Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays

Issue 9 – 2022 (1)

Drill, baby, drill. Petro-masculinity in the United States Cinema.

Ariadna Cordal (Universitat Pompeu Fabra)

How to cite this article: Cordal, A. (2022) Drill, baby, drill. Petro-masculinity in the United States cinema. Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays, 9(1). ISSN: 2659-4269

Faced with the abyss of the climate crisis, the importance of rethinking images from ecocritical articulations, that are in turn tangentially crossed by economic and power implications, has been stressed. The history of images in film and the power that circulates through them –especially, and as an industrial exponent, in the US context–, when brought into question with ecology and the idea of nature, uncover both new forms of relations of desire and affects between shots [1], and an important reflection on the reception of images, their influence and the consolidation of the social imaginary linked to the domination, possession, and identification of natural resources.

Here emerges the concept of petro-masculinity, coined by Cara Daggett (2018), that initiates this video essay, appearing superimposed on the clamour of the archaeology of images and the historical present that Kelly Reichardt unearths in her (re)visit to the Western genre in First Cow (2019). This imaginary permeates several motives [2] linked to the aesthetic of fossil fuels, which are the engine and impulse of an occidental, imperialistic society, historically shaped by the visual perspective over nature and the cartesian dualism that establishes society on a higher, anthropocentric position from which to control the othered nature. Traditionally positioned alongside chaos and femininity as passive and exploitable fields, the images of nature continue to represent this view, which has been inherited from the pictorial perspective and landscape dispositives. However, as exemplified by Terrence Malick’s style, the call to gaze at non-human beings is still an extension of this representational model lacking intersectionality and dismantling of the privilege of white, masculine subjects who idealize nature. Together with this view, the portrait of the oil businessman embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis in the work of Paul Thomas Anderson set in the West, with its extreme toxicity and violence, offers another counterpoint to the problematic question of the representation of human-nature relationships.

A critical development has been reached concerning the infinite expansion of capitalism and neoliberalism, where the effects of inequalities and the irresponsibility regarding imbalanced power dynamics become inescapable through climate urgencies; the origins of which can be traced to toxic catalysts buried underneath the American promise derived from the Frontier and the Railway as dominators of the West: the cult of the automobile and petroleum [3]. As the examples here note, this cult is inscribed in the historiography of United States cinema, where white heroes are erected as able to solve any conflict and to impose justice in relationships with other men, native people, and women. Nevertheless, these heroes are not exempt from being tragic figures that sacrifice themselves because of an individualist and humanist dogma larger than themselves, yielding to the sublime landscape (in extreme long shots) while also having their feats magnified by the mountain range (in tilted, medium and American shots).

Accompanied by influential thinkers such as Donna Haraway (1995) and Rosi Braidotti (2015), imagining other futures through post-humanist tools is made possible in the cinematic form of creators like Reichardt and her intersectional responsibility, which allows her to build a visual poetics of wood foraging, or to articulate discourses on silence and the cruelty of inhabiting the landscape. Being intercepted by heroes, drills, and feminine figures, this video essay serves to unravel an aesthetic research by putting to work methodological tools of audio-visual editing and continuity manipulation, which open up possibilities for chronological jumps between films that appear distant between them. The goal is to study the survivals –taking as reference the definition of Didi-Huberman (2013) in his revision of Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosyne– and the differences in the meaning of the exploitation of nature throughout its historical evolution. The proposals of ecocriticism of petro-masculinity and its implications are then amplified in the archaeological work of contrasting images and gestures which reveal the potential and the resistances of drills in the earth, of black gold expelled in gushes, and of physical work and muscles that become violent when being powered by capitalist greed. This way, we point towards the importance of this urgent question in visual thinking: how do we look at the oil that is extracted from the depths of the earth, dependent on it as we are, and how does it stain power and masculinity?


[1] Proposals such as the ecocritical cinema methodology by Adrian Ivakhiv (2013) have led the way in this area.

[2] We use the Visual Motives methodology impulsed by Jordi Balló (2000). 

[3] Research has emerged that focuses on the financing of other filmographies, which denote these relations. See Smaill (2021).


  • Balló, Jordi (2000) Imágenes del silencio: los motivos visuales en el cine. Barcelona: Anagrama.
  • Braidotti, Rosi (2015) Lo posthumano. Barcelona: Gedisa.
  • Daggett, Cara (2018) “Petro-Masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire”. Millennium 47, 25-44. 
  • Didi-Huberman, Georges (2013) La Imagen superviviente: historia del arte y tiempo de los fantasmas según Aby Warburg. Madrid: Abada.
  • Haraway, Donna Jeanne (1995) Ciencia, cyborgs y mujeres: La reinvención de la naturaleza. Madrid: Cátedra.
  • Ivakhiv, Adrian J. (2013) Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature. Environmental Humanities. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
  • Smaill, Belinda (2021) “Petromodernity, the Environment and Historical Film Culture”. Screen 62, 59-77. 

Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays
ISSN: 2659-4269
© Tecmerin Research Group
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid