The American Phobia and ‘The Shining’

By Sydney McMahon
The seventies are often imagined in vibrant color, but this period of American culture was actually quite gray. As Americans were stripped of financial stability and thrust into a new wave of political unrest, many lost more than leisure, but the luxury of certainty. Among questions of dubiety, many men begin to ask themselves, ‘What kind of man am I if I cannot provide for my family?". One could ignore distant calls of Beatniks and activists on the news, but could not ignore their personal failure. In this, we see America having to face their fear of gender roles face on as the fear of ambiguity flooded the veins of America.

Since the rise of the 20th century, the sword, shield, and mirror of American culture has been film. Released in 1980, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining deals heavily with the ‘lean years’ and gender roles. As the plot slowly builds, we are introduced to a typical family. Jack is the provider, and his wife Wendy is the caretaker. However, if we delve further into individual scenes, we can see that Jack is struggling to feel dominant in this dynamic.

*It's about to get spoilery!*

In the "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scene, Jack chases Wendy up the grand staircase. Although in this situation, Jack acts as if he is in the power position, Wendy is more in control. She is the only one with a weapon, and her placement on the stairs gives her a visual prowess. Even if Jack feels dominant and Wendy feels submissive, Kubrick wants us to know that their positions may really be switched.

Here, Wendy takes action against Jack and knocks him out with a baseball bat, then proceeding to lock him in a storage room (which he later escapes, but only because the man who killed his wife to ‘keep her in place’ lets him out). Although shaking with fear, Wendy is portrayed defying her expectations.

*about to get even more spoilery!!*

In the end, it is Wendy who lives and not Jack. Outsmarted and alone, Jack freezes to death outside the hotel. Although we suspect that he will come back again in another life, we understand that Wendy’s escape is a pivotal point. Perhaps the woman can escape her oppressive husband. Perhaps the daughter can escape her abusive father. Perhaps individuals are not defined by the categories we assign them. Perhaps these categories are arbitrary, and perhaps they are wrong. Maybe all is not what it seems, and that should not make you quake with fear. In America, the gray area has been felt by the public like a horror film as ambiguity has become a cinematic thrill. ‘The Shining’ gracefully exposes this, and we see before our eyes, the American ideal fall off the edge of its seat.