Earth: The Final Frontier
Pixar’s 2008 film WALL-E is set in a post-apocalyptic twenty-ninth century, in which humanity has left an uninhabitable Earth because its waste and garbage production led to global environmental destruction. Robots were left behind in order to clean Earth until its environment would suit human life again, but the ordeal of the centuries-long project diminished their ranks until one last robot is left functioning on the planet. The film opens by chronicling the daily routine of collecting and compressing junk into small cubes by this last Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth robot. WALL-E , however, is shown taking a lunch-box to work, listening to music at work, hanging up his dirty chains when coming home, and turning on the TV after a long day of labor, and appears to be more than a mere mechanical entity. WALL-E hums and giggles, befriends a cockroach and is ticklish, rocks himself to sleep and is drowsy in the morning. WALL-E longs for love and can be scared – the machine has developed beyond its initial programmed function of garbage compression and waste allocation. Later, the robot even introduces himself as “WALL-E,” signalling the development of an identity over the course of his 700 years of labour compressing and stacking junk. As Vivian Sobchack maintains in her essay ‘Animation and Automation, or, the Incredible Effortfulness of Being,’ identity formation is linked to the category of movement and work, in that “movement and work are figured as self-generating, producing (or reproducing) curiosity, adaptability, emotion, desire and (dare I say) ‘intersubjectivity’” (Sobchack 2009, p.388).
While “movement and work” are integral to the formation of identity in WALL-E, I contend that the identity formation of WALL-E is visually situated in the particular space of post-apocalyptic twenty-ninth century Earth and against the backdrop of the hypermodern spacecraft in which humanity has found refuge. I will argue that the Pixar film recurs to the frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner to define and celebrate its particular form of identity formation, individuality, and social order. This frontier myth narrative and its model of self-reliant individuality are, additionally, linked to representations of consumerism, nostalgia, and gender, which work to further complicate the simple assertion of “movement and work” as the primary site of identity formation. In my paper, I will explore these notions of a localized frontier myth specific to U.S. history in WALL-E, and its significance to the film’s image of a world devastated by environmental pollution.
The opening shots of WALL-E do not merely present a post-apocalyptic planet, they also invoke notions of the frontier. The camera travels through a thick belt of orbiting garbage and passes over an endless landscape of waste, establishing the scope of environmental destruction. The only object in motion is barely discernible in the landscape. The camera then continues to zoom in on a robot, collecting garbage and compressing it into cubes, and forming these cubes into buildings. WALL-E, over the past seven hundred years, has dutifully rebuilt parts of the skyline of twentieth-century New York from compressed waste, and restored a semblance of civilization to the wasteland. This depiction of Earth situates the narrative along a particular line in which wilderness and civilization meet, therefore localizing identity formation within the specific space of the film’s frontier, a hostile space created largely from non-biodegradable garbage. As such, WALL-E represents the last trace of civilization, or human life, which has otherwise retreated into deep space. In the narrative, the polluted planet becomes the frontier where human-made wilderness and human civilization meet. WALL-E, thus, turns out to be not a marker of the end of biological life, but instead the first outpost of human civilization, about to return and re-settle Earth.
In this sense, WALL-E’s identity formation through movement and work within a particular space echoes the theory of US-identity formation explicated by Frederick Jackson Turner. In his 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner argues that the frontier experience remade European immigrants into US-Americans through a form of rebirth fostered by the unique qualities of the frontier. For Turner, life on the frontier overwhelmed the European immigrants, depriving them of their heritage and forcing them to adopt the ways of the Natives for survival, stripping them “of their past and [giving] them a new and uniform set of American characteristics” such as individualism and democracy (White 1994, p.26). Turner further contends that the frontier itself is the vehicle for the
most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization, and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and the Iroquois, and runs an Indian palisade around him [. …] In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. (Turner 1993, 61)
In this formulation then, the transformative effect of replacing the pioneers’ European garments with those of the Native Americans is reflected in the film. When WALL-E makes his way home, he realizes that his tank tracks are falling apart. The robot then strips himself of his broken parts, and replaces them by appropriating new parts from the debris on Earth. The high numbers of damaged and salvaged Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth robots scattered along his daily path suggest that WALL-E has done this several times over the course of his existence.
Similarly, WALL-E’s home – a repurposed yellow container – also underscores the robot’s alignment with early pioneers and the film’s frontier theme. Set on a highway overseeing the landscape above and separated from the junk-wilderness, his container-home evokes the tradition of the cabin, iconography that “had long been the chief icon of the nineteenth-century frontier, if not of American culture itself” (White, 1994, p.19). According to White, the cabin marks
both regression, as the wilderness mastered the settler, and the beginning of the recapitulation of civilized progress. A cabin, built with simple tools from local materials, proclaimed self-reliance and a connection with place. But most of all, the cabin had come to represent progress … [as t]he achievements of modern America made frontier cabins symbols of progress. (White 1994, pp.19-21)
White is of course referring to the settlers’ conception of the progress of civilization across the landscape of the American west. In White’s framework, the first minutes of the film thus function to establish WALL-E as an individual whose identity is formed by “work and movement” within the particular space of a hostile frontier by portraying his daily struggles to restore some form of order to the chaos of wilderness. The narrative and visuals refer to the nineteenth-century frontier myth, which is after all, a vital feature of American exceptionalism.
While identity formation in WALL-E occurs in a frontier space, the time period representing this process roughly spans the twentieth rather the nineteenth century. Over the course of his workday, WALL-E often stumbles upon twentieth century consumer items. Fascinated by these aged objects, WALL-E salvages, collects, and stores them in his home. A videotape of the 1969 musical Hello Dolly! best exemplifies WALL-E’s engagement with twentieth century consumer items. The musical’s score is the accompaniment for his workday, and the little robot painstakingly restages the dance numbers. Moreover, its amorous scenes kindle in him a longing for romance and after WALL-E falls in love with an Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator (EVE) send to Earth to examine its environmental status, he express his affection by attempting to hold hands with her – a gesture he appropriates from the musical. By learning cultural practices such as heterosexuality from a videotape – a technology popular throughout the late 1970s until the 1990s that contains a musical produced in 1969 directed by Gene Kelly, one of the stars of the genre’s golden age from the 1930s to the 1950s and set around 1890 – the Hello Dolly! cassette in many ways represents the whole twentieth century in popular culture. This time period spans roughly the industrial period from its height in the late nineteenth century to its demise since the late twentieth century. Characterized most prominently by Fordism, mechanical production, and bulky machines, the industrial age is marked by mass-produced objects for a modern consumer society.
WALL-E’s intersubjectivity is thus intimately linked to consumer items of the twentieth century. And although WALL-E himself is a sophisticated piece of 21st century technology, the visible bolts, screws, nuts, chains, and gears WALL-E is made of highlight his mechanical appearance and also link him to the earlier industrial period. The fascination of the mechanical age – evoked by the robot and his collection of consumer items – is further echoed by the interior decor of WALL-E’s home. In a scene later in the film, WALL-E invites EVE into his home, and, as he switches on fairy lights, the warm glow from the lights gives the interior and objects a magical aura. Narratively, the scene functions to reveal WALL-E’s endearing character to EVE and initiates her appreciation as she (and the viewer) become enchanted by the fascinating bric-a-brac of twentieth century objects, including singing fish, bubble wrap, mechanical mixers, and Rubix cubes. In contrast to the battered, functional exterior appearance of the container-home, the atmospheric, sepia-hued visualization of its interior invokes and underscores the delightful splendor of nostalgia represented by these items and echoed by WALL-E himself. The beauty of an old, simpler yet charming past is thereby produced on the narrative level, through the characterization of the protagonist, the discarded objects left to rot, their visualization down to the very lighting of the scenes set on the film’s frontier. Nostalgia then becomes linked to the frontier space in which these objects are found and WALL-E labors to function as a marker of identity. Not unlike the settlers’ appropriation of Native garb, WALL-E acquires and exemplifies his identity through the various consumer items such as the videotapes and other artifacts in his environment. By appropriating these objects and their embedded cultural practices, WALL-E evinces the individuality he has acquired through his frontier experience.
The link between particular historical times and cultural practices to signal a self-reliant individuality predicated on the interaction with a frontier space is further characterized by the film’s depiction of gender roles and identities. WALL-E’s solitary life is disrupted by the sudden arrival of a new robot on Earth and their visual depiction already indicates what their names confirm: WALL-E and EVE are established as gendered characters. Being able to fly and equipped with a powerful weapon used to repeatedly shoot at WALL-E, EVE is, however, technologically far superior to the male cleaning robot. The female EVE, therefore, literally and metaphorically threatens WALL-E as the two “switch stereotyped notions of romance, with the ‘male’ robot being the one interested in such indicators as hand-holding and the ‘female’ robot being much more aggressive and violent” (Bernard 2011, p.54).
In these first scenes, their gender roles are highly ambiguous particularly as “WALL-E, the ‘male’ robot, learns his ideas of romance from a film, the musical, Hello, Dolly!, potentially calling up stereotypes of gay men who enjoy Hollywood musicals” (Bernard 2011, p. 54), while EVE diligently pursues her assignment to find biological life on Earth by completely ignoring the timid approaches of the ‘male’ robot. The ambivalent gender roles exhibited by the robots and the significance of cultural texts (such as film) to form (heteronormative) identity, thus, reveal “the unnaturalness of romance: romance is not inherent; it is learned, In fact, the learning of romance is part of the overall arc of the storyline, for both WALL-E and EVE need to practice romance before they get it ‘right’” (Bernard, 2011, p.54). Consequentially, WALL-E’s appropriation of the heteronormative cultural practices from Hello, Dolly! undermines stereotypical representations of heterosexual male identity just as much as the aggressive behavior of EVE defies stereotypical heterosexual female identity representations to highlight romance, gender, and identity as performances.
This initial ambiguity of the gender depiction in WALL-E is stabilized as the narrative progresses. After the two robots have to take refuge from a sandstorm in WALL-E’s container-cabin, the following scenes show EVE being schooled in “how to act feminine” (Bernard, 2011, p. 57): WALL-E first calms the aggressive EVE, then introduces her to such simple pleasures as popping protective bubble-wrap, and teaches her romance by showing the hand holding clip from Hello, Dolly!. Again, this “civilizing” process initially reverses stereotypical gender roles but already indicates the hierarchical structure of male and female as, Sobchack asserts: “It is only under WALL-E’s tutelage and care that EVE becomes reflexively adaptive and creative” (Sobchack, 2009, p.386).
Their brief romance abruptly ends after WALL-E gives EVE the plant for which she had been unsuccessfully searching. Upon storing the plant in her body, EVE immediately goes into hibernation mode, from which the confused WALL-E cannot awake her. Unable to understand EVE’s sophisticated technology, WALL-E exploits her passivity by enacting clichéd romantic gestures, gondoliering EVE through a river of mud, burning a heart with their insignias into a steel structure, and watching the sun set with her. Again, the ambiguity of stereotypical gender roles is exhibited in these shots as WALL-E eventually savors his fantasies of romance, while he remains insecure in this dominant position as the robot stumbles over himself at the end of the romantic scene montage. At the same time, just as the technologically-outdated WALL-E is shown to be more qualified, knowledgeable, and apt than the high-tech scouting drone in finding biological life, the immobility and stasis of EVE in these scenes of romance signal the stabilization of stereotypical gender hierarchies because the female EVE is assigned the role of the “mysterious object of desire who motivates the male lead, but who remains essentially passive herself” (Pramaggiore and Wallis 2011, p.329).
The ambiguity of gender slowly dissolves throughout the latter part of the film as the representations of masculinity and femininity come to adhere to normative stereotypes and hierarchies of gender. While WALL-E liberates humanity from its intellectual and physical confinement aboard the Axiom, EVE is reduced to the role of an aide. In a pivotal scene, EVE asserts her independence by rebelling against the Axiom on-board computer to renounce her initial function to find and safeguard biological life; instead, she declares WALL-E to be her new prime directive. The efficacy of EVE’s gesture is, however, undermined as she immediately thereafter obeys an order from WALL-E, thus establishing a male-centered hierarchy. The subordination of EVE as a character also demonstrates that “she has internalized many of the characteristics of the feminine” (Bernard 2011, p. 60), most notably by “nursing” WALL-E after he has been severely damaged, a stark contrast to her initial function as a weapon. Towards the end of the film, normative gender ascriptions and hierarchies supplant the portrayal of initially ambiguous and unstable identities to establish normative ascriptions of place and gender. Moreover, the gendered representations of physical space situate the representation of both robots in the larger context of the nineteenth century as the general public “understood American space and American experience in gendered terms” – with the frontier considered both rugged and masculine and urban spaces feminine (White, 1994, p. 48). In this framework, WALL-E is depicted as more knowledgeable about and competent within the exterior space of the frontier as he saves EVE from a dust storm and discovers the plant she was unable to find; EVE, on the other hand, saves WALL-E from ill-meaning security robots aboard the human spaceship – an interior space marked as both urban and feminine. As the attribution of agency is captured by normative metaphors of (gendered representations of) space, any earlier ambiguity is eventually resolved. After all, EVE nurtures and repairs WALL-E not in the interiority of the spaceship but at the initial place of contestation: the garbage frontier of Earth.
In WALL-E, individualism and agency are, hence, male categories connected to the nostalgia for the industrial period and contrasted to the effeminate post-industrial period represented by EVE. More importantly, the first part of the film establishes and celebrates the superior male identity being formed on the frontier. The emphasis on this male frontier individualism becomes even more apparent when contrasted to the dominant space of the second half of the film: the universe.
“Space: The Final Fun-Tier”
After the romance sequence and following weeks of waiting on Earth, EVE is picked up by a large spaceship and taken to the Axiom, which houses the last members of the human race. EVE’s initial mission was intended to determine whether Earth could be considered habitable once again for humanity. Although Wall-E’s plant is proof that the planet can sustain biological life forms, the HAL-like commanding computer AUTO attempts to hide the information from humanity to remain in charge of humankind. The second half of the film focuses on the struggle by WALL-E and EVE to uncover the abuse of power and liberate humanity from the yoke of technology and corporatism.
Following EVE as a stowaway, WALL-E arrives on the Axiom to find humanity in very poor physical and spiritual condition. The humans spend their entire life in hovering chairs, resulting in a decrease in bone density. Human bodies have devolved to the point that all humans resemble each other, with round faces and bodies, lacking muscle tone. Their inability to move around independently from technology positions the humans as in desperate need of the masculinizing influence of the frontier to maintain their long-term survival. The moral value of physical work performed in a frontier environment is emphasized by Turner. In his essay, he valorizes political representatives who retain a relationship to the land, and to manual labour, contending that a “Pennsylvania, a New York, an Ohio, or a western Virginia statesman, though far inferior in logic, metaphysics and rhetoric to an old Virginia statesman, has this advantage, that when he returns home he takes off his coat and takes hold of the plough. This gives him bone and muscle, sir, and preserves his republican principles pure and uncontaminated” (Turner, 1993, p. 83). Turner’s position is echoed by the film, which explicitly criticizes the corrupting influence of technology. Moving in their hovering chairs along pre-assigned paths overseen by the ship’s computer and pampered by robots, the human characters are absolutely detached from their immediate physical environment. Even the communication among humans is mediated through holographic screens that transmit anything from incoming calls to advertisements.[i] Work and movement are instead performed by robots, which are overseen by the ship’s computer, and all social interaction is technologically-mediated. In contrast to WALL-E, humans have lost all individuality and the possibilities of identity formation as they are not able to directly engage with the physical or social world.
What distinguishes life on Earth and on the spaceship, or WALL‐E and what remains of humanity, is his individuality and their lack thereof – humans do not exhibit self‐reliance, a discernable work ethic, or free movement in physical space that WALL‐E, as symbolic of the frontier, represents. At numerous moments during his time on the spaceship, WALL-E brings unintentional change to the monotonous routines of human and robot life. Fascinated by this hyper-complex, high-tech world, the little robot, venturing through the spaceship, fails to discern its patterns and routines, and wreaks havoc on the otherwise seamless public transportation system. As humans and robots crash into each other to avoid colliding with WALL-E, his free-roaming exploration effectively demolishes the highly efficient but extremely regulated system of movement, positioning WALL-E as an inherently disruptive force.
Yet, while the Axiom is a utopia in which consumer wishes can be satisfied in an instance, the film’s vision of the future does not offer the kinds of consumer choices we as viewers take for granted in the present. Most notably, clothing functions not as a marker of individuality, but as a locus of conformity. All of the humans wear the same attire of futuristic red bodysuits, the introduction of a new color for their clothes does not afford opportunity for personal expression. Despite “blue” being offered as a colour choice, it is presented “the new red,” and the human characters en masse switch their suits to the new colour, underscoring their uniformity.
Their espousal of conformity is further linked to the excesses of capitalism and corporatism. The Buy’n’Large company symbolizes the unrestricted consumption and throw-away mentality that has suffocated Earth underneath layers of garbage: Abandoned Buy’n’Large superstores, megastores, ultrastores, malls, banks, transit stations, gas stations, and trains litter the landscape as prominently as the junk itself. The company also regulates, maintains and controls the world of the Axiom from consumer items to the temperature of the ship and the cycle of day and night. As is common in dystopian science fiction, the management and indoctrination of human life begins on the linguistic level as small toddlers are taught that “A is for Axiom, your home sweet home. B is for Buy ’N’ Large, your very best friend.” Even political decisions, such as abandoning Earth, have been made by Buy’n’Large.
Not only has the company expanded its market shares, but in doing so, has usurped governmental powers. The willingness of humanity to outsource and minimize work for effortlessness consumption has produced a complete dependency on technology. This dependency has also led to the loss of political sovereignty. In the logic of the film and in accord with Turner, the shift from work to leisure as the main process of identity formation endangers independence, self-reliance, and self-governance. And, in WALL-E, the most removed place from any exterior influence for unrestricted consumption is space.
In stark contrast to twentieth century political, scientific, and pop-cultural narratives of space as a new frontier, the film’s universe is a place of complacency, idleness, and leisure. The film explicitly satirizes the popular science fiction theme of “the final frontier:” The abandonment of the polluted Earth in favor of a life in space is advertised with the slogan “Space. The Final Fun-tier.” The universe is reconfigured into the last stage of safe, non-threatening, and harmless entertainment devoid of any frontier characteristics.
Returning Home to the Frontier
Having encountered the frontier in the form of WALL-E, humanity is no longer content to remain on the Axiom, and returns to Earth to reclaim the frontier as their home. The narrative is resolved when WALL-E and EVE convince the captain of the Axiom to shut AUTO down and assume manual control of the spaceship to journey to Earth. Upon reaching their destination, the humans take their first shaky steps on solid ground. As the camera pans away, it reveals large fields of plants growing behind the buildings of New York. The final shot implies that humanity will find the fertile soil it needs to not only survive, but to thrive – a relationship to the earth that Turner explicitly positions as particularly necessary and beneficial. The film demonstrates the restorative properties of this relationship by carrying the narrative across the final credits, depicting the resettlement of Earth by the communal efforts of humans and robots well beyond the 29th century.
Prior to the end credits, however, the screen fades to black, and from the darkness, a torch is lit. Its glow reveals an ancient-looking surface with unrecognizable cave paintings. Over the Peter Gabriel song “Down to Earth,” the painting is revealed to be illustrating key scenes of the film, when the Axiom returned to Earth. Instead of being rendered in the “photo-realistic” style of the feature film, these brief episodes or stages of resettlement refer to various artistic styles of human history; starting with ancient Egypt hieroglyphics, the different scenes employ Greek or Roman mosaic, Renaissance coal drawings, and a multitude of nineteenth and early twentieth century art styles such as Impressionism.
These brief scenes of re-settling and urbanizing the frontier are, however, halted at equilibrium. In the second-to-last shot of the end credits, future after the 29th century is marked by an organic symbiosis of technology and Nature. The pastoral imagery evokes nostalgia for pre-twentieth century life. The credits, taken in their entirety within the context of the film as a whole, depict a vision of a future in which Nature, humanity, and technology live in a state of blissful equilibrium specifically because humanity embraced the unmediated, corporeal experience of the physical world through labor, consistent with Turner’s argument that the frontier experience produces both self-reliant individuals and a harmonic society. The final shot, consequentially, uses the pixelated style of early computer games to portray WALL-E and EVE still happily on Earth stopping in front of a huge tree that – as the camera pans down – is revealed to be the plant once saved by the couple.
The theme of the frontier myth mirrors the exceptionalist logic of WALL-E. Presenting the frontier theme by using the various cultural styles spanning Western history, the final credits of WALL-E serve to universalize the frontier myth by envisioning it as the guiding principle of the past as much as of the future beyond the 29th century. But in a twist of twentieth century US-American popular imagery, space has become a secluded, dystopian place of safety while the old frontier vision of an unsettled landscape (on Earth) has re-emerged through the image of a post-apocalyptic environment worth settling. This universalizing of the nineteenth century frontier myth is, however, only possible because WALL-E builds on the changed meaning of the frontier in the 21st century.
What Kind of Home Is It Anyway?
In the later part of this paper, I explore the ambiguities that derived from this re-signification of the frontier myth throughout the twentieth century, its usage as a fantasy of universal emancipation in WALL-E, and the ecological criticism of the Pixar film to understand what kind of global home the film imagines.
Historically, Turner’s frontier thesis has been widely condemned and disqualified by historians as historically inaccurate, inadequate, racist, and chauvinistic.[ii] Scholarly arguments, however, did not change the popularity and validity of the frontier thesis for the greater public as Patricia Limerick admits in her essay “The Adventures of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century.” Because of the constant adoption and appropriation of the frontier thesis to signify US-American greatness throughout the twentieth century in popular (self) depiction, a late nineteenth century myth which has been debunked by historian still functions as a vital source of self-conceptualization in public imagery and narratives.[iii] In politics, for example, John F. Kennedy referred in his presidential bid to a “New Frontier” to advocate his strategy for national greatness, which he then used to contrast and demean “Eisenhower moderation” (cf. Wrobel 1993, p.145). More famously, Kennedy also linked the technological advance of science and the exploration of space to the political, economic, cultural, and military struggle with the Soviet Union to envision space as this “New Frontier” of national greatness (vis-à-vis communism). Years after Kennedy, Republican president Ronald Reagan would also use the frontier theme at numerous occasions to define what he considered admirable about the United States (cf. Limerick 2000, p.81-83). In close relation to the ideological struggle during the Cold War, the frontier theme was reiterated in popular culture, most famously, in the 1966 TV-series Star Trek that declares at the beginning of each episode “Space. The Final Frontier.” But Star Trek was merely one phenomenon among many others. As Patricia Limerick (2000, p.87) notes, in “the selling of space as ‘the final frontier,’ the aerospace industry, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, presidents, the news media, and the entertainment business collaborated with perfect harmony, with no need for centralized direction or planning, with a seamless match in their methods and goals.” Although the nineteenth century frontier experience and imagery was historically used to define, discriminate, and violently persecute racial, gender, and sexual others, the frontier and the pioneer have appropriated a new meaning. Limerick (2000, p.90-91) argues further that
logic and history say that the frontier was, in fact, a place where violence served the causes of racial subordination, but a more powerful emotional understanding says that the frontier is where people of courage have gone to take a stand for the right and the good. For people of a wide range of ethnicities, when it comes to the idea of the frontier, logic and history yield to the much greater power of inherited image.
Today, as the imagery and the narratives of the frontier and the pioneer possess positive connotations even among marginalized groups, both signify and represent a multicultural US-American identity. Not surprisingly then, contemporary notions of the frontier function “as a kind of cultural glue” (Limerick, 2000, p.92). In this sense WALL-E marks the end point of the re-framing and expansion of the frontier myth. From originally signifying a parochial, localized, white experience to foster US-American uniqueness and superiority the frontier experience has developed in WALL-E into a universal practice of identity formation. According to this logic, the corporeal encounter so necessary for individualization can be experienced in any space defined as frontieral: an environment that fosters the unmediated struggle with a physical, emotional, and/or mental threat to survival which will eventually produce a self-determined, independent identity. In this sense, the frontier, as David Wrobel (1993, p. 145) observes, “has become a metaphor for promise, progress, and ingenuity” embedded in but not restricted to its particular US history.
Without a doubt, the frontier myth is deeply rooted within ideas of American exceptionalism, which categorize and marginalize individuals and groups according to their race, gender, class, sexuality, and able-bodiness. WALL-E perpetuates these notions by imagining the frontier experience as the locus of identity formation and individuality. As a globally disseminated popular product, the film thus mirrors and disseminates US hegemony through its narrative and visualization. At the same time, the narrative, as with the imagery, is not merely re-staging nineteenth and twentieth century US-discourses of exceptionality. On the contrary, the shots of gigantic heaps of waste add a global dimension, as these images of environmental degradation mirror ecological destruction around the world. In the film, the nineteenth century frontier has shifted from the particular space of the US-American West as the gigantic heaps of waste and the environmental restoration of Earth (illustrated by various art styles throughout the credit scene) symbolize the global dimension of environmental pollution. In this sense, the frontier theme is invoked to answer a universal challenge for all of human kind and has, consequentially, acquired meaning beyond its initial white, US-American premise; the ecological message of the Pixar film expands the parochialism of nineteenth century American exceptionalism into the globalized world of the twenty-first century.[iv]
In this framework, my analysis of WALL-E thus produces a binary reading of the parochial and the universal, centred on the issues of identity formation and individualism. As I have shown the visual, narrative, spatial, and historical dimensions of the film are embedded within the parochial logic of the frontier myth and American exceptionalism; individualism formed by the frontier experience is cherished as the remedy to personal, political, and social decay. The film, however, envisions this particular formation of identity as a global possibility. Conversely, the changed meaning of the frontier forwarded by Limerick, as well as the importance of “work and movement” for identity formation exemplified by Sobchack speak to a larger, transnational discourse.
My analysis of the representation of gender similarly indicates that WALL-E retains a degree of ambiguity, prohibiting definite conclusions. Despite the establishment of a male-centered hierarchy and stable, normative gender roles towards the end of the film, the initial depiction of the two robots offers a brief glance at destabilized, non-normative gender identities. In these short moments, the film, furthermore, exposes gender as a performance, deconstructs femininity and masculinity as non-essential categories, and, as Carol A. Bernard (2011, p. 62) maintains, “giv[es] us a glimpse, however fleetingly, of what queer romance can be.”
In conclusion, I hesitate to completely describe WALL-E as an example of American exceptionalism as much as I also hesitate to whole-heartedly embrace its post-exceptionalist frame. As I have demonstrated, the “home” that humans and robots are re-building at the end of WALL-E is founded on American exceptionalism. But the changed significance of the frontier throughout the twentieth century, the importance of “work and movement,” and the performance of (gender) identity capture the complex and contradictory nature of the film, ideology, and our own present-day planetary home.
This paper was originally presented at the Graduate School of North American Studies International Conference 2012 Making It Home. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Recognition and Displacement in America. John F. Kennedy Institute, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, May 11-12, 2012.
Dietmar Meinel is a Doctoral Candidate at the Graduate School of North American Studies, John F. Kennedy Institute, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.
[i] In a telling scene, two humans are shown floating parallel to one another will being in conversation with each other. Instead of turning their heads, both continue to stare onto their holographic screen to communicate.
[ii] As Patricia Limerick further summarizes the professional criticism leveled at the Frontier Thesis: “It stressed the individualism and self-reliance of the pioneer and had correspondingly little to say about federal to expansion. It concentrated on the history of the humid Middle West to the neglect of the arid West beyond the hundredth meridian. More importantly, it provided support for models of American exceptionalism by emphasizing the uniqueness of the American frontier experience” (p. 144).
[iii] A detailed history of the Frontier Thesis and its significance in the twentieth century has been researched and analyzed by (cultural) historians such as Richard Slotkin in his Gunfighter Nation (1992); David Wrobel in his The End of American Exceptionalism. Frontier Anxiety from the Old West to the New Deal (1993); in James Grossman’s edited volume accompanying The Frontier in American Culture exhibition at the Newberry Library (1994-1995), or in the aforementioned essays by Patricia Limerick.
[iv] The essay by Vivian Sobchack, referenced throughout my essay, supports this (universalist) view as (generic) “work and movement” are a necessity by which identity is formed for Sobchack. While I have continuously detailed these moments in the film, my reading of the film also expanded and specifies her argument by localizing and historicizing the frontier theme in the animated feature. Ian Graham Shaw develops a similar universal reading of WALL-E in his essay “WALL-E’s World: Animating Badiou’s Philosophy” (2010). As Shaw uses the narrative and imagery of WALL-E to explain key concepts and arguments in the work of Alain Badiou, he also does not provide a specific spatial or historical frame for the film narrative, the images, or Badiou’s social theory. His work, hence, also speaks to the non-particular dimension of the film.
Bernard, C. A. (2011), ‘Performing Gender, Performing Romance: Pixar’s WALL-E’ in: R.C. Neighbors and Sandy Rankin, eds. 2011, The Galaxy is Rated G. Essays on Children’s Science Fiction Film and Television, Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., pp.53-63.
Limerick, P. (2000), Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the West, New York: W.W. Norton.
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© Dietmar Meinel
Edited by Amy Ratelle