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The Manchurian Candidate: Politics of Gender and Sexuality in 1960s Cold War Cinema

In many Cold War films of the 1960s, the dangers of femininity were stressed as causes for communism or other moral failures of men. This alleged danger was prominent in films such as The Red Menace (1962), where communism was linked to sexual deviance and the exploitation of women’s sexuality specifically through the character Mollie O’Flaherty. These links are intensified in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) through the character Mrs. Iselin, the wife of Senator Iselin, and the mother of Raymond Shaw. Scholar Tony Jackson claimed that in the film “gender issues become even more important than political issues,” based on Mrs. Iselin’s predominant concern with the lust for power, rather than her family’s happiness.[1] In The Manchurian Candidate, gender and sexuality are used to emphasize that both masculinized women and feminized men are the root causes of both McCarthyism and the Red Scare.

The feminization of men is central to one of the first scenes of the film, where Raymond Shaw returns from war. His mother, Mrs. Iselin, turned Raymond’s return from war and medal of honor win into a publicity stunt, where she hung a banner over his head that read “Johnny Iselin’s Boy, ” although Raymond makes clear throughout the film that he does not regard Senator Iselin as a father. Additionally, the reference of Raymond, a veteran as a “boy” is a deliberate infantilization of the character. Mrs. Iselin in this scene tends to prioritize the political capital she can gain for her husband, rather than celebration of her son. It is made clear by the opening scene of the film that Raymond did not actually deserve to win the medal of honor, but it was a communist plot that included brainwashing the members of his unit. It is later revealed that Raymond was chosen by the communists to become a sort of mindless assassin, who would kill any person he was told to, and any person who witnessed his crimes. His unworthiness of the medal of honor is additionally disempowering, and further shows the centrality of power or the illusion of power to a masculine character in a masculine field. Senator Iselin is portrayed as a McCarthy-like figure, a raging drunk who is virulently against communism. Mrs. Iselin indicates to the Senator at a press conference both when to speak and what to say. In these early scenes, the feminization of Senator Iselin and the infantilization of Raymond contribute to the masculine of Mrs. Iselin.

Mrs. Iselin complicates not only Raymond’s return home, but also his romantic relationships, further complicating the presence of gender and sexuality in the film. Raymond initially joined the army after his mother forced him to end his relationship with Josie Jordan, the daughter of Senator Jordan, whom Mrs. Iselin had accused of being a communist. Raymond recalled his time with Josie as the first times he had felt normal and joyful, and by Mrs. Iselin forcing him to end the relationship she momentarily killed his sexuality. When he was shown at a brothel in Korea, after being forced to end his relationship, he reprimanded his men for their presence. Josie also went abroad during Raymond’s service, and Mrs. Iselin offered to throw her a welcome home party, as she deemed Raymond’s relationship with her to be an important political alliance. At the party, Mrs. Iselin takes Raymond aside and has him play solitaire, and he enters a trancelike state. In this scene, his mother reveals that she is his stateside controller, and worked with the communists to execute the plan to create a sleeper agent. While she did not know Raymond would be the one brainwashed and vowed to take her revenge on the party for taking her son, Mrs. Iselin kisses Raymond in a very sexual manner. This moment shows that although Mrs. Iselin seemed to have genuine maternal concern for Raymond, it is overshadowed by her lust for power in the uncomfortable scene where the woman maintains all sexual power. Mrs. Iselin is called away from Raymond, and leaves him in his trance like state. While he’s alone, Josie came to the door of the room. She came to the party wearing a Queen of Diamonds costume, the symbol that puts Raymond in or out of a trance like state where he is told orders, and he breaks from his trance. Here, Josie is shown as a symbol of Raymond’s sexuality, and shows that Mrs. Iselin still lacks complete power over Raymond.

Within the next day, the young couple marry and go to honeymoon. Their honeymoon is interrupted by Senator Iselin shouting on the television that Senator Jordan should be investigated for high treason. Raymond then leaves to handle the situation with his parents. This is another allusion to Mrs. Iselin’s destruction of her son’s sexuality, as she feeds Senator Iselin his information, and her tactics caused Raymond to leave his honeymoon, which is traditional a symbol of marital consummation. When Mrs. Iselin sees Raymond, she grabs a deck of cards and orders him to kill Senator Jordan. Raymond dutifully, as he has no choice, goes to the Jordan’s home. Senator Jordan warmly welcomed Raymond into the family as he made himself a late-night snack in the kitchen, until he spotted the pistol in Raymond’s hand with a silencer. Raymond easily shoots Jordan through a carton of milk into his chest, with milk spraying out near his chest, an obvious allusion to breastmilk. Here, Senator Jordan is portrayed as a feminized man, dying on the floor of his kitchen with milk streaming from his chest. This may be a link to the weakness of feminized men in their efforts to staunch communism. The film also disempowers Senator Iselin, as in one scene he begs his wife for a solid count of how many communists were in the defense department. In this way, the film is careful to condemn not only McCarthy like anticommunist fervor, but also point to weak men usurped by women across the political spectrum. As Senator Jordan lay on the floor dying, Raymond shot him through the head. At that moment, Josie came running down the stairs in her virginal white nightgown.Raymond quickly shoots and kills Josie, and steps over her lifeless body on his way out. Mrs. Iselin has not only destroyed Raymond’s future by causing him to be brainwashed, but she also has ruined his chance to have a family with the Jordans, destroying formally for the final time Raymond’s sexuality.

The Manchurian Candidate makes clear that both masculinized women and feminized men are dangers to the political field. Mrs. Iselin literally controls her son’s actions, and in the end suffers the consequences of her decisions when Raymond shot both her and Senator Iselin at the end of the film. She literally and figuratively kills his sexuality, first by forcing him to end his relationship with Josie, and then by causing him to kill her. She also controls her husband’s actions, by telling him what to say and when to say it, down to the number of communists he claims to be in the department of defense. Ultimately, Mrs. Iselin holds the blame for almost every event of the film, in line with Tony Jackson’s argument that “the great bulk of Cold War stories somehow managed to find women and/or demasculinization as either the direct cause of male failure or at least as an obstacle to success.”[2] In these ways, The Manchurian Candidate uses the defiance of gender roles as explanations of McCarthyism and other polarization.


[1] Tony Jackson, “The Manchurian Candidate: And the Gender of the Cold War,” Literature/Film Quarterly 28, no. 1 (2000): 37.

[2] Tony Jackson, “The Manchurian Candidate”35.

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