Super-bodies of the 1980s
Science fiction has always dealt with the relationship between the human and the robot, but combining the two into a hybrid being is a particular trend of the 1980s. The cyborg is a fusion of the human body and technology and it has been argued that both of these things were central concerns in the 1980s.
If we take them one at a time, the human body was a major preoccupation within popular culture of the 1980s. A large number of cultural products focussed on the human body to an obsessive degree. Action movies are a good example of this. The key action heroes of the period were stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Their star persona was based on the bulked-up, hyper-masculine body, which was achieved through weightlifting. Examples include the Rambo movies with Stallone, and Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator with Schwarzenegger. This is an image from Conan in which you see an almost fetishistic worship of Schwarzenegger’s physique.
It was not just the male body that was worshipped; the female body was also celebrated (of course that’s nothing new in Western culture). The actress Jane Fonda famously made a work-out video that became the best-selling video in history. This was part of a craze for transforming the body through aerobics or weight-lifting. Movies like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing were ostensibly about dance, but they were also about writhing bodies and rippling musculature. Of course, pornography is another arena in which the body was obsessively scrutinised.
Even horror and sci-fi were preoccupied with the human body. The sub-genre of body horror was a trend of the 80s, represented by the work of David Cronenberg. In science fiction, the human body was transformed by interspecies rape (Alien), gene-splicing (The Fly) and cybernetic enhancement (Robocop).
So the popular culture of the 1980s placed tremendous emphasis on the human body. It has been argued that this was a response to the postmodern era. Postmodernism is characterised by chaos, dislocation and the breakdown of identity. In this context, the human body became the last source of stability; it was the one part of us that had not changed. Popular culture of the 80s ‘retreated’ into the human body in an attempt to defy the contradictions of postmodern existence. This accounts for the fetishistic worship of the bulked-up physique in films of the period.
Linda Mizjewski has written an essay called ‘Action Bodies in Futurist Spaces’, which was published in the book Alien Zone II. She asks why the male super-body features so prominently in science fiction, a genre that continually re-imagines and transforms the human body and its genders. She writes:
'Science-fiction films have been instrumental in visualizing and narrativizing the qualities associated with postmodernism: disorientation, powerlessness, fragmentation, disintegration, loss of boundaries, and hybridization. Warding off these threats was one of the symbolic functions of the iron-clad muscular cyborg in science-fiction films of the 1980s and early 1990s.'
However, there is a contradiction here. We’ve seen that postmodernism is characterised by hybridisation - the fusion of different elements. The forces of globalisation and mass communication have created a hybrid culture. Different cultures from around the world have fused together to create a disorientating hybrid. The cyborg is a hybrid being because it is a fusion of living tissue and technology. Because of this, its authority is compromised. It can’t fight off the threats of the postmodern era because it is itself a symptom of postmodernity.
'Despite the irony that the fortified cyborg was itself a man—machine hybrid and could no longer lay claim to a unified identity, it fought hard to resist the postmodern breakdown of gender boundaries and rigid rules pertaining to sexuality. But its own compromised status as a hybrid made its mission futile.'
To summarise, steel-clad muscular cyborgs were a mainstay of science-fiction cinema during the 1980s. The cyborg was created to defy the postmodern breakdown, but as a hybrid being, its authority was compromised and its mission inevitably failed.