Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Jacob White
attends the Gonzaga School of Law. He was the entertainment editor for the Central Washington University student newspaper and a contributing writer for The Local Planet



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Perhaps one day affirmative action will not depend on the color of one's skin but instead on one's genetics.

Gattaca and Twins: What do they say about the future of Genetic discrimination?

By Jacob White

Current legislation dealing with genetics revolves around privacy issues and discrimination associated with the information that can be collected from ones genetic makeup. The legislature has decided to address this issue even though genetic research is still in its infancy and little is known about how predictable ones genetics are to the outcome of one's life. I believe that the legislature could stand to learn a lot from two movies that delve into the possible outcomes of genetic research. These movies are the 90's sci-fi drama Gattaca and the late 80's comedy Twins. On the surface, these movies may seem very random to be comparing, but I believe that by comparing the different ways in which the characters deal with their genetic inferiority, these movies can offer us insight into the future of genetics (A notable similarity that lends these movies to comparison is that Danny DeVito produced Gattaca and stared in Twins. Furthermore, DeVito's character in Twins is genetically inferior and shares the same name as the genetically inferior character in Gattaca. Therefore, Danny DeVito may very well have wanted us to compare these two movies.).

Gattaca is set in a not so distant future where the majority of babies are produced in test tubes to insure genetic perfection. The story centers on a natural birth baby (who is referred to as "de-gene-erates") named Vincent. At Vincent's birth the doctors inform his parents that he will die at the age of 30 due to having a gene for a heart defect. Vincent's parents' next child, Antoine, is genetically engineered and the doctor informs his parents when they are purchasing him, "The child is still you - just the best of you." Antoine quickly becomes his father's favorite. The two children often pit themselves against each other in a game of chicken, in which they swim as far away from the shore as possible until one of them turns around and comes back. As the genetics have predicted, the weaker Vincent always turns around first. When not playing chicken Vincent obsesses about becoming an astronaut; his dreams are crushed by his father who tells him that with his heart the only way he is ever getting on a rocket is to clean it. That night Vincent and Antoine play chicken again; however, this time Vincent wins.

The rest of the story revolves around Vincent assuming the identity of Jerome (who is genetic perfection, but was paralyzed in an accident). Vincent works his way to the top of the space program (which is named Gattaca); one week before he is scheduled to go into space a murder takes place at Gattaca. Detectives, known as "Hoovers" or "J. Edgars," (Had the movie been made post 9/11 a better name for the intrusive detectives may have been "homeland security.") find an eyelash of Vincent's and throughout the rest of the movie he struggles to evade and outsmart their attempts at genetic testing.

Gattaca addresses many of the issues raised by the Code of Georgia and California Civil Code, most notably privacy of genetic testing. In Gattaca it is illegal for companies to hire based on genetics, but it is widely accepted that the practice goes on anyway. Vincent puts it best when he says that in the future they have "discrimination down to a science." Vincent's interview with the company consists of a pin prick to his thumb. With one drop of blood Vincent is hired, or more accurately Jerome is hired. Gattaca makes it clear that even if it is against the law to discriminate because of genetics, people will still find a way to do so. This is an easy premise to accept since in today's world programs like affirmative action are needed to keep people from discriminating, and even then they are inadequate. Perhaps one day affirmative action will not depend on the color of one's skin but instead on one's genetics.

Vincent comes from a Benjamin Franklin/Rocky Balboa school of thought and with good ole' fashioned American hard work and ingenuity he is able to prove that there is no gene for the human spirit. In one of the final scenes Vincent confronts his brother, Antoine, who is now a detective working on the Gattaca murder. Antoine still does not respect his brother and the two have one last sibling "pissing contest" by playing a game of chicken. After the two have swam so far out that they can not see the shore Antoine begins to get worried and asks Vincent how he did it, how he beat him when they were kids. Vincent replies, "I never saved anything for the way back." Eventually, Vincent beats his brother once again and finally earns his respect. The drive behind Vincent's intestinal fortitude is further explained when he tells his love interest (who is genetically engineered but suffers a minor heart problem that will not allow her to go to space) that "they have you looking so hard for any flaw; that after awhile that is all that you see." Vincent however, does not dwell on his flaw, he is fixated on his dream of making it to space. In the end Vincent's drive for his dream inspires many others, including Jerome who thanks Vincent for sharing it with him.

The plight of Jerome is symbolic in that no matter how genetically perfect we are designed to be, we can never escape fate. After winning a silver medal in swimming Jerome attempts to kill himself but instead he becomes paralyzed. Jerome refers to his life as "the burden of perfection." In his final scene he commits suicide in an incinerator while wearing the silver medal. Interestingly, Jerome is arguably one of the more human characters in the movie - he drinks too much, smokes too much, is moody and in the end he destroys himself. Jerome was programmed to handle everything except for failure and when he fails, he reverts to a life that more closely resembles humanity. He becomes obsessed with helping Vincent reach his dream and through watching Vincent overcome his failures, Jerome finds a purpose in what he views as his failed life. Yet, in the end he kills himself and serves as one of the more disturbing aspects of this movie. He does not find the strength to live through Vincent; he only finds strength to finish what he had failed at previously - suicide. (Thus Jerome comes from the Sylvia Plath school of thought - substitute an incinerator for an oven.) I believe that Jerome's suicide shows that behind perfect genetics will always lie an imperfect human, ready to surface as soon as the façade of perfection cracks. Sadly no act except suicide could show how human Jerome is - it is an act that only humanity is capable of performing.

Much like Vincent's world, our society may soon be told of our genetic pre-dispositions and what we can and cannot accomplish. If we dwell on this, as many of the characters in the film do, then we will lose what is truly most human about us, our ability to rise above what we are capable of accomplishing.

While less intellectual on the surface, Twins still raises some important issues on topic of genetic discrimination. The story revolves around a genetic superman (a Nietzschian Zarathustra if you will) Julius, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and his twin brother Vincent, played by Danny DeVito.

DeVito's Vincent is horny, deceitful, cynical, weak, unintelligent, and his life is controlled by the quest for money. Meanwhile, Julius is innocent, strong, intelligent, not driven by money and not as preoccupied with sex. (Although this may be because he is a virgin for 4/5 of the movie and is unaware of what he is missing out on). While both characters are technically "genetically engineered" it is clear through Julius's isolated upbringing and Vincent's big city life that Vincent is the personification of humanity, while Julius is separate from humanity.

The doctor who was behind the experiment that produced Vincent and Julius informs Vincent that he is the "crap left over" from Julius and berates him about his inferiority. It is a sad and telling moment in the movie as Vincent realizes that he is a collection of what the doctor felt were the most undesirable characteristics a human could have. Nevertheless, when Julius confesses that his life is "all theory - no practice" we see that humanity still has something to offer the world that genetic perfection cannot provide. Vincent is able to overcome his "weaknesses" with his life experiences. If Vincent had not been forced to struggle throughout his life he never would have been able to survive. Vincent's strength is reminiscent of Charles Bukowski, who once wrote that the worse thing that could happen to a young poet would be "a rich father, an early marriage, an early success or the ability to do anything well." Bukowski recognized that without pain and failure one would have nothing to offer to the world of poetry. Likewise, it is clear that Vincent would have nothing to offer to the world if he had not endured such a tumultuous life.

Throughout Twins, Julius and Vincent are shown having the same idiosyncratic habits (i.e. scratching their butts in unison). This shows the inescapability of not only ones family but of ones humanity. No matter how "perfect" of an upbringing Julius has had, he still has an indefinable similarity to Vincent. Both characters can sense when the other is in trouble; it is not just the more intelligent Julius who is capable of this sixth sense but Vincent as well. The two are tied together no matter how separate people have tried to keep them. The movie ends with the Twins' mother saying, "I just can't get over how alike they are." Thus in the end despite all the genetic engineering, the "worst" of humanity is no different than the "best" of it. Science is unable to separate the two into separate spheres.

Gattaca's Vincent and Twins' Vincent offer two different views of how humanity will be able to survive the advancement of genetics. Gattaca's Vincent offers an American in the truest sense of the word; cut from the same stone as Fredrick Douglass, Rudy and Oprah. He shows us that there is no gene for the human spirit and that with enough heart we can reach the loftiest of goals. Twins' Vincent is in stark contrast in that he does not compete with the genetically perfected, he merely has different strengths. Twins' Vincent is a product of the Beat generation. He does not deny what makes him human and he does not suppress his lusts for women, money and booze. Instead, he embraces them and teaches us that experience can never be genetically engineered.

As genetic engineering progresses and humanity is forced to look at what defines us, these movies show that we are much more than a collection of genes. We are an imperfect, indefinable life form who without faults and shortcomings would cease to be human. The more conscious of this we are as a society, the more apt we will be in deciding how to use the powers of genetics.

Author's Note: If you still doubt the possible influence of these movies, it is important to consider that Arnold Schwarzenegger's involvement in Twins coupled with his current position as governor of California could possibly cause Twins to influence the legislation of a state at the forefront of technology.

Posted July 15, 2005

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