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One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

It occurs to me after watching One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest last night that the film is a right wing fantasy about how white men are an oppressed minority.

The first obvious feature of the film is that it's about a group of white men being oppressed by women and black men. As those of us who've spent any time on Twitter are aware, this is the predominant fantasy/nightmare of many right wingers, but this is nothing new. I understand the late sixties and early seventies were an interesting time in American politics when feminism was still relatively new but gathering pace and racial tensions had been high. Some white men would have felt deeply uncomfortable about these two developments coming along and threatening to upset their place in society. One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is clearly a film arguing that America had at this point in history become a nuthouse and was arguing for right wing libertarian values as the way out.  Or to put it another way, it’s Atlas Shrugged for dirty hippies.

Within the film there is a hierarchy.  At the top are the doctors who run the facility but are rarely seen.  Next are the nurses who regularly interact with the patients and run the wards.  Below them are men, exclusively black, who’s job is to lay hands on the patients where necessary and do lots of the dirty work. 

Should we be surprised that this hierarchy exists? After all working in an asylum is considered a low status job so we shouldn't be surprised these frontline roles are held by black men and women. That would be a fair objection, except the film goes out of its way to dispel this. When the doctor first meets Jack Nicholson’s character, R P McMurphy, he seems intrigued by him.  He seems to like McMurphy, albeit cautiously. They chat amiably about fishing, and the doctor doesn’t see fit to set McMurphy straight when he suggests that statutory rape is perfectly fine.  Later on in the film, McMurphy busts his fellow inmates out and takes them on a fishing trip. Is that an admiring smile the doctor flashes when McMurphy returns to port with a crew of inmates and some enormous fish they have caught? Even though such an incident could end the doctor's career he still seems sympathetic to McMurphy.  

Which brings us to the pivotal scene when the doctors of the hospital, mostly white men, are deciding what to do with McMurphy. The head doctor (by which I mean the most senior psychiatrist, not that he's "a doctor of the head") seems to think McMurphy is sane and should go back to prison.  The remaining doctors are split so Nurse Ratched is given the deciding vote and she decides that he should remain at the facility. McMurphy is clearly a pain in the arse for Nurse Ratched, but she would rather have power over him than release him back to an open prison.

What this is telling us is that it's not the guys at the top doing the oppressing - no, they're pretty reasonable guys - it's these damn women. This makes sense when you see the film as a right wing fantasy: how often do right wingers jump to the defence of the powerful in our society? Right now there are Republicans twisting themselves into knots trying to defend Donald Trump’s bizarre behaviour.  Defending the establishment is the whole raison d’être of the right. Our Jack is just a free spirit.  The doctor is just a man trying to do his best.  What is being argued is that it is the distortion of the natural order here that is the problem.  These people can’t handle the control they have been given over others and have become power mad.  If power had been left to white men as is the natural order of things then everything would be fine.

There is an obvious objection at this point: one of the most memorable of all the inmates isn't white at all, but is a Native American referred to as ‘chief'. This is true but can be explained. 

The chief is not there to represent people of colour. He is there to represent a kind of elemental manliness that is being suppressed (by the way, if you want to record a prog rock epic called Elemental Manliness then please be my guest).

To put it another way, what other kind of man would you choose to represent the concept of oppressed manliness? A cowboy? John Wayne strutting bow legged about an asylum doesn't seem too likely or appealing. A soldier? The Vietnam war sent plenty of soldiers home with mental illnesses and they had nothing to do with oppression from forces at home so that wouldn't work for the theme of this film. A wrestler or a boxer?  Those guys get brain injuries all the time.  I honestly can’t think of a better icon that would fit in this location.

If you want to get across the conservative ideal of innate manliness ironically it has to be the Native American man. The Native American lives out in the open, faces the forces of nature and wins, gets by on his own mettle.  He does not bow to women or anyone else. Of course this may not be the true version of Native American life but I think this is the version we are meant to believe. 

Look what our twisted society has done to this symbol of man’s mastery over nature.  He has been reduced to pretending to be deaf and mute.  Not only this, he is reduced to pushing a broom around like a goddamn housewife!  A man the size of a house with a face made of rock and he’s sweeping up and silent like a scared little mouse.  He could break out any time with his enormous physical strength, and yet he can’t bring himself to do it.

It is this symbol of manliness that breaks free at the end of the film once McMurphy has been finally crushed in an iconic scene.  We know it’s an iconic scene because it got satirised in The Simpsons.  Ultimately you have to ask yourself, do the film makers care about freeing Native Americans from their bonds, or is it just men in general?  


Let’s move on to the favourite subject of libertarians: money and property.  Early in the film McMurphy starts playing cards with his fellow patients, and he immediately introduces them to gambling.  He explains that cigarettes represent money, one cigarette is worth a dollar.  Much later in the film a big row ensues because one of the patients demands to have his cigarettes - they are his property after all. Ratched explains that because McMurphy has been taking the inmates to the cleaners in card games they've had to ration their access to money and cigarettes. The inmate asks how he is meant to make his money back. Ratched says flatly that he won't. The inmate is offered cigarettes by other patients but he gets agitated and says he does not want them, he wants HIS cigarettes, he wants HIS property. As the inmate gets angrier and creates more of a scene, McMurphy eventually punches through the glass of the nurses station liberating the inmates cigarettes and handing them over.

What I find interesting about this part of the film is the right wing argument is presented in a slightly more nuanced form than usual.  Clearly the argument here is that it is better to be exploited and free than to be infantilised by the state.  Of course it also shows us that crafty men like McMurphy are able to exploit weaker, less intelligent men, but the argument seems to be that this is fine.  Yes he is exploited, but he wants to be exploited.

But surely a right winger would never argue that people being free but destitute is a good thing?  The key line is the inmate asking how he can ever win his money back if he hasn’t enough money to gamble with?  Nurse Ratched’s answer is that he can’t.  And this is the argument: that an exploited man could succeed and win but not if the state constrains him by taxing him, nannying him and therefore condemning him to mediocrity.

I think they call this freedom to be exploited "the American Dream”.

Of course this leaves us with a rather perverse situation which is rather like real life.  McMurphy, the exploiter who takes property from people who are not equipped to defend themselves, then liberates more of their property for them.  This is presumably so he can take that from them as well.  And so we see the right wing politician lowering our taxes so that they can bilk us for more money for the necessities of life (see social housing, the NHS, private railways, etc.). Should we be grateful that the libertarian frees us from taxes only to then charge us more than we ever paid before for health care?


Half way through the film McMurphy discovers to his horror that most of the inmates are there by 'choice'. They are clearly institutionalised but they can theoretically leave whenever they like - and they know they can. They even seem oddly proud of the fact.

So this raises the question of who is there by choice and who isn’t?

At one point in the film when the patients have an illicit party on the ward which is likely to be rumbled, Scatman Crothers bemoans how he is going to lose his job - obviously a big deal for him. So we have to ask ourselves: is he there by choice?

The patients (at least most of them) are there by choice.  The staff are notionally there by choice as with any job, but economically are not.  McMurphy may have talked his way in but now he can’t get out and will remain as long as the staff require him to be.  And don’t forget, the chief can leave anytime he wants just by use of physical force.

But this is the key to the argument.  White men are not prisoners by force, but because they have chosen to be prisoners.  The film is saying to the white men watching: your prison is self imposed and you can leave anytime you want - why don’t you?

Sex and Gender

It’s notable to me that McMurphy and Nurse Ratched are probably about the same age.  It’s also interesting that Nurse Ratched, while she may not be wearing make-up and attempting to be glamorous, is no slouch in the looks department.  She looks like an off-duty Jackie Onasis.  This is surprising for such a role in such a film - why isn’t she just some gargoyle in curlers?

Nurse Ratched is clearly not meant to be a sexless, unattractive butt of jokes.  She can’t be easily dismissed as ugly, fat, stupid, or weak.  She is meant to be formidable.  And the other nurses are pretty too.  This is important because these are women that in other circumstances the patients might find sexually attractive but instead they are putting up walls.

During the talk therapy sessions one patient complains that he can’t sleep with his wife, while another patient wants to marry a local girl.  Both are presented as absurd comedy.  They talk about tip toeing around these women, while two attractive nurses listen with disinterest.  It’s enough to make any man shrink to the size of a chipolata.

Once again we are meant to see McMurphy as a free spirit to be admired - and yet he frankly treats women like crap.  I can’t help but feel that we are being presented with a 'world turned upside down' and that we are expected to see an environment where women might be in positions of power as absurd.  Should I be horrified that attractive women might not want to be viewed as sex objects?  Should I be giggling like a fool because a woman might demand respect in a position of responsibility?

Ultimately McMurphy is lobotomised for trying to strangle Nurse Ratched, which occurs because Ratched has shamed a young patient for having sexual intercourse and he killed himself.  Naturally no one should be shamed for wanting to have sex - but this does feel like the playing out of the feminism of right wing fantasy rather than feminism as it exists.

The Shining

Was Kubrick watching?  I have no idea but it seems he might have been.  The Shining makes an interesting counterpoint to this film.  Cuckoos Nest is about a place where women and black men have power over white men, The Shining is about a place where Jack gets to do whatever he likes to a black man, a woman (and a child). 

In fact The Shining is all about power dynamics. The film starts with Jack clearly annoyed that he has to defend the way he has treated his child to a social worker. He goes on to meet the manager of the hotel and we immediately see how he sucks up to him, and does his whole aw schucks act. Later the pivotal scene in the film is where Jack meets Grady, the waiter who murdered his family. It starts with Jack talking down to the waiter while trying to be magnanimous, but then it changes when it appears that it is Grady who has the power and tells Jack what he must do to discipline them. 

While I wouldn’t argue that The Shining is exclusively about masculinity, the evil manifested in this instance does seem to emanate from a masculine outlook and results in a man oppressing and abusing his wife.

While Cuckoos Nest seems to see masculinity as a good thing that is being repressed, The Shining sees masculinity given unchecked power with horrific results. 

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