of Mary Harron’s horror film, American Psycho. That film explicitly links the turn to finance capitalism with male fear of feminization. As a financier who is valued only for his appearance, Bateman has lost any connection to the notions of usefulness and productivity that are seen to define the masculine sphere. In reaction to this perceived obsolescence, he kills those who he sees as weak and feminized to the musical accompaniment of eighties pop hits whose lyrics reflect the merciless individualism of the era.
On top of this reference to American Psycho, the actor cast as Daniel, played by Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of Arnold, is also an index of contemporary masculinity. Luke is played by Miles Robbins, son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, celebrities famous for their liberalness and egalitarianism. He is slight, floppy haired, and somewhat effete in appearance. That his alter-ego is descended from the republican politician and two dimensional star of countless action movies, whose huge body typically appears more machine than flesh, as in his archetypal role as The Terminator, is another way of showing the fantasy construction of the new soldier male. Here, the current reality of everyday life is obliterated in the monumental shadow of a nostalgic symbol of “pure” masculinity. He represents the reaction to the “red flood” of femininity described by Theweleit as such:
“Now, when we ask how that man keeps the threat of the red flood of revolution away from his body, we find the same movement of stiffening, of closing himself off to form a “discrete entity.” He defends himself with a kind of sustained erection of his whole body.”[iii]
If the fear of the soldier male is sensuousness, what Theweleit describes as: “the soft, fluid, and ultimately liquid female body which is a quintessentially negative ‘Other’ lurking inside the male body” then men like Schwarzenegger, represent its antidote, “the hard, organized, phallic body devoid of all internal viscera which finds its apotheosis in the machine—the ‘utopia of the fascist warrior.’”[iv]
A third citation in the casting of this film completes the picture of the capitalist ideology behind the contemporary construction of the new soldier male. Luke’s main “love interest,” Cassie, is played by Sasha Lane, the star of the 2016 film American Honey. In American Honey she plays a young woman trying to survive in a world of deep abjection and precarity. The film opens as we see her dumpster diving to care for two younger siblings who are neglected by her sexually abusive and unemployed stepfather. It follows her as she joins a traveling group of magazine sellers, who must live out of their van and motels as they surf waves of precarity and poverty. The film is episodic, going nowhere along with its cast of economic and social outcasts.
The casting of Sasha Lane as Cassie signifies Luke’s fear of precarity as continuous with his fear of the feminine. Cassie, who is also a woman of color, is the overdetermined object of Luke’s love and attachment as well as his violence and refusal, showing both the new soldier male’s nearness and reaction to feminized precarity. She is what Theweleit calls the “red flood” which threatens the soldier male with dissolution, the “flow” that must be encoded as lethal evil rather than pleasure.[v] More than the enemy without, she is the precarious enemy within. The new soldier male must constantly reassert himself as a “mechanized body… erected against the female self within.”[vi]
In his “nice guy” visage, Luke is drawn to Cassie’s creativity and independence. And his clever alter-ego does not try to dissuade him from that desire. Instead, Daniel instrumentalizes the appealing qualities of the “nice guy,” turning every human impulse Luke has into a means to manipulate and trap his prey. When Cassie goes to Luke’s house to return a wallet, Daniel encourages Luke to present himself as a vulnerable artist, but this is clearly part of a scheme familiar to cynical pick-up artists. At the same time Daniel urges Luke to present himself as sensitive and bohemian, he also insists that he reward Cassie with money, showing that all interactions with women must be calculating and transactional.
From here, Luke’s “skills” with women progress. He is no longer shy— he is able to communicate and to express a vulnerable, imaginative side that is attractive to women. But Daniel ensures that anything that could approximate healthy confidence and sociality is absolutely wielded to a cynical, manipulative performance aimed at getting sex and refusing intimacy. During Cassie and Luke’s first sexual encounter, Luke uses the language of active affirmation and focuses on Cassie’s sexual pleasure, showing that the path to the intimacy he craves is a feminist approach to love and sex. But Daniel looks on with a sneer, indicating that this attitude will not be allowed to continue, and instead Luke’s apparent “feminism” will be used as a stepping stone to abuse. This will not only damage the women in Luke’s life, but himself as well. As Adorno argues in The Authoritarian Personality, fascist individuals often go along with ideas that are against their own material interests. Driven by deeply emotional needs for belonging, the new soldier male undermines his own chances for happiness. This explains Theweleit’s observation about the sexuality of soldier males, which is never found in reciprocity, but is rather a sexuality “directed against persons.”[vii] In the literature of the Freikorps, men at once try to push women away and to penetrate them. The only way “both compulsions” can “find satisfaction” is “in the act of killing.”[viii]
Following this, Luke betrays the intimacy he has built with Cassie to pursue a random woman at a party, Sophie. Later, he turns what could have been consensual sex with Sophie into a violent episode and gets kicked off of campus. This is the first time that we see Daniel physically take over Luke’s body. The possession is depicted as a melting dissolve into amorphousness. Both men’s faces lose their shape and Daniel’s skin morphs into Lovecraftian tendrils that penetrate Luke. In Theweleit’s understanding of the soldier male, this penetration is both the worst fear and the deepest desire of the soldier male. Because of his ambivalence he directs his desire for fusion to his “soldier-brother-mirror.”[ix]
Analyses and reviews of Daniel Isn’t Real see the film as a depiction of the horrors of mental illness, and the director Adam Egypt Mortimer confirms this in interviews. And yet, no cogent message about mental illness can be found in the film, and in this way, symptomatic of the necessity to repress the dynamics of power and dominance behind ideologies of mental illness. By having Luke be both mentally ill and “really” possessed by the demon Daniel, the film seems to be stigmatizing and destigmatizing mental illness at once, rather than making the distinction that I have been drawing out, between mental illness as a refusal of assimilation to normative capitalist, patriarchal logic and the consciousness of the soldier male, that turns his fear of dissolution into worship of the very authoritarian forces that dissolve him. While feminized madness oozes from the wounds inflicted on the feminized, precarious body, threatening to encompass and liquify rigid structures of power, the new soldier male replaces his own tender, bruised skin with armor, and becomes a willing enforcer of authoritarian terror.
The film’s symptomaticity is echoed in real world accounts of MRA killers like Elliot Rodgers and Alek Minassian, whose misogynist murder sprees have been analyzed through the lens of mental illness. Yet on some level, the actions of the new soldier male are the exact opposite of mental illness, as it should be conceived. As many have pointed out, mentally ill people are much more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators. More than this, many aspects of mental illness are reactions to the brutality of capitalism and, as Mark Fisher argues, “are best understood – and best combatted – through frames that are impersonal and political rather than individual and ‘psychological.” Thirdly, as Barbara Creed and Julia Kristeva imply, the very concept of madness stems from a need to purge and abject feminized ideas and behavior that threaten to dissolve the patriarchal order.
On the other hand, the behavior of the new soldier male is meant to reassert and fortify that order, even as the pull of that which lies beyond the masculine carapace is strong. It is for this reason that Daniel’s “craziness” takes the form of attacking feminized others who are labeled “crazy.” Like our culture at large, the film can’t differentiate between masculine aggression and abject female madness and so it finds itself in an impossible tangle, which both blames and exonerates Luke for his misogyny.
Yet, although it is symptomatic, the film does show that feminized madness is in opposition to masculinized aggression. Claire is stigmatized due to her mental illness even as she seeks to help her son. When Luke visits her at an asylum, she senses his possession and tries to alert the people around her, but they dismiss her warnings because of her perceived madness. On the other hand, Luke’s toxic behavior is not “mad,” it is destructive, especially toward women and people of color, as when he tries to force Sophie to listen to him after he has assaulted her, insisting that he has the right to “apologize.” Aggression turns to murder when Dr. Braun tries to summon non-western knowledge to combat Luke’s possession by what he diagnoses as “fear and loneliness.” In response to Dr. Braun’s untenable idea that Luke is an emotional person who needs others, Daniel completely takes over and summarily slaughters the doctor, who is not incidentally a Black man.
By making Daniel a “real” demon that Dr. Braun can see, the film seems to acknowledge that this monster which makes men turn into mass killers, rapists, incels, and pick-up artists, is a real social force that shouldn’t be grouped with or excused as mental illness. Yet the film seems to retract this acknowledgement by sustaining the idea that Luke’s problem is somehow equivalent to or inherited from his mother’s mental illness. In upholding this contradictory duality, the film wants to preserve the idea that Luke remains a “nice guy” even as he assaults and murders.
The lack of reflection about the nature of the new soldier male is evident in the film’s resolution which has the “nice guy” Luke fight his way out of a feminized dollhouse to battle it out with Daniel, both of them wielding brooms that have been turned into swords. In killing Daniel, Luke kills himself, implying nothing and everything at once. If we see Daniel as a product of schizophrenia, then the film is implying that mental illness should be stigmatized and that the only solution is suicide. If Daniel is meant to represent a material incarnation of patriarchy, then the film seems to assert that we must nurture and perhaps coddle the latent “nice guys” within the new soldier male, so that they can battle that force within themselves, rather than focus on the problem on a social level and acknowledge its roots. If Daniel is not an allegory at all but simply a demon that hops from body to body, generating chaos, then all the themes that have been raised by the film have been red herrings, and the whole project was just an empty generic exercise or a tired reassertion of good vs. evil dichotomies.
The film does make sense, though, if we read it symptomatically. The rise of the new soldier male cannot be made sensible because it belongs to the political unconscious. This figure operates according to the gendered logic of capitalism that cannot be spoken, lest it implode the system as a whole. The unspoken desire that lies at the heart of the new soldier male’s repressive consciousness is a vision of gender abolition. And that revelation would turn the whole vocabulary of madness and sanity on its head.
Author bio: Johanna Isaacson writes academic and popular pieces on horror and politics. She is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College and a founding editor of Blind Field Journal. She is the author of Stepford Daughters: Weapons for Feminists in Contemporary Horror from Common Notions Press and The Ballerina and the Bull (2016) from Repeater Books. She has published widely in academic and popular journals including, with Annie McClanahan, the entry for “Marxism and Horror” in The Sage Handbook of Marxism (2022). She runs the Facebook group, Anti-capitalist feminists who like horror films.
[i] Horkheimer, Max. “Authority and the Family.” Critical Theory: Selected Essay Max Horkheimer, 1995, 56.
[ii] Adorno, Theodor. “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda.” The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Edited by Andrew Arato and Gebhardt, Continuum, 1997, 124.
[iii] Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies Volume 1: women floods bodies history, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, 244.
[iv] Rabinboch, Anson and Jessica Benjamin, “Forward,” Male Fantasies Volume 2: male bodies: psychoanalyzing the white terror, University of Minnesota Press, 1978, xix
[v] Theweleit, Volume 1, 263.
[vi] Rabinboch and Benjamin, Volume 2, xix.
[vii] Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies Volume 2: male bodies: psychoanalyzing the white terror, University of Minnesota Press, 1978, 61.
[viii] Theweleit, Volume 1, 196.
[ix] Rabinboch and Benjamin, Volume 2, xxii