There-occurring theme of passing as stated in our course introduction, isconsistent with stories of changeable identity attributes. These stories representedinstances of racism, classism, sexism/gender discrimination, and religiousdiscrimination, that is until the film Gattaca,represented acts of “genoism”, the discrimination against one’s genetic purity.The film Gattaca, is based on a dystopian society that is contingent ongenetic modification, or for lack of a better term, genetic perfection.Throughout the film, we see the journey of Vincent Freeman, a white man whostruggled to find a purpose for himself after being determined genetically defectiveand “In-valid” at a young age.
Gattacacan be seen as a paradox to the typical forms of identity passing we have seenbecause this passing narrative is highly heterosexual, masculine, and white.Some would question how a straight white man, the ultimate patriarch ofsociety, could be oppressed. Focusing on human imperfection, discrimination,and oppression, Gattaca analyzes the misperceptionsof personal identity and ultimately explores the issues that represent thestruggles, triumphs, and journey of Vincent Freeman. The masculine human body and imperfectionare major symbolic focal points in this film. From the opening sequence, we see”An enigmatic scene of minimalist formal beauty gradually becoming a display ofthe shedding of abject bodily detritus for the purpose of an elaborate disguise,”(Stacey 1851).
This scene can suggest that the man stripping down hisimperfections (skin), is also simultaneously stripping away his identity. Themale body is being scrutinized and used as a form of deception, for the visionof masculine perfection. Vincent Freeman and Jerome Morrow are used assignifiers of perfection and imperfection in the film. From a young age Vincentknew success had not been bred into his genetic makeup, and due to hisforeseeable health issues, had been labeled as “In-valid” and geneticallydefective. In hopes of becoming a space navigator one day, Vincent takes on thechallenge of becoming, or passing as, Jerome Morrow.
Jerome was once aprestigious athlete with a near perfect genetic makeup, who after attempting tocommit suicide, was left paralyzed and unable to live up to his geneticpotential, therefore leaving it to be filled by Vincent. Though it seems Jeromehas the ideal genetics to be successful, what drove Jerome to feel that heneeded to end his life? Imperfection. Being a competitive swimmer, Jerome knewhe was expected to live up to his nearly perfect genotype, but when he placedsecond at a competition, he believed he was no longer worthy of his genetics.Now living as a paraplegic, Jerome uses Vincent to carry out his “Valid” legacyby imitating perfection. “The preoccupation with visual perfection within aworld of genetic normativity is centrally elaborated through Vincent’s disguiseof Jerome and by displaying the exacting precision of disguise necessary toavoid genetic detection,” (Stacey 1854). Without the help of science andtechnology, the idea of perfection displayed in this film is nearly unattainableby natural means, can be deemed inhumane, and implies a societal standard ofhuman frailty. As with the other examples of passingnarratives we have seen, oppression is a common means for someone to pass oridentify as someone else in order to embrace some form of personal gain.
Thereare many obvious instances of oppression in Gattacathat are mostly focused on Vincent’s struggles. Some would say that isimpossible, how could a heterosexual white man ever be oppressed? This filmdiffers from the typical passing narrative, because it focuses on thediscrimination of genetics, something we are inherently born with, somethingthat cannot be changed physically like race or gender, but as the film shows,can be disguised. Being labeled as “Valid” or “In-valid” is the ultimatedetermination of a character’s potential. Due to his heart condition and other prevalenthealth issues, Vincent had been inadequate and shut out from the moment he wasborn. This had put a red flag on his shoulders, and had stopped him from pursuinghis dreams. “In-valids” are given menial, routine jobs that cannot be escaped,while “Valids” are free to live up to their fullest potential.
Vincent’s driveand motivation ultimately breaks the boundaries that determine his own success.”Gattaca explores Vincent’s masculinedrive and, in placing him outside the dominant eugenic values of society,invites us to invest in the success of his deception,” (Stacey 1861). One ofthe films strategic techniques in making Vincent the face of oppression, was byplacing him in an inferior position in which he would be able to free himselffrom. This speaks to the scope and perspective of Hollywood film, and thecommon argument of whitewashing the industry. There are various filmic elements thatrepresent oppression and determination in relation to the journey of VincentFreeman and Jerome Morrow. The use ofladder like objects and phrases like “borrowed ladder” suggest the idea ofsimultaneous advancement and descent.
This is explicitly shown in the scenewhere there is a long shot of Vincent standing at the top of the spiraling,double helix resembling, staircase, and Jerome is sitting in his wheelchair atthe bottom. “The DNA double helix, spiral design that is expressed in thestaircase at Jerome’s dwelling. The double helix represents the notion ofhierarchy, for each step of the ladder is either higher up or lower down,”(Clarke 191).
Ladders allow for mobility, and this applies to Gattaca, because as Jerome has seeminglymoved downward after his accident, Vincent has ascended up the ladder ofhierarchy. A vital turning point in Vincent’s journey against his struggles,takes place in the scene where he is shown taking the escalator, “Representinghis elevation to the position of Navigator in the Gattaca Corporation,” (Clarke191). Although stairs and ladders can be seen as an optimistic symbol forVincent and his ascent to his dreams, it is an obstacle and a symbol ofentrapment for Jerome. Vincent can now excel beyond what his genetics allowedhim to, while Jerome cannot move forward and get past it.
The ocean, water, and swimming are usedas reoccurring themes and motifs throughout the film. Water is figurativesymbol of transformation, which serves as a means for Vincent to find his ownidentity while conquering his oppression. Anton, Vincent’s “Valid” brother,serves as the antagonist. Unlike Vincent, Anton was worthy of their father’sname and has been entitled to a lifetime of success. When they were children,Vincent was challenged to a game of chicken, where the brothers competed to seewho could swim the farthest into the ocean. A high camera angle was used toshow Vincent suffering and his weakness in comparison to Anton, who was morephysically suited and equipped in this situation. This game of chicken is then repeatedmany years later and the outcome is reversed.
The ocean is the only naturalenvironment in the film, where Vincent can be free from the technological andsocietal standards that are forced up him. In this redemption scene, the brothersare the only subjects in the frame and is shot in from the same high angle asthe first swimming scene. In an exchanged conversation about when to turn backto shore, “Vincent ultimately proves superior to Anton because he is preparedto immerse himself completely in the ocean, in order to prove himself.
Antoncannot abandon his concern over how they are going to get back to shore,whereas Vincent ‘never saved anything for the swim back’,” (Hughes 36). Thisscene captures the breakthrough where Vincent’s character is no longer limitedto societal expectations and has finally tackled a firm grasp of hisindividuality. Not only did he prove himself superior, but at this moment his invaliditydid not define him anymore. The success of his struggles through adversitybecome a testament to his determination and will as an individual.
Andrew Niccol, the director of this film,shed a light on a new form of discrimination and oppression that we could seein the “not-too-distant” future. Oppression that is not based on gender, race,or sexuality, but of genetics. The passing narrative of Vincent Freeman andJerome Morrow allow for the audience to explore a society where geneticmodification and perfection become the true determination of potential andsuccess.
From this film it is easy to understand that the societal expectationsof perfection are a key factor of oppression for not only Vincent and Jerome,but for every other person who had been labeled “In-valid” as well. What wouldour society look like if we were separated into two groups based on our geneticmakeup? Who would be the leaders? Who would fall short? Niccol’s film not onlyforeshadows what could come from “genoism”, but shows how it could effect whowe believe to be the the most dominant characters in our society, heterosexualwhite males.