It’s a common adage that, in fiction, the monster is never just a monster. Horror, science fiction, and fantasy are the venues through which we explore ideas through metaphor and allegory, sometimes unintentionally through the lens of an audience who connects with a work’s themes in a manner specific to them. Such is the case with all manner of LGBTQ cinema, which has often relied on metaphor to smuggle queer themes into cinemas or been subject to queer interpretations after the fact. We at Birth.Movies.Death want to give those queer readings of genre films a voice. This is Queer Underworld.
Memetic instances of queer appropriation of horror figures have gotten something of a reputation as of late, ranging from the ironic adoption of the Babadook as a gay icon to the thirsty attraction to The Shape of Water’s fishman by people of all genders and orientations. This gives rise to a sort of puritanical counterargument, that identification with and romanticism of monstrosity by queer folks is a form of antiprogressivism, wherein queer folks see themselves as monsters and as therefore less than human. This seems, at least to me, to be an argument of false equivalency. Monstrosity seems to be implicitly defined by that argument as subhuman, undesirable, or evil, but that isn’t why queer folks (or almost anyone) identify with monsters in fiction. To see this phenomenon in action as a positive representation of gender nonconformity, we need only look to Wes Craven’s 1982 interpretation of Swamp Thing.
Now, Swamp Thing is not explicitly, and probably not even intentionally, about non-binary gender, but that does not mean that the film doesn’t go out of its way to code villainy and heroism based on gendered stereotypes. The film’s villainous paramilitary force is immediately shown in the context of masculine posturing, as a bunch of men play war games in the swamp and gun down a scientist. This is immediately followed up by the arrival of Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), a stark, scientific, feminine contrast to the film’s opening moments and militarized presence in the swamp. Along with Dr. Linda Holland (Nannette Brown), the forces of science and reason are divided along gendered lines against masculine, militaristic forces.
The obvious exception to this is Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise), who takes Alice on a walking tour of the swamp and reminisces about the beauty of plant life. He flirtatiously speaks about the merging of masculine and feminine to create new life, and praises plants for embodying both gendered aspects; plants do, after all, contain every part necessary for their reproduction, what we classify as both male and female genitalia. One gets the feeling that Holland brings this up because he relates to it in some way, that perhaps there is more feminine in him than his outwardly masculine appearance might suggest. He even says outright that sometimes he feels like a tree, which carries gendered connotations when paired with that observance of plant gender and what Alec will later become.
When Alec becomes exposed to the newly-discovered explosive plant growth formula, Alec transforms into something more than he once was: the Swamp Thing (Dick Durock). As he later reveals, the formula does not only encourage plant growth – it had thus far only been tested on wooden floorboards – but it amplifies the essence of whatever it touches. Alec’s essence just so happens to be plantlike and, if we take that speech about plant gender from before as evidence, not so purely masculine.
Swamp Thing is a marriage of masculine force and feminine compassion, a protector rather than an attacker. When Alice flees the paramilitary forces with the last-surviving notes detailing the Holland’s formula, it’s Swamp Thing who fends off the soldiers. But Swamp Thing is initially feared and shunned, not only by those he combats, but by Alice herself, who fails to understand how this radically different being could be the same flirtatious scientist she met only a day prior. This is how coming out can feel, particularly for those with the privilege of socially passing as straight or cisgender. As people come to see more of the real you, those people might shy away or treat you differently for it, and not even in ways that are directly confrontational or antagonistic. As Swamp Thing exemplifies, though, that reaction is ignorant to a person’s intrinsic value, their kindness, their convictions, their ability and desire to affect positive change. And yes, Swamp Thing exemplifies this by being a big rubbery monster who punches macho soldiers and crashes their speedboats, but underneath all that silliness is a genuine nugget of relatability, of embracing the multifaceted nature of oneself to be stronger as a result.
You can see this when contrasted against how Arcane, the villainous paramilitary leader, old-money aristocrat, and profiteering businessman exemplifying prototypical socially masculine roles, eventually transforms when exposed to the same formula as Alec. Instead of balanced and plantlike, Arcane transforms into a sort of wolfman, a creature often denoted as a hidden evil lurking in the guise of banal humanity. He chooses to wield a large broadsword, a phallic weapon with militaristic and patriarchically monarchical history. He combats Swamp Thing out of rage, greed, and vengeance, almost thoughtless in the wake of having his true self set loose by the formula. And Swamp Thing defeats him, not through preemptive attack, but through defensive grappling and use of swamp plants. Again, from a practical standpoint, this is just reflective of the limitations of the rubber suit the actor has to move around it, but thematically it reflects the defensive, compassionate nature of the character, qualities that the film has categorized as feminine in a character that is ostensibly and defaultingly referred to as masculine.
All these gendered interpretations linger in Swamp Thing’s subtext, and whether they are intentional or not is beside the point. People who don’t conform to cisgender masculinity or femininity can look to Swamp Thing, a fictional monster, as an allegorical representation of their own experiences and relate to it in a way that cisgender folks may not. This would be true even if Swamp Thing weren’t the hero of this story, since it’s merely an aspect to the character, and if you see that same aspect in yourself, there’s absolutely no reason not to celebrate its representation if you so wish.