The terms fascist and fascism get thrown around a lot, but rarely with accuracy. The science fiction novel Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein, and the 1997 movie of the same name, are alternatively accused of promoting or lampooning fascism. Starship Troopers isn’t my favorite film, but I think it’s entertaining and original enough to rewatch every now and then. I just watched it last week, when to my surprise, RedLetterMedia featured it over the weekend in an episode of “re:View.” Watch the full episode here.
In their review, Mike and Jay take the position that Starship Troopers is a satire of fascism, and that audiences largely missed the point when the movie was released in 1997. There’s some evidence for this. The director, Paul Verhoeven, definitely interpreted Heinlein’s novel in this way. At one point, characters are wearing uniforms obviously inspired by the Nazi Gestapo. Violence is shown as the only solution, and militarism and war are at the center of this futuristic society. Characters consider the alien arachnids to be ugly, mindless, and inferior to humans. They are confined to a “Quarantine Zone,” like the Nazi ghettos.
Mike and Jay argue Starship Troopers inverts a common character arch in which a character living in an oppressive society comes to rebel against that society. Instead, in Starship Troopers, characters who originally question the social order, or who are at least indifferent to it, end up embracing it. Characters become less human as the film progresses, until, at the end, they cheer when it’s revealed a captured arachnid feels fear, an emotion that typically elicits sympathy.
Verhoeven himself said his movie adaptation is “playing with fascism or fascist imagery to point out certain aspects of American society… of course, the movie is about ‘Let’s all go to war and let’s all die.'” He copied some propaganda scenes directly from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935).
But is the Terran Federation depicted in Starship Troopers a fascist society? Despite the fascist ascetic in the film, it just doesn’t measure up. Benito Mussolini defined fascism as a merger of corporations and the state. Fascism is more generally characterized by a cult of personality, extreme nationalism, veneration of past glory, militarism, racial superiority, and authoritarianism.
Well, Starship Troopers certainly portrays a militaristic society, but that is where the comparison ends.
In this alternative universe, Western liberal democracy failed, and a group of “veterans” took control and imposed stability. The countries of the world are united in the Terran Federation, led by a Sky Marshall. Only citizens can vote, and citizenship is only awarded through state service. Citizenship has other privileges. In one scene, it’s revealed that it’s easier to get a license to have children if you are a citizen.
However, it’s implied the main character, Johnny Rico, comes from a well-off family of civilians (non-citizens). His parents, who are vehemently opposed to Johnny joining the Mobile Infantry, obviously obtained a license to have children, and non-citizenship did not preclude them from becoming wealthy (or at least upper middle class). Children of all families seem to attend the same school. Also, Federal service is completely voluntary. Rico is allowed to resign from basic training by simply signing a form (which he later retracts). You can’t even walk away from the U.S. military that easily.
Also, there’s open discussion and dissent over the virtues of the system, and in one scene, viewers are treated to a television debate over arachnid intelligence. After the disastrous invasion of the planet Klendathu, in which the Federal Armed Services loses 100,000 personnel in one hour, Sky Marshall Dienes resigns and is replaced by a black woman named Tahat Maru.
Huh? First, fascist leaders like Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini would never have resigned. They identified themselves with the state and deliberately built a cult of personality, in which the armed forces swore personal allegiance to them.
Second, the Terran Federation is a global, multi-racial government in which the main distinction is between citizens and civilians. Otherwise, everyone seems pretty equal. In one scene, men and women shower together, talk, and joke like it’s no big deal. Women serve in the Mobile Infantry alongside men, and women assume military leadership roles. Clearly sex is not a determining factor in social advancement. Historically, fascist governments enforced rigid racial and gender roles.
The fact that the Terran Federation is a global government is also not a small point. Extreme nationalism–not internationalism–was at the heart of fascism. Fascism originally arose in Italy after World War 1 as a result of a split between socialists who supported the war effort and those that remained internationalists. Socialist intellectuals and party leaders assumed the working classes would show solidarity in the event of a global war and refuse to fight each other, uniting and overthrowing the bourgeois order instead. That didn’t happen. After World War 1, the nationalist faction coalesced around Mussolini, a former leading member of the Italian Socialist Party, and gave birth to fascism.
A global federation with an elected leader would have been anathema to historic fascists. Although Starship Troopers certainly glorifies militarism, violence, and human superiority, the society it depicts is much too diverse, open, and egalitarian to fit the fascist mold.