Hulk Smash Wimpy White Man Who is Also Hulk: Reasserting Masculine Authority through Masochism

Curator's Note

The Incredible Hulk debuted on CBS November 4, 1977 and would run for 87 episodes until 1982, followed by three made for TV movies, which appeared in the late 1980s. Adapting the Marvel Comics superhero/monster series to the cultural and televisual landscape of the 1970s involved several key revisions to the character’s origins. The original Hulk character was born in 1962 when scientist Bruce Banner, working on a Gamma bomb for the US military, exposes himself to radiation while saving the life of Rick Jones, a hippy who has carelessly wandered onto the testing site. As much a symbol of heroic sacrifice as nuclear threat, this Hulk became a countercultural hero that brazenly took on the US military even as his alter ego continued to cow to its authority.

In the TV series, David Banner is still a scientist working with Gamma rays who is transformed into a super strong raging green monster with a heart of gold, but, importantly, his motivations for becoming the Hulk have been radically transformed. Banner is driven to experiment with Gamma rays following the death of his wife in a car accident, in which he was unable to muster the physical strength to pry open the door in order to save her. Their romance, depicted in a dream sequence at the beginning of the pilot episode, initially seems idyllic, with Banner clearly epitomizing a softer, gentler, domesticated form of masculinity (he even hems her pants). The dream quickly becomes a nightmare, however, once the accident occurs. As viewers, we are cued to recognize these earlier images as commenting on Banner’s ineffectiveness in rescuing his wife, suggesting that he embodies a failed form of masculinity. This failure drives him to find a way to unleash the rage within.

Not only does this Hulk’s origin reveal anxieties over hegemonic masculinity’s supposedly diminished power, but it also seems to react against the inverse increased power of non-whites and women. Significantly, Banner ups the dosage of Gamma radiation after learning how a black mother was able to rescue her son from a trapped car under similar circumstances. His rage at her succeeding where he failed is palpable.

So, is The Incredible Hulk a reactionary text that seeks to re-inscribe traditional gendered and racialized power hierarchies? Not entirely. One of the fascinating bits about the series was that it focused primarily on Banner’s attempts to cure himself of the Hulk mutation or shield society from his uncontrollable rage. The series followed a kind of masculinity-on-the-run formula that would become popular in the 1980s (The A-Team, Knight Rider), in which Banner stumbled into adventures as he wandered from town to town. While the Hulk came in handy fighting the villain/disaster of the week, Banner’s inability to control the monster inevitably forced him to keep moving on. In unlocking the power within, men like Banner found they could not control it and so, for the good of society, willingly abandoned their authority and purposely marginalized themselves.

The 1970s Banner embodied what David Savran has called “reflexive sadomasochism,” where masculinity validated its power by turning against itself. “The individual subject is split into a sadistic half and a masochistic half… No longer having others on whom to inflict his power and his pain with impunity, the male subject began to turn against himself and to prove his mettle by gritting his teeth and taking his punishment like a man” (175-176). This, in turn, allowed television audiences to have it both ways, enjoying fetishized images of machismo and brutish violence while also empathizing with Banner’s continuous efforts to rid himself of his monstrous excesses. “[In] reconstruct[ing] masculinity in the ruins of Cold War culture…the ‘macho’ man [is transformed] into a spectacle in the hope that his self-inflicted pain will redeem that heroism which a cynical culture finds both embarassing and irresistably alluring” (204)

Comments

Elana Levine's picture

Oh. My. God. I love '70s

Oh. My. God. I love ’70s TV. I thought I’d said all I wanted to about it until this week. But there is just so much fascinating stuff going on when it comes to masculinity, as Avi’s example and comments illustrate so beautifully. Thanks, everyone, for a very thought-provoking week.

Joe Wlodarz's picture

Another great clip---and

Another great clip–and yeah, the opposition set up between a disempowered white man and a hyperempowered black mother (!) is key here and certainly seems indicative of many of the conflicts/anxieties/fantasies about race in late ’70s America. And as with most ’70s images of masculinity–we’re of course dealing with a prominent ambivalence in relation to conventional macho manhood. And yet, the Lou Ferrigno/Arnold Schwarzenegger connection in Pumping Iron (1978?) suggests that however traditional masculinity could be interrogated, reconfigured, or simply denied in late ’70s TV and film, there was typically also a lingering desire for the return of the repressed–preferably in a newly “pumped up” body.

Greg Oguss's picture

"70s television"...what

70s television”…what constitutes 1970s television and/or what constitutes the 1970s are probably the 2 most important questions for cultural historians who interrogate the artifacts of this era. Todd Boyd argues (in 2007s The Super Fly 70s) that unlike the Boomers (who were shaped by the culture of the 40s and 50s), everyone who grew up in the 80s has been molded by 1970s culture. So its a good idea to closely examine what these terms mean. All of the clips (except mine) are allied w/ the “soft-headed” leadership of the Carter era when the US suffered setbacks (domestically and internationally). They’re also TV clips, historically viewed as a low-cult medium, aligned w/ the feminine sphere. Which is fairly significant for masculinity studies. Philip Jenkins suggests 2 distinct periodizations for the 70s: the early 70s as part of the 60s counterculture revolution and the late 70s as a conservative counterrevolution. In essence, he argues that Reagan joined a revolution “already in progress,” which is why these TV clips from the late 70s depicting a “soft” masculinity seem in step w/ the Carter era and the dark neo-noir Taxi Driver seems a summation of what Robin Wood terms the American Nightmare. A useful periodization of the AM could be 1967-75, roughly the reign of the New Hollywood cinema (from Bonnie and Clyde to the shift toward a blockbuster mentality w/ Jaws).

The TV side of the equation is no less complex. Boyd suggests that TV was partially responsible for death of blaxploitation circa 74, w/ Get Christie Love and the TV version of Shaft draining the energy from the films, which studio execs thot had run their course at any rate. Tho Christine Acham (and Boyd) argue that the early to mid-70s was a time of Black Revolution on TV (Flip Wilson, Good Times, Sanford and Son, Soul Train). The integrated ghetto shows like Chico and the Man and the White Shadow also capitalized on this trend. By the late 70s and early 80s, as Boyd mentions, a new mindset had taken over, w/ Diff’rent Strokes the more permissable representation of Black life and Richard Pryor reduced to starring in The Toy.

I think “TV masculinity” vs. “film masculinity” or even “70s masculinity” are fairly reductive and not particularly useful terms. Tho thinking through these questions has been helpful. Thanks everyone.

Peace

Allison McCracken's picture

Great to see this show

Great to see this show again. I remember it very well, and what I always loved about it was how profoundly sad Banner was; his grief over his wife was then compounded by a medical error, making him unable to achieve either personal happiness or social power and acceptance. I loved the personal is political aspect of Banner’s character, which I must say paralleled that of the heroes in Centennial, who are also unable to save their wives from early deaths, just as they are unable to prevent the destruction of Native Americans. I also loved how creating the Hulk (Banner’s attempt to “pump up”) proved to be the wrong solution to Banner’s feelings of impotence, and how the program showed he could never escape from the emotional and social consequences of his bad decisions (this program really turned the screws: he had a second wife died on him as well, as I recall). While I agree with all of your insightful comments about the racial/gender anxieties that are clearly operating here, to me, Banner was always the disillusioned, impotent white male mourning his own inadequacies and his foolish attempt at literal self-aggrandizement, trying largely in vain to make up for them. Fantasy masculinity, indeed.

I bring up my own childhood reading of the show because it does still very much inform my critical opinion about it; I cannot entirely detach it. I am curious about whether others have found themselves similarly affected by these childhood attachments as well, or whether that has not been a factor—certainly, our reception of these texts has varied in a number of ways (our choice of them alone suggests as much), and I wonder how much of that is due to our childhood exposures. I know that, as a precociously politicized child, these programs provided me with an alternative politics from that of my conservative small city. As such, they were formative texts for me, shaping my desires and my ideological leanings in ways that I will probably never be able to fully understand. But I’m sure that these childhood psychic integrations (if you will) is part of the reason my initial reading of The Hulk varies from others of you, although I can certainly see the value of your critiques and I appreciate this opportunity to share them.

Feedback

No one has reviewed this post… but you need to login to submit feedback