By JENN ADAMS
On the surface, Stephen King’s 1983 novel CHRISTINE is about an evil car with the ability to drive itself. That’s the elevator pitch. Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) is a high school senior who finds and fixes up Christine, a 1958 Plymouth Fury that develops murderous autonomy. But hidden within this high-octane horror story is a deeper tale of love and friendship in the waning days of adolescence. Arnie must battle competing forces telling him what it means to be a man and how he should treat the women in his life. True to the time-period, this story of female autonomy is framed through the lens of the central male character and as Arnie transitions into manhood, Christine’s powers encourage him to objectify the women in his life and embrace the toxicity of 1950s masculinity. Both King’s novel and John Carpenter’s film adaptation, CHRISTINE, also released in 1983, highlight the evolving roles of women in American society and the difficulty in breaking long standing gender stereotypes.
Arnie is a “dork,” cowed by his overbearing mother Regina (Christine Belford) and picked on by his peers. His only friend is Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell), a popular football player who looks out for Arnie and helps him survive the cruel high school climate. When Arnie sees Christine, then a rusty, broken-down heap of metal, he feels an instant connection and buys her from an old man named LeBay (Roberts Blossom). But Christine is no ordinary car and Arnie slowly finds himself possessed by the spirit of her former owner, transforming into a classic example of toxic masculinity. Along the way, he begins to date Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul), another high school senior who grows increasingly concerned at Arnie’s evolving temperament. As his relationship with Christine grows stronger, Arnie’s human relationships erode and he begins to believe that everyone in his life has turned against him, unable to see that he is the one who has changed. LaBay’s narcissistic world-view of rage and entitlement soon dominates Arnie’s life and he spends his days stewing in anger for inconsequential slights and fantasizing about revenge to the so-called “shitters” of the world.
King and Carpenter have slightly different depictions of this transformation. While Carpenter’s narrative focuses more on the hold Christine has over Arnie, King’s story recounts him becoming possessed by the spirit of LeBay. However both versions show a toxic relationship typical in the 1950s where men were never questioned, and women existed to please them. Christine represents the ideal woman of this era, offering Arnie shelter, transportation, and comfort. She is a showpiece for his skill in car repair and her perfection gives him status in a world where men are defined by the things and people they possess. Christine encapsulates all of the virtues prized in the 50s by serving Arnie, but requiring nothing for herself. She has no life of her own and exists only to meet his needs. Arnie is only required to keep her tank filled and provide basic upkeep similar to the way he would be expected to pay for a family home and put food on the table in a marriage.
Christine’s unique ability to pull Arnie back to the 1950s allows him to lean into the ideology of the time period in which men’s feelings and desires were all that mattered. Bullied and teased for his entire life, Christine is a way to prove his worth to everyone who ever dismissed him. She encourages his rage and victim mentality, becoming a weapon in which he can seek disproportionate revenge for even the slightest insults. She is able to regenerate, keeping herself physically perfect in a way human women are not able to do and creating unrealistic expectations for romantic partners. By gendering her female, Arnie personifies an object that serves him, creating a permission structure that allows him to expect the same kind of loyal subservience in his girlfriend Leigh. If Christine sacrifices everything to make him happy, why shouldn’t all women?
Though she’s given little agency in either story, Leigh is also on the cusp of adulthood. Coming of age in the early 1980s, she sits at a crossroads in society’s understanding of female empowerment. Just like Christine, she is objectified and prized for her beauty by most of the story’s male characters. King’s Dennis describes her virginity as being “still under warranty.” and one of Carpenter’s scenes shows a group of boys commenting on her appearance as she walks down the hall like they might comment on a new car passing by on the street. The confidence Christine gives Arnie allows him to ask her out and she becomes the next feather in his cap, a trophy girlfriend to display his dominance to all the boys who made fun of him. When not presented as jealous of Christine, Leigh becomes a damsel in distress and a symbol of betrayal as she begins to date Dennis after dumping Arnie. She is a wedge in their friendship and a catalyst for the climactic battle, rather than a fully developed character with a life of her own.
The story’s most memorable line is a microcosm of this ideology: “There is nothing finer than being behind the wheel of your own car. Except maybe for pussy.” This gross sentiment is one Arnie picks up from LeBay and shows the negative effect Christine has on how Arnie views his girlfriend. Dennis taunts Arnie with his relationship with Leigh, using the carefully calculated line, “she’s great in bed” as the final means of drawing Arnie into a fight. He’s telling Arnie that he has current ownership of Leigh’s sexuality and challenging his manhood because Arnie was not able to possess it for himself. While slightly less crude, he is reducing Leigh to her anatomy in the same way LeBay’s “except maybe for pussy” minimizes and demeans all women.
If Christine represents the ideal woman of the 50s, Leigh is an example of the token autonomy granted women of the ’80s, a suburban backlash to second wave feminism. Her coming of age is framed through the lens of the men she partners with, her choices only important because of how they will allow these men to possess her. Dennis and Arnie’s own mothers present two different cautionary tales warning Leigh away from this enlightened femininity. After dedicating most of her life to caring for her husband and two children, Mrs. Guilder is taking adult education classes and has begun writing short stories. She is attempting to find her voice and create meaning in her life outside of simply caring for others, but she is cruelly mocked behind her back by her own family. Regina Cunningham is a domineering battle ax, void of empathy and humanity and mostly concerned with getting her own way. This is the new understanding of womanhood Arnie sees in his future, and rather than challenge his own biases and engage with the women in his life as human beings, he reverts to Christine’s model of female submissiveness.
The story’s most successful element is in showing how this toxic misogyny harms Arnie as well. Christine’s ability to regenerate protects and soothes him, offering a way to literally erase the pain he feels and allowing him to care only about his own pleasure. But this regeneration also stunts his emotional growth and deprives him of the empathy needed to form authentic connections. Under Christine’s spell, he is frozen in a state of emotional infancy common to the 1950s in which women were responsible for maintaining the moods of their men and a bruised male ego was seen as the ultimate tragedy. Though Carpenter and King differ slightly in their fates for Arnie, both imply that he (and LeBay) are simply unable to exist without their symbolic sources of power. They equate the status given them by Christine with their worth as men and are unable to go on without her. The story’s tragic ending is a testament to the destructive power of unchecked masculinity.
Both stories imply that Christine has not been defeated, only waylaid until she can fully regenerate. The conclusion is only a temporary victory because Christine was not destroyed, only subdued with a more powerful form of male dominance, literally a bigger vehicle. A newly announced remake/reboot helmed by Bryan Fuller will likely make its way to screens next year and with it comes the opportunity for a more inspirational ending. Both the original novel and Carpenter’s adaptation are considered dated if somewhat problematic classics, but the central theme is one that still resonates today. Arnie’s choice to embrace a victim mentality to fuel his rage is one many Americans have made in the midst of Covid-19, systemic oppression, and climate change. The desire to “Make American Great Again” perfectly aligns with LeBay’s narcissistic worldview. Christine symbolizes the type of power still wielded by the dominant culture and her destructive malevolence reveals its insidious desire to control and punish anyone not willing to concede to its toxic moral code. Her ultimate defeat in a new story could show a way forward for Arnie in which he is able to empathize with others and form human connections despite his own pain, a virtue sorely lacking in the American of 2021. Perhaps it’s time for CHRISTINE, as a cautionary tale, to roll again.